Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Debussy & Bartók Are in the House

Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana and Chinese pianist Jiayi Shi will be performing three sonatas – two French, one German – and a “Hungarian Rhapsody” on their program at Market Square Church on Wednesday, January 9th, at 8:00. (For more information about the concert, see the first post in this series, here).
Debussy enjoying a day at the beach in happier times
Part One: A Sonata by Debussy & a Rhapsody by Bartók – The Music

In today's global world, we think nothing of these ethnic descriptors where, courtesy of the airplane, a performer can play on one continent one day and, jet-lag aside, another continent the next. And, after a century surviving two world wars, composers of various nationalities appear side-by-side on programs where, in the past, their compatriots might have been at war with each other or, in the age-old traditions of lowering art to the level of politics, waxing xenophobic about the cultural dangers of their music.

But more on that in "Part Two" after the videos...

Once again, I'll start with the “video with score,” in this case a recording by Schlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman.

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Or if you prefer a live performance, there's this one from the Josef Joachim Competition of 2015 with American violinist Nancy Zhou, from the semi-final round, with pianist Natsumi Ohno:
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It's in three movements, the first one starting with a simple “gesture” that might remind you of the Franck's opening. I'm not sure it's a coincidence: a reference to Franck, a voice from the now more distant past than it had been in Debussy's youth, would not be unlikely at this time of his life, whether as a direct homage or even as an inside joke.

The first movement, marked Allegro vivo, may sound quite austere compared to the lush “impressionistic” pieces of Debussy's you're probably more familiar with. There are gestures of a tempestuous fury where fragments seem to enter, recede, and return. The middle movement, marked Intermède, may start off jaunty but it's clear this is not a light-hearted scherzo. The Finale, très animé, is again more on the “dark side” with melodies (or fragments of melodies) going in circles, perhaps shards of melody but still recognizable. On the whole, this short work is far removed from Debussy's earlier works like the Preludes (for instance, Voiles) where you can just lie back and bathe in the beautiful sounds.

There isn't time to go into any real detail, here, covering some forty years of creativity, but perhaps a bit of biographical background may help.

After finishing both the Cello Sonata and the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp in 1915, in the midst of World War I, he finished the Violin Sonata in time for its premiere in May, 1917, playing the piano part himself in what would become his last public performance. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1915 and had undergone a colostomy operation – “the effort of dressing [in the morning] seems like one of the labors of Hercules” – but it did little to relieve the pain.

His own reaction to the piece was “conflicted” at best: “I only wrote the sonata to be rid of the thing... [It] will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what is produced by a sick man in a time of war.”

He would be dead within a year of its premiere, in the midst of the German's artillery attack on Paris.

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Between 1900 and 1902, Debussy was finishing up his opera Pelleas et Melisande, and Ravel, a 25-year-old student invariable in trouble with his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, joined a group of misfit students calling themselves Les apaches (“The Hooligans,” essentially the beatniks of their generation). When Debussy's opera premiered, the Conservatoire forbid its students to attend the performances; naturally Ravel heard every single one.
Bela Bartók in 1927

Meanwhile, Bela Bartók, then 19, arrived in Budapest to study at the Conservatory there and discovered the music of Richard Strauss. It wasn't until 1907 when fellow-student Zoltan Kodály came back from Paris bearing an armful of scores that Bartók discovered a composer named Debussy. Another discovery that year was overhearing a servant, a young peasant girl, singing a lullaby that was the first authentic bit of Hungarian folk music he'd ever heard – before then, the usual concept of “folk music” was the gypsy music (who are not ethnic Hungarians) beloved of Brahms and Liszt.

The first piece he composed after these two discoveries was his String Quartet No. 1 in 1908. Until then, his earliest music sounded a lot like Brahms and Richard Strauss. Now, the genuine Bartók began to emerge.

Fast-forward to the mid-1920s. Having studied authentic folk music of not only the Hungarians, going out into the countryside to gather and catalog it, he collected tunes from across the Balkan Peninsula and went as far as Northern Africa as well. All of these influenced the sounds and rhythms – and the structures – of his own music: when not arranging or transcribing these folk songs, he was creating his own themes and musical motives based on them, what he once described as “imaginary folk music.”

There were two violinists, friends of his, who figure in with his musical world – Josef Szigeti, perhaps better known internationally (you can hear Bartók and Szigeti's performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata a little later in this post), and Zoltan Szekely – frequently performing with them as a pianist both the standard repertoire as well as his own music.

In 1927 and 1928, he was working on two new string quartets, the 3rd and the 4th, both to be considered masterpieces of his “middle period,” which were premiered separately in 1929. Other major works like the 5th Quartet appeared in 1934, and the Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste in 1936. Each of these were considered “difficult” works.

Bartók & Szekely
Feeling the need to write something a little more accessible – going along with some of his teaching pieces and folk-song arrangements that might be a little more lucrative – Bartók composed two short rhapsodies for violin and piano in 1928. He showed them to Szekely and told him he'd written one for him and one for Szigeti, but he could choose which one he wanted for himself, and then he'd give the other one to Szigeti. Szekely chose the 2nd of them. They premiered it on a concert in Amsterdam that November. The following year, Bartók orchestrated the piano part, and that version was premiered in 1932.

Both of these works are inspired by authentic folk-songs and -forms, opening with a slow movement (called a lassú) followed by a fast movement (called a friss) which is a “chain” of seven folk-dances, six of them Transylvanian fiddle tunes from the area (in present-day Romania) where Bartók was born, and a seventh from Ruthenia (now divided between Romania and Ukraine).

The pungent harmonies – “dissonances” to the traditional ear – are, in some respects, attempts to approximate the intotations of the original folk-style. We might think they're just singing or playing out-of-tune, but in many cases, Bartók found a consistant use of “micro-tones” – intervals smaller than the half-step between C and C-sharp – and so chose this way of harmonizing these melodies which, if played cleanly on a classically-tuned keyboard, would merely sound “too nice.”

In this recording, I've chosen the violinist to whom it was dedicated and who gave the premiere with the composer at the piano. However, despite what the screen-image says on this one, the pianist is not Bela Bartók: it's from a 1974 recording Szekely made with pianist Isobel Moore. Still...
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PART TWO: Politics and Art – Enter the Reality Behind the Music of Debussy and Bartók

The French have had a – how you say? – “cultural antipathy” with the Germans long before World War II. In fact, aside from high points of tension like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, one could argue it probably goes back before the days of Charlemagne twelve centuries ago, before there even was a nation called France and an identity called German. Since Germany as a nation-state didn't exist before 1871, we must think in terms of “cultural identity” with its language and art as a major feature, rather than in terms of real estate. Americans have difficulty with these questions but “what defines the French” or “what defines a German” while often intangible are more at the heart of what has kept Europe (and the rest of the world when the need to dominate one another spills over into Colonialism) on the verge of boiling over through most of history, erupting all too frequently like tectonic plates when enough has become enough...

I start with this awareness because this sense of art and its larger role in our individual cultures is at the heart of the lives and the music of the two 20th Century composers on this concert's program: Claude Debussy in France, writing his Violin Sonata in 1918, and Bela Bartók writing his rhapsodies for violin and piano in Hungary ten years later.

Now, innocently enough, you may wonder what that has to do with war and nationalist hyperbole.

On one level, Debussy's sonata was written at the end of World War I. It was the last piece he completed when he died during the German shelling of Paris.

From the morning of March 21st, 1918, the French capital was hit periodically by explosions. Initially, no one knew where these were coming from with no aircraft or artillery visible anywhere. They soon found the explosions were coming from shells fired from guns behind the German lines some 120 kilometers to the northeast. That it could hit Paris from there was terrifying enough, yet another war-time breakthrough in the science of how to kill people, the introduction of a kind of Super Cannon.

Though the accuracy of the shells was doubtful, the psychological impact of the bombardment was immense – if not increasing the French sense of fatalism. Still, the day of Debussy's funeral, one shell hit Notre Dame during a Good Friday service where a section of roof collapsed, killing 88 people.

Debussy was working on a series of six sonatas – thinking back to what I'd said about composers in the 18th Century writing works in “sets” – in which the next one would be for trumpet, horn, and harpsichord and the last combining all of these diverse instruments into a chamber orchestra. The intent was to honor French composers of the 18th Century, much as Ravel would do after the war with his Tombeau de Couperin. On the title page, he signed himself “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

Debussy's style, even in his earliest works, was specifically French in sound. To us in our American melting pot, this seems obvious: we have no “American Sound” and glibly say So-and-So is an American Composer because he or she is an American. (Yes, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is held up as an example of The American Sound but few American composers then or now sound like that. The music was, more, an evocation of what America might have sounded like, once upon a time.)

Claude Debussy was always a visually-inspired artist. His studio was full of those souvenir postcards from art museums, reproductions of great paintings. During most of his career, he never gave something an abstract title, always a “picturesque” title – think of the individual Preludes – even if they did not tell a story. Perhaps it's better to think of the term Impressionism when applied to his music less about a vague style of painting than something giving the listener “an impression” of what the music might evoke in the imagination?

Still, his use of the whole-tone scale, negating the dominance of the tonal major and minor scale that had been the bedrock of Classical Music since around 1600, was considered revolutionary – if such vague, vaporous music could be “revolutionary” – and did as much to usher in the 20th Century as did the rhythms of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire or the folk-influenced style of Bela Bartók, discovering scales from outside the concert hall that also had little relationship to the more cultured major and minor scale of Classical Tonality. But in fact none of these composers could have existed if Claude Debussy hadn't set his shimmering light on a new path at the end of the 19th Century at a time when French Music was still trying to free itself from the influences of that dreadful music from across the Rhine...

There was nothing – at least to our ears today – that might define Camille Saint-Saëns as particularly French and specifically non-German. Called “The French Beethoven” in his day, mostly due to his stature as a composer, he wrote symphonies and sonatas like any German composer of the day. The main distinction was a lack of reliance on counterpoint which Erik Satie would eventually call “Sauerkraut in music,” the different fibers of musical lines moving in dense textures according to strict rules.

French minds rarely thought in terms of such strictness – or precision. Where the German (especially the Prussian) mind was conscious of the passing (and therefore the wasting) of time – I remember a friend of mine from Berlin who would become nervous as a choral concert would begin and the singers had not yet been ushered onto the stage: “We are now twelve seconds late!” – the French might be a little more lax about such things (to an extreme, perhaps, but “if not today, perhaps tomorrow”) and my German friend would say “No wonder the French have never accomplished anything!”

American composer and Francophile Ned Rorem once said something about two mindsets in the world – things are either French or they're German. And in a sense this stereotype (such as it is) might help us understand the music of these two cultures.

Going back to the Baroque Era, a major difference between Bach as a German and Couperin or Rameau as Frenchmen was one of texture. Couperin was “simpler” in his presentation, less involved in counterpoint (even then) and more concerned about decoration, those incredibly complex ornaments musicians have to master to approximate the little curlicues of the surface, just like the paintings and architecture of the day were full of “ornaments” to the basic visible shape. Rameau would never have written a fugue as part of a harpsichord piece and though Bach's suites are full of dances both French and German in origin, as were Couperin's, he would never have called something “The Hen” or “The Little Windmills.”

And so Debussy, writing preludes called “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” or “Sails” rather than Prelude No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, was carrying on this visual tradition of French music already over 150 years old.

The fact he shattered the grasp of tonality in the process by using different scales was merely a way of saying, okay, if the Germans under Wagner, especially with Tristan, were already destroying the diatonic nature of Classical Tonality with their highly-charged (erotic!) chromaticism, he could do the same, still using major and minor chords but chords that didn't move the same way they usually did in traditional Classical Tonality, always heading for a resolution to the dominant and tonic chords of a given tonic's scale.

And so, basically, atonality was loosed upon the world in the innocent, lush sounds of something like Debussy's “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” – the riot at its premiere, by the way, had more to do with Nijinsky's choreography with its erotic suggestions than with Debussy's music. Still, even today, many people find this “rootless” music with its ambiguous sounds unsettling. It's interesting to realize when Paris first heard it in 1894, Brahms had just written his two Clarinet Sonatas and Tchaikovsky (speaking of rivalries) had died only the year before.

Is Debussy becoming “more German” in writing something so abstract-sounding as a Sonata, in writing music that is in itself abstract rather than picturesque?

No – the influences that drive this change of style is still the result of French music, in this case the works of the early-18th Century French Baroque masters who were to influence Ravel, his younger contemporary (often paired together, Ravel was 13 years Debussy's junior and, given Debussy's role as an influence on younger students, aesthetically a different generation). Both were making the transition from a "romantic" lushness of sound to a more abstract, cleaner, less overtly emotional style we now call Neo-Classicism.

The question also exists, where would this take Debussy, moving onto this “new path” with these latest works of his, the abstract, technical piano etudes (now lacking picturesque titles) and in particular these three sonatas – and the three more he had planned but never started – if he hadn't died of cancer in his mid-50s?

Here is one more performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata, offered as a bridge to Bartók, significantly influenced by Debussy's music in the early part of his own career. This 1940 Library of Congress recital features the great Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti with Bela Bartók at the piano.
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1st Movement:

2nd Movement:

3rd Movement:


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Bartók's early career was dominated by the Germans of the Austrian Empire even before World War I and the end of his career was ruined by the Germans of Hitler's Germany during World War II.

Hungary had long been a province of the Austrian Empire, only in 1867 becoming an odd “dual-monarchy” in which the Austrian Emperor was also the King of Hungary but the Hungarians had a certain limited autonomy with their own capital in Budapest. Still, the sense most Hungarians had was their land – and their culture – was occupied by the German-speaking Austrians.

Young Bartók, arriving in Budapest, became caught up in this search for a national identity. It was more than just wearing “Hungarian-style clothes” or speaking Hungarian at home (German being the official, “public” language) – it was also a search for what made Hungarian music sound... if not Hungarian, then, at least Not German.

Ultimately, the Empire dissolved in 1918 after World War I, an independent Hungary then fell into chaos both economically and politically, and eventually, in the late-1930s, the Germans returned, incorporated Hungary into its Fascist Axis, and in this case it was a true political and psychological occupation.

Bartók and his family would ultimately leave Hungary for America in 1940 where, in 1945 just five months after the fall of Berlin, he would die in poverty at the age of 64 in a New York hospital from a form of leukemia diagnosed too late, a sad ending to the hope one hears in this short piece of music from 1928, where, in the midst of the real world going on around him, he took a little time to savor a Hungarian musical voice.

So, for the moment, let's leave it at that.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Francisco Fullana and Jiayi Shi Meet Cesar Franck


Cesar Franck, organist (1885)
This Wednesday at 8pm at Market Square Church, violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Jiayi Shi will perform sonatas by Beethoven, Franck, and Debussy, plus Bartók's 2nd Rhapsody. For more information and to hear performances by them as well as listen to videos of the Beethoven Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op.23, on the program, please check the previous post, here.

This post is about the Violin Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck, composed in 1886.

(You can read about the works by Debussy and Bartók in the final post of the series.)

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Despite the concert order of the works you'll hear on Wednesday night, I've decided to present them on the blog in chronological order. And, as I pointed out before, while Beethoven is at the beginning of his career, having only recently begun publishing his first major works, Cesar Franck is at the end of his career (not that he knew that) and the Debussy Sonata is the last piece he completed before his death in 1918. Only the Bartók Rhapsody hails from the “height” of a career, but then don't presume all composers are like a Bell Curve, declining toward their final works: if anything, Franck's single Violin Sonata is one of his finest works (certainly, his most popular, along with his D Minor Symphony) and Debussy's points the way toward a reconsideration of what it was to be a “French Musician” as he identified himself on its cover, what would have become a “late period” that never was, with three more sonatas on the drawing board left unbegun.

So, let's continue with Franck. Yes, there's a change in the initial program which came in only after a great deal of publicity was already sent out and programs printed (this happens in real life). While I miss the Enescu which I'd never even known existed before seeing it on the brochure, the Franck is an old favorite and, if anything, suffers from being over-performed (just because one can play the notes doesn't mean one should – as many musicians have told their students, “the music is what's between the notes”).

While the Beethoven was initially billed as a “Sonata for Piano with Violin,” the Franck is an out-and-out equal collaboration with, as several friends of mine have put it, “a bitch of a piano part” accompanied by what can only be described as a “don't-you-dare-call-me-an-accompanist” glare.

To listen to the work, here are two recordings you can choose from. I'm always partial to those with the score since even non-musicians often find it fascinating to see what that “code” looks like on the printed page which translates what the composer heard in his head with what the listener hears, depending on how accurately the performers interpret it (and how differently different performers can play it). It's a very gray area deciding what makes a good performance or a great performance and what I like may be different from what somebody else likes. And the Franck Sonata is one of those works that makes it easy to offer two very different performances, each of which will appeal to some and annoy others.

First, here is pianist Krystian Zimerman and violinist Kaja Danczowska (whose name I'm unfamiliar with).
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The Sonata is in four movements, essentially two pairs, opening with a moderate, almost leisurely (and too often, too leisurely) lyricism followed by a dramatic and turbulent second movement and one of the reasons it sounds like the real “first movement” in the usual sense, making the actual first movement an extended introduction, is that they're both different sides of the same coin: the musical material is essentially the same, just treated differently.

In the Beethoven post, I mentioned how composers frequently wrote “sets” of pieces to explore the different varieties to the challenge of writing, say, a violin sonata or a string quartet. In these two movements, it's as if Franck set out to find how many ways he could take this simple material and make it on the one hand lyrical and on the other dramatic.

The third movement is again a slow introductory-like movement, built around the idea of an operatic recitative, that half-sung/half-spoken delivery in the voice with a minimum of accompaniment, often solo phrases separated by accompanimental phrases, rambling in an improvisatory sort of way – it is, for that reason, described as a “recitative-fantasy.” Since a recitative usually introduces the aria in an opera, it feels to have the same purpose here. But the fourth movement, then, is not so much an aria as a traditional rondo (as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven might have ended a sonata or symphony a century earlier), smiling and exuberant (adjectives I don't normally apply to Franck's music) and also full of “canonic imitation.” That basically means you hear one voice (in this case the piano) play a theme, and the second voice, the “imitating” voice (in this case, the violin), starting the same theme but a measure later, almost as if the violinist came in late.

The episodes in between this canonic theme are, not surprisingly, built on ideas we've heard before. Even the canonic theme spins off the very first thing you hear at the opening of the sonata, that little motive in the piano which doesn't even sound like a motive, just an accompaniment warming up before the soloist appears (insert acorn/oak tree reference, here).

Which leads me to another term you run into with Franck's music – it was a common feature of French music in general but usually something other composers picked up from Franck and his students – is “cyclical.”

In some cases, it's no more than themes from previous movements appearing in the last movement, often only in the concluding moments of the finale, to tie the whole work together. Bruckner did it in his symphonies, most obviously in his 5th which was written in the mid-1870s but not performed until 1887 (after Franck's sonata) in a version for two pianos, the orchestral premiere not taking place until 1894 (by which time Franck was dead) but that's another story. However, Beethoven – as usual – had done something like that much earlier: the introductions to the finales of his Hammerklavier Sonata and, subsequently, his 9th Symphony practically go through a roll-call of earlier movements' themes as if deciding “no, not this one; not that one, either; uh uh... oh, let's do something new!” before starting the main part of the last movement, whether that material has any bearing on the old material.

With Franck, what is unusual, given the way composers most often wrote a multi-movement work, is that he presents a few ideas – melodic shapes, harmonic “gestures” – that can be transformed into a multitude of different-sounding themes. In fact, it's possible to listen to Franck's 2nd Movement, here, and be totally unaware you've heard it all before!

This, too, is nothing “new.” Franz Liszt is usually credited with “inventing” the idea of thematic transformation, especially in his symphonic poems like Les Preludes, in which an idea expressed in a slow tempo in the introduction becomes a romantic, aching main theme before turning into a triumphant celebration in the piece's conclusion.

With Franck, this “transformation” is often so subtle, a performer unaware of these connections and just playing one note after another misses the structure of the piece and makes it sound like a rambling if pretty landscape. In reality, Franck has created a taut and well-conceived bit of architecture whether we, the listeners, are aware of it. That's part of the magic, managing all that variety – the piece lasts a half-hour, after all – out of very little “stuff.”

While these “basic building blocks” may appear so generically in music, isn't it more likely all this is mere coincidence? After all, if you listen to the opening measure of Beethoven's A Minor Sonata and compare it to the opening of the last movement of the Franck (at 22:42, above), uhm... hey, aren't they same things? They're only slightly different, right?

Hmm... well, there are only 12 pitches to go around...

While I couldn't find any “live performance video” I was comfortable with, I did find this audio one which I'd never heard before, recorded in 1937 – !! – with violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Artur Rubinstein. It is an unedited direct transfer from the original 78rpm records – !!! – even though the recording has been reissued on CD by RCA. Still, the sound, though obviously monaural, is not bad, considering, and the interpretation speaks for itself.
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One other thing worth mentioning: you might occasionally see this as a Cello Sonata. It seems, according to Ysaÿe's son, Franck had begun the work as a Cello Sonata but then turned it into a Violin Sonata after Ysaÿe asked him for a new piece. Franck didn't make the cello version himself but he did approve one that someone else had prepared. This has also given rise to a transcription for flute and piano and if you tool around YouTube you can probably find somebody's version of it for tuba and piano. (It essentially has become the equivalent of "commercial art" where you can order a painting to match the color of your couch...)

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It's always curious how a work you're listening to comes into being: what inspired this music? In Beethoven's case, he wanted to publish some more violin sonatas because the amateur market was interested in music that could be performed “in the home” by amateur performers. By securing a dedication to the wealthy banker/patron Count Moritz von Fries, Beethoven managed to have Fries “purchase” the two sonatas for a “limited time option” in which he could have them performed in his house concerts for, say, six months before they would be published and made available for general, public sale. That way, if you wanted to hear Beethoven's latest works, you had to go to Fries' palace to hear them performed – then, if you wanted to buy them, stop by the publishers later on to get your own copies.

Eugene Ysaÿe in Russia, 1883
On a less commercial note, Cesar Franck's sonata came about as a commission from the young Belgian violinist, Eugene Ysaÿe. The story goes that, given the composer's inability to attend the violinist's wedding, a mutual friend presented the just-finished sonata to the violinist the day of his wedding – hence the view it was a “wedding present” – and Ysaÿe immediately put it on the music stand and, with a handy pianist, then and there, after a hasty rehearsal, played through it at the reception.

Writing the sonata during the summer months of 1886, Cesar Franck was 63.

Its first public performance was typical of Franck's life: he hardly ever had a good performance or even good circumstances to inaugurate a new work. In this case, Ysaÿe and his pianist were giving a recital in a Brussels art museum and the Franck was the final work on a long program. Unfortunately, the museum's regulations forbid turning on electric lights (damaging to the paintings) and so, as the room got darker and darker, the management urged the audience to leave but Ysaÿe and his pianist kept playing, eventually playing the last three movements from memory in the dark!

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Cesar Franck is one of those musicians who began a musical career as a child prodigy, then grew up to become a late-bloomer.

How is that possible? As every composer travels a slightly different road from that initial inspiration to become a musician (especially a composer) in the first place through the early student years to (with any luck) initial success and (with considerably more luck) final recognition before being elevated into the Great Composers Hall of Fame, Franck's story might be a life-lesson for all who would think about starting out on this path. First of all, he did make it to the Hall of Fame, so there's that – but the different issues of his personal life and the development of the creative psyche as a result of experiences along the way add up to the typical stereotype of The Suffering Artist.

True, Beethoven was deaf, Mozart and Schubert (and many more) died young (and often assumed to be unrecognized in their lifetimes), and Brahms, if nothing else, suffered from life-long unrequited love. My God, why would anybody want their sons (and now daughters) to grow up to become cow... I mean, composers?

With the image of the Boy Mozart dandled on Imperial Knees while being proclaimed a Genius, many fathers saw themselves as potential Leopold Mozarts, marketing talented sons to become Future Wolfgangs – not that it did Mozart the Man any favors since financial and professional success eluded him all his short life, never receiving that longed-for dream of a stable “composer-in-residence” job with a royal court.

Beethoven's father was not the first to hope to follow in Leopold Mozart's exploitative footsteps even before Wolfgang himself was dead. Another was Nicholas-Joseph Franck, a Belgian bank-clerk, unemployed at the time of his son's birth, who saw two musically talented sons as a potential meal ticket out of middle class society, bandying them about between different cities in the region – including a concert before the king of the newly created independent country of Belgium, Leopold I (if you're watching PBS' presentation of “Victoria,” that would be Uncle Leopold) – before taking them off to study in Paris (unfortunately, as foreigners, they were not permitted to study at the great Conservatoire). Given that Nicholas-Joseph had named his elder son Cesar-Auguste – Caesar Augustus, really? – which came first: the desire for the musical success of his children or the pretensions of his becoming a successful stage-father? (After all, it was Leopold who pocketed all the money earned by parading his children – Wolfgang and Maria Anna, known to history as “Nannerl” – like performing monkeys around Europe: as an adult, Wolfgang never saw a penny of this income.)

It's a long and in the long run a distressing story, one in which the Boy Franck received no benefits beyond his training. I can't find out whatever happened to Cesar's younger brother Joseph, a violinist, in all this, but, like Mozart's sister Nannerl, hopefully he ended up considerably happier whether he pursued music or not. It took considerable fortitude for Cesar the young man, now 23 and long past any interest as a prodigy, to leave his family, disavow his father, and attempt to earn a living.

While his father's hopes for his son's career had been pinned on Cesar's pianistic talents, his earliest compositions seem to have been written when he was 11 or 12. A set of three piano trios written before 1840 (by which time he was 17) were published as his Op.1 and somehow garnered the attention of no less than Franz Liszt, speaking of child prodigies dragged to Paris to make his career.

But composition was not likely to be a profitable enterprise for an independent young man who needed to eat and support a family, having married when he was 25 a woman – again like Mozart – his father had strongly disapproved of (the proverbial straw applied to the camel's back of their relationship). In his early-30s, he became associated with an organ builder and eventually became well known as an organist, receiving various church jobs where he primarily improvised a great deal of what was needed of an organist and not bothering to write them down.

As his fame grew – and this is glossing over some very painful years – he would give whole recitals of improvisations and people used to go to his church just to hear him improvise during the services, one of them being Franz Liszt (who supposedly told him “how could I ever forget the man who wrote those trios!”). Though not taken seriously as a composer by the establishment – he produced very few works after this early period of mostly fluff for a would-be virtuoso (there are, now, some recordings on the Naxos label of several of his early works and I defy anyone with a knowledge of the mature Franck to identify the composer in whatever the modern-day equivalent is of a “drop-the-needle” test!) – he was hired to teach organ and improvisation but not composition at the great Paris Conservatoire in 1872 (though it could not be official until he had – finally – become a French citizen the following year) when Franck was 49. Something in these improvisations of his spoke to the students of musical worlds not otherwise available at the stodgy Conservatoire, so many composition students began to sit in on his organ classes which, in turn, became de facto composition classes.

And meanwhile, Franck himself began composing more and more seriously. Through the 1860s and '70s, he worked on a number of large-scale works – mostly oratorios like Les beatitudes – but as far as present-day music lovers are concerned, his first lasting work would be the Piano Quintet in F Minor of 1879 (when he was 56).

As his reputation as a composer – not always a good reputation – grew, he became involved in the musical politics of Paris whether he liked it or not. On the one side were those who followed Camille Saint-Saëns, the leading conservative of the day; on the other, those who were influenced by the chromatic style of Richard Wagner (who, by 1879, had only recently premiered The Ring and not yet written Parsifal) and a style of music that found its leading exponent in a humble and decidedly un-Wagner-like middle-aged organist at the Conservatoire named Cesar Franck.

But Franck was too gentle a person to survive the cut-throat politics surging through the French art world following the French defeat in the brief but humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870. And the fact Franck was, after all, Belgian and espoused a Germanic style – Wagner, the supreme monster of German Music so antithetical to French ears – didn't make it any easier for a man who, when he could not praise a student's work, chose to say nothing at all rather than risk hurting the young man.

And this was still going on through the 1880s. Saint-Saëns may have premiered Franck's Piano Quintet but he made no secret of his loathing of the music though he gave, as Franck's students attested, a very convincing performance of it (Franck was delighted simply to have a performance at all, much less one from such a leading figure and was quite possibly oblivious to Saint-Saëns' attitude). But the sniping became more public as the years progressed: in 1885, Franck was awarded the Legion of Honor which was one thing but then the following year – 1886 – his election as president of the National Music Society brought the scandal out in the open.

In the summer of that same year, the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe commissioned Franck to compose a violin sonata for him. Franck presented it to him, as I said above, as a wedding present in late-September. So essential this basically sunny, optimistic work – what would become his most frequently performed piece – was written in the midst of all this political cacophony!

1887 opened with an all-Franck concert in which the conductor and members of the orchestra were so unsympathtic to Franck's style, they could make no sense of the music, and ultimately the concert turned into a disaster that the only one who wasn't disturbed by it was Cesar Franck. By then, he was already working on his Symphony in D Minor – his only symphony – premiered the next year to more bickering and dissension in the press.

In fact, his first real public success was the premiere of his String Quartet in D – his only string quartet – which took place in April, 1890. As Franck's luck would have it, seeming to finally turn, he suffered a brain injury of some sort in July when a carriage (often called “a cab”) he was riding in was struck by a horse-drawn trolley (often referred to as “a bus”) and even though he didn't take the injury seriously – he had, at the time, passed out – eventually he began having trouble walking, found himself in considerable pain, canceled his remaining classes and took his summer holiday where he composed his Three Chorales for organ then resumed teaching in October when he came down with a cold that developed, in his weakened condition, into pneumonia (or pleurisy) and he died on November 9th, 1890.

Even 16 years after Franck's death, Maurice Ravel, a student of several of Franck's students, wrote in a letter after his own political troubles at the Conservatoire, how there were two schools of thought – those who centered around Debussy (those in favor of New Music) and those who followed Franck (once the avant-garde but now regarded as the Old Fuddy-Duddies). Referring to the Frankists as the ‘scholistes’, he described them as the “morose followers of a form of neo-Christianity,” Franck himself treating that ‘scholisme’ as “a form of dry intellectualism that robbed music of any proper feeling.” He complained all the elements of Franck's music were “elaborated separately and united by nothing other than technical exercise, rather than being the product of a simultaneous and instinctive idea.”

And yet today, we just sit back and enjoy all this music they wrote and think nothing of programming Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel on a program and saying “What a wonderful time that must have been!”

- Dick Strawser


Sunday, January 6, 2019

The January Concert: Francisco Fullana & Beethoven

Who: Violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Jiayi Shi
What: Violin Sonatas by Beethoven, Cesar Franck, and Claude Debussy; and Bela Bartók's 2nd Rhapsody for Violin & Piano
When: Wednesday, Jan. 9th, 2019 at 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg
Tickets: Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors and $5 for college students. Tickets are free for school students and $10 for one accompanying adult. For tickets and information, go to www.marketsquareconcerts.org/concerts or call 717 221-9599 (remaining tickets will be available at the door).

If you remember a few seasons ago, there was a young Hungarian violinist, Kristóf Baráti, playing our January concert and I don't think many people in the audience had heard of him before; plus he was playing a daunting program of solo violin music by Ysaÿe, Bartók, and Bach. If you were there, you understood why he was engaged to return soon for an all-Bach solo program plus a performance of the Khachaturian concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony.

This January's concert will feature the young Spanish violinist, Francisco Fullana, winner of the 2018 Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, who, with pianist Jiayi Shi, will play works by Beethoven, Franck, Debussy, and Bartók.

If you need any convincing to go hear this concert, consider Fullana is a protege of Midori, one of the leading violinists of the day; and then listen to a few minutes of his performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Gustavo Dudamel and the “El Sistema” Orchestra of Venezuela:
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(If you don't have time for the entire concerto, the 1st movement begins at 0:32, the soloist enters a little after 3:00; the cadenza begins at 17:00; the 2nd movement begins at 22:10; and the 3rd movement runs from 30:40 to 38:16 – plus there's some Bach for an encore at 41:34.)

In this video, Mr. Fullana and Ms. Shi perform the rarely-heard (and considerably briefer) Violin Sonata by Enrique Granados, recorded in March, 2018 at the Avery Fisher Career Grant Ceremony in New York City.
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And if you need any more convincing, he'll be playing the 1735 "Mary Portman" Guarneri del Gesù violin of 1735, a legendary instrument once belonging to the legendary violinist, Fritz Kreisler, and considered one of the best violins in the world today.

The program consists of three violin sonatas – one of Beethoven's less frequently performed ones; plus the only ones written by Franck and Debussy – and the 2nd Rhapsody by Bela Bartók. Beethoven at 30 during an incredibly productive creative burst at the beginning of his career; Cesar Franck at 63, writing a wedding present for his friend, Eugene Ysaÿe, near the end of his career; Debussy at the end of his life, already ill with cancer; and Bela Bartók, writing this rhapsody in 1928 following his 4th and 5th String Quartets, at the height (and in the middle) of his career.

This post is about Beethoven and his Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 23.

(For background about Cesar Franck's A Major Violin Sonata, including a 1937 recording of Heifetz and Rubinstein, check out the next post, here. The concluding post in this series features the Debussy Violin Sonata and Bartok's 2nd Rhapsody which includes recordings of Josef Szigeti and Bela Bartók playing the Debussy Sonata in 1940 and the Rhapsody with the violinist who gave it its premiere in 1929 recorded in 1974.)

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Technically, works like this one were called “Sonatas for Piano with the accompaniment of a Violin.” These days, we think of them as “Violin Sonatas” and often forget to mention there's a pianist or even who the pianist is. Or refer to the pianist as “the accompanist” as if it's something demeaning (the general assumption, when I was a student, “if you can't play well enough to be a soloist, you can always become an accompanist”). The proper term, these days, is “collaborative pianist.”

All that historical perspective and its various nuances aside – (uhm, should the violinist stand behind the piano?) – let's start with a performance of the complete sonata in one video-clip coordinated with the score (at least you don't have to turn the pages).

When I first found this video, I thought “this is a really good performance!” Then I scrolled down and saw the violinist is Kristóf Baráti – and the pianist is Klara Würtz.
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It's in three movements, the usual number of movements for a sonata back then (anything with four movements was often termed a “grand sonata” which had nothing to do the grandeur of the music). The first movement is in a traditional “sonata form” – a first theme followed by a contrasting second theme in a contrasting key (if it's a sonata in a minor key, then the secondary theme is usually in a related major key, according to the Classical Style Book's Standard Operating Procedure) which forms a unit called “the Exposition” which is usually meant to be repeated; then there's the Development Section where bits of the different themes may be taken apart and move off into other keys with a sense of instability and contrasting drama compared to the Exposition; then, stability returns to the home key, called “the tonic” and the second theme is heard in the tonic key as well; there may be a wrap-up segment called a “coda” or “tail” to bring the movement's implied drama to a satisfying resolution.

The second movement is usually a slow movement but this is a more “walking” tempo than a truly slow one, and the adjective scherzoso means “playful.” It too is in sonata form, something that usually implies greater heft and seriousness, certainly more drama, but here there's a kind of playful cheekiness to the idea – there's even one of those “most intellectual of musical procedures, a fugue” hinted at along the way. It's as if Beethoven is tossing off all these ideas just for the sheer fun of it. Then the “minor key intensity” returns with the energetic opening of the finale but some of the contrasting sections almost come to a stop – or at least the energy does – before the opening ideas comes back and push us forward.

I know those who don't read music might not be interested in the score, so if you'd prefer to watch the performers, here's another violinist familiar to Central PA music-lovers, Augustin Hadelich who's appeared with the Harrisburg Symphony three times, now, here with pianist Charles Owen.
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Beethoven, c.1800
Imagine Beethoven having just had his 1st Symphony premiered (a major statement for a student of the famous Haydn, “Father of the Symphony”); his Septet (especially its minuet) had become all the rage; his first set of string quartets, another considerable challenge to be taken seriously in the musical community, had been published; he'd written another piano concerto (No. 3 in C Minor, though it wouldn't be published until a few years later), all before his 30th Birthday.

Then, in 1801, he composed his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, and was working on four new piano sonatas.

In the midst of this, he worked on two violin sonatas envisioned as a pair but published separately as Op.23 and Op.24. The one in A Minor is the “dramatic” one and the F Major, the “calm” one (its laid-back mood prompted someone to call it the “Spring” Sonata and the nickname has stuck, though Beethoven had nothing to do with it). Begun in 1800, they were both published in October, 1801.

With the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven's birth looming over us in December of 2020, this perhaps most revered composer in the firmament of Classical Music will hardly need such a celebration to have his music heard. There will be commemorative performances of his greatest or most popular works and we'll all wonder in amazement that, standard mythology aside, these could have been created by a mere mortal, and one who was deaf, at that.

One way to listen to Beethoven and actually learn something about his creative evolution – because it's a long road between his earliest works and those Late String Quartets, despite his death at the age of 56 – is to hear them chronologically. This is not as easy as it sounds, since the Opus Numbers are not always a good indication of when a piece was written or of its context with other works written around the same time. Plus, being the composer he was, working out the details over a long span of time – interesting for a composer who was the reigning King of Improvisors in Vienna – a process that might have begun years before it was completed or published, he often worked on several pieces at the same time; or at least their gestations overlapped.

And another habit we tend to overlook now, having become used to the 19th Century tradition of working on one piece till it's finished, is how composers of the 18th Century, both Baroque and Classical, tended to create sets of pieces – Corelli and Vivaldi writing violin concertos or trio sonatas by the dozen (for instance, Vivaldi's famous Four Seasons are only the first four of the twelve concertos of Op. 8); Bach presenting his Brandenburg Concertos as a set of six (not individually, not even as a collection of individual concertos, but a numbered set of not five, not seven, but six different pieces); Haydn writing quartets in sets of six (as did Beethoven in his first quartets published as Op.18), and so on. There was a larger awareness to the “compositional question”: how many different ways can I use the same forms, the same keys, even just the same 12 notes over and over again and still come up with something different?

And so Beethoven's pair of violin sonatas should be considered a “unit” just as he would later write a pair of symphonies at a time, often simultaneously or one-after-the-other before, then, waiting a few years to go on to the next. The old complaint that Beethoven's Even-Numbered Symphonies aren't as “good” (or certainly “not often played”) as the Odd-Numbered Symphonies – 3rd & 4th, 5th & 6th, 7th & 8th – lies in the fact the more dramatic ones of the pairs seem bolder and more extroverted (and more popularly appealing) than the quieter, by comparison more introverted ones. I mean, the contrast between the 5th and its companion 6th, the Pastorale, says it all. But also keep in mind, after the epic universality of the 9th, he was sketching an apparently mellow and expansive 10th at the time of his death.

So here's a dramatic violin sonata in a minor key – actually in the key of A Minor – very much in the Classical Viennese Style of Mozart and Haydn (keeping in mind, as a student of Haydn, Beethoven's original plan as a teenager was to go to Vienna and study with his idol, Mozart; too bad Mozart had died before he could work it out so, oh well, then, he'll go study with Haydn).

The so-called “Spring” Sonata, its companion, is entirely different: where the A Minor is, at least in outer movements, energetic and often turbulent, the F Major, a mellower tonality on the strings of a violin, is calm and, for lack of a better word, smiling, bringing to mind Beethoven enjoying his countryside walks outside the bustle of Vienna – but here, a further “by the way” is required: do not follow down the garden path of thinking “ah, here is Beethoven imitating his impressions of nature, a bird singing, a brook babbling...” Wherever the music might eventually take him, it always began with a sense of Classical architecture and proportion. The scope of that would, eventually, expand beyond anything considered “normal” for the times.

Anyway, back to 1801. Assuming you've listened to the recordings of Beethoven's A Minor Violin Sonata earlier in this post and heard the little middle movement which is a combination slow movement and scherzo (not too slow but not a dance, either), here's the slow movement of the companion F Major Violin Sonata, again with Kristóf Baráti and Klara Würtz - and you'll hear two different responses out of the many possible answers to the question, “how do I write a contrasting middle movement which has a different balance both architecturally and emotionally to the two more significant outer movements?”

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Early sketches for these two sonatas are mixed into a notebook along with sketches for the Op.22 Piano Sonata in B-flat Major which he completed in 1800 (it wasn't published until 1802, a delay which annoyed him). The Violin Sonatas also took a while to find their way into print: not only was Beethoven a slow, pains-taking composer, often working out details on several compositions over the same period of time, his publishers were often slow to complete the process.

The intent had been to offer them as a pair, a companion to the set of three published in 1799 as Op.12 and dedicated to Antonio Salieri, but something happened – one story is that the A Minor was printed on larger paper than the F Major and so, since they couldn't be bound in a single volume, rather than becoming Op.23 No. 1 and Op.23 No. 2, they became Op.23 and Op.24. Curiously, Op.24 had been the number agreed upon for The Creatures of Prometheus since Beethoven had already arranged to have the piano score (a reduction of the full, orchestral score) of Prometheus published as Op.24. The ballet was subsequently (for some reason) given the later number, Op.43.

Beethoven the Student hoped to carve a niche for himself in Imperial Vienna as a recognized and successful professional composer by mastering the current Classical Style, but it is intriguing to hear, amidst all these works of classical perfection the average listener today would find “Haydn-like,” there are works that sound to us so “Romantic” (in the stylistic sense of the word) it's surprising to discover some of them were actually written at the same time.

If you compare the piano sonatas, for instance, with the violin sonatas of the period, the piano ones seem mostly more “advanced” chronologically – in other words, a more 19th-Century style than evocations of 18th Century Viennese classicism, more what we associate with the maturer, “Romantic” Beethoven – and yet the turbulent opening of the C Minor Piano Sonata known as the Pathetique contrasted with its aching lyricism in the famous slow movement was published as Op. 13 and actually dates from 1799! While the dreamy 1st movement (which, uncharacteristically is the slow movement) prompted one critic to call it the “Moonlight” Sonata, the C-sharp Minor Piano Sonata, Op.27 No. 2, ends with tempestuous virtuosity in what might have earned it the nickname “Thunderstorm” from somebody else – and yet it was composed in 1801, within a year of the A Minor Violin Sonata.

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It is always tempting to turn details from a composer's biography into influences on the music written at the time. The “Moonlight” Sonata is dedicated to a beautiful, young, not yet married countess named Julie Guicciardi (he called her “Giulietta” in her dedication) whom Beethoven was supposedly in love with. Smitten, perhaps, and she was the cousin of the two Brunsvik sisters who were close friends and piano students of his at the time (Julie herself studied with him briefly) – one of a musician's major sources of income would've been teaching the unmarried daughters of the upper class how to play the piano since they were expected to provide the household with entertainment in the days before TV and stereo sound systems (as for other duties, you hired cooks and maids for the housework). But sad to say, the dedication to Countess Guicciardi isn't quite so romantic as that would imply: he was not thinking of her, certainly not depicting his feelings or moods inspired by her when writing the piece. In fact, the dedication was an afterthought.

Normally, dedications were like an author getting a blurb from somebody famous to grace the new novel's cover and attract potential buyers with the thought, since the dedicatee's name often appeared in large print on the title page, “well, if So-and-So endorses him, he must be a good composer.” In this sense, Beethoven dedicating his first set of piano sonatas to Haydn was not just out of gratitude to his long-suffering (and frequently absent and uninspiring) teacher, just as dedicating the first set of violin sonatas, Op. 12, to Antonio Salieri was also primarily political. Yes, Beethoven had studied (briefly) with Salieri – the art of setting words to music being the course – but Salieri, all that unpleasant Mozart business aside (rumors!), and Haydn were still the most politically powerful musicians in Vienna! Call it “networking.”

Dedications also were a way of thanking patrons, those aristocrats or wealthy citizens who supported a composer with financial remuneration or who, in a sense, commissioned a work. Beethoven's Op. 1, a set of piano trios, was dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky who would receive many such dedications until problems arose between the two not always well-tempered friends. The Op. 18 Quartets were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz as would be the Eroica Symphony and several other significant works for similar long-term support. It was through Lobkowitz he would also meet many important amateur (and often wealthy, well-placed) musicians like the Archduke Rudolph who would eventually become a piano student of Beethoven's and his only composition student, in addition to receiving numerous dedications himself (the “Archduke” Trio, for one; the Missa solemnis for another). The fact Rudolph was also the Emperor's youngest brother didn't hurt.

Title Page of the Original Edition of the "Sonata for Piano" [then, in smaller letters] "with a Violin"

So who is this set of two violin sonatas dedicated to? Who is Count Moritz von Fries?

Moritz von Fries & his wife, 1801
Fries was the son of perhaps the wealthiest businessman in Vienna of his day and as such found himself becoming a patron of the arts himself. In 1801, Beethoven honored him with his dedication out of gratitude for his on-going financial support. In 1803, Fries commissioned a set of six string quartets from Haydn who at the time was in frail health at the age of 71 (unfortunately, Haydn could only finish the two middle movements of the projected four for just one quartet, eventually published as a fragment, Op.103, apologizing he was too ill and too old to fulfill it).

Beethoven subsequently dedicated his String Quintet Op. 29 to Fries and, in 1812, more significantly, the 7th Symphony. Though written in 1814, Schubert published his famous song Gretchen am Sprinnrade in 1821 with a dedication to Count Moritz von Fries.

The Family Palace of Moritz von Fries, Schloss Vöslau

Between his palaces in Vienna and Vöslau where he frequently hosted lavish parties, Fries owned numerous paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Dürer, and had about 16,000 volumes in his libraries.

The Count & Family (c.1805)
While this lies outside the story of the two violin sonatas, Fries gave Beethoven a regular subsidy that lasted up until his banking firm declared bankruptcy in 1826, due largely in part to his lavish lifestyle. At that point, his business partner committed suicide by drowning in the Danube and Fries moved to Paris (presumably to avoid creditors) where he died later that year. His house and estate were sold to benefit said creditors and his seven children were left penniless.

On the other hand, he also served as the model for the main character in a popular 1834 play by Viennese dramatist, Ferdinand Raimund, called The Wastrel. (Hmmm...)

Fries' heir, Moritz II, however, born in 1804 (see family portrait, above left), managed to survive this turn of events by marrying the heiress to the next wealthiest banking family in Austria in 1836 and, after buying back the family castle at Vöslau, apparently lived happily ever after.

Dick Strawser

Stay tuned for future posts about the sonatas of Franck and Debussy, and Bartók's Rhapsody.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Playing Composers with Beards (Part 2): Dvořák's Dramatic Flare


The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in that order)
Market Square Concerts' season continues with the return of pianist Michael Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, joined by violinist Elena Urioste to form the aptly-named Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio who will be performing piano trios by Brown-Chausson-Dvořák at Market Square Church on Saturday evening at 8:00.

Brown-Chausson-Dvořák
This weekend's program opens with “Reflections” by Michael Brown and the G Minor Piano Trio of Ernest Chausson (which you can read about in the previous post) and concludes with a piano trio by Antonin Dvořák, the great Czech composer popular for his “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet, and, of course, his “Dumky” Trio.

But this time, it's not (for once) the “Dumky” Trio, his 4th Piano Trio – and the difference between that popular one and this one, his 3rd Piano Trio in F Minor, reminds me of a quote which might prove helpful to an audience today listening to music composed 135 years ago in what we no doubt think “a simpler time”:

“Life beats down and crushes the soul 
and art reminds you that you have one.”

If you're like many people this past month, afraid to turn the TV set on to see the latest Special News Report or another political ad (at least those are done for a while) or even catch the weather forecast for fear of hearing the S-Word (they're already talking about “Wind Chill”), much less deal with another grim, rainy day, music – or any art – can be a chance to “get away from it all,” whether it's called entertainment or escapism.

But art can also be cathartic, an emotional journey not always guaranteed a happy ending (think how “America's Favorite Novel,” To Kill a Mockingbird, still ends tragically yet with a gentle ray of hope) but ultimately we feel we've gone somewhere and are, if only for the moment, better for it.

In a sense, something like Dvořák's F Minor Trio, listening to it on a purely “surface” level, can provide us with a variety of contrasts – dramatic, lyrical, light-hearted, tragic – that might reflect our immediate situation, despite having been written 135 years ago. Whatever was going through the composer's mind at the time is still something that can reach us today, if we let it, without even knowing what it was the composer was thinking: it is enough for the performers to follow the directions given them in the score, this system of symbols that somehow translates thought into sound, and we, absorbing this sound and processing it however we might, find solace, inspiration, enlightenment, comfort and, yes, even simply entertainment.

Generally, the idea of a piano trio or a string quartet or a symphony is a “multi-movement work” (usually four) in a particular pattern which reflects a variety of contrasts with certain prescribed ideas about form and structure (which are not necessarily the same thing) in which an opening “sonata-form” movement is followed by two or three contrasting movements before ending with some sense of resolution.

A listener builds up expectations and very often reacts to the music – or to the composer or performers – depending on how those expectations are met. Perhaps we enjoy this piece because “that's how I thought it would go” or maybe we appreciate that one because “that wasn't how I thought it would go.” Within that potential framework, whether we think of it as a formula or not, there are an imponderable number of possible solutions: if there weren't, why do people still read novels? Or sing love songs?

Dvořák's F Minor Trio is in four movements, opening with a dramatic “sonata form” followed by a lighter dance-like movement as a “scherzo,” the contrasting emotional center of the piece in the heart-breaking slow movement, before plunging us back into the drama of the opening before it all resolves with a few surprises before we reach the end.

As Peter Sirotin said in a Facebook post, “Listening to the Dvořák F Minor piano trio is a lot like listening to an older friend’s fascinating life story over a cup of hot chocolate.”

Here is a live performance from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with violinist Benjamin Beilman, cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Gilbert Kalish:

20141023 Dvorak Trio in F minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op 65 from The Chamber Music Society on Vimeo.
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Usually, when a piano trio plays Dvořák, it'll be the ever-popular, tuneful and toe-tapping “Dumky” Trio, more a collection of six very similar dances than an over-all cohesive structure from beginning to end like the F Minor Trio (which doesn't have a catchy nickname). Both piano trios, they're really not comparable works, and while there's nothing wrong with a collection of dances whose sole concern might be to leave the audience smiling, someone looking for a little more “substance” in their music might find them lacking. Perhaps the problem is how frequently it's performed, compared to the F Minor, which most musicians will agree is the “better” piece if one cares to venture into the realm of argument whether an intellectually stimulating work like, say, a symphony, is a better piece of music than, say, a Strauss waltz which may be more popular and more people can hum along with it?

Looking for a recording to include in this post, I went through the usual bevy of performances and recording levels like an old hand at speed-dating, when I found this one, a recent post from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I don't know how many times I've heard the “Dumky” Trio live-in-concert since I first heard it as a high school student, but when I lived in New York City in the late-70s, a pianist-friend suggested we go to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to hear some friends of hers play, as she put it, “not the Dumky.” They were doing Dvořák's F Minor which I'd never heard before. The pianist was Gilbert Kalish! (Both he and I were younger, then, but hey...)

That was 1978 or '79 – and that was the last time I ever heard it live-in-concert...

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Usually, when writing about Dvořák's music, there are a few different tacks one can take: his stay in America; his folk-inspired music; his searching for a musical voice that would create a Czech national style.

This work doesn't fit in with any of those. There may be Dvořák-sounding turns-of-phrase that resemble Czech folk music (or do we, who probably know nothing about Czech folk music, recognize it only because we've heard it in Dvořák's music?), especially in the 2nd movement, and it was written ten years before he went to live and teach (and compose) in New York City. In his early career, he was an amateur composer trying to make a living as a theater orchestra player (and a violist, at that) who was trying to figure out “how to break into the market.” For a while, he imitated the German Wagner, having played in an orchestra that Wagner came to town to conduct in an all-Wagner program of popular opera excerpts. When that didn't work out (Wagner being not a very good model for someone who also wanted to write symphonies), he turned to the other major composer of the day, Wagner's antithesis, Johannes Brahms in Vienna.

That, at least, bore fruit: in 1874, submitting a variety of works for the Austrian State Prize, his music sparked the interest of one of the judges, Johannes Brahms, who thought it pretty good. Eventually, he would suggest Dvořák to his own publisher and he also suggested, if he wanted to make some money, he should write a bunch of folk-inspired dances for piano duet, like those “Hungarian Dances” of his that, along with something known as “Brahms' Lullaby,” made him a rich man (no, he didn't earn his money from his symphonies and chamber music). Dvořák took his advice, wrote his “Slavonic Dances” and before long not only was he making money as a composer, he was gaining a wider audience beyond his native Bohemia.

A quick aside about politics in the late-19th Century: Vienna was the capital of Austria, the heart of a vast empire that stretched from Prague in the northwest to the Balkans in the southeast. It encompassed people who were ethnically Bohemian, Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Serbian, among others, to the point the German-speaking Austrians were a minority in their own Empire. In 1867, the government was forced to accept a political and ethnic compromise with the Hungarian province for a “dual monarchy” which turned Austria into the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” even though the Austrian emperor was also the King of Hungary. Yes, Brahms was a German immigrant originally from Hamburg in the North, but at least he was culturally a German and therefore more easily assimilated into the Austrian idea of German-ness.

Anyway, Bohemia, despite its rich history and its beautiful capital city of Prague, was full of Czech people who were Slavic, and to a nationalist German, therefore, inferior (as they also regarded the Jews and anybody else who was not a German-speaking Christian). When Dvořák found a champion in the conductor Hans Richter who wanted to perform his new 6th Symphony in Vienna in 1880, the orchestra refused: it was purely a matter of racial prejudice!

Curiously, despite the support of musicians like Brahms, Richter, and Josef Joachim, Dvořák found fame more easily in London, where Richter finally performed the 6th Symphony and where a London orchestra commissioned him to write his 7th Symphony, the D Minor, which was premiered there in 1885. His fame was greater in America than in the capital of his own country, and he was hired as the director of the National Conservatory in New York in 1893, a position that would never have been offered him in Vienna. But that's for the future.

Meanwhile, there's this Piano Trio which was written in 1883 in Prague. He had won Brahms' admiration, and was now a respected composer, as far as Prague was concerned. When he applied for that Austrian Stipend in 1874, he lived in a flat shared with five other men, one of whom owned a small “spinet” piano which, when time and everybody's schedules allowed, he could use when he composed. Things had changed.

Other things happened, of course: while he had gotten married and his family began to grow, his mother had died in 1882 and he was watching the slow deterioration of the greatest Czech composer of the day, Bedřich Smetana, who, after having gone deaf, slowly slipped into what we would now call dementia. Though there was a brief period of creative activity in 1882 that lasted for about a year, by October of 1883, his behavior at a private reception “disturbed his friends” (Dvořák was there) and by early-1884, the Hero of Czech Music was often incoherent and violent. Not knowing what else to do, his family placed him in a lunatic asylum where, three weeks later, he died at the age of 60.

It is impossible to ignore the impact something like this might have had on the newly successful Dvořák, then 44, looking up to his idol and sometime mentor and watching all this unfold. And with the death of his mother still fairly fresh in his memory, it is not impossible to imagine his emotional response to this loss. (Remember that Johannes Brahms wrote his Horn Trio as a direct response to his own mother's death and the soprano solo in his German Requiem was supposedly added to the already finished work as a memorial to her.)

Did either of these losses – one past, another pending – influence the nature of the F Minor Trio or even directly inspire the slow movement, the work's emotional core? It's impossible to say, but composers don't work in a vacuum. And whatever someone might say about keeping reality separate from ones creativity, don't forget when Dvořák returned home from New York and heard of the death of his first love, he inserted a touching, indeed heart-wrenching farewell to her at the very end of the Cello Concerto he had just completed.

Indeed, whatever the burden, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Piano Trio on the Installment Plan: Brown, Urioste, & Canellakis (Part 1)

Brown, Urioste & Canellakis
WHO: The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Piano Trio with pianist Michael Brown, violinist Elena Urioste, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis
WHAT: Michael Brown's “Reflections”; Chausson's Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.3; Dvořák's Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65
WHEN: Saturday evening at 8:00
WHERE: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

Part One of "Composers with Beards" features the works of Michael Brown and Ernest Chausson. Part Two will be dedicated to Antonin Dvořák's F Minor Trio (which you can read here).

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An episode of Public Radio's From the Top, back in the day, recorded at Franklin & Marshall's Barshinger Center in 2004 (see below) featured a teenaged pianist playing the music of George Perle which was, in itself, surprising, given Perle's relative lack of familiarity beyond being the composer of music presumed to be difficult to listen to and the writer of books about 20th Century music theory presumed to be difficult to read. What impressed me most was here was this teenager playing Perle's music as if it were Schumann or Mendelssohn: it's amazing how much better music that challenges you sounds when it's played musically! I said, “Here's a pianist to make a note of: I hope to be hearing more of him some day. What's his name? Michael Brown? Okay.”

Michael Brown at the Klavier
Fast forward to 2012, and I was sitting in Whitaker Center, listening to Market Square Concerts' presentation of a new, award-winning young pianist named... Michael Brown, all grown up at 24. Here's my review of that performance.

The biggest take-away was hearing him play a Schubert sonata I'd never cared for because every pianist I'd ever heard (including myself) always made the last movement “sound like child's-play,” as if some child were hacking his way through it for a bunch of visiting aunts and couldn't make sense out of these childish themes. But here was an adult who figured out how to make it sound “child-like” with all the nuance of innocent youth.

Canellakis, Brown & Coffee
In 2015, then, Michael Brown returned with cellist Nicholas Canellakis to play a program ranging from Schumann and Rachmaninoff to Bulgarian Folk Music and a piece by Michael Brown. It did not surprise me a pianist who as a teenager could understand Perle's music would become a composer himself. This particular piece was composed for Nick Canellakis and, given their tongue-in-cheek approach to their on-line music videos, perhaps this interview with “Michael Brown, composer” might be... uhm... well, as my friend Jenna St. Croix would say, “illuminating if you're, like, into that sort of thing.”


One of my favorite definitions of chamber music, not to sound too pretentious about it, is “music for a small group of musicians to be played by friends for friends.” Perhaps these guys are serious about not taking themselves too seriously, but don't let the good-natured camaraderie fool you: the music-making is all about the music.

Elena Urioste (& Alex)
And now we add a third friend to the mix as Brown and Canellakis return to Harrisburg one more time with violinist Elena Urioste in a piano trio logically named the Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio which, if nothing else, solves the problem of “what do we call ourselves” when so few music-related names are left, like the “Allegro Assai Trio”? – or fancy-sounding foreign phrases, like “The Beaux Eaux Trio”? – or some composer whose name hasn't been used yet, like “The Salieri Trio.” (If they're going to return in a few seasons as a Piano Quartet, I think we're going to need a bigger marquee...)

In this BBC interview, filmed for her debut in the UK, you'll hear Elena Urioste, accompanied by Michael Brown, playing Amy Beach's Romance, composed in 1893 for the Women's Musical Congress held at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (before they were called “World's Fairs”).


(You can also read this August 2018 article in Strings to find out more about her and Alex, her violin. Incidentally, Michael Brown lives with two Steinway D's, Octavia and Daria.)

While they all pursue careers as soloists and appear in various combinations of violin-and-piano or cello-and-piano duos, put them all together and they're a trio, performing here a Piano Trio in E-flat Major by Franz Josef Haydn – No. 29 in Mr Hoboken's big book – recorded in San Diego in 2016.

(Just to be clear, this is considered the last of Haydn's piano trios, also listed as No. 45 in H.C. Robbins-Landon's chronological catalogue. Published in 1797 as his Op.86, No.3, two years after Beethoven performed his Three Piano Trios, Op. 1, in Vienna, it's possible this was one of a series of “late” piano trios Haydn composed in London during the 1793-94 season. Not that any of that matters, since neither of these composers is on the program they'll be performing here, but hey...)

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Their Market Square Concerts program on Saturday opens with a recent work by composer Michael Brown, written for... well, when you have a living, breathing composer who writes his own program notes, why not have him tell you...?

Not only can you read these notes on his web-site, you can also listen to the entire piece from a live concert at New York City's Merkin Hall.

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Reflections for Piano Trio was written for my dear friends and fellow trio comrades, violinist Elena Urioste and cellist Nicholas Canellakis. The work was commissioned by Nicholas and Susan Yasillo and was written in honor of Sharing Notes, an organization that brings interactive classical music performances to Chicago-area hospitals. When I learned about this beautiful organization, which gives companionship and joy to people in need, I became inspired to write a work about friendship and how people interact and develop with each other over time.

I met both Elena Urioste and Nicholas Canellakis while I was a student at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in 2008 and 2009. There I played chamber music and became fast friends with each of them. Over the past eight years our relationships have grown musically and personally as we’ve played together in different combinations and traveled all over the world. My piece, Reflections, is my rumination on this time in all of our lives and a portrayal of our closeness. The work is in one-movement and comprised of a Chorale, Five Variations, and Coda. Throughout there is a harmonic evolution from a dissonant and stark beginning to a simpler purity, a musical depiction diagramming the journey of our worlds uniting and growing together over time. After the declamatory Chorale, the first three variations showcase different duo combinations leading into two contrasting trio variations before the coda reprises snippets of musical material heard throughout. It was a pleasure to write this piece in honor of Sharing Notes and for my close friends and musical colleagues.

The world premiere was performed by Michael Brown, Elena Urioste, and Nicholas Canellakis on November 13, 2016 at the Norton Building Concert Series in Lockport, Il.
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Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in retrograde order)
Recent generations of musicians were usually either composers who tended to be “composers” or performers who tended to be “performers” which may sound obvious but there was a time when any good performer was also, for better or worse, a composer, and when composers were expected to be performers as well, at least of their own works. In the great days of the reigning virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt, they wrote their own concertos and toured widely performing their own music. Many composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were also fine pianists, playing concertos, solo works and chamber pieces they'd written for themselves, but for various reasons focused on their creative sides (and of course, with no recordings to survive them, often their reputations as performers faded with time). But there's also the Chopin Risk, writing only for your instrument. Even Franz Liszt, one of the greatest pianists of all times, wrote (and usually struggled with) symphonies and operas, but today, aside from a symphonic poem or two, he is primarily known for his piano works.

Not that anyone today would expect Itzhak Perlman or Martha Argerich to be performing music they'd also composed. In fact, through much of the 20th Century, composers were lucky if any performers at that level were performing new music, whether it was written for them or not.

So the idea of a “composer-performer” – equally adept at both – is fairly rare even as we're already well into a new century. The problem, as it would be for any composer in today's busy world where earning a living and family might be part of the daily reality, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, is how to balance the time and concentration needed to compose with the performer's needs not only to concertize but also to spend hours practicing and rehearsing.

If you check his website, Michael Brown's earliest compositions on this extensive list date from 2002-2003, with a fair number of works written when he was a teenager. He has also composed (and performed) his own piano concerto in 2014 and as the Composer-and-Artist-in-Residence with the New Haven Symphony for 2017-2019, he is working on a newly commissioned Symphony to be premiered there next year (no pressure).

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Michael Brown w/Christopher O'Riley
Okay, now for a trip in the Way Back Machine and a rare opportunity to embarrass an artist by posting a photo and a link to a performance recorded when he was a teenager. Imagine influences on a budding composer, and here we are, stepping out on a road into the future.

I started this post by mentioning the From the Top episode recorded at Barshinger Center in Lancaster PA in 2004. You can follow this link to hear the segment with host Christopher O'Riley (a pianist who has performed on Market Square Concerts in seasons past himself), with Michael Brown at 17 (before the beard) playing three of the Celebratory Inventions by George Perle, written between 1981 and 1995, the first one honoring Ernst Krenek at 85; the fourth, Gunther Schuller at 70; and the sixth, Leonard Bernstein, also at 70.

Moving ahead ten years, here is the New York Times review of a performance by Michael Brown that was part celebration of Perle's music (he had died in 2009 at the age of 93 and his Centennial was just around the corner in 2015) and part Release Party for Brown's new CD on the Bridge label of several works by George Perle, including the complete "Six Celebratory Inventions."

Now, listen to his Reflections on our concert this Saturday at Market Square Church! (Reflections, indeed.)

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Ernest Chausson, four years after the Trio
The second work on the program is a rarely-heard work by a composer who came to the serious study of music fairly late as most composers go. He was given piano lessons probably as many of us endured during our childhood with little thought to it as a career option, and it wasn't until after he'd pursued a law degree and gotten a job as a lawyer with the Court of Appeals that he realized this also had no real interest for him. Being from a wealthy middle-class family, the idea of a profession wasn't as strong a necessity as it would have been for some of his contemporaries like Gabriel Fauré and Cesar Franck, both of whom earned their livings as organists, pushing their available time to compose into the background. It has also given rise to the view Chausson was a dilettante – and Paris in the Belle Époch was full of them. (Many thought Marcel Proust was one, until he published his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time.)

As a young man in Paris with nothing better to do, he “hung out” at various salons, listening to people talk about their art, so since many of his new friends were painters, he tried his hand at drawing. Inspired by Ivan Turgenev, the Russian novelist who was something of a Salon Lion, Chausson even wrote a novel. Playing piano duets with various musician-friends in turn prompted him to start composing his own music, including a rather sizable cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra! But of course, not knowing how much he needed to know, he jumped right in: why not?

At the age of 22, the same year he was sworn in as a lawyer in 1877, he wrote his first piece of music, a song called “Lilas.” After a trip to Munich two years later where he first heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he decided to take music seriously enough to begin attending classes at the Conservatoire with Jules Massenet, one of the leading opera composers of the day. But when he tried out for the famous Prix de Rome in 1881 and failed – a prize that also eluded Claude Debussy, initially – he dropped out of Massenet's class. His teacher crossed off his name on his list of students and wrote in the margin, “After his failure to gain admission to the Prix de Rome competition, he wanted nothing more to do with the Conservatoire. Very intelligent. Independent,” underlining this last word.

However, he continued to study “unofficially” with Cesar Franck and that summer began this Piano Trio in G Minor which he finished in mid-September while vacationing in Switzerland. He was 26.

This YouTube “video” is the Beaux Arts Trio's recording on the installment plan: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, followed by the main Allegro movement:


2nd Movement: Vite, the scherzo


3rd Movement: Assez lent, the slow movement


4th Movement: Animé

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So yes, Op. 3 when it was published – following a set of piano pieces and some songs – would make it an “early” work (it is essentially still a “student composition”), yet it shows signs of a mature talent and a recognizable voice in the making (despite influences primarily of Franck). While he never really wrote that much – there are only 39 published works and a handful of unpublished and unfinished works – it is unfair to think of him as a dilettante the way we normally dismiss an amateur, a young (and still inexperienced) composer finding his way. It is, after all, his first large-scale work since he started taking composition lessons two years earlier!

We tend to think of Mozart and Schubert as two composers who started young and wrote “as an apple tree bears fruit” – Mozart had completed 39 pieces listed in the Köchel Catalogue by the time he was 11; Schubert, though the Deutsch catalogue is a little vague on the dates of some of his earliest (and sometimes incomplete) works, probably wrote his D.39 when he was 13. But then Mozart died at the age of 35 and Schubert, 31, so it's good they were prolific, not waiting till they hit their stride.

(Admittedly, the older I get, I like to think how old some composers were when still composing, long after someone in a more “normal” profession would have retired: Elliott Carter finished his last complete work – his first Piano Trio, no less – three months before what would've been his 104th birthday, had he lived another five weeks...)

But then one beautiful afternoon in 1899, while staying at “one of his country retreats” in early June, Ernest Chausson went for a bike ride and apparently had some kind of accident, slamming into a brick wall at the bottom of a hill, and died instantly. He was 44.

He is often described as a bridge between the Late-19th Century Romanticism of Cesar Franck and the Impressionism of the next generation of Debussy and Ravel. So remember, when you're listening to Chausson's Op. 3 Piano Trio, you've just set foot on that bridge with no idea where it will lead.

– Dick Strawser