Thursday, April 2, 2020

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion

In what feels like Week #144 of the global COVID-19 Isolation, Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts, has selected two works for this week's “Weekly Dose of Great Chamber Music” with the view that music is good medicine for the soul. The main reason for selecting these two performances is to feature Stuart Malina, whose celebration of his Twenty Years as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony has been cut short by concerns over the Coronavirus. Featured as a guest pianist with Market Square Concerts over many of those years, Malina was also to be involved with MSC's final concert of the season, our own celebration of Stuart's Twenty Years in Harrisburg and that too, now, has been canceled, rescheduled for a later season.

There is another theme in these two works. Hungarian composer Bela Bartók wrote his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in the shadow of what soon became World War II and the dark mood, especially of the first movement and many of the nighttime interruptions of the middle movement, reflect that period of grim uncertainty. Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet in G Minor in 1940, shortly after World War II began, where the looming threat was the imminent invasion by Nazi Germany in June of 1941.

While much is made of our being at war with an “invisible enemy,” perhaps the associations with this music is apt. Just as art can be entertaining, it can also be intellectually stimulating. It can also be cathartic and let us know – as the acting teacher Stella Adler said in a quote that heads this blog, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” – we have gotten through anxious times before and we can get through this one.

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Speaking of anxious times, this performance of Bartók's Sonata was given on September 10th, 2016, the day before the 15th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and took place at Messiah College in Grantham PA where Market Square Concerts' directors Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang are also faculty members. In this concert, you may recognize some of the performers (even the page-turners): in addition to Ya-Ting Chang, there's pianist Stuart Malina and percussionists Christopher Rose (also principal percussionist of the Harrisburg Symphony) and Erik Forst (Director of Percussion Studies at Messiah College). Peter Sirotin plays the civilian role of page turner for his wife, Ya-Ting; and Zev Malina, whose Suite for Orchestra opened the Harrisburg Symphony's 2019-2020 Season, turns pages for his dad.

The Sonata is in three movements: an opening “Sonata Form” movement (its ominous introduction begins at 4:20 with an almost inaudible timpani roll on a low F-sharp); a middle slow movement (itself in traditional A-B-A form), an example of Bartók's “night music” (beginning at 18:16); and a rousing, dance-like finale (beginning at 25:58) which seems destined to end in a blaze of C Major before it subsides in an almost inaudible ending with snare drum and cymbal (two instruments not usually associated with “quiet”).

(again, the blog template limits the size of the video window: if you wish to view it “full screen,” click on the bracketed square in the video's lower right corner when you hover the mouse over the image.)
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Given Bartók's explorations of the percussive side of the piano, especially in his music of the 1920s, it seemed logical someone should suggest – probably Paul Sacher, the conductor of a string orchestra in Basel who'd already commissioned Bartók to write his Divertimento and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in the mid-1930s – he ought to write something for piano and percussion. A commission was then arranged from the Basel group of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1937.

Bartók at home (1938)
As he began working on it, it became clear Bartók needed two pianos to offset the battery of percussion instruments he wanted, a set-up that was now going to require two players. This might have been a practical solution, also, considering he was a busy concert pianist, and his wife, known to history as Ditta (short for Edith), a former piano student of his, had given up her aspirations for a solo career to become a wife and mother: it would give them something to play together as a piano duo.

They gave the first performance in Basel on January 16th, 1938, and then performed it in Budapest two or three months later.

Georg Solti, one of the great conductors of the 20th Century, had studied piano with Bartók in Budapest (and composition with Ernő Dohnányi), graduating from the Franz Liszt Academy in 1930. In a 1987 documentary about his recording the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Solti recalled how he had gone to hear the concert but just as he sat down in the audience, someone asked him if he would turn pages for Mrs Bartók whom he had never met. Remember, he'd never heard the piece before, or even seen the score, with no opportunity to rehearse: they just walked out on stage.

“It was very exciting but it was very difficult to turn the page. So if you ask me, 'How did you like the piece?' ...'I don't know!' I was too busy turning pages...” Unlike the Basel premiere which was quite well received, the audience reaction in Budapest – given the difficult political situation between the liberal composer and the pro-Fascist government in 1938 – was what Solti called “cruel indifference,” slowly clapping his hands, three times, without any enthusiasm. Most of the audience remained silent. “It was terrible.”

Curiously, this reflects a conversation the composer had with his son, Peter, who was at the time 14, and which he related in his memoir, My Father.

Me interviewing Peter Bartók, 2011
In 2011, I had the amazing opportunity to interview Peter Bartók via Skype from his home in Florida for a program at Gretna Music featuring all six of Bartók's string quartets (that summer, he turned 87). Now, since the composer rarely (if ever) talked about the technical side of his composing with friends and students, he was unlikely to talk shop with his teenaged son. But Peter remembered many fascinating details that can give us a personal insight into the man behind the music.

When his parents were rehearsing Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448, and preparing his father's new Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, young Peter asked his father, concerned about the public reaction to his own music, why he didn’t write music more like Mozart. If his father was wounded by this question, Peter said he didn’t show it but carefully explained how music changes with times and a composer today had to write music for today: it wasn’t a matter of writing what pleased audiences more.
Peter Bartók (age 8) with his father and mother in 1932

Of course, growing up with a famous composer for a father, there are things you're not aware of compared to other children: when he began taking his first piano lessons from his father, he would walk in and find something freshly composed on the piano's music rack, a little piece to work on and gradually build a beginner's technique. Eventually, these became the famous collection of "teaching pieces" called Mikrokosmos.

Quoting from a previous post, I'm thinking here of the Sonata's middle movement, one of many "night pieces" Bartók composed:

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Bartók was interested in Nature. Peter mentioned how, when he was a child, they would have chickens in the backyard of their Budapest home (one that was in the relatively quieter suburbs) as well as rabbits; and how Bartók wrote to his son (then visiting his sister’s farm during the summer) that baby rabbits had been born and how he was building wooden coops to accommodate them. Sitting in the backyard with a picnic lunch, it was not unusual for one of the hens, by that time more of a family pet than a provider of fresh eggs, to wander around through the grass.

In any of my classes that mentioned Bartók’s music, I was always told the frequent occurrence of what he called “Night Music” was an abstract rendering of various night sounds – breezes, insect noises, bird cries and the like.

Yet Peter told pianist Leonid Hambro, listening to his recording of the suite, Out of Doors, how well he’d caught the frogs from his aunt’s farm, a memorable sound from those summer holidays, much to Hambro’s surprise. “Frogs?” he’d said, never thinking what the sounds really represented.
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Still, as you listen to the middle movement of this Sonata, it's clear this is not an idyllic nocturne inspired by sitting on the porch of a remote farmhouse listening to frogs down at the pond or the buzzing of insects. That insistent short repeated figure interrupting the middle of the movement, a distant layer behind those long, slowly crawling melodic fibers –  an ominous drum-beat? - ya-dah-duh dee-dah-duh – what does it mean, if it means anything? Certainly the growing tension is palpable, perhaps even fear, as it rises to a climax before fading away?

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It is also important, if you really want to get into the background behind Bartók's creativity, to be aware how turbulent these times were in Hungary's history. While some choose to ignore the influence of history on a particular work – imagine Beethoven's Eroica without Napoleon or Shostakovich's 5th without Stalin – much less the creative psyche of its composer, art is not usually created in a vacuum. Yes, some may be as escapist for the artist as the art-lover, but sometimes the period a composer lives in (or lives through) leaves its imprint directly or indirectly on the music he writes. If that were not the case, Bartók's last string quartet and this Sonata would be very different pieces – and Bartók would not have moved to America and died in poverty in 1945. Oh, he may still have died of leukemia at the age of 64, but living “at home” assuming you could mention his life-story without mentioning World War II or Hitler...

He was born in what is now Romania but he's not Romanian. Ethnically, he is Hungarian and the region of Transylvania (best known in America for exporting vampires) where he was born was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary which was politically one half (arguably) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the King of Hungary was the same guy who was the Emperor of Austria. German was the official language and German culture was the predominant influence on all aspects of Hungarian life. This becomes more evident when you understand that the Hungarian composer – also a friend and colleague of Bartók's – Ernő Dohnányi chose to go by the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi, during his life (even his grandson, the American-based conductor, was still Christoph von Dohnányi). Reverting to the Hungarian form of his name is a kind of cultural revisionism but one in which Hungarians can claim their own.

Bela Bartók, 1903
As a student, Bartók refused to speak German at home and only in public when he had to. He was so much a Hungarian patriot, his first major orchestral composition was a symphonic poem written in 1903 based on the life of Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth, hero of the 1848 Revolution for Hungarian Independence (though the revolution failed in its ultimate goal, it eventually led to the formation of the dual state of Austria-Hungary after almost twenty more years of at times “passive resistance” or outright rebellion). The fact Bartók used a satirical motive mocking the Austrian National Anthem to represent the Germanic occupation of Hungary may partly explain the work's success at its premiere in Budapest and why it was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Following World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Hungary was immediately embroiled in various internal wars trying to keep itself intact as well as dealing with political factions like the pro-Communist forces (following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917) and the conservative Royalists. By 1920, the Royalists had won but had to deal with a treaty that redrew the Hungarian map. The kingdom now lost 72% of its former lands, becoming now (like Austria) a small and insignificant land-locked nation.

Ruled by a “regent,” the kingdom never had a king and Miklós Horthy's regime, especially after the 1929 Depression, became increasingly linked with Germany. As Hitler came to power, the Hungarian government became increasingly pro-Nazi, eventually passing two “Jewish Laws” in 1938-39 which severely limited the Jews' ability to be involved first in commerce, then in all aspects of Hungarian life. Once the Anschluss brought Austria directly under Hitler's control in March, 1938, many Hungarians realized it was only a matter of time.

In 1936, the Bartóks went on a concert tour of Switzerland and returned the next year for a family holiday. While visiting friends there, one of them was playing a record of Benny Goodman and, knowing how Bartók disliked recordings and probably wouldn't care for Jazz, he went to turn it off, but Bartók asked him to let it continue. This became the inspiration behind his writing Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano the following year. Having composed his 5th String Quartet in 1934 for America, he wrote the “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” (1937) and the Divertimento for Strings (1939) for Paul Sacher in Basel, Switzerland. While there, he was commissioned by the Basel branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music for a work for piano and percussion which became the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, completed in 1937.

But Bartók had been concerned about the rise of Fascism since 1931, even before Hitler became Germany's Chancellor. He defended Toscanini who was being attacked by the Italian Fascists and after performing his 2nd Piano Concerto in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1933, Bartók vowed never to perform in Germany again and in 1937 forbade broadcasts of his music in Germany and Italy. He changed publishers that same year, switching from the Viennese-based Universal Edition to the British firm, Boosey & Hawkes.

Between 1938 and '39, he moved his collection of manuscripts and research material from Budapest to London “so at least my manuscripts could be somewhere safe.” But his mother, old and in frail health, kept him tied to Budapest. Only after her death in December, 1939 – Germany had by then invaded Poland and the War had begun – he went on a concert tour to the USA in the spring of 1940 and, after returning for a farewell performance in Budapest with his wife, the family fled Hungary to Lisbon and then to New York City in the fall of 1940. His last major work to be composed in Europe was the 6th String Quartet, begun on one last Swiss holiday in August, 1939 (the invasion of Poland was only days away) and finished it back in Budapest in November. His mother died the following month.

Bela & Ditta Bartók, April 1941
But of course those who deny the world around them has no influence on a composer's creations have no explanation why Bartók's 6th Quartet consists of four movements deeply infused by a sense of impending tragedy. Each movement begins Mesto (sad) and the last movement is dominated by this material.

In 1940, his new publisher suggested Bartók arrange the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion as a Concerto for Two Pianos. This was given its premiere in London with other pianists in 1942 but Bartók and his wife gave the American premiere with Fritz Reiner and the New York Philharmonic in January, 1943. It was to be his last public performance: two-and-a-half years later, Bartók died of leukemia.

– Dick Strawser

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet

There are basically four great piano quintets in the repertoire. Three of these, to list them chronologically, are Robert Schumann's Quintet, followed by the one by his protege, Johannes Brahms which itself is then followed by the second one by his protege, Antonin Dvořák. Each one of these is regarded as a major work of 19th Century Romanticism.

And there's the one by Dmitri Shostakovich, considered one of the great chamber works of the 20th Century.

(You can view a performance of the Dvořák with Stuart Malina, here, included earlier in this series: scroll down to the third work on the program).

Former Director of Market Square Concerts Ellen Hughes, in her role as Patriot-News columnist, interviewed both Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina for “Art & Soul” about the Shostakovich Quintet prior to the original 2013 concert:

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Sirotin calls this quintet an intensely dramatic, symphonic work. "Shostakovich always thought in terms of the orchestra, so this is ideal for Stuart, as both a conductor and pianist," Sirotin said. "The quintet is triumphant and cheerful on the surface, with sardonic and tragic elements underneath."

Sirotin grew up in the Ukraine. He told me that he identifies with Shostakovich's dilemma as an artist living in a repressive society, as evidenced by this astounding work, especially the composer's use of farce to disguise a sense of menace.

Malina calls it an amazing piece. He's played the piano part four times in concert, each time with a different ensemble. "It doesn't let up," he said. "Though it seems simple at the start," he said, "it becomes crazy and difficult, with the right and left hands playing in a canon with each other." Every time he agrees to do it, he said, he rediscovers just how daunting it is.

But the end result is "really a pleasure," he said. "I feel fortunate and excited to play such an incredible piece with an impeccably prepared string quartet," he added, despite or perhaps because of those challenges.
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This performance, featuring pianist Stuart Malina joining the Jasper Quartet, was recorded at the opening concert of the 2013-2014 Market Square Concerts season in Market Square Church. The video was recorded by Newman Stare.

Shostakovich in 1941
It's a work in five movements – at many of the initial performances, the third and fifth movements were encored, giving rise to the quip “the quintet is a work in five movements of which there are seven.” It opens with a grand flourish in the piano which is eventually answered by the strings' entrance. If the opening proceeds like a Bach prelude, keep in mind the first two movements are, in fact, labeled “Prelude & Fugue.” In that sense, I often think of this as a single opening movement which happens to be in two parts: one does not make sense without the other.

The next movement is called a Scherzo (pronounced skair'-tzoh) which is Italian for “joke.” Beethoven had begun using the term to replace the more stately minuet of his teacher's generation with something a little more down-to-earth. In either case, these third movements were intended to be light-hearted. But frequently they became more dramatic, even demonic (Brahms' C Minor Piano Quartet's scherzo is hardly light) and with Shostakovich, very often his scherzos can be cynical and violent.

By contrast, the Intermezzo is understated, a return to the seriousness (if not the somberness) of the fugue.

Ask most Americans about Russian music and they will find its common denominator being untold sadness. Back in the late-70s, I asked a Soviet ethno-sociologist who was visiting the University of Connecticut where I was then teaching a course in Russian Music, “why does Russian music sound so sad?” She replied as if she'd never thought about it before: “I don't know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

After all this – and keeping in mind the expectations of a finale following the triumphal march we usually associate with the 5th Symphony or the “flippant hilarity” of the 6th's conclusion, both of which he'd recently completed – this finale is at times light-hearted but not vulgar, often more wistful than sad and the ending is almost like a movie's final scene where the characters walk slowly into the sunset as the light fades. I am always reminded, when I hear this ending, that Shostakovich as a boy played piano in a silent movie theater and one of his favorite characters was Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

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After the intense symphonies Shostakovich would later compose (particularly the emotionally charged 7th, known as the Leningrad, which Malina will conduct with the Harrisburg Symphony in May, 2021) and the complexities of his personality, not to mention the complexity of his personal situation as an artistic spokesman to the world for official Soviet art, and especially after the still controversial posthumous memoir published as Testimony by Semyon Volkov (largely discredited but frequently discussed and difficult to dismiss), it is always tempting to go back to his music to look for “hidden programs.”
Dmitri Shostakovich

What a composer “thinks” while he is composing can only be proven if, somewhere, he writes or has said “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this music.”

Beethoven might tell us, in order to understand the mysterious opening of the D Minor Piano Sonata, “read Shakespeare's Tempest” (which is why it's called the Tempest Sonata), but he also was watching a rider go galloping past on a horse and then turned to improvise the last movement of the same sonata (we know this because one of his students was there to witness this: the sonata could also be called “The Rider Sonata”).

But because Beethoven never said anything about moonlit nights pertaining to his C-sharp Minor Sonata, we cannot say “Beethoven was thinking of moonlight when he wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata” – the kind of “sounds-like” thinking we often use to explain the inexplicable that could also lead to the last movement giving it the nickname “The Thunderstorm Sonata.”

So we don't know what Shostakovich “meant” by this finale. One writer hears a “kindly babushka” (the quintessential Russian grandmother) consoling us that everything will be alright in the opening theme. The second theme, we are told, with its little fanfares and sprightly melody, is actually an inversion of a traditional fanfare used to introduce the clown acts into the Russian circus (and please let's not call it the Send in the Clowns Quintet...).

It would not be a big leap from here to a discussion on Shostakovich and the traditional Russian view of the “Village Idiot,” the urodivi or simpleton which is better translated as the “Holy Fool.” The most famous example of this to a Western audience is the character in Mussorgsky's historic opera, Boris Godunov where (if you end with the Revolution Scene and not Boris' death) it is the Holy Fool who is left lamenting the fate of the Russian People.

Boris Godunov & the Holy Fool
Earlier in the opera, in a scene frequently cut from Western productions for some reason, there is a confrontation between the Simpleton and the all-powerful Tsar (who reportedly had had the rightful heir to the throne murdered so he could ascend the throne). After the street-children had stolen his last penny, the Simpleton asks Boris to punish the children, to kill them – like he did the Tsaryevich (the rightful heir). But Boris stops his soldiers from arresting the fool – instead, he asks the fool to pray for him. Russians believed that such people were closer to God and could intercede for them and therefore were given more leeway than ordinary people might be granted.

Oh, I should mention that, in 1939, between completing the 6th Symphony and beginning work on his Piano Quintet, Shostakovich did his own re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

But while that's a possible influence and a coincidence of timing, still, it makes it pure conjecture to tie it into the Quintet's finale (and yet...).

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The G Minor Piano Quintet began life as almost his 2nd String Quartet. But friends of his in the Beethoven String Quartet had asked him to compose something with piano that he could play with them, and so the quintet began to take shape. He began working on it during the summer of 1940 and completed it on September 14th. He and the Beethoven Quartet gave it its first performance on November 23rd at the Moscow Conservatory. It was received with universal acclaim and the scherzo and finale both had to be encored.

In fact, it was so well received, it won the Stalin Prize in 1941, something rather unusual for a chamber work without an overtly political programme, given the timing, but also ironic, perhaps, since Shostakovich had been in such political hot water for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which resulted in the (in)famous attack in the press – the article “Muddle Instead of Music” – brought on by Stalin's dislike of the opera and its “degenerate Western influences” (Stalin and his wife went to the opera and stormed out, highly offended, despite the fact it had already proven to be a box-office success). He was able to save himself – quite literally – by composing his famous 5th Symphony which someone (not the composer) called “A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism.”

To place things in a chronological perspective, that article appeared on January 28th, 1936; in the spring of 1937, he was nearly arrested (he would have been one of over seven million people who'd be arrested in Stalin's purges between 1936 and 1939) and was saved only because the person who was preparing his arrest was himself arrested first!

Interrogated on a Friday, the composer was told to come back Monday. But imagine your relief if, after a weekend's sleepless anxiety, you'd packed a “to-go” bag of personal necessities and gone into the police station to resume the interrogation, expecting it would end in your being sent off to prison, only to find the officer in charge of your “case” no longer there and told instead, basically, to “take your little bag and go.”

This was around the time he'd already been sketching what would become his 5th Symphony. He finished sketching it on September 11th, 1937 and completed the “short score” a week later and the full score in October. The premiere on November 21st was a huge success that no doubt saved his career (and quite possibly his life).

In 1938, he wrote his first string quartet, starting what would become a new interest in chamber music through the rest of his career. If for no other reason, it usually failed to attract the attention of the government bureaucrats who were more concerned about the large-scale “public statements” the composer made in his more public works like symphonies and operas. He would save many of his most personal statements for his chamber music, especially his later string quartets – like the 8th which incorporates his famous musical signature, his initials D SCH in the pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural in German notation.

His Sixth Symphony, then, composed shortly after the string quartet, was a more “public” work and was being anticipated as “more of the same,” an offering to the concept of Soviet-Socialist Realism. Unfortunately, the work met with almost universal confusion and has always been a difficult symphony to make sense of, in three movements with a long, slowly unfolding first movement (instead of the traditional allegro) and then a seemingly unrelated scherzo and galloping finale, almost vulgar compared to the expected heroic finish.

This was premiered in November, 1939.

The following summer, then, he composed another chamber work – which, as I mentioned, was originally going to be a second string quartet before being turned into the Piano Quintet.

As Shostakovich told the story to his life-long friend, the literary critic Isaak Davidovich Glickman:

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“Do you know why I added a piano part to this quartet? So that I could have the chance to perform [it] myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now the 'Glazunovs' and the 'Beethovens' [the two quartets whom he'd scheduled performances of the quintet with] won't be able to do without me – and I'll get a chance to see the world.”

We both burst out laughing.

“Are you joking?” I asked.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] answered, “Not in the slightest! You are an inveterate stay-at-home, while at heart I'm an inveterate traveller!” But from the expression on his face it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. We had this conversation in the summer of the year preceding the war [1941].

[Glickman, Letters to a Friend, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.165]
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Though Shostakovich performed the quintet often during his career as a composer-pianist, the quintet never became the “vehicle” that allowed him to tour the world. There were trips abroad – one notable one to Paris where he recorded the two piano concertos but where the illness that would make it impossible for him to continue playing was already affecting his hands.

The next-to-last time he performed in public was in February 1964. He was scheduled to play the quintet with the Borodin Quartet in the city of Gorki, but played only the Intermezzo because of the unreliability of his hands. Though he announced it was to be his last public appearance, he agreed to accompany Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano who was married to his friend and protege, Mstislav Rostropovich, and a baritone in a program in May 1966, but he was so nervous about the concert and whether his hands would cooperate or not. His friend Isaak Glickman who was in the audience saw the composer was in physical agony, presumably brought on by his nerves.

The next night, Shostakovich suffered a serious heart attack and spent the following two months in the hospital. (It was while he was in the hospital this time that he chose the texts for his 14th Symphony which is a combination symphony/song-cycle for soprano and baritone with strings: all of the texts deal with death...)

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When Shostakovich performed the piece for the first time with the Glazunov String Quartet (in 1941), the cellist recalled how

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“We, the string players, wanted to 'sing,' to play with more emotion. Shostakovich accentuated the constructive, motor elements and achieved his effect through clarity and the flow of the music. The emotional restraint of his playing led to a certain contradiction with the nature of strings. He demanded the minimum use of vibrato. The fast tempi excluded in themselves any possibility of emotional exaggeration and an open cantilena.”
[quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered”, p. 165.]
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Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist of another quartet – this one, not yet called the Borodin String Quartet – recalls their first association with the composer in 1944 when they were still conservatory students. He was coming to hear them play his first quartet and “he had arrived a few seconds after nine [o'clock]. To my amazement, he started apologizing for being late.”

They didn't perform the quintet with him until 1947, but Berlinsky recalls some details from their rehearsals:

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“...which took place at his home. In the Prelude, he asked us not to make a ritenuto [a drawing out of the tempo] despite its being written in the score. 'But ritenuto is written here,' we exclaimed. He came up to us very nervously, took out a pen and crossed out the marking in every part.

“Rudolf Barshai was the violist in the quartet at the time. In the Finale there is an imitation between the cello and viola. It's in the score now but it wasn't then. The cello and viola were supposed to play together but Barshai made a mistake and came in after I did. Shostakovich stopped playing and said, 'Please, mark it the way you played it just now.'”
[ quoted in Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Barshai told Ms. Wilson separately his side of this story:

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“Barshai was also studying composition [she writes in a footnote] and on occasion would show Shostakovich his scores. Once, just before the rehearsal mentioned [by Berlinsky], he visited Shostakovich and during their meeting they talked about the Piano Quintet. Barshai suggested a small correction in the finale. 'Play it like that tomorrow in the rehearsal and we'll see,' the composer suggested. At the rehearsal Barshai played the suggested correction in the relevant bars without warning his colleagues. Shostakovich then stopped the rehearsal and told him, 'Leave it like that, please.' Berlinsky in turn was skeptical... telling me that it was unheard of that Shostakovich should accept advice from anyone.”
[ – Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.279]
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Berlinsky continues, saying how, in all, the Borodin Quartet played the quintet eight times with the composer, the last time being that sad occasion where he could only play the Intermezzo.

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“Shostakovich was a very anxious performer. Because of that all our tempi tended to be too fast. The amazing thing is that he appeared to be ashamed of his own music. He used to say, ' Let's play it fast, otherwise the audience will get bored.' He particularly rushed the slow movements. For instance, in the 3rd Quartet, he hurried us on in the great funeral march of the fourth movement. 'No, no,' he would say, 'while you're stretching out that first C-sharp, the audience will fall asleep.' In general, his marking of the tempo often contradicted what he really wanted.

“We would say, 'But, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, your metronome mark is such-and-such.'

“He replied, 'Well, you see, my metronome at home is out of order, so pay no attention to what I wrote.'

“Sometimes he wrote in the metronome markings after the first performance by the Beethoven Quartet [who usually premiered his new quartets]. It's leader, Dmitri Tsyganov, was by nature a fast player, and this influenced Shostakovich's tempo markings. We never played the same tempi that the Beethoven Quartet took.

“Many years later, we recorded the first eleven quartets [there would eventually be fifteen, in all] in Japan and we presented Shostakovich with the records. Shortly afterwards, he wrote us a very detailed letter which didn't contain a single reference to the tempi. Most of the complaints were in regard to the dynamics... and to some wrong notes. These mostly turned out to be misprints in the score.”
[ – Wilson, “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered,” p.280]
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A violinist who later joined the Leningrad Philharmonic, Yakov Milkis recalled seeing Shostakovich for the first time in the late-1940s when he was in his prime as a performer.

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“I often heard him perform his own works and I particularly remember his concerts with the Beethoven Quartet. He was a wonderful pianist and when performing, he was completely absorbed in his own world. His playing conveyed an ideal sense of form and structure but more than that it was an expression of his innermost world, one that cost him sweat, blood and tears. He played with a special touch and colour, and often quite intentionally treated the piano as a percussion instrument. It is rare that a composer uses the upper register of the piano like a xylophone, making a sharp, percussive sound. This is how he played the Scherzo from the Piano Quintet, for instance. I still have the particular sound of his sarcastic dry staccato in my ears today. It completely suited the style of the music.

“He always sat alone [in orchestra rehearsals] preferring some inconspicuous spot in the stalls. He... seemed to retire into himself, melting into his surroundings, so as to be left undisturbed while listening and working. This incredible modesty was apparent also when he was in a gathering of people. Here too he appeared to fade into the background, doing his best not to attract attention to himself.
[ – Wilson, “Shostakovich: a Life Remembered,” p.355]
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1948 had been another terrible year for Shostakovich. Unlike the attack in 1936, Zhdanov's decree was intent on rooting out Western influences in Soviet music in which Shostakovich, Prokofiev and several other leading composers were condemned first by the Stalinist bureaucrats and then by their colleagues. This affected Shostakovich differently, this time.

Rather than writing another “Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism,” he ceased composing at all. Or, that is, publishing anything. Life was difficult, his income dried up – no one would perform his music so he had no income and who would risk commissioning new works from him with Stalin's displeasure so close to the surface? – and so he turned inward, writing solely for himself, often leaving things unseen by others in desk drawers, like his Violin Concerto and, perhaps, much of his 10th Symphony which either didn't see the light of day or wasn't begun until after Stalin's death in 1953 (the same day as Prokofiev's, as it turned out).

But he did compose a series of piano pieces inspired by Tatiana Nikolayeva's performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Imagine what it must have meant for a composer, accused of being too influenced by Western Music and Germanic forms like the symphony, to sit down and write Bach-inspired fugues: there can hardly be a more Germanic formalist approach to writing music than a fugue! How completely un-Soviet!

And yet his Piano Quintet, composed in 1940 before the Nazi invasion drew the Soviet Union into the 2nd World War, opens with a Prelude and Fugue, as Bach-like, Germanic and formalist as anything he was accused of writing in 1948!

And yet in 1941, this Quintet won the Stalin Prize, the Soviet Union's highest award in the arts!

If it had been such a patriotic issue to attack a composer for his “formalist Western” style in 1948, why was the same “formalist Western” style worthy of receiving the government's highest award seven years earlier?

Vagaries of politics aside, given all that, now listen to Dmitri Shostakovich playing his Piano Quintet which he himself premiered in 1940 with the Beethoven Quartet for whom it was composed, but recorded here in 1949, the year he turned 43:

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– Dick Strawser

Monday, March 30, 2020

An Announcement about MSC's April 26th Concert

Due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, we unfortunately have to cancel MSC’s final concert of the season on April 26th, because this program involves several artists traveling from Texas and NYC. We are planning to reschedule this program for our 40th anniversary season 2021-22.

In order to continue serving our audience and Central PA community, we are planning to continue the recently launched “A Weekly Dose of Great Music” program for a foreseeable future. Our weekly emails will offer curated concert programs on video and audio with a blog by Dr. Dick Strawser. These emails will be also shared on Facebook, Instagram and website:

We deeply appreciate your support and understanding. You may request a refund of your ticket(s) to the April 26 performance by emailing, or choose to donate the cost of your ticket(s) to support Market Square Concerts.

We wish all of you to stay safe and healthy during this challenging time. We are looking forward to sharing with you our exciting plans for the Summermusic 2020 and the next concert season soon!

Sincerely yours,
Peter Sirotin & Ya-Ting Chang
Market Square Concerts Co-Directors

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A "Virtual Concert" You Can Enjoy In the Safety of Your Home: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Our March concert may have been postponed by the concern over spreading the Coronavirus COVID-19, but we thought you might like a "virtual concert" of sorts. Peter Sirotin, Market Square Concerts' Artistic Director, is sending out a mass-email with links to videos of previous MSC performances recorded at Market Square Church by their "resident sound guy," Newman Stare.

We begin with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin's performance of one of Mozart's later quartets, the String Quartet in D Major, K.499, sometimes called the "Hoffmeister" Quartet; then follow that with one of the pieces included on the program with the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio – Francis Poulenc's Trio in its original configuration for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (or was it?). Poulenc and Mozart fit into the same "classical" approach to clean lines and clear structures, so we felt, especially given the news these days, these works might be more soothing that something in a more dramatic style.

And then we'll end with one of those wonderfully delightful works that's no doubt the equivalent of musical comfort food, the Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Antonín Dvořák. Our performance, if you weren't able to attend our Summermusic 2015 season, features the Harrisburg Symphony's Music Director Stuart Malina as pianist with members of the resident Summermusic ensemble.

Enjoyable, certainly. "Escapist," maybe, but great music all the same. I hope you'll find some time to sit back and enjoy the experience. The important thing right now is to stay safe, and stay well – and look after each other. When this is all over, we'll meet again at a Live Concert, with any luck sooner than later.

Since I was scheduled to offer the pre-concert talk for the Trio, here's my "virtual talk" for those of you interested in background information about the "biography" behind the music, what was going on in the composers' lives at the time they wrote it, and... well, lots of other stuff. (For instance, did you know Poulenc was a Dog Person? Check out the accompanying photos to see pictures of the composer with his beloved terrier, Mickey! Imagine what we might know about Mozart or Dvořák if they could've taken such candid shots, much less selfies, back in their days.)

Looking Ahead to a Bright Future: Mozart Writes a String Quartet 

[photo by Daniel Hanack]
The 2012 Season began with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (left), as it’s officially known, because it was founded by four principal players from the legendary Berlin Philharmonic’s string section where they are all currently members. They’ve won high praise around the world for their performances but something about violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s comment speaks a great deal: “I’d like to hear music always played as beautifully as you play.”

Between regular appearances at Carnegie Hall or London’s Wigmore Hall, they’ve also been invited to play private concerts for the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and the Spanish Royal Family. Two days after they play here in Harrisburg, they’ll be performing the same program in Carnegie Hall, so… yeah!

Their program opened with Mozart's String Quartet in D Major, K.499 which is in the standard four-movement scheme except the minuet (a rather bumptious affair, not quite so elegant as the typical listener would expect) in second rather than third place.

According to his work catalog, he completed it on August 19, 1786, the year after he had completed a set of six string quartets ‘dedicated to Haydn.’ His next (and last) set of string quartets would be the three written for the King of Prussia between 1789 and 1790.

The “Haydn” Quartets (some of the finest in the entire quartet repertoire) were composed as a specific project, Mozart studying the latest quartets by his older friend and the recognized “father of the string quartet (as well as the symphony)” and hoping to emulate them in the combination of various stylistic and compositional elements and better realizing the potential of four string instruments playing together.

The “Prussian” Quartets were the result of a trip to Berlin after which Mozart hoped writing the king a set of six quartets would prompt King Friedrich Wilhelm II to offer him a job in the royal court. But something must have happened along the way because by 1790, Mozart had completed only three quartets and abandoned that particular project. These works weren’t published until a few weeks after his death in 1791.

This particular quartet is kind of an “odd man out.” Usually, in those days, composers wrote sets of works, not single works – the six “Haydn” Quartets or the various sets by Haydn (usually six at a time, sometimes three), even the six quartets of Beethoven’s Op.18 or the three of his Op.59 – because part of the experience was to explore the different possibilities of the ensemble. There might be a “concertante” quartet which would feature the 1st violin (making it a mini-concerto, in a way, or a sonata accompanied by three other stringed instruments), a “dramatic” quartet (often the only one in a minor key), a more lyric one and a more complex (often described as “symphonic”) one where the instruments might be on a more even balance, perhaps a “pastoral” one to balance the dramatic one.

But the D Major Quartet, K.499, stands alone. Why?

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Hoffmeister” Quartet which sounds confusing (as if 'the Mozart Haydn Quartets' isn’t confusing enough: which composer wrote it?). Franz Anton Hoffmeister, if he’s remembered at all today, was a composer as well but in his day was more famous as a music publisher. In fact, the Leipzig branch of his firm was bought out by C.F. Peters in 1806 which is still one of the leading publishers in the world today.

Mozart, 1788
Mozart was to compose three piano quartets (something new in the music world) for Hoffmeister who’d just founded his publishing company in 1784. In those days, new compositions were often sold “by subscription” before their release date in order to help defray expenses and, unfortunately, there was so little interest in Mozart’s new works, the plan was scrapped by mutual agreement. Only the first two were composed – and yet what works!! Mozart completed the G Minor Piano Quartet (K.478) in October, 1785, and the E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) in June, 1786. Eventually, the older firm Arataria published these two works in 1787 and even though they failed to attract much attention in Vienna, amateurs throughout Germany snatched them up and played them with considerable enthusiasm (“Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such-and-such a princess or countess possesses and plays it!,” the 18th Century answer to word-of-mouth advertising).

It’s suggested that Mozart wrote this string quartet for Hoffmeister by way of apology, giving him something that might fare better and make up for the lost effort with the piano quartets.

Libretto from Prague, 1786
1786 had started off a busy year for Mozart. Most of the first half had been taken up with composing and producing the opera, The Marriage of Figaro (which, incidentally, did also not go over well in Vienna in May, 1786, but became a hit in Prague that December). Before finishing Figaro, Mozart wrote two great piano concertos – the A Major (K.488) and the dramatic C Minor (K.491) – both in March. Figaro, officially K.492 in Köchel’s catalogue, was completed in April and premiered in May. The E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) was finished in June.

Then, in early August, Mozart wrote his delightful Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (K.498) known as the “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he and friends played after a dinner party.

On the 19th of August, Mozart added the freshly finished D Major String Quartet (K.499) to his own catalogue.

Curiously, he completed no other new works until November. In October, his son Johann Thomas Leopold, was born and died of suffocation less than a month later.

What else was going on in Mozart’s life at the time?

After moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart had become estranged from his father, Leopold, and his recently married sister Maria Anna (ever known by her childhood nickname, “Nannerl”). This became even worse after Wolfgang married Constanze Weber whom Leopold highly disapproved of and then the birth, in 1785, of Nannerl’s son, named in her father’s honor, Leopold (it had been a bone of contention that Wolfgang had not named his first son after him). As Leopold (Sr.) had created the prodigies of Wolfgang and Nannerl, he set about doing the same with Little Leopold only to be disappointed to discover the boy had no talent, much less genius.

Not long after arriving in Vienna, Mozart still thought of moving elsewhere to find a better paying, more stable employment situation but it wasn’t until an English musician arrived in Vienna to study with him that Mozart began thinking about London – even to go there on an extended tour. Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born impresario in London, would not arrive until later – he was responsible for enticing Haydn to London: Mozart, alas, was tied up with commitments and a sick wife, then, but he was younger and they would try this again sometime.

Possible arrangements were made through connections with his student, Thomas Attwood, and the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), that Mozart would go to London for the season in 1787 and write three operas (for any other musicians, he could write whatever music he wanted, just not operas). But Constanze was sick and Mozart would not travel without her. Later, when he asked his father Leopold if he would look after their two children while they traveled to London, Leopold was outraged, telling Nannerl in a letter that he didn’t wanted to “get stuck” with two children if something happened to them or they decided not to come back: he was already raising (and attempting to train) her son, Little Leopold! So the plans were dropped. Later – there was always later.

But later never came for Mozart. He died at 35 in 1791, four years later.

Imagine – again, the “what if” fantasies – if Mozart had gone to London and written three more operas and who knows how many symphonies and concertos and quartets and sonatas for the London audiences, the way Haydn would write his last twelve symphonies plus several other quartets and sonatas while he was there!

And it was a big disappointment for Mozart who had started learning English well enough to try reading English novels and plays – including Shakespeare – looking for potential opera subjects.

Keep in mind, Haydn earned 24,000 florins in his two trips to London, the first in 1791, the second in 1794. Mozart had earned about 3,000 florins in all of 1786. Another “what-if” – what if Mozart didn’t have to write all those letters begging for money from his friends in the last years of his life?

Anyway, in the midst of all this, Mozart composed this lone string quartet when he was 30 years old, building on the skills he’d learned from writing the six “Haydn” Quartets and feeling the joy and enthusiasm at a very fruitful time in his life – the concertos, the opera, even that dinner party at the Jacquin household with its effervescent “Kegelstatt” Trio, surrounded by friends and, despite Vienna’s apparent loss of interest in the one-time prodigy who’d played for kings and empresses when he was child, a fair bit of hope for the future.

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If at First You Don't Succeed: Poulenc and his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano

The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio's program for our original concert this weekend – the first weekend of Spring! – included the Trio by Francis Poulenc: not the original version for oboe, bassoon, and piano but an arrangement for clarinet, cello, and piano. This performance was recorded during the Summermusic 2012 at Market Square Church, featuring oboist Gerard Reuter, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang.

It's in the usual “fast-slow-fast” combination of three movements, but it begins with these very serious sounding chords in the piano, almost a little off-putting with their dissonances. Imagine this in the mid-1920s as Late-Romanticism's lushness gives way to a harder edged Neo-Classicism, the “New Classical Style” with what many of its contemporaries called “Wrong-Note Harmony.” It has the same clean lines of Mozart and Haydn's 18th Century, but with something... well... a little different. It's almost as if Poulenc were giving his "serious" listeners, as they say, the bird (see photo, below)...

After this introduction, it's almost like “aaaaand they're off!” A rollicking presto seems anything but serious, something that must have struck its critics like a mash-up of “Mozart Meets Offenbach.” The slow movement, lyrical and flowing, shows off Poulenc's melodic gift – he would later become one of the great song composers of his day – before the gigue-like finale frolics along to its delightful end.

Poulenc at 18 (with Bird)
Francis Poulenc was a French composer, through and through – more specifically, a Parisian composer, born there in January of 1899 and dying there in 1963. But not just born in Paris: in the 8th arrondissment centered around the Champs-Élysées with the famous Arc de Triomphe at one end, a district known for its theatres, cafés, and luxury shops, if not the “Main Street” of Paris, certainly one of its most famous streets in the world (even if you only think of George Gershwin listening to taxi horns while sitting in a sidewalk café). No doubt Poulenc's growing up in the heart of this joie de vivre had some influence on his light-hearted musical style.

And because of this, Poulenc is often not “taken seriously” by serious-minded music-lovers. When showed his Rapsodie negre, Poulenc's first “serious” composition (considering the very first piece on his list of works was a "Procession for the Cremation of a Mandarin" from 1914), a professor at the Conservatoire thought the 17-year-old composer was trying to make a fool of him. It hardly got any better as he explored the various possibilities open to a young composer in the Paris of World War I at a time when Debussy was dying and Ravel was at his peak.

Poulenc's family was wealthy – manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, in fact (interesting connection considering our present situation...) – and his mother was “an excellent pianist” who started giving him lessons when he was 5. Her brother, known to us as “Oncle Papoum,” introduced him to Paris' lively theatrical life. He could recite Mallarmé from memory at 10 and at 14 was among those amazed at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. At 16, he began studying piano with the great Ricardo Viñes, a friend of Debussy's and Ravel's, and soon met some other composers named Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric (they soon added two more friends including Germaine Tailleferre, to form a group known as Les Six – as if their musical style wasn't daring enough: a group of composers that included a woman!) not to forget Erik Satie, a major influence, who was the front-rank avant-garde composer du jour.

He tried studying with Ravel but that apparently didn't work out: Fauré, then the director of the Conservatoire, had an assistant, Charles Koechlin (much over-looked by American audiences today), who proved more sympathetic. Poulenc studied with him off-and-on between 1921 and 1924. “By mutual consent,” according to Grove's Dictionary, “Poulenc's involvement with counterpoint went no further than Bach chorales,” meaning he never bothered with fugue-writing, one of the cornerstones of the development of ones contrapuntal skills. His ballet Les biches was a huge success with Diaghilev's company in 1924. (The untranslatable title can be loosely translated as “The doe-eyed young ladies” though there was also the underworld slang of “someone, male or female, with 'deviant sexual proclivities'.”) In the meantime, he started several pieces of chamber music – easier for a young beginning composer to get performed than writing orchestral and operatic works.

Two years later, while staying in Cannes on the coast of Provençe, he wrote the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, a rather unusual combination, and dedicated it to his friend, Manuel de Falla. At that same time, he met Wanda Landowska who was re-introducing the harpsichord to modern audiences and she commissioned a concerto from him.

But between 1918 and 1926 there had been seven pieces of chamber music: a sonata for clarinet and bassoon (heavily influenced by Stravinsky's 1918 L'Histoire du soldat) and another for horn, trumpet, and trombone, both from 1922, survived (not counting the piano “arrangements” he made of both works). But his catalog of works also lists two violin sonatas, a string quartet, and a quintet for clarinet and strings which did not (the string quartet was rumored to have been consigned to the famous Paris Sewers). Notice the survivors were works for wind instruments; the ones destroyed or lost were primarily for strings.

Poulenc never was comfortable writing for strings: he considered his one surviving Violin Sonata (his fourth attempt and the only one published, 1943) a failure, and he thought much of the Cello Sonata (written over a span of eight years in the '40s) would've sounded better on the bassoon. While a string trio and another string quartet would be trashed, one of his happier experiences with chamber music was the Sextet for Piano and... Wind Quintet!

While it's conceivable this Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano could've been written initially with clarinet and cello, the infectious joy and the heart-on-sleeve romance in the slow movement may have struck him later as better suited for the combination he ended up choosing. (Perhaps I should reconsider using the word “infectious”...)

Poulenc (in his 30s) with his beloved Mickey
Self-taught because his parents intended him for a career in the family company, after coming under the influence of that great Parisian iconoclast Erik Satie, he was convinced music was his life. He described himself as a “Vulgarian” who wrote in his trademark light-hearted style to his final years in the early-1960s, long after such a style had gone out of fashion. However, in the summer of 1936, after an unexpected religious awakening following the death of a close friend and fellow composer in a violent car accident and his visit to a famous religious shrine shortly afterward, he began composing with a new-found and often religious seriousness, writing dramatic choral works during the Nazi occupation setting words of Resistance poets, which culminated in his intensely dramatic opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites of 1957. Still, there are passages in some of his religious works that remind me of those photographs you might find of nuns playing soccer.

Poulenc loved to absorb almost anything that caught his imagination. He might evoke the past or the new-fangled sound of jazz. His love of Mozart is evident through many of his works, even this trio: he opens the slow movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos, written in 1932, with a definite bow to Mozart but it quickly moves off into a style that is decidedly his own. There are, as well, tinges of jazz by way of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, premiered only a few months earlier, not to mention the appearance of the Balinese gamelan which he'd first heard the year before.

Poulenc (late-40s) with Mickey
Even though his contemporaries might disparage his style, he himself was more open-minded than we might think. In 1921, he traveled to Vienna where he met Arnold Schoenberg and “talked shop” with him and his pupils (Schoenberg at the time was developing what soon became his “Method of Composing with 12-Tones”). A fan of Pierre Boulez, playing recordings of his Marteau sans maître for some friends, Poulenc wrote in 1961 how he was sorry to have to miss a performance of Boulez' recent Pli selon pli “because I am sure it is well worth hearing” (Boulez did not return the sentiment).

In 1942 he wrote to a friend, “I know perfectly well I am not one of those composers who made harmonic innovations like Igor [Stravinsky], Debussy or Ravel but I think there is room for new music which doesn't mind using other people's chords. Wasn't that the case with Mozart-Schubert?”

But all that would come later. For now, enjoy a composer in his 20s finding the right note!

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On the Long Road to Finding Success and Acceptance: Dvořák Finds His Voice

The last work on our “virtual concert” is the ever-popular and frequently heard Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.81, of Antonín Dvořák in a performance recorded at Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2015 with Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello; and Stuart Malina, piano.

Dvořák in 1885
Composed over a period of about seven weeks between mid-August and early-October, 1887, the quintet's also in four movements. The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto (“not too lively”), opens with a pair of lyrical themes (first, in the cello; the second, about 2½ minutes into the movement, in the viola) with a variety of expanded and contrasted, often more dramatic material before the ultimately exuberant ending. The second movement is the slow movement, based on the dumka, a Slavic dance contrasting lyrical or dramatic moods and fast or slow tempos (most famously used in his so-called “Dumky” Trio but also a main feature of many of his works, even if it's not specifically labeled).

The third movement is the lively “scherzo” movement, in this case a Furiant, a Czech dance that uses strong accents alternating between groups of 3s and 2s (think 1,2,3 – 4,5,6 and 1,2 – 3,4 – 5,6 where each number is given the same beat-duration). This is a rhythmic (or metric) pattern familiar to lovers of Brahms for instance – technically, it's just called hemiola – and you can hear it in the famous “America” song in Bernstein's West Side Story, but here it has the particular feel of a strongly rhythmic folk dance.

(It's important to realize that while these dance rhythms and forms may originate in the folk music of a given culture, in many cases, rather than quoting already established tunes, composers took the characteristics of this music and wrote their own "original" folk-like themes or motives. Brahms and Liszt, inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, did both; Bartok, researching the ethnic folk music of Eastern Europe, created what he once called "imaginary folk-music." In this case, Dvořák is writing his own themes but they sound so natural, those of us unfamiliar with this culture just assume they're folk songs. On the other hand, I remember how surprised I was as a student to discover some of my favorite tunes from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka or various pieces by Tchaikovsky actually are folk songs!)

The finale is light-hearted and high-spirited, though not without that contrapuntal process, the fugue which so many composers used to show off their skills to prove they were – see? – a serious composer! Some composers can do this seamlessly while others – Tchaikovsky strikes me as one, here – just crack me up because, no, they can't do it and end up making it sound completely unnatural. Nearing the end, there's a drop back in the forward momentum, a reflective tranquillo moment, before rushing head-long into those highly anticipated and exuberant final chords. Dvořák has done this before (one of my favorite moments like this is the extended passage he would later write at the end of the Cello Concerto) but Brahms used it often enough (the end of his own Piano Quintet's dramatic finale, as well as the Violin Concerto). In fact, it's so prevalent a form of “structural contrast” – one last way of holding back the expected – you could call it a cliché; but it rarely fails to ramp up the audience's excitement.

Technically, we should refer to this as Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op.81, to avoid confusion since not only was there an earlier piano quintet floating around from his youth, it was even in the same key. Completed in August of 1872 when he was not yet 31, the Op.5 Quintet never satisfied him – though published, he destroyed the score after its disappointing premiere – and it was an attempt to revise it fifteen years later that proved frustrating enough to reject it again and start a new one from scratch. It's interesting to compare the “distance” Dvořák traveled, musically, in these two works, only 15 years apart, but a lot had happened in between.

Unlike Beethoven who grew up in a musical family, difficulties aside, at a royal court in provincial Germany and Brahms who grew up in a major city, the seaport of Hamburg, Antonín Dvořák was born in a small village not far from a small town several miles outside the provincial capital of Prague (to the good citizens of Vienna, this would be, like, “the sticks”). And like Beethoven whose big break was going to Vienna at 21 to study with Haydn, and like Brahms who met the Schumanns when he was 20, Dvořák’s big break came when Brahms saw some of his music and recommended him to his publisher – when Dvořák was 36.

If you consider that was really the start of Dvořák’s career, consider this: by that age Mozart was already dead one year and Schubert, five…

As Grove’s Dictionary puts it, “his music is characterized by a remarkable fertility of invention coupled with an apparent, yet deceptive, ease and spontaneity of expression.” It’s interesting to trace how this musical voice evolved over the years.

His father, the local bucther, has been described as a musician even if his abilities were limited to playing the zither and writing a few simple dance tunes for the village dance-band where his son, taught by the local schoolmaster, would eventually play the violin. Of course, his father’s intention was to have his son go into the family business as he had done with his father. So, in accordance with the needs of reality, the boy dropped out of school at the age of 12 to become an apprentice butcher. It’s not clear whether he finished that apprenticeship but a year later, he went off to the nearby town of Zlonice where he could better learn German and where, intended or not, he found more opportunities for his musical interests.

This need to become more fluent in German is significant. Ethnically, Dvořák is Slavic, specifically Czech – whether we call his country Bohemia, Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic – but it was a province of the Austrian Empire and a fairly backwards one, once you were beyond the city of Prague, despite its great historical past as a significant Central European kingdom (Good King Wenceslaus was, incidentally, just one of many good (and bad) Bohemian kings). This cultural memory was very strong even in the peasants who hated the Austrian rule. The only way anyone was going to get beyond the rural life was to learn the language of the “occupying nation” – in this case, German.

Apparently acquiescing to his son’s wishes to pursue music as a living, his father sent him to another town in the north of Bohemia when he was 15 where he also began more serious studies of music, including harmony and playing the organ. A year later, he was accepted at the Prague Organ School – the city’s second-best conservatory – where he was preparing for a degree as a church musician. One of his teachers there was interested in “contemporary music” – in this case, Mendelssohn (who had died ten years earlier) and even that avant-garde composer, Franz Liszt who, by then, had already composed 12 tone poems, two piano concertos and his Faust and Dante Symphonies.

Dvořák had become a decent enough violist (do not insert your standard viola joke here) to play in the pit for performances of Wagner’s most recently completed operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. He attended concerts and heard pianists like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, though he couldn’t afford to buy scores – a senior student allowed him to borrow from his own library and also gave him access to use his piano. But he only won the 2nd Prize in the highly competitive graduation process, told he was excellent but better in practical work rather than, say, theory. It was not much of a recommendation for the real world.

So he made a living playing in theater orchestras, in pick-up bands for restaurants and dances, and took on the occasional student. When he was 21, he became the principal violist of the new “people’s equivalent” to the court orchestra. The next year, Wagner came to town and conducted the Tannhäuser Overture, excerpts from his latest operas, Die Meistersinger and Walküre plus the new Tristan Prelude.

Dvořák at age 27
This was apparently the ignition he needed to start composing seriously and, not surprisingly, this early music of his imitated everything Wagner – his first two symphonies, a cello concerto, a song cycle (inspired by his love for one of his pupils: after she married someone else, Dvořák would marry her sister) and eventually his first attempts at opera which were almost produced.

It was a time of increasing nationalist cultural awareness – most recently ignited by revolutions and political uprisings around Europe in 1848-49 (the one in Dresden got Wagner, having just finished Lohengrin, in considerable hot water) and when Bedrich Smetana became the conductor, Dvořák found a strong inspiration in his music, now, especially his reliance on the folk music of their native Bohemia.

Dvořák was always having trouble making ends meet. At the age of 32, after struggling with his first piano quintet in A Major, he was hired by a wealthy merchant to be the house musician – essentially the home-entertainment center, giving the children music lessons as well as accompanying the wife and daughters in their evening musicales. From this point on, Dvořák could rely more on teaching to earn a living which offered him more time to concentrate on composing.

By now, he was abandoning his Wagnerian influences in light of Smetana’s. Smetana conducted his 3rd Symphony not long after he’d completed his 4th. He revised an opera that had previously been rejected but this time was accepted and actually produced. His music was now being published by a small but limited Czech firm in Prague.

This gave Dvořák, now almost 33, the confidence to enter fifteen of his works, including these last two symphonies, for the Austrian State Prize, a major music competition in Vienna which was intended to help young but poor, struggling artists. The judges were the director of the Imperial Opera, the music critic Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms. Dvořák won a prize of 400 gulden (I do not know what that might be worth today or how it compared to, say, an annual income in the 1870s). More confident, he began another symphony and a new opera. He competed for the prize several more times, winning two of them – in 1876 and 1877. (These were the years Brahms had completed his 1st Symphony and then wrote his 2nd, still working on his Violin Concerto.)

In November of 1877, Hanslick wrote to Dvořák informing him he’d just won a prize of 600 gulden and that Brahms had taken an interest in his music, suggesting to his publisher, Simrock, they take on Dvořák’s vocal duets.

Two weeks later, Simrock took Brahms’ advice and commissioned their new client to write some piano duets inspired by Bohemian dances, considering Brahms’ Hungarian Dances had proven such a lucratively popular success. Published next year, his first volume of Slavonic Dances was well-reviewed and performed to great success in Berlin and London. His new String Sextet in A (op.48) was premiered in Berlin by Joachim’s quartet and the two Serenades (one for strings, the other for winds) also received successful premieres. In fact, his music was now being performed from Latvia to New York City.

This was also a time that makes Opus Numbers unreliable guides to the chronology of his works: not only was an early work given a higher number to make it seem more mature, because Dvořák was now having successes with several new works, he went through the pile of rejections and sent some of them out to new publishers. This time, they snapped them up.

However, when Hans Richter tried to program Dvořák’s new 6th Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, the anti-Bohemian sentiment among the Viennese musicians strongly opposed the idea and so the work was withdrawn.

Though people loved his dances inspired by folk music, the fact he was a Bohemian (essentially a provincial hick, in cosmopolitan Vienna’s eyes) writing symphonies was similar to the American literary elite’s reaction to, say, a red-neck attempting to produce the Great American Novel. Long gone were the days when many of Mozart’s respected colleagues were Bohemians.

Hanslick and others had urged Dvořák to leave Prague and center his career – as Brahms and Beethoven had done before him – by moving to Vienna but his national pride made him refuse their offer, “acutely aware of the way his people suffered under the Hapsburgs and of the continuing animosity and condescension of the German-speaking people toward the Czech nation.”

His 6th Symphony, despite the reluctance in Vienna, was well received in Leipzig and his choral music – large-scale works like the Stabat Mater – was all the rage in England. So, London decided to commission him to write a new symphony – his 7th, in D Minor – which he resolved would be “a work to shake the world.”

When the Vienna opera house suggested he write a German opera rather than a Czech one, he composed a large-scale opera based on the incident of the False Dmitri of Boris Godunov fame (maybe not a Czech, but at least still a Slavic one). And of course it was rejected: this time, he was told, “the people were rather tired of five-act tragedies.”

“What have we two to do with politics,” he wrote to Simrock when he was told he needed to spell his first name “Anton,” in the German style. “Let us be glad that we can dedicate our services solely to the beautiful art. And let us hope that nations who represent and possess art will never perish, even though they may be small. …[A]n artist too has a fatherland in which he must also have a firm faith and which he must love.”

Three months after his 7th Symphony was such a success in London, Dvořák began work on his Piano Quintet in A Major (Op. 81). He was now touring as a conductor of his own music – Budapest, London, Dresden. He was invited to teach at the Prague Conservatory (he waited two years before he accepted their offer). In June, 1889, Dvořák (now pushing 50) was awarded Austria’s Order of the Iron Crown and received an audience with the Emperor as a result. He had just finished a number of other works including his Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87, and the very popular Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.

His fame continued to spread far beyond the limits of Prague. In 1891, invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to become the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvořák made a kind of farewell tour with some of his latest works: the “Dumky” Piano Trio and the Carnival Overture. Once settled into life in America (where he did not speak English), he wrote his New World Symphony and the “American” Quartet, two of his most frequently performed works. When Mrs. Thurber's money ran out, he hurriedly returned to Prague, finishing his B Minor Cello Concerto (generally regarded as the cello concerto) which had been inspired by hearing a cello concerto by an Irish cellist-turned-composer/conductor named Victor Herbert, later conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and who won more enduring fame as a composer of operettas. But that all happened later.

If you really want to experience the shift in Dvořák's “voice,” if you have the time and curiosity, listen to his early Piano Quintet in A Major, Op.5 (a performance with Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet accompanied by the score), written when he was a starving composer sharing a flat and a rickety spinet piano with five other guys, then compare it with the ease of the mature quintet, written when he had now not only proved himself to the world-at-large (at least, in this case, Vienna and London), but also, presumably, proved himself to himself.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, March 15, 2020

UP-DATE: The Concert on March 21st Has Been Postponed

clarinetist David Shifrin, pianist Anna Polonsky, & cellist Paul Wiley

At this point, given the current concerns over the Coronavirus COVID-19, this coming weekend's concert with the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio has been postponed. It is too soon to say when it might be rescheduled, depending on the artists' schedule and an available venue, perhaps sometime in June. We will let you know what that information has been finalized.

I was getting ready to post this in preparation for the concert, so let me leave this here so you have a little chamber music to listen to, art that will brighten your soul in a time of uncertainty. This performance by the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio of Beethoven's early Trio in B-flat Major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op.11, was recorded last November at Yale University. 

In the meantime, please stay safe, look after yourselves and check on your friends and neighbors, particularly the elderly.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The March Concert: A Coronavirus Up-date

Market Square Concerts: Coronavirus Statement


We are looking forward to seeing you on Saturday, March 21, @8 pm, at our next concert featuring the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio. The health of our audience members, performers and volunteers is paramount to us. Market Square Presbyterian Church is using a professional cleaning service to disinfect the surfaces you may come in contact with, and the sanctuary allows ample room for our audience to disperse and avoid close contact.

If you are ill, or trying to self-quarantine, and are unable to attend this concert, you may use your ticket for any other MSC concert. You may also request a refund by emailing, or calling (717) 221-9599. Should any changes to our regularly scheduled performances be made, we will quickly announce those updates.

Best regards,

Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang
Market Square Concerts Co-Directors

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Andrei Ioniţă and the Strategies of a Solo Cellist

Who: cellist Andrei Ioniţă
What: works for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, Zoltan Kodály, Brett Dean, and Svante Henryson (not necessarily in that order)
When: Wednesday, Feb. 12th, at 8pm
Where: at Temple Ohev Sholom (directions) at 2345 N. Front Street (below Seneca & Front Streets)

Before you fear mispronouncing his name, it's quite simple when you can print those diacritical markings (otherwise known as “funny little marks”) like ö, ř, ç, and å – and know how they sound: though it's usually printed “Ionita” for lack of those marks, it's really “Ioniţă” where in Romanian the “ţă” is pronounced “tsuh.” Now, put the accent on the second syllable and it's “yuh-NEE-tsuh.” (Close enough.)

So, let's introduce you to our soloist for February's Market Square Concerts' program, Andrei Ioniţă, who won the Gold Medal in the Cello Division at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition:

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(This video begins with Brahms' E Minor Cello Sonata, recorded here in 2017, two years after the pianist, Yekwon Sunwoo, won the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn competition.)

Here's a promotional video about his debut recording, “Oblique Strategies,” where you can sample some of the Kodály sonata, the Bach suite, and Henryson's “Black Run” which are on this MSC program. The title comes from Brett Dean's “Eleven Oblique Strategies,” but I'll get to that a little later.

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And if you need another example of his playing, here's Andrei Ioniţă, after winning the Gold Medal, playing the finale of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, recorded at the Winners' Concert of the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra:

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Page 1 of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G
Like his Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bach also wrote Six Suites for Solo Cello. Though “partita” and “suite” are essentially interchangeable, a collection of dances, here, the idea of a “sonata” was a little more weighty: apparently Bach chose to stay on the lighter side of things with the cello (even though the weightiest of the violin pieces is undoubtedly the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, still originally a dance piece). There are no fugues for solo cello, not even the same kind of three-voice counterpoint you'd find in the violin works. But if you took the constant arpeggiations of the cello suites and “blocked” them into chords, you'd find essentially the same thing, just “broken up” into arpeggios played one-note-after-the-other rather than as single chords. This is a French style from around 1700 called style brisé or “broken style,” especially suited to instruments like the lute. It can be applied to the cello more than the violin for acoustical reasons: given its lower register, the cello's texture would be too muddy to be playing such dense chords. Also, given the span it would take for the fingers to play them, it would also be more tiring. That's why the Cello Suites sound “lighter” than the contrapuntal Violin Sonatas and Partitas: our ear, despite sensing the harmonies, hears single notes in a running thread – called monophonic. One musicologist referred to these suites as “Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.”

Here, Andrei Ioniţă plays the first three movements from Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major, the “Prelude,” “Allemande,” and “Courante.” (I guess this is what it might be like if your day job is playing Bach at your desk...)

Usually, I talk about the “biography behind the music,” leading up to the work's composition, but as is typical with Bach, we're not sure when he wrote them: sometime while he was responsible for the chamber music at Cothen, between 1717 and 1723 (when he became the choir director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig). Since the manuscript of the violin pieces is dated 1720 and given the style of the cello pieces by comparison, it's assumed the Cello Suites were written first. There is also a question whether they were all written as a set or individually over the years, then collected at some point into a volume ready to be published.

That said, another problem exists in that the only manuscript copy (see photo, above) is not in Bach's own handwriting but his wife, Anna Magdalena's, who herself was a singer and served as a copyist in the “family business,” as Bach churned out new cantatas for his demanding job in Leipzig's main church. That is, when she found time to copy his music, not only raising her stepchildren from Bach's first marriage but having thirteen – thirteen!!! – children of her own. By the way, in 1723, when they moved to Leipzig, the new Frau Bach was 21 years old.

For a while, there was a theory that she was actually the composer of the cello suites, though the grounds for such an assumption were more than flimsy – yes, women composers were frowned upon and it's not unusual for their music to be presented under their husbands' names. But most Bach scholars have trounced this theory, studying manuscripts and other works and finding nothing in the least bit comparable to them anywhere else in the collection. If there's a discrepancy in the styles between the cello and the violin pieces, it may also have to do with the fact Bach himself played the violin but not the cello. Any possible wrong notes or “mistakes” in harmony as have been suggested as proof Bach could not have composed them could also be the result of copyist errors (it has been known to happen...).

But what of “Life After Composition” for our six cello suites?

Any of the technical and scholarly problems that exist can also be traced to the lack of an authoritative original manuscript. And since the old man's library was divided between his composing sons, much of the collection was dispersed. Wilhelm Friedemann, the oldest, never much of a success and unfortunately an alcoholic, sold many of the ones he owned because he was always in need of money. Some of Carl Philip Emanuel's portion, overlooked in a Berlin library, was stolen by the Soviets after World War II and has since disappeared.) Subsequent copies and what was eventually published were also not without discrepancies. In fact, they were not published until they were “rediscovered” in 1825, 75 years after Bach's death (and four years before Mendelssohn's famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion).

Regardless, they were basically ignored. Mozart and Beethoven never wrote concertos for the cello – at least Beethoven wrote five sonatas for it – and very few, other than Boccherini, himself a cellist, paid the instrument much attention. It was an “acoustical” thing, that was the primary excuse, and even though Brahms wrote two sonatas and half of the “Double Concerto” for it, he was so surprised to hear how well Dvořák avoided these issues in his new Cello Concerto in 1895, he was sorry he had not tried one himself but now felt it was too late to bother (he would die two years later). Imagine...

So, meanwhile, in Barcelona. Picture it: 1889, in a dusty second-hand book shop, a 13-year-old cello prodigy named Pablo Casals found a tattered copy of six suites for solo cello by Bach in one of the bins. He bought them – one wonders for how much! – took them home and worked on them every day. Still, it wasn't till another 13 years passed he felt ready to perform them in public (that would make it 1902). And even then, he waited until 1936 when he was 60 to record them.

And now, fast forward to 1915, in Budapest, in what was then the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where there was a young composition professor who'd only received his first public performances five years earlier. In 1907, he'd spent six months traveling through Berlin, then Paris, returning with a bunch of scores, most notably music by Claude Debussy. He and a friend had already begun their excursions into the Hungarian countryside, studying the true folk music of the region (not the “gypsy stuff” popularized by Liszt and Brahms), and all of these influences apparently coalesced into a series of pieces written once the start of the “Great War” (as World War I was called until there was a second one) curtailed not only their folk music collecting trips but also had other impacts on their creative and daily lives.

In 1915, Zoltan Kodály, then 32, wrote his Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello, now considered the first major work for solo cello to be written since Bach composed his six suites some two centuries earlier.

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Zoltan Kodály
Kodály's sonata is in three movements: a strong, dramatic opening Allegro, an expansive Adagio with “great expression,” and a rip-roaring finale marked Allegro molto vivace. The overall style reflects significant melodic influences from Hungarian folk music and also his friend and fellow folk-music-researcher, Bela Bartók, but from the tonal and harmonic language he'd heard in Paris with Claude Debussy as well. In terms of its texture, it's what we'd call “homophonic,” primarily a melodic line with an accompaniment, but not contrapuntal in the way Bach had used chordal acccompaniments in his violin sonatas and partitas. Certainly, Bach's suites – indeed, the whole ethos of 18th Century Baroque music – will seem remote from Kodály's sonata and its intensity.

Incidentally, Kodály has the cellist tune the two lower strings down a half-step, from the standard G and C to F-sharp and B which gives the lower pitches a different color and contributes to the generally darker sound of the music. Instead of writing it in B Minor, why didn't Kodály just write it in C Minor and save the cellist (especially any with perfect pitch) the extra hassle? But then it wouldn't sound like the same piece, would it?

Here is Swedish cellist, Jakob Koranyi, recorded in Stockholm in 2010, with the complete Solo Cello Sonata by Zoltan Kodály: the Adagio begins at 9:10, and the Finale at 21:04.

As a listener interested in inspirations and influences, what makes me a “forensic musicologist,” I can't help but wonder where this piece comes from! I mean, if no one was writing solo cello music to inspire you, to make you think, “ooh, I want to write one of those,” again recall that the Dvořák Cello Concerto was barely a decade old when Kodály wrote this sonata.

When he was in Paris in 1907, did Kodály hear Pablo Casals play Bach? I've heard it mentioned he had – he was there, after all, most of his six months on-the-road; was Casals? – but I can find no "factual evidence" that he did. Or did he bring back a copy of the score for the six suites? Considering the style of the Bach, I'm thinking a performance of them, with its immediacy and direct emotional connection, especially by someone like Casals (one can only imagine what his performances were like in 1907, judging from that 1936 recording), might have had a more lasting impact on a young composer like Kodály.

And probably lasting, in the sense, since it wasn't until 8 years later he began the sonata. Given the limitations of the War in Budapest, it's probably more practical Kodály was focusing on chamber music for strings than, say, orchestral works and operas (considering politics and life in Hungary at any point in the first half of the 20th Century were sufficiently stable to support a thriving and happy artistic climate). He had written his first string quartet by 1909, plus a cello sonata with piano completed in 1910. By the time the War started, he wrote a Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (no piano) in 1914, followed the next year by a work for just one of those instruments: solo violin music was not uncommon, there might have been more of a market for it, so why did he choose the cello? Perhaps the cellist who eventually premiered it, Jenő Kerpely, whose quartet would premiere the first four of Bartók's quartets, was pesky enough to keep nudging him: “why don't you write me something for solo cello?” And perhaps the Duo Sonata had been a way of paring down the texture, in a way, from having written a quartet which has its own challenges, not to mention historical baggage, before attempting a solo cello piece which, in addition has certain challenges a violin piece would not have, has very little if any historical baggage to hang over his head?

Curiously, 1915 was also the same year Max Reger finished a set of three suites for solo cello.  Completed in January, 1915, they were published and performed almost immediately (Kodály's sonata wasn't premiered until 1918 or published until 1921, mostly because of the War): while Reger's suites were completed before Kodály's sonata, it's unlikely a composer isolated in war-torn Hungary would be aware of what Reger was writing in Leipzig to be influenced by them. But all you have to do is listen to the opening minutes of Reger's 1st Suite, also in G Major, to realize it was not only influenced by Bach, it was close to being more than an “homage” or pastiche (how you say, “rip-off”?), sounding far more derivative than original, like Kodály's sonata. But I digress. Nonetheless, it was Kodály's Sonata that would go on to become one of the major works in any modern cellist's repertoire. I'm not sure how many (insert snide tone-of-voice here) are performing Reger's suites today with (or without) any regularity.

Regardless, suddenly the 20th Century eventually began taking an interest in writing for solo cello, perhaps as a result of more cellists performing the Bach Suites, inspired by Casals. Rostropovich inspired Benjamin Britten to write three suites for him. There's a solo sonata by György Ligéti and... well, you can check this “List of Works for Solo Cello” which, as extensive as it is, fails to include either of the two remaining works on this program, the “Eleven Oblique Strategies” by Brett Dean from Australia, and “Black Run” by Svante Henryson from Sweden!

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To our Harrisburg audience: if someone asked you what you knew of Australian classical music, what would you say?

It's a country with many parallels to the development of American classical music: a dominant colonial culture (likewise British), a displaced and downtrodden indigenous population (the Aborigines) and numerous other immigrant nationalities (both European and Asian). Most of us would be hard-pressed to name an Australian composer, though Carl Vine's 4th Piano Sonata was performed on a program here several seasons ago. While many have imitated their British heritage (also true of many American composers, especially those who studied in Germany in the late-19th Century and sound more like Brahms than what we'd consider “American,” whatever that means), Peter Sculthorpe, who died in 2014, was an important advocate for combining classical and aboriginal influences. This list of Australian composers – some 278 of them – may startle the average American music-lover: who knew?

(One name not on this list is Melissa Dunphy, a Chinese-Australian-born composer, now an American, who was a colleague of mine here at WITF back-in-the-day before she went on to study in the Philadelphia area where, fully doctored, she's now based, having written a large number of works that have received performances all over the country, proving that a day-job is a day-job and sometimes you need to break loose and follow your dream, even if you have no idea where it will take you.)

Brett Dean
Brett Dean is a composer I've only become familiar with when I watched his new opera Hamlet in an internet broadcast live from Glyndebourne at its premiere in 2017. He is also familiar to audiences of the Doric Quartet, frequent visitors in past seasons to Market Square Concerts, who've already recorded his first two string quartets and just recently premiered his 3rd String Quartet, “Hidden Agendas” (also performed at Carnegie Hall last week as part of their current American tour). Also a violist, Dean joined the Doric for Beethoven's Op.29 String Quintet on the same program his new quartet was premiered.

Dean's “Eleven Oblique Strategies” was originally composed for the 2014 Emanuel Fuermann Cello Competition and was inspired by... well, let me just quote the composer (from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes', website):
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The term "oblique strategies" was coined jointly by British musician Brian Eno and German-born British visual artist Peter Schmidt to describe a series of printed cards they developed throughout the 1970’s. The cards had their origins in sets of uncannily similar working principles that both artists had established independently, and featured aphorisms intended as a means of triggering inspiration or providing useful stimulus during the creative process, particularly when encountering difficulties of fatigue or time constraint.

As Eno and Schmidt wrote in their introduction to the first edition in 1975:

They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.

I chose eleven of Eno and Schmidt’s strategies, ordering them in a way that revealed to me a logic and potential inter-relatedness within a hitherto disparate set of single ideas I had assembled for solo cello, each of them in turn a reflection upon the commission’s initial purpose of creating a test piece for the 2014 Emanuel Feuermann cello competition.

It’s my hope then that the resultant composition may provide not only an interesting test of the competitors’ talents but also offer the interpreter an opportunity to reflect upon the delights and pitfalls of creativity as he or she comes to terms with the various musical and technical challenges to be found within these ten minutes of music for solo cello.
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The set includes such tantalizing titles – tantalizing to a composer with creativity and concentration issues, at least – as “Listen to the Quiet Voice,” “A Line Has Two Sides,” “Don't Stress One Thing More Than Any Other” (good advice to anyone, I suspect), and “Don't Be Frightened to Show Your Talents,” plus “Disciplined Self-Indulgence” (which seems a bit of an oxymoron). Some of the pieces are around 2 minutes long, a few are less than a minute. Each is, by nature, introspective.

Born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1961, Dean originally came to composition in 1988 through experimental film and radio as well as improvisational projects but by then he was already a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic (no shabby day-job, that) leading one to wonder why, then, he left the orchestra after eleven years to focus more on composing. A series of high-profile premieres, commissions, and awards following that would indicate he's made the right decision. I'll mention, given the timeliness, in addition to the recent 3rd String Quartet with the Doric Quartet two weeks ago, a new Piano Concerto receives its world premiere in Stockholm with Jonathan Biss (who has also appeared with Market Square Concerts), on Thursday, this week.

Quoting from the Wikipedia entry, “Dean's compositional style is known for creating dynamic soundscapes and treating single instrumental parts with complex rhythms. He shapes musical extremes, from harsh explosions to inaudibility. Modern playing techniques are as characteristic for his style as an elaborate percussion scoring, often enriched with objects from everyday life. Much of Dean's work draws from literary, political or visual stimuli, transporting a non-musical message. Environmental problems are the subject of Water Music and Pastoral Symphony, while Vexations and Devotions deal with the absurdities of a modern society obsessed with information.”

The title The Lost Art of Letter Writing may seem curious when you consider it's really a 38-minute violin concerto – but didn't the title grab you more than if you just saw the name “Violin Concerto” on a list of works? It includes, among its inspirations, the letters of Brahms and Clara Schumann, of Vincent van Gogh, and, in the finale, the dramatic pleas of an Australian bushranger from 1879 reflecting a sense of impending catastrophe.

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Svante Henryson & Cello
Svante Henryson's story – not just his music – is also indicative of “following one's dream.” Born in Stockholm in 1961 but who grew up in Umeå, in northern Sweden, Henryson began playing bass in a rock band at age 12, and heard Stan Getz at Umeå's jazz festival one summer which made him want to become a musician. And then he heard the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on one of their tours and that was the final impulse: he studied bass and after playing in the World Youth Orchestra in 1983, became a member of the Oslo Philharmonic bass section under Mariss Jansons through the mid-80s.

Then, another turn: he picked up his bass guitar, joined a rock band in the late-80s and taught himself the cello. He started composing and by the mid-90s, had written several works for cello and orchestra, an “Electric Bass Concerto” (the first of two), then proceeded into the new century with two cello concertos, numerous choral and chamber works, mixing up all these influences from his classical, rock, and jazz background.

In 2001, he wrote a suite of three pieces called “Colors in D” for solo cello. The first movement is “Black Run,” composed in 2001. The second movement is “Green,” dating from 1996, to which he eventually added “Blues Chaconne” in 2008. On this program, Andrei Ioniţă plays “Black Run” and this performance video was posted last year:

Here, by the way, is the composer performing it, from a performance in 2008,

which goes to show (if nothing else) you can be self-taught and still wail!

And if you want something that sounds down-home Americana written by a Swedish classical/rock/jazz composer in 2001 played by a Romanian-born cellist who won Russia's Tchaikovsky competition in 2015 who now lives in Berlin and who'll be playing this at his Market Square Concerts' program at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg on a program with an 18th-Century German, a 20th-Century Hungarian and a 21st-Century Australian – it doesn't get much more “globally cosmopolitan” than that.

Dick Strawser