Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Rebel & "Period Instruments" on the Rise: A Journey Into the Baroque

Rebel (with a tree)
The New Season is upon us – and not just Autumn: Labor Day has passed, the kids are back in school (for that matter, Rosh Hoshana begins Oct. 2nd) – and the 35th Anniversary Season of Market Square Concerts begins this Saturday, the 1st of October, at Market Square Church beginning at 8:00!

While you're used to string quartets and pianists on chamber music programs, we begin the season with Rebel, one of the much-talked about “early music ensembles” known for its vitality, clarity and compelling performances. They're bringing a program of Baroque music from 1617 to 1747 to Harrisburg with familiar names like Vivaldi, Corelli and Telemann and less well known names like William Boyce as well as unfamiliar if not unknown names like Biagio Marini, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Francesco Mancini and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli who, if they didn't have their 15 minutes of international fame in 17th Century Europe, were among those numerous court composers producing a vast amount of music for their music-loving employers, aristocrats and churches across Italy and Germany at a time when musicians – like their better-known counterparts Bach and Handel – found a way to practice their art and make a living at it, too.

Here, the ensemble Rebel plays the preludio from Arcangelo Corelli's Sonata in G Major, Op. 4 no. 10, from their 2008 recording on the Dorian Label:

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In the early-1960s, I remember hearing recordings on the radio by an orchestra considered something of a novelty: playing music from the Baroque Era on instruments that this music would have originally been played on, instruments that for one reason or another would have long been replaced by ones we tend to call “modern” instruments. While still called trumpets or oboes or even violins, how these instruments were made today is a far cry from the instruments Handel would have heard play his Water Music in 1717: trumpets didn't have valves then; oboes didn't have as many keys; violins (themselves a fairly new instrument on the scene) were played with gut strings and the bows were completely different. Instead of flutes, there were recorders – which to a modern music lover of the 1960s meant those annoying things relegated to children's education programs that looked like a cross between prototype of a clarinet (without a reed) and a flutophone, despite its fine ancient heritage.

The problem was, they were mostly out-of-tune, unreliable in pitch, impossible to balance and would later remind me of the less than legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia...

My initial response – that these instruments should not be played by people who should not be playing instruments period – was that this too would pass and we can go back to listening to satisfying renderings of this great music performed by our great orchestras.

But once musicians figured out how exactly to play these instruments properly and play them in a musical manner with a sense of historical accuracy about them (whatever that might be to a listener today), suddenly we could hear things in this music no one for two hundred years had noticed: not the least of which was, after all, the music!

This was not music meant to be played by beastly over-extended philharmonics in cavernous concert halls: and as much as many of my generation grew up hearing Handel's Water Music in Sir Hamilton Harty's delightful arrangement, it was, after all, an arrangement.

And for every agony those early recordings assaulted my eardrums with, there was the very real question, now, of “just what would this music sound like on the instruments these composers wrote it for?”

And thus, with a little historical research and a lot of practice, the “period instrument ensemble” became a world of its own.

Considering hearing Bach's Goldberg Variations on a grand piano is still an “arrangement” even if none of the notes are changed, there is also a lot of now-familiar Baroque music we have come to know through some kind of arrangement to better fit the modern instruments we have at hand.

Even if Vivaldi wrote a flute concerto and we hear it performed on a flute, Vivaldi wrote it for a wooden flute, not a silver one; and for that matter, rather than what is technically a “transverse” flute – with the instrument held the way we normally expect a modern flute to be held – it might have been written for a recorder (around 1700, the terms were interchangeable). So yes, that would affect the “sound” of the music, depending on which instrument is used.

But was this a major concern to composers back in The Day? Apparently not, because a trio sonata you might see played by two violins “and continuo” (we'll get to that in a minute) could also be played by two flutes (or recorders) or a combination of the two.

As for that term “continuo,” this is the standard Baroque catch-all term for the “accompaniment.” This normally consists of two aspects: two instruments, a single-line “melody” instrument like a cello which plays the bass-line of the accompaniment, and a chord-playing instrument like a harpsichord (the precursor of the piano) which fills in the harmony.

This is why – illogically – it takes four musicians to play a trio sonata: two instruments accompanied by The Continuo which consists of two instruments.

And if you're playing flutes instead of violins, you should use a bassoon instead of a cello in the continuo to match the woodwind sound. Also, if you're playing in a church, you could use an organ to play the harmony (probably not the big pipe-organ: they had little “portatif” (small and portable) organs for smaller sounds and venues). Or, hey, why not a lute? In the opera pit, they might use “all of the above” for various situations and combinations.

In fact, Bach's wonderful collection of Preludes and Fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, usually heard played by pianists or harpsichordists these days, was originally composed for the Clavichord, a kind of small desk-top version of a keyboard instrument that could barely be heard across a room if somebody sneezed. Yet no one I know has ever complained that that Prelude & Fugue on the program was not played on a clavichord...

Basically, what exactly played the part was not crucial. The important thing was that it was played.

In fact, all I can say is, unless you're planning on pursuing a doctorate in Baroque Performance Practice, don't worry about it. Just sit back and enjoy the music – that is, really, why musicians play it and music-lovers listen to it. For all the technical details that can inflame an otherwise nerdy discussion of the finer points of historical accuracy and the reasons one may pursue a particular presentation of it, it all comes down to “does it succeed as music?”

(And let's not even get into ornamentation, but I digress...)

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These days when you go to a standard chamber recital or orchestra concert, you don't hear much actual Baroque music – a symphony orchestra might play an all-Baroque and -Classical concert but even then, while the orchestra is pared down from the 75-100 players we're used to with Beethoven or Mahler, it's still way more musicians than Bach or Handel would normally have expected.

A lot of this is the result of dedicated study, digging through dusty archives to find not only the music itself but accounts about how it was performed. Keep in mind that, until Mendelssohn conducted Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829 (only some 79 years after Bach's death), most concert-goers had never heard Bach's music (except the academically minded composers studying counterpoint who could track down a copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier). And that before 1939, there had probably not been an all-Vivaldi concert since Vivaldi died in 1741 (in 1952 there were 2 recordings of The Four Seasons; in 2011, one catalogue listed over 1,000).

And so, here comes Rebel.

the ensemble, Rebel (photo credit: Chris Fanning)

These confederates with a cause, standing up to decades of library dust and academic debate, take their name from a French Baroque composer named Jean-Féry Rebel. Hence, in the French manner, it is pronounced rrreh-BELL.

And after you hear them – you can probably tell by looking at some of their publicity photos – this is not your grandfather's “period instrument ensemble.”

You might catch a glimmer of their reasoning behind this choice by listening to a piece Rebel composed in 1737, his version of “The Creation” story set as a ballet. Considering Haydn's famous oratorio and its murky C minor prelude representing “Chaos,” imagine, if you will, this sound breaking over Paris some sixty years earlier:
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Chaos, indeed! Even just the opening few seconds will be enough to make you ask, not “how did this sound to listeners in 1737” but what the hell was their reaction to hearing that chord!?!

While some of the names on their program will be familiar to the general music-lover – Vivaldi, Corelli and Telemann – there are names on here that you may never have encountered before on a live concert program in Harrisburg (does that make it “new” music?). Even William Boyce, more familiar as a contemporary of Handel, is generally known only by his eight little “symphonies.” But Mancini (that's Francesco, not Henry), Biagio Marini, Pandolfi and Schmelzer are proof that there are other composers from the era than Bach and Handel – in fact, not only the generations before Bach and Handel but generations of composers who filled in the time between Monteverdi in 1600 and Bach's death in 1750.

I'm guessing that for many of us, this may be an experience of discovery, no matter how old the music is.

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Joined by Matthias Maute, one of the foremost performers of the recorder and the traverso or “transverse” flute, Rebel opens their program with a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, a musician and teacher who conducted an orchestra of orphans in Venice and who was, in addition, a priest with uncharacteristically red hair (hence the nickname “The Red Priest” which had nothing to do with his political leanings).

Having gleaned through more YouTube videos than I would care to complain about trying to find a recording of the one on the program that fits the ensemble, here's a performance (uncredited) which will give you an idea of “one way” to perform Vivaldi but will not be exactly like the performance you'll hear Saturday night.
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More to the point, here is a performance by Matthias Maute playing the recorder in his own variations on themes by George Frederic Handel – his aria “Lascia ch'io pianga” from his opera Rinaldo and concluding with what can only be described as one of Handel's Greatest Hits, the keyboard piece known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” This was recorded this past July at an Early Music Society Recorder Workshop in San Francisco.
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And here are members of Rebel with Herr Maute playing one of the “orchestral” works of the era – with eight players – the third of the Op. 3 Concertos by George Frederic Handel:
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- Dick Strawser

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Market Square Concert’s 35th anniversary season begins on Saturday, October 1, at 8 pm at Market Square Church. Rebel with Recorder and Flute virtuoso, Matthias Maute, will offer an unforgettable journey through 17th and 18th century European music of country, court and chapel.

Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors, $5 for college students and free for school-age students with a $10 ticket available for one accompanying adult. For tickets, visit the website, call 717 214-ARTS or 717 221-9599. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.

Hailed by the New York Times as “Sophisticated and Beguiling” and praised by the Los Angeles Times for their “astonishingly vital music-making”, the New York-based Baroque ensemble REBEL has earned an impressive international reputation, enchanting diverse audiences by their unique style and their virtuosic, highly expressive and provocative approach to the Baroque and Classical repertoire.

REBEL was originally formed in The Netherlands in l99l. In the Fifth International Competition for Ensembles in Early Music, Utrecht 1991 (now the Van Wassenaer Competition) REBEL was awarded first prize. Since then the ensemble has performed at European venues such as the Konzerthaus (Vienna), La Chapelle Royale (Versailles), as well as Library of Congress, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2005 REBEL appeared in collaboration with Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim.

The ensemble has recorded for all the major European national radio networks and has been showcased in performance and interview on BBC’s Radio 3. In 1999 REBEL became the first and only period instrument ensemble to be awarded an artists’ residency at National Public Radio.

Matthias Maute has achieved international renown as one of the finest recorder and baroque flute players of his generation, and as a composer and director. His first prize win in the soloist category at the prestigious Early Music Competition in Bruges, Belgium in 1990 set the course for a diverse and distinguished career spanning over two decades. In December 2008 Mr. Maute made his Lincoln Center début at the Rose Theater in New York City as a featured guest with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Mr. Maute has made some twenty recordings on the Analekta, Vanguard Classics, Bella Musica, Dorian, Bridge and Atma Classique labels. Currently he is a professor at McGill University and at Université de Montréal.

The concert is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. William Murray. The season sponsor is Capital BlueCross. A resident company of Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, Market Square Concerts also receives support from the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Complete information on Market Square Concerts’ 2016-17 season is available at the website

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Summermusic 2016: A Musical Visit to Cape Cod

Jonathan Bailey Holland
It would be appropriate we should all go to the beach at least once during the summer but today “Curtis on Tour” brings with it, to start its final Summermusic concert, a piece inspired by Cape Cod.

That would be maybe an 8 hour drive (depending on traffic) and about 450 miles according to those internet maps.

Or you could join us this evening at 6:00 at Market Square Church – and yes, that's six o'clock – meaning, if you're a nine-to-fiver, you could be at Cape Cod, musically speaking, an hour after work lets out.

The program includes American works by Samuel Barber (home of his famous "Adagio for Strings") and by Antonin Dvořák, his musical souvenir of a summer in the Midwest - you can read about them, here - as well as this newly commissioned work receiving its first public performance tonight.

Co-commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival (where it will receive its official world premiere on July 29th) and the Curtis Institute of Music for this summer's program of “Curtis on Tour,” it draws inspiration from the Cape Cod National Seashore and at the same time celebrates both 50 Years of the National Endowment for the Arts and 100 Years of the National Park Service.

It is called “Forged Sanctuaries” and the composer, Jonathan Bailey Holland – a Curtis graduate who studied with Ned Rorem – wrote this program note for these performances:

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Since the year my daughter was born our family has spent time during the summer months on Cape Cod. We have explored many of the different beaches, from the South facing ocean beaches; to the popular beaches on the Eastern shore of the outer cape; to the calm, oyster-laden bay beaches; and even the lesser-known ponds. The opportunity to compose a work that celebrates these and other treasures associated with the Cape Cod National Seashore National Park as part of the centennial celebrations of the National Park Service was a very welcomed opportunity.

a view of Cape Cod's National Seashore
For me, like most, the cape is a destination for escape, relaxation and rejuvenation. It is at times an unstable landmass, jutting out into the Atlantic, its shore constantly in a state of transformation from the ocean waves and the redistribution of the sands of the beaches. It holds a great deal of historical significance for many people. It is a daunting subject to embrace musically. The string quartet, as an ensemble, also presents its own challenges. No other musical ensemble carries the historical weight and significance of the string quartet.

There is nowhere for a composers to hide when writing for the string quartet. Many great composers are heralded as such in no small part because of their contributions to the genre.

For this work, I chose to embrace the enormity of both the topic and the ensemble by imagining the formation of the Cape, as well as the significance it holds for me, and many others. The first movement, titled Glacial Formation, is about the evolution of a glacier. The music is intended to be programmatic, beginning with the sound of wind and snow. As the snow accumulates and compresses it creates large crystals of ice that eventually become glaciers. These glaciers, massive in size, move across the surface of the earth, carving landmasses as they go. As the glaciers move away and melt, they reveal their creations.

The second movement of this work, titled The Hypnosis of Tides, is about the allure of the beach and the soothing nature of waves. The ocean waves are unpredictable, sometimes calm and sometimes violent, reshaping the beach with every ebb and flow. The bay waves are often much calmer, but nonetheless hypnotic in their constant lapping of the shoreline. The second movement ends peacefully, reminiscent of the end of the first movement, with a sense of being somewhat unfinished.
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You can read the article by Jess Hayden for the Carlisle Sentinel, here.

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Holland, born in 1974 in Flint, MI, began his compositional studies at the Interlochen Arts Festival, attended Curtis where he studied with Ned Rorem and earned his Bachelors degree, then earned his PhD from Harvard where he studied with Bernard Rands and Mario Davidovsky. Currently, he is Chair of Composition, Theory and History at The Boston Conservatory. Additionally, he was a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a founding faculty member in the Low Residency MFA in Music Composition program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The list of orchestras who have commissioned him include those in Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, plus chamber ensembles across the country. His “Equality” for Narrator and Orchestra, setting words of Maya Angelou, was recently premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony.

While he is not committed to a particular style, he chooses to use whatever suits the music for the occasion. While “Forged Sanctuaries” is a work for string quartet (requiring a distinctly different approach from an orchestra, for instance) inspired by nature, here is an “urban” work written originally for the Detroit Symphony, to give you one idea of his voice:

“Motor City Dance Mix” had been commissioned by the Detroit Symphony where it was premiered in 2003. This performance is from a 2011 concert with the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra, conducted by Jason Love:
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Of his “Synchrony,” composed for oboe, bassoon, violin, cello, piano and taped voices and premiered by the Radius Ensemble in 2015 at the time of the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, the composer said:

Jonathan Bailey Holland
“I am as influenced by contemporary classical music as I am by jazz, rap, R&B, neosoul, and all other good music. I am fascinated by color, both visually and aurally. I strive to communicate with my music. I do not embrace one single style for all of my compositions. I aspire to have a recognizable voice.

“The work I am composing for the Radius Ensemble is about duality on many levels, and in many ways: from the instrumentation and their possible combinations – oboe and bassoon, violin and cello, oboe and cello, violin and bassoon, etc.; to musical form and structure – call and response, imitation, repetition; to the external influences – black and white race relations, class relations within and between races, morality vs emotion, double standards of laws and socially accepted behavior, confronting symbols vs confronting ideology.

“While these issues pervade the news as of late, I, as an African-American composer of classical music, live this duality every day.”

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Too often we ask ourselves, after hearing a new piece of music or something unfamiliar to us, something that may challenge our comfort level, "did I like it?" or "do I understand it?" That's not really the question on first hearing - that's something that may come later, with more hearings, the sort of thing that makes me long for those concerts where, with a brand new piece, they'd play it again.

The question, if you find yourself not sure what to think, is to ask "do I respond to it?"

If you do, then you're starting at a good point, whether you love it or hate it or aren't sure. Listen to it and judge your responses: is it entertaining or does it make you think? Is it pretty (as someone once asked about my own string quartet after its premiere) or does it have moments that grab your attention?

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Join us tonight for the first public performance of Holland's newest work, “Forged Sanctuaries,” with the Curtis Student String Quartet at Market Square Church at 6pm.

Even though it's the last concert in the current Summermusic season, rumor has it the summer heat and humidity will continue and I think by this weekend, with heat indices forecast to be around 110°, we'll all be glad the concerts were scheduled the week they were...

Then you can start thinking about the opening of Market Square Concerts' new season on October 1st with the ensemble "Rebel" performing treasures of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and November 2nd's concert with the Heath Quartet playing Haydn, Dvořák and Michael Tippett's 5th String Quartet. Oh, and in April, violinist Kristóf Baráti returns to play more Bach for solo violin. And there's much more.

This will be MSC's 35th Anniversary season, so there'll be lots to tell you about.

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credit: top photo of Jonathan Bailey Holland by Sancho Maulion

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summermusic 2016: String Quartets in an American Voice

Tuesday's forecast is calling for slightly cooler temperatures (88° is still cooler, technically, than 94°) and lower humidity, but the last Summermusic 2016 concert will still be held indoors at the air-conditioned Market Square Church as planned. And that plan includes a 6:00pm start-time – so just because it's a week-night, don't automatically assume it's the traditional evening concert!

The program features the Curtis Student Quartet who played Schubert, Mozart and Elgar on Sunday's concert, this time on their own, playing three string quartets by American – or, to be honest, American-associated – composers.

Samuel Barber is not only an American, he hails from West Chester, PA, originally, and like our performers, a Curtis Grad and former faculty member! Jonathan Bailey Holland, likewise a Curtis Grad, is based in Boston and his 2nd String Quartet, “Forged Sanctuaries,” will be receiving its first public performance at this concert! You can read more about it, and hear two other works of his, here.

The concert – and the series – concludes with a lively warhorse of 19th Century Americana, the Quartet No. 12 in F Major by Antonin Dvořák who, while being Czech-born, got a teaching gig in New York City back in 1892 where he taught at what later turned into the Juilliard School of Music and, while there, wrote, among other things, a little something called “The New World Symphony.” The string quartet he composed while on a summer vacation in Iowa has always been known as “The American Quartet” and so... why not include it on an American program?

This post previews the Barber and Dvořák. I'll tell you more about Jonathan Bailey Holland in the next post!

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Samuel Barber
If Dvořák wrote his “American” Quartet in Iowa, American composer Samuel Barber began his string quartet while vacationing in Austria with his partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti (fellow Curtis student and a composer who would become famous in his own right for Amahl and the Night Visitors) after finishing up his stint with the American Prix de Rome in 1935. The 25-year-old composer had planned to write a quartet for the Curtis String Quartet but unfortunately, as he wrote to the cellist, Orlando Cole, he had only just finished the slow movement (which he described as “a knockout”) which meant the whole work wouldn't be ready in time for the scheduled premiere and subsequent tour.

That slow movement was indeed a knockout. When Barber showed the manuscript to conductor Arturo Toscanini, he told the composer it would make a very fine string orchestra piece, and so he arranged it for a full orchestral string section which is how it has become best known: the Adagio for Strings.

For an older generation, it became the National Mourning Piece following its frequent radio broadcast during the dark days following John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. To a later generation, it became the heart-rending soundtrack to a scene from “Platoon.” Somehow, it has made it, in one form or another (Barber himself arranged it for choir and for solo organ) onto numerous recording compilations. I have seen it on an album with ZZZZs, a sleepy crescent moon and child-like lettering of Music to Sleep By (how could one possibly sleep blissfully to this music?!) and one of “Great Horror Classics” (seriously, who comes up with these ideas?).

But the original quartet is rarely heard. Why is that?

Here is a recording of the complete String Quartet in B Minor, Op.11, by Samuel Barber, performed by the Paris-based ensemble, Quatuor Diotima:

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As usual, you can spend hours perusing YouTube to find reasonably recorded and performed examples with decent images if not actual live performances... and still have problems finding one that works on all counts. Such was the case with trying to find a complete performance of Barber's String Quartet Op. 11. Videos of the famous “Adagio” abound, for better or worse, many of them mediocre or of personal interest only to friends of the performers, but considering the usual sound quality of recordings posted (mostly recorded on phones, it seems - giving new meaning to the expression "phoning it in"), I decided to go with what strikes me as an actually very strong performance from Quatuor Diotima's album called “American Music” which, not surprisingly, includes cover art that many Europeans would consider typical of American culture: a man's hand holding a pistol. As for the image used in this YouTube post, it is a photograph of the violinist Iso Briselli for whom Barber originally composed his Violin Concerto and has absolutely nothing to do with the Quartet or, to my knowledge, the ensemble playing it...
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Part of the problem, I think, stems from the finale. While the opening is a tour-de-force of its own, what can you do to follow a slow movement as intense as that?!

To me, the finale has always been a let-down or a cop-out, going back and essentially recapitulating the opening movement and shortening it at that, leaving no real resolution to this emotional outburst that followed it the first time. It always sounds to me like he'd run out of time. And yet he reworked the finale at least three more times over the next six years.

The fact Barber finished the quartet in time for a December premiere by the Pro Arte Quartet in Rome in 1936, but withdrew the finale in order to rewrite it indicates the composer himself had reservations with it. Never having heard this original version, I'm not sure whether he revised it or completely rewrote it. At any rate, the new finale was ready by the following April and he then rewrote it again before it was published and “officially” premiered in 1943 by the Budapest Quartet at the Library of Congress.

Sadly, the commission he received in 1947 for a second string quartet never progressed beyond a few sketches.

Samuel Barber
This is part of the sad story that is Samuel Barber's career: a brilliant and initially successful superstar of American Music with so much potential when he was in his 20s, his Romantic style was considered too “old-fashioned” in the progressive politics of the day and he took these attacks personally. Sometimes, during his 40s, it hampered his creativity, though he could produce magnificent works like “The Hermit Songs” in 1953 and the piano concerto in 1962 (for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize), and the opera Anthony & Cleopatra commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966 though everybody was talking more about Franco Zeferelli's over-the-top sets and costumes and their problems than Barber's music.

His self-confidence never quite recovered from this “disaster” and he produced very little music in the remaining 15 years of his life. There was an oboe concerto he was working on which, I was told by friends of his, he burned in the fireplace one night: all that was salvageable was the middle slow movement which became his last published work, the Canzonetta for Oboe & Strings.

And yet, at its best, Barber's music had an integrity and sincerity regardless of style that most composers in the 1950s and '60s could only dream of. How ironic that, had he managed to live another 10-15 years, he might have felt justified, discovering his musical language would once again become “acceptable” in the Style Wars of the wider world.

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A view of Spillville, Iowa, in 1895
In 1893, Antonin Dvořák left New York City and his teaching responsibilities at the National Conservatory behind to spend the summer in Spillville, Iowa, where there was a group of Czech-speaking immigrants who had settled there. One of them, Josef Jan Kovařík, had returned to Prague to study violin where he'd met Dvořák; when he was ready to return home to America, a trip which coincided with Dvořák's leaving for his new job in New York, Dvořák offered him a job as his personal secretary. After that first school year was over, Kovařík invited his boss to join him for a trip to the American heartland, though one where he would find himself immersed in his own Czech language and culture!

Ah, immigrants! Kovařík's father was a schoolmaster there, and played the cello; his sister played the viola. Together, they joined their eminent guest as the first violinist in the domestic playing of string quartets. In fact, they would give the first hearing of his latest string quartet, one in F Major he began shortly after his arrival, one that would become known as the "American" Quartet.

Final page of initial sketch of the "American" Quartet
A happy and productive period – not just sitting around, soaking up the local ambiance – Dvořák sketched the entire quartet in three days and completed the first draft in thirteen more. At the end of the initial sketch (see photograph, above) he wrote, "Finished on 10 June 1893 in Spillville. Thanks God. I'm satisfied. It went quickly."

Here's a recording with the Emerson Quartet and the complete score of Dvořák's “American” Quartet, the String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op.96:
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Dvořák and his family reached Spillville on June 3rd and planned on staying until the second half of September when he would return to the bustle of New York. His children had recently arrived from Europe and, he wrote to a friend, “we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits."

Dvořák in 1895
He had recently completed a new symphony – he himself called it “From the New World” – which he'd begun composing in January and finished in May, though it wasn't scheduled for its world premiere until December, after he would return from vacation.

Much is made of his discovery of “Negro Music” and “Indian Music” and how he advised his students, seeking to create an American Voice, to turn to these folk influences as he had turned to the influences of his own native folk music from Bohemia.

The common denominator he discovered, however, was nothing more than the pentatonic scale, a five-note scale that can be found in many cultures – for instance Scottish music as well as Native-American music and American Spirituals, not to mention the quintessential stereotype of Asian exoticism (as used by Ravel, for instance, to suggest the Far East in his “Mother Goose” Suite).

The opening theme – first heard in the viola – is in fact a pentatonic melody. It doesn't sound particularly Indian or African-American and, as it unfolds, if anything it sounds more Czech than American. There was the famous tune Dvořák scribbled down on his shirt cuff while visiting Minneapolis in September and seeing the Minnehaha Falls, there, which became the opening theme of the 2nd movement of his Violin Sonatina, composed later that month. The tune may look “Indian-like” but it is the way he harmonizes it that makes it sound “not Indian at all.”

This was often a problem for 19th Century composers inspired by any folk music, trying to cram a modal melody built on a non-traditional scale into what was really traditional harmony. Beethoven ran afoul of his Russian folk-tunes in the Razumovsky Quartets, even turning the one into a decidedly un-folk-like fugue. Even Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had their moments, pounding the round peg of a Russian folk-tune into the square (often very square) hole of Western harmonies and meters.

While Dvořák described visits from some of the local Kickapoo tribe, people have tried to claim this or that tune was one he jotted down after hearing them sing and dance at an evening's entertainment. The same tunes are often described by other writers as being originally Negro Spirituals. (In fact, I regret to point out, even the 1950 edition of Grove's Dictionary refers to the Op. 96 Quartet of Dvořák not as the “American” but instead by using the N-word...)

The fact is, the only American thing about the music itself is that is was written in America. Which is not to be small-minded since Dvořák's music and his general folk-based aesthetic had a profound influence on American composers of the late-19th, early-20th Centuries. These pentatonic tunes or the textures he presented them in – again, the opening of the quartet is a prime example – created an open, often simplified sonority that became identifiable eventually as The American Sound, long before we heard Aaron Copland's wide-open prairies.

After returning to New York, Dvořák became homesick and, in 1895, when the school's money ran out, Dvořák didn't renew his contract and quickly returned home even before the spring term was over, not even hanging around for the premiere of another American work of his, a cantata called “The American Flag.”

In addition to the Quartet and the Sonatina I'd also mentioned, he composed a String Quintet in Spillville and then a Suite in A Major originally for piano which he later orchestrated – all of these works being dubbed “The American.”

Another piece he composed while in New York, inspired by a work he'd heard by Victor Herbert, a well-known composer and cellist in the city at the time, was his Cello Concerto in B Minor and nobody has ever tried calling it the “American” Concerto... it sounds thoroughly Czech, through and through.

Whatever Dvořák may have experienced here, he absorbed it into his own musical style and it became part of him. In a letter written in mid-September, 1893, Dvořák wrote to a friend “I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America.” True, they would no doubt sound different had he never left Prague in those years, but it's also quite possible the openness to new sounds and influences was part of the adventure he had undertaken, coming here from the Old World.

One thing certain, though, he probably would have had no reason to write a symphony like “The New World.” Another thing to consider is he might never have considered writing a cello concerto at all if he hadn't heard Victor Herbert play one of his own at Carnegie Hall.

So there is, at least, that.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Summermusic 2016: Mozart and his G Minor Piano Quartet

Haydn & Mozart playing quartets (1785)
In the world of chamber music, the G Minor Piano Quartet of Mozart is usually considered one of the Great Works. You'll get a chance to hear it live with the members of “Curtis on Tour” Sunday afternoon with Summermusic 2016, 4pm at Market Square Church (both inside and air-conditioned) and preceded on the concert by Schubert's 4-movement String Trio (which you can read about here) and followed by Edward Elgar's Piano Quintet (which you can read about here).

Friday's 8:00 concert begins the series with Beethoven and Mendelssohn as well as two recent composers, John Novacek and David Ludwig.

The third program – Tuesday at 6:00 – features a more-or-less all-American string quartet program with works by Barber and Dvořák (well, he wrote it in America and it's called “The American Quartet”) and the very first performance of a newly commissioned work by Jonathan Bailey Holland to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service and celebrate Cape Cod's National Seashore (you can read more about it in this article by Jess Hayden of the Carlisle Sentinel).

While it wasn't my intent to write a separate post about each piece, this post is about Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478. Here's a performance with pianist Asaf Zohar, violinist Hagai Shaham, violist Zvi Carmeli and a familiar face to local fans of Concertante, cellist Zvi Plesser.
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Probably over a decade ago, one of Market Square Concerts programs featured composer and lecturer Bruce Adolphe presenting the first movement of the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were music for a trial scene, a delightfully witty and dramatically quite suitable setting for this music. While the musicians performed his examples, each thematic idea became a character - the opening, a brusque lawyer ("she is the murderer"), answered with a demure protest by the sweet young defendant, and so on.

Mozart's autograph, Piano Quartet in G Minor (piano part)

But it was near the climax of the piece when (oh, had this been caught on video) someone's cell phone rang! But not just any cell phone. The audience member was using the "Ode to Joy" theme as a ring tone which cracked everybody up and brought everything to a standstill (I thought we'd have to adjourn). A few seconds later as we'd moved on, it occurred to me I should've shouted out "Beethoven objects" to the opening of Beethoven's 5th, but alas, like so many come-backs, too late... Anyway, it all worked out in the end.

Obviously, Mr. Adolphe was not explaining this as "what was on Mozart's mind" when he composed this music. This is not "what the music is about." He was very clear about that. But it's nice to have some fun with an art form that too often is accused of taking itself far too seriously.

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Usually, when I write about a piece of music, I'm more interested in what was going on in the composer's life when it was written, both musically and personally, what might have led up to its creation. Or, for this series of concerts, I've been amused by the importance of a composer like Antonio Salieri who played important roles in the life of three of our composers on the first two programs, being a teacher to Beethoven and Schubert and a rival to Mozart (regardless of that other business...).

Mozart Medallion (1788)
Fact: Mozart completed a piano quartet in G Minor and entered it into his thematic catalogue on October 16th, 1785 (it would later become K.478 in Köchel's catalogue); a piano quartet in C Major was added on June 3rd, 1786, and were released by the publisher in 1787.

One thing that's always fascinated me about the G Minor Piano Quartet is the story that the publisher Hoffmeister commissioned Mozart to compose three piano quartets – in those days, works usually came in combinations of 3 or 6 (in Baroque days, a dozen was not uncommon): Beethoven's 3 Piano Trios Op.1, or the 3 Violin Sonatas Op.12, or the 6 String Quartets Op.18 – but when the first two sold poorly, they mutually agreed to cancel the contract and the third piano quartet was never written.

While we moan and gripe about having lost what could only have been a masterpiece, considering the status of the two he did compose, how did this happen? We blame it on a fickle, uneducated audience as today we point to “cross-over” music and reality TV dumbing-down an audience's awareness of art (when I found the YouTube video of Richard Lin playing Beethoven's Op.12/3 Sonata for my post, there was a superimposed ad for an upcoming André Rieu concert) without realizing the problem, such as it is, existed long before television.

The problem wasn't so much a public that couldn't appreciate Mozart's music. There were, in a sense, two types of music, if we consider what we call “classical music” in the absence of anything comparable to today's “pop music”: music was intended for either a public sphere or a private one and orchestral music or opera belonged to the public sphere while chamber music was in the private sphere.

The obvious difference would've been the performance venues: public music was experienced by a large group in a space like a theater or concert hall; private music belonged to smaller spaces with smaller audiences and was often designed to be played by its audience. You would attend a concert and listen to a symphony or concerto; you would perform the chamber music yourself and react to it as both performer and listener, or you listened to a few friends or relatives who were performing it – in other words, the “amateur market.”

Vienna, despite the presence of such monumental figures of classical music like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg, was a city that enjoyed its entertainment and had little regard for music it considered too intellectual (the main reason Brahms always tried his symphonies out “out-of-town” before performing them in Vienna). Places in Germany might acclaim such a work more readily than the Viennese would. While Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms might be considered the greatest composers associated with the city, it does not mean they were necessarily the most popular composers in Vienna.

In 1788, a newspaper in Weimar mentioned, referring to one of these piano quartets, “how it was often heard that 'Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such[-and-]such a Princess or Countess possesses and plays it!'” which then excited sufficient curiosity in the piece which then led others to produce it in “grand and noisy concerts and to make a parade with it.” The end result was the awareness that “this product of Mozart's can in truth hardly bear listening to when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands and is negligently played... What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room when the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear, and in the presence of only two or three attentive people!”

The failure in Vienna which doomed the third of these piano quartets came about because performances of the first two were poorly received by those who were essentially looking to purchase something they could play in their own parlors – comparable to artists today who sell their CDs in the lobby so fans can listen to them at home long after the concert is past. But whether the audience found them unsatisfactory because they didn't think they were “good pieces” or perhaps were “too intellectual to be enjoyed,” it's more likely they didn't bother purchasing the printed scores – what the publisher was all about – because they were too difficult for amateurs to play.

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In December of 1782, not long after he left the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg to find his own way in the Imperial Capital, Mozart wrote to his father, “In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.”

Speaking of “what we have lost...”, Mozart also mentioned in this same letter how he “would like to write a book – a short critical work with musical examples – but not under my name.” At the time he was contemplating various opera projects and it's assumed this book would have contained his thoughts on writing for the opera house (and this, three years before he wrote The Marriage of Figaro). Imagine Mozart telling us what Mozart thought was important when he composed!

Antonio Salieri
Vienna was a city where, if you wanted to make a success, especially a financial success, you wrote operas. But it was very difficult to break into the repertoire at the National Opera House. The director was... Antonio Salieri – so immediately you would think, “aha! Salieri was trying to block his rival's success!” Not necessarily.

Mozart managed to get three operas premiered there between 1783 and 1791 – Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte – and the only other composer other than Salieri to have that many premieres was Vicente Martín y Soler. In those same eight seasons, Salieri had seven premieres but then as director, that was part of his job, producing new operas for his company. The company performed nine new productions each season with an average of two or three premieres.

It should be noted that Mozart made half-again as much as the usual fee for Don Giovanni which had already been premiered in Prague, and twice the usual fee for Cosí. So we can't completely claim discrimination or blame Salieri for sidelining a rival.

Now, I mention this because of one thing that pertains to the composing of the Piano Quartet in question: what else was he writing at the time?

1785 was a busy year for Mozart: if you read his biographies, there are accounts of new works and public concerts early in the year, how his father came to visit and was amazed at how many times his son would be performing (and who was in the audience). He attended a read-through of three of Mozart's new string quartets “dedicated to Haydn,” and the Grand Old Man confessed to a proud father that “before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

In addition to the concerts – not to mention having his father on-hand for a visit which also entailed frequent dinners with friends – Mozart managed to compose several works during this ten-week period: having in the past two months completed two string quartets (including the “Dissonant”) and the D Minor piano concerto, there was another new piano concerto, the cantata Davidde penitente (which was mostly recycling the unfortunately incomplete Mass in C Minor), an andante for violin and orchestra, and two works for the Masonic lodge he and his father attended.

But then, after the vast and intense C Minor Fantasy (K.475) which he completed on May 20th, the little song (one of the delights of his output), Das Veilchen and the Masonic Funeral Music (K.477) written in July and first heard that summer as a choral setting before being reworked as an instrumental piece in the fall, he composed nothing until he entered the G Minor Piano Quartet into the catalogue on October 16th.

We don't know when he started it – but typically Mozart composed rapidly and so, in this case, it's unlikely he'd spend the entire summer on a work like this, no matter how great it would be regarded (eventually).

No, the question “what did Mozart do that summer?” is answered by the work he did begin working on: it wasn't premiered until the following May 1st and legend has it the overture was written the night before, his wife Constanze keeping him awake by feeding him punch until he completed it.

He started a new opera, The Marriage of Figaro, sometime during the summer of 1785 for by the autumn, it was well underway. But there was the libretto to prepare – Lorenzo da Ponte adapting Beaumarchais' play – and while da Ponte worked with Salieri and two other opera composers at the same time, most of whom took his libretto (or script) and set it verbatim, Mozart corresponded with da Ponte to shape the libretto to his musical preferences. And given the role of the librettist in the production of operas then, this was highly unusual. Obviously da Ponte thought enough of Mozart's talent to put up with such behavior since such collaboration was unexpected.

Incidentally, speaking of connections, Lorenzo da Ponte, who was by the way a Catholic priest, ran afoul of things one could run afoul of in Vienna, traveled to Paris with a letter of recommendation to Queen Marie Antoinette from her brother, the late Emperor Joseph II, only to discover, as he approached Paris, there was trouble afoot and the King and Queen had been arrested! So instead, he and his companion Nancy Grahl (they would eventually have four children, speaking of things a priest could run afoul of) went instead to London where he became a grocer and a teacher of Italian. In 1805, he fled his creditors to go to New York, then, subsequently, even ran a grocery store in Sunbury PA between 1811-1818, then returned to New York where he opened a bookstore and taught Italian at Columbia University. In 1833, at the age of 84, he started an opera company which lasted only two seasons. Subsequent managers revived the company though its theater burned down twice before 1841. It would later become the genesis of the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera Company.

While in Sunbury (and occasionally traveling through Harrisburg to buy supplies in Philadelphia), da Ponte befriended a young boy who was a printer's apprentice in Sunbury. He instilled in the boy a love of “fine music” with his tales of opera, Mozart and life in Vienna. The boy was Simon Cameron who later became a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and a cabinet minister in President Lincoln's first term, then, after being named U.S. Ambassador to Russia, moved to Harrisburg where he became a powerful (which meant corrupt) politician, controlling the state-wide Republican party (what was then called “machine politics”). He is probably best known for his statement, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.” He purchased and renovated the John Harris Mansion on Front Street where he lived for many years. Celebrating its 250th anniversary, the Harris-Cameron Mansion is now home to the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

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There was one more thing Mozart did before completing his piano quartet. Salieri's new opera, The Cave of Trofonio, was set to premiere in June when one of the lead singers, Nancy Storace (for whom Mozart would create the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), became ill, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. It was three months before she was well enough to return to the stage in mid-September with an opera by Paisiello, Salieri's premiere rescheduled now for mid-October.

Printed score of "Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia" discovered in 2015
Within a week of her return, a new cantata was announced in the press celebrating her recovery. Called Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia (For the recovered health of Ophelia) for soprano and continuo (fortepiano and cello), it was a "brisk four-minute work" in three sections, each by a different composer setting words of da Ponte.

Salieri set the opening two stanzas, a pastoral passage in which Ophelia, a character in the postponed opera (no relation to Shakespeare's character), looks forward to the delayed performance. A march-like middle section was composed by Mozart, somewhat in the manner of his earlier Abduction from the Seraglio. The concluding part, similar to Salieri's opening, was by a composer identified as Cornetti, possibly Alessandro Cornetti, a vocal teacher and opera composer active in Vienna at the time.

The score was discovered in a Prague museum library only last November and while it is not the discovery of a lost masterpiece by any means, it is a rare example of two rivals managing to work together for the benefit of a singer well known for performing both their operas!

So, as Mozart was writing this dramatic G Minor Piano Quartet with its sparklingly happy ending, he was also having a moment of collaboration with a man who would later be accused of his murder!

How dramatic is that?

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, from the film Amadeus

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Summermusic 2016: Beethoven's Hostile Entanglements

Beethoven, around 1801
The first concert of Summermusic 2016 with “Curtis on Tour” starts with Beethoven, a very good place to start. Curtis faculty members Bella Hristova, violinist, and pianist Natalie Zhu will begin with the third of Beethoven's violin sonatas – the one in E-flat, Op.12 No. 3 – and then continue with more recent works: four rags by John Novacek and “Swan Song” (inspired by Schubert's last songs) composed by David Ludwig. Joined the cellist Soo Bae, they will conclude the program with Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Trio.

(You can read more about this opening program in the introductory post to the entire three-concert series, here.)

In another post, I wrote about the “Salieri Connection” which is easy enough to have when you've got Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in any proximity. But in this case, Beethoven dedicated these three violin sonatas to one of his teachers, Antonio Salieri; and Schubert was 20 when he wrote the String Trio that's on the second program not long after having a last lesson with Salieri whom he'd started studying with when he was 15. Five years of intense study can have quite an impact on a young composer – and Salieri's stamp is evident in this delightful work which sounds more like it was written in the 1780s than in 1817.

So what was going on in Beethoven's life before he wrote the violin sonata you can hear Friday night at Market Square Church?

Here is Taiwanese-born American violinist Richard Lin playing Beethoven's Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op.12 No. 3, with pianist Natsumi Ohno from the 2015 Joseph Joachim Competition in Hannover, Germany:
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Here's another connection.

Keep in mind, Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn, a city on the great Rhine which, between 1597 and 1794, was the capital of the “Electorate of Cologne,” one of those smallish states along the Rhine that was part of a loose German-speaking region before Germany existed as a nation-state. I used to tell my students that Bonn was kind of like, say, Harrisburg (state capital on a wide river) and Vienna was the magnet to any young aspiring musician like, say, New York City.

Bonn's Market Square c.1900
Anyway, the analogy isn't all that apt – yes, there's even a Market Square with City Hall at one end, typical of most cities, then: one could never really describe Harrisburg as the intellectual hot-bed Bonn was during the Enlightenment in the late-18th Century when Beethoven was growing up.

This philosophical grounding and sense of independent thinking shaped Beethoven, giving him a different view of what life, art and the role of the individual was in society compared to those who grew up in pleasure-loving Imperial Vienna. Influenced and inspired by the ideals that brought about the French Revolution with its storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14th, 1789.

These were heady days for fans of Republican liberalism (now, there's something that gives one pause, today...) in the days when monarchs felt they were kings by God's Will – at least until the French Republic (remember, Napoleon didn't crown himself Emperor until 1803) decided to expand its territory and brings more than its political message to the good people along the Rhine.

It was at this time young Beethoven, with the blessing of Bonn's Elector, decided to go off to Vienna to study. The plan was, he would then, after finishing his studies, return home to resume his position as a court musician in Bonn.

Initially, he had wanted to study with Mozart and had first traveled to Vienna in 1787 with the intent of networking the music scene there, hoping to arrange some lessons with Mozart. He left Bonn on March 20th and arrived in Vienna on April 7th and it's possible he was introduced to Mozart shortly afterward by a mutual acquaintance and fellow-Mason. While the story of the boy playing the piano for Mozart and Mozart saying “Keep an eye on him – someday he'll give the world something to talk about” sounds like another one of those Great Myths of Classical Music: not provable as not true, either, but if it were, you'd think Beethoven would've been bragging about it later in life, yet he never mentioned meeting Mozart and was contradictory about hearing Mozart play.

Unfortunately, Beethoven only got to stay a little while (some sources say two weeks) before word arrived his mother, who'd been ill when he left, was now dying (she died in mid-July).

Mozart composed his G Minor Piano Quartet in 1785, entering the newly completed work into his thematic catalogue on October 16th. But if Beethoven had anything worth showing Mozart in the way of an introduction or part of an "application" to study with him during his all-to-brief visit in 1787, it would have been three of his own piano quartets which the 14-year-old composer wrote the same year - like this one, in E-flat Major. They had been modeled on violin sonatas by Mozart, copying their structure, harmonic language, and thematic development as a kind of scaffolding so he could learn how "real" composers do it and even they're far from mature works, Mozart would've seen something in these works that went beyond mere imitation.

Did Mozart comment on them? Did Beethoven actually get to take some lessons from him? It's odd he never mentioned it later, so it would seem unlikely that it happened, don't you think?

At one point late in his life, Beethoven said he had heard Mozart play once (another time he said he'd heard him play several times) and that "he had a fine but choppy way of playing, no legato" (more like a harpsichord player than what even to the next generation was piano playing).

But his mother was dying and so, dutiful son that he was, Beethoven returned home.

By the time he met Haydn traveling through Bonn on his way to England in 1791, Beethoven was trying to organize another chance to study with Mozart in Vienna. In December of that year, Beethoven was playing in the pit orchestra for a production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio only to find out Mozart had died about two weeks earlier. The Bonn court theater had also presented Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni in the past year (but the popular hit of that season was Dittersdorf's Little Red Riding Hood).

What could Beethoven do, now? Make plans to go to Vienna to study with Haydn, then.

On November 2nd, 1792, Beethoven finally left for Vienna, 550 miles away – as Count Waldstein wrote in Beethoven's album, “Through uninterrupted diligence you shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.” He reached the suburbs of Vienna around sunrise on December 10th. There had been a sense that Revolution was inevitable - political revolution, social revolution and with it an artistic revolution to match - but the roads through these small German states en route to Vienna were dangerous with French troops marching through the region. That was the revolution most on Beethoven's mind as he neared his 22nd birthday.

Only two weeks after Beethoven left Bonn, the Elector Maximilian Franz (a brother of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette) fled the city in the wake of the occupying French army, though they returned again in the spring of '93 when the French were driven back. But it didn't last long: in October, Cologne falls to the French army, the first time the city has been occupied by foreign troops in 900 years; on October 8th, Bonn surrendered without a fight. The French did not leave until 1814.

Originally intending to stay for a couple of years to study in Vienna, Beethoven now had nothing to return to and so he decided to stay. He was studying with Haydn (not very successfully, alas) and took counterpoint lessons from Albrechtsberger, another leading composer (who found Haydn missed several errors in Beethoven's earlier exercises), and also studied "dramatic composition," setting Italian to music, with Vienna's most famous opera composer and the most powerful musician in the Imperial capital, Antonio Salieri. Young Beethoven was recognized as an amazing pianist and an improviser who knew no equal. He had wealthy music-loving aristocrats lining up to support him and to have their daughters study piano with him. Not only had Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he had arrived.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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When Beethoven published his first three violin sonatas in 1799 as his Op.12, Mozart had been dead for almost eight years. And certainly to our ears – used, as we are, to the heroic Beethoven of the 5th Symphony, of the 9th and the Late Quartets, and to everything that happened since, whether it's Brahms or Wagner or Schoenberg or John Cage – these works seem fairly slight and Mozart-like, graceful, elegant, devoid of the romantic, revolutionary emotions we associate with his later music.

Keep in mind one of the great “romantic” piano sonatas – emotional, dramatic, and above all personal, the one he himself called the Pathétique – was also published in 1799 and given the number Op.13. In fact, sketches for these very different works – the violin sonatas and the Pathétique – can be found in the same notebook. Beethoven had a habit of working on several pieces simultaneously and often very contrasting works. This would be a perfect example!

Yet in June, 1799, here is what one of Beethoven's first critics thought of these “graceful, elegant, Mozart-like” violin sonatas, especially the 3rd, the one in E-flat, examining the freshly published score, not hearing a performance:

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After having arduously worked his way through these quite peculiar sonatas, overladen with strange difficulties, he must admit that... he felt like a man who had thought he was going to promenade with an ingenious friend through an inviting forest, was detained ever moment by hostile entanglements, and finally emerged, weary, exhausted, and without enjoyment. It is undeniable that Herr van Beethoven goes his own way. But what a bizarre, laborious way! Studied, studied, studied and perpetually studied, and no nature, no song. Indeed... there is is only a mass of learning here. There is obstinacy for which we feel very little interest, a striving for rare modulations ...a piling on of difficulty upon difficulty, so that one loses all patience and enjoyment. (quoted in Swafford's Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph, p.233-234)
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Certainly, the modulations were not the usual tonalities listeners even on the verge of a new century would have expected, unusual keys like E-flat Minor (a favorite of Beethoven's but one rarely encountered in music of the day) and even one passage in C-flat Major – true, one could argue that Mozart's great G Minor Symphony moved so swiftly through some likewise unexpected tonalities in the development section of its finale, some 20th Century scholars consider it “the birthplace of atonal music” (!) but just because it existed did not make it “typical of the age” – but considering what “hostile entanglements” our critic encountered in this violin sonata, what would he have thought of the piano sonata that immediately followed it?

Five years later, a 10-year-old piano student, Ignaz Moscheles (later to become one of the most acclaimed pianists and composers of his generation), hand-copied Beethoven's Pathétique from a library copy (because he couldn't afford to purchase it, himself – even then, one could make claims for “illegal downloading”) when he said his teacher “warned me against playing or studying eccentric productions before I had developed a style based on more respectable models.” Like many students listening to their teachers, he ignored him.

Yet we might find Schubert's reaction to Beethoven – quoted in the “Salieri Connection” post – surprising because it's so much later (June, 1816) when you think people would've "gotten used" to Beethoven by then, but Schubert, still 19, was listening to what his teacher was telling him. Keep in mind that even in 1798, when Beethoven had been studying with Salieri himself, Salieri was already composing music that was old-fashioned even then.

Style Wars, the bitter in-fighting of musical politics – it hasn't changed much over two hundred years.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, July 11, 2016

Summermusic 2016, the 2nd Concert - Elgar's Piano Quintet

Elgar in 1919 (by Wm. Rothenstein)
This summer, Market Square Concerts presents Curtis on Tour, performers from Philadelphia's famed Curtis Institute of Music, both faculty and students. It's an exciting "internship" program in which students from Curtis get to tour and perform with faculty members.

Summermusic 2016 begins Friday at 8pm with works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn and in between more recent works by John Novacek and David Ludwig.

The 2nd Concert is Sunday at 4pm and includes Schubert's String Trio D.581 and Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet, plus the Piano Quintet by Edward Elgar.

The 3rd Concert takes place Tuesday at 6:00 (not a typo) and features three American Quartets - Samuel Barber's Quartet (the home of the original Adagio for Strings), the quartet Dvořák composed while taking a break from New York City, and the first public performance of a quartet inspired by summers at Cape Cod by Jonathan Bailey Holland. 

You can read about these works in various posts on the Market Square Concerts blog.

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The final work on the second program of Summermusic 2016 – Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Market Square Church – is the Piano Quintet in A Minor by Sir Edward Elgar, the composer best known for giving us the "Enigma Variations" and something to march to at graduation. Considering how few piano quintets there are in the repertoire – and the ubiquity of hearing Brahms', Schumann's, Dvořák's, and Shostakovich's and occasionally, a distant fifth, Franck's – you could ask why you don't hear this one more often (if at all)?

Here are three videos – if you don't have time to listen to the complete work (it's 37 minutes long), at least view this performance by members of Curtis on Tour with the Curtis Student Quartet and faculty pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. It's the final minute of the piece and bodes well for an exciting finale to this concert!
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Here's the complete work – all three movements – with Ian Brown and the Sorrel Quartet, complete with score.
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If you have the time, I recommend Bruce Adolphe's lecture about the 1st Movement of Elgar's Quintet with Gilbert Kalish and the Amphion Quartet, courtesy of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:
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It begins with an introduction to Elgar as an English composer at a time when English music was, to most Europeans, little different from our modern perception of British cooking. At c.13:00, he begins talking about the music and then the performers play the first movement, beginning around 58:30.

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Brinkwells in 2010
The summer of 1918 – with the “Great War” (later to be known as the 1st World War) continuing on the Continent into its 4th year, casting its gloom and pall at the death of Britain's young men across the land – was meant to be a respite from the daily war-time life. Elgar, recuperating from an illness, spent the time with his wife and daughter at Brinkwells, a country house in rural Sussex with several acres of grounds, south of what is now the South Downs National Park. It was owned by a painter-friend of the Elgars named Rex Vicat Cole, a landscape artist, who had enlisted in the war. In his absence, the Elgars rented his cottage near Fittleworth and turned his studio into a music room.

They would spend two summers there, and in all Elgar would work on four new compositions. The three he began that first summer were all chamber pieces and he had composed little chamber music during his career, so in that sense this was an auspicious summer.

The Studio at Brinkwells
"Imagine then an old oak-beamed cottage set on a wooded hill, and across an old-world garden another building resembling an artist's studio. From this studio there is a view of a hill sloping down to more thickly wooded country; beyond this the river Arun, and, in the distance, the heights of the South Downs are visible. Near the cottage, rises a strange plateau, on which there are a number of trees with gnarled and twisted branches, bare of bark or leaves - a ghastly sight in the evening, when the branches seem to be beckoning and holding up gaunt arms in derision." (quoted from an Elgar website)

Elgar enjoyed walking in the countryside though at this time, I'm not sure he was bicycling as much as he used to. There was a legend associated with these trees in a nearby park, “sad 'dispossessed' trees,” according to the composer's wife, Alice, said to be the remains of some Spanish monks who, having performed some sacrilegious rituals there centuries earlier, had been struck by lightening and converted into these trees.

Elgar had apparently planned his summer reading before leaving London and ordered several novels by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from the library – the author most famous for the opening line of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night...” (written when the author was 27). At the time he'd decided to compose this quintet, Alice reported her husband was reading Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story.

I can't say I would recommend reading it unless you really want to put yourself in the composer's frame-of-mind. Like many novelists of the Victorian Era, Bulwer-Lytton is one that quickly fell out of fashion and is today remembered primarily for that opening phrase which has spawned a contest to create a parody of “bad literature,” a sad legacy for a writer who was in his day not only successful but, for a time, quite popular.

a young Bulwer-Lytton
He did, however, give us other often-quoted lines: “the almighty dollar” is Bulwer-Lytton's as is “the Great Unwashed” not to mention one I always attributed to Shakespeare it was so ubiquitous, “the pen is mightier than the sword”! Two of his novels inspired operas by Wagner and Verdi, though both are overlooked in the operatic repertoire as well: Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes inspired Wagner; and Harold, Last of the Saxons, became Verdi's Aroldo.

Regardless of the supernatural elements of A Strange Story or the legend of the Spanish monks “inspiring” Elgar to write a programmatic work, the Quintet, which Elgar admitted contained some “ghostly stuff,” opens with a direct quotation of the opening of the Gregorian chant, Salve regina (there are at least two that I've found, but this is the one Elgar quotes in the opening and which recurs throughout the first movement).

Whether it's there because of any specific association with the ill-fated monks or just because Elgar, a life-long Catholic, liked it or even used it purely coincidentally, the text associated with it – “Hail, Queen, Mother of Mercy” – might certainly also have been on his mind because of the on-going pall of the war.

And don't keep asking me why there's this unexpected Spanish dance for a second theme (as fans of Monty Python can tell you, "I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition"...). It follows the rather Brahmsian main theme: considering this is 1918, writing like Brahms (which was what most English composers did in the 1870s and '80s) was already old-fashioned and the juxtaposition of serious Brahms with what sounds like cafe music probably struck first-time listeners as a bit incongruous. Then, there's that rhythmic motive heard in the strings at the opening which also pervades the movement, giving the whole a kind of “ghostly” unease.

Elgar's favourite pub near Brinkwells
This first movement struck many of Elgar's friends as being “something new” in his expression, unlike anything he'd composed before, especially the modality of the opening material and its overall episodic nature. The second and third movements were less so, apparently – the slow movement is definitely the expressive core of the piece (bringing back memories of the world of "Nimrod" from the 1899 Enigma Variations); the last movement keeps slipping back nostalgically into the first movement – but there were few works left to be written, after this. Appalled by the war and in ill health, Elgar eventually composed four works those two summers at Brinkwells: there was also the String Quartet (which he hadn't finished when he began the Piano Quintet), the Violin Sonata and, once the war had ended, the Cello Concerto. Curiously, while the Quintet is in A Minor, all three of the other works are in E Minor which seems a bit odd. Is there some association with this key and the mood the composer was in at the time?

By 1920, Elgar's music had already fallen out of fashion – he was now 63 – and perhaps, as often happened with other composers at that point in their lives (not so much the age as the loss of esteem), Elgar ceased to compose. It was his wife's death later that year, however, that brought his creativity to a standstill. Though he'd been appointed “Master of the King's Music” in 1924, he composed little for such royal occasions as the post required: his “Nursery Suite,” written the celebrate the recent birth of the Duke of York's younger daughter and dedicated to the Duchess and both her daughters (the older daughter, by the way, now Queen Elizabeth II, just turned 90), was based entirely on sketches from notebooks dating back to his own youth.

In the early-1930s, as he approached his 75th birthday, his music began to experience something of a renaissance which inspired him to begin a new opera (The Spanish Lady) and a Third Symphony but these were left unfinished when it was discovered in 1933 he had inoperable cancer and died about four months later.

So, one of the questions you might consider while listening to this rarely-heard  Piano Quintet, whether it's new or already familiar to you, is “what new directions might the Old Boy have discovered? And how might he have then realized those possibilities?” (Okay, technically, that's two questions...) Given that this became one of his last works (and thinking especially of the Cello Concerto), you could also wonder, "what have we lost?"

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credits: the three photos of Brinkwells and the nearby pub were taken by a Melbourne-based blogger posting at "Art and Architecture mainly"