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

Monday, January 13, 2020

Third Coast Percussion and Something Completely Different

Members of Third Coast Percussion prepare to Organize the Mallets
Christmas has come and gone (whether or not your neighbor's decorations have), the New Year – the New Decade – has arrived, and now even 12th Night is a thing of the past. So maybe we don't have twelve Drummers drumming for our first concert of 2020 but we do have 4 Percussionists ...percussing. And it's not your grandfather's quartet that will be performing at Whitaker Center on Wednesday night at 8:00.

This Chicago-based ensemble calls themselves “Third Coast Percussion” (TCP for short) and they met while studying at Northwestern University near Chicago, hence the name “Third Coast” (a standard nickname for the Great Lakes shoreline).

While there are four percussionists (not just “drummers”) – David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors – it's not like a string quartet where four players play only four instruments: before the evening is out, these guys will be playing 32 different instruments from around the world, not just marimbas and xylophones and glockenspiels, big and little cymbals and gongs and – oh yes – drums, there are also temple bells, automobile brake drums and something that looks like planks of wood (called “planks of wood”) and some “steel conduit pipes,” basically anything can you hit, strike, stroke or bang on and get a sound out of – even, if necessary, the kitchen sink. (I once asked a percussionist what he looks for in something he can use to make “new sounds” and he said “it must fit in the van.”)

This video will give you a bit of insight into this particular program featuring works from their latest album, “Perpetulum,” nominated for what could become their second Grammy Award (we'll find out on Sunday, January 26th; check the Grammy website that Sunday night for the complete list of winners. Good luck, guys!)

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Their NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” – just look at all the stuff they cram into that space! (reminds me of my old cubicle) – opens with their collectively composed “Niagara” (which will also open their Whitaker Center concert on January 15th), and continues with their arrangement of Philip Glass' “Amazon River.” Their program here (or to use “rock band jargon,” set list) will include, instead, Glass's first work originally composed for percussion ensemble which gives its name to their most recent album, “Perpetulum.”

One of the main things an ensemble like Third Coast Percussion can do is to expand their ensemble's repertoire by commissioning and premiering new works, but it's also handy when the performers – band-members, if you want – are composers themselves. The Whitaker Center concert will include not only their collective “Niagara,” but individual works by three of them:

Back to the Tiny Desk Concert. It concludes with David Skidmore's “Torched and Wrecked” which he says is about “something sad” that once happened to his fellow performer Sean Connors' car (one can only imagine). As the video's notes mention, “it's also a butt-kicking ride that includes those steel conduit pipes, which the band cuts to specific lengths to get the desired pitches. Skidmore wrote the piece, but it's Connors who appears to achieve a kind of cathartic glee pounding on the metal tubes.”

Another member of the band, Peter Martin, contributes “Bend” to the program:


And last in the random order I'm posting these videos in is band-member Robert Dillon's “Ordering-Intentions” (it seemed appropriate):


Phillip Glass has written so much for percussion instruments in his music – chamber, orchestral, operatic – as part of the ensemble, yet “Perpetulum” is his first work written solely for percussion ensemble, commissioned and premiered by Third Coast Percussion. The Chicago Tribune praised its “… score [which is] rich in musical incident, its meters and textures constantly changing. Its embrace of pitched and non-pitched instrumentation [is] immensely appealing to hear,” also noting “a sense of joy pervaded all this music, thanks to the intricately interlocking figures Glass wrote and TCP’s fastidious execution of them.”



They've also commissioned several works from Augusta Read Thomas, the one on this program called “Resounding Earth II”. Here's an interview with her about “Resounding Earth” (No.1) which, speaking of numbers of instruments, calls for over 130 bells!


Pop polymath Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) grew up listening to and playing classical music (cello and piano) till he was 13 and then branched out from there, heavily influenced initially by discovering Philip Glass's music. Here's an interview with him about his piece, “Fields,” written for and previously recorded by Third Coast Percussion.


And TCP doesn't just play percussion instruments. There's one work on the program where they don't play instruments at all. The group posted this video excerpt from Mark Applebaum's “Aphasia” on Facebook, promoting concerts last November, saying “We love touring this zany piece by our friend and colleague Mark Applebaum, called Aphasia. Mark wrote the piece for a single performer, but we do a quartet version (which means we had a lot of fun lining up all these crazy gestures...).” You'll have to check out our Facebook page to watch this one because TOL (this old Luddite) couldn't figure out how to post TCP's clip in the blog... (Still, I'm wondering how this piece works on a CD...? but I digress.) LOL...

Not just performers and crusaders for the percussive arts, they're also committed teachers, having been an ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center from 2013-2018. While in Harrisburg, in addition to the performance at Whitaker Center, Third Coast Percussion will offer a free educational program for elementary and middle school children called “Think Outside the Drum” at Whitaker Center on Thursday, January 16th, as well as a masterclass for percussion students at Messiah College the same day.

- Dick Strawser

The Third Coast Percussion Residency was supported by New Music USA.  To follow the project as it unfolds, visit the project page: https://www.newmusicusa.org/projects/third-coast-percussion-residency.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Schumann Quartet: The Music of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg in 1876
This post resumes the “look behind the scenes” from the other two works on the Schumann Quartet's program Saturday night, November 9th, at Market Square Church. You can read about the two works by Mozart and Alban Berg on the first half of the program here.

Given the tempestuous nature of Grieg's quartet – at least the main part of its first movement – and the intensity of both Mozart's and Berg's works, you might think they've put the Drang before the Sturm.

What is it about this work from his mid-30s that makes it sound so different in style yet so immediately recognizable as Grieg, even though most American listeners are familiar only with his miniatures like the short pieces making up the music written for Peer Gynt and the various folk-inspired dances. Oh yes, and that Piano Concerto written when he was 24.

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It was around New Year's, 1888, and three famous composers found themselves in Leipzig and were having dinner at the home of Adolph Brodsky, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Johannes Brahms was in town to conduct his “Double Concerto” and perform his new C Minor Piano Trio. Tchaikovsky was on a major European tour, making his Leipzig debut in early January, conducting his Suite No. 1 in D Minor in a few days. Grieg was a frequent visitor to the city and had many friends there but I couldn't find any specific references to concerts he might have been giving at the time.

Tchaikovsky had, as yet, not met either of the other two composers. He and Brahms would have a chilly relationship and took no effort to hide the fact they disliked each other's music. But with both of them, Grieg had a warm friendship, a mutual admiration both personally and musically (in fact, Tchaikovsky would later dedicate his concert-overture Hamlet to Grieg).

When the guests – who included several other notable Leipzig musicians – sat down to dinner, Frau Brodsky placed Nina Grieg between Brahms and Tchaikovsky as a kind of buffer. At one point, she stood up and protested she could no longer sit there, the tension made her so nervous. Her husband gallantly slipped into her place, saying “I have the nerve!”

We tend to forget composers whose music we so much admire had personal lives and sometimes interacted not just as musicians but as otherwise “normal” people. Frau Brodsky also remarked about this dinner how Brahms had been coveting the jar of strawberry jam, protesting he would share it with no one else, and they all laughed. “It was like a children's party, not a gathering of great composers.” Brodsky, over the after-dinner cigars and drinks, even played some magic tricks for his guests, and Brahms, especially amused, demanded an explanation how each was done. (Oh, if only someone could've snapped a selfie at that dinner party...)

In his diary, Tchaikovsky noted his first impressions of Grieg who, at the time, was 44 and would publish his famous 1st Suite from Peer Gynt that same year. “There entered the room a very short, middle-aged man, exceedingly fragile in appearance, with shoulders of unequal height, fair hair brushed back from his forehead, and a very slight, almost boyish beard and mustache. There was nothing striking [in his appearance]… but he had an uncommon charm and blue eyes, not very large, but irresistibly fascinating, recalling the glance of a charming and candid child. I rejoiced... it turned out this personality... belonged to a musician whose warmly emotional music had long ago won my heart. It was Edvard Grieg.”

At a concert of chamber music a few days later, Grieg and his wife would sit with Tchaikovsky to hear the Russian's Op.11 String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Trio. They would again meet – without Brahms – at the Brodsky home for dinner, where Nina Grieg sang some of her husband's songs, the composer at the piano, much to Tchaikovsky's delight.

Chamber music was a special world for Grieg, though he wrote only three violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and one complete string quartet, the one in G Minor, Op.27, written ten years before this Leipzig dinner. For the Norwegian composer, known mostly as a composer of miniatures – though had he written nothing more than his early Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, he would've been a “one-hit wonder” – chamber music with its “large-scale, multi-movement forms” was a daunting challenge and a professional goal, not always easily accomplished. His solution, at least in this string quartet, might strike one as an imaginative working of various miniatures honed into a gradually larger format much like a mosaic or montage.

There's a much-quoted letter written shortly after he'd completed it: "I have recently finished a string quartet,” he wrote to a close friend, “which I still haven't heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written."

Grieg (1879)
But the letter continues (quoted in Grove's Dictionary 1980): “I needed to do this as a study. Now I shall tackle another piece of chamber music; I think in that way I shall find myself again. You can have no idea what trouble I had with the forms, but this was because I was stagnating, and this in turn was in part on account of a number of occasional works (Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jarsalfar and other horrors) and in part on account of too much popularity. I have thought of saying 'Farewell, shadows' to all this – if it can be done.”

(You might be shocked to find him referring to some of his most popular music as “horrors,” but such are composers' reactions to some of their own works. Tchaikovsky loathed The Nutcracker, perhaps because it became too popular at the expense of works he felt were far more significant.)

Something that has always intrigued me about Grieg's quartet is its opening, not really a slow introduction, but more of a “motto” that recurs throughout the piece, much the way Tchaikovsky would be doing with the “Fate Motto” that opens his 4th Symphony, written about the same time. I wondered if this had any significance for Grieg – or was it just a nice thematic idea? Given his frame-of-mind as he was writing this work and the importance he placed on it (finding himself again and all that), remember he wrote it a year after his score for the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, this “horror” that had consumed two years of his time and energy.

So it's very revealing to discover it comes from a song published a year earlier, Spillemænd (“Fiddlers” or “Minstrels”), Op.25 No. 1, which sets a poem by Henrik Ibsen about a water spirit who would give minstrels great gifts of musical abilities in exchange for their happiness.

Enough said.

Now, given that insight, listen to all four movements of Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor, Op.27, in this version with the score, performed by the Copenhagen Quartet:


The 1st Movement, Un poco andante - Allegro molto ed agitato, opens with the “motto theme” that will appear in various guises through the course of the entire quartet. The dramatic main part of the movement contrasts a stormy section with one of Grieg's more lyrical song-like tunes (starting at 1:58), based on the “motto theme.” These elements then play out in various contrasting segments, juxtaposed, intertwined to create a greater structural unity than the initial “miniature” impression would suggest. At 6:29, the initial “storm sequence” returns and continues in standard sonata form till the “motto theme” returns in an emotional climactic point (at 9:56) which eventually exhausts itself into a benedictory statement in a hushed G Major (at 10:57) before ending in a stormy G Minor, after all.

The 2nd Movement (begins at 11:55), is a Romanze: Andantino, begins with a gently swaying waltz-like dance switching (at 13:14) into “an intoxicating whirl around the dance floor” before regaining its composure (at 14:38) and all its initial social niceties, occasionally breaking out into passionate if momentary and usually abruptly truncated whirls, as if the young couple's parents are, for the moment, not always watching them.

This is but a tentative warm-up for the intricate motions of the 3rd Movement (18:07), an Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato - Più vivo e scherzando which would imply the more laid-back, dance-like (or walk-in-the-country) interludes that Brahms would replace the more traditional scherzo with (though, by 1878, Brahms had only recently completed his 1st and 2nd Symphonies). However, it begins with a dramatic statement based on the opening “motto theme,” once again before turning into another dance, not quite so sociably regular (full of “cross-rhythms”) as the 2nd movement's Romance, but not quite the folksy mood we normally expect from Grieg (he was, after all, not “intending to bring trivialities to market”).

But then, at 20:25, the cello introduces an out-and-out folk-dance for the “middle section” (usually called “the trio” though nobody knows why). You might notice the initial imitation as one instrument enters after another with the tune, in a kind of a faux-fugue. Then the opening section returns before ending in a folksy fluster at the end.

The 4th Movement (24:30), Finale: Lento - Presto al saltarello, opens with a statement of the “motto theme,” once again (this time starting on the same pitch but in different octaves, from the upper to the lowest register of the quartet), before breaking out into what I can only describe as a Norwegian version of an Italian saltarello, a dance similar to the old tarantella whose frenzied motions were supposedly inspired by those of someone bitten by a tarantula. However, whatever Grieg calls it here, its musical origins can be found in the typical Nordic springdans or halling, athletic dances young men might dance at weddings. Grieg had used similar dances in the finale of his Piano Concerto. It continues with various contrasting moments until, at 31:57, the opening motto makes one last emotional appearance before rounding the work off in a blaze of G Major glory.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Looking back to the source of that “motto theme” and that letter I'd quoted, it's not surprising to realize how he doubted his own abilities, a “miniaturist” who lacked experience – the Piano Concerto and a couple of violin sonatas aside – especially the technique needed to deal with “larger forms” which required a different kind of creative thinking. There are several letters written to his friend, Robert Heckmann, a violinist and music critic, looking for advice and, openly or not, positive reinforcement.

In one response, Heckmann told him “I quite honestly could find no sign at all in the quartet of your imagination having been paralyzed.” He would help him with revisions of various sections of the quartet and assured him he would premiere it at a concert in Cologne in October of 1878 if it were ready in time. It was, he did, and Grieg dedicated the quartet to him. By the way, a year later, Heckmann would premiere the 1st Violin Sonata of Johannes Brahms in Bonn.

(In the previous post, I'd mentioned Grieg wrote three string quartets and his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor is the second of them. Technically, the first quartet was a student work, assigned him by his composition teacher in Leipzig, Carl Reinecke, never published and since lost. The third of these quartets was begun in 1891 but he only left the first two movements more or less complete. Two more movements may have been sketched, but his friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen edited only the first two movements, had them performed at his home the month Grieg died and published them the following year. Though rarely performed, it has occasionally been paired with the G Minor Quartet in recordings. You can listen to it, here.)

When Grieg sent his new G Minor quartet to his publisher, they rejected it on the grounds, given all the “double-stops” in the string writing, perhaps the work should instead be a string quintet or maybe a piano quintet? So he sent it elsewhere instead.

It's that rich, almost orchestral texture Grieg gets from his players, requiring each one to play full chords at dramatic moments so it sounds like more than four instruments playing. And G Minor was a good key for that, several pitches of the open strings fitting in the scales of G Minor and its closest related tonalities.

Much is also made of Grieg's “adventuresome” harmonies and its leaning towards an impressionist style – one we associate with French painting and the music of Claude Debussy – except given Grieg's absorption of Norwegian folk music, many of these “adventuresome chords” are the result of trying to harmonize a tune that does not necessarily conform to standard classroom procedures of Late-18th Century classical style.

Just as other composers inspired by their own folk music discovered, this juxtaposition of worlds led to what we would think of as their own “nationalist” voices: while initially colorful – for instance, those odd “augmented” intervals and scales Grieg used in his “orientalist” moments like Peer Gynt's “Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter” which he detested and complained “reeked of cow-pies” – these added sonorities eventually led to the assimilation of folk and art music, as Dvořák, Mussorgsky or Bartók would do, where it became more difficult to determine what was “original” and what belonged to an authentic folk (or folk-like) melody.

Writers claim Grieg's G Minor Quartet was a major influence on the development of Impressionism and particularly Debussy who also wrote a string quartet in the same key (!), despite Debussy's open antipathy to Grieg's music. One writer points out the similarities between the opening of Debussy's quartet and the opening of Grieg's which means, I guess, the opening of Tchaikovsky's B-flat Minor Piano Concerto could've been inspired by the finale of Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata?

But then I found another writer who said “Scholars call Grieg a ‘miniaturist’ due to his petite stature [footnoted source not found]. His music reflects this description.” Being short certainly didn't stop Schubert or Wagner from writing long pieces! Hasn't modern science pretty much debunked such things as Victorian phrenology? Oh, well... as usual, I digress... 

Was Grieg's folk-music influence simply the result of his being born in Norway? He studied in Germany, primarily in Leipzig, with German teachers and was given German composers as his role-models simply because, when he was growing up, there were no Norwegian composers to emulate. It wasn't till he lived in Copenhagen for three years and met the Danish composer Niels Gade (you can read about him in my post from this past Summermusic performances) that he became aware of music outside the German sphere and began to take more of an interest in composition.

(Keep in mind, since the 16th Century, Norway had been a Danish territory; after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, it was ceded to Sweden in a union similar to Austria-Hungary where the Swedish king would also be the King of Norway. It didn't become independent until 1905, two years before Grieg died, and the king it chose in a popular election had been the Crown Prince of Denmark who became King Haakon VII – Haakon VI had died in 1380, but once again I digress...)

Ole Bull
A key figure in the emergence of Norwegian music was the violinist Ole Bull – Schumann considered him the equal of Paganini – who would go on to have an international career, a curious association with Pennsylvania, and who got caught up in the growing nationalist movement of the 1840s, calling for independence from Sweden. At the time, the official language in Norway (despite being part of Sweden) was Danish and in 1850, Bull co-founded the first Norwegian-language theater in the country in his hometown of Bergen. Eight years later, he meet the 15-year-old Edvard Grieg – Bull's brother had married the sister of Grieg's mother whatever level of cousinship that would be called – and realized the sickly boy growing up in culturally isolated Bergen had musical talent so he arranged to send him to Leipzig to study piano at the Conservatory there.

By the way, it is intriguing to consider that Grieg wrote his quartet while spending the summer at a family home in the Hardanger region of Norway, south of Bergen, home of that most folksy of Norwegian folk instruments, the Hardanger fiddle!

Rikard Nordraak
But a more immediately influential friend was the young composer Rikard Nordraak whom he met in Copenhagen in the 1860s. One of his patriotic songs, Ja, vi elsker, became the de facto national anthem of the Norwegian nationalist movement.

Considering what it meant to be a Norwegian composer, Nordraak wrote,
= = = = =
“They talk of carrying rocks to Norway but we have enough rock. Let us simply use what we have. Nationalism, in music for example, does not mean composing more Hallings and Springar such as our forefathers composed. That is nonsense. No, it means building a house out of all these bits of rock and living in it. Listen to the unclothed plaintive melodies that wander, like so many orphans, round the countryside all over Norway. Gather them about you in a circle round the heart of love and let them all tell you their stories. Remember them all, reflect and then play each one afterwards so that you solve all riddles and everyone thinks you like his story best. Then they will be happy and cleave to your heart. Then you will be a national artist.”
= = = = =

Unfortunately, Nordraak died of tuberculosis in 1866 at the age of 23. The Funeral March young Grieg composed for his friend was something the composer asked to be played at his own funeral – at a time when Norway had finally become, almost 40 years after Nordraak's death, an independent nation.


– Dick Strawser

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Schumann Quartet: Mozart, Berg, and Grieg (Part 1)

The Schumann Quartet (photo by Kaupo Kikkas)
The Schumann Quartet will be warming up for their Harrisburg appearance this Saturday with Market Square Concerts by playing at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall the night before. (If you can't make their other two concerts this week in Utrecht and Rotterdam, you'll have to wait until December 4th in Istanbul, and then Christmas Week in Düsseldorf at Schumann Hall and London's Wigmore Hall when they'll be playing a different program.)

At Market Square Church, Saturday at 8pm, they'll be performing quartets by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg – or, to be precise, works for string quartet by Mozart, Berg, and Grieg since only the Grieg is technically a “string quartet.”

(This post examines works by Mozart and Berg on the first half of the program. You can read about and listen to Grieg's quartet in the next post, here.)

Officially, the Mozart is the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546, not one of his four-movement string quartets. And while Alban Berg did write a String Quartet – his Op.3 in 1909-1910 – they'll be performing a work for string quartet he called his Lyric Suite, a work in six movements. And to conclude, there's the second of three string quartets Edvard Grieg wrote, his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op.27 (that is not a misprint).

To make it more confusing, you might wonder why the Schumann Quartet is not playing works by their namesake Robert Schumann who, after all, wrote three string quartets. In fact, they chose the name for different reasons, as, I'm sure, violinists Erick Schumann and Ken Schumann and cellist Mark Schumann will explain, brothers who've been playing chamber music since they were kids then somewhere along the way added violist Liisa Randalu.

The Big News of their 2019-2020 Season has already been the announcement, on September 3rd, that the quartet won the European equivalent of a Grammy, the Opus Classical, for their 2018 recording, “Intermezzo,” featuring string quartets by Robert Schumann (aha!) and Felix Mendelssohn, plus works by Aribert Reimann (his Adagio in Memory of Robert Schumann and arrangements of Schumann's Op.107 songs for soprano and string quartet). The award ceremony was held in Berlin on October 13th.

Here's Berlin Classics' official trailer for this recording:


Mozart (in Dresden) 1789
Mozart's Fugue from the K.546 Adagio & Fugue is not a typical example of Mozart's typical style. Already, in the 1780s' “Classical” era, the Fugue was an old-fashioned throwback to the Baroque Age of the 1720s and usually associated with the music of the largely forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach. Even by the time Bach was organizing his epic collection, The Art of Fugue, the idea of writing fugues had become a purely academic exercise for students to learn counterpoint, the discipline of writing multiple voices (or instrumental lines) each of which can be heard independently as horizontal “lines” (not to be confused with “melodies”) but which must also work within the vertical harmonies.

And what we have, here, is essentially Mozart writing “exercises” in his pursuit of contrapuntal skills, having been introduced in 1782 to the then little-known fugues of the Bachs – JS as well as his sons WF & CPE – by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, diplomat and Imperial Librarian, along with some of the oratorios of George Frederic Handel. It was in December of 1783 that Mozart wrote his Fugue in C Minor for two pianos, K.426 in Köchel's catalog of Mozart's works, ostensibly for his friends gathering at van Swieten's.

While this work – the added-on introduction a dramatic set-up for the fugue to follow – is often performed by a string orchestra, here is the Kontras Quartet to play Mozart's “Adagio & Fugue in C Minor, K.546”:



The “Adagio” is fairly brief, something emotional to contrast with the eventual texture and intellectual involvement required for the fugue. You could listen to the fugue the same way – on a purely emotional level – but you might also appreciate it a little more knowing a bit of what goes into it.

So, at 2:42, the fugue “subject” (or theme) begins and is taken through its paces as anyone would expect a fugue subject to go through, a series of sequences (starting on different pitches to avoid the stagnation of literal repetition) with contrasting elements.

Then, at 3:48, the 1st violin begins playing the subject “inverted” – the downward intervals now going up and vice-versa.

At 4:16, the cello plays the original version but is “answered” a few seconds later by the 1st violin playing the inverted version. But at 4:54, the 1st and 2nd violins are playing the subject together, but the 1st violin is playing the original version against the 2nd violin's inverted version.

In this sense, the fugue is something like a discussion between different members of the quartet, each taking up the “subject” in their own way, perhaps offering their own ideas, maybe adding a little more information, but always coming back to the main topic. Then, somebody says “well, wait a minute, look at it from this perspective” (inverted) and then things really get overheated.

At 5:13, the viola begins the original version but the 2nd violin starts playing it ahead of where we'd've expected it (jumping the gun), not coming in consecutively but overlapping, a technique called stretto (this term comes from the Italian for “stress” since it causes an increase in tension between the music and our expectations). Seconds later, the cello and the 1st violin come in, doing the same thing so that all four instruments are playing the subject but now not only with original and inverted statements but in stretto!

Though Mozart's not done yet: there are still more technical details to be “shown off” in the increasingly complex texture created by only four instruments – “complex” in the sense that usually Mozart's listeners in the 1780s would expect one instrument playing a melody while the others play the harmonies as an accompaniment (not to mention in a toe-tappingly pleasant rhythm). To them, this “old-fashioned” Baroque style was not only unfamiliar, it was regarded as intellectual (“dry as dust”) and, generally, unpleasantly academic. (As one 19th Century critic defined it, a “fugue was where the voices come in one after the other and the audience goes out one after the other.”)

Now, why would Mozart write such a thing? To show off? Did he write it for van Swieten's elite circle of Bach Fans gathering regularly on those noontime Sundays? Probably most of his typical audiences wouldn't be aware of what he was doing much less appreciate how terribly difficult it was to compose it, coming up with a subject “theme” that not only harmonizes with itself (the original plus its inversion), but can also harmonize with each other in the stretto sections where the melodies and harmonies have to overlap perfectly! Trust me, as a survivor of counterpoint classes, this is not easy...

Now, consider this: Mozart finished his arrangement of this fugue and entered it in his own thematic catalog on June 26th, 1788. What else was he working on that summer?

Those last three magnificent symphonies, in particular the great C Major Symphony known as the “Jupiter” which ends with one of the most amazing minutes in all of Classical Music.

Here is five-voice counterpoint (not technically a fugue) based on five different, independently identifiable “thematic motives” heard throughout the finale (first consecutively and then in various combinations) which are now heard switching from voice to voice, practically frolicking over each other until all five “motives” are heard simultaneously over the span of a mere few measures, still running from one instrument to another, overlaid in an incredible mosaic before that final, joyful conclusion – which he completed on August 10th, 1788.

Aside from the fact this is the only example of successful “quintuple invertible counterpoint” in existence – yawn if you must but not even Bach wrote one – Mozart does it in such a way you're hardly even aware he's done it. While scholars will be amazed, those listeners completely ignorant of such technical details will simply be enjoying themselves in a rippingly joyous finale, bopping their heads, recognizing (yes!) when this or that motive rolls by, and applauding vociferously at the end without having a clue why this music is so amazing.

If you have a spare 15 minutes, please check out this video and follow the colorful analysis of the motives and their various manipulations in the course of the last movement of what, alas, turned out to be Mozart's last symphony.

All of this is merely to point out what must have been going through Mozart's mind as he planned these three symphonies: preparing himself for the ending-to-end-all-endings he wanted for the third one. Did he return to this fugue he'd composed a few years earlier to hone his “Bach chops”? And then, in a magical transformation, he created something for his symphony (finished only 45 days later) so thoroughly Mozartean, it is easy to forget how nearly impossible his achievement was, turning Baroque Dust into Classical Gold.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

And while all of that might be a lot to digest for a six-minute piece of music, it's a marvelous set-up for the next work on the program, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, written in the mid-1920s.

Many listeners today still tend to listen to music much as Mozart's audiences did, looking for something enjoyable (“entertaining”) and preferably familiar enough in style they can latch onto it. To a late-18th Century audience not used to baroque-style fugues, the idea of listening linearly to anything more complicated than a tune with a nice accompaniment would've been a challenge. Here, they needed to listen for shapes and fragments – those motives that become the fugue's subject – not recognizable tunes or things they could hum as they leave the concert, and react not to satisfactory simplicity but to tensions and variety created out of the complex juxtapositions of these shapes and fragments.

Enter Alban Berg.

Alban Berg in 1927
As Arnold Schoenberg would develop more systematically his “method of composing with 12 interrelated pitches” into the 1920s (later to be more succinctly known, for better or worse, as “serialism”), Berg never became as committed to it as his teacher-turned-mentor was, nor as doctrinaire about it like his fellow-former-pupil, Anton Webern, would be. Berg, with his richer textures and more emotional “world-sound,” was considered too loose with the theory, more “romantic” than Webern who was, with his sparser textures, more “classical.”

There was also the famous description of these three leading composers of what became the “2nd Viennese School” – Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern – as “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” One has only to compare Berg's operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, not to mention the Lyric Suite, to any of Webern's later, serial works to understand the difference in their approaches: Berg's in the emotions expressed in his music, Webern's with its intellectual logic and abstract forms (even calling it the Lyric Suite avoided the baggage an abstract title like “String Quartet No. 2” would have brought with it).

Yes, the Lyric Suite, begun the year after a concert suite from Wozzeck was premiered before the opera could find a house that would stage it, and completed the year before he began work on his second opera, Lulu, is, as one of Schoenberg's later pupils described it, “a latent opera.” Each of its six movements is like a different mood or a scene – even the tempo indications make use of words like “jovial,” “amorous,” “mysterious,” “ecstatic,” “appassionato,” “delirious,” “shadowy,” and finally “desolate.” And while some of them are “openly serial,” others are not, free with not only the rules but even the concept, a flexibility that makes you wonder why he bothered with something so “rule-bound” at all.

I love how one serial composer analyzed the opening movement and described how it's constructed on this particular 12-tone-row (an ordering of pitches that would form the basis of its linear and harmonic language), therefore labeling it “serial” and yet another scholar says “it is freely atonal”! So if two experts cannot agree on something as significant as that, how are you, a mere listener without a PhD in music and probably without perfect pitch, supposed to listen to it? Well, simply: the same way you'd listen to Mozart or Beethoven!

Are you going to sit through a Mozart quartet or a Beethoven symphony and keep track of the chord progressions, the modulations to new and different keys, what degrees of the scale are more prominent than others? No – and Berg (and Schoenberg) wouldn't expect you to listen to their music that way either. Yet very often that's all anybody ever talks about when “describing” (or analyzing [sic]) this music! (Drives me nuts!)

If you're unfamiliar with this music, listen for shapes and patterns rather than tunes and easily defined forms – that's something common to Mozart, Wagner, Berg, or Xenakis – how they create variety yet manage to unify the music, how they build tension and release it (by moving through more dissonance to less dissonance, everything being relative), how rhythm propels us forward or helps resolve the other elements of music to create some sense of arrival.

Above all, listen here for your emotional response to the music: yes, the opening is “perky,” and yes, the misterioso has passages referred to by some as “insect music” that should, if played properly, make your skin crawl (perfect for Halloween). And that quote from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in the last movement, if you catch it and its reference to illicit love, should make you think “is there something going on here behind the music I should be aware of?” Does the fact it opens so jovially and ends with a reflection of that undulating wisp, dissolving to nothing (“fade to dark”) that ended Wozzeck (as the child sees his mother's murdered body but doesn't know how to respond) – does that mean anything? (“Latent opera,” indeed!)

Here is a video complete with score with the 1970 live performance by the Juilliard Quartet:


00:00 - I. Allegretto gioviale
03:09 - II. Andante amoroso
09:26 - III. Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico
12:43 - IV. Adagio appassionato
19:05 - V. Presto delirando – Tenebroso
24:00 - VI. Largo desolato

The Suite was officially dedicated to Alexander von Zemlinsky and was inspired by his Lyric Symphony of 1923 which, at one point, Berg quotes from, though today most people, unfamiliar with Zemlinsky's large-scale vocal symphony, would be hard-pressed to identify.

But what I haven't mentioned, yet, is the “other thing” everybody talks about, nowadays, with this particular piece of music. It's not just a string quartet, an abstract suite in six movements. While there are many clues to the “inner meaning” of the music – whether what it may inspire in the listener or what, in the composer, might have inspired it – there was nothing quite so revealing as “The Secret Score” discovered in January, 1977, about fifty years after the work was completed, and over forty years after the composer's death.

Hanna Fuchs
It seems, despite the appearance of Berg's “perfect marriage,” he was having an affair with Alma Mahler Werfel's sister-in-law, Hanna Fuchs. Whatever their relationship was, it was apparently more than that of an artist and his muse. When we talk about suspecting programmatic elements in music but, of course, nothing can be proven because “we don't know what was in the composer's mind at the time he wrote it,” here, in fact, we do. In one of the letters he wrote to her while composing the amoroso movement, he says, “Even an unsuspecting listener will feel, I believe, something of the loveliness that hovered before me, and that still does, when I think of you, dearest.”

Being a composer interested in both the emotional and intellectual in his music, he created motives out of intervals representing their initials – his was A–B-flat (actually, “B” in German notation) and hers was B–F (B being “H” in German notation, if you remember your B-A-C-H motive). Also a fan of numerology, her number was 10, his was 23: among the various ways he would express this was in the tempo's very precise metronome markings, where one could be a multiplication of his number (therefore, music representing him) and another, a multiplication of hers; sometimes, a tempo could be a common multiplication of both their numbers.

Most curious was a set of sketches for the Suite which musicologist Douglass Green (whom I'd had the pleasure of studying with at Eastman back in the early-70s) studied in 1976 in a Vienna library. There were curious markings over certain pitches in the last movement – this had already been noted before but no one could make sense of what they meant – but somehow (and I'd love to know what inspired Dr. Green to make his conclusion) he figured out this was a secret melodic line, something hidden in the music, moving through various instruments, which eventually led him to decipher it as a setting of a Baudelaire poem, De profundis clamavi (“Out of the depths I cry”), intended as a private message shared only between him and the work's true dedicatee. This was later borne out in the “secret score” discovered only months later by George Perle, a gift that belonged to Hanna's daughter who had no idea what she had (talk about “Antiques Roadshow” moments) and which has since led to performances of the Suite with a soprano brought in for the last movement, singing this line, superimposed over the printed notes that had been played how many times and listened to by how many people who, previously, had no idea it existed.

In fact, the Schumann Quartet will be performing the Suite with a soprano at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night, but it will be just the quartet here in Harrisburg, though I've had this mental image of somebody somewhere in the middle of the church who would suddenly begin singing along as if the music rose up out of the depths to float over the secret world Berg had created in one of his greatest – and certainly most personal – works...

If you want to read more about this aspect of Berg's life and music, you can read one of my blog-posts about Lulu and the role Berg's widow played in suppressing both the quartet's original manuscript and the final, unfinished act of the opera.

And that should be more than enough for you to better appreciate a work that can fall under the heading, “The More You Know.” Do you need to know this to enjoy it? Not at all. But it gives me something to write about... (and, as the saying goes, "if I had more time, I would have written less." Or maybe not.)

A slightly less-detailed post about Edvard Grieg's G Minor String Quartet continues this look into the music the Schumann Quartet will be performing with Market Square Concerts.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Midori Opens the Season with Fauré and Brahms: Part 2

(You can read the first part of this post about Midori's recital Friday night, September 20th, 2019, at 8:00 here. It includes video/audio links to classic performances of both the Brahms Sonatensatz and Fauré's Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major.)

So what might have prompted a 30-year-old musician trained for the life of a church organist and choir director to compose his first violin sonata?

With Brahms and his sonata-movement contributed to the “F.A.E. Sonata,” you've already read about his meeting Robert Schumann and how Schumann essentially launched the young composer's career. (Another game of “What If...?” would be to consider how that might have gone had Schumann not been dealing with health issues that would completely incapacitate his creativity at the end of his career.) This initial contact and support cannot be underestimated in Brahms' subsequent development.

Student Fauré, aged 19
As for Gabriel Fauré, one of the most significant influences in his life was Camille Saint-Saëns. Attending Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris (officially, the School for Classical and Religious Music) since he was nine years old, Fauré studied piano, plainsong (that is, Gregorian Chant), and composition with its founder, Louis Niedermeyer, who died in 1861. It was then that Saint-Saëns joined the faculty, introducing his students to contemporary music like Schumann, Wagner and Liszt.

(We may smile thinking Schumann was considered “contemporary music” as we normally imagine the term, but at the time he'd only been dead five years; Wagner's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin would have been included but three newer operas, already composed by 1861, would not be premiered until years later; Liszt would have been known by any number of his famous tone poems, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, and numerous piano pieces from the Hungarian Rhapsodies to the B Major Sonata. Why not Brahms? In 1861, Brahms was not yet the acclaimed composer he would soon become: 1861 was the year he completed the first two piano quartets which you might have heard at the first of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2019).

To Fauré, then in his mid-teens, it was all a tantalizing discovery, this music that could be written outside the rules and regulations they were being taught in their classes.

When he graduated, Fauré became an organist in Brittany where after four years he was asked to leave, having sneaked out during the sermons for a smoke a few too many times and once showing up for mass still dressed in evening clothes having danced all night at a local ball. During this time, Saint-Saëns had urged him to continue composing – he had, after all, completed the Cantique de Jean Racine before graduation – but nothing survives, most likely pieces suitable for church services.

Eventually, after returning to Paris and seeing action during the Franco-Prussian War (during which the Emperor, Napoleon III, was overthrown). Later, he became choirmaster under the organist Charles-Marie Widor at Saint-Sulpice, one of Paris' major churches. Again, he wrote mostly utilitarian pieces for the services there, but few of these survive as well. Even during the war, when Saint-Saëns and Franck were writing elegies and patriotic odes, Fauré composed mostly songs with a more somber tone, but otherwise seemed not to be touched by the events of daily life.

Fauré attended the salon gathered around Saint-Saëns and there met other composers. He became involved in the founding of the “National Music Society” (it sounds so much better in French but then everything does), intent on rejuvenating a sense of national pride and identity following the disastrous war with Prussia. And then, in 1874, he became Saint-Saëns' assistant at the Madeleine Church, musically the most significant of Paris' cathedrals (many people went there because of the music), and later became the choir director there under Saint-Saëns' eventual successor in 1877.

Gabriel Fauré in 1875
Meanwhile, around 1873, Saint-Saëns introduced him to another salon, that of the singer and composer Pauline Viardot where he met not only other musicians but also writers like Flaubert and the Russian ex-patriot Turgenyev. Another significant acquaintance he made there was Marianne Viardot, one of the hostess' daughters, and soon Fauré was in love.

Now, when I'd discuss something like “what influenced Fauré to write his first violin sonata” (ah, what heady conversations we musicians have!), someone would probably say, “well, obviously he was modeling it on Saint-Saëns' sonata” or maybe Cesar Franck's (“I'll take French Violin Sonatas of the Late-19th Century for $100, Alex”). Unfortunately, when you point out Fauré completed his sonata in 1876 and Saint-Saëns wrote his in 1885, and Franck wrote his in 1886, their argument falls apart. (If you're curious, Brahms' first violin sonata to survive and be published didn't appear until 1879.)

On the other hand, in 1874 Pauline Viardot composed a Sonatine for Violin and Piano, the year before Fauré began his. I would imagine, as happened with so many musicians' salons, it would have been performed as part of the expected musical entertainment.

Without knowing what Mme Viardot's Sonatine was like – this should give you an idea – it's doubtful it would've had any stylistic influence on the young Fauré. But certainly someone – perhaps Marianne? – might have said to him after its performance, “you're a composer, you should write one of your own.”

And the joyous, light-hearted mood of Fauré's sonata might indeed have been inspired by the circumstances of being a part of the Viardot salon. Sometimes a composer needs little else to boost his self-confidence to find the necessary inspiration for his own abilities than a sense of acceptance, belonging. And of course, if he was in love with the hostess' daughter...? Composers have done less to gain a girl's attention (and then there was Berlioz and his Symphonie fantastique, but I digress...)

By the way, it wasn't until 1877 – after the sonata's successful premiere in January and officially becoming the choirmaster at the Madeleine Cathedral in March – that Fauré got up the nerve to ask permission to marry Marianne and received the family's blessing (perhaps the new-found creative success helped boost his self-esteem in other ways?). They became engaged in July, but unfortunately, without giving him any reason, Marianne broke off the engagement in October, leaving Fauré devastated.

You might think – as many listeners have – that the slow movement of the work he was composing at the time, the Piano Quartet No. 1, is a reflection of his mental state after, well, as he saw it, being dumped; that he wrote into this music all the heartache he had just experienced. While some composers certainly might have done something like that, this was not Fauré's style, wallowing in sorrow and self-pity: after all, in a short time he was composing the piano quartet's delightful scherzo and lively finale, so...?

Let's look at another degree of separation, here: in 1870, Pauline Viardot had sung the world premiere of the Alto Rhapsody of Johannes Brahms. He dedicated it as a wedding gift to Julie Schumann, Robert and Clara's daughter, with whom Brahms was working up the courage to declare his love when her mother announced the “good news” Julie was now engaged to an Italian count! It's a dark and desolate work inspired by unrequited love ending with the hope of consolation for the weary traveler – hardly a “bridal song,” as Brahms described it to Clara – but that's a long story and, as a direct consequent of the happy world of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, I'll save that for our May performance. Regardless, given Brahms' experiences in the spring of 1869, there's an irony, here, in what happened to Fauré regarding his engagement to Viardot's daughter eight years later.

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And now, to open the second half of the program, a short work that's a transcription of one of Fauré's songs, Les berceaux (“The Cradles”) which is a wonderful example of the composer's effortless simplicity and perfection.

First of all, listen to this recording by English tenor Ian Bostridge:

Le long du quai les grands vaisseaux, / Que la houle incline en silence, / Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux / Que la main des femmes balance.
Mais viendra le jour des adieux, / Car il faut que les femmes pleurent, / Et que les hommes curieux / Tentent les horizons qui leurrent.
Et ce jour-là les grands vaisseaux, / Fuyant le port qui diminue, / Sentent leur masse retenue / Par l’âme des lointains berceaux.

(René-François Sully-Prudhomme, from Stances et poèmes: 1865)

Along the quay the great ships, / Listing silently with the surge, / Pay no heed to the cradles / Rocked by women’s hands.
But the day of parting will come, / For it is decreed that women shall weep, / And that men with questing spirits / Shall seek enticing horizons.
And on that day the great ships, / Leaving the dwindling harbour behind, / Shall feel their hulls held back / By the soul of the distant cradles.
(trans: Richard Stokes, A French Song Companion Oxford, 2000)

The simplicity and subtlety is typical of Fauré: he sets up an accompaniment in the piano, the rocking rhythms of ships in the harbor (without reading the poem, you sense quite literally cradle-like rocking) but against this and despite the poet Prudhomme's verbal rhythms, Fauré spins out a melody with subtle contradictions. Though published in 1882, the year you often see associated with it, it was actually composed in 1879, about two years after the premiere of the violin sonata and not too long after the end of his engagement.

There are various arrangements of the song available for different instruments. Here is violinist Artur Grumieux:


At less than three minutes, it's hardly a substantial offering on a “sonata program,” of sorts, but the effect of it, like those “palate cleansers” between the main courses of a fine meal, will be magical.

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And so we come to the final work on the program, the third (and final) of Brahms' violin sonatas, not counting however many of them he might have composed or sketched, discarded then destroyed since the days before he'd met Schumann 33 years earlier.

While I'd written a good deal about Brahms and his friends over the summer – and of course I would highly recommend them to you – I'd mention a little anecdote from Jan Swafford's excellent and frequently quoted biography:
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Among friends, Brahms in his fifties was jolly and joking as always, if still capable of galling insults inadvertent and otherwise. Strangers and hangers-on he held at bay, skillfully keeping the trials of fame from becoming a nuisance. Widmann noted the cunning with which he prevented lady pianists from gaining the bench to play for him. He was equally adept at evading autograph hounds, including the ones who asked him to sign for phony packages.
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In 1886, having finished his 4th Symphony the year before, Brahms was spending his summer composing holiday in Thun, Switzerland, where he worked on the 2nd Cello Sonata, both the 2nd and 3rd Violin Sonatas, the 3rd Piano Trio, and several songs which became the collections of Op.104 and 105, including one of his most ingratiating, “Wie Melodien zieht es mir.”

The songs were primarily intended for his friend Hermine Spies whose alto voice (if nothing else) Brahms found captivating (he wrote to his friend Kalbeck that summer, “I am now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid, so I have to doubly watch myself” and he once more trotted out his tattered old joke about two things he'd vowed never to try: opera and marriage).

The mood of these lyrical, leisurely songs pervade the 2nd Violin Sonata whose opening theme bears a slight if uncanny resemblance to the opening notes of the “Prize Song” from Wagner's Meistersinger but while motives from at least three of his own songs figure prominently in the course of this tuneful sonata, it's hardly likely Wagner would have won a claim of plagiarism if he'd thought about it (there are, after all, only so many notes to go around).

Fast forward to the summer of 1888, by which time Brahms had completed no less than 31 songs as well as the Double Concerto, managing to patch up the painful break in his friendship with Joachim. But in the course of the year he had also alienated two of his closest friends, Pastor Widmann from his 1886 summer holiday, and Dr. Theodor Billroth. The 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto had failed to please even his closest musical friends – as for the ebullient 2nd Cello Sonata, a teenaged Arnold Schoenberg was not the only one in Vienna who found the opening “indigestible” – and Brahms was beginning to fear in his mid-50s he had written himself out.

Fortunately, when he sent his beloved Clara Schumann the newly completed D Minor Violin Sonata, she responded with her usual warmth and approval: on occasions when she was critical, it was quite possible that piece of music would never see the light of day again.

“I marveled at the way everything is interwoven, like fragrant tendrils of the vine. I loved very much indeed... the third movement which is like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”

It would be impossible not to read too much into these passages: Clara, the widow of a true Romantic, was always one to see music in picturesque images befitting her husband's penchant for writing “character pieces” which always bore evocative titles implying a story or a character behind the music. Brahms – and for that matter, Fauré as well – wrote short piano pieces, true, but they were always given abstract names with no programmatic implications. Whether this music was inspired by such thoughts or memories or ways of, perhaps, capturing a mood, we'll never know.

However, time is running out to post this before the recital, so between my incapacitating cold (you might want to back away from the screen) and infuriating computer issues, there's not enough time to get into some of the biographical details I wanted to explore – specifically the idea of "Fate" as an element in so many of his works, including this sonata, especially in the middle-section of the first movement with its ominous ostinato in the bass; and also the observation that D Minor was, for Brahms, his Tragic Key – but then no one really reads these, anyway.

So here are not one but two videos of the Brahms sonata:

Peter Sirotin suggested two historic recordings, one with Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell from 1950 – monaural and perhaps not the best balanced miking; the other with the 1960 stereo recording with violinist Henryk Szeryng and pianist Artur Rubinstein. But since it was difficult to choose, I decided to leave the decision up to you (or, if you have the time, listen to both of them).

Let's begin with Szerynbg and Rubinstein (1960 stereo).


And here is Jascha Heifetz and William Kappell (1950 monaural):


I will point out, for those interested in historical connections and anyone who enjoys playing “Six Degrees of Separation,” Rubinstein, born ten years before Brahms died, had played for Josef Joachim when he was a child, and Joachim was the violinist for whom Brahms composed his Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, as well as the early “F-A-E” Sonata. When Joachim heard the boy play, he told his parents, "This boy may become a very great musician—he certainly has the talent for it... When the time comes for serious study, bring him to me, and I shall be glad to supervise his artistic education." Rubinstein was 4 at the time. When he was 10, Joachim arranged for him to study with Karl Heinrich Barth who was a student of Franz Liszt who'd studied as a child with Carl Czerny who was a piano student of Ludwig van Beethoven's.

(I should point out that one of Rubinstein's pupils was Ann Schein who played Chopin and Rachmaninoff concertos with the Harrisburg Symphony in recent seasons and who has been a teacher, mentor and friend to both Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin, the directors of Market Square Concerts.)

- Dick Strawser