Thursday, April 21, 2016

Calefax, Part 2: Scriabin, Reich... & More

When Calefax comes to town – and this is their second visit to Harrisburg, this time at Market Square Church, Saturday at 8pm (tickets for the Saturday concert are $35, $30 for seniors, and $5 for college students; concerts are free for school-aged children and an accompanying adult can get a $5 ticket) – it's more of an event than just another concert.

Given they're a quintet of reed instruments rather than a standard classical ensembles like a wind quintet, a lot of what they play is either works they've commissioned or standard repertoire they've arranged. And sometimes, the curiosity is just to see (and hear) how they're going to do some of these things – I mean, Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel was written for a hyoooge orchestra: how are 5 people going to make sense out of all that?

If you haven't already read it, check out the first post about this concert – which includes videos of the original version of Schumann's piano pieces, Waldszenen and a clip of excerpts from one of Calefax's performances of their version of it. And then there's Till Eulenspiegel – with the full orchestra version plus another way of looking at it in a light-hearted (but very serious) adaptation for – yes – five players called “Till Eulenspiegel Another Way!” In this case a violin, a clarinet, a horn, a bassoon and a double bass – which kind of makes sense, given the big solos for horn, for clarinet, and for the concertmaster. But how do an oboist, a saxophonist, a clarinetist, a bass clarinetist and a bassoonist bring that off? Who plays the big horn solo? And, I'm wondering, who gets to do the big drum roll at Till's execution, hmm?

There's been a slight change in the program – all additions, as it turns out: the program opens with a Bach Prelude & Fugue in E-flat and, on the second half in between the Scriabin Etudes and Reich's “New York Counterpoint,” is something called “Billie”. More (as usual) of that, later.

Scriabin in 1892
The Market Square Concerts season opened with Peter Orth playing Alexander Scriabin's 24 Preludes, Op. 11, written in 1896. We end the season (almost) with Calefax, the reed quintet, playing Scriabin's 12 Etudes (for solo piano), Op. 8, written in 1894. While you might think, “well, we haven't gone very far, have we?” there's a world of difference – sound-world, at least – in the music. The music, of course, is the same – but how do you turn these monsters of piano technique into something for five wind instruments?

For the historical background in Scriabin's life when he wrote these pieces, you can sift through the blog post for Orth's recital (which also includes information intertwined about his contemporary Rachmaninoff who's 1st Sonata was also on the program).

If you only have a few minutes, listen to this performance of the last of the 12 Etudes by the composer himself. Yes, they were written in 1894 and last year marked the centennial of his death, but this is one of those Welte-Mignon piano rolls Scriabin recorded in 1910. That in itself is amazing.


If you have more time, here is a video (with scores) of all 12 Etudes performed by Nikita Magalof. According to the wonder of YouTube, each etude should automatically roll into the next (though I apologize for any ads that crop up in between them...).


You'll notice, if you read music, that Scriabin had a preference for tonalities that had a bazillion sharps or flats in the key signatures – keys like D-sharp Minor (really, wouldn't it be a little less challenging in E-flat Minor?). But he was one to choose keys for specific, often psychological reasons, depending on the mood he wished to express. The etudes are often given indications like “tempestoso” – a natural for Scriabin's feiry romanticism – or a contrasting “piacevole” peaceful, and the final “patetico” which is far from the “pathetic” we might associate with a sonata by Beethoven or a symphony by Tchaikovsky.

If you really want to earn extra credit, look into Scriabin and synesthesia – where music in certain tonalities suggest colors which some people can see in their mind's eye while listening to the music:
Follow these fascinating links: a five-minute interview about what Scriabin might have “seen” when writing his music; a more inclusive wikipedia entry about synesthesia in art in general (but which includes references to Scriabin).

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Steve Reich and NYC
The last (scheduled) work on the program is by New York composer Steve Reich who turns 80 in October. While it's never become the iconic New York theme song that Bernstein's “New York, New York” from On the Town has (a helluva song), Reich's “New York Counterpoint” is no less a tribute to a great city, drawing inspiration from the constant flow of life there, in a place that never seems to sleep.

There are many “-isms” in music – Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Serialism – and these are generally attempts to describe in the most general terms, composers of a certain stylistic period have in common. Debussy, a very visually oriented composer, hated the term “Impressionism,” already familiar to the painting style of several French artists before his time, and “Serialism” has taken on such a negative connotation it can be destructive when applied to music that has nothing to do with the serial technique that has alienated so many listeners over the past century.

And “Minimalism” is another one of those terms. It's usually applied to the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and those they've influenced – though Terry Riley's “In C” was certainly one of the first examples of the style, stripping music down to the barest of bones, the anti- reaction to almost everything prevalent in 20th Century music heard before the '60s and '70s (remember the '60s? yeah, well, not everybody does...) – the “imponderable complexities” of serialism (pro or con), the huge orchestras playing lushly textured works by Mahler, the equally lush harmonies of Rachmaninoff or other Post-Romantic composers, the complex rhythms of, say, “experimental” jazz.

It might come down to a sense of pulse, a single chord, a simple color – all of which, in its hypnotic obsessions, can create a completely different experience with the least (the “minimal”) amount of material. While I joke about the chipmunk outside my front door chirping away at Philip Glass's Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Wood Block, I can also find the magic beneath the unexpected change lifting you from one chord into another through subtle and gradual changes. To one person, it may be maddening; to another, a revelation. There may be those who will be annoyed by the constant repetition (“alright, already, I get it” when, in fact, no, you don't) just as there may be those who, say, find Scriabin's thundering left-hand harmonies (speaking of repetitions) monotonous despite the fact everybody else is being blown away by the pianist's virtuosity!

Just as there are Big City People and Small Town People.

New York City

Reich's “New York Counterpoint” is essentially written for one clarinetist who plays all twelve clarinet parts, several of them simultaneously. How do you do that? Through the magic of multi-tracking pre-recorded sound files that create an accompanimental “backdrop” (rather than “background”) for the soloist. Today, the idea of playing to a CD or DVD-sound file or mix-tape or whatever – karaoke, anyone? – is common, but Reich created his “Counterpoint” in 1985. (“Vermont Counterpoint,” a similar work for flutes was written in 1982: this video might give you an idea how it works.)

Reich in his Studio: remember tape?
Richard Stolztman wanted a piece for 9 clarinets and 3 bass clarinets that he would play – live but with the other 11 clarinets, also played by him, pre-recorded. Therefore, the live player interacts with his pre-recorded self to create a shifting texture that, like the city it's named for, is in constant motion but with constantly shifting vantage points.

To take the easy way out, these works can also be played by twelve live players – but then, I ask, what's the point? The point, for me, is to have the interactivity between the one player and the others in a way that's at least technologically a little different than a solo concerto or an old Baroque concerto grosso, but I digress...

How Calefax chooses to realize the possibilities intrigues me, and seeing it listed for the end of the season, here, has had me salivating all year long. Well - now, it's here!

This performance, by a Hungarian clarinetist in Budapest, plays one live part against his pre-recorded selves, and then interlaces the video with first a photo montage (the composer, the commissioning clarinetist, the recording) as well as numerous images of New York – from the air, from street-level, from across the river, from atop a building – during the middle “slow” section (it's more about energy than tempo), the photos become “vintage” black-and-white and, when we return to the live stage at his concert, it's done in through b&w grainy filter. Then, in the final “fast” section which cooks along until it stops (rather than ends), we see more of the newer New York. A good visual presentation as well as a musical one.

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Now, to hear how Calefax does it!

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About one of the pieces that's being added to program, saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, who's arranged tons of pieces for the group, told Jess Hayden in the interview for the Carlisle Sentinel, “It’s a work that uses segments of interviews with Billie Holiday as a soundtrack and then composed music to go with that. So it’s fun to do because we get to perform with Billie Holiday!”

While I'm not sure who JakobTV is – his real name is Jacob ter Veldhuis – doing an internet search comes up with a piece for alto saxophone and “tape”-accompaniment. While I've been told it's a 3-minute piece and will require speakers and a screen for film projection (Market Square Church was asked to supply a “beamer” and much hilarity ensued before we realized this was Brit-slang for “projector,” not a BMW), the videos I find on-line are about 11 minutes. Regardless, here's one realization of the piece (another uses a “ghettoblaster” to deliver the other tracks) that becomes a jazz riff on the voice of Billie Holiday.

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- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Calefax Is Back: the Reed Quintet that Plays Schumann & Strauss

Who: Calefax, the Reed Quintet
What: Music by Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss, Alexander Scriabin, and Steve Reich
When: Saturday, April 23rd, 2016, at 8pm
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg (parking in the adjacent garage)
Why: Because they're just freakin' amazing, no matter what they're playing!

If you missed them here before or have not already seen this video from one of those TED-talks, meet Calefax – a reed quintet consisting of an oboist, a clarinetist, a bass clarinetist, a saxophonist and a bassoonist – not your standard Wind Quintet (fixed at flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and... a horn which is technically a brass instrument, but hey...).


There is not a lot of repertoire for a group like Calefax – probably none, originally – so they have commissioned scads of new works by living composers and done their own arrangements so they can include dead ones on their programs. You can read about their previous appearance with Market Square Concerts in 2014, here, when they included Bach's “Goldberg Variations” on the program, one of the most memorable performances of the piece I'd heard in any context.

Cover of Waldszenen
While a program by Calefax playing works for piano by Schumann and Scriabin, for large orchestra by Richard Strauss and... well, let's save the description for later of Steve Reich's “New York Counterpoint” for later - you can read a post about the second half of the program, here - the immediate interest perhaps is more in their arrangements of the music they'll perform rather than the historical background of the pieces in their original form. Still, the music is the music.

The program opens with a collection of pieces for solo piano called “Forest Scenes” or Waldszenen (or Waldscenen, same thing) by Robert Schumann, what we call “character pieces,” or short, simply constructed pieces that either suggest a story or an image through evocative music and equally evocative titles.

After an introduction titled not very imaginatively “Entrance” (because every journey, no matter how long, begins with a single step), we meet a “Hunter on the Lookout,” see some “Lonely Flowers,” tiptoe past a “Haunted Palace,” are relieved to find a “Friendly Landscape” with a “Wayside Inn,” where we listen to a “Prophet-Bird” and hear a “Hunting Song,” then say “Farewell.”

Here is one of those “videos-with-score” so you can follow along of the complete set. Maria-João Pires is the pianist:


Now, here is how four of those “scenes” will sound when played by Calefax: in this selection, they play the first two (up to 3:02 in the previous video), the “Friendly Landscape” (beginning at 7:56 in the score-video) and end with the “Hunting Song” (beginning at 13:58 in the score-video). At Market Square Church they will perform the complete collection.

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In 1838 – two years before he and his future wife Clara could finally get married (it's a long story) – Robert Schumann wrote “thirty small droll things” he intended to publish as Kindergeschichten or “Children's Tales.” Instead, he chose only thirteen of them and decided to call them Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” as it's usually translated. The most famous of these pieces is undoubtedly one of his best known melodies, “Träumerei” or “Dreaming”.

Schumann in 1850
Fast-forward to 1848 – the Schumann's have now been married eight years, he has been suffering from a “nervous disorder” often referred to as “manic/depressive” or “bi-polar,” leading to states of near-paralysis when he can barely function and of near-euphoria when he can't compose fast enough. In this higher states of creative concentration, he might compose, say, four symphonic works in 1841, two of which became published symphonies (No. 1 and No. 4 – it's a long story) or in 1842, three string quartets, his piano quartet and the piano quintet all in a few months, each bout of “manic creative energy” followed by “lows” perhaps brought on by “creative exhaustion.”

But the “low” experienced in 1844 was especially deep and debilitating. Yet, when he came out of it, he made a “robust sketch” of his complete 2nd Symphony in about 16 days. If you'd heard the Harrisburg Symphony perform this overall cheerful work last weekend – you can read about it, here – you would be excused if you thought this came from a very happy time in his life.

By 1848, during a stretch that have been noted by writers as “good years,” Schumann worked on several large-scale works, most notably (but not so successfully) his only opera, Genoveva which was remarkable, stylistically, for introducing a kind of endless melodic line in the voice to replace the convention of “recitative” which he felt interrupted the music's flow. When we think of this, we think of Wagner: didn't Wagner invent that? He's certainly given credit for it, most notably in the Ring operas and Tristan. But where was Wagner in 1848, when Schumann wrote Genoveva? Curiously, he completed Lohengrin, the last of his “middle-period operas” which still include vestiges of recitative in 1848 and didn't start composing the Ring until 1853.

More importantly, Wagner, then officially the conductor of the Dresden Opera, and Schumann were both living in Dresden at the same time and, given how small the arts community was, he soon became acquainted with Wagner (whose career was essentially just beginning) through Ferdinand Hiller (a composer who at the time was perhaps better known than either of them though now completely overlooked). Schumann, though not yet regarded as he is now, was better known as one of the great writers-on-music though definitely more famous as the husband of one of the greatest pianists of the day.

When Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in Dresden in October, 1845, Schumann, having formed a “poor opinion” of it from the score Wagner had given him, waited until the following month to see the opera and then “radically changed his view.”

Schumann expressed confusion over Wagner's aesthetic ideas in his next opera, Lohengrin, but not long afterwards, the political turmoil in Dresden (the ever-outspoken Wagner, on the losing side, ended up being exiled or face execution for treason – that, too, as befitting the composer, is a long story) separated them as Wagner fled to Switzerland and Schumann moved to Düsseldorf in 1850.

One could argue Genoveva wasn't staged until 1850 and then in Leipzig, and ran for only three performances, so Wagner, by then in exile in Switzerland, could hardly have seen it. But how likely is it that Schumann (writing an opera) spent his time in Dreseden between 1845 and 1849 talking to Wagner (the local opera conductor, also writing an opera and who'd given him a score to Tannhäuser) about their favorite sports teams?

After completing Genoveva in August, 1848, and beginning the very next day on music for Lord Byron's Manfred (not just the overture) – he took two weeks off in September to write “Album for the Young” (Op. 68), the first seven pieces given as a 7th birthday present to his eldest child, Marie – and then completing the Manfred music in late November, Schumann, still on a creative “high,” wrote a chorus-and-orchestra piece for Advent and a piano duet, “Pictures from the East.” Then, after Christmas, came Waldszenen, completed nine days later.

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When Schumann first published “Kinderszenen,” he added titles like “Knight on the Rocking Horse,” “Frightening” or “The Poet Falls Asleep” after the music had been completed and said they were “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation.”

But “fanciful titles” had been part of his earlier piano music – Carnaval with its evocations of a costume party where he introduces his then girlfriend (Ernestine von Fricken) as well as his piano-teacher's daughter (and future wife) and a young composer named Chopin – and it fits the genre we have come to call “character pieces.”

Schumann, the son of a book-seller and would-be author, had always been drawn to things literary, especially the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, then all the rage (his Kreisleriana was inspired by Hoffman's character Kreisler).

And so, now 38 years old, Schumann evokes his woodland scenes with titles like “Lonely Flowers,” “Hunter on the Lookout,” “Friendly Landscape” or (the companion to Kinderszenen's “Frightening”) “Haunted Palace,” complete with a spooky poem. These may evoke images – musical paintings – but perhaps “Wayside Inn” and certainly the most famous of the pieces, “Vogel als Prophet” (“Prophet-bird”) suggest tales, even with the disappearance of the bird mid-phrase.

About those titles, Schumann once wrote, “The titles for pieces of music, since they again have come into favor in our day, have been censured here and there, and it has been said that 'good music needs no sign-post.' Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, by adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt. It may be considered the test of the general level of the composer's education.”

(It's interesting to remember that Mahler, writing his first three symphonies between 1884 and 1896, often included such poetic titles to the various movements, then removing them and, on occasion, re-including them before finally deciding, given the “favor of the day,” against them.)

Composed deep in winter, between December 29th 1848 and January 6th, 1849, these evocations of the woods might be “reminiscences of the forest,” but keep in mind, to German Romantics of the 19th Century – and beyond – the forest was not always an idyllic place: how many of the scariest fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm take place in the woods?

It's interesting to note that Clara Schumann who rarely played in public without including something by her husband on the program, never included “Haunted Castle” in her performances of Waldszenen. That should tell you something...

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Strauss in 1894
Though Schumann only wrote one opera – it's reception proved so devastating, he decided not to spend the time writing another one – there were a few other possible subjects he considered: curiously, considering where Wagner was at the time, one of those stories was the Nibelungenlied, the ancient legends that inspired Wagner's Ring and another old German legend mentioned in his sketchbooks (I'd be curious about the exact date of this entry), Lohengrin.

Another old German story he thought about was Till Eulenspiegel, the 14th Century prankster best known through the music of Richard Strauss's tone poem, completed in 1895.

The original story is quickly told: we are introduced to the rogue, Till, who pulls various pranks on various townspeople, is arrested and tried for his pains and is not only found guilty but is also executed! It would seem his spirit has the last laugh.

Here's Gustavo Dudamel & the Berlin Philharmonic w/3-minute highlight, one of the “big moments” in a piece full of orchestral colors and climaxes, for those who just want a refresher:


(for the curious, by comparison to Dudamel's more extroverted style, check out the first few minutes of this odd film, recording specifically to capture the composer himself conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. Granted, it's to celebrate his 80th birthday (compare that to the photograph taken the year he began writing the piece, 50 years earlier) but at times you think he's going to check his watch to see how much longer till the next break...)

Or, if you prefer, here's the complete tone poem with the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard:


Still, if we're talking about squeezing this huge orchestra into an ensemble of five players like Calefax, how exactly do you do that?

But wait, it's already been done...

Here is Till Eulenspiegel, Einmal Anders! (“Till Eulenspiegel, another way”), Franz Hasenöhrl's claim to fame, performed by five Curtis students – Not a reduction of the complete piece but distilling it (so to speak) to its essence - as if one more prank.


Join us Saturday night to find out how Calefax solves this... conundrum (as if Eulenspiegel wasn't enough of a prankster, himself...)

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Enso Quartet & Ainsi la nuit: The Dutilleux Centennial

Who: Enso Quartet
What: Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit, Ginastera's 2nd Quartet & Beethoven's “Harp” Quartet
When: Wednesday at 7:30 (with a pre-concert talk at 6:45)
Where: Market Square Church
Why: Because you can help us celebrate the Ginastera and the Dutilleux Centennials - if you've never heard this music, you really ought to take the opportunity of hearing it played live – especially by a group like the Enso Qt! And besides – Beethoven.

You can read earlier posts about the Ginastera, here; and the Beethoven, here.

I'd already mentioned how, three years before his Centennial Anniversary, I could still call Henri Dutilleux one of my favorite living composers. Born on January 22nd, 1916, in Angers, France, he died as recently as May 22nd, 2013 at the age of 97.

Henri Dutilleux (center) working with Quatour Rosamonde on Ainsi la nuit
When I was looking for some videos for this post, I found this “commercial” for a Berlin Philharmonic concert with Simon Rattle of just three sweet minutes from one of Henri Dutilleux's last works, a song cycle he called Correspondances with texts mostly taken from letters. This one sets lines from a letter the painter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer.

“...As long as autumn lasts, I shall not have hands, canvas and colors enough to paint the beautiful things I see... I go outside in the night to paint the stars... Then life is almost enchanted after all."



Keeping in mind these lines were set to music when Dutilleux was 87 years old. Van Gogh, who died when he was 37 (and his brother Theo died shortly afterward at 33), had long inspired Dutilleux's sound-world – especially the painting (perhaps van Gogh's most popular) Starry Night which became Dutilleux's Timbre, espace, mouvement and which he subtitled “or 'The Starry Night'” after van Gogh's painting.

(Painted in June of 1889, it was the view from his window at the asylum where he'd voluntarily committed himself in early-May: he wrote to Theo later that month, “Through the iron-barred window, I can see an enclosed square of wheat... above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory.” The letter quoted above was written in December of 1888, three months before van Gogh cut off his ear.)

Many French composers – and writers, considering Marcel Proust – were inspired by the visual element. And Debussy, perhaps one of the most “visual” of musicians (until his late period, practically everything he wrote had poetic or artistic titles, rarely abstract: “Impressionism” not just in the sense of the painterly style), was a major influence on Dutilleux's early style.

In 1938, Dutilleux won the Prix de Rome – a scholarship to live and compose in Rome once coveted by Debussy – but was unable to complete his stay and finish his education once war became imminent. Then after serving as a medical orderly in the French army during the 2nd World War, he worked as the Head of Music Production for Radio France for 18 years before taking on different teaching positions in two of Paris's major conservatories. He also served as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood in 1995 and 1998, having turned 80 in 1996.

Henri Dutilleux
He was neither a prolific composer nor a self-assured one. He was painstaking, a perfectionist who often fussed over a work even after it had been sent to the artist who was preparing its premiere. Anne-Sofie Mutter, the violinist for whom he wrote Sur le meme accord (“on only one chord”) in 2002 which he described as a “nocturne-like work,” said in the recording's liner notes, “at first he wasn't satisfied with the ending, and he sent me a new version which I learned half-heartedly because I was sure there would be more. And there were: two more versions after that.”

This sense of revision surfaced early: in 1948, finishing a piano sonata written for his wife as his Op.1, he decided to “disavow” all his earlier works – though one of them, his Sonatine for Flute & Piano, is still quite popular. While his newer “mature” style took into account other composers of the first half of the century – notably Stravinsky and Bartók – he had little interest in serialism. And this created some serious problems given the musical politics of France after the war.

French music history is complicated enough, but basically whatever the Germans were doing musically – whether it's Bach, Beethoven, Wagner or Schoenberg – the French were against it. As American composer Ned Rorem said, “everything is either German or French.” By which he meant the German sense of "exactness," for instance in musical development, harmonic and formal structure, abstract details and so on, versus the French sense of laissez-faire which was less about “development” than the visual or programatic element, more emphasis on the surface elements (for instance the love of ornamentation in the 18th Century; instrumental colors in the “Impressionistic” era) rather than the Germanic concerns about structure and texture (for instance, Bach's Preludes & Fugues as opposed to Rameau's character pieces which often bore titles like “La poule,” “Les tourbillons,” “Les sauvages,” or “L'Egyptienne”). Harmony was often an element of “color” than “structure,” perhaps, and counterpoint was generally avoided (in the 20th Century, Eric Satie, something of a “primitive” by German standards, called counterpoint “musical sauerkraut”).

But after World War II, French composers like Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez not only lept on the German Serial Bandwagon, they took a step farther, not just serializing pitch as Schoenberg and Webern did (Berg was less rigid with the theoretical aspects of his style), but serializing rhythm (or duration), dynamics, even registers to come up with a strain of modernism easily vilified as “honk-squeak.” It seemed so intensely abstract and un-French, it has always amazed me that this was the major view of so many French composers in the last half of the 20th Century. And Boulez was a powerful leader of this school who could, essentially, as conductor and administrator in a powerful position, make it difficult for a composer he disliked.

And he disliked Dutilleux.

While only half-joking that opera houses should be burned down (that would make him a suspect for the terrorist watch-list today – he only meant that, if one were to reform opera today one would need to metaphorically burn the opera houses to the ground and start over again), he did find such forms as the symphony obsolete and that anyone not writing in the “serial style” (as it's usually called) had no business composing.

In the 1950s, Dutilleux had the audacity to compose two symphonies – and if that weren't bad enough, they were not serial.

Boulez apparently took this as a personal affront and his disapproval ruined Dutilleux’s chances of being taken seriously by other French composers, schools, orchestras, and anyone interested in commissioning new works. “He was very brutal,” Dutilleux recalled. “When he was young [this was in the 1950s], he didn’t like what I wrote, and I didn’t agree with his aesthetics at all. The problem was he had a lot more power than me.”

Dutilleux walking along the Seine near his home in Paris in 2004
Consequently, much of Dutilleux's music had its origins – commissions and premieres – outside France, especially in England and America.

Toward the end of his life, Dutilleux admitted in an interview, “I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That's why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work and spend a lot of time changing it. It's paradoxical, isn't it?”

And curiously, Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90 on January 5th, 2016 – a few weeks before the Dutilleux Centennial would begin – a famous and important musician, certainly, but one, in most of the world, better known as a conductor who also composed but whose works are more talked about than performed.

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For those unfamiliar with Dutilleux's music in general, I will include some suggestions to get an idea of his style. While he hasn't produced many works over his long life, several of them are considered “major works” of the century – his cello concerto, composed for Rostropovich, and his violin concerto, commissioned by Isaac Stern, are among the best of the modern repertoire, though they bear typically picturesque French titles even though no specific “program” is evoked.

The cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World” is the poor translation – as they say, anything sounds better in French...), was composed between 1967 and 1970, a work that is often meditative and always colorful. Each of its five movements bears a title taken from lines of poetry by Charles Baudelaire though I admit I was unaware of this until recently and for the last ten years, I have listened to this piece constantly!

Here is the “Hymne” that concludes the concerto, quoting the lines “Keep your dreams: wise men do not have as beautiful ones as fools!” Cellist Xavier Phillips performs with L'Orchestre de Suisse Romande and Marek Janowski:
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Regarding the title of his violin concerto, L'Arbre des songe (“The Tree of Dreams”), Dutilleux said, “All in all the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of L'arbre des songes as the title of the piece.” It was premiered in 1985 with Isaac Stern, though a recent recording with Augustin Hadelich – who has performed Mozart, Beethoven and Lalo with the Harrisburg Symphony over the past several seasons – with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. Here is the slow third movement with the final interlude:
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Try following the opening four-note motive through this movement - and yes, that passage beginning at 6:50 may sound familiar (you hear it as part of many orchestra performances: in the middle of the concerto, Dutilleux writes out almost a full minute of music, imitating the sounds of an orchestra warming up!).
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This idea of unfolding the way the leaves of a tree might open in the springtime (something we hope to see soon enough) is also an important part of his structural language. He often creates “interludes” which might look back on a particular fragment or motive or which could start to evolve to another, more fully developed statement or re-evaluation of that fragment or motive.

In this sense, another influence comes into play – as we've had van Gogh (visual) and Baudelaire (poetry), now we have Marcel Proust (literature), particularly the concept of time and memory that is so integral to his vast novel, In Search of Lost Time, particularly “involuntary memory” (the famous episode with the madeline that, in his middle age, unexpectedly brings back childhood memories as if they were yesterday). This element of the past-in-the-present is as significant as the ultimate realization, assuming one makes it beyond Swann's Way, the first of its seven novels, to realize that so much of this becomes the future as well.

Dutilleux's original manuscript: Ainsi la nuit
The only string quartet Dutilleux composed was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for the Juilliard Quartet: he sent them some sketches called Nuits in 1974, completed the work in 1976, but the Parrenin Quartet premiered it in 1977, with the Juilliard giving it its American premiere the following year. This places the quartet between the two concertos I've just mentioned. Like much chamber music, compared to the orchestral canvases a composer could create, the string quartet is far more intimate and the concept of creating colors far more limited. But listen to how he creates all these sounds! Special effects with the bow, different types of pizzicato, the use of harmonics, the placing of certain chords or intervals depending on the register or the time-span of a particular passage – nothing Ginastera might not have used in his own “bag of tricks” one could call them, but used in such a way they become part of the painter's palette, the skill with a brush stroke that proves we're dealing with a true artist, here, not just someone who's read an orchestration book!

Ainsi la nuit is essentially a nocturne. The title, “Thus the night,” again may seem meaningless in English (“such is the night” is another translation I've seen which I marginally prefer), but the idea of “nocturne” here is not intended to invoke the nocturnes of Chopin or the Moonlight Sonata. As in Bartók's “night-music” – which in Ginastera's music is termed “magica,” the fantastical element of dreams and, conversely, nightmares – we experience the sounds of the night which evoke wonder and fear and all manner of emotional and irrational responses.

There are seven movements but there are also, following the introduction, interludes between them the composer labels “parentheses,” these backward- and forward-looking moments. The movements themselves bear titles like Nocturne, Miroirs d'espace, Litanies, Constellations, ending with Temps suspendu (Time suspended).

It has been described as a “labyrinth of memories” but one where the listener supplies his or her own thread to wander through it. That thread, however, can be found in the opening sonority – a tight chord in the middle-register – which becomes, ultimately, the final sonority we hear as the piece dies away.

Of course, the video with the score I'd hoped to use in the January post when this concert was originally scheduled is no longer available – copyright infringement – so let me offer this one on an educational deferment. It's only the opening Introduction and Nocturne, but the analytic approach will give those listeners uncomfortable with non-tonal abstract music something to “hang on to.”

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I'm not sure exactly how the color-coding is used here, since he gives no key to it, and the fact I can barely read the unfocused score doesn't help (I am hoping it will look better on your computer than mine), let's say the light brown highlight of the opening chord is that particular sonority which appears frequently as is (often at the same pitch levels which could “ground” it the same way a C Major chord could “ground” us to the tonality of C Major) – but like a standard triad, it can be inverted or expanded, so at times, you'll see this “brown chord” (man, do I hate calling it that) but not as recognizable as it is at the beginning.

At first in “close formation,” sometimes this chord will be in “open formation” or an even wider formation with larger intervals between the notes of the chord. But it is still the same “chord” even if its transposed to different pitches if it still has the same intervalic structure (remember, a major triad is always a major triad if the “chord-structure” is the same, whether it's a C Major chord or an E-flat Major chord in second inversion).

I'm not sure exactly how this analyst is using “green” (he refers to pitches like C or G# in the French solfege system as do, sol# and so on, btw) or, for that matter, the pink which seems to highlight dynamics and elements of tension.

However, after the Introduction, the 1st Nocturne officially begins at 0:30 – note the dialogue between the 1st violin and the cello against the sustained tones in the 2nd violin and viola (musical colors perhaps resembling the stars in a seemingly static sky?) – then the “increase of tension” starting around 1:00. Then, that “brown” chord (revoiced with open 5ths rather than close-formation seconds) continues increasing the tension with more activity, the opposite of the “static” sounds a moment ago: vanishing into another appearance of the open-voiced initial chord-sonority (perhaps “brown” chord is easier to understand, if not exactly musical geek-speak...).

As this “musical paragraph” ends with a downward sweep, a new idea begins at 1:43 – an “obstinate” theme in the viola (chant-like but perhaps a bit more exotic than “Gregorian” chant) which creates another “static” sonority against sustained tones and occasional colorful flourishes in the other instruments. At 2:06, we hear two “mirror” images – first, the violins descending and then the viola and cello ascending, playing, essentially, arpeggios “in contrary motion” based on that opening chord (just as one can play arpeggios on a C Major triad). However, the viola is playing the same pitches as the 1st violin if you start at the end of the violin part and play it backwards (retrograde). So it's a mirror in two ways: forward and backward as well as downward and upward! Then around 2:15 it also speeds up, leading to another climax which, however, dissolves instead around 2:30.

The obstinate theme originally in the viola is now in the 1st violin's upper register, then joined by the 2nd violin playing it in retrograde, the viola picking it up (same pitches as the 1st violin but lower register) and then the cello playing the retrograde version (again, same pitches as the 2nd violin but lowest register). This again speeds up (the quickening of time) but instead of building to a climax, dissolves into another suspended moment which, officially, ends the 1st Nocturne.

Now... that's a lot of stuff – and I haven't even gotten into how one can analyze the pitches to see how Dutilleux manages to create all of these elements, both melodic and harmonic, out of that opening sonority. And it's not “stuff” the average listener needs to know in order to appreciate it – just as you wouldn't need it when listening to a Beethoven quartet.

But when we're faced with something unfamiliar, it is sometimes a challenge to realize that, deep down, basically both Beethoven and Dutilleux are responding to the same elements of music – the generation of “content” from simple “material” (Beethoven's motives like the opening of his 5th Symphony?) and the use of contrast to create and release tension (again, between Dutilleux's static and active moments in these three minutes, and what Beethoven does in, say, the scherzo of the “Harp” Quartet on the second half of the Enso's program).

In fact, let's “listen” to that Beethoven scherzo as an example, just the opening section:


So it begins with a “blustery” idea in C Minor, but at 0:03 there's already a contrast in dynamic, “color” and direction – rather than jumping upwards, it's more concise and downward, eventually ending up in the lowest register of the cello. It also contrasts a chordal idea against a more linear one. Repeat. The aggressive manner returns – doesn't that rhythm (da-da-da-dum) remind you of the “Fate” motive from the 5th Symphony? – also, by the way, in C Minor) with all the strings playing in octaves (basically “unison in different registers”) as opposed to playing “harmony.” Then what happens at 0:17? Suddenly we're on a major chord in an arpeggio (notes of the chord played linearly rather than harmonically) with an entirely different rhythmic profile – isn't that what Dutilleux did with his opening chord-sonority and the “obstinate” linear chant-like theme?

Anyway, “bluster” returns at 0:27 except now it practically splinters apart, short staccato notes tossed back and forth between the instruments until, at 0:34, more sustained pitches in the 1st violin seem to want to calm things down but the “bluster” is still evident in the other parts. Until it finally starts to wind down or “dissolve” (not too differently than many of Dutilleux's phrases did). But then at 0:57, the “unison” aggressive bit returns – basically, here, Beethoven is following the convention of having a section repeat, so we've heard all this before: it merely reinforces the structure in our mind – our memory (our perception of form is, essentially, memory). By the time we reach 1:42, we're basically where we were structurally at 0:57.

Now, a whole new idea appears – a contrasting section in C Major, still kind of blustery but because it's in the major mode, sounding maybe more “athletic,” fast scrubbing notes in the cello with longer notes in the viola that gradually fills into all four parts. And so on...

See? Basically, looking at it this way, the Dutilleux and the Beethoven are not that far apart in “the process” of things but still sounding wildly different – miles apart more than just the difference of 167 years that separate them. Or are they? Two different languages, perhaps, yet like any language whose primary function is to communicate, still based on the “basics” of language. To someone who, say, only speaks "19th Century Classical Music," the other language may sound like so much gibberish; to someone fluent in both 19th and 20th Century Classical Musics, perhaps they're both equally accessible.

Here, now (finally) is a live performance of the complete work, Ainsi la nuit by Henri Dutilleux. This string quartet apparently is four individuals rather than a known quantity, so their cohesion impresses me as this is not a good work for “a pick-up bunch.”
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(not sure what that is that happens around 12:22 - certainly not part of the piece; just a bad edit.)
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Ultimately, the work is not "about" special effects, using what theorist Allan Forte calls the "6-18" hexachord, whether the work is or is not serial (it is atonal in the traditional sense but not serial), is built on the octotonic scale, is a kaleidoscopic hodge-podge of unorganized notes, a highly controlled architectural structure or whatever other "system" the composer may have had in mind when writing the piece - it's about creating something which, through the performers, connects with the audience to evoke a response, whether emotional or intellectual or both, just as Beethoven sought to do.

- Dick Strawser
 

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Enso Quartet & the Ginastera Centennial: His String Quartet No. 2

Who: The Enso Quartet
What: Ginastera's 2nd Quartet & Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit; Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet
When: Wednesday, April 6th, at 7:30
Where: Market Square Church
Why: Because you didn't get to hear it in January (the weather is supposed to be better this time) and if you've never heard Ginastera's quartets, this may well knock off more than your socks.

I'll be giving a pre-concert talk 45 minutes before the concert which means it begins at the awkward-looking time of 6:45.

The program is dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Anderson, a long-time board member of Market Square Concerts and indefatigable advocate for Arts and Education in the capital region. 

You can read more about this concert and about the Beethoven in this previous post, here, and read about Henri Dutilleux and his quartet Ainsi la nuit here.

The Enso Quartet received a Grammy nomination for their recording of all three String Quartets by Alberto Ginastera for the Naxos label. For us, they will perform the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26.

Nick Barnard, reviewing the disc in 2009 for MusicWeb International, wrote:
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"I have enjoyed the music of Ginastera greatly before I heard this disc but I consider this a revelation—showing as it does a range and compositional technique of which, in my ignorance, I was previously unaware. I find it hard to believe that these magnificent pieces could be performed better than they are here by the Enso Quartet—seek out this group, they are clearly bound for greatness. One little foot-note; a particular quality of the ensemble that struck me as I listened was their tonal unanimity so how interesting to read that they play on a set of matched modern instruments made by London-based maker Nigel Harris: clearly magnificent instruments played to within an inch of their lives by superb musicians. If I could give this disc a standing ovation of one in my front room after listening to it I would!

"String quartet playing of jaw-dropping prowess revealing masterpieces of the 20th century quartet literature."

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The Market Square Concerts program was designed to celebrate two centennial anniversaries (still) being observed this year – Alberto Ginastera born in Buenos Aires on April 11th, 1916; and Henri Dutilleux, born in Angers, France, on January 22nd, 1916.

Though Ginastera died in 1983, only three years ago I could classify Dutilleux as “one of my favorite living composers” – he died on May 22nd, 2013, at the age of 97.

Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord
How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera can you name? Surely, he didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation?

Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.

The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.

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Here's Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in the Final Dance at a British Proms concert:

It doesn't get much “faster and louder” – how can you not have a standing ovation after that?! (For a somewhat cheesier performance, here's another video with the same ensemble but you can forgive them their enthusiasm when you listen to the excitement and see how much fun they're having in the process: remember, most of these performers came through “The System” in Venezuela and many were destined for lives on crime- and drug-ridden streets). 
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Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until 1953!) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.

Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.

I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet which led to his absorbing a more international awareness into this specifically Argentine style.

It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.

This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers might be doing internationally but with an Argentine accent.

For one thing, this reflects what Bela Bartók had done in his own musical development, after he started quoting elements of folk music and then absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

Ginastera w/Students
Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

Listen to just the opening of Ginastera's 1st Quartet here from the Enso Quartet's Grammy-nominated recording on Naxos, and you can tell this is not your grandfather's collection of folksy dance tunes! Even the tempo indication – Allegro violento ed agitato (Violently Fast and Agitated) – lets you know he's aiming right between the eyes.

Written in 1958 for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Fountain in Washington D.C. Where it was premiered by the Juilliard Quartet at the Inter-American Music Festival, and like Bartók's 4th and 5th Quartets, Ginastera built this quartet – almost as if it were an homage – on a similar arch form.

Opening with a violently rhythmic, wild opening movement, followed by a lyrical slow movement with prominent solos from each instrument, the middle of this arch is a fantastical “night-piece” also in the manner of Bartók's “night-music” movements, but rather than whispering winds, insect noises and sometimes even the frogs of his uncle's farm, all background to the imagination's response to night's uncertainty, Ginastera's builds more on the darker side of fantasy, dealing perhaps with magical incantations and folkloric rituals. Like Bartók, it is also full of unusual playing techniques, including fingernail pizzicatos, pizzicato glissandos, those louds “snap” pizzicatos (let's hope no strings are broken tonight) usually called “Bartók Pizzes,” as well as playing with the bow practically on the bridge to create that eerie hollow, almost metalic sound, and tapping the strings with the wooden back of the bow. As this night-music became a standard part of Bartók's style, Ginastera's magic was very much a part of his.

From there, we work our way back out of the arch's keystone with a parallel slow movement that also employs solo passages before returning to the violent rhythmic, indeed frantic propulsion ending the piece with a huge, unfettered yelp.

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The Enso Quartet plays Alberto Ginastera's 2nd String Quartet:
Allegro rustico

Adagio angoscioso

Presto magico

Libero e rapsodico

Furioso

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Alberto Ginastera
In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European culture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.

There is much more to Ginastera's music in the years he continued to compose after these first two quartets – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.

“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”

So with his first two quartet, we hear a composer, coming of age in his 30s and then shifting again in his early-40s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.

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If you are not familiar with the music of Alberto Ginastera, a Centennial Year is a good opportunity (if not just an excuse) to explore some of the other pieces he's composed. One of the first works of his I'd heard, back when it was still quite new, was a recording of his opera Bomarzo, written for the Washington National Opera but which, if you read most of the reviews about it, seemed to be only about sex (and what college student wouldn't find that an attention-grabber?). I used to listen to it so often, I soon had the music memorized even if the sexual aspects of the production (which, of course, I couldn't see) had little impact on me, so fascinating was the music and its psychological impact on the story. And even though I hadn't heard it in the last 20 years or so, finding it on-line recently, I was amazed how much of it came back to me like an old familiar friend who hadn't aged at all.

Read the synopsis first and if you can find a recording somewhere with the libretto (it is sung in Spanish and the only performance I can find on-line has subtitles in Italian with a very distracting film superimposed on the recording though much of it seems to follow the action), that would be even better. But speaking of “black magic,” that opening is one of the creepiest sounds I've ever heard...!

Also in college, back in the late-60s, I found a recording of his 1st Piano Concerto in the music library. By the time I'd gotten to the last movement, I was sitting there under the headsets, my eyes wide open and my head bobbing to its furious rhythms when someone tapped me on the shoulder to make sure I wasn't having a fit or something. “No,” I said, handing him the headset, “listen to this!”


João-Carlos Martins, piano; Boston Symphony/Erich Leinsdorf – still the most hair-razing performance I've ever heard of it!

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Read my post on Henri Dutilleux and his nocturne, Ainsi la nuit,here.

Dick Strawser

P.S. You can also read Alex Ross' article in the New Yorker Magazine about the Ginastera Centennial, here.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Enso Quartet Redux: Beethoven & the 'Harp'

The Enso Quartet
Neither rain nor snow nor... no, wait, even the mail didn't get out after that snowstorm! Thirty inches of snow? Come on...

One of many events felled by the Blizzard of January 2016, the Enso Quartet's appearance with Market Square Concerts was able to be rescheduled to Wednesday, April 6th, and switched to Market Square Church.

One hopes this time the weather will be better...

A couple of things about that, too,  to accommodate their traveling schedule, since they're now "just passing through" on their way between Tennessee's concert the night before and a 1pm concert in New York the following day: the start time of the concert here is 7:30, earlier than usual - and the repertoire has been altered to fit in with their current tour. Originally to be Alberto Ginastera's 1st Quartet and Beethoven's "3rd Razumovsky," it's now Ginastera's 2nd Quartet and Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, the "Harp." In between, we still get to hear one of the major works of one of the more amazing composers of the 20th Century, Henri Dutilleux and his "nocturne," Ainsi la nuit.

I'll be doing a pre-concert talk 45 minutes before the program begins, so that means it starts at the rather ungainly time of 6:45.

The concert is dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Anderson, a long-time supporter of the arts and education - and especially "education and the arts."

You can read about the Ginastera 2nd Quartet here; and about Dutilleux and Ainsi la nuit here.

Beethoven in 1806
After Beethoven composed the very symphonic, certainly extroverted quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, completed in 1806 - the Enso Quartet had originally planned to perform the 3rd of these: you can read that original post, here (especially if you've always been wondering what a 'Razumovsky' is) - he took what seems like a step back with his next quartet, the one in E-flat Major, published as Op. 74.

By comparison, yes, it is more intimate and despite being in Beethoven's favorite "heroic" key (for instance, the Eroica Symphony and the 'Emperor' Piano Concerto), it is certainly not comparably heroic in stature.

1806 had been an amazing year - amazingly productive, given all the works he completed then, including the 4th Symphony and two largely 'serene' works, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. On the other hand, 1809 was a horrendous year. Yet, once the worst was behind him, he composed this quartet, the 5th Piano Concerto, the Les Adieu Sonata, the F-sharp Major Piano Sonata, and started sketching what became the 7th Symphony.

But Beethoven typically alternated between extroverted works and more intimate ones (I don't think I could ever use the word 'introverted' in relation to Beethoven). Even within a particular piece, the contrasts between the two could be very strong and the 'Harp' Quartet is one such work.

In this recording, made at the Market Square Church in October, 2012, we hear the 'Harp' Quartet performed by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin when they opened Market Square Concerts' 2012-2013 Season:

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The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:07-2:18, part of a transition passage leading to the second theme in the secondary key (in the repeat of the opening section at 3:39) and again at 6:10-6:34, where it leads up to the climactic return of the main theme in the home key, then again at 6:58-7:22 where he expands it to reintroduce the 2nd theme in the main key. At 8:53-9:22, he brings it back again, this time as part of the coda (the 'ending' bit) where it's finally subsumed in the great noise that sounds like it's going to bring the movement to an "extroverted" close before Beethoven changes his mind, bringing the pizzicato motive back one more time (9:41-10:00) where eventually it goes from plucked to bowed strings to conclude - decisively but not so heroically as it seemed to be going for a bit earlier.

The second movement (at 10:15), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” While it may sound more "classically lined" that the first movement, this movement reminds us that Mozart was always Beethoven's ideal, not necessarily his teacher, Haydn.

Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 19:38) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition (24:23) leading to the finale works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background. It moves directly into the 4th Movement (24:49) without a break.

But this finale is not the finale of the 5th Symphony, a victory dance responding to the famous "Fate Knocks at the Door" Motive. It starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was completed the following year but published several years later. Then, it would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets,” when we'll find ourselves in a whole different world.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Doric Quartet and Beethoven's Op.132

The Doric Quartet, in a serious mood befitting Late Beethoven
Who: The Doric Quartet
What: Haydn, Korngold & Beethoven
When: 8pm, Thursday, March 31st
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom (located at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg, between Seneca and Emerald Streets)
Why: They played Beethoven's Op.131 here in 2012; this time, they'll be playing his Op.132

(You can read more about the Haydn and the Korngold quartets in this previous post, here.)

Imagine someone composing a piece back in 1982 – thirty-four years ago – and someone writing something premiered today. Regardless of who these two composers might be or what style they might be writing in, we would think both of them are “contemporary” (I mean, people still think Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is contemporary and that was premiered over 100 years ago!). Except for surface elements of style and perhaps a generational attitude, we might think them quite similar, depending.

Now, Haydn's half-dozen Op.64 Quartets - No. 2 opens the Doric's program - were published in 1791 when Haydn was 59. Beethoven's Op.132 which ends their program, was written in 1825, thirty-four years later. Beethoven was 54.

Beethoven, likewise serious, 1823
But what a world of difference between Late Haydn and Late Beethoven. Even with the arch-Romantic style of Korngold in between, with its late-19th Century harmonies, textures and modulations (despite being written in 1933), the Beethoven will still probably sound “more modern.” Certainly more adventuresome.

Beethoven's Op.132 is in five movements – not the usual four – creating sort of an arch form around the central slow movement which is generally regarded as this quartet's “crown jewel.” This is surrounded by two faster movements – first, there's the seemingly old-fashioned dance of the 2nd Movement, and then it's followed by the march-like 4th Movement which hardly seems to have gotten started when a recitative-like solo in the 1st violin turns into the finale, a dramatic mirror to the opening movement – hence, the arch:

Drama – Dance – Prayer – March – Resolution of the Drama.

Nowhere in this quartet is Beethoven's signature “scherzo” (the earthy, jocular replacement of the old-fashioned minuet). In fact, compared to the previous two opus numbers, it seems almost a return to near-normal. After all, you say, Op. 130 is in six movements and Op. 131 is in seven – so what's new and unusual about Op.132 being in five?

Here is a live performance by the Orion Quartet of the complete Op.132 (meaning it's in “one clip”):

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For those of you who read music or like to follow along with the score whether you can or cannot, here is the Alban Berg Quartet's recording:

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Just from the opening introduction, follow the constant half-step motion of the G#-to-A (or its reverse, A-to-G#) as it appears in different voices. It's hard to imagine this is the “kernel” that generated this whole quartet and provided, apparently, some fertile soil for the Grosse Fuge – but that's Op.130, so didn't that come first? More (as usual) on that in a bit...

The 1st Movement is not familiar territory to the careful listener of 1825 – it seems to be in Sonata Form but rather than repeat the exposition (as one normally would) he writes it out in the wrong key – so was that bit of transition the development section and this is... uhm... wait, it's over? Nowhere are those clear-cut boundaries one was used to in Haydn's day which told us plainly where we were: Exposition, Development, or Recapitulation with its final return to the home key. And what to make of those occasional operatic-like flourishes in the first violin that sound a bit like old-fashioned recitatives? Hmmm...

The Doric Quartet, less serious
The 2nd Movement starts off like a minuet but then that G#-A movement on the downbeat makes it awkward to dance to (where's the beat?). And as it unfolds, it really not a minuet, more of a lilting ländler, the folksy precursor of the more elegant waltz. It's not really a scherzo either, until we get to the country dance in the middle section with its drones (the open A-string affording a hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment to a simple tune in the 1st violin), one of the sweeter moments after all the unsettled turbulence implied in the first movement.

Yet every time I hear this movement, I think back to the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 when Beethoven, fearing for his hearing and near-suicidal over the possibility – no, the inevitability of his deafness – wrote...

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“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence...”
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He had written this “last will and testament” in the fall of 1802 – in the midst of writing the finale of his 2nd Symphony – and yet kept the document in his desk (quite likely having shown it to no one) where it was found after his death. Six years before he began writing these Late Quartets, Beethoven was reduced to using the "Conversation Books" where friends would write down questions for him, thus recording for posterity one side of what conversations Beethoven had but leaving us ignorant of his responses. Still, to communicate with the world this way...?

The third movement – the “Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving” – is a hymn that seems simple enough (the fact it is in the Lydian Mode – F Major with a B-natural instead of a B-flat – doesn't make it sound as “ancient” to our ears as it must have done to someone in the 1820s) with its “white notes” (in this case, open half-notes) even evoke the look of Palestrina's 16th-Century polyphony.

These alternate with more lively passages he marks “feeling new strength.” (More about this, later.) There is little music more transcendent than this in the whole repertoire of classical music.

The fourth movement comes as something of a shock after the spirituality of this hymn – a simple march-like passage that barely gets going before it is interrupted by one of those operatic flourishes (remember, in the first movement?) which leads directly – again, no boundary to cross, no pausing to turn the page – to the finale.

This is basically a rondo, not unexpected as a finale – incidentally, paging through the sketch-books if you could read them, the main idea of this movement was originally intended for a fully instrumental finale to the 9th Symphony, before he decided on adding a chorus and setting Schiller's Ode to Joy (imagine, you're listening to one of Beethoven's rejects, here!) – and here, the lyrical element which never got to take the lead in the first movement comes to the fore yet not without bits of turbulence along the way.

As we near the end – how many times do we think we're “nearing the end” in Beethoven's finales only to find “wait, there's more!”? – this lyricism takes on new heights (literally) and it almost seems as if everything is going to ascend into the air. A happy A Major ending, finally, as the music transcends the drama, the expectations, the implications of the past, to achieve humanity.

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Beethoven's original manuscript, opening of Op.132
The first sketches for Op.132 appear in late-1824 during the final push to complete the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127, a more “standard” quartet in four movements, which he completed in February of 1825, moving immediately into the new A Minor Quartet, Op. 132.

Wait, what happened to Op. 130 and Op. 131? They were actually composed later: the B-flat Quartet with its original Grosse Fuge ending was begun in August of 1825, immediately after finishing the A Minor. This makes more sense when you realize the opening slow introduction of Op.132 is actually an integral part of the Grosse Fuge from Op.130 (the Fugue was later surgically removed and published separately as Op.133, but that's another story). Then, having completed this “Great Fugue,” he began another quartet which opens with a great fugal movement – if minuets were old-fashioned in the 1820s, fugues were like “ancient, scholarly stuff” – the C-sharp Minor Quartet (eventually Op.131) which he “finished” in May of 1826, as he told his publisher, though he apparently kept working on it until he submitted the score that August. Again, he immediately began work on Op.135, the F Major Quartet, which he completed in October, 1826.

Keep in mind, in the same sketchbook, there are ideas intended for a String Quartet in C Major. Wait – there could have been a sixth Late Beethoven Quartet?

Beethoven died in March, 1827, at the age of 56.

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While all five of his “Late Quartets” are considered the Mount Everest of Chamber Music, both for performers as well as listeners, it's amazing to consider the personal world of Beethoven when he was writing them.

Unfortunately for Prince Nikolai Galitsin's legacy - he commissioned Beethoven to write “a few quartets” for him - “The Late Quartets” never became known as “The Galitsin Quartets” as we generally know those three Middle Quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky. Many people – at least, Classical Music Lovers – know Razumovsky's name even if they have no idea what a Razumovsky is (you can read more about Razumovsky in this post) only through his association with Beethoven's quartets.

First of all, Prince Nikolai Galitsin (Голицын in Russian: it can spelled different ways phonetically in different Western European languages) had to wait so long for them, asking Beethoven in 1822, offering to pay him “whatever amount you deem adequate.” Beethoven thought 50 ducats seemed adequate, though I've never found any way of comparing an 1822 Ducat to a 2016 Dollar.

Galitsin had lived in Vienna for a while and was familiar with the latest German music. An amateur cellist who played in his own house quartet (as Razumovsky played 2nd violin in his), he arranged several of Beethoven's piano pieces for his ensemble. At one point, he decided to commission the latest rage in German music, Carl Maria von Weber, but the violist advised he should contact Beethoven instead.

Considering Beethoven had not written a string quartet since he finished the Op. 95, the one he called the “Serioso,” in 1810, it is unlikely Beethoven would simply have decided “oh, okay, now that the Missa Solemnis is done and the 9th Symphony has been premiered, let me write these five string quartets for no reason at all.”

So we have a violist to thank for bringing them about! (Think on that, ye collectors of viola jokes!)

To help his cause, Galitsin arranged what turned out to be the world premiere of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg, the Russian Imperial capital in 1824. For his troubles, Galitsin also received the dedication to Beethoven's new overture, The Consecration of the House, written for the opening of a new theater in Vienna.

Once he was ready to start work on the quartets, it was 1824, two years after Galitsin's letter, and while the legal issues dealing with his nephew's custody were behind him, the composer still had to deal with a rebellious 17-year-old who clearly had no interest in living with his rough, demanding, and not to mention stone-deaf uncle, regardless of his being The Great Beethoven.

While working on the Op.127 quartet, the constant yelling between uncle and nephew, not to mention the deaf composer's pounding at the piano when he composed, proved too much for the landlord who threw them out and Beethoven was forced to find new lodgings!

There were problems with the boy's occasionally running off to his mother (the infamous sister-in-law Beethoven referred to as “The Queen of the Night”) and there were always problems at the boarding school the boy'd been sent to. Later, while Beethoven was in the midst of composing the Op.135 Quartet, the boy, just before he turned 20, tried to commit suicide.

Listening to these quartets, it is amazing to imagine a composer being able to concentrate on writing anything, much less works of this profundity. Perhaps the drama surrounding Beethoven's final years had as much to do with shaping the inner world where these quartets came from as did the isolation from his deafness.

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There is a habit among commentators (and performers) who often explain these works as a kind of “summing up” in Beethoven's career – as if the term “Late Beethoven” refers to “the late Beethoven,” recently deceased. Beethoven had no idea he was going to die in March of 1827. If you don't know that the Op.135 Quartet was his last completed work, neither did he.

After his death, people found in his sketchbooks and in his desk, among other things (like that letter to the Immortal Belovéd as well as the Heiligenstadt Testament), sketches for a 10th Symphony's first movement, a C Major String Quartet, a string quintet – hardly the stuff of someone who was dying. Granted, between October of 1826 and his death, he completed only that alternate happy-go-lucky replacement finale for the Op.130 Quartet, for those who argued the Fugue was impossible to play and made the quartet too long for mere mortal attention spans. Yes, he was ill and yes he'd been sick before, perhaps even worse, but thoughts he was on the verge of dying never occurred to him before he completed the quartets, much less began contemplating them three years earlier.

He had written three quartets for Galitsin but then immediately produced two more – in Haydn's day, it was typical that quartets were produced in sets of six or maybe three: even Beethoven produced six quartets for his first set, Op. 18, and three for Razumovsky in Op. 59 in 1806. Perhaps, now, he decided he would go for six again, another complete set.

There are “whiffs of mortality” about these works because we find them there, and if Beethoven put them there, it's probably because most of his music from 1803 on also contained elements exploring the human condition – in the opera, Fidelio, but certainly the dramatic moments of the Eroica and the 5th Symphony. Could anything sound more “mortal” than the great Funeral March of his 3rd Symphony or even the slow movement of the 7th, even though one could argue these are essentially conventions Beethoven imbued with super-mortal inspiration?

copyist's MS, cello part, 3rd Movement
The title of Op.132's slow movement, the justly famous Heiliger Dankgesang, can be translated literally as Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode. While many commentators (and listeners) dislike the intervention of reality behind the creation of Art – who cares what Brahms had for breakfast on the day he composed such-and-such? – the reality that intruded into this quartet at this point is significant: Beethoven was unable to continue work on his new quartet because of a bout of illness in the early spring. It wasn't until May that he began work again, and then began writing the slow movement. Keep in mind also this is a title he gave the movement, not a nickname given by some critic or editor somewhere decades later who thought “you know, this movement reminds me a lake in the moonlight, so I think I'll call it The Moonlight Sonata.”

But he knew that he would pull through – he knew he had been through worse: hell, he'd gone completely deaf, hadn't he, and showed God and the world what he could do despite these afflictions! Another bout of bowel distress, an inflammation brought on all manner of stuff you'd rather not think about while listening to this music! In April he was, in addition, dealing with bleeding from the nose and mouth but by May felt well enough to resume composing – hence the Hymn of Thanksgiving in the 3rd Movement.

This is a purely 19th Century Romantic idea, the artist inserting himself into the narrative, becoming the subject of his art, the exact opposite of what he did while composing the 2nd Symphony and writing the Heiligenstadt Testament. The writer E.T.A. Hoffman, whom Beethoven read, used similar techniques in his stories – they were considered quite innovative – but let's be thankful Beethoven chose to focus on his recovery rather than on the preceding illness.

We think of Beethoven as this great colossus of Classical Music – the one who terrified young Brahms, tramping behind him – and forget that Beethoven was far from being “typical” of his time. All you need to do is look at his contemporaries, those who were being performed, to know there was no one to compare him to, much less equal him. For most of us enjoying classical music, since Haydn had ceased composing with his oratorios in 1800, there really was no one of comparable stature: there would be Clementi, Cherubini, Hummel, Rossini, Weber, Paganini, all leading composers of their day, still remembered, along with Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Weigl and hundreds more who are not – I do not include Schubert because, at this time, he was virtually unknown, though Beethoven met him and supposedly admired some of his songs (for his part, Schubert was just coming into his own in 1825, inspired by Beethoven: hearing a private performance of Op.131 may well have been too much emotionally for the young composer who died at the age of 31 only a few days later), or Berlioz who had only gotten started by the time Beethoven died; Mendelssohn composed his Octet the same year Beethoven wrote his Op.132, and would write his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture the following year but then he was still in his mid-teens, wasn't he?


Those who came after Beethoven had much to contend with, dealing with his legacy. And nothing was more confusing to the audiences and performers then than these Late Quartets. Even today, they are a sign of accomplishment for both and yet always leave us wondering “what if...?”

If you want, by the way, to understand the quartets better, listen to them in the order they were composed. Usually they are played in “opus order,” but to hear the A Minor Quartet as a response to the E-flat Op.127 quartet helps pave the way for the increasing complexities of the next two – the B-flat whose original finale is so carefully tied into the opening of the A Minor; the C-sharp Minor whose fugal writing is an outgrowth of the complex fugue that ended its predecessor – and the seeming reaction in the shorter, seemingly less daring in not quite so innovative F Major that was the last one he completed.

But, tell me, who could imagine, given that trajectory over three years' time, what a sixth quartet in C Major might have been like?

And now for some reality: Beethoven had requested a fee of 50 ducats per quartet before he'd started work on them. Prince Galitsin paid Beethoven a down-payment of 25 ducats for the first quartet, Op.127, but due to financial difficulties, he was unable to pay the debt he acknowledged in a subsequent letter. By the time Beethoven died, perhaps Galitsin figured it no longer mattered and Beethoven's heirs – acting on behalf of Karl van Beethoven, the nephew, who, despite everything, turned out to be a pretty good fellow after all, once the soldiering life straightened him out – had to pursue the Prince through the courts until it was finally paid in 1852 – twenty-five years after the composer died! It's a good thing this hadn't come out before he had completed the 2nd of these “Galitsin Quartets,” or Beethoven could have easily said, “the hell with you and your quartets – I'll write something else!”

But then, nobody commissioned Op.131 and Op.135 or the C Major Quartet left abandoned in the sketchbooks.

So, thank Galitsin's violist for that much!

- Dick Strawser