Sunday, October 4, 2020

Stepping Into the Future: Dancing and Improvising As We Go

It's hard to believe the last time we had a chance to gather in public and listen to live music was in February! While that may feel like over 610 days ago, the Pandemic has changed everything in our lives, not the least for many of us the ability to play and listen to music in a live setting shared with friends. And while we may not yet be “back to normal,” even if it feels like we're dancing on the wrong end of a pin, a journey of a thousand miles still begins with a single step.

Mark Markham
And so we start the season with pianist Mark Markham in a recital starting at 7:30 on Tuesday, October 6th in Whitaker Center – where there's ample opportunity to maintain social distancing – and while lots of things have changed (and will no doubt continue to change as the season unfolds) since the announcement of the 2020-2021 Season, we all take a deep breath and move forward.

Mark Markham is at home as a recitalist, concerto soloist, collaborative pianist who performed with the late soprano Jessye Norman for twenty years, as well as a jazz pianist. He offers a program called "Cances and Improvisations" with works by Bach, Ravel, Chopin, and Poulenc before closing with a series of Improvisations from "The American Songbook." This program "celebrates the unique freedom of expression found by great composers in transcending both genres while creating evocative and beguiling musical gems.

You may remember Mr. Markham's last visit to Harrisburg in 2018, when he appeared as a soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra performing Ravel's Piano Concerto, and gave piano and vocal masterclasses at Messiah University, then played an unforgettable recital for MSC's audience including Liszt's monumental Piano Sonata.

A rare late-March snowstorm made it impossible for some of you to attend Mr. Markham's recital then. Here is a recording of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Major, Op. 32, No. 11, from that performance

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Please note that TICKET SALES for upcoming Oct 6 concert presenting Mark Markham are CLOSED due to the current PA indoor gathering limits for performing venues. Option to purchase the 30-day access to either audio or videorecording of the performance is still available via EventBrite. For more information, contact Anne or call 717-221-9599.

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So let's begin with Bach. Here is Andras Schiff recorded ten years ago playing the C Minor “French Suite” with which Mark Markham begins his program.

 

Why Bach's “French Suites” are called French Suites is bit like the old joke about the French Horn (which is German) and the English Horn (which is French). Twelve years after Bach died, a biographer first referred to his set of six keyboard suites as French Suites because they were written in the French Style. Presumably, this has been explained, the different dances making up the various suites are French dances. Of course, the very first dance is an Allemande (which means “German” in French). 

The second movement is a Courante (in French) but Bach often spells it Corrente (in Italian): in these suites, however, he always uses the French spelling. The stately Sarabande was originally a lively dance with castanets that reached Spain by way of Guatemala and Mexico in the 16th Century. The Menuet (or Minuet) is actually a French dance and the concluding Gigue is not far removed from its origin in the English Jig! 

The last of these French Suites also includes a Polonaise, which is of Polish origins as the name implies, but it is far removed from the national spirit one hears reflected in the piano works of Frederic Chopin.

Now, each of these became stylized as courtly dances with their own special steps with specific time signatures (duple or triple time) and rhythmic patterns. By the time they became instrumental movements, they were no longer intended to be “danced” at those aristocratic or upper-class social gatherings we see in BBC adaptations of period dramas, but their origins in The Dance were unmistakable.

(For the sake of confusion, compare the French Suite's dances with those in Bach's six English Suites, here which were inspired by his interest in French lute music.)

Unlike classical-era composers who would set out a project to write and publish a set of six string quartets, say, Bach would write his suites whenever he felt like it and later, when in a cataloguing mood, gather them together in some kind of compendium like the six individual concertos that became The Brandenburg Concertos (even the great Mass in B Minor is a compilation of mass movements written over a span of years and not initially intended as a single work). The French Suites were composed between 1722 and 1725 (the first could be dated earlier, there's no way of knowing), while the English Suites are earlier, written between 1713 and 1714.

Perhaps the major distinction, if you compare this 2nd Suite in C Minor to more familiar keyboard works of Bach, like The Well-Tempered Clavier, is the texture. It's entirely right-hand-melody/left-hand-bass-line throughout – what we call “two-part writing” – not playing actual chords but implying them in the way the lines move, giving us the aural perception of chords. Yet while there's none of the dense texture we associate with fugal writing – follow along with this adaptation of the C Minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier  – it is intensely “polyphonic” with two entirely independent voices in which the left-hand is not subservient to plunking out the bass-notes of the harmony.

Compare this also with the opening of the Chopin Andante spianato (coming up after the Ravel) where the melody in the right hand is supported by a choral accompaniment in the left hand. Bach's style is called polyphonic (two or more voices or layers); Chopin's is called homophonic (one melodic layer with accompaniment).

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Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (which nicely translates to “Noble & Sentimental Waltzes”) is a suite of eight contrasting waltzes composed for piano in 1911. They take their inspiration in the strings of waltzes written by Franz Schubert, the Valses nobles (in French despite his Viennese location) in 1823 and the Valses sentimentales presumably in 1827. While Schubert's were intended to be danced to at house parties – one reason they'd been dismissed as “salon music” – it be unwise to roll up the rug and try dancing to Ravel's waltzes, though they are wonderfully choreographable. Schubert couldn't dance to save his soul but he loved to sit at the piano and improvise for hours so his friends could enjoy a good dance party. Ravel initially had other ideas, here...

 

 From that clatter-bang of an opening that set its initial audience's teeth on edge, to the magic of its dream-like ending, Ravel explored different ways of “waltzing” in its variety of tempos and moods, even in its styles, mixing various “modernist” techniques with impressionistic harmonies. He was fascinated by the waltz, beginning work on what eventually became the famous tone-poem La Valse as early as 1906 – he eventually completed and published it in 1919, after World War I – and this set explores many of his eclectic viewpoints but without specifying which are “noble” and which, “sentimental” (one assumes the slow ones are “sentimental” in our sense of the word, but not all the fast ones seem so “noble” to us). The final waltz is an Epilogue, with fragments of the previous waltzes floating through our consciousness before fading into memory.

There's the famous story of their premiere at a 1911 concert where all-new works were presented anonymously so listeners could judge the music on what they heard rather than on any pre-conceived reactions to the composers' names. Of course, the whole point, eventually, boiled down to trying to figure out who wrote what!

Judging from initial reactions, given the boos and cat-calls during the performance, many thought the pianist was hitting wrong notes on purpose, that it was a nose-thumbing parody. As Ravel recalled it, “a minute majority” guessed he was to blame, though Erik Satie and other French modernists of the previous generation like D'Indy and Charles Koechlin were among those suggested (whoever could imagine Satie writing such a piece!?). Of the other composers on the program, none are well-known to modern American audiences and without further research I'm at a loss to figure out what François Couperin was doing there...

Ravel sat in a box surrounded by friends (mostly amateur musicians and socialites) who soon joined in the cat-calls, “protesting indignantly over the presentation of such mediocre buffoonery.” As all composers on the program had promised to keep their involvements a secret, Ravel remained silent. But after the performance and before the Big Reveal, a well-known critic and supporter of Ravel's told him (to his face), “You are mistaken in trying to dupe us by putting such a 'lemon' on this program. Nobody has been fooled. It is obviously the work of an amateur who has heard some waltzes by Chopin and intended imitating them. But the total absence of craftsmanship is too evident. It shows itself so clearly! He is a shabby fellow, this composer! We shouldn't be taken for imbeciles, you know!” and then stormed off. (Related by Emile Vuillermoz in his biography on Fauré who overheard this conversation.)

Not surprisingly, while giving credit to Schubert for his inspiration, Ravel prefaced this score with the quote, “the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation.”

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Chopin's piano music hardly needs an introduction. The Andante spianato and Grand Poloniase may, however, benefit from some explanation. It began life as a Polonaise for piano and orchestra, begun before Chopin left Warsaw and finished in 1831 during a short stay in Vienna (which proved dissatisfying so he moved on to Paris). Then, in 1834, invited to give his first public performance with orchestra in Paris, he chose the Grand Polonaise and added a solo piano introduction to better show off the lyrical side of his playing. This, he called Andante spianato , a rippling accompaniment supporting one of Chopin's most gorgeous melodies. The rarely seen term spianato means “smoothly.” It's a perfect example of how the style of bel canto opera inspired Chopin's pianistic lyricism. The Polonaise is more often played today as a solo work throughout.

 

Chopin – whose father was French, emigrating to Poland as a teenager in 1787 – was a Polish composer in his heart even if most of his short career located him in Paris. Many of his pieces are what we call “stylized dances” – his waltzes, for example, wouldn't be suitable for standard ballroom dancing – and very often capture the essence of Poland's national musical voice. Keep in mind Poland at this time did not exist: it had been subdivided and divvied up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria so many times, it was difficult to figure out what was left of its proud and ancient heritage, at one time a huge nation stretching over Eastern Europe. When Chopin was born in the Duchy of Warsaw, it was still dominated by Russia, becoming a puppet state of the Empire in 1815. It was not reinstated as an independent nation until 1918, after World War I. Interestingly, considering Chopin's fame as a Polish composer in the wider world, the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland was the internationally acclaimed pianist, Ignacy Paderewski.

Chopin was born in 1810, and his father had become a teacher of French to aristocratic families. Nicholas Chopin (spelled Szopen in Polish) would only allow Polish to spoken in his home. His love for his adopted country had a serious impact on the boy.

His first composition at the age of 7 was a Polonaise, harking back to the grand days of aristocratic Poland. His Grand Polonaise Op. 22 (before he added the Andante spianato) was his third polonaise, written when he was 20-21 years old. In addition to the earlier Introduction & Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano (Op.3), there are seven polonaises for solo piano published in his lifetime, the last completed in 1846; there are three earlier ones published posthumously and perhaps six or seven more that remain unpublished.

While the brilliant polonaise of Op.22 grabs the attention, the spinning line of the opening Andante (for years, I thought spianato meant “spinning” as a spider spins a web, that fine, delicate silken thread!) is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the piece. This vocal-inspired melody, endlessly unfolding, is a hallmark of the romantic style and the inspiration to every generation of composers specializing in piano music to follow – just try to imagine Rachmaninoff or early Skryabin without Chopin!

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Improvisation is something less common in classical music today than it had been. In the Baroque days, keyboard players frequently “made up” the harmonies they would play which the composer supplied by the composers' shorthand notation called “figured bass” (a hoary subject and bane of most freshman theory students to this day). It did not mean they were “creating their part out of thin air” – as long as they stayed within the parameters of this shorthand, it was more like “realizing” the composers' intentions.

When I was in college, my composition teacher was delighted to discover a Baroque composer – I've forgotten who, I think he was English but his work pre-dated Handel's Messiah – had written a trio sonata in which the keyboard part (which consisted solely of the bass-line and this figured-bass shorthand) could be realized to quote exactly Handel's famous “Hallelujah” Chorus. It's not a question of plagiarism in either direction: Handel wrote a fairly standard and extremely memorable harmonic progression which this trio sonata composer (and no doubt thousands of others) had also used. It was just amusing to be listening to this trio sonata and hearing in the keyboard part a quotation from the “Hallelujah” Chorus. But any keyboard player could have realized it to come up with different notes.

There's also a frequently misunderstood story about Mozart and two of his Violin Sonatas, one of which was performed before the Emperor in 1784. As with the G Major Sonata (K.394) in 1781, when Mozart admitted to his father he hadn't had time to complete the work in time for its performance, he just wrote out the violin part and left the piano part blank. When the Emperor looked at the score of the B-flat Sonata (K.454) on the piano after the first performance, he was amazed (and somewhat perturbed) to see any notes in the piano part (compared to “too many notes” as he once complained).

So when I hear, say, radio announcers saying (in absolute awe) that Mozart “completely made up the piano part on the spot,” I want to throw things! No – it was all in his head, fully composed. Yes, there may have been spots he could fill in or even make some changes along the way, but it was all guided by (a.) what he had already given the violinist in terms of harmony and rhythm, and (b.) what he had already composed in his head but didn't get a chance to write it out later. That's one of the reasons he could write an overture the night before an opera's premiere: it was already composed, it just wasn't down on paper yet – it was a matter of transcription, not an act of instant composition. And not improvisation, as we normally consider the term.

Today, there are very few pianists who are going to sit down an improvise a cadenza for a Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto which was the norm in those days. In fact, unlike most concert performers of the 19th Century who often wrote concertos for themselves to play, it would be amusing to see what Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell could come up with if they were asked to write a concerto for themselves.

But in the world of jazz, improvisation – whether made up on the spot or working tangentially with other musicians, the jazz combo a form of chamber music, after all – is standard procedure. But again it's all within various structural features already established and “filled in” accordingly. Once they establish a key and a meter, maybe a mood, there are different patterns of chords (I love how in jazz they're called “changes” rather than “progressions”) and even prescribed measure numbers within which they work. It's still not blithely sitting down and pulling something out of thin air (or anywhere else). It's like weaving a tapestry: there's a pattern, there's a plan, but how you implement them, that's up to you.

And so Francis Poulenc's 15 Improvisations, written over a span from 1932 to 1959 (he died in 1963), are a slightly different creative stew. Just as Schubert could sit down and improvise hours of dances for his friends and then write down some of them later on to publish, many composers might sit down and “noodle around” at the piano to come up with some ideas, then take the ones they like, write them down and, sooner or later, come back to them and flesh them out.

Poulenc, in his own right a fine pianist, wrote: “Many of my pieces have failed because I know too well how to write for the piano ...[A]s soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments for my songs, I begin to be innovative. ...It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretenses.” Often not taken seriously because of his light-hearted, often tongue-in-cheek style, Poulenc was very aware of the intellectual involvement in his innate sense of creativity. The question was making it sound natural, effortless – not intellectual.

These improvisations probably began as just such an exercise: try to create something on the spot, something spontaneously, then work it into something that sounds like a finished piece, something one could argue whether the heart or the brain came first.

He called them “improvisations,” however they began, however they evolved, to avoid anything too specific or too structured, formally, keeping them short and uncomplicated.

Mr. Markham will play six of this group of fifteen – including an homage to Schubert (No. 12) and one to Edith Piaf (No. 15 from 1959) which, Poulenc being Poulenc, makes perfect sense.

 

Pascal Rogé is the pianist in this performance of all fifteen improvisations. You can locate the one's Mr. Markham will be playing by scooting the time-bar across to these timings:

No. 1 (beginning) No. 7 (at 9:17) No. 12-15 (at 17:17 to the end)

And one more improvisation, this one (bringing the program not quite full circle) based on the name of Bach with a rather cheeky waltz finished on October 8th, 1932, and dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz.

 

Robert Schumann made a frequent habit of crafting musical motives out of names: his Carnaval is full of them, taking what musical pitches exist in the name or substituting other pitches for those that don't. It might seem like cheating, but you could also use solfege syllables where possible: that way, a name with an LA- in it could be represented by the pitch A which is la in solfege, or RE- which becomes – do-re-mi – the pitch D.

But Schumann didn't invent this: Bach was doing it with his own name a century earlier (and even then, this was nothing new). So how do you play B-A-C-H in musical pitches? H? In German, just to make it confusing, they use B for B-flat and B-natural becomes H. So, you can spell it B-flat – A – C – B-natural. Poulenc spells it out in the upper notes of the right hand's first three measures in his little waltz. At one point, he plays it in reverse and then, at the end, there's even a pile-up of B-ACH as a chord.

To end the program, Mark Markham will play “Improvisations from The American Songbook” which he'll announce from the stage. And so I'll let him do just that.

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Schubert's Piano Trio: Easing the "Miserable Human Condition"

 “With Labor Day approaching, marking the traditional end of summer, this week’s dose of great music will be the final one. We are starting to look ahead with cautious optimism and are planning to present our season 2020-'21 in compliance with the government guidance on social distancing, face coverings and limits on gatherings.

After 24 weekly doses of great music, we’d like to finish this series with the uplifting Piano Trio in B Flat Major by Franz Schubert. Robert Schumann famously wrote about this piece: 'a glance at Schubert’s trio and all miserable human condition vanishes and the world shines in a new splendour.' It is our hope that you will find a much needed life-affirming energy and inspiration in this glorious music.” – Peter Sirotin, Market Square Concerts Director.

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This performance of Schubert's B-flat Major Piano Trio – whether you want to call it No. 1, Op.99 or D.898 – featured violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church on July 17th, 2015, by Newman Stare.

A four-movement work, it begins with a striking and optimistic first movement, followed by one of the most beautifully expansive slow movements Schubert ever composed (beginning at 11:24). A lively scherzo with its gentle, folk-like middle section (beginning at 20:08, the brief 'trio' at 23:17) precedes a high-spirited, dance-like Finale (which begins at 27:07).

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To anyone who took one of those Facebook Quizzes in the summer of 2015 asking “Where Will You Be in Five Years” – did anybody get it right?

Probably not what you were expecting, either...

Five years ago, for the original post about the Schubert Trio's concert, the current news seemed grim enough. Compare this to what we're experiencing today.

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It may be a lot to expect that one or two pieces of music would make all the anxiety we feel watching the evening news go away – whether it's the spread of ISIS, the Greek Debt Crisis, “climate change” (void where prohibited by law), or the fact that cancer can exist, and that's without even mentioning drugs, crime or presidential campaigns.

To some, those who use music to make “the troubles of our human existence disappear” would be labeled as escapists (because everybody needs a label) yet to find out how necessary that idea is to Americans today, all you have to do is turn on the TV.

Of course, there are different ways of escaping: you could be watching The Amazing Ninja Bachelor Survival Chase on most network channels or you could be watching the latest Masterpiece Mystery on your local BBC affiliate – just as you might prefer reading a book, whether it's Another Shame of Gray or Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

So, let Schubert and his Piano Trio in B-flat “take you away from all this.”

To counter claims of “escapism,” I like to point out that without balance, things – including us – would fall down. Or apart (“the center cannot hold” as Yeats expressed it after World War I). The suicide rate would greatly increase, I suspect, if all we had was The News to watch and read. That's why they invented the internet – so we could amuse ourselves with endless cat videos, right?

And Classical Music is full of good things that act like antioxidants for the soul – balancing tension with release, and unity with variety (whether harmonic, melodic, or structural), among other things. There's a fast movement followed by a slow movement; the weightier, more intellectually demanding first movement is usually followed by an emotional slow movement, both of which can be balanced by two light-hearted movements, a dance (minuet or scherzo) and, for Schubert, usually a simpler, often child-like fourth movement to give everything, even dramatic first movements, a happy ending. Plus there are loud passages followed by soft passages, complex harmonic passages resolving to simpler, more direct harmonies, modulations to other keys and, eventually, returns to the home tonic – it's not all one or the other.

There are reasons for that – because, before they invented listening systems you could plug directly into your ears, that was the way people listened and needed the respite from one or the other. A three-minute rock song blasting away may be one thing, but a half-hour-long piece of chamber music (much less an hour-long symphony) has to approach the listener differently and it does this through balance.

While there is, of course, the musical equivalent of broccoli (and others may consider serialism a little too high-fiber for their tastes), a musical diet that offers you some of the finest works by some of the greatest composers can offer a good balance as well, even in a single composition.

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Franz Schubert, painted in 1825


Schubert, technically, was born in the 18th Century – 1797, so just barely – but that doesn't make him an 18th-Century composer. Beethoven, born over 26 years earlier, was already working on his first great masterpieces (like the Op. 18 String Quartets; the 1st Symphony was just around the corner) around the time Schubert was born in another part of Vienna. But where Beethoven was already “not sounding like an 18th-Century composer,” much to the chagrin of his teacher, Haydn, the epitome of the 18th Century, many of Schubert's works – especially his early symphonies and string quartets – had a distinctly Haydnesque appeal to them up until the music he began writing in the mid-1820s: his early music possessed clear textures, well-balanced and equally clear structures, and an essentially direct harmonic language, all trademarks of the classical style.

Around the same time Beethoven, now in his 50s, had begun those monumental Late Quartets, Schubert finally left the 18th-Century ideal to explore his own monumental late works, expanding not just the length of the music and how far he could stretch it but also the harmonic language and how it related to the overall forms both composers had inherited from the past.

In the Good Old Days, composers didn't write one piece at a time – think of Haydn's quartets (usually a half-dozen in a set) or those “London” Symphonies (two sets of six written for separate visits). Even Beethoven wrote six quartets for his first published set, Op. 18, and there were three written for Count Razumovsky.

Beethoven often conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs – if not the Eroica & the 4th, certainly the 5th & 6th, the 7th & 8th, and the epic 9th & the barely begun 10th, left in sketches when he died in 1827 at the age of 56.

Schubert, whether he planned them that way or not, wrote his two piano trios, concurrently or consecutively, around the same time period following Beethoven's death. In fact, there's a fair bit of debate about which trio came first and which one might have been performed on the only concert of his music he was ever to give in his lifetime, that epic program on March 26, 1828 (the first anniversary, as it turned out, of Beethoven's death). 

Even though there are differences, they are not so different in the way they're written – not at least the kind of contrasts that you would find between Beethoven's 5th & 6th Symphonies or even within a set of six string quartets. But yet, neither sounds derivative of the other, given our age for sequels and prequels.

Schubert, who could write several different settings of the same poem, firmly believed (like most good composers before him) there were many ways to skin a sonata, not just churning out one piece after another all built to the same mold. This "sonata form" was the traditional structural outline on which you stretched out all your thematic and harmonic ideas for the serious opening movement of any multi-movement abstract work, whether it's a sonata, a symphony, or a piano trio (as well as many of Schubert's seemingly non-abstract works that defied the idea of a sonata like the “Wanderer Fantasy,” among other “fantasies” which are still, regardless of not being called sonatas, essentially sonata-like four-movement works).

Schubert (r.) with friends J.B. Jenger & Anselm Huttenbrenner (1827)


Schubert composed two piano trios which were published eight years after his death as Op. 99 in B-flat and Op. 100 in E-flat, making the pairing even more obvious even though it's a fairly arbitrary coincidence. The cataloguer Otto Deutsch numbered the E-flat Trio (completed in November 1827 and first heard the following month at Vienna's Musikverein) as D.929 but the B-flat Trio (whose manuscript has been lost and which may have been composed sometime during the year 1827 – some sources suggest it was written in October but there is no proof of that) as D.898.

Of the works listed between D.898 and D.929 in the Deutsch catalog (originally published in 1950-1951), there are six lesser-known, mostly short piano pieces as well as the famous set of Four Impromptus (D.899), 22 songs and part-songs as well as the 24 individual songs that make up the magnificent song cycle, Winterreise (D.910), plus 88 pages of an unfinished opera, one of many such opera projects Schubert tried and abandoned. But even the placement of the B-flat Trio in this catalog is not an indication of chronology, since the first four works on this list can only be marked "1827(?)" with no more conclusive dates. Considering we know Schubert was working on the extremely dark poems that make up Winterreise between February and October, 1827, could this brilliant and optimistic Piano Trio – thinking of Schumann's words about the vanishing of the "miserable human condition" which Peter quoted in his introduction – have been written simultaneously with the dark and ultimately pessimistic song cycle? (Can there be a more desolate conclusion than that final song, Der Leiermann...?)

Another historical fact to consider, thinking how composers must work in the real world, not the “fantasy vacuum” most of us assume the creative “ivory tower” to be, the great Beethoven had died on March 26th, 1827, and Schubert, who by this time in his life revered him, was one of his pallbearers at the funeral three days later. These two trios, as well as most of Schubert's major works written during his last few years, could never have been written without Beethoven's influence.

Little did Schubert know he would not outlive the next year, dying on November 19th, 1828, at the age of 31. But the large number of works he composed in that final year include some of his finest. It is difficult to imagine anyone of any age writing that many masterpieces in so short a space under such circumstances, but that is another story to contemplate for another time.

– Dick Strawser






Thursday, August 27, 2020

Brahms and the Power of Music to Soothe: The Adagio from his 2nd Piano Quartet

This week’s dose of great music features one of my favorite movements in the entire chamber music repertoire, the slow movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major.  I am always grateful for this music’s deep exploration of the heartaches inseparable from the human condition. There is a bittersweet tenderness of unfulfilled longing, vivid memories of youthful passion, and dreamy contemplation, which add up to an astoundingly insightful masterpiece, particularly for a 28-year old composer. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Director of Market Square Concerts

This performance of the Poco adagio from the 2nd Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms features violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Stuart Malina, recorded in July as part of Summermusic 2019 a little over a year ago (regardless how long ago it feels...). (The concert, which also included Brahms' 1st Piano Quartet, was recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church by Newman Stare.)

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After what Peter said about this one movement, out of all the chamber music Brahms composed – or anyone else, for that matter – being his favorite, I would have to say the same thing. After the concert, I'd mentioned to Stuart Malina how much I enjoyed their playing, especially of the Adagio, which was one of my all-time favorites, and he said, with typical Stuartian enthusiasm, “I know, mine, too! Isn't it incredible? Michael [Stepniak, the violist] told me the same thing after a rehearsal.”

What is it about this music that has this kind of impact on so many of its listeners?

Without applying a “program” or story behind the music – either in the sense it's telling a story or was inspired by one – I know my first response to hearing it for the first time was to sense a gentle rocking motion, so comforting, like being in a boat on a calm lake on a brilliant, relaxing summer afternoon, perfect weather, perfect place; and by the end of the first phrase having such a smile on my face, how the cadence is extended with these echoes interweaving between the parts (at 0:47, 0:54 and 0:57), heightened by that one note (at 0:59) in the violin part in the final cadence (I'll get to that in a minute) which made me sigh: just the right note! So effortless. So soothing

How does he do that!

And then, welling up from underneath, this ominous wave in the piano (at 1:12), intruding on this gentle stepwise rocking motion, followed by an emotional outburst until (at 1:56) reminding us life is not always going to be mere pleasantness, we soon return to the opening's rocking stability (at 1:56), but now with the roles reversed, the melody in the strings, the inner voices in the piano.

That “ominous wave” is nothing more than a diminished-7th chord built on the tonic note – in this case, an E – a chord that was all about “harmonic instability.” When Carl Maria von Weber used it as an independent chord, a sharp attack, tremolo, in the horrific “Wolf Glen's Scene” of his often supernatural opera, Der Freischütz in 1821, ladies in the audience swooned at the shock of it! Here, it's not so horrifying, but it still has the ability to unsettle one, doesn't it?

What did Brahms “mean” by this? Probably nothing more than just wanting to introduce an unexpected note of tension into all this wonderful harmonic simplicity of the opening phrase. It becomes a frequent and easily recognized “sound” heard throughout the piece, and almost always presaging some emotional contrast, until one last appearance at the very end, perhaps signifying not the happiest of resolutions if, in fact, a final resolution at all... But whatever it “means” to a listener like me thinking of rocking gently in a boat when a wave comes by and unsettles the atmosphere, no, Brahms never mentioned anything, certainly not like that. It wasn't his way – but then, I wonder if the technical idea of the music itself (how it works harmonically) came before the emotional response a listener might have to it? In Brahms, a “classicist” when it comes to Romantic Composers, it's the proverbial chicken-and-the-egg, but as is also typical of Brahms, the abstract idea and the emotional content could easily be go hand-in-hand.

Before I run out of clichés, let's look at the first page of this movement, here from the original edition of the work. When you listen, you're probably not listening for technical details like the number of measures in a phrase or how a cadence works, you're listening for the overall satisfaction all of this gives you (or doesn't).

The Opening Page of Brahms' Adagio


The basic harmonic plan of this whole phrase – the complete first page, a minute of music – is so simple, any sophomore theory student taking a basic harmony class could probably have written it (well, almost...), though I think Herr Professor von Pauker would raise an eyebrow at the student's use of his five-bar phrasing when we have it pounded into our heads that, in text-book music, music moves in four- and eight-bar units. But at least the half-phrase sounds natural enough, so Herr Professor begrudgingly lets it go. 

Most students would no doubt have ended this phrase at the cadence in the first measure at the bottom of the page, going right to the last measure with the stepwise motive in the cello (placing the piano's resolving chord on the downbeat). But notice how Brahms extends the phrase with echoes of the downward melodic cadence interweaving in different registers between the instruments. I've enclosed these in green boxes: one, two, and three. 

Now, within those you'll see little red arrows pointing out a D-natural which is a note outside the scale of the tonic E Major and points up a harmonic suggestion leading to the sub-dominant A Major chord, a way of “coloring” the basic cadence with an ever-so-slight digression away from the tonic, but not quite (All-Mighty Bach, after all, was very fond of this in his final cadences!). While there's an unwritten rule that repeating (or restating) something three times is sufficient, what appears to be the fourth time expands on the idea not as a repetition but as a “development” of it, and Brahms, in this case, places that D-natural more prominently in the upper voice (here, the violin with the viola moving in parallel thirds below it for a fuller texture), which becomes that “Ah!” moment I'd mentioned earlier.

And at that point, Professor von Pauker knows this student will become a composer.

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There are contrasting themes and returns of the opening theme through these brief 11 minutes as Brahms creates considerable variety with his emotional content on the surface, but never far from that surface is this rocking, upwards-then-downwards step-wise motive of gentle eighth-notes. This helps unify the piece into a single fabric, holding everything together in our memory (and "form" in music is all about what we remember and recognize while we're listening to it flow past).

In the first movement, there was an awful lot of hemiola, one of Brahms' significant musical fingerprints. Now, hemiola has nothing to do with blood (unless you consider rhythm the “life-blood” of the music): it's an old-fashioned musical term for, among other things, juxtaposing two against three (or vice-versa). In other words, as you listen to Brahms' gently rocking pulse (another musical medical term), count “1 – 2, 1 – 2.” Now, keeping the beat the same, subdivide it into three, like this: “1-2-3, 1-2-3.” If you can do that back and forth, excellent. If you and a friend are counting, and one of you is doing “1-2, 1-2” and the other switches to “1-2-3, 1-2-3” so you're singing them simultaneously, that's an example of hemiola. And Brahms does that a lot. It adds to the rhythmical ambiguity – is it in duple time (2/4) or triple time (3/4)? And it adds to the textural complexity.

Now, in the opening appearance of this theme, it's fairly simple. In fact, the use of triplets occurs only twice – I've marked them with a blue bracket in the piano part). But listen each time the opening theme returns: in the inner voices or in the accompanimental background, the use of triplets increases each time. Though it's clearly the same theme, it's presented slightly differently to create a little variety within the overall unity.

This again is something a composer would do: a student would have just repeated the theme as is each time. Bor-ing...

So what was going on in Brahms' life when he wrote this?

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Brahms in 1863
In the spring of 1861, Johannes Brahms, about to turn 28, returned to his hometown of Hamburg, a major German port on the Elbe River in the north of the country. Already recognized as a pianist and a composer, the plan was for him to conduct the Philharmonic in a program that included his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who played his own very popular violin concerto (known as the “Hungarian” Concerto since it employs many elements of the traditional style of his native Hungary) and – since in those days, orchestra concerts also included chamber music as “interludes” – a Beethoven violin sonata. The goal was to impress the good people of Hamburg and more importantly those on the Philharmonic's board so they would hire Johannes Brahms, hometown boy made good in the wider world, as their new music director.

He also teamed up with an old friend of his, the baritone Julius Stockhausen, collaborating on three song cycles (Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann), and played chamber music in the houses of other old friends. After one of these gatherings, one of these friends, “Frau Dr. Rösing,” described him in a letter to a friend:

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Of medium height, and delicately built, with a countenance beneath whose high, fine brow were set flashing eyes, with fair hair combed back and falling down behind, and an obstinate lower lip! An unconscious force emanated from him as he stood apart in a gay company, with hands clasped behind his back, greeting those who arrived with a curt nod of his fine head.”

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Dr. Elizabeth Rösing was also Brahms' landlady during his extended summer stay, offering him fine rooms in the country suburb of Hamm (as opposed to the cramped quarters of his family's home where Frau Brahms, proud of her returning son, often interrupted his composing to introduce him to people who would stop by to see the house were the famous musician lived). In return for this – since she didn't want to charge him any rent – Brahms dedicated his A Major Piano Quartet to the good Frau Doktor.

I mention these details because – first of all – most of us have an image of Brahms as the cigar-chomping stodgy man with the great mane and shaggy beard. (We also tend to be surprised he'd died about a month before his 64th birthday.) Plus there is the idea Brahms led an uneventful life, certainly compared to the likes of Beethoven (he was always being compared to Beethoven!) which didn't stop Jan Swafford, himself a composer, from writing an excellent and eminently readable biography of Brahms, published in 1997 and weighing in at almost 700 pages. 

In addition to the two piano quartets on this first program of Summermusic 2019, both of which “date” from this same summer of a homecoming, there is one other event to make note of: that job at the Philharmonic? Much to Brahms' dismay, the board eventually decided to give it to Julius Stockhausen, his friend the singer, instead. As a result, Brahms was so – what, disappointed? embarrassed? angry? – that he left Hamburg and decided to settle in Vienna where he then made his home for the rest of his life.

“What if...?” Brahms had gotten the job, stayed in Hamburg, never had as much time to compose, never moved to Vienna and, perhaps, never became the influence he did on other composers? If he had a career conducting an orchestra, perhaps he would've written more symphonies, and maybe some more concertos for his friends to come and play in Hamburg – after all, it worked for Mahler (the symphonies, at least), who survived as a “summertime composer.” Or maybe not...

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We can see these two works are something of a pair: the G Minor is Op. 25 and the A Major is Op. 26, after all. They're usually said “to have been composed in 1861” when, more accurately, they were completed in the summer of 1861. We tend to think that means they were written one after the other or, perhaps, simultaneously. But in fact, he'd been working on them for some time long before that fruitful summer.

Point of fact: the G Minor (Op. 25) was premiered in November of 1861 in Hamburg with Clara Schumann and Brahms would make his debut as both composer and pianist in Vienna with it later that year, in November. Another point of fact: the A Major (Op. 26) wasn't premiered until November, 1863, in Vienna. Yet another point of fact, in case you're thinking those “Op. Numbers” have anything to do with the chronological order of the works in question: his next composition, the Variations on a Theme of Handel, completed in September, 1861, is Op.24.

Incidentally, the piano quartet he'd started even earlier than these two, in C-sharp Minor, wasn't completed until 1875 (one year before he finally completed his 1st Symphony), fourteen years later, and now appearing in C Minor as Op.60. So while he may have been working on all three of them initially, perhaps as far back as the mid-1850s, they all share a common genesis. 

(By the way, the C Minor Piano Quartet has another gorgeous slow movement. You should check it out if you have time.)  

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There is a fragment of a sketch from the opening of the A Major Quartet that has somehow escaped Brahms' frequent conflagrations. It show the barest outline of the melody in the right hand and the simplest of harmonic suggestions in a bass line in the left – two lines only. We think of Brahms' music as dense both in terms of texture and harmony, the way he fills in those inner voices (pianist friends of mine – in fact, pianist friends of Brahms' – complained about his fistfuls of notes), but here, at some point in this gentle music's genesis, is the simplest of outlines, barely suggesting its potential. Under the bass line, he scribbled in the traditional harmonic shorthand we call "figured bass" implying what chords were needed, where.  Anything else could always be filled in later.

Later in his life, when Brahms would examine young composers' works, he often covered up the inner voices of the piano parts of songs, for instance, because if the melody wasn't interesting, and the bass-line wasn't strong enough to give it direction, it didn't matter what you did with all the stuff in between!

As for Brahms' sketch – assuming this is typical of his approach – he would then take this (so-to-speak) skeletal outline and fill it in when he had the time once he had worked out the Important Things. And if it wasn't satisfactory, he'd put it aside (Brahms had more back-burners than most great chefs would have pots and pans) and come back to it later. Perhaps years later. In the case of these two piano quartets, perhaps six years later!

So, as you listen to this single movement from his 2nd Piano Quartet, notice the melody and notice the bass-line – in whatever instrument's playing them – then listen to how the inner-voices (what a harmony student would consider “filler”) fill out and complement the outer layers. But Brahms isn't writing “filler” here: often, what he did, creatively, is stuff only young harmony students can dream of.

– Dick Strawser






Thursday, August 20, 2020

When Words Fail, There Is Music: Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio and the Memory of a Friend

 "This week’s dose of great music features the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio which was written in the memory of his close friend, great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.  This is one of Tchaikovsky’s most sincere works ranging from wistful melancholy and searing despair to ethereal lyricism and majestic vigor. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts

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When we consider the events of the past several months, watching the numbers of deaths from Covid19 climb daily, it's sometimes difficult to imagine the news is real. For those who have lost friends and family to the virus, a work like Tchaikovsky's Trio may prove cathartic. It is difficult for many of us to express our sense of loss in words, and so perhaps music can help bridge the gap, music that may cover a gamut of emotions from happy memories to deepest grief. 

Tchaikovsky in 1880
Nikolai Rubinstein had been one of Tchaikovsky's closest friends, at times his teacher, at other times his mentor, sometimes insufferable (as when he raged against how awful he thought his first piano concerto was) and sometimes an advocate who stood by him at the worst times of his life. They shared picnics with friends and late-night drinking bouts - and they made a great deal of music together. 

Tchaikovsky was shattered by news of Rubinstein's death in Paris in March of 1881 from tuberculosis. During December through the end of January, he composed his Piano Trio and then, after hearing a few private performances, made several revisions before it was officially premiered in October, 1882. 

The pianist in those performances was Sergei Taneyev, a student of Tchaikovsky's and a composer in his own right (you can hear the set of variations from his string quintet in an earlier post, here). When Tchaikovsky died in 1893 during a cholera epidemic, it was Taneyev who completed what had been left unfinished of his teacher's 3rd Piano Concerto.

This performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was given by the members of the Mendelssohn Trio - Peter Sirotin, violin, Fiona Thompson, cello, and Ya-Ting Chang, piano - on July 19th, 2015, in memory of former Market Square Concerts Director, friend and mentor to many, Ellen Hughes. It was recorded at Market Square Church by Newman Stare. In this week's "dose," we'll hear just the first movement.

The trio is basically in two movements: the opening Pezzo elegiaco (Elegiac Piece), is about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. That would make the entire trio about 50 minutes long! And all of it written at white heat over a period of five weeks.

While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, fairly straight-forward, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone (not that the music of the first movement isn't Russian at its very core) and offer various contrasts of both slow movement and scherzo as well as finale. Some of these variations are "character pieces" that might have stepped out of Schumann's Carnaval - there's a music box; a salon waltz; even a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant conclusion when the first movement's opening theme comes back as if reality suddenly intrudes upon these pleasant memories. The piece ends with an emotional funeral march that dissolves into a slowly fading pulse.

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Nikolai Rubinstein
 In the winter of 1880-1881, Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy, then moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams. The first informed him Nikolai Rubinstein was quite ill, his condition hopeless; the second one told him Rubinstein had died. Tchaikovsky left at once for Paris.

On the 28th of March, he wrote a long letter to his patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck in which he described how his thoughts, following the funeral that morning, have turned to religious matters. He was now preparing to return to Moscow, accompanying the body of his friend. 

After returning to Moscow, he writes to Mme von Meck that he has declined the Directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, having been asked to replace Nikolai Rubinstein in the post. It would have been the best income he could imagine as a teacher, but it would also be the end of his creative life.

Shortly afterward, he left for his sister's country estate in Ukraine, his beloved Kamenka. She was ill and her husband was taking her to Switzerland for her health and so Tchaikovsky found himself, despite his concern for his sister's health, in a more enjoyable role – playing Uncle Petya to her children. He writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, “I have no inclination to compose. I wish you would commission something. Is there really nothing that you want? Some external impulse might reawaken my suspended activity. Perhaps I am getting old and all my songs are sung.”   

He describes himself as “gray, without inspiration or joy” but then recalls he'd been through similar periods “equally devoid of creative impulse” and survived.

Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.

Rubinstein had called Tchaikovsky “a composer of genius” but still didn't care for some of the more modernist tendencies in his harmony and form (keep in mind, even as a pianist, he was more of a classicist than his wildly romantic brother, Anton). One of the few works that Rubinstein could totally endorse was the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880, and one of Tchaikovsky's more neo-classical works, certainly by comparison to the next work he wrote, the 1812 Overture.

This often contradictory history between them did not keep Tchaikovsky from missing Rubinstein terribly, valuing him also as “one of the greatest virtuosi of the day” and one of the main props of his own creative life. Rubinstein had always been the best interpreter of his music, either as pianist or as conductor. In fact, one time, Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky's G Major Piano Sonata so well that even the composer “did not recognize it.” He knew that, with his music in Rubinstein's hands, he would experience “no disappointment.”

And now this champion was gone forever.

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In late summer, Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev that “I believe I might never write anything good again.” Taneyev was still hoping to convince him to come back to the Conservatory but Tchaikovsky declined (at least for now) and told him, “You, on the contrary, seem made to carry out Rubinstein's work.”

And his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, had hoped Tchaikovsky would provide her with a piano trio – for her “house trio,” musicians she's hired to play regularly for her and her guests and to teach her children their music lessons. This included a young pianist she'd picked up in Paris on her travels, a teen-ager named Claude Debussy who had just written her a piano trio of his own. 

But in October of 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to her that 

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“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this [request for a piano trio] is beyond me. My acoustic apparatus [!] is such that I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. I cannot explain this physiological peculiarity; I simply state it as a fact. Piano and orchestra – that is quite another matter but... here we are dealing with two equal opponents. ...On the other hand, how unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, the violin and the 'cello! Each loses something of its value. The warm and singing tone of the [strings] sounds limited beside that king of instruments, the piano [which] strives in vain to prove it can sing like its rivals. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, as the background of a picture. But a trio implies equality and a relationship and do these exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a piano trio...”
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Now, almost 14 months later, Tchaikovsky writes in December 1881 to tell her “the beginning of [my new piano] trio is finished.”

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“In spite of this antipathy,” he writes later, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted. Whether I shall carry it through, whether it will sound well, I do not know, but I should like to bring it to a happy termination.” He adds, after telling her he is only trying this to bring her some pleasure – since no one specifically asked him to write it, not even his publisher – that “I will not conceal from you that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form,” this combination of piano with strings.

His next letter, January 25th, nine days later, informed Mme von Meck that “the trio is finished... Now I can say with some conviction that the work is not bad.” Having written orchestral music all his creative life, the idea of writing chamber music (despite his earlier string quartets) was unfamiliar territory for him and he feared he may have “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio instead of writing directly for my instruments.” He tried to avoid this, he adds, but wasn't sure he's succeeded.

One wonders what her young pianist, Claude Debussy, would have made of this work, had he seen it – or played it. He was employed by her only for the summers in 1880, 1881 and 1882, so it is quite likely he might have. Considering what Tchaikovsky thought of the 18-year-old Debussy's Danse bohemienne which she'd sent him in September, 1880 – “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity” – history has apparently not recorded young Monsieur Debussy's reaction to Tchaikovsky's Trio.

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 And then, eleven years later, a 20-year-old composer whom Tchaikovsky had thought so highly of, a young man named Sergei Rachmaninoff who'd written a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky was looking forward to conducting, composed a Trio élégiaque dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky who had just died at the age of 53. Certainly one of Rachmaninoff's emotions concerned the loss of someone who could've been an important mentor in his life – perhaps like Nikolai Rubinstein had been in Tchaikovsky's.

And while Rachmaninoff's work is clearly modeled on Tchaikovsky's trio, complete with a vast second movement set of variations, it is also... even longer...

It is interesting to contemplate, listening to Tchaikovsky's Trio, how music perpetuates itself, how Tchaikovsky, by championing Rachmaninoff, managed to carry on the role that one friend, one great artist, had had on his life.

It is just one of those magical connections we can find in this mystery we call Art.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Gabriel Fauré and the Perseverance to Find the Perfect Ending

“After revisiting a set of variations by Sergei Taneyev last week, this week’s dose of great music features two movements from the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Gabriel Fauré who was Taneyev’s close friend and duet partner. From the somber opening of the contemplative slow movement to the triumphant ending of the stormy finale, this piece is full of beguiling surprises and contrasting moods. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts

When Gabriel Fauré wrote his 1st Piano Quartet, it took him over two years to finish it. But even then, three years after it was premiered, still dissatisfied with the original finale, he wrote a whole new last movement. 

As we deal with the uncertain times we're living through, wondering when we'll all get back together to hear live music again and we want it all to happen NOW, remember even the music you might be listening to wasn't always done effortlessly in a short period of time. In Fauré's case, it took considerable patience and perseverance to make it come out right and find what it was he was looking for.

In this performance from Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2018 (which seems like soooo long ago), we'll hear Peter Sirotin, violin; Blanka Bednarz, viola; Fiona Thompson, cello; and Stuart Malina, piano.

Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor: III. Adagio; IV. Finale: Allegro moderato (beginning at 7:56). 

= = = = = = =    recorded at Market Square Church, July 7th, 2018, by Newman Stare. 

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Fauré in 1875
Gabriel Fauré in 1875
Fauré was in his early-30s when he began his first piano quartet in 1876, though he didn't finish it until 1879. After it was premiered the following year, he revised it and wrote a completely new last movement in 1883. The quartet is in the traditional four movements with a brief scherzo in second place rather than the usual third. Today's dose includes the slow movement, Adagio, and the “new” finale. 

The slow movement has been described as “majestic and profound,” serene, poignant – dark – not unlike a pavane (a slow, stately dance in duple time from the medieval era, or at least as it was thought to be in late-19th Century). Contrast (at 2:11) comes with the nostalgic dream-like (song-like) middle section when, as if the dreamer awakens surrounded by this sense of sadness (at 4:49) the opening theme returns (or more likely resumes) but accompanied by the arpeggios of the contrasting theme still in the piano until it wears itself out by 7:30. 

Whatever the original finale was like and for whatever reasons it left the composer disatisfied, the new finale begins out of this dark C minor cadence, the piano setting up a moto perpetuo under a motive in the strings clearly drawn from the slow movement's main theme. One can psychoanalyze this in so many ways: turning grief into moving forward? Without any specific explanation from the composer, it is our interpretation which might say more about our state of mind than the composer's. Stylistically, it is the chord sequence (blocked chords beginning with the viola melody) at 8:47 that strikes us (at least the listener in 1884) with something new: the first movement started out fairly conventionally, in terms of its harmony, but through the slow movement especially he began to prefer certain types of chord movement which were slightly different and less typical. 

It is these sounds which strike the modern listener as “essentially French,” emerging from the shade of Cesar Franck (who composed his Piano Quintet in 1879) and pointing the way toward Debussy (whose first compositions started to appear in the early-1880s; he was still a conservatory student in 1884) and to Ravel (Fauré's own student, eventually, who'd begun composing around 1890 and who would later dedicate his 1905 String Quartet to Fauré, his teacher and mentor). 

The “status quo” returns with the real second theme (at 9:36) with a few harmonic slips into raised-eyebrow territory for the more conservative listeners at the time At 10:40, the opening theme's motive appears against the “metric uncertainty” of the piano (another example of “hemiola”) which seems to be moving in an almost different (slower) tempo, like a reflection. Then (at 12:14) the opening theme comes galloping back in in the piano (the strings continue the slower layer of the contrasting chords) then building harmonic tension (especially through a prolonged, unstable augmented chord) which (at 12:50) brings us back to a full statement of the opening theme (resolution!). This then, sounding like the expected Recapitulation, is stopped short by an unexpected and prolonged piano chord (around 14:08) before switching (still unexpectedly) into a fluttering passage with elements of both the first and second themes intermixed or superimposed.

Eventually, we end up (expectedly) in C Major for what is ultimately a triumphant conclusion – C Minor is often considered a dark and tragic key; C Major, by contrast, the brightest, most triumphant of keys (just ask Beethoven's 5th or Brahms' 1st Symphonies) – one that is as full of energy as any German composer's finale. 

If you want to read more about Fauré's life and the music he wrote in his long and inspiring career – and look at some “visuals” about some Romantic and Impressionist art and find out more about this distinction of all this "German" and "French" stuff – check out the original post. Just scroll down past the second set of asterisks. 

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Music for a Time of Transition: Meet Sergei Taneyev, a Bridge Between the Old and the New

"This week’s dose of great music features a delightfully inventive set of variations from a String Quintet by Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky’s protégé and a mentor to such giants of Russian music as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner and Prokofiev. Taneyev’s richly polyphonic style offers an uncommon range of sonorities culminating in a final fugue based on three different themes. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts
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Sergei Taneyev


Almost every day, you hear contradictory things in the news, how on the one hand people are yearning for the quick return to normalcy and, on the other, wondering what the "New Normal" will be like – and when! How much of what we're used to will still be a part of what we'll be living with in a "Post-Pandemic World"? How much of what we'll have to adapt to in the future can we catch a glimpse of now?

When they call Taneyev a bridge between the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, don't expect to hear the seeds of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in this piece (or, rather, this one movement from this piece). With the close of Romanticism, the dawn of what would become Modernism was still some years away, and Taneyev was hardly the "last gasp of Romanticism" in Russian music if you follow the career of Sergei Rachmaninov. This places him in an intriguing position and, after all, one composition is only a fragment of the mosaic that makes up the onward flow of music history.

The original program from Summermusic 2018 paired Taneyev's quintet with his more-famous teacher's more-frequently-performed String Sextet, the "Souvenir of Florence," which Tchaikovsky completed in 1890, after he'd returned to Russia from a visit to Italy. However, that's another story entirely and perhaps we'll save it for a future dose.

Meanwhile, here are violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Blanka Bednarz, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Cheung Chau in the "Theme & Variations" which conclude the String Quintet in G Major, Op.14, by Sergei Taneyev.
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(recorded at Market Square Church on July 25th, 2018, by Newman Stare.)
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Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a piano soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also, not coincidentally, a composer.

Composition came slowly to him: he described how he would take his ideas, explore their various potentials with all manner of possibilities, and only then, choosing the most interesting, begin putting them into a piece.

Teneyev chose the less frequent “two-cello” option compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet in the repertoire is Schubert's C Major with two cellos). He began his first string quintet, a work in three movements, in 1900 and completed it the following year, published it as his Op. 14. 


Each one of Taneyev's variations is self-contained like a little complete-in-itself character piece gathered into a series of contrasting moods or natures. At times, it feels more like a collection of individual movements, not just a "third movement" but a "third and fourth movement."

Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 16:01) after what you'd be convinced was a break between a slow movement and the finale.

Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the vast scale of those finales in his 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's choice of theme here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 9:03, dominated initially by the lower strings. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part slow movement, part finale), it could, conceivably, have gone on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.

By the way, his second string quintet, Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slowly for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

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Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their famous teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but otherwise, by themselves, often overlooked (at least in the wider world). This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but lets examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)

Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday one year, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Perfect Antidote for the Dog Days of Summermusic: Piano Duets by Ravel and Poulenc

"This week’s dose of great music features Ravel’s enchanting Mother Goose Suite and Poulenc’s playful Sonata for Piano Four-hands, which were performed in Summermusic 2012 by Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang. Composed in 1910 and 1918, respectively, these works reflect a momentous post-WW I cultural shift from opulence of the Belle Époque to rough-edged exuberance of modernism. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.
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The perfect antidote to heat frustration, Dog Days or not: indoor, air-conditioned concerts with great music and great music-making! And with all the news this summer, perhaps a little innocence and playfulness might take our minds off the Real World while we sit and wait in our own homes.

Of course, a piano duet – two pianists at one piano sharing a bench (or at least, in the old days when a piano bench was long enough to accommodate them both) – is very difficult to pull off with social distancing unless, of course, you just split them up between two pianos. That, however, as you'll see from the very start of the Poulenc, eliminates a good part of the fun. And the whole point of piano duets originally was basically "social music-making."

There was a time when the "piano duet" or "piano four-hands" was one of the major forms of home entertainment, back in the days before TV and in-house sound systems (much less such outmoded technology like CDs and radio) provided all the entertainment a family needed at the time. Rather than sit around staring at each other waiting for television to be invented, people made their own music.

And composers like Franz Schubert cashed in on this vast "amateur audience" by providing them with all manner of pieces, whether serious or light-hearted in nature, original pieces or arrangements, technically challenging or suitable for beginners, whether music for social dancing or to show off marriageable daughters to prospective husbands. More people would've heard Beethoven Symphonies in four-hand arrangements played in somebody's living room than would ever have heard them at an orchestra concert.

figuring out the logistics...
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, and Ya-Ting Chang, member of the Mendelssohn Trio and executive director of Market Square Concerts, will be performing two piano duets in today's dose, originally recorded in July of 2012 – the saucy and often tongue-in-cheek if not always nose-thumbing Sonata that Francis Poulenc wrote in 1918, apparently full of post-war joie de vivre, one of his earliest works, preceded by a piece better known as an orchestral suite but originally written for piano duet, Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'oye, or “Mother Goose.”

Having played a fair bit of four-hand piano in my day, I can attest to the fact that pairs who “fight like cats and dogs” (especially over who controls the pedal or hissing under one's breath “keep your elbow out of my face!”) are not well-suited to the social camaraderie behind the nature of piano duets. So it is a delight to point out, whatever it says about someone's personality, Maurice Ravel was a Cat Person – and Francis Poulenc was a Dog Person. Now, there's something I would like to have seen: Ravel and Poulenc playing piano duets!

Here, meanwhile, is our piano duet team of Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang playing Ravel and Poulenc at Market Square Concert's Summermusic 2012:

recorded July 20th, 2012, at Market Square Church by the church's audio technician, Newman Stare.
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Ravel's “Mother Goose” was written not only for children to listen to, as you might expect from a piece inspired by fairy tales, but in this case specifically for children to perform. Friends of Ravel's had two gifted children and so he composed five short “pictures” for them. Mimi Godebski was 6 and her brother Jean was 7 when he began working on the piece, adding to it over a couple of years and completing it in 1910.

Ravel never seemed to have lost touch with his inner child. He was fascinated by clock-work toys (his father was an inventor and toy-maker) – one famous story has him picking up a wind-up bird and holding it out to a friend of his, saying “Listen! You can hear its heart beating!” When he’d get bored at friends’ parties, he often would sit on the nursery floor and tell the children stories. You can imagine Cyprian and Ida Godebski suggesting he turn some of those stories into music for their children.

When the work was given its first public performance, it was played by other children – but both under the age of 10. Immediately, colleagues saw its choreographic potential, so by the time he was done with it, he had orchestrated it (adding a prelude and some interludes) for use as a ballet. It then became a regular visitor to concert halls around the world.

It opens with a dreamy, slow dance, the “Pavane for the Sleeping Beauty.”

The winding patterns in the second piece (at 1:43) recall the paths through the dark and eerie woods where Tom Thumb wandered. Not to be confused with the American circus star – in French, he's Petite Poucet (a.k.a. Hop o’my Thumb) – he's not the only child in fairy tales to get lost in the woods and leave bread-crumbs on the path to find his way back only to discover they’ve all been eaten by birds (appearing at 3:25).

The middle piece (at 4:38) is the exotic “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas,” speaking of clock-work toys, full of pentatonic music bringing to mind the Far East. These pagodas come to life and dance for her. Musically, theorists talk a lot about Ravel’s use of “quartal harmonies” (chords built on fourths rather than thirds like traditional major and minor chords) but what he’s really doing is much simpler: you can get the same effect by just playing only the black keys of the piano! That’s the “sound” of the piece but the texture is more specifically inspired by the Javanese (or Balinese) Gamelan which Ravel may have heard in Paris – the first time one had performed there was in 1889 and it was an ear-opening experience for Claude Debussy. Listen to this clip of some authentic gamelan music.

This particular fairy tale, by the way, may not be familiar to American children brought up on Walt Disney. It’s based on a French tale that mixes a bit of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty & the Beast” – cursed by an evil fairy who’d not been invited to the party celebrating the princess’ birth, the little girl is turned into the “ugliest girl in the world” and whisked off to a magic kingdom ruled by a Green Serpent. Eventually she falls in love with the serpent-king and discovers he is, in fact (naturally), a handsome prince and her own beauty is also restored. “Laideronette” may sound like an exotic name for a princess, but it really means “Ugly Little Girl” in French, for those of you who have any little princesses in your house who might be looking for an out-of-the-ordinary alter-ego…

The fourth piece (at 7:50) picks up on this Beauty & the Beast story more specifically: it’s a very genteel conversation between the two with Belle answered (at 8:48) by the Beast. As you would expect, he is transformed (at 10:25) with an upward glissando, his low rumbling theme now played in the piano’s upper register. (It’s easier to hear in the orchestral version where the Beast is played by the contrabassoon before he is transformed into a handsome violinist.)

The final piece (at 11:33) is not based on any specific fairy tale: “no one seems to know where this fairy tale came from,” writers love to say, but it’s fairly obvious, if you can imagine Ravel sitting on the nursery floor telling children these tales, whether in words or in music, how he would bring all of the characters together in his own story as if saying good-bye after a party in the garden (proving Ravel had more imagination than many writers about music).

Ravel & Mouni
Even if he doesn’t identify who’s in this “Fairy Garden,” is there any more magical happy ending than this?

Ravel was attracted primarily to Siamese cats – though he was also known to rescue stray cats – so when he moved into a new home in the early-'20s, he shared it with a whole family of Siamese kittens. In this photo, Ravel is holding his favorite cat, Mouni. Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist Ravel composed the Violin Sonata for in the 1920s, was named Mouni's godmother and Ravel wrote to her, “Your godson is in good shape, but his brother has so gorged himself that he is suffering from gastritis. This doesn’t prevent them from playing jungle on the lawn.” He ended his letter with a typical cat-like gesture as farewell: “I lick the tip of your nose.”

Poulenc, on the other hand, had a passion for terriers, and his favorite was Mickey. Here's a photo of Poulenc playing a piano duet with Mickey.

Poulenc & Mickey
The Sonata for Piano Four-Hands by Francis Poulenc (beginning at 15:10 – note the placement of the hands at the very opening!!) is in three brief movements, starting off with a bustling Prelude which might remind you of a Friday night on the Champs-Élysées near where Poulenc grew up. The second movement (at 17:18) is a gentler, song-like amble (with its own occasional acerbic outbursts) which he labeled Rustique, followed by a lively finale (at 19:01), with its jaunty motor-like motive that constantly winds itself up (ooh, there's that opening chord from the 1st movement at 19:50) before one last playful tweak in that final jazzy chord (at 20:44), hardly a resolution with that unexpected twist.

His father, an owner of the pharmaceutical company Poulenc Frères, was a pious Roman Catholic who prescribed a traditional upbringing for his son. His mother was a worldly Parisienne with a wide interest in the arts including, in addition to Mozart and Schubert, a love for what Poulenc later called “adorable bad music.” Considering he was often taken for walks as a child along Paris' bustling main street, the Champs-Élysées, when he should have been studying his catechism, it would seem his mother's side won out in the development of his own personality. One critic said of him he was “half monk and half naught boy” – “y a en lui du moine et du voyou,” where voyou has no standard English equivalent, somewhere between “naughty boy,” “ragamuffin,” and “hooligan.” At 14, he was greatly impressed by Stravinsky's new ballet, The Rite of Spring.

The sonata – such a pretentious title for so light-hearted a work – is listed as No. 8 in his catalogue, written in 1918: keep in mind he'd only made his compositional debut with the first work of his to be given a public performance, his Rapsodie negre, in 1917. Those dates mean, however, that he wrote them during the final years of the 1st World War.

In January of 1918, the 19-year-old Poulenc was drafted into the French Army and sent to the Franco-German Front for the last months of the war – Armistice Day is November 11th, 1918 – and, considering the overall mood of this music, you might be surprised to learn it was composed that June on a piano at the local elementary school in Saint-Martin-sur-le-Pré, along with his Trois mouvements perpétuels, both premiered in Paris that December 21st after the war ended. He dedicated it to his childhood friend and pianist, Simone Tilliard, who “took part in several concerts featuring first performances of the young Poulenc's works,” so I am inferring from some vague references here and there that Mlle. Tilliard shared the bench that December with the composer.

While the sonata didn't make much of an impression on its original audiences, however, Stravinsky was impressed enough to make arrangements to have this “new kid on the block” published by his own publisher at the time, Chester in London. As Poulenc later wrote in Moi et mes amis “all those little beginner's works, rather faltering, were published thanks to the kindness of Stravinsky, who was very much a father to me.” Twenty years later, as World War II began, he decided to revise it.

Not bad for a 19-year old beginner?

In an earlier post, I'd written a good deal about Poulenc's life and the background to his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano which was included in our first “Weekly Dose” waaaaay back in mid-March: you can read it here, but scroll down past the Mozart. And don't forget to check out two more photographs of Poulenc and Mickey!

- Dick Strawser