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
  = = = = = = =
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.
= = = = = = =
(recorded at Market Square Church on July 25th, 2018, by Newman Stare.)
= = = = = = =

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.

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

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.
= = = = = = = 

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.
= = = = = = =

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

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Injecting a Bit of Discovery This Week: An Intimate Trio from Finland

"For this week’s dose of great music, I chose a whimsical work by a wonderful Finnish composer, Erkki Melartin, performed in Summermusic 2012. Contemporary of Sibelius, Melartin composed well over a hundred works including several symphonies, string quartets and piano works. The string trio Op. 133, written in 1927, toward the end of composer’s life, is a true gem in a very limited repertoire for this combination of instruments. It is a charming imaginative work with moods ranging from light-hearted, quirky humor to genuine sorrow and contemplation.  Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts
= = = = = = = =

If I were to ask you, "Name a Finnish composer..." you'd be ready to say "Jean Sibelius" just as I would add, "other than Jean Sibelius." And you'd stop, think, and maybe, like most American concert-goers, come up blank – or afraid to mention someone like Einojuhani Rautavaara simply because you're thinking "how do you pronounce that!?"

I doubt many of you'd come up with "Oh yeah, well... there's Erkki Melartin."

The last of the Summermusic 2012 concerts featured the little-known Piano Quartet by the well-known Richard Strauss, a work completed when he was 20, which you might have listened to in last week's “weekly dose,” as well as a string trio by an almost completely unknown Finnish composer named Erkki Melartin which you'll get to hear on this week's “weekly dose.” In fact, unless you attended that concert eight years ago – keeping in mind, for many of us, our last chance to hear live music with Market Square Concerts was this past February which might feel like five years ago – I doubt you've heard much of Erkki Melartin's music, before or since.



This performance of Erkki Melartin's String Trio Op. 133, featuring violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Fiona Thompson, was recorded on July 25th, 2012, in Market Square Church by the church's audio technician, Newman Stare.

The Trio, written when Melartin was in his early-50s, is in four movements:
Allegro (beginning with a motivic slow introduction) in A Minor
Andante funebre (beginning at 5:08) in E Minor
Scherzo: Presto; Tempo di minuetto (beginning at 9:27) in C Major
Finale: Vivace (beginning at 12:45) in A Minor

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

Back when I was a student and we had things called record-players (“phonographs” makes them sound even more antique), my professors and I loved to play “drop-the-needle,” setting the arm down in some random spot on the record and then trying to guess who the composer was or which piece from our “listening list” it could be from wherever you'd landed.

In my junior-level “styles” class, I liked torturing my own students with works they couldn't know or maybe even composers they'd never heard of by having them figure out stylistic influences or technical details to make an educated guess.

Erkki Melartin's String Trio, p.1
Listening to this piece, I would be amazed if anyone would say, “Oh, that's by Erkki Melartin!” much less “from the late-1920s.” I'm not even sure one could hear who might've influenced him during his career – earlier, Mahler, maybe Nielsen, perhaps, maybe even his fellow countryman, Jean Sibelius; but in this piece, any such forensic evidence had long been absorbed into the composer's own DNA.

The timing of the piece is also interesting, putting him in context with Finnish music in general or Sibelius in particular. While I'd have a blast digging into what other Finnish composers were writing in the 1920s, let it suffice that Sibelius completed his last major work, the immensely powerful (and often terrifying) tone poem, Tapiola with its mythic evocations of great northern forests, in 1927 – you can listen to it, here. Compare that to the few short miniatures he wrote in the following two years, his last published work, “something completely different,” a set of three bucolic tone-paintings, delicate as watercolor miniatures, the Suite in D Minor for Violin & Strings, Op.119, written in 1929 (that last movement, beginning at 6:35, always made me think it should be called "The Flight of the Mosquito" and instead end with a loud slap!).

Though he lived until 1957, dying three months before his 92nd birthday, Sibelius published nothing more, but late one night famously destroyed his long-awaited 8th Symphony, however much of it he may have completed, in the kitchen fireplace.

By comparison, Melartin, who had chronic health issues, died in 1937, a week after his 62nd birthday, and left two symphonies incomplete as well as a structural outline for another. While you might listen to this string trio and wonder about the influences of Mahler, keep in mind there's only so much you can do with the texture and variety available from three stringed instruments. Here's the finale of his last completed symphony, No. 6, Op. 100, which he subtitled “The Elements”  (if you have time, listen to the opening which is definitely influenced by the opening of Mahler's 7th which was premiered in 1908). Melartin began it immediately after World War I but did not complete it until 1924, two years before he began the much more intimate trio.

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

Erkki Melartin
While I'd dug into the whole idea of how so much of that summer's music had been written by well-known composers "before they became famous," it would be unfortunate to leave Melartin out of this simply because he never became famous, at least in this country. His music, what I've heard of it in digging around YouTube, is certainly worthy of examination, whether I'd be convinced he's "unjustly neglected" or not (considering how many composers get performed who should be "justly neglected," but I digress...).

His situation merely points out the fact how much music is out there that is not being heard. When you consider it, there are a lot of composers we hear on a regular basis but in reality that only scratches the surface of all the composers, at what ever level, who've tried to climb this mountain we call "lasting fame." Could there be something out there - other composers, other works - hidden from view (or rather, our awareness), who might speak to a later generation of listeners?

After all, if it had been up to Beethoven's contemporaries, we'd never have heard his Violin Concerto if it hadn't been for a teenager named Joseph Joachim who decided to play it 17 years after the composer's death and brought it into the repertoire.

Or if Mendelssohn hadn't been passionate about a neglected work that had never been performed since its composer's death. Of course, someone else might have dusted off Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but the point is, somebody had to.

As conductor of the Vyborg Orchestra, Erkki Melartin introduced Mahler's music to Northern Europe, conducting the slow movement of the Resurrection Symphony in 1909. He was also the first Nordic composer to be influenced by Mahler. In a long list of compositions, Melartin composed a substantial amount of vocal and orchestral music, but less in the way of chamber music, little aside from his four string quartets, two violin sonatas and this lone trio.

So how do people discover previously little-known or even unknown works? Well, somebody performs them, other people hear them and decide they want to spread the word around. Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, always on the look-out for something new and interesting, heard Melartin's String Trio at a recent Bard Festival and decided they wanted to include it on some future program. So that led to the opportunity for you to discover it.

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

Melartin was born in 1875 – Erkki is, btw, the Finnish form of Erik – studied with Martin Wegelius who founded a music school in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, which in 1939 would be renamed after his most famous pupil, Jean Sibelius (Melartin later became a teacher and then director of the school). And in Vienna, Melartin also studied with Friend-of-Brahms Robert Fuchs who also taught the likes of Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Zemlinsky, but also Sibelius. He began teaching harmony at his alma mater after his return from Vienna, then became its director in 1911, retiring in 1936, the year before his death. He was a prolific composer, wrote hundreds of songs and choral pieces though he considered himself primarily a symphonist. His best-known work is the “Festive March” from his 1904 ballet based on Sleeping Beauty, the most popular wedding march in Finland.

His 4th Symphony – the “Summer” Symphony – begun in 1912 is a more pastoral version of those landscapes we think of with Sibelius' music (to most American concertgoers, Finland must be nothing but ice, snow, bleak fields, and dark woods!) and uses a wordless vocalise in the 3rd Movement Andante much like Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia espansiva which premiered in Denmark the same year. Stylistically, unlike Sibelius who created a recognizable “national voice” that sounds thoroughly original, Melartin's style is more influenced by the German Romantics, especially Mahler.

Yet out of some 185 published works, I'd never heard of him before, myself, and considering my interest in the obscure, that's (frankly) saying something!

By the way, if you're still wondering about that question – naming another Finnish composer other than Sibelius – and coming up blank, check this list of Finnish composers! Because of my background as a composer and time spent in the radio business, I've had more opportunity to hear several works by composers less known to the general public. For instance, there's Kaija Saariaho, whose opera, L'Amour de loin, was performed and broadcast from the Met in 2016 (here's a sample), and her 2014 piano trio, "Light and Matter," among other works I've managed to hear. Einojuhani Rautaavara was becoming quite popular with new recordings coming out during the years before he died in 2016, with his 1997 String Quintet Unknown Heavens and something of an oddity, the beautifully evocative Concerto for Birds & Orchestra, Cantus arcticus (birdsong by way of tape-recordings!) written in 1972, and proved quite a hit with my "Requests" listeners.

I've also particularly enjoyed Magnus Lindberg's 2nd Cello Concerto of 2013; and Nyx, written in 2010 by Esa-Pekka Salonen, better known as a conductor, is a very impressive orchestral work, clearly benefiting from experience learned on his 'day-job.' Though Salonen hasn't written much chamber music, Leila Josefowicz performed his Lachen verlernt for solo violin for Market Square Concerts in 2005. And, going further afield into more modern paths, there's Sampo Haapamäki and his 2007 string quartet, "Connections" which I'd stumbled upon accidentally while looking for something else.

If nothing else, these few composers alone prove what variety there is when someone mentions "Finnish music." It's more than just Sibelius.

Plus, doesn't it make you wonder, compared to the amount of music and the composers you're familiar with, what else is out there waiting for you to hear them for the first time?

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Portrait of the Composer as a Young Man: Richard Strauss and his Piano Quartet

“As we continue to revisit past Summermusic performances this month, for this week’s dose of great music I chose a performance of Piano Quartet by Richard Strauss. This piece is full of youthful exuberance and almost naive lyricism. It was inspired by Brahms’s A Major Piano Quartet which is quoted several times throughout. After recording this piece in 2005 for Centaur Records, it was a delight to perform it in Summermusic with the same group of musicians. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts
= = = = = = =

This week's dose, from a Summermusic concert in 2012, is another work by a world-famous composer written before he was famous. Never a composer to lack self-confidence, nonetheless at the age of 83, he told the orchestra he was rehearsing, “I may not be a first-class composer but I am a first-rate second-class composer.”

His Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13, was completed on New Year's Day, 1885, when the composer was 20, but if you hadn't read the post's title or seen the information on the video – that's kind of a give-away – but I mean if you only heard the music, would you recognize Richard Strauss as the composer?



Aside from the fact I've been reading James Joyce's early novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for the first time and thinking about how an artist – any artist – evolves from their first published works to the more recognizable mature styles of their later works, I sat here listening to various melodic and harmonic patterns, textures, certain patterns of notes and its overall emotional sweep, and like most people when I'd heard this for the first time might guess Johannes Brahms – and that would be a good guess if you weren’t familiar with everything he wrote – well, let's say published, which was only a small fraction of what he actually wrote.

If it's not Brahms, then you might assume it's by someone who was heavily influenced by Brahms, imitating one of the most influential composers of the decade – as many German composers were (if not, they were heavily influenced by Richard Wagner, the other polarity in late-19th Century New Music, instead).

This live performance with Market Square Concerts' directors Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin, joined by violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson, was recorded at Market Square Church in Summermusic2012's final concert in July by the church's sound technician, Newman Stare.

There are four movements: the opening sonata-form movement is marked Allegro; the scherzo, here in 2nd place rather than its usual third, begins at 10:45, and is marked Presto with a middle section (called a “Trio”) marked Molto meno mosso (“much less motion” which is more than just saying “slower”). The “after-the-party” mood of the slow movement begins at 18:06, marked simply Andante; and the Finale, starting at 25:37, returns to the dramatic mood of the first movement's Allegro.

Richard Strauss in 1886
Richard Strauss began his Piano Quartet in C Minor sometime during 1883 when he was still in his late-teens, and continued worked on it – “persevered” might be the right word – throughout the following year and completed it on New Year's Day, 1885, when he was 20. He was the pianist for its premiere performance in Meiningen that December – incidentally, six weeks after Brahms was in town to conduct the premiere of his 4th Symphony.

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

Over the past few weeks (or has it been months? Well, time during a pandemic is all relative, isn't it?), we've heard music written at the end of famous composers' careers – one of Dvořák's last string quartets; the last piece Saint-Saëns completed – and, now, early works written before they'd found their mature and most-recognizable voices: György Ligéti's 1st String Quartet and, last week, Borodin's Piano Quintet. And now, Richard Strauss at 20, not well known for his chamber music at any age but famous for his large-scale orchestral tone-poems like Ein Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra or his operas, like Salome or Der Rosenkavalier. Chamber music by Strauss might be surprising enough, if you're used to his lush orchestral textures and huge volume of sound; chamber music by a composer smitten with Brahms might surprise you even more. But keep in mind, Brahms' last piano quartet, also in C Minor, was premiered in 1875, only ten years before Strauss premiered his.

Normally, we don’t think of Richard Strauss as a prodigy, at least not along the lines of Mozart and Mendelssohn though he began composing when he was 6 and when he was 9, wrote a 33-page overture which he orchestrated himself. The year he was 10 wrote six piano sonatas – six! There are two piano trios written around the age of 13.

Yet at the time he was considered “a promising musical talent,” no more remarkable than any other “gifted child.” Music was, after all, the heart of most Germans domestic life – their home entertainment – and nearly everyone with an education could read music and have at least some elementary skill with an instrument. The family’s Munich apartment had a grand piano in what we would call the living room, surrounded by spacious windows, cherry-wood furniture and austere family portraits. This was where one family musicale took place, in his father’s absence, which Richard – then 14 – organized for his maternal grandparents, writing to him:

- - - - -
“Enghausen’s C Major Sonata played by Robert [a cousin], then the Tirolean folk-song Hans und Lise sung very prettily by Johanna [his little sister]… and very well accompanied by Robert. Then August [perhaps another cousin] played one of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s ‘Songs Without Words’ with – I am sorry to say – very little style and finesse. Then August and I played [a four-hand duet by Mendelssohn] in which we both pleased greatly. Then I played Weber’s ‘Rondo in E-flat’ to loud applause.”
- - - - -

He then conducted a “most successful performance” of Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony. Whatever may have happened to young Robert and August as they grew up, no one at the time assumed Richard was necessarily destined for greatness.

Unlike Leopold Mozart, Franz Strauss, the pre-eminent horn player in Munich’s orchestra, had nothing directly to do with his son’s training, nor did he promote him as a child prodigy in any similarly theatrical way. But he did give him advice and contact his friends and colleagues like any proud father. He had some of his friends perform a polka his son had written which was well received. He would later, of course, use his connections with famous musicians to advance his son’s career: what father wouldn’t?

But he also insisted his son not go to a conservatory: by taking a ‘normal’ course of study, he could decide what he might become, being “able to take advantage of every opportunity. Whether your talent will last is yet to be seen,” he wrote to his son, knowing about too many prodigies whose careers fail to survive the transition to adulthood. “Even good musicians find it hard to earn a crust. You’d be better off as a shoemaker or a tailor.”

Strauss would grow up to become one of the few modern-day composers with an international career who never attended a music school.

He was 16 when he began his first concerto – the Violin Concerto in D Minor later published as op. 8. In March, 1881, no less than four of his works were premiered in Munich: a string quartet (later, Op. 2), a set of three songs, the Festive Overture by his father’s amateur orchestra, Wilde Gung’l – Gung’l, alas, is only the name of its bandmaster who composed music in the vein of Johann Strauss Sr. – and four days later, his 1st Symphony, also in D Minor, by the Munich Court Orchestra conducted by the famous Hermann Levi, an associate of Richard Wagner’s. In return for Levi’s performance, Franz agreed to play first horn at the 1882 Bayreuth Festival, the very center of Wagner’s influence, for the premiere of his latest opera, Parsifal.

Franz Strauss, himself illegitimate, had been born in poverty, his father abandoning him when he was 5 after which he was taken in by an authoritarian uncle, a man in charge of the small town’s musical events who believed in “an unenviable mixture of violent discipline and vigorous tuition.” He studied several instruments, filling in with the town band as needed, before settling on the horn. At 15, it was obvious he would become a musician. Shortly afterward, some uncles went to Munich to play in the court orchestra and Franz eventually joined them. A cousin would later become the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Franz Strauss eventually became one of the best known if not well-liked musicians in Munich.

And he detested Wagner’s music (not, though, as much as he detested the man), even though he was regarded by everyone as one of its finest performers. He considered Tristan und Isolde “an affront to the classical spirit of Mozart and Haydn.” But no one played Wagner’s epic horn solos like Franz Strauss.

This, from a man who considered everything from the finale of Beethoven’s 7th on to be the end of “pure music.”

So you can imagine the sacrifice it must have been for Franz to agree to become Bayreuth’s first horn in order to get his son’s symphony played. Proud father, indeed!

Perhaps that explains why Richard wrote a horn concerto for his father the next year.

When you listen to his Horn Concerto No. 1, it is clear his musical models – instilled from his father’s very specific tastes – were predominantly Schumann, but also Mozart, Mendelssohn and Spohr. Not Beethoven and, frankly, nothing more modern than the early-1850s.

By this time, Strauss had graduated from school with average grades – “very good” in history but in math and science “middling” – and a semester at the Munich University was quietly dropped when he realized he had learned more from reading about art and history on his own than “listening to some professor droning on and on for three-quarters of an hour.”

The following year, the 19-year-old Strauss was described as “over six foot tall with a long and beautiful face and a flowing head of thick, light-brown hair” who, despite having composed nothing out of the ordinary, had already written two concertos and a symphony and had a few works published.

On visits to Vienna and Dresden, he met some of his father’s acquaintances and heard his Serenade for 13 Winds, Op. 7, premiered – the great conductor Hans von Bülow was in the audience – and also his new Cello Sonata given two “premieres” ten days apart. Though Hans Wihan, the cellist for whom Dvořák would eventually compose his concerto, had performed it in Nuremberg at the end of November, Strauss convinced his Dresden host, Ferdinand Böckmann, his performance would be its world premiere.

In addition to nearly destroying his host’s piano while composing or practicing, Strauss became interested in conducting, observing rehearsals and then practicing at home using a large wooden knitting needle for a baton.

It was then, on December 1st, 1883, that Strauss received a letter from his publisher informing him the conductor Hans von Bülow wished to perform his recently premiered serenade with his court orchestra in Meinigen (where Brahms frequently tried out his symphonies before performing them in Vienna) the day after Christmas before taking it on the road to Berlin. This caught the boy by surprise though it was primarily the result of Franz’s frequent nagging of the conductor. However, once Bülow heard the piece, he was secure in his own judgment, not just giving in to an annoying stage-father.

It was also during this time that the 19-year-old composer, away from home, began falling in love, apparently developing a preference for older women. One was the wife of a sculptor and another was the wife of the cellist Hans Wihan. Later on, she may well have obtained a divorce in the hope of marrying Strauss, but by 1890 he was already engaged to his future wife, Pauline de Ahna.

(Keeping this tidbit of personal trivia in mind, perhaps it’s not so surprising this composer – one who would become so autobiographical as to describe his life as the hero of Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) – would be attracted to a story about a young man, a teenager named Octavian, who must give up his love for an older woman, the Marschallin, in his opera Der Rosenkavalier over 25 years later.)

And so, Strauss went off to become Hans von Bülow’s assistant in Meiningen at the age of 19, conducting his own Serenade there, performing Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto (writing his own cadenzas) and conducting his Symphony No. 2 in F Minor (which, by a strange twist, had already received its world premiere in New York City under the direction of the German-American conductor, Theodore Thomas).

Johannes Brahms was in Meiningen to attend the world premiere of his new E Minor Symphony and Strauss had a chance to hear all the rehearsals. Brahms heard Strauss’ concert and remarked his symphony was “quite attractive,” as Strauss wrote in his memoirs, but “too full of musical irrelevances.” “Take a good look at Schubert’s dances, young man,” he continued, “and try your luck at the invention of simple eight-bar melodies.”

In all fairness, one thing can be said about Strauss’ symphony, in hindsight: it’s quite overwritten, “a reflection of someone trying hard to impress.”

His father was also concerned he was spending too much time on “contrapuntal affectations” rather than on “natural, wholesome invention and execution. Craftsmanship should not be discernible. You have enough talent for something better than affectation.”

Incidentally, of the other candidates for Bülow’s assistant was a Frenchman and a favorite of Bülow’s rival, while another had proven unpopular in his previous post. Gustav Mahler, contending with a series of small and disappointing conducting jobs, didn’t even make the short list – primarily because he was Jewish.

And so, without any conducting experience at all, Richard Strauss got the job.

Three years earlier, Hans von Bülow, showed a stack of young Strauss’ music, had commented, “…immature and precocious… fail to find any signs of youth in his invention. Not a genius in my most sincere opinion but at best a talent with 60% aimed to shock.”

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

It was during this time that Strauss composed his Piano Quartet in C Minor.

When I can find references to the work at all, it appears to have been written in 1885 (presumably before the summer he joined Bülow in Meiningen when he turned 21) but the Grove Dictionary lists the date of composition as 1883-1884 when he could have been between 18 and 20. It’s quite possible 1885 was when the work was first performed – many sources lists the date of pieces as the premiere rather than when they were actually composed.

Certainly, compared to the Classical Horn Concerto of 1882-83, this is a very Romantic work and a far cry from his father’s sense of what good music ought to be. If there’s any influence here, it is Johannes Brahms, first and foremost. Just because his father detested Wagner did not mean he would automatically be an advocate for the more conservative Brahms.

When composition students ask me how they “find their voice,” I usually tell them “as a student, your job is to be a sponge, to soak up everything you can hear, absorb what you like, dispose of what you don’t like, and take everything in to find a way of doing it ‘your way.’ By the time you’ve developed those ‘fingerprints’ we call a composer’s voice, you won’t even be aware of it.”

So, having grown up on Strauss tone-poems and operas, going back to hear some of these early works is often disappointing – at best, the “how did he get from here to there?”

Perhaps Strauss was checking out the New Music scene in Dresden and Berlin, out from under his father’s arch-conservative attitudes, and discovered new harmonies, new melodic and structural approaches previously “forbidden” which he decided to try on for size?

Having heard his Brahmsian Piano Quartet, now listen to the opening of his first major tone poem, his “break-out” piece, Don Juan, one of most attention-grabbing opening minutes in the orchestral repertoire:

= = = = =

= = = = =

This was begun in the fall of 1888 when Strauss was 24, three years after the quartet's premiere. When he conducted its premiere the following year, Strauss was immediately hailed as a significant new composer – and conductor – on the international scene.

How does a composer make the leap from something clearly derivative – in the “sponge-absorbing” sense – like the Quartet finished when he was 20 to something like this when he was 24 and which no other composer could have written?

What’s curious is that the Horn Concerto, for instance, sounds much more like the mature Strauss than the Piano Quartet written a year or two later. Had he consciously tried imitating Brahms then – considering Brahms’ rather cool rejection of his symphony – putting this aside for other things? What about other works written in between?

The Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, written between 1885-1886, the next large-scale work composed after the quartet, also sounds at points very Brahmsian but more on the way to being recognizable as the Richard Strauss we would later become familiar with. Add in the Violin Sonata of 1887 and the first of his tone-poems, Macbeth of 1888, the next work would be Don Juan.

It’s a very short route.

But in 1892, Strauss began his first opera – Guntram – followed by Feuersnot in 1900-01, both failures. Speaking of persevering, in 1903 he began the opera that would so shock the world: he would never look back.

Strauss in 1905 (photo by Steichen)
After the 1905 premiere of Salome, he wrote primarily operas and songs, very rarely composing any more tone poems, certainly nothing that became regarded on the level of the tone poems of the late-1880s and '90s.

One could argue for the string sextet that is the prelude to his last opera Capriccio in 1941 or the original string septet version of the tragic Metamorphosen for string orchestra following the bombing of Dresden in 1945, but basically, after the Violin Sonata of 1887, he wrote no more chamber music.

So while you could argue the Piano Quartet becomes a kind of dead end, stylistically and categorically (for lack of a better word, the category being ‘chamber music’), it is fascinating to hear it in this context of a composer’s musical development, picking and choosing, absorbing and rejecting various influences and ideas.

It stands, of course, on its own but at the same time it is also a piece that is part of the continuum that is Richard Strauss – or, for that matter, the development of music making the transition from one generation to the next, from the late-19th Century leading into the new 20th Century.

For that matter, you could listen to Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, the first begun around this same time period, in light of his own Piano Quartet, written around 1876, and even more surprisingly, perhaps, the evolution that was Arnold Schoenberg's even before Verklärte Nacht led the way to the atonality of Pierrot Lunaire one hundred years ago and the serialism he developed in the 1920s – by hearing the very Dvořákian string quartet he composed in 1897.

But, as usual, I digress…

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Summertime and a Russian Chemist Writes Some Music

"Since this July we had to cancel Summermusic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to revisit some of our past Summermusic performances for the next few weeks. In this week’s dose, I’ll begin by sharing a performance of the lyrical Piano Quintet by Alexander Borodin, written on a vacation in Italy for his fiancée, who was a pianist. Stuart Malina was the pianist in this performance, and he was joined by the familiar group of Summermusic artists including cellist Fiona Thompson, violist Michael Stepniak, violinist Blanka Bednarz and yours truly. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts
= = = = = =

When we think of “Piano Quintets,” I always mention how we tend to think of a mighty handful of masterpieces by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich (and possibly Franck), usually in that order. The two quintets on this original Summermusic2017 program – the first by Alexander Borodin and the second by Sergei Taneyev – may not fall into the “masterpiece” category, but they're also by composers not well-known for their chamber music.

Well, that's not entirely fair, since Taneyev is hardly known as a composer at all in this country, even if he wrote a good deal of chamber music including six string quartets over a productive career of thirty-five years. And if Borodin may be better known for the "Polovetsian Dances" from his opera Prince Igor or his 2nd Symphony, you'd probably recognize his 2nd String Quartet even if you'd never heard it before, since several of its tunes became pop songs thanks to their being quoted – or, if you prefer, “ripped off” – for the American musical, Kismet.


Stuart Malina, piano; Peter Sirotin & Blanka Bednarz, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Fiona Thompson, cello. (Performance recorded live at Market Square Church on July 26th, 2017, by Newman Stare.)

Borodin's quintet is in three movements, starting with what is essentially a moderate tempo for a first movement, marked Andante (more a “walking” tempo than just “slow”), followed by a scherzo (beginning at 5:49) complete with balalaika impersonations, and then a broadly contrasting finale (beginning at 12:45 with what sounds like the start of a slow movement), at times joyful, melancholy but above all songful (like so much Russian music).

To those familiar with Borodin's best pieces, his stylistic voice is remarkably identifiable: if it shows any influences from the German composers he was familiar with when he wrote this, it is not in the surface level we hear most easily. If it sounds “very Russian” to you (as it does to me), keep in mind he had no real Russian models at the time. If you look at other Russian composers well-known in America, neither Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov nor Mussorgsky had published their earliest works the year Borodin composed this Piano Quintet! The only Russian models he had were two other “amateur” composers of the previous generation, Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomizhky. In fact, he hadn't even met Mily Balakirev, famous as the founder of “The Russian Five,” until after he'd completed this quintet! All of those associations and all the music they would create, proclaiming Russia to the wider musical world – was in the future.

You may think he is quoting Russian folk-songs to get this “Russian sound” as other composers would do later. For instance, when I hear Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, I am surprised how many of those tunes of his are not actually his but well-known (to a Russian) folk songs he's quoting. When I asked Peter Sirotin about Borodin's tunes, if they were folk songs, he jokingly replied they “just sound like it. He was good at creating faux-folktunes.”

Borodin: Chemist, Composer
In this country, Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. 

Borodin's day-job was being a chemistry professor. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.'

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Borodin & Mendeleyev (center)
Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence he composed this piano quintet while traveling in Italy?

When he returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time. Though Rubinstein had opened his conservatory that same year, a full-time college professor would hardly have time to take regularly scheduled classes and lessons and so continued the age-old tradition of studying, however haphazardly, with a "master."

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. Once he started working with Balakirev, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29.

As life would unfold for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time to work on his compositions. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment.

Plus, in addition to relatives, they seemed to collect stray cats. As his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

= = = = = = =
“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergueïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeyevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and heated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
= = = = = = =

In the 1860s – still, post-Quintet – Borodin became a member of a circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Stasov used to describe them was “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and something which seemed rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and culture in general). In Russian culture, at this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – "Peter I" to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking and mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea was – following developments that had already started happening in Western Europe following the 1848 revolutions – to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

Yet this incorporation of the music of the Russian people either as outright quotations or creating melodies in the style of folksong, rather than imitations of German or Italian styles and techniques as had been the norm in Russian history since 1700, goes back to Mikhail Glinka - speaking of amateurs with little if any real training - whose Fantasy on Two Wedding Songs, Kamarinskaya, written in 1848, is (as Stravinsky later put it) “the acorn from which all Russian music grew.”



(Balakirev, himself a brilliant pianist at the start of his career, even made a Lisztian transcription of the piece which I've always had a fondness for.)

As you can hear, the faster tune itself is never "developed" in the standard German classical sense, but repeated over and over with ever-changing textures, orchestration and harmonies - a bit like Ravel's Bolero which, when it was first heard in 1928, was considered so radical! This, then, is the dilemma of the folk-inspired composer: how to create a long-form piece out of a few bars of music that defy expansion?

But remember, Borodin's initial endeavors in music were rooted in these early chamber music pieces of his like the Piano Quintet which were so heavily influenced by the style of Mendelssohn (remember, he was in Germany when he wrote most of those pieces). He had no innate Russian tradition to build on. Even later, he would complete two symphonies and two string quartets which his colleagues argued were “Un-Russian,” wishing he would spend what limited time he had for composing in more appropriate genres like operas (like his Prince Igor which he started working on in 1868 and still left unfinished at his death twenty years later) and symphonic poems (like his In the Steppes of Central Asia).

And yet this Piano Quintet sounds so inherently Russian with its folk-like themes, it might come as a surprise it is not only such an early work of his (despite its simplicity which one can excuse more as “charming” rather than “amateurish”) but that it was written before he came under the nationalist influence of Balakirev and his circle!

Dick Strawser

Friday, July 3, 2020

Music from the Age of Enlightenment: Rebel's Journey into the Baroque


“As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, I thought it would be fun to add some music from the Age of Enlightenment to the abundance of traditional repertoire ranging from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet.  After all, the music of Italian and German baroque composers was an integral part of the 18th century seismic cultural shift toward ideals on which the United States was founded.  The award-winning early music ensemble Rebel performed these rarely heard baroque gems for us at the opening of our 2016-17 season, enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts.



Performers: REBEL Matthias Maute, recorder & traverso (flute)
Jörg-Michael Schwarz & Karen Marie Barmer, violins
Basso continuo: John Moran, violoncello, & Dongsok Shin, harpsichord

Francesco Mancini (1672-1737) Sonata No. 6 in D Minor (1725)
Recorder, 2 violins & basso continuo
Amoroso, Allegro, Largo, Allegro

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) Sonata in B-flat Major [intro, 10:45; music, 13:25)
for 2 violins & basso continuo
Adagio, Allegro, Grave, Chaconne

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) Quartet/concerto in A Minor (TWV 43: a3) (c.1730) [intro about the instruments, 23:33; music, 29:50]
Recorder, 2 violins & basso continuo
Adagio, Allegro, Adagio, Vivace

Concert recorded October 1st, 2016
Filmed by Newman Stare

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

The 18th Century's “Age of Enlightenment” and the 17th Century's “Age of Reason” (generally considered the beginning of Modern Philosophy) followed the rise of the Renaissance's scientific thinking in art and architecture. These ways of examining the world and Man's role in it that gave rise to a great deal of the political thinking eventually leading to the French Revolution, finally erupting at the Bastile in 1789, but also to the American Revolution which essentially began in 1765 with the “Stamp Act,” proclaiming “No Taxation without Representation!”

Another political philosophy that coexisted with this time period is summed up by “The Divine Right of Kings” which one of my history teachers referred to as a “neo-medieval” approach to government in which a king's reign was essentially anointed by God: who, after all, would dare topple a monarch who had God's backing? Not that it helped Charles I of England (beheaded by Cromwell's government following the Civil War in 1649) or his son James II (deposed by “The Glorious Revolution” in 1688 though he at least survived with his head) or, most famously, Louis XVI in France in 1793. By comparison, with the American Revolution, George III lost only a handful of colonies.

Pitting the progressive thinking of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on Reason against the intransigence of the “Divine Rights” aristocracy is a classic Hegelian Dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) waiting to happen – Hegel, incidentally, was born in 1770, the same year as Beethoven. And Beethoven was born in Bonn, one of the hot-spots of Enlightenment thinking, whose forward-thinking ruler, the Elector of Cologne, was the Archduke Maximilian Franz whose brother was Austrian Emperor Joseph II of Mozart fame and whose sister was Marie Antoinette who... well, remember Louis XVI of France? She also was beheaded in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

“Wait, I thought this was supposed to be about some Baroque music?” you say...

Sorry, but with Peter's introduction about music from an age when ideas that helped bring about this country were developing, I couldn't resist a little non-musical background to the world in which this music was created.

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

If you're familiar with the first composer on this part of the program, you might not be the first American music-lover to wonder if Mancini ever written something called La pantera rosa. A Neapolitan composer who was forever in the shadow of court composer Alessandro Scarlatti, Mancini (and that's pronounced “man-CHEE-nee”) benefited occasionally from Scarlatti's frequent absences from Naples (Alessandro, btw, is better remembered today as the father of the more widely known composer Domenico Scarlatti). Since Mancini's sonata on this program was written in 1725, we might think of him as a contemporary of Antonio Vivaldi who wrote a little something called The Four Seasons in 1725; and managed to outlive Bach who was already considered old-fashioned by the time he died in 1750 (for the record, Bach was keeping track of the household music in 1725 in the “Anna Magdalena Notebook”).

In retrospect, Mancini's music represents a transitional period beginning with the Baroque and eventually becoming more Classical as the simpler style began to take hold in the 1740s. Though Mancini's works include 29 operas, 12 oratorios, and some 200 secular cantatas, while he gets a full page in Grove's Dictionary, he warrants only six lines of text in his Wikipedia entry.

Here's some trivia you can use when we get back together again under “Useless Facts for Future Cocktail Parties.”

Francesco Mancini
This anecdote about Mancini involves his taking sides during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1707. Without going into detail about this complex war, let's say it involved the Spanish throne with no immediate heir, and embroiled a good bit of Europe between 1701 and 1714 to determine whether a Frenchman or an Austrian would claim not only the Spanish throne but also the vast wealth of its New World empire. I'll just point out that Naples was the capital of a kingdom in southern Italy ruled by the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg Family who dominated Spain, Austria, and the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. When the succession came into question, the Austrians marched on Naples to secure it against Spain (where the throne was claimed by a French prince of the Bourbon dynasty).

At any rate, Francesco Mancini, with Scarlatti off in Rome, took his musicians on the road to greet the approaching Austrian army, realizing where the victory would lie, and quickly wrote a Te Deum to celebrate their triumphant arrival. In return, the Austrian general appointed Mancini director of music or maestro di capella (in German, this would be more familiar as Kapellmeister), but his career was short-lived. The Austrian viceroy appointed to rule in Naples decided to replace Mancini the next year and recalled Scarlatti from Rome. So once again, Mancini resumed life under Scarlatti's shadow.

By 1724, Mancini was apparently networking for a position with the court of King George I of England, dedicating a set of twelve flute (recorder) sonatas to John Fleetwood, the British consul in Naples. If nothing else, at least his sonatas were published in London that year.

The sonata performed here by Rebel is not one of the "Fleetwood" set which were for flute and continuo only (no violins). Perhaps these more complicated sonatas of 1725 also had some association with Fleetwood, but by October, all this musical and political schmoozing became unnecessary: in October, 1725, Alessandro Scarlatti died and Mancini inherited the post, finally. He had waited over 20 years for the job, so why leave now? Ten years later, Mancini suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed; he died two years later at the age of 65.

By the way, Naples, one of the largest cities in Southern Europe, experienced an attack of The Bubonic Plague in 1656, killing almost half its population. Mancini was born in 1679, only 23 years later. After he died in 1758, it was another 31 years till the French Revolution broke out in Paris: in 1799, French revolutionaries invaded Naples, set up a Republic which was put down by the famous British admiral, Horatio Nelson, but the city was soon captured by the French Emperor Napoleon in 1806 who created a “client kingdom” of France's, placing his brother Joseph on the throne, at least for a while, soon replacing him with one of his more trusted Generals so he could make Joseph King of Spain instead. So much for a 13-year-long war over the Spanish Succession a century earlier.

Ah, History – it's complicated...

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

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg
As Jörg-Michael Schwarz explains in his introduction to the second piece, you're probably familiar with the composer's name without really knowing a single note he composed. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was 14 when he studied with Bach – some years later he would also study with Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach – and had quite a reputation as a keyboard performer. That would seem obvious if you consider he was able to play Bach's formidable “Goldberg Variations.” Whether the piece was specifically written for Goldberg to play or not, the nickname (not the actual title, btw) definitely stems from the assumption he frequently performed them to help his employer, Count Keyserlingk, through many a sleepless night (the assumption being it helped put him to sleep when, basically, the count said if he was going to be awake he might as well have something worth listening to).

Of Goldberg's own music, well – here's a sample.

As my evil-twin fellow blogger Sid Reckstraw would point out, the Baroque Era was a time when musicians were employed like carpenters, potters, gardeners, cooks, and tailors, more artisans than artists, who wore a servant's livery – even Haydn ate at the servants' table, not with the Prince and his guests. Another assumption is, therefore, many composers employed by those who were not among the wealthiest rulers and princelings of Europe's aristocratic courts, particularly in all those thousands of little German-speaking states gathered under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire, were the equivalent of those who made decent-looking, functionally acceptable furniture to sit on, dishes to eat from, clothes to parade around in: only a very select few of them ever rose to the level of genius like a Chippendale, a Wedgwood, or an Armani. (The same, btw, could be said of the Classical Era, and, if you replace aristocratic courts with universities as the primary employer of composers, the second half of the 20th Century.)

But while we might consider Bach and Handel, Corelli and Vivaldi, Couperin and Rameau among the top tier of Baroque composers, there are no doubt thousands of others filling out these positions in courts grand and not-so-grand in the 18th Century with varying degrees of talent. While I've heard many Baroque composers who are the equivalent of those Paint-by-Numbers do-it-yourself kits from years ago, listening to Herr Goldberg, here, makes me wonder how many other certainly good if not great composers we might be missing out on? Not that we honestly need a Diogenio Bigaglia Renaissance, but still – there are so many composers who've fallen under the shadows of that small handful of the Indisputable Elite.

Johann Sebastian Bach had been hired by music-loving aristocrats in Anhalt and Cöthen before landing a job with the major church in the major city of Leipzig. It appears his student Goldberg spent his most of his brief career with Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk whose claim to fame seems to be his insomnia. He was the ambassador from the Russian Imperial Court to the Elector of Saxony's court in Dresden (not far from Leipzig) and his son, back home in the Baltic state of Courland, was the wealthiest aristocrat in Königsberg, frequently playing host to the likes of Immanuel Kant and whoever else would figure in the local intellectual and artistic elite.

Alas, composer/harpsichordist Goldberg didn't have much of a career: he died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.

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

Not every European crown fell to the spirit of Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. Several were “enlightened,” each in their own ways, whether or not they were supported by their own nobility. Joseph II was certainly one of the more liberal monarchs of the day (his younger brother, stodgily conservative, undid almost everything Joseph achieved in his reforms, leaving his heirs to increase the presence of a secret police to secure their power).

Another was Frederick II of Prussia, known to history as Frederick the Great largely because of his military prowess which clearly placed Prussia in the forefront of European powers. In his youth, he was more interested in music and philosophy, much to his father's dismay: he played the flute and wrote a great deal of music himself (few outside his own court might describe him as Frederick the Great Composer). He wanted to be a “philosopher king” and corresponded regularly with the likes of Voltaire, one of the leading thinkers of this Age of Enlightenment.

Among the various musicians he employed, one was the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach who chafed at always being ranked below the clearly second-rate (if not third-rate) Johann Joachim Quantz whose old-fashioned style the king preferred. While the king wrote 121 Flute Sonatas of his own, Quantz wrote “hundreds” for the king to perform, along with some 289 Flute Concertos. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, however, was too progressive for Frederick's taste and was viewed more as a very good keyboard player.

Eventually, C.P.E. managed to leave the king's service (or to end his servitude in Berlin) when his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann died, leaving his post open as the city of Hamburg's “resident composer,” essentially the Kapellmeister for the City rather than for an aristocratic court. And so C.P.E. Bach finally found his own artistic freedom.

Telemann (c.1750)
Telemann, after a few earlier positions, settled into Hamburg's churches and city functions in 1721, where, despite a few rocky moments at the beginning, he remained until his death in 1767. He is probably one of the most prolific composer who ever lived, with some 3,000 works to his credit though probably half of them have been lost and most of them have probably not been performed since the 18th Century. Still, there are over 1,000 sacred cantatas and 600 orchestral suites along with reams of chamber works like this Quartet on Rebel's program, part sonata and part concerto in its demands on the players (keep in mind, in those days, we're not talking large orchestras with a soloist or two, but, like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, could be played by a small group of players).

This very proliferation of works, however, has tainted the general attitude about Telemann's music: “quantity over quality,” the biggest complaint. And a lot of his music might be churned out for specific occasions and fall into “fill-in-the-blank” or “cookie-cutter” patterns (the same crack was aimed at Vivaldi by wags who only heard endless sequences without realizing the incredible amount of variety in realizing these patterns). Still, there are enough works by Telemann that rise to the level of greatness, however often he may have been forced to resort to the assembly line in order to produce the vast amount of music the city expected of him.

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

The original post for this concert features more generic background information and also features others videos performed by the ensemble. Especially interesting, I think, is the video of music by another obscure French Baroque composer you may never have heard of before, Jean-Féry Rebél from whom the ensemble Rebel takes its name (so yes, the accent is on the second syllable, in case you were wondering: I mean, there are only two syllables, so it's a 50/50 chance, right?).

While philosophy has frequently stymied more than just me – “it's easy to argue about philosophy,” one friend told me years ago, “because you can always find some quote somewhere that will be the exact opposite of whatever the other person is saying” – if you're looking for a quick background on “The Age of Enlightenment,” perhaps this Wikipedia entry will suffice. If you find this too shamefully inadequate, then, you probably don't need an “Introduction to The Enlightenment.”

Speaking of philosophical influences on the development of the American Revolution, I'll mention Thomas Piane, one of the key writers from the period, whose post-Revolutionary The Age of Reason was a best-seller when it was published in three installments between 1794 and 1807. It takes a “diestic approach” to a rationalist's view of religion which is certainly more than I want to get into here. As for the Revolutionary era itself, Paine's pamphlet “Common Sense” of 1776 was one of the most persuasive publications of the day.

And so, in these troubling times – and an age that certainly could use a little enlightenment – have a Happy and Safe 4th of July. And with any luck, we'll all be back together again to enjoy live music in a real space, where we can see old friends and listen to great music together.

Take care of yourselves – and be safe!

– Dick Strawser