Sunday, July 23, 2017

Summermusic: Next Stop, Latin America!

It's true that one of the best souvenirs a traveler can bring home is a broadened perspective. After a night of American piano trios on Friday, the second stop on our three concert tour Sunday afternoon at 4:00 takes us through Latin America with the Brasil Guitar Duo featuring music by composers from Cuba, Argentina, as well as Brazil.

The Brasil Guitar Duo in performance
Their varied program opens with “Zita” by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the best-known name among Latin American composers today with audiences in the United States, but also Leo Brouwer of Cuba and Egberto Gismonti of Brazil on the first half with an all-Brazilian second half with more Gismonti plus Jacob do Bandolim, Marco Pereira and Paulo Bellinati.

The duo – João Luiz and Douglas Lora – met as teenage guitar students in São Paulo and have been performing together for more than fifteen years. Lora received his Masters at the University of Maimi and Luiz (who has also arranged several pieces for their duo) received his from the Mannes College in NYC, currently pursuing his doctorate at the Manhattan School, and is head of the guitar department at SUNY-Purchase.

They have performed a wide-ranging repertoire from Bach and Scarlatti to a number of world premieres including a Concerto for Two Guitars by one of the composers on tonight's program, the São Paulo-born Paulo Bellinati, and a sonata for two guitars and two cellos by Leo Brouwer they premiered with Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto in Havana. Their recording of the complete works for two guitars by Brouwer, available on the Naxos label, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best New Composition.

Here are a few video clips available on YouTube of three of the works on their Harrisburg program: “Zita,” a movement from the Suite Troileana by Piazzolla,

“Bom Partido” by Paulo Bellinati,

and Sete anéis (“Seven Cycles”) by Egberto Gismonti (as arranged by João Luiz):

For a complete performance of the Sonata for Two Guitars by Leo Brouwer, scroll down...

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There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds like it could be apocryphal but certainly speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, who taught most of the leading American composers of the day who flocked to The City of Light to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (who was Bernstein's teacher at Harvard) and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). Another of her students, by the way, was Egberto Gismonti, whom I'll get to in a moment.

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla, growing up in the world of the tango in Argentina and a bandoneon player in major dance bands in the capital city, met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band, now, to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere.

A fight broke out in the audience between people who were enjoying the piece and those who were offended by having two bandoneons in the orchestra! (Remember how offended Paris critics were when Cesar Franck included an English horn in his D Minor Symphony...?) Regardless, Piazzolla won a scholarship as a result of that concert which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger with her student, Astor Piazzolla
By then 33, Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on.

(Another version of the story has him feeling despondent after she did not respond favorably to his "classical" works and so, no doubt feeling homesick, went off in some other part of the building and began playing some tangos. Boulanger heard this, listened for a while, and then told him “This is the real Piazzolla!” Either way, it gets to the truth of a composer's identity.)

So he primarily studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was such an important aspect of his environment.

It is an old argument, this “serious” versus “popular.” If the story sounds vaguely familiar, remember that another young American composer in his late-20s with his feet firmly planted in American popular music went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger as well, only this time she refused to take George Gershwin on as a pupil.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game to play: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

This would also become the major struggle in the creative life of Leonard Bernstein but that's for another time, perhaps.

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This idea of labeling music “serious” or “popular” is another product of the 20th Century. I always hated both terms in the “either/or” pigeon-holing of art when I was growing up in the '60s – does that mean that, say, Dave Brubeck or the Beatles were not serious? Wouldn't that then make “classical” music “unpopular”?

Brahms wrote his “Hungarian Dances” inspired, in part, by hanging out with friends in smoky taverns where gypsy bands played. They were also, he knew, his bread-and-butter: between them and his little Lullaby, he was probably the richest living composer in an age when most composers we can think of were struggling to stay alive. He was a big fan of Johann Strauss who would be considered the closest thing to a “pop icon” of the day but who today is another famous “classical” composer, not that many conductors would consider programming a bunch of Strauss waltzes and polkas on the first half and Brahms' 1st Symphony on the second. And yet Brahms incorporated his “Hungarian” music in the finales of his Violin Concerto or the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were perfectly natural and while there were always critics who disliked anything Brahms ever did, I don't recall that being a major controversy. He simply absorbed it as another “thing” in his environment which he could make use of in creating his own voice.

Ginastera, in Argentina, wrote music based on “indigenous folk-music” because that's what European composers did – if it wasn't Brahms' ethnic heritage, the idea of incorporating folk songs and dances from his own native Bohemia was the one thing that finally put Dvořák on the musical map, after having imitated first Wagner and then Brahms so long, he despaired of ever finding a style of his own. It was what Dvořák told his American students to do when he taught in New York City in the mid-1890s, how to find their own American voice: take American folk-songs and build your music on them. Curiously, he thought that would be the spiritual songs of African slaves.

While that was easy for a Russian composer like Rimsky-Korsakov or a Hungarian composer like Bartók or even an English composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams, what did that mean to an American? Especially an American who didn't need or a DNA-test to know his grandparents or parents came from England or Italy or Russia or Spain – or from any of the parts of Africa that most other people were almost totally unaware of? How did an Irish-American composer who'd grown up on reels and shanties create a natural-sounding American voice out of the songs of the Native Americans?

And folk music in Latin America was always divided between the indigenous cultures and the colonial cultures. Yet we (as “Americans” – even that is, technically, a loaded term: aren't Canadians and Venezuelans “Americans” also?) tend to overlook the fact that Latin America is as much a melting pot as the United States: from colonization supplanting the “native” or indigenous culture and then the wider spread of European immigration, we forget that Piazzolla, for instance, is originally an Italian name, his grandfather growing up in Southern Italy's Apulia; that Paulo Bellinati is a Brazilian, not an Italian composer despite the ethnicity behind his name; or that Egberto Gismonti's mother was from Sicily and his father from Beirut, Lebanon.

After a time Ginastera – and Villa-Lobos in Brazil – made the transition from folk-inspired music to “abstract” music – “abstract” (the “most serious” of “serious” music, I suppose) in the sense it was not based on a story and not employing folk songs and rhythms simply for the sake of color, “abstract” like the symphonies of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven. Going beyond the native, popular influences resulted in more universally translatable works like Ginastera's opera, Bomarzo, set in Renaissance Italy, and Villa-Lobos' numerous suites called Bachianas brasilieras, composed “as if Bach were a composer living in Brazil today.”

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Leo Brouwer is an Afro-Cuban composer whose great-uncle was Ernesto Lecuona who wrote a little something called “Malagueña” and whose cousin Margarita Lecuona wrote “Babalú,” already famous in this country before becoming the signature tune of Desi Arnaz's bandleader character in “I Love Lucy.”

With that family legacy, it would not be surprising young Leo would show musical talent: his father, a doctor, was an amateur guitarist and by 17, Leo was performing and composing.

Leo Brouwer
Brouwer came to the United States to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, and then at Juilliard, studying with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. In 1970, he played in the Berlin world premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze and for a 1979 competition in Hungary he wrote a work for 200 guitars. In addition to the songs and rhythms of his native Cuba, Brouwer was influenced by the aleatoric aesthetic of Iannis Xenakis and the serial music of Luigi Nono. But he was fluent in enough musical “languages” to comfortably transcribe Beatles songs for solo guitar and write music for over one hundred films, including Like Water for Chocolate. In addition to three string quartets and numerous other chamber combinations, he has also composed eleven guitar concertos.

In 1990, he composed a sonata for English guitarist Julian Bream and in 2009, he composed the sonata for two guitars the Brasil Guitar Duo will be performing on their program today, the “Sonata de Los Viajeros” which, at least metaphorically, reflects the journeys of someone who is widely traveled.

It is in four movements and though I could find no translations available (and I do not speak Spanish), their titles might be (1.) Primer Viaje a Tierras Heladas (The first journey to the Land of Ice); (2.) El Retablo de las Maravillas; La Venus de Praxiteles (The Altarpiece of Wonders. The Venus of (the ancient Greek sculptor) Praxiteles); (3.) Visita a Bach en Leipzig (Visit to Bach in Leipzig); (4.) Por el Mar e las Antillas (By the Sea and the Antilles).

This performance of the Sonata with the Brasil Guitar Duo, recorded at Teatro Martí in Havana, begins about 1:20 into the clip.

At the end of the video, the composer, sitting in the front row, stands up to take a bow. This concert also included the world premiere of Brouwer's El arco y la lira for two cellos and two guitars which I highly recommend!

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Egberto Gismonti was born in Rio de Janeiro where he began studying piano at the age of 6 and then, after 15 years of study, went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to combine “the collective Brazilian experience” with his own musical style. (Notice, this was a slightly different response than the advice she gave Piazzolla.) He also studied with Jean Barraqué, a serialist who'd studied with Webern and Schoenberg.

Gismonti in Buenos Aires, 2017
Self-taught as a guitarist, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began designing guitars with more than the usual six strings, expanding the possibilities of the instrument. “Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives the impression that there is more than a single guitar player.” This recent photograph of him shows him playing his ten-string guitar.

Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin made a lasting impression. “Brazilian culture,” he says, “is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.”

“Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation,” guitarist Derek Gripper writes of his experience with the composer's music. “In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. ...He just showed me what music could be.”

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Of the three remaining composers on the program, I am running out of time – courtesy of various excuses, an overly helpful cat (which reminds me that Leo Brouwer composed a piano trio entitled El triángulo de las Bermudas) and resulting computer issues we don't need to get into. Besides, it's not my habit necessarily to write extensively about every piece on the program - and some lend themselves to "extensivity" moreso than others...

Together, all these create a varied sampling of the many “dialects” of the Latin American musical language – as varied as one might expect to find when comparing European composers from different countries and eras or even American composers from different backgrounds in our own country.

Earlier, in the previous post, I'd mentioned the old argument about “what constitutes an American composer?” – is it a composer who reflects “the American experience” (whatever that is) or someone who is, basically, born and trained in America?

When I started writing this post, I decided to check for some generic information about “Latin American Music” and found this, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States."

And while that may seem self-evident, rather than building walls perhaps it's really all we need to consider when trying to define something so richly complex as music?

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summermusic: Friday Night on the Town with Cafe Music

This summer's series is a quick three-concert tour that takes us to three continents and covers five countries in the space of six days, starting of with Piano Trios “Made in America” Friday night at 8, then Latin American Guitar Duos with composers from Cuba, Argentina and Brazil on Sunday afternoon at 4:00, before ending up on Wednesday evening at 7:30 in Russia with piano quintets in the grand Romantic tradition by Borodin and by Tchaikovsky's star pupil, Sergei Taneyev.

If you're looking for a theme for this first program of Summermusic2017 beyond that – other than “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight (Hey, it's inside and it's air-conditioned!)” – you might call it “College Memories and Night Life.”

After all, Bernstein's trio was written when he was a college senior at Harvard (Class of 1939, cum laude) and Charles Ives (Yale student, Class of 1898, not so laude, aspiring composer and star athlete, a pitcher for the university baseball team) reminisced over experiences from campus life (a philosophical lecture; a rowdy student party; a Sunday church service), in his piano trio, regardless when he actually completed the piece.

Then, Kenji Bunch's Swing Shift is a celebration of the 24/7 open-all-night lifestyle of Manhattan which, then, brings us to the conclusion of the program, a little something called Café Music by Paul Schoenfield which, beyond saying it was inspired by his turn as a substitute “house pianist” at a steak house in Minneapolis, hardly needs any more explanation for your enjoyment.

(You can read about the first three works in earlier posts – Bernstein & Bunch, here; the Ives, here – complete with video clips of the complete pieces. There are also posts about the second program's Latin American guitar duos and eventually the third program's Russian piano quintets.)

Paul Schoenfield
It's always great when you can have something directly from the composer about their piece, not something you can always do with the likes of Beethoven or the notoriously tight-lipped Brahms. So here's what Paul Schoenfield (who celebrates his 70th birthday this year) has to say about his work:

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“The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the [regular] pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio that plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th-century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement.

“Café Music was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and received its premiere during a SPCO chamber concert in January 1987.”
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He certainly has succeeded in writing music that might just find its way into the concert hall. It's quite likely Café Music is his best known and most frequently performed work. There, for a while, it seemed almost every trio I know was performing it on their way through Central PA and it put in a regular appearance on the radio back when one could hear classical music on the radio on a daily basis.

Here's something else you can't do with the likes of Beethoven and Brahms: hear the composer play his own music. This performance, recorded live in concert by the Gabrielli Trio in 1990 – just three years after the premiere – is by violinist Andrew Jennings, cellist Michael Haber, and pianist... Paul Schoenfield.

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In the earlier posts, I had pointed out how Bernstein's eclecticism was evident in the sponge-like absorption of interests evident in his student trio, not unlike what most students might compose who are busily exploring different styles and coming to terms with various “aesthetic” approaches as well as technical skills, whether its counterpoint or writing themes that are developable (one of the necessities of writing anything on a larger scale in classical music) or creating a harmonic flow that pushes (or drives) the music forward.

You can judge Ives' use of tension and release a little differently in that scherzo of his trio, joke or not, where the texture and dissonance builds primarily through a sheer piling-on of one strand after (and over) another, the release at one point being an almost gunshot-like silence in the midst of the chaos.

Aside from the sheer brilliance of Schoenfield's “material” – whether they're original themes or remind you of songs you know (or think you know) before they veer off into something else (oh, sorry... no) – it's this whole “pop” ethos of its entertaining aesthetic that sounds contradictory (if you let it) when you consider, yeah... isn't that sonata form? Isn't that what anybody writing a “classical” piece of chamber music might do if their material sounded more like... well, Beethoven or Brahms?

This is the mature Bernstein's eclectic mash-up polished to a high and highly sophisticated degree. But is it so original? Isn't this what composers like Dvořák were doing, mixing in standard “classical” themes with folk-like tunes, whether in his Slavonic Dances (which Brahms had already done in his Hungarian Dances) or incorporated into the whole fabric of his chamber music like the Dumky Trio or the Piano Quintet (and which Brahms also did, in his own way, in the “gypsy finales” of, say, his G Minor Piano Quartet or the Violin Concerto)?

In the slow, bluesy second movement, reflections of Brahms' A Major Violin Sonata, of Gershwin's “Summertime,” maybe of “Bali Ha'i” from South Pacific and a few other tunes all float around in the not-quite-foreground of your mind as you listen to Schoenfield's music unfold.

Schoenfield might even be borrowing, intentionally or not – though he did play the Ives trio (see the end of the previous post for a post-Café Music recording of it) – from Ives' tumultuous cacophony to suggest the overflowing camaraderie that evokes a happy night-on-the-town. On occasion patrons might hum along (you can certainly imagine them tapping their toes) and perhaps have a little too much to drink (or is it the musicians?) as the music, especially in the last movement, starts to veer off in written-out miscalculations, a few wrong-notes, a slip-shod modulation (whoops) here and maybe even some memory slips, there. A brief passage in the last movement (12:50-13:05) sounds like it might break into a “fugue” but is really more like three musicians trying to figure out where the hell they are (one could imagine Ives himself smiling mischievously at that one).

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Born in Detroit in 1947, Paul Schoenfield seems to have pursued the standard route of musical training most performing composers take: Bachelor's, Master's, DMA. He taught in Toledo, OH, but then he moved to a kibbutz in Israel where for a few years he taught mathematics to high-school students. Returning to the United States, he became a free-lance composer and pianist in the Minneapolis area and then returned to Israel, living in a town near Haifa.

Though he has written an impressive list of works, he said, after he gave up performing, “I don’t consider myself an art-music composer at all. The reason my works sometimes find their way into concert halls is at this juncture, there aren’t many folk music performers with enough technique, time or desire to perform my music. They usually write their own anyway.”

I admit Café Music is the only work by Paul Schoenfield I'm familiar with, but in tooling around the internet, looking for some biographical information on him, I found this, from an article by Neil W. Levin you can read in its entirety at the Milken Archive, here:

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'Schoenfield has been compared with Gershwin, and one writer has asserted that his works “do for Hassidic music what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango.” Although he has stated, “I don’t deserve the credit for writing music—only God deserves the credit, and I would say this even if I weren’t religious,” his inspiration has been ascribed to a wide range of musical experience: popular styles both American and foreign, vernacular and folk traditions, and the “normal” historical traditions of cultivated music making, often treated with sly twists. In a single piece he frequently combines ideas that evolved in entirely different worlds, delighting in the surprises elicited by their interaction. This, as Schoenfield has proclaimed, “is not the kind of music for relaxation, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but the audience.”
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In 1990, he composed a Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano for clarinetist David Shifrin, realizing his long-standing desire “to create entertaining music that could be played at Hassidic gatherings as well as in the concert hall. ...Each of the movements is based partly on an eastern European Hassidic melody.” Listen to the first movement, “Freylakh,” here.

When Schoenfield was presented with the Cleveland Arts Prize's Music Award in 1994, music commentator Klaus George Roy said:

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'Paul Schoenfield writes the kind of inclusive and welcoming music that gives eclecticism a good name. In the tradition of Bach, who never left German soil but wrote French suites, English suites and Italian concertos, and in the tradition of Bartók, who absorbed and transformed not only Hungarian music, but that of Romania, Bulgaria and North Africa, Paul draws on many ethnic sources in music, assimilating them into his own distinctive language. As Donald Rosenberg wrote in the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, reviewing Paul’s recent and nationally cheered compact disc recording of three concertos, “the composer’s grasp of music history joins hands with popular and folk traditions of America and beyond. This is cross-over art achieved with seamless craftsmanship.”

If Paul considers himself essentially a folk musician, it is surely a highly sophisticated one. His rich and multi-branched musical tree grows from strong and well-nourished roots. What he communicates to us is marked by exuberant humor and spontaneous freshness, however arduous the process of composition may actually have been. His work rises from and returns to those fundamental wellsprings of song and dance, of lyricism and physical motion, and often of worshipful joy, that have always been the hallmarks of genuine musical creativity.'
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Among other works of his you could check out are his “Camp Songs,” settings of poetry written in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 (I'm unable to locate any audio clips on-line) and the 1st Movement of his Viola Concerto from 1998. 

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New England Summer: Charles Ives' Piano Trio

Before there was LOL, IMHO, and TTYL, there was TSIAJ.

And for those of you who thought you were familiar with internet acronyms, that one dates back to at least 1904, possibly earlier, and is the creation of a recent college grad named Charles Edward Ives. He applied it to what became the middle movement of his Piano Trio and it means “This Scherzo Is A Joke.”

Star Athlete, Charlie Ives (l.)
(BTW, for anyone not in on the joke, scherzo is the Italian word for what is usually a light-hearted movement in symphonies and sonatas that composers of all nationalities have used since around 1800 and which means, quite literally, “joke”.)

But we'll get to that in a minute.

FWIW, this is the second post about Market Square Concerts' Summermusic series which gets underway on Friday at 8:00 at the air-conditioned Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. It's a program of piano trios by American composers performed by the West Garden Trio, in residence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but on the road this week (because who wouldn't want to get out of Washington once in a while, after all?).

These include the trio Leonard Bernstein composed when he was a 19-year-old student at Harvard and a trio inspired by the 24/7 lifestyle of NYC that Kenji Bunch wrote in 2002 and called Swing Shift, dedicated to “anyone whose business stays open all night.”

(ICYMI, you can read the first post – about the Bernstein and Kenji Bunch trios – here and the third post about Paul Schoenfield's Café Music, here. You can also read about the second program with its Latin American guitar duos here; and eventually the third and final concert with two Russian piano quintets, as well.)

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Charles Ives, Yale Senior
This post is about Charles Ives' Piano Trio and while he started work on it in 1904, it's quite possible it began as a set of short works – at least the famous (or infamous) second movement – written when he was still at Yale where he graduated Class of 1898. (And yes, he was a BMOC but not as a musician or composer, nor as a scholar, but as the pitcher for the Yale baseball team - the photo above was actually taken the year his grammar school team beat the Yale freshman team but then that fall, Charlie Ives was a Yale freshman!).

We don't know how much of the trio he actually composed by 1904 since he often sketched some ideas, put them aside, came back to them later, fiddled around with them some more. It's not uncommon for Ives to take old pieces of his and incorporate them into something new: the 1st String Quartet is in fact made up from three previously existing hymn settings for organ and strings. So who knows what the trio might have looked like when he “finished” it in 1910 or so is anybody's guess, and how much he revised it by 1915 or so is another “unanswerable question.”

Still (typical with Ives), it wasn't given its first public performance until 1948 at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio (though Ives vaguely remembers a private performance of the TSIAJ movement, having since misplaced the program note he had written for the occasion). Given that history, the work wasn't published until 1955. The composer had died the year before, never having heard the piece performed in public.

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There's probably no more American a composer than Charles Ives, born in Danbury CT in 1874, and who studied at Yale with one of the stalwarts of the New England School of Composers, Horatio Parker. Some have considered him a “primitive” – untrained – because of the... well, frankly inexplicable things he was coming up with: who could have written anything like that, his colleagues must have wondered if they heard any of these pieces. It's true Ives was experimenting with things in 1905 that Arnold Schoenberg didn't “invent” until 1921 or so, but in addition to being a stubborn Yankee, Ives was also something of a visionary who had little patience for “the little old ladies of both sexes” who didn't have the ability (or willingness) to understand his music.

(This helps explain why so little of his music was performed or published in his day, but I'll get to that a little later.)

But he was far from “untrained” or an amateur, even though his own teacher may have chalked Charlie Ives off as one of those students you just never get through to. A star baseball player as a grammar school and college student, nobody took his interest in music too seriously – except his father, a Civil War bandmaster who taught him how to “stretch his ears” by teaching him how to sing in one key and play the accompaniment in another; how to conduct one meter in one hand and a different meter in the other; how one could notate the sound of hearing two brass bands marching down the street in different directions, playing different tunes in different keys, meters, and tempos. But unfortunately, shortly after Charlie'd gotten himself settled at Yale, word arrived his father had died.

What Charles Ives was was determined. Yes, he composed some pieces for his composition lessons that would appease the old-fashioned sense of what he was expected to learn – he'd written on one of his assignments, “Organ Fugue for Prof. H.W. Parker, a stupid fugue on a stupid subject” – and then there were things like his setting of Psalm 67 (originally dating from 1894, even before he went to Yale, but finalized in 1898, his senior year) in which the women sing in C Major and the men in G Minor, often creating amazing dissonances that few people would not have thought more than just “wrong notes” (though Jan Swafford, in his highly recommendable biography of Ives, describes the psalm's effect as “a cosmic barbershop choir”). His father had tried it out and thought highly of it; his teacher, not so much...

I'll offer one frequently mentioned quote from the mature Ives (writing in 1920) which may set the stage (if not the unacquainted ears) for the experience of hearing his Piano Trio, especially if it's your first time:

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“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.”
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And so we come to the Piano Trio Charles Ives may have begun as a college student in 1896 but certainly worked on and revised until he was 40 years old.

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Ives' original sketch for the Piano Trio's 1st movement
The opening movement's initial sketch consists of a single page (above: a photostat copy of the original manuscript, posted on-line courtesy of the Charles Ives Collection of Yale University's Music Library).

When you listen to the music, you'll hear it begins with the cello and the piano playing only with the right hand which sounds like a “first theme.” This is then followed (at 2:14 in the clip below) by a passage that could be a “second theme” with the violin and the piano playing only with the left hand. It isn't until they start playing together – violin, cello, and both hands of the piano (at 4:00) – that we realize we are now hearing the cello and right hand phrase being played simultaneously with the violin and left hand phrase! And they do not sound in the least bit arbitrary (at least to someone familiar enough with Charles Ives' music). (Talk about “learn your counterpoint, boy!”)

Ives: Piano Trio – 1st Movement (Moderato) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

This brief and rather stentorian introduction sets up the second movement in much the way a philosophical discussion might be answered by the students' less than serious responses. In traditional musical terms, it might be called a quodlibet; today, we'd refer to it as a “mash-up.”

As Ives' wife, Harmony – yes, her name was Harmony Twitchell – wrote in 1948 in response to a request for program notes for the trio's belated premiere,

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“...the Trio was, in a general way, a kind of reflection or impression of his college days on the Campus now 50 years ago. The 1st Movement recalled a rather short but serious talk, to those on the Yale fence, by an old professor of Philosophy – the 2nd, the games and antics by the Students on the Campus, on a Holiday afternoon, and some of the tunes and songs of those days were partly suggested in this movement, sometimes in a rough way.”
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In the manuscript, he had subtitled TSIAJ as “Medley on the Campus Fence.” In fact, Ives described the entire Trio on its title page as

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"Trio Yalensia & Americana - for Violin Cello Piano - Fancy Names" 
"Real Names = Yankee jaws - at Mr. (or Eli) Yale's School for nice bad boys!!"
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It is fun, of course, to play “name that tune” with so much of Ives' music since he frequently quotes or suggests “pre-existing” material – in this case, popular songs of the day – the way other composers would quote folk songs. One could mention “Marching Through Georgia,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” the “Pig Town Fling,” “Sweet By and By,” and “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” As most student parties go, it is a rowdy event and, musically – certainly to the genteel listeners of Ives' day – sheer, maddening chaos! Not to mention, then, that nose-thumbing cadence at the end with its chuckle of a dominant-to-tonic chord (after all that!)...

Here is a live (and lively) performance by a no doubt ad hoc ensemble called the TSIAJ Trio with violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell (now a member of the JACK Quartet with its own acronymic title) and pianist Conrad Tao:

Ives: Piano Trio – 2nd Movement (TSIAJ) – Presto

In later years, the composer recalled (in a collection of Memos quoted by Jan Swafford) how these “serendipitous quodlibets” came about:

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“While in college, some things were written and played by the Hyperion Theater Orchestra... Some had old tunes, college songs, hymns etc – sometimes putting these themes or songs together in two or three differently keyed counterpoints (not exactly planned so but just played so) – and sometimes two or three different kinds of time [meter, like ¾ or 4/4] and off-tunes, played sometimes impromptu [presumably throwing in your own spontaneous mistakes]. ...The pianist (who was I, sometimes) played his part regardless of the off-keys and the off-counterpoints, but giving the cue for the impromptu counterpoint parts etc. … Some similar things were tried in the [fraternity] shows but not very successfully as I remember … – though Prof. Fichtl, in the theater orchestra, would get students in the audience whistling and beating time (sometimes) to the off-key and off-time tunes.”
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It is also interesting that, while the manuscript bears the inscription TSIAJ, his wife mentioned in her note for the premiere in 1948, “he isn't quite sure about the TSIAJ over the 2nd movement – he thinks it hardly anything but a poor joke...”

Subsequently, the longer third movement comes like an atonement, “partly a remembrance of a Sunday service on the campus – Dwight Hall – which ended near the 'Rock of Ages.'” There are moments of sheer Romanticism that would remind one of Schumann (and at one point, I can almost hear Tchaikovsky - for instance, at 6:44 into the clip below) that, then, suddenly veers off into harmony neither Schumann nor Tchaikovsky could ever even have imagined, but all with a kind of beatific fervency about it – until we get to “Rock of Ages” (at 10:28)  which (too soon) concludes the trio in a mood of utter transcendence, complete with the distant tolling of bells and echoing overtones.

Ives: Piano Trio – 3rd Movement (Moderato con moto) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

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It is interesting to recall one unexpected glimmer of support in the career of a composer who gained little if any public recognition for his music.

As a student of Horatio Parker's, Ives was expected to take German poems that had been set to music by the likes of Schumann and Brahms – and so we have Charles Ives writing highly Romantic settings of “Ich grolle nicht” and “Feldeinsamkeit.”

George Whitefield Chadwick, one of the leading composers in America, teaching in Boston, and a former mentor of Parker's, had come to New Haven for a visit and Parker invited him to sit in on a composition class. After hearing these two songs Ives had composed for this assignment, Parker said he preferred “Ich grolle nicht” since it was closer to the Schumann model; he didn't care much for “Feldeinsamkeit” which he thought “modulated too much.” (Swafford calls “Ich grolle nicht” by comparison “a stodgy song.”)

Chadwick, however, said he preferred “Feldeinsamkeit”: “The melodic line has a natural continuity – it flows – and stops when [rounded out] as only good songs do... In its way, it's almost as good as Brahms.” Then, winking at Parker, he added “That's as good a song as you could write.”

Granted, these are overly Romantic pastiches, but one could imagine how a college senior, soon to be thrust into the wider world, must have responded to that bit of an endorsement! True, both Parker and Chadwick would have fainted dead away had they heard any of those “theater orchestra medleys” like the one that turned into the Piano Trio's TSIAJ movement. As it was, Parker had an already low opinion of Ives' penchant for quoting hymn tunes since he already considered the hymns of Lowell Mason “vulgarity tempered by incompetency” and railed how they “had no place in music” – “Imagine,” he once lectured, “in a symphony hearing suggestions of street tunes like 'Marching Through Georgia' or a Moody and Sankey hymn!”

Instead of going to Germany to finish his studies as Parker suggested, Ives got a job as a church organist in New Jersey within commuting distance of Manhattan where he and several of his Yale friends rented an apartment, and he found work as a clerk in a Mutual Life Insurance office. Later, he and a friend would form their own insurance company and become successful businessmen as a result.

The details of Ives' musical career – or, rather, the lack of it – is a sad but complicated story, surprising only from the respect his music has earned him posthumously, something that would no doubt flabbergast him, if he knew. So many respected musicians refused to consider what he wrote music – one, the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic who claimed he was a friend of Richard Strauss (and therefore well attuned to “contemporary music”), ran out of the house practically screaming after looking at two of Ives' violin sonatas.

What could've been a big break almost came in 1911 – Ives was then in his mid-30s – when Gustav Mahler, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, accidentally noticed a manuscript copy of Ives' rather tame 3rd Symphony and took it with him back to Europe, intending to perform it. Unfortunately, Mahler died soon after he returned, before that ever came about: imagine what might have happened if Ives had found a champion in a conductor like Mahler?

Charles Ives, 1942
(This photograph, perhaps the most famous image of Charles Ives, then 68, was taken in 1942 by Eugene Smith. Initially, Ives was "terrified" of Smith's camera. Grandson Charles Ives Tyler said "that's the way he looked when he was getting ready to play a joke on someone.")

Considering the melee of popular tunes in Ives' scherzo, I thought it might be interesting to offer this performance of the complete trio, since the work to conclude this concert of American piano trios is Paul Schoenfield's “Café Music,” which I'll save for the next post. Schoenfield's title basically explains all you need to know to enjoy his lively piece, written in 1987, and inspired by his turn as a substitute “house pianist” playing at Murray's Steak House in Minneapolis.

Here, then, is Ives' Trio, recorded live in 1989 with the Gabrielli Trio, consisting of violinist Andrew Jennings, cellist Michael Haber, and... pianist Paul Schoenfield!


- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Summertime: Let the Music Begin

Who: (1.) The West Garden Trio;
(2.) The Brasil Guitar Duo;
(3.) Stuart Malina, Ya-Ting Chang, Peter Sirotin, Blanka Bednarz, Michael Stepniak, and Fiona Thompson
What: (1.) American Piano Trios by Leonard Bernstein, Kenji Bunch, Charles Ives and Paul Schoenfield;
(2.) Latin American Guitar Duos by Astor Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer, Egberto Gismonti and others;
(3.) Russian Piano Quintets by Alexander Borodin and Sergei Taneyev
When: (1.) Friday, July 21st, 8pm;
(2.) Sunday, July 23rd, 4pm;
(3.) Wednesday, July 26th, 7:30pm
Where: (1., 2., & 3.) Market Square Church (where it's air-conditioned!) in downtown Harrisburg.

Summermusic 2017 is a three-day musical journey – suitable for a summer holiday – through piano trios by American composers for the first program; then Latin American composers' guitar duos from Cuba, Argentina and, mostly, Brazil; and then two Russian piano quintets by composers not known for their chamber music (or, in Sergei Taneyev's case, not known at all, mostly, at least in this country). So not only is it a musically entertaining journey, it can also be a journey of discovery. Some of the names may be familiar – certainly, Bernstein, Borodin and Astor Piazzolla – but the music you'll hear by them may not be. And so our musical cruise becomes a chance to both explore and enjoy the familiar and the unfamiliar.

To begin with – a very good place to start – we have the West Garden Trio who are the resident ensemble for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where they've been performing thematic programs for exhibits and special events at the gallery since they were formed nine years ago.

The first of my posts about these concerts covers the first half of Friday night's program which will also feature Charles Ives' Piano Trio and the more familiar Café Music of Paul Schoenfield on the second half. (You can read about the Ives Trio here; and Café Music, here.) 

And so let's start with piano trios by a young Leonard Bernstein and a then almost 30-something Kenji Bunch, a name probably less familiar to you but one who is as attuned to his own time as Bernstein was to his.

(For subsequent programs, you can read about Sunday's Latin American Guitar Duo Program, here and - eventually - the Russian Piano Quintet program as well.)

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With the Bernstein Centennial next year (officially – he was born Aug 25th, 1918), it's always interesting to dig into “where that talent came from” as we listen to those mature, famous works everybody knows, as diverse as West Side Story, Candide, and the Chichester Psalms and maybe a few not so well known like his three symphonies (I have an especial fondness for the Third, the “Kaddish” Symphony) or the magnificent Serenade based on Plato's Symposium (a violin concerto in all but name). Of course, to a certain generation, he was The Conductor and, especially through his Young Persons' Concerts, The Music Educator par excellence who'd introduced so many children into the mysteries of the concert hall. In addition to also being a pianist, Bernstein was the closest thing classical music in this country ever had to A Celebrity.

Bernstein, graduating from Harvard
This piano trio is an early work, composed by a 19-year-old student then studying at Harvard and learning his craft from Walter Piston (who himself learned the rigors of compositional technique from Nadia Boulanger in Paris). As students should be doing, he explored and absorbed much of what's out there to find what stylistically might become a comfortable fit and eventually to discard what might not. There are times when this trio sounds very academic – “learn your counterpoint, boy” – and other times when you can hear the future composer not that far away (especially in the last movement – I'm thinking particularly of the phrases you can hear around 12:50 and 13:48 into the clip below).

There are three movements. The first opens with a slow introduction pitting string counterpoint against a soulful but chordal piano solo before he attempts to develop this material into a traditional sonata form. The second movement is a set of variations on a quirky march (thinking that the mature Bernstein would write much that could be described as quirky) which might bring Shostakovich to mind, but remember, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony was written the same year Bernstein wrote his trio and hadn't been premiered by then. After an introduction that sounds like it's going to rehash the 1st movement (but then, didn't Beethoven do the same thing a few times?), he launches into a dance-like finale that borrows from folk and especially Jewish motives (again, there's Shostakovich, but his E Minor Piano Trio and the horrors of the war that inspired it were a few years into the future). There is a distinctly Russian sound to one theme which might, consciously or not, be borrowed from his parents' reminiscences of the world they'd left behind – the western region of modern-day Ukraine – before coming to America and settling in the Boston area where their son would become a part of that great cultural melting pot that was America in the 20th Century.

Here's the Australian Piano Trio in the performance of Bernstein's Piano Trio from 1937:

Frankly, I doubt this work would be played much if it weren't by the young man who grew up to become Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important and influential musicians on the American Scene in the 20th Century. He was, if anything, an eclectic composer who absorbed so many influences he was perfectly comfortable writing music that hardly seems “classical” at all – West Side Story or On the Town, for instance – and yet, later in his career, would sacrifice this natural sincerity heard in so much of his “pop” side for the “serious,” often overly-complicated music he composed later in his career, like his “Jubilee Games” (a.k.a. the “Concerto for Orchestra”) which led to increasing disappointment when, for all his talent both as composer and conductor, he could never quite fit in with “the big boys” he so often tried to champion. But that, in itself, is another story entirely and years away from the teenager's curiosity you can easily hear in this piano trio.

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When Aaron Copland started including jazz influences in his music in the 1920s-and-30s, it was considered “daring” and “controversial.” Leonard Bernstein, of course, included jazz as just another part of the palette of influences he could choose from, just as he chose from his Jewish heritage and the pop-world of 1950s rock-n-roll. Today, these pieces might be considered “cross-over” if they didn't seem so much a part of our mainstream classical vocabulary.

And so, with all the different “types” of pop music available these days, it's no wonder younger composers who grew up in the late-20th Century have such an eclectic style, able to borrow – guilt-free – from Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th Century to today's concept of World Music, all of which, for all its nine centuries of history, has more in common with modern New Age music and minimalism than the standard classical fare, the “bread-and-butter” of Classical Music from the 1700s to the 20th Century. It's all fair game to a composer creating new music in this new century – and millennium – we're still getting used to.

Kenji Bunch, now in his mid-40s, may well be the “new guy” to the audience here, though he's written a good deal of music that has been widely acclaimed. Born in 1973 in Portland, Oregon, after growing up in the Portland Youth Orchestra, he attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York and earned masters degrees in 1997 in both viola performance and composition. It was his experience as a new New Yorker that lead to the work commissioned for the Ahn Trio five years later.

Kenji Bunch & Coffee
“I’ve never been a night owl,” Bunch wrote about Swing Shift, “but living in New York City seems to encourage everyone to stay awake a few hours longer. The music of Swing Shift is an attempt to capture the unique essence of the city at her most exciting time of day — the hours between dusk and dawn. This is the New York of Edward Hopper’s collective loneliness: smoky clubs, the reflection of streetlights on rain-soaked pavements. It is dedicated to anyone whose business stays open all night.” Originally conceived for a dance work with original choreography, he later reworked the music into a concert suite in six movements “played for the most part without pause.”

Here is the Ahn Trio's recording of Kenji Bunch's Swing Shift – unfortunately, they couldn't post it as a single clip, so here is the entire piece “on the installment plan,” one after the other!
#1. Prelude

#2. Night Flight

#3. Interhour

#4. Club Crawl

#5. Magic Hour

#6. Grooveboxes

It's interesting to note that when Bunch returned to his hometown where he currently teaches both viola and composition (and is the resident theory teacher for the Portland Youth Orchestra), the youth orchestra premiered his work entitled “For Our Children's Children” and then he joined the younger members of the orchestra for a performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, the work he played with them as a child which inspired him to become a composer.

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While there is much talk about “Made in America,” make no mistake that this program is all about American Music. I remember growing up with much discussion in classical music circles about “What Is American Music?” The popular sentiment seemed to side with Aaron Copland who used American folk-songs in his most famous works and who single-handedly created what we call “that American sound” of open harmony with its sense of simplicity and expansiveness. Or George Gershwin, whose music is strongly influenced by jazz (or is it “jazz music strongly influenced by classical”?). And Leonard Bernstein whose West Side Story is certainly an American work even if it's based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In fact, today, you can hear “All-American Programs,” especially those broadcast on PBS, who rarely get beyond those three composers.

And yet Elliott Carter, a native New Yorker, whose complex music with its complicated rhythms, layers of tempo, and its “non-tonal harmonies” is certainly an American style, one (actually) of many, adapting for his own uses the complexities of “serious” European composers. What were the 19th Century American composers like John Knowles Paine or Horatio Parker but composers who studied in Europe and adapted for their own uses the complexities (as they were perceived in those days) of no less serious a composer than Brahms?

Antonin Dvořák lived here for only a few years but wrote his “New World” Symphony here, a work that appears on “All-American Programs” because he had told his students to build their voices on “American folk-songs” without being able to define what exactly an American folk-song was, even if the ones he wrote for his last symphony sound more like songs and dances from his native Bohemia.

Was being IN America sufficient to BE American? Would that make composers displaced by events in Europe like Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Schoenberg or Bartók “American composers” after they found a new home here?

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but his parents had come over from Russia before the 1st World War (or, for Russia, more importantly, the turmoil leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution). Kenji Bunch was born in Portland, Oregon, but explains (when asked) that his mother was Japanese (Kenji is a Japanese name) and his father was of English/Scots ancestry (asked if that meant he speaks Japanese, he says “no, but I'm fluent in half-Japanese”).

It is the American Experience that inspired the music on our first program and nothing can be 'more American' than the Yankee Charles Ives with his hymn tunes and patriotic songs, listening to the New England world around him and absorbing this into something we now call “Ivesian.”

And now, on to the Ives Piano Trio - and Paul Schoenfield's Café Music as well as the rest of the Summermusic concerts - in subsequent posts.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Verona Quartet & Daniel Hsu: A Piano Quintet by Cesar Franck, Recovering Composer

Who: The Verona Quartet and pianist Daniel Hsu
What: Beethoven (Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op.110; String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2) and Cesar Franck (Piano Quintet in F Minor)
When: Wednesday, May 3rd, 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church
Why: With Beethoven on the first half of the program, there's a rarely heard work by Cesar Franck, his hyper-romantic Quintet, to conclude the 35th Anniversary Season of Market Square Concerts.

(You can read the earlier posts about Beethoven: The Piano Sonata, Op. 110  and The String Quartet, Op. 59/2, and also here)

There seem to be only a handful of Piano Quintets – the Usual Suspects, the ones most frequently heard, are the ones by Brahms and Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich. But on the periphery of audience awareness is the one by Cesar Franck, perhaps a distant fifth to that august group. You may have heard another even less familiar piano quintet – the one by Edward Elgar – at last summer's Market Square Concerts Summermusic.

So what is a “piano quintet”? Technically, it would be any group of five instruments of which one is a piano – as opposed to the rather cumbersome gathering of five pianists. Before 1800, both Mozart and Beethoven wrote quintets for piano and winds, but not one with strings.

And the most popular quintet with a piano in it is the one Franz Schubert wrote for some amateur musician-friends, the one known as the “Trout” Quintet. But technically we don't consider that a "piano quintet" as it's more of a "quintet for piano and strings" - not a string quartet but a violin, a viola, a cello and, rather out of the usual configuration, a double bass.

You see, sometime in the 1840s, Robert Schumann's recently published piano quintet solidified the definition as “a work for piano and string quartet.” Schumann's wasn't really the first, but let's say it was the first one to go on to win fame and fortune and to inspire Brahms and then Dvořák to compose their own.

A nephew of Prussian king Frederick the Great (himself a composer), Prince Louis Ferdinand was a soldier as well as a musician, a highly-acclaimed pianist and a composer who published a Piano Quintet in 1803, three years before his death on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars. However, one could claim it never became part of the repertoire (we assume, today) and never had a chance to inspire future generations.

On the other hand, one could point to Luigi Boccherini's six piano quintets, presumably composed in 1799 and, given Boccherini's role as a then-former court composer and cellist in Spain who counted King Friederich Wilhelm II (Frederick the Great's brother and successor, who also played the cello) as one of his patrons, it's possible Prince Louis was familiar with Boccherini's quintets despite their not having been officially published until 1820.

But Prince Louis was not unknown in musical circles: let it suffice to say Beethoven dedicated his 3rd Piano Concerto – the C Minor of 1803 – to Prince Louis Ferdinand, and Anton Reicha, a friend from Beethoven's youth in Bonn who himself went off to Paris to become a leading composer and teacher, wrote a massive set of piano variations specifically for Prince Louis.

And so, by circuitous connections, we come to Cesar Franck.

The great organist and composer we know of late-19th Century France was born in 1822 (Beethoven had just published his Piano Sonata Op. 110 in January of that year). He went to Paris as a child where he studied counterpoint with Anton Reicha.

Now, Kevin Bacon aside, I'm not sure how many degrees of separation that really is from Beethoven or Louis Ferdinand to Franck but other than a curious coincidence of the entanglements one frequently finds in music history, it has nothing to do with the F Minor Piano Quintet Cesar Franck completed in 1879.

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Franck's Piano Quintet is in three movement, omitting the scherzo of the standard four-movement format. But the number of movements isn't so much the point. It's more a question of balance and contrast and one of the key features of multi-movement instrumental forms, regardless of the medium it's written for – orchestra or chamber music – is how to achieve some kind of unity while creating sufficient variety to keep you interested.

Beethoven's solution to this in his 5th Symphony is to reintroduce that famous rhythmic pattern of the first movement's “fate-knocks-at-the-door” motive in the transition between the 3rd and 4th movements (the fact the two movements are connected without a break is no minor coincidence, either). In the Op.106 Sonata, the Hammerklavier, he begins the finale with improvisatory reminiscences of earlier themes from the other movements before deciding how to start the last movement, something he does more famously (and dramatically) at the start of the finale of his 9th Symphony, before ushering in the “Ode to Joy” Theme.

Franz Liszt's solution was to have every theme, no matter how much contrast there was between them, all based on a motive heard at the opening of the piece, something he used in some of his tone-poems like Les Preludes and in his Piano Sonata. This is known as “thematic transformation” and goes far beyond the idea of a composer developing a theme by tearing it apart and playing fragments against each other.

What Franck does is to take a particular and generally memorable theme and use it, often without changing it at all, in each movement, usually at some climactic point near the end of the movement. This gives the listener some sense of recognition – the perception of a work's form is, after all, based on memory – and a connection with something heard before. He does this not only in the Quintet, but also the Violin Sonata and the Symphony in D Minor.

If you don't think this works, go see a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Here are two complete performances of the Franck Quintet for you: the first is with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (if you like watching live performers); the second is the Schubert Society of London but with the score of the piece coordinated with the music (for those of you who enjoy following along).

Either way, listen for the Big Tune which first appears at 5:48 in the “live” version (4:42 in the “score” version); in the 2nd Movement at 22:33 (or 21:32); and, coming back like an old friend near the end of the last movement, at 35:41 (or 34:14).

While Franck's sense of tonality – still clear in Beethoven's Quartet and becoming a little ambiguous in the Sonata – is almost lost in a sea of “chromaticism,” that ability for almost any chord to shift ever so slightly and veer off into distant tonal realms, it is the harmonic tension he creates in his drive to resolve the tension and his use of the themes in this piece, in particular this recurring theme that breaks the boundaries of time and form, that gives the listener, frankly (no pun intended) something to hang on to.

Not that you need a third performance, but I highly recommend this 1986 video with the great Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, an amazing performance (even if the sound quality here is lacking a bit) with an edge that makes this sense of “tension and release” even more intense. Listen at least to the end of the 1st Movement and how that Big Tune helps drive the harmony home, beginning at 13:06. Notice how many times it begins to build, then falls back, until it finally collapses at 15:53 just before the end? You can't do that if you don't know what you're doing!

(Small world: Peter Sirotin tells me Richter's page-turner for this performance was a class-mate of his at the Moscow Conservatory, speaking of degrees of separation!)

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One of the first times I encountered the Franck Quintet live, the program notes said it was “an early piece.” Which made me attempt some mental math, always a risk sitting in a concert hall: Written in 1879, born in 1822 (okay, December of 1822), so how early could this be?

That would mean he was 56 when he composed it. How can that be “early”? Had he died at the age Beethoven died, it would've been his last piece – and we wouldn't know the tone-poem Le chausseur maudit (“The Accursed Hunstman”) (finished in 1882); the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1885); the A Major Violin Sonata (1886), his most popular work; and his Symphony in D Minor (1887-1888), his most acclaimed work. Not long after completing a large-scale if rarely heard String Quartet and writing his “Three Chorales,” a staple of the organist's repertoire, he died in 1890, a month before his 68th birthday.

But “early” is semi-accurate, here, not really an alternative fact. Franck was never the most secure composer in the world of classical music, after a failed career in the prodigy market, both as concert pianist and composer. Despite some success with his first published pieces, a set of Piano Trios written when he was in his late-teens that garnered the praise of no less than Franz Liszt, and more set-backs with some attempted operas in his mid-20s (having outgrown his prodigyhood), he was not really sure what he might pursue as a career, so he decided to focus on becoming an organist.

In this role, he became known as a teacher and an expert improviser (his improvisations at the conclusion of a service often became a reason music-lovers started flocking to his church), plus a champion of a new model of the pipe organ. He wrote choral music for the services – not meant to be artistic but practical – and we have this to thank for one of his most famous chestnuts, the Panis Angelicus.

Working and teaching in relative obscurity, suddenly other musicians began taking note of him and, during the nationalistic concerns about French art during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the fall of Napoleon III's empire, Franck's early Op. 1 Trio was performed again in Paris (ironically after having been performed across Germany by the great German conductor and Friend-of-Brahms, Hans von Bülow) and he found himself appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire which once would not admit him initially because he was an immigrant (born in what is now Belgium).

In the early-1870s, then, he began composing again – more full-scale "professional" choral works and operas, primarily, as well as organ works. In 1874, he heard for the first time the prelude to Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde which influenced the evolution of his chromatic harmonic language. He spent years working on a “monumental oratorio,” The Beatitudes, which he didn't finish until July, 1879, and then he finished his Piano Quintet, his first piece of chamber music since 1844, 35 years earlier!

For the premiere, the presenter somehow engaged the composer, organist, and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns which, looking back on it from the 21st Century, would seem logical – two of the greatest names in French music at the time, right?

But as far as Saint-Saëns was concerned, and indeed most of the musical establishment, Franck was not only not an important composer, he was an avant-garde composer – horrors! – writing in a chromatic Wagnerian style antithetical to Saint-Saëns' love of Mozart and Beethoven (despite the bombastic nature of some of his “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saëns was above all a classicist at heart). What could be further from what he considered the Artistic Truth than this dense, emotional, aimless chromatic floundering – he considered it “erotic” which wasn't helped by the scandal associated with Franck's having an affair with one of his students (Saint-Saëns' own lifestyle, aside) – but for some reason, he accepted the invitation to play the work.

And play it brilliantly. The composer was delighted even if the pianist apparently detested it. There are two stories associated with this premiere, and both of them can't be true. It was noted that at the end of the performance, Saint-Saëns left the stage (the implication was “in a hurry” as if not bowing), leaving the score open on the piano's music rack, a gesture usually associated with disdain for the piece. The other story was, after the concert, Franck wrote an effusive dedication “to my good friend, Camille Saint-Saëns” on the copy of the score the composer proudly handed him and which the pianist left behind in the Green Room before leaving the concert hall without a word.

But yet Saint-Saëns had the professionalism to give the piece a committed performance, and probably one of the best performances Franck ever had the opportunity to experience. More typical of his experience was a rehearsal of his tone-poem, Les Djinns in 1884, where the conductor turned to Franck at one point and asked “Does it please you?” to which the composer responded he was indeed very pleased. The conductor turned back to the orchestra and said “It's all frightful music, gentlemen, but we'll go on anyway.”

He had been awarded the Legion of Honor in 1885, a very distinguished award for an artist, but not because of his compositions: because he was an acclaimed teacher (and it would be his students who would have the most impact on French music, far more than his music had in his lifetime).

The premiere of the symphony in 1889 was a disaster (and a scandal). No less than Charles Gounod told people after the concert it was “the affirmation of incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths.” Another critic told a friend dismissively, “Who is Professor Franck? An organ professor, I believe.”

His one true popular success – both in terms of the performance and the audience reaction – was the premiere of his String Quartet in D Major in April of 1890. The acclaim was so great, the National Society that presented it had to schedule an additional performance the following month. Finally, Franck's friends thought, he had “arrived.”

In July, just a few months later, he was riding in a horse-drawn cab to give a lesson at the home of one of his students when the cab was struck by what is usually described as “an autobus” but in the days before cars and buses roamed the streets of Paris, this was more likely a horse-drawn trolley. Regardless, the accident was unnerving but not life-threatening, even though, once he reached his student's home, he fainted, refusing any medical attention. Later, however, he found walking had become painful and he then had to take a kind of sick-leave from his lessons, spending the summer at a country town outside Paris where he completed his Three Chorales for organ. When he returned to teaching in Paris, he caught a cold in October which then, in his weakened condition, developed into pleurisy with further complications. Things deteriorated rapidly and he died on November 8th, as I said, a month before his 68th birthday.

Again, the usual story I have heard as a student and read as a concert-goer was that Franck was run-over by a bus shortly after the premiere of his Symphony. Not quite – but tragic enough in reality.

And still, one wonders where Franck's musical style might have led him if this Piano Quintet was his first major achievement in a long-delayed career, a late-bloomer at 56?

Dick Strawser

Monday, May 1, 2017

With Beethoven, from Verona: the 2nd Razumovsky

Beethoven in 1806
Who: The Verona Quartet and pianist Daniel Hsu
What: Beethoven (Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op.110; String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2) and Cesar Franck (Piano Quintet in F Minor)
When: Wednesday, May 3rd, 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church
Why: Beethoven! and a great Late-Romantic Piano Quintet (and there aren't many of those around - and this one's not heard all that often) plus it's the final concert of Market Square Concerts' 35th Anniversary Season.

(This post is about the Beethoven Quartet on the program. You can read about Beethoven's next-to-last Piano Sonata, here. And if you're wondering just what a Razumovsky is, you can find out here. There's also a post about the Franck Quintet, here.)

In Mozart and Haydn's day, it was typical for composers to produce sets of quartets usually six or maybe only three in a group (not to mention other kinds of works: even earlier, Baroque composers like Vivaldi published concertos and sonatas by the dozen). Each one was designed to be a different “solution” to the question “how many different ways can one solve the problem of writing a string quartet?” In 1800, former Haydn-student and fan of Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven published his first quartets, a set of six, and the reaction to them was quite favorable among Viennese music-lovers.

Sometime in 1805, then, Beethoven was asked to provide one of the great arts patrons of his day, the Russian ambassador to Imperial Vienna, Count Razumovsky, with a set of three new quartets - hence the quartets' nickname.

We don't know exactly when this request was made or if, as Beethoven wrote to his publisher in July of 1806, he'd already finished one of the three by then, but Jan Swafford, in his recent (and excellent) biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, mentions specifically he began work on them the day after his brother Carl's wedding to Johanna Reiss, a prophetic event considering how much time would be spent during what we call his "Late Period" dealing with the guardianship of the only child of that marriage following his brother's death in 1815.

(In fact, the three piano sonatas, Op.109, 110 and 111, were all begun around the time the legal issues were finally being resolved in the composer's favor - so there's an interesting "common chord" between the two pieces on the first half of the program.)

That would mean Beethoven composed all three of the Op. 59 quartets between May 26th and September 6th, 1806, when he again wrote to his publishers and said they were done.

While three months might seem sufficient time to write three string quartets, remember Beethoven was also composing the 4th Symphony (Op.60), the 4th Piano Concerto (Op.58) and the Violin Concerto (Op.61) during that same summer, not to mention revisions on his opera Leonore (not yet re-named Fidelio) complete with two new overtures for it (the 2nd & 3rd Leonore Overtures) and several other works including having finished the greatest of his piano sonatas to date, the Appassionata (Op.57), that same year! Any composer would be delighted to have produced such masterpieces during a lifetime – but in one year?

Part of the “premise” for the quartets was Razumovsky's request to include in each of them “a Russian theme.” Some say Beethoven suggested this as a tribute to his patron but it doesn't seem typical of Beethoven to offer such a “musical device.”

In the 2nd, Beethoven made use of an old folksong called “Slava!” (“Glory” or “Rejoice”) which has become more famous to Western ears through Mussorgsky's later using the same theme in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov, first composed in the late-1860s, where it doesn't stand out as a quotation. By that, I mean Mussorgsky's music is so authentically Russian, most Westerners wouldn't even realize this is an old folk-song.

After its famous opening bell sequence, the choral hymn "Slava" begins at 1:04 and concludes at 2:15. This excerpt is from a film of the opera with the National Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (of Washington DC) conducted by its then music director Mstislav Rostropovich whose nickname, by the way, was "Slava". (In this scene, Boris Godunov, here the only adult male without a beard, for some reason, is crowned Tsar of Russia following the death of Ivan the Terrible's son in 1598.)

With Beethoven, so authentically German, the sound of this Russian theme's incorporation within his style sticks out like a sore thumb and in fact the way he uses it, it almost sounds like he's deliberately having fun with it or even making fun of it, turning it into that most academic of formats and so antithetical to folk-song, the fugue – then especially, after forcing it into a canon, when the tonic/dominant cadence gets so carried away, it could almost sound like its beating up on this poor, defenseless tune and chasing it out the door before thinking better of it and relenting...

In this performance of the quartet's third movement by the Alban Berg Quartet, the "Slava" quotation - the scherzo's "trio" - begins at 1:51 until 3:15 when the opening section returns. "Slava" comes back for a second go-'round at 4:08 to 5:30.

Perhaps by the time he got to the 3rd Quartet, he'd thought, “enough.” There is no Russian folk-song quoted in the C Major Quartet.

There would be other Russian Themes however in his future, though correctly they are both Ukrainian in origin: there's the song known in Germany as Beautiful Minka (originally "The Cossack rode over the Danube") and a Ukrainian dance in the sets of "Variations on National Airs" originally for flute and piano which he worked on, believe it or not, simultaneously with the Hammerklavier, written for an English publisher interested in folk songs which appeared as Op. 107 in 1819. But of these, perhaps the less said the better: every composer needed to make some money.

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Here is a performance of the complete Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (known among friends as the "2nd Razumovsky") with the Dover Quartet - who performed Caroline Shaw, Smetana and Shostakovich for us at Temple Ohev Sholom just this past February - from their 2013 win at the Banff Competition:

There are the usual four standard movements, opening with a dramatic sonata-form movement which starts at 0:54.

The slow movement, which opens with a hymn-like theme, begins at 10:40. There is a story told by three separate friends of the composer's that the idea for this serene music came to him one night while gazing up at the stars, "contemplating the music of the spheres." True or not, it is certainly apt.

The contrasting scherzo begins at 23:55 (the "Slava" quote at 25:53); and the finale, then, at 31:07.

As one of the early reviews said, "Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended."

(For a more technical look at the quartet, see below.)

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Ignaz Schuppanzigh
These quartets were composed with specific players in mind: the members of a string quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, perhaps the best or at least the best known violinist in Vienna at the time. And this is an important distinction.

Before, Mozart or Haydn – or any number of those other composers the typical American audience is unaware of who were their contemporaries – wrote for what is called “the amateur market.” In the days before ipods and CD-players turning us into passive listeners, people were actively involved in making their own music and it was typical to assume the intended audience for a new string quartet was essentially the four people who played it and maybe their friends and family who sat in the parlor listening to them. (Think Schubert growing up in a household where his older brother played 1st Violin, he would play 2nd Violin and then Viola when another brother became proficient enough to play 2nd, and their father played Cello.)

Even given the level of playing available at a time before “amateur” became a pejorative term, how Beethoven wrote these new string quartets was something new. Not only was the playing level above the average amateur string-player, it required dedicated practice and rehearsal time and also expected more of its listeners. These were, essentially, the first professional string quartets on a “symphonic” scale – and intended for public performance.

And the level of technical challenge for the players led Schuppanzigh, on at least one occasion, to complain about a particular passage: “how do you expect me to play that?!”

While Beethoven's response is famous (and translated variously), we don't know what specific passage, much less piece, it was Schuppanzigh was referring to.

“What do I care for you and your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”

No aristocratically employed composer in Haydn's time would have gotten away with that...

The idea of “chamber music concerts” was also something new at the time. Before, an aristocrat might have some “house musicians” who would perform for their guests. Some even had “house orchestras” though now an orchestra like the one Haydn conducted at Prince Esterhazy's was a rare luxury: given the early-19th Century economy, it was more likely the musicians would double as house-servants and staff.

(Imagine the downstairs world of Downton Abbey doubling as a small orchestra to entertain at the Granthams' dinner-parties – what instruments, exactly, do you think Carson, Mrs. Padmore or Thomas might play?)

But Schuppanzigh had created a professional quartet in 1804 (the cellist had once been Haydn's principal cellist back in the day of Prince Esterhazy's employment) and though their public concert-series only lasted through 1808 – it is assumed (and it's odd no one knows this for sure) Beethoven's Op. 59 Quartets where first heard during their 1807-1808 Season – it was an important ground-breaking event in the evolution of “modern music.”

These works were not conceived as amateur music-making but for professional musicians to play for a preferably paying audience. We have begun making the bridge between aristocratic patronage and the free-lance, professional musician.

Count Razumovsky hired Schuppanzigh to form a “house quartet” for him in 1808, intending it to be “the finest quartet in Europe.” It was then that the Count's new quartet played his new Quartets rather frequently at his palace, one imagines.

Speaking of amateur, the Count was a talented violinist himself – being an aristocrat, he was, technically, an amateur, no matter how well he played – and he enjoyed “sitting in” with his quartet to play 2nd Violin. On those occasions he preferred to sit back and listen (and one wonders if he was capable of playing the 2nd Violin parts in Beethoven's newest works), a fellow named Louis Sina played instead (talk about playing 2nd fiddle...). You might wonder if the Count could hold his own in “the finest quartet in Europe,” but then would his employees say, “excuse me, your lordship, but maybe you should sit this one out and let Mr. Sina play?”

It's quite possible if Ignatz Schuppanzigh hadn't existed, the quartets Beethoven wrote for the Count might have been very different. In a way, the violinist is almost as responsible as the patron was in bringing these three masterpieces about. Something to consider...

By the way, there were only two musicians in Vienna who played in the premiere of every Beethoven symphony between 1800 and 1825 – one was Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the idea of writing a "set" of quartets was to see how one might write quartets differently, rather than churning out cookie-cutter imitations.

In the first of these three quartets, Beethoven opens with a long-arched theme that unwinds in the cello under a repeated F and A in the upper strings which implies an F Major chord but, lacking the root at any significant point in the cello, gives it an odd sense of never quite confirming F Major as the tonic chord until nineteen bars later with the first real cadence and the start of new thematic material! (You can watch a complete performance with the Alban Berg Quartet, here.)

The second quartet, however, opens quite differently, with a peremptory Tonic/Dominant cadence (reminding some of the hammer-like tonic chords that open the Eroica) and, in a few short measures presents several contrasting "cells" with a good of bit of "air," pauses between them that may sound fine to us (used to the cross-cutting of scenes in movies and TV) but which probably sounded wildly kaleidoscopic to Beethoven's first listeners, like one shiny object after another before finally settling down. The third of these cells, by the way, repeating the second, unexpectedly moves it up a half-step to F Major, not a related key to E Minor's tonic (more on this, later) - just another way Beethoven creates anticipation in the sense of both harmonic and structural tension (giving the listener doubts about what exactly is going on here).

These various elements play out through the rest of this fairly standard sonata-form movement. And while F Major shows up occasionally in passing, the second theme is in the standard G Major (the relative major of E Minor, both with one sharp in the key signature). However, when the development begins, we've slipped down a half-step, this time, to E-Flat Major, another unexpected twist. There's also a substantial coda (or closing section) before we finally conclude in the home tonic.

It's not that E Minor was an unusual key but it's one that Beethoven used rarely (the Op.90 Piano Sonata of 1814 is the only other major work in his catalog in this key). What is fairly unusual about it is, all four movements of this quartet are centered on E: the second movement is in E Major, and the other three are all in E Minor. Usually, composers look for some sort of tonal variety at least between the first and second movements before returning to the "home tonic" for the usually briefer last two.

Not only is the slow movement a contrast in tempo (very slow, and then Beethoven particularly marks it "to be played with much feeling," keeping in mind the emotional impact of what we call Romanticism was fairly new, then). As a hymn-tune played with "block chord" harmony, but harmonized differently each time it occurs, it ends "in beatific serenity," taking on a foreshadowing of another great hymn, the Heiliger Dankgesang or "Holy Song of Thanksgiving" at the soul of the Op.132 Quartet.

If the first movement seemed fragmented and disjointed, and the second, with its consistent, indeed persistent sense of rhythm, was flowing and connected, along comes the scherzo with its heavy-footed dance which curiously lacks a sense of down-beat in the melody. This is contrasted by the skitterish accompaniment to the Russian Theme's fugue. Beethoven also takes the unusual step of repeating the middle and final sections so rather than having a traditional A-B-A form, it's A-B-A-B-A.

The original sketches indicate Beethoven was planning a minuet in E Major as the third movement but perhaps chose this folksy-dance as being better suited to the Russian Theme he had found in a collection loaned to him by a friend.

So it might come as a surprise that the fourth movement seems to begin in the unrelated key of C Major. However, as the phrase continues to unfold, it actually does cadence where you'd expect it. This becomes a major feature of the finale, a light-hearted tribute, in a sense, proving he was, after all, a student of Poppa Haydn.

Remember that appearance of F Major in the opening E Minor movement I'd mentioned? This is what theorists call a "Neapolitan Relationship," though why this became associated with Naples, no one seems to remember. Basically, a "flat-II" compared to the tonic's I - in this case, F-natural Major rather than the F-sharp of the E Minor scale. (If your eyes have glazed over by this point, that's fine - just go to the concert and listen to the music and enjoy it; if you're a student of music and enjoy taking things apart the way some people like to talk about car engines or cake recipes, here's a little something for you.)

So this appearance of a strong C Major presence in the last E Minor movement is actually a "flat-II of V" (read that as "flat-2 of 5" - Roman numerals indicates chords in classical harmony)  - in other words, a Neapolitan on the Dominant of E Minor which is B (usually a B Major Chord, harmonically), and a C Major chord is only a half-step above that B.

But consider this: the first of these three quartets, each conceived and written at the same time, over a span of three months or so, is in F Major. The third of these quartets is in C Major.


Now, as a composer, I know how I'd think about that - creating a reference to the previous quartet in this one's first movement and a reference to the next quartet (coming attractions) in this one's last movement.

But of course no one can say how Beethoven thought: was this a coincidence? Was it the natural order of things, in his mind? Was this a pun he might actually expect a few well-versed listeners to notice and perhaps chuckle at? Or was it his way of consciously tying together all three quartets? (And does it?)

Since there's nothing written down to confirm this - assuming one could read it, given the state of Beethoven's sketches - it's mere conjecture. And yet these are the things that sometimes keep music theorists and composers awake at night... Sad, isn't it...?

- Dick Strawser