Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Shostakovich and his 9th Quartet: Na zd'rovie!

The Calidore & Emerson Quartets playing Mendelssohn's Octet
Who: the Calidore Quartet
What: Haydn, Beethoven, and Shostakovich
When: Saturday, April 28th, 8pm
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

Though most recent in terms of chronology – written in 1964 – Shostakovich's 9th String Quartet ends the first half of the Calidore Quartet's program this Saturday at Market Square Church. And while you don't need to know all the background behind the music – I've saved the historical material for later, after the videos – there's more to it, here, than there would be with the Haydn or the Beethoven quartets on the program (you can read about these two works on the earlier post, here).

Shostakovich in 1964 (credit:Leonid Lazarov)
Shostakovich's 9th Quartet is one of those works that may make you think “there's something more than just entertainment” going on here. It is a dramatic work, full of contrasts and some of Shostakovich's signature “starkness” that we find in most of his symphonies, that “darker” psychological element that makes it so easy to believe there's a “hidden story” in here somewhere. By that, I don't mean a literal tale where things represent characters or events, but where the composer's emotions may (or may not) have influenced what you hear. And, as often happens, what you hear may very well be different (or the opposite) of what someone else “hears.”

I've included three different videos for you to choose from (or compare): the first is with the Parker Quartet who've appeared with Market Square Concerts several times over the years (winners of the Cleveland Quartet Prize in 2009, btw). A live performance from the Library of Congress, the video lighting is a bit off, but this seems to be standard with other performances I've seen recorded there.

The second is from a live performance but audio only with the Emerson Quartet who have often played all fifteen of Shostakovich's quartets the way many quartets play a “Beethoven Cycle.” In addition to being one of the great quartets today, the Emerson has also mentored, among others, the Calidore Quartet.

The third is a recording with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, a highly regarded British ensemble who've recorded the complete Shostakovich quartets as well. But the main reason I've included it, here, is because the audio is posted with the score. I have reservations about their interpretation as being the “one I'd recommend” (I'll discuss this later), but it's a viable performance and, whether you read music or not, there's always something (many non-musicians tell me) about following along and seeing what the printed music looks like.

It was written in 1964 over a period of 26 days in May, though he had started – and scrapped – a new quartet, presumably complete, intended to be #9, a few years earlier, in 1961 which he admitted he burned in his stove. Next, he talked about a new quartet which he entitled “Toys and Excursions” which he also tossed in the wastebasket. Even though Shostakovich died in 1975, it wasn't until 2003 that an unfinished first movement of a string quartet was discovered among a pile of sketches. It could be this was yet another attempt at starting the 9th Quartet or it could be a surviving remnant from either the burned one or the chucked one. Regardless, it bears no resemblance to the quartet he composed in May of 1964. That alone should tell you something about what was going on “behind” the music: it also merely underscores the fact that “a work of art” requires “the work of art.” Sometimes it doesn't come easy.

It was dedicated to his wife, Irina, whom he had married in 1962. The fact their meeting and subsequent happy marriage coincided with the genesis of this quartet may also say something about the creative process.

The String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, published as Op. 117, is a five-movement piece – a standard “arch” form around the central “scherzo” similar to what Bartók used in his several of his quartets in the '20s and '30s – with all the different, contrasting sections “played without pause,” no movement breaks but that doesn't make it a “one-movement piece.” Even the final Allegro breaks down into a few contrasting segments. The nature of these contrasts may seem unexpected, even violent – especially given the opening's calmness – and it makes some of the quieter passages seem like “calm before storm” in any good psychological drama. By the time we reach the ending, we have experienced a wave of emotions, but whether they're the dramatic gestures of an interior monologue or a pivotal plot or merely the various possible ways one can handle notes in and around E-flat Major is not something the music will answer for you.

Not to push the point, but it opens with a kind of “once upon a time” gesture heard in the second violin, this meandering, almost constant ostinato like someone writing. If you were a Russian or familiar with Mussorgsky's historical opera Boris Godunov, you would immediately recognize this as “being very similar to” (“influenced by”) the scene where the monk Pimen is sitting in his cell, writing his chronical of the times (around 1600 in old Moscow) and as he writes, this meandering line accompanies Pimen's pen. Now, we don't need to know whether what Shostakovich is going to be writing about has anything to do with what Pimen was writing about – how the reigning tsar, Boris, became the heir by murdering the last son of Ivan the Terrible – either as fact or allegory. It is, in the sense of a pen moving across paper, in this case writing down music instead of words, the mere idea of being a scribe, of committing thoughts to paper. The music is understated, almost whispered: even the contrast may be one of reflection.

But that is one thing about the language of music: it may be universal but it also defies definitive translation.

Next is an almost hymn-like Adagio followed by a Scherzo marked Allegretto (not too lively) though it can be described as a “mad polka,” one of Shostakovich's trademark wild dances (is that rhythmic motive familiar?).

While Shostakovich is fond of quoting his own music – the 8th Quartet is practically a “name-that-tune” anthology of some of the key works of his output, especially his signature DSCH Motive (his initials turned into a four-note musical motive) – he has used this rhythmic motive in other works, usually to evoke the world of the “toy shop” (often slightly unhinged, sometimes with a sense of innocence and nostalgia). The merest hint of this “diddy bum, diddy bum, diddy bum dum dum” motive is enough to bring Rossini's William Tell to mind – the cavalry-comes-to-the-rescue at the end of the Overture or, since it's almost unavoidable, “The Lone Ranger” theme. And remember, one of the earlier, discarded sketches for what became the 9th Quartet was called “Toys and Excursions.” (It would also figure prominently in the 15th Symphony of 1974, an enigmatic and often unsettling work.)

Shostakovich working on score for Hamlet, February 1964
Whatever the significance of the “William Tell Galop,” this is followed by another Adagio where this “scribe motive” returns, considerably slower. The dark mood of the music also reflects film music he wrote in February 1964 for the film of Hamlet, for Ophelia's Mad Scene. The pizzicato lines appear fragmented, “searching,” perhaps the result of free-associations as the music unfolds (if, in fact, “unfolds” is what it's doing).

The finale, Allegro, is the longest, most substantial and most intense of the five movements with its own subsections bringing back the “scribe” motive, the pizzicato lines, and of course, the rocking “William Tell Galop” but within an increasingly violent context till it ends, grinding away over repeated chords and bass-line figures, in chords that are both E-flat major and minor.

– Shostakovich 9th Quartet in E-flat, Op.117 w/the Parker Quartet:


– a live recording w/the Emerson Quartet:


I'm no great fan of the Fitzwilliam Quartet's interpretations of most of Shostakovich's quartets but I include their performance here because it's the one that comes with the score:


Compare, for instance, the Fitzwilliam's concluding minutes, beginning at 24:38 with either the Emerson's at 22:07 or the Parker's at 22:20 to hear the difference a choice of tempo can make. It's not just how fast it goes but it's how the music breathes and moves forward!

Now, the opening of the last movement is marked Allegro with the metronome marking for the dotted half-note = 116 but already the Fitzwilliam Quartet is slower than the marked tempo. When it changes to 4/4 (at 24:00 in the video with the score), they're even slower, and it completely changes the whole impact of the music. It's not just one of those “I like it faster” kind of reactions because, you know, anything faster and louder is more exciting. It's a matter of sounding, with the Fitzwilliam, “determined,” and with the other two, “hair-raising.”

Shostakovich & the Borodin Quartet, 1962
On the other hand, there's the well-known anecdote of the composer suggesting the members of the Borodin Quartet play a particular passage at a different tempo. When one of them said that contradicted the printed metronome marking in the score, Shostakovich said “Well, you see, my metronome at home is out of order, so pay no attention to what I wrote.” Hmmm....

But certainly it changes the “mood” of the ending. In the first two performances, there's a manic urgency, perhaps even maniacal, to the final bar. At the slower tempo, while it sounds “measured” and still dramatic, it's a different kind of drama, lacking that visceral edge the faster, printed tempo gives it.

What does it do to your reaction to the performances?

And do you realize that these two very different approaches come from the same printed notes on the page? It's not the music you're reacting to, but their interpretation of the music. Very different!

A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRISIS

While the political problems of Shostakovich's career are well known in the West (I'll write about them in the final segment of this post), when you look into what was going on his life at the time he wrote his 9th Quartet, you realize that it's not the politics that was casting its shadow over his artistic world as he approached his 60th birthday: it was his health.

Shostakovich had been ill frequently in his youth – a bout with tuberculosis was one thing, but he nearly missed his final piano exam at the conservatory in June 1923 due to throat surgery, playing Beethoven's “Waldstein” Sonata along with works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, his throat heavily bandaged. In January 1927, the year after his 1st Symphony was premiered, Shostakovich was competing in Warsaw's Chopin Competition in Warsaw when during the first night's opening ceremony, he suffered an attack of appendicitis! Amazingly, he would still make it to the finals where he played Chopin's E Minor Concerto but did not place among the winners.

After this, Shostakovich decide to focus on composition and rarely played the piano in public except in his own works – his Piano Quintet, for one, which he joked he'd initially composed as an excuse to be able to travel on tour.

Then, when he went on a concert tour and played both his piano concertos in France in 1958 – recording them in Paris – he started having trouble with his right hand. It would become weak, full of that pins-and-needles pain but when he went to the doctors, they were unable to find out what was causing it. His hand got tired from writing and it was a challenge to brush his teeth or hang up his coat, he said, but he could grip a suitcase. He could only play the piano “slowly and pianissimo.” A month in the hospital yielded no help.

In 1960 while in Dresden (which had been nearly destroyed by the Allied bombs at the end of World War II) to work on a film score, he wrote the 8th String Quartet which is officially "dedicated to the victims of Fascism" though in a letter in July, he joked it could be "dedicated to the author of this quartet." After playing it through at the piano for his friend, the musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, Shostakovich told it, with tears in his eyes, it would be his last work. He had been "coerced into joining the Party" – it is amazing that he had not had to join it before 1960! – and he associated this with a moral as well as physical death. He admitted he had purchased a large amount of sleeping pills and hinted at committing suicide. Lebedinsky was able to slip the pills out of his pocket and give them to the composer's son Maxim, warning him not to let his father out of his sight. Lebedinsky then spent as much of the next few days as possible with the composer until he felt the danger of suicide had passed.

Also in 1960, at his son's wedding, Shostakovich lost his balance when his left leg went out from under him and he fell, fracturing it badly. More hospital stays again were unhelpful. Wondering when an attack of weakness might get in the way of his performing again, he gave his last public performance in February of 1964 (he composed the 9th Quartet in May, 1964, remember). But he agreed to accompany two of his favorite singers on a program of his newest music in 1966, but the strain on his nerves was so bad he suffered a heart attack the following night and spent another month in the hospital.

Shostakovich & his wife Irina in 1972
It wasn't until three more years would pass that he was officially diagnosed as having a rare form of poliomyelitis, something we know as “Lou Gehrig's Disease.” And while that's in the future as far as this quartet is concerned, it is the disease that would kill him in 1975.

At the time he was composing his 9th Quartet, he was dealing with the initial symptoms and finding it difficult to write because of the problems with his right hand. (Again, pure speculation, but could this physical concern be the reason behind the music motive inspired by Pimen's "scribe" motive at the beginning of the Quartet?) He soon concocted a kind of cradle to support his hand while he composed but it was still painful and he could only work for short periods of time.

What all this could mean to his future – he was, after all, only57 when he wrote this quartet – was scary enough: imagine trying to create something that would not be affected by all this?

While the doctors advised him to give up vodka and cigarettes – he did not – he also could not give up composing, something else he was eventually advised to do less of. Even when he was in the hospital, he found ways to continue writing new pieces even up to the end. He completed the Viola Sonata a month before he died, and he was still working on sketches for a new opera, inspired by Dostoievsky, called The Black Monk.

UNDERSTANDING THE POLITICAL BAGGAGE BEHIND THE MUSIC...

Shostakovich, w/Nina (his first wife) & friends, 1930s
After his initial success as a child prodigy premiering his First Symphony when he was still a teenager, things didn't, one might say, go as planned for Dmitri Shostakovich. He was 29 when Mr & Mrs Stalin went to the opera and saw his latest success, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Unfortunately for Shostakovich, they hated it, and the infamous attack, “Muddle Instead of Music,” appeared in Pravda in January, 1936, accusing him not just of writing harshly dissonant music to an immoral story (written by Leskov in 1865) that ran counter to Soviet ideals, but also of more generic and fairly abstract charges of “Western formalism,” one of those great buggaboos of anti-Western communists. With such a tirade against the young composer originating from Stalin himself (if he didn't write it, it was said he'd dictated it – this, in the days before they had Twitter accounts), it wasn't long before performers shied away from performing any of his works or commissioning new ones.

And given the political fear at the time, particularly regarding Party Loyalty and maintaining the political ideology of the Soviet government, the purges that Stalin initiated where political foes as well as artists who did not live up to Party expectations, soon found themselves arrested in the middle of the night and summarily “disappeared” into the prison infrastructure that had been the standard government recourse to dealing with the opposition since the early days of Russian history, going back centuries (which is not necessarily a specifically Russian custom).

Shostakovich was able to work his way back into “official favor” by composing his 5th Symphony – which, by any standards, would be considered one of his masterpieces and one of the great works of the orchestral repertoire. After its wildly successful premiere in November, 1937, an article in the press written under the composer's by-line described it as “a Soviet Artist's reply to just criticism” though since Shostakovich wrote few of his own speeches and articles during his career, the phrase probably originated either with some departmental official who wrote it for him to sign his name to, or perhaps inserted on the advice of friends with more political savvy than he. Anyway, former friends and colleagues like Dmitri Kabalevsky who had distanced themselves following Stalin's attack, congratulated him on giving up his “former erroneous ways.”

Having survived the 2nd World War – the Soviets called it “The Great Patriotic War” – Shostakovich then had to deal with another government condemnation in 1948 when Stalin's Minister of Culture, Zhdanov, accused not just Shostakovich but also other prominent Soviet composers like Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, including writers and theatrical figures like the director Yuri Lyubimov who, being told his arrest was imminent, spent the night on the landing by his building's elevator “so at least his family would not be disturbed.”

This time, Shostakovich lost his teaching position at the Conservatory and he lost income because no one would commission new works and royalties that paid the bills dried up because no one would perform the old ones. He was able to make enough by writing film scores and “official party hack-works” like “The Song of the Forest,” praising Stalin's environmental policies. Any “serious works,” he wrote “for the desk drawer,” putting them away unpublished and unperformed, until a safer time. His true rehabilitation came in the spring of 1953 only when Stalin died and he composed his eventually triumphant 10th Symphony which ends with a victory lap on the musical motive representing his name, DSCH – as if to say, “I survived!”

All of that is merely prologue to understanding Shostakovich's string quartets. He wrote 15 of them – he also wrote 15 symphonies, but that's pure coincidence. However, he didn't seriously begin these quartets until his symphonies fell afoul of government politics. The first one was written in the summer following the premiere of the 5th Symphony, and the 3rd in 1946 after the denunciation of his “disappointing” 9th Symphony (at the end of World War II, everyone expected a paean to Stalin following a Soviet victory over the Nazis).

But following the Zhdanov Decree of 1948, Shostakovich composed five quartets by 1960. The 9th and 10th then followed in 1964, and the remaining five between 1966 and 1974, a year before his death.

(At one point, when a member of the Beethoven Quartet mentioned interest in recording his “last quartet,” the 7th, Shostakovich said “when I have written all my quartets, we'll talk about my 'last' quartet!” He said his plan, since to date he had not yet duplicated a tonality in the set, was to write 24 quartets in all, one for each key.)

To Shostakovich, the symphony – with all its historical context, Western or otherwise – was essentially “public music” written for large concert halls to be heard by a large audience and reliant more on popular response if not direct popular appeal. Chamber music, on the other hand, he regarded as “private music,” written for smaller halls or rooms, intended for a small audience. Whether the whole concept of “hidden meanings” in the symphonies, especially the 5th, is true or not – Semyon Volkov's Testimony is still controversial and now many of his assertions, founded or not, have entered the Shostakovich mythology for better or worse – the string quartets, certainly, are devoid of the “populist” element but it is probably truer to imagine that, the string quartet as a medium was of less value aesthetically to the “Revolutionary” the young composer had been before Stalin's attack. If the symphony is a Western form – and “formalism” was an accusation labeled against any Soviet composer straying from Stalin's ideals of “Socialist Realism,” whatever that meant – isn't it unusual that after his denunciations he began writing string quartets, an even more Western form? One of the first things he composed following the Zhdanov Decree about formalism was a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano inspired by Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier – and you can't get more Western or more “formalist” than writing something as rule-bound as a fugue!

Earlier, I'd mentioned how Baroque composers like Vivaldi published works in sets of 12, Haydn and Mozart in the Classical era often in sets of 6 – whether they sat down and wrote all 6 or 12 from start to finish before moving on to other projects. Beethoven, we know from his sketch books, conceived of his symphonies in pairs – given the frequent attitude the Odd-numbered Symphonies are Great and the Even-numbered Symphonies are Not-So-Great – and it's tantalizing to imagine how the 10th Symphony he was sketching at the same time he was working on the Choral Symphony might have turned out.

So here is Shostakovich, composing his 9th quartet (his Op. 117) in May of 1964 and then beginning his 10th quartet (Op. 118) about six weeks later, in July 1964. Both were premiered on November 20th that autumn. While Elizabeth Wilson, in her Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, refers to them tantalizingly in passing as “partners,” there seems to be no indication the plan was to write two contrasting quartets, much as Beethoven might have conceived many of his works. It's quite possible, having completed the 9th with that brutal ending, he needed a contrast simply for his own emotional, if not psychological, release.

Assuming you've listened to the video of the 9th Quartet already, I mention Alan George's liner notes for the Fitzwilliam Quartet's recordings of the complete set describe the 10th as “one of Shostakovich's most serene and untroubled compositions and even if the sustained violence of the second movement [scherzo] creates a momentarily disturbing effect, the composer's state of mind would seem to indicate [again, this is an author's conjecture] that evil, although it cannot be ignored, is no match for deeper human emotions.”

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich (Moscow 1963)
Interesting, also, is the fact the finale of the 10th Quartet is preceded by a passacaglia, one of those old-fashioned rule-bound “Western” forms so hated by the Communist Party, it also includes a new thematic idea that contains all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale as if it were a 12-tone-row, a formalist construct that was the essence behind Schoenberg's concept of what is called “serialism.” In truth, Shostakovich repeats one note; but then he also didn't actually use it as a serial row. Benjamin Britten, a close friend of Shostakovich in the '60s, also occasionally used all-12-note “themes” – for instance, in his opera, The Turn of the Screw and the Cantata Academica, both from the 1950s – but also never actually wrote in either an atonal or serial style.

But by the 1960s, life in the Soviet Union was different than it had been under Stalin. Often called the “Krushchev Thaw,” Shostakovich found himself able to explore elements of “modern music” – especially music associated with Western aesthetics – that would have brought swift condemnation under Stalin. This is Shostakovich, now in his late-50s, beginning to explore new sounds.

This future also, unfortunately, would not turn out to be quite what he had hoped. But then, that's usually how it goes...

Dick Strawser

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Springtime Lark with the Calidore Quartet

The Calidore Quartet - Lookin' Cool on the Streets of the Big City
Who: the Calidore Quartet
What: Haydn, Beethoven, and Shostakovich
When: Saturday, April 28th, 8pm
Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

It is officially springtime and while we hope by this weekend we'll be done with the snow (already!), May Flowers cannot be far behind all these April Showers... yes? And so, for those of us enjoying the springtime songs of birds in our back yards – I have a wren serenading my bedroom window (unfortunately at 5am) – we open this last program of Market Square Concerts' current subscription season with one of Haydn's most famous string quartets, nicknamed “The Lark.”

While I couldn't find a video of the Calidore playing Haydn's “Lark,” another bird will have to do: here they are playing the last movement of an earlier Haydn quartet, more generically nicknamed, simply, “The Bird.” It's the 3rd of the set of Op.33 quartets that so inspired Mozart he wrote six quartets which he then subsequently dedicated to Haydn.
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Shostakovich's 9th String Quartet, written in May of 1964, may not be so spring-like. Just as there had been various personal and political crises during the 1930s and '40s that affected his creativity, now, as the composer was in his late-50s, there were new issues to confront – but more of that, later.

To conclude, arguably one of the greatest – and most popular – of the Beethoven Quartets, the third of three string quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Razumovsky.

This post is about the Haydn and Beethoven Quartets.You can read the post about the Shostakovich quartet on the program, here.

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When music ensembles like a string quartet get together and look for a name to call themselves, the easy way out is simply to name themselves after the first violinist or their location. More challenging is to come up with a musical term that sounds... well, catchy would be good but I'll settle for “not silly.” Others prefer to honor a favorite author or painter – the Emerson comes to mind; the Escher was just in Harrisburg this past February – or even a violin-maker like the Guarneri Quartet. The Cypress Quartet took their name not from the tree, initially, but from a set of works called Cypresses for string quartet by Antonin Dvořák that was part of their core repertoire when starting out. There's even a Lark Quartet which, presumably, takes its name from Haydn's “Lark” Quartet.

Formed as recently as 2010, the Calidore Quartet explains their name this way: Using an amalgamation of “California” and “doré” (French for “golden”), the ensemble’s name represents a reverence for the diversity of culture and the strong support it received from its home of origin, Los Angeles, California, the “golden state.” (Points, here, for uniqueness.)

Looking over the roster of string quartets crisscrossing the world performing gems of the chamber music repertoire and, occasionally – but more frequently, now – adding new works for the future, you might wonder “where are all those young quartets coming from?” Depending on your tone of voice, you might wonder “what's happened to all those great quartets I used to hear?” We forget that, at some point, the Guarneri and Cleveland Quartets were “young quartets” and who knows who the next generation's Juilliard and Emerson Quartets will be?

In the historical line of things, remember all those winners of the Cleveland Quartet Prize we get to present to you? This is a prize founded by the Cleveland Quartet to foster excellence in the wide-open and highly competitive field of new quartets. And the Emerson Quartet mentors young quartets itself – like the Calidore.

So it was pleasant news, coinciding with our March concert last month, when the Avery Fisher Prize announced its 2018 “Avery Fisher Career Grant” went to... the Calidore Quartet.

While they made their Lincoln Center debut at Alice Tully Hall earlier this month, April has already seen them traveling from Mainz, Germany, and Barcelona, Spain, to St. Louis and Seattle before arriving in Harrisburg.

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So, let's begin with Haydn's “Lark” Quartet, the Quartet in D Major, Op.64/5, performed here by the Jerusalem Quartet.
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In the 18th Century, composers were expected to be like craftsmen, turning out works for their patrons' entertainments, private performances for specific occasions, perhaps, but all before the days of public concerts much less commercial recordings. So, Haydn's prince wanted a new symphony for the visit of a good friend to his summer estate or maybe a string quartet for a special dinner and Haydn would oblige, preparing the musicians for the performance and often being a performer himself. (In those days, musicians were not only on the aristocrat's payrolls, they wore livery like any servant, and ate their dinners with the servants “downstairs” after their “upstairs duties” had been discharged.)

Composers were expected to “produce” as an apple tree produces fruit – quartets by the handful, usually six to a set, just as, in the earlier years of the century, Vivaldi or Corelli would publish their concertos or sonatas by the dozen. They might then be subsequently gathered into these collections and published. In this way, a good court composer like Haydn might become well known beyond the estates of his employer.

Later in the century, following the cultural challenges of the French Revolution and the rise of the Middle Class, these might be offered to a particular patron or marketed with a “subscription” to wealthy music-lovers.

While working on what became the Op.64 set of six quartets in 1790, Haydn was, essentially, eased into retirement, granted a pension and given the opportunity to travel around Europe to enjoy his international fame, rather than remain stuck at the prince's estate living out his Golden Years in further isolation. Like his last dozen symphonies (produced as two sets of six each), Haydn also wrote his last string quartets for the London audiences in the 1790s.

One such “wealthy music-lover” was the Viennese cloth merchant, Johann Tost, considered “newly rich” by Imperial traditions rather than born of the aristocratic “old money” – he had been a musician in his former life, in fact a violinist at Prince Esterhazy's who'd worked with Haydn. So Haydn dedicated his Op. 64 set of new quartets to Tost, largely out of genuine gratitude for Tost (and his new-found wealth and influence)'s help in finding a publisher to help him navigate these new and challenging waters.

(In a future side-light, it's interesting to note that Herr Tost commissioned some new chamber music for his social events from Ludwig Spohr, a young German violinist and composer. Since Tost offered to pay him “by the instrument” as a cloth merchant might sell fabric “by the yard,” Spohr set about writing Tost, to begin, an octet and a nonet.)

A Lark
The nickname "The Lark" is not Haydn's, presumably, and like many “titles” associated with Haydn's works, was probably short-hand so the Prince didn't have to say which quartet he'd want to hear that evening (“you know, the one that starts off like...”) by humming a few bars. And at the time, it hadn't been published, so he could hardly say “you know, the D Major, Op.64 No. 5.” So since the violin's melody in the opening reminded someone of a bird-like song soaring over the accompaniment, it became “The Lark.” Listening to this video of a “skylark” or “song lark,” the similarity between the two is not especially obvious.


Whether Haydn may have had Shakespeare's Sonnet #29 in mind – “the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate" – is also doubtful, but a beautiful image.

The Lark was, for that matter, as likely to appear on the menu back in the day: while considered a delicacy when eaten whole (with bones intact), they were more often broiled or made into a meat pie. I hate to think how many birds it took to make a decent dish of “larks' tongues” – no thanks, I'll pass...

Curiously, in England, where people apparently thought the last movement of this quartet was just as memorable,  it is often called "The Hornpipe" Quartet, given the nature of the final dance. That works, too.

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Considering the Haydn was written in 1790 and Beethoven's three Razumovsky quartets were composed in 1806, it's interesting to listen to these two works and think “they were written only 16 years apart!” In fact, Haydn was still alive when Beethoven composed these comparatively revolutionary – certainly “modern” for the time – quartets.

Here's the Jasper Quartet – who've performed on our series in previous years including this past January – with Beethoven's Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, a live recording from the studios of New York City's WQXR:


I've written about Beethoven and his Razumovsky Quartets in the past: in this post, you can read about the quartet itself as well as find the answer to that age-old question, “just what is a Razumovsky, anyway?”

I've written about the Shostakovich quartet in the next post which you can read, here.

- Dick Strawser



Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mark Markham and Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata

Mark Markham
SNOW-UPDATE: RECITAL RESCHEDULED FOR THURSDAY (March 22nd) 8pm at WHITAKER
Who: Mark Markham, pianist
What: Four works each by Scriabin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff on the first half; and Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor on the second
When: Wednesday (March 21st, 2018), at 8pm THURSDAY 3-22
Where: Whitaker Center, 222 Market Street in downtown Harrisburg (parking available in the connecting Walnut Street Garage, between 3rd and 2nd Streets)
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

Franz Liszt's sole piano sonata has a daunting reputation as one of the most challenging works in the entire solo piano repertoire - which is not necessarily the same thing as the most difficult to play. Yes, it's about a half-hour of continuous music making demands on a performer's stamina and concentration, music that is at times demanding and virtuosic, and even in its lyrical, contemplative contrasts, a challenge to keep under control. But it can also be a challenge just to figure out, to make sense of it all - and this post will do a little delving into what's behind one of the great works of the 19th Century.

(You can read the previous post about the works on the first half of the program here.)

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It's always fascinating to find out how a musician you're going to listen to got started in music – listening to Elvis Presley on a 45rpm then “banging away on an electric keyboard” at 4 until, at 8, he announced he wanted a piano and wanted to take lessons. It's possible he could've grown up in Pensacola, FL, like any number of children taking piano lessons from mediocre teachers if there hadn't been someone who “saved” him until he became good enough to be heard by Ann Schein when he was 16 and who, when he started studying with her later, in “ a very intense decade [during which] she taught him style, real style, and continuity with tradition,” he would begin a 20-year collaboration with the great soprano Jessye Norman.

He does not believe in “specializing” – being an “accompanist” is often a niche one has difficulty breaking out of – and he shows that in five days in Central PA as a concerto soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony this past weekend, playing Ravel's jazzy G Major Concerto, as a teacher offering two master classes at Messiah College – Monday's for vocalists (as a collaborative pianist working with singers, he has also taught as a vocal coach at Peabody) at 5pm, and Tuesday's for pianists beginning at 4pm; and finally as a recitalist playing solo repertoire of the Great Romantic Tradition – Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and Debussy, and one of the cornerstones of the 19th Century piano repertoire, Franz Liszt.

Speaking of “tradition,” the Baltimore Sun said his performance of Liszt's Sonata was a “profoundly musical return to the grand manner in which Liszt’s b minor Sonata used to be played.”

(You can read an in-depth article about Mark Markham, here.)

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Franz Liszt in 1858
If you're not familiar with “The Liszt Sonata” and its monolithic overtones – I've already referred to it as a cornerstone, a giant, a monster of the repertoire and described it as “epic” among other choice adjectives – what's the deal? And what about the “traditions” that come with it, like so much baggage every performer has to contend with?

There are longer pieces – Liszt's lone sonata may take about 30-35 minutes to play, but some crank it up to 25 minutes and, on the other hand, there's Ivo Pogorelich, still something of an enfant terrible, who churns out performances that clock in at 47 minutes, drawing out and dwelling on details, turning practically every measure of the “slow movement” into its own meditation.

There are more “virtuosic” works – flashier showcases for a pianist to exhibit ones technique, especially considering this is Franz Liszt, considered one of the greatest show-offs in an age of virtuosos.

But there are few that have the kind of depth of emotion and drama this sonata possesses (“possessed” is something that might apply to a lot of Liszt's music, perhaps) yet its virtuosity – because it's still hard as hell to play – is always subservient to the music. Curiously, for a work that seems to lack “structure” (many find its constant shifts “chaotic”), willfully going against the composer's tempo indications and playing up ones ability to play fast notes faster than other pianists or banging away as loud as possible just to rattle the dust off the rafters so it sounds “exciting,” all tend to weaken the tightness with which its put together.

In most cases, I'm never one to think of Franz Liszt as an intellectual composer – not on the scale of Beethoven or Brahms or more contemporary composers – but in this particular work, there is a side of him that stands far above the mere brilliance of a lot of his virtuosic music.

Whether this Sonata is “intellectual” or “emotional” is not the point, nor is it important to the average listener. There are times when the music is thrilling, mysterious, dark, demonic as it is heavenly (if not downright angelic), beautiful (if not merely lovely), or glitteringly brilliant (the virtuosic bits) – all, by the way, hallmarks of the 19th Century Romantic-with-a-Capital-R style – because in reality music is a combination of both heart and mind, and it is that combination which allows for so many possible interpretations (or misinterpretations) and why some people like it one way and others, another.

As a way of introduction, I want to offer one example of Liszt in his Virtuoso Mode - and perhaps suggest the difference between something that is "flashy" versus something that requires a high level of technical ability in the service of the greater musical experience.

Here's one of Liszt's favorite “encores” when he was a touring concert artist. It is, in most respects today, regarded as a novelty, perhaps even a bit silly – it is, certainly, over-the-top – meant to bring down the house. It may be “vulgar” to some, “immense fun” to others, but no pianist should attempt it if they can't risk driving it off the cliff. I give you Liszt's “Chromatic Gallop” with the magic fingers of Györgi Cziffra, recorded in 1963.



The trick – aside from hitting all the right notes at the right time – is to keep it from sounding like the Grand Chromatic Stampede...

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Okay, now that we've gotten that out of our system, however you listen to or talk about the Sonata, by comparison, it is not a typical sonata, generally regarded as the pinnacle of “serious” classical music in the first half of the 19th Century – at least as it was understood in Liszt's days in the mid-19th Century. Sonatas, by the way, had become kind of old-fashioned by then, anyway, a throw-back to the Classical Era and the Age of Beethoven: Beethoven, with most of his 32 piano sonatas (just as he did with his 9 symphonies), created a challenge for his successors: how do you write sonatas (or symphonies or string quartets) after Beethoven? Most composers either went on their merry way ignoring the issue, trying to compose as if Beethoven never happened; others grappled with the issues and didn't always succeed in coming to terms with Beethoven's legacy. After all, once Schumann crowned a young Johannes Brahms as “Beethoven's Heir,” you may understand why Brahms took over 20 years to complete his first symphony and why, alas, he never wrote another piano sonata himself.

Liszt's only piano sonata is also not a typical work for him: it tells no story, it does not exist as a dazzling showcase for this “Paganini of the Piano,” it exists simply for itself (one assumes). Unlike the traditional sonata, it is not in the usual 3 or 4 movements where both performers and listeners can at least catch their collective breath between movements. It seems to be a “one movement work” or at least in one unbroken span but yet there's a distinct “slow movement” in the middle, so... But then the finale is not “new material” for a third movement, more of an expansion of themes (or motives) we've heard before. In fact, Liszt makes it more difficult to figure out where certain structural segments begin because he so rarely restates something the same way: it's always developing, evolving, re-examining itself.

So... maybe it's just a single sonata-form movement (which is a different thing, terminology aside) with an exposition and development interrupted by that gorgeous middle bit in a contrasting tempo – Romantic music is all about contrast – and then there's a kind of recapitulation with a coda that goes against what you'd expect.

In the traditional sonata, there is a statement of themes – a development of themes, taken apart and juxtaposed – and then a recap of those themes, reassembled and all their dramatic conflicts worked out for a satisfying conclusion. In the sense of traditional tonality, given this sonata is billed as being in B Minor, the Exposition would begin in B Minor (the “home” tonic) and, by the time a second theme is introduced, digress to some related key; the Development then goes through God-knows what keys before the tension resolves itself to – ta-daah! – the return of the “home” tonic (in this case, B Minor) with a restatement of the thematic material, staying in, say, B Minor (more or less) to the end.

But rather than use two or three themes, Liszt introduces us to three ideas in the first few measures, not over the first few minutes – and everything you hear from here on out is more or less based on those “motives,” some permutation or expansion of those notes and intervals, sometimes even with a completely different mood or tempo but still the same motive.

While the work as a whole may seem mind-bogglingly complex, if you keep these three motives at the opening in mind, you might be able to hang on well enough to understand a bit what Liszt was doing, here:

Motive #1
The opening descending scalar line – not a traditional major or minor scale – is one that, with the change of a note or two, can take on an entirely different (and often sinister) character with each subtle change.

A few measures later: what sounds like the first theme is a series of leaps with a descending whip of an arpeggio:
Motive #2
The third motive really sounds like the second half of this second, leaping arpeggiated "theme" but it quickly takes on a life out its own, with its upward rush of a few notes to repeated staccato notes in the bass that twists around without really going anywhere:
Motive #3

Later on, there sounds like a new theme – grandly, gloriously ascending and accompanied by resounding blocked chords, hymnlike, in the left hand – but it's really a transformation of the opening “scale,” except here sounding more “normal” and ascending to more heavenly heights, completely different in tone and sonority.

One of Liszt's favorite tricks is to turn that dramatic and fragmentary 3rd motive into a long, spinning and thoroughly swoon-filled tune which becomes a necessary dramatic contrast – and yet it's the same material.

If variety is the root of contrast, it's more of an intellectual feat to have so much variety squeezed out of the same few notes, a unifying factor which, psychologically, gives the work a more cohesive sound whether you're aware of it or not.

Without getting into the other technical aspects that have fed theory and musicology PhD mills for generations, just listen to the music.

Here are three you can choose from – one with the score just so you can see what it looks like (whether you read music or not); another that is a favorite recording of mine (with no video, alas); and a more recent live performance for those of you who enjoy watching a pianist grapple with the technical demands (believe me, there's a lot of “sweat equity” in learning and performing a piece like this!).

No. 1 – Krystian Zimerman


No. 2 – Marta Argerich (1966)


No. 3 – Yundi Li (2004)


It's interesting to note that – as any virtuoso would have offered a grand bang-up finale with mighty flourishes and pounding chords to bring an audience to its feet – Liszt ends his sonata with a completely unexpected ending. Suddenly it turns meditative and then resolves quietly to a B Major chord when that scale returns and unsettles everything, leaving the bell-like overtones of a non-traditional cadence hovering over the final low octave. Resolution? Absolutely – a benediction, of sorts, if not the victorious triumph first-time listeners would anticipate.

Franz Liszt's MS with the revised ending

It's interesting to realize, if you look at the composer's manuscript, Liszt crossed out his original ending which was exactly that triumphant, bombastic ending, and then rewrote it, replacing it with one final meditation. Yet if you examine the ink and the pen-scratchings on the paper, you realize that it was probably an instantaneous decision: aside from the red ink which Liszt habitually used for corrections and crossings-out, it's the same black ink, even the same pen in fact, as if Liszt thought, “no, no, that's really too much” and changed it immediately – not a month or a year later as he'd sometimes do with his revisions.

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SOME BIOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND

Robert Schumann wrote three piano sonatas (one of which he referred to as a “Concerto without Orchestra”), but decided his Fantasy in C was his answer to the Beethoven Sonata Challenge when he composed it in the mid-to-late-1830s (it was composed as a fund-raiser for the Beethoven Memorial in Bonn). And, when it was published in 1839, it was dedicated to Franz Liszt – who, along with Schumann's future wife, Clara Wieck, was one of the greatest pianists of the day.

Though Liszt wrote tons of piano pieces during his career as a touring virtuoso, he was also conscious of Beethoven's legacy. His B Minor Sonata is his only “sonata” though one of his earlier works, “After a Reading of Dante,” is generally called the “Dante Sonata,” and he also composed something called a “Grand Concerto Solo for Piano” – that is, a "concerto without orchestra" later revised for two pianos and usually called Concerto pathétique – which was a direct forerunner of the B Minor Sonata and is, essentially, a continuous three-movement work that could be called a “sonata” in the sense it is a multi-movement work. Just as Liszt's two symphonies are not really traditional “symphonies” in the Beethoven Sense – if anything, they take Beethoven's Pastoral as their starting point, more about dramatic story-telling-in-music than the symphonic architecture of the Classical Symphony inherited from Hadyn and Mozart.

For Liszt, these issues became more conscious once he decided to give up regular concertizing and settled in Weimar as a court conductor and composer – a permanent home and a permanent job that allowed him time not only to compose but to deal with the issues that, as a composer, he hadn't had time to think much about, before – things like “The Sonata Question.”

And his response was to complete his Sonata in B Minor on February 2nd, 1853. While most sources say it was written “1852-1853,” he apparently began work on it almost as soon as he finished that “Grand Concerto Solo,” whetting his appetite for another, perhaps better solution to “how to write a Sonata after Beethoven.” And somewhere, Schumann's Fantasy in C reminded him he owed Schumann a favor: and so, when his sonata was finally printed, Liszt dedicated it to Schumann and mailed him a copy.

Unfortunately, Schumann, in deteriorating health around the time he was introduced to a young man named Johannes Brahms in the fall of 1853, had just been confined to an asylum following his attempted suicide on February 27th, 1854, and so never knew of Liszt's dedication or of the music he'd sent him. One wonders what he might have thought of it: Clara Schumann could make no sense out of it, called it “a blind noise” and having written to Brahms that it “is nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there! And now I still have to thank him – it’s really awful.”

Much is made that Clara never played the piece, some saying that she couldn't play it but it's probably more likely she couldn't figure out how to play it, to make “sense” out of it, and since it was antithetical to her aesthetic preferences, why bother? There's also the likely possibility that its untimely arrival was too painful a reminder of the last time she saw her husband as he was taken away from her: he died over two years later in the asylum and she had never been allowed to visit him during that whole time.

And so, what have others made of Liszt's Sonata?

There is a famous story that Brahms fell asleep listening to it. Brahms, in his early-20s, was traveling and though he had not yet met the Schumanns or yet been crowned “Beethoven's heir,” he was already being courted by the composers of the German avant-garde, mainly Liszt and Wagner. They soon discovered, however, that Brahms' future would lie in a more conservative direction, and the animosity between the two camps, more with their followers than the composers themselves, would continue to the end of the century and beyond.

As the story goes, Brahms and the violinist Remenyi whom he was accompanying on this tour, stopped in Weimar and were invited to “the palace” where Liszt and his acolytes lived. The opulence of the setting, no doubt, annoyed the plain and simple Brahms, born of a humble family in the poorer neighborhoods of Hamburg. Liszt played through Brahms' E-flat Minor Scherzo (which he liked) and started in on the big C Major Sonata (which he liked less: it would enrapture Schumann a few months later) when one of these acolytes urged Liszt to play through his own, newly completed Sonata – which he then proceeded to do. The date of this gathering was, by the way, June 23rd, 1853, four months after he'd completed the piece.

Now, regardless how familiar Brahms (at 21) was with Liszt's music, the fact they'd just gotten into town (whether one can use whatever one called “jet-lag” in those days as an excuse), it's possible between being tired from the journey and bored with this endlessly modulating, never-relaxing tension that was nothing like a sonata as far as Brahms (or Beethoven) was concerned, one could understand Brahms' dozing off (he was not the last person to nod off during a performance of the piece...).

When Liszt finished playing his sonata, he noticed the young man asleep in his chair. He got up without a word and left the room. Later, when Brahms and Remenyi left Weimar, Liszt gave Brahms a cigar box with his name engraved on it – spelled “Brams.” You can take what you want from that.

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For some reason, Liszt himself never publicly performed the sonata – which seems odd, after all. Now in his 40s, he may have given up being the touring virtuoso of his youth, but he still performed publicly as well as privately, and he did play the work for “private audiences.”

The world premiere was given in 1857 by Hans von Bülow, eventually more famous as a conductor and a champion of both Wagner and Brahms (seven months later, he became Liszt's son-in-law, marrying Cosima, one of three children Liszt fathered out of wedlock with the Countess, Marie d'Agoult; in the 1850s, Liszt was living openly with the Princess Carolyn Sayne-Wittgenstein who was still married; Cosima, while married to Bülow, would later live openly with Wagner and bear him three children out of wedlock before her divorce from Bülow was final, a liason that cooled relationships, perhaps somewhat hypocritically, between Wagner and Liszt, but I digress...).

Cosima (l.),  some Hungarian Count, Liszt, & Hans von Bülow (r.) in 1865 (Cosima had been Wagner's mistress since 1863 and around the time this photograph was taken was pregnant with Wagner's first child...)

Let's see, where was I...? Oh, yes...

While it took a while for the sonata to catch on – the ruling anti-Wagner/pro-Brahms critic in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick, thought anyone who liked the piece was “beyond help” – it eventually came to be recognized as the “most significant piano sonata” since Beethoven even if it was more talked about than heard. It still can ignite controversy but not in the way “new music” so often does, more in the sense of what the music “means,” whatever that means. Of course, anything that gradually gains more and more hearings becomes increasingly “familiar” and loses its formidableness, something the age of recordings has helped significantly.

One of the pianists who “owned” the sonata was one of Liszt's students, Arthur Friedheim, whose performance was much admired by Liszt. Curiously, Friedheim recorded the entire sonata on a piano roll in 1905. While it may be arguable to consider it the “definitive” performance, it is, obviously, a performance by someone the composer not only heard but approved.

Friedheim, a Russian-born pianist, was in his mid-40s at the time of this recording and would later have a student named Rilda Bee O'Bryan who would later have a son and student of her own, Van Cliburn.

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In a YouTube video, pianist (and Liszt specialist) Leslie Howard talks about how difficult it is to arrive at what Liszt might have intended when so many performers today base their interpretations on recordings and performances they've heard rather than examining the score – especially the original manuscript which is clearly preserved and available in a printed reproduction. Regarding tempos, articulations and dynamics, for instance, he describes these as “barnacles” that remind me of Toscanini's definition of musical “tradition” as “the last bad performance.”

He also points out that Liszt does not mark a single pedaling in the piece until he reaches m.105 – not that he thought you shouldn't use the pedal until then: like most pianists, he would be aware pedaling was not only a personal interpretation, but also depended on the instrument and the performance venue. These days, students are used to using editions where every pedal indication is taken as gospel and nothing (or very little) is left to the interpretive imagination.

Also, an articulation concerning the third motive to be heard – after the leaping figure with its descending arpeggio, it's that bass-register figure with its repeated notes with its own up-beat figure – that up-beat figure, rather than resolving on-on-the-beat as it's most easy to play, should be kept separate from the up-beat. For one thing, it's what Liszt wrote. In reality, it helps keep the beat steady. I've heard too many performances of this where things just start rushing and you begin to lose sight of the pulse. By following the composer's notation, you can actually keep things clearer. Imagine that!

Here is the complete video which I highly recommend for pianists, piano students, and anyone interested in how an artist turns those notes written on a page into sounds you can hear and enjoy.

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THE FORENSIC MUSICOLOGIST STRIKES AGAIN

The Forensic Musicologist in me wishes to point out just a few “things” that may have consciously influenced Liszt (or not) or where Liszt may have paid tribute (consciously or not) to the past (usually Beethoven). For instance, at one point, he breaks into a free passage marked “recitative” which is an operatic convention in which a singer, in a speech-like phrase not quite melodic, sets up something dramatic to come. In terms of piano music, Beethoven used this in his “Tempest” Sonata though he was very vague about why this suddenly appears (in response, Beethoven told his friend, “read The Tempest” which of course led to its being known as the “Tempest” Sonata).

Speaking of Beethoven...

Liszt's big Fugue theme, an expansion of the Sonata's 2nd and 3rd Motives, is similar in more than just shape to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge introduction with its wide intervals, even to the use of its dotted rhythms that occur a little later.

Curiously - and I think such a coincidence is highly curious - Beethoven's fugue is for a quartet expected to end in B-flat Major, yet the fugue subject is first introduced in G (whether that's G Major or minor or some other key is, also curiously, vague). Liszt's Sonata, advertised as B Minor, also begins with octaves and a vague scale on G before the 2nd Motive begins with its upward octave leaps - on G! Hmmm...

Liszt, despite his abilities as an organist, was not known for writing fugues (though he did – in fact, all composers had to when they were students, for better or worse) so the sudden appearance of this one is startling enough. The academic tribute to Beethoven could've been nothing more than “See, I can do that, too!” Or not.

Wotan's "Spear" Motive, The Ring of the Nibelung
The scalar passage at the opening of the Sonata reminds people of Wotan's “Spear” Motive from Wagner's Ring except in early-1853, when Liszt finished the Sonata, Wagner had not yet begun composing the Ring's music (Liszt finished the sonata in Feb 1853; Wagner didn't begin composing the music of Rheingold until Nov 1853, though it's possible he might have sketched thematic (motivic) ideas earlier – and most likely Liszt had started work on his Sonata (this is the opening material, after all) already in 1849... keep in mind also, Liszt was writing in Weimar, Wagner was living in exile in Switzerland following the 1849 uprisings in Saxony and was under “pain of arrest and execution for treason” should he be caught entering the German states!

Would Liszt have sent him a copy of the Sonata? Perhaps, but the printed edition wasn't available until 1854. So it's just one of those “there are only so many notes to go around” kind of coincidences, perhaps... Did Liszt write a letter to Wagner and say “hey, dig this idea I'm using to open my sonata”? Did Wagner think “wow, that'd make a cool 'Law of the Gods' motive for my new opera...”?

Vernacular aside, one can't really be sure. Somewhere I have a volume of “The Letters of Wagner & Liszt” which seems not to have been unpacked followed the last move, but since this is not meant to be a scholarly article with a specific thesis to prove, let this pass for the moment (on the other hand, I've never heard reference to any such correspondence regarding Liszt's Sonata which is not to say it might not exist). [You can check it here, if you're so inclined: at the moment, time, as usual, eludes me.]

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As other writers have found in Liszt's sonata, the music fairly screams for a screen-play: what does all this dramatic music mean?

Given that 1849 was the Centennial of the Birth of Goethe and everybody – including Hector Berlioz and Schumann – was writing Faust pieces after Goethe's greatest work, it's not difficult to see the standard battle between Good and Evil in Liszt's abstract piano sonata. There are passages that could certainly be labeled “Mephistopheles” and “Gretchen” (she becomes Marguerite in Gounod's French adaptation), and if Faust himself isn't represented by a tune, his conflict is certainly behind the music as he's torn between the Devil and the Woman he loves.

And, the year after he'd finished the sonata, yes, Liszt too began work on a “Faust piece,” his vast three-movement symphony he called “A Faust Symphony” with a movement for each main character (speaking of revisions, Liszt added the choral ending three years later).

Other writers have heard in its music John Milton's Paradise Lost or the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, or simply some autobiographical incident (oh, my...). The problem with such interpretations – I remember reading Melville's Moby-Dick was actually an allegory about the Railroad Industry vs the Great Plains... – is that the creative artist may never have expressly said “This is about...” or “that theme represents...” much less had the opportunity to refute such hypotheses.

Given Liszt's often programmatic mind – he had written the first six of his symphonic poems (stories-told-in-music) in the previous three years – it's quite possible one scenario or another might have presented itself to him during the process of composing the Sonata, but just as one could argue that Beethoven's 5th is about his deafness (since he did specifically mention the “Fate-knocks-at-the-door” motive), isn't it more important to leave it to the listener to decide how to listen to the music?

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mark Markham: 4x3 with Scriabin, Debussy & Rachmaninoff

Who: Mark Markham, pianist
What: Four works each by Scriabin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff on the first half; and Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor on the second
When: Wednesday (March 21st, 2018), at 8pm SNOW UPDATE: RESCHEDULED for THURSDAY (March 22nd) at 8pm at Whitaker
Where: Whitaker Center, 222 Market Street in downtown Harrisburg (parking available in the connecting Walnut Street Garage, between 3rd and 2nd Streets)
Tickets: $35, $30 seniors (65+); $5 college students, free admission for K-12 age students with $10 ticket for one accompanying adult.

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NOTE: It's one of those Central Pennsylvania Things-That-Happen -- you program Debussy's prelude "Footsteps in the Snow" on the first full day of Spring and you get your 4th Nor'Easter in 3 weeks, but this one's enough to cause us to RESCHEDULE THE CONCERT FOR THURSDAY (3-22-18) at 8pm at Whitaker...

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It's one of those Central Pennsylvania Residencies when Market Square Concerts joins with the Harrisburg Symphony to present one artist to appear on both their series – and to present a master class at Messiah College. This season, it's pianist Mark Markham who, in addition to being a piano soloist, has been a collaborative pianist (a better term than “accompanist”) with many vocalists like Jessye Norman and who has taught at Peabody School of Music as a vocal coach. So he'll play Ravel's G Major Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony at the Forum this weekend – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm – and offer two master classes: Monday's for vocalists at 5:00, and Tuesday's for pianists at 4:00, both in Messiah College's High Foundation Recital Hall. Then, the Market Square Concerts recital will be Wednesday at 8:00 at Whitaker Center. (I'm not sure why they call these “residencies” because usually the schedules are so jam-packed there's hardly any time to sit still...!)

The program for Wednesday's recital – the focus for these two posts – might look a bit lop-sided. On the first half, there are three composers with four works each (actually two pairs of works each) by Alexander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Rachmaninoff – so, a total of 12 relatively short works but arranged in such an order to present a lot of dramatic and emotional contrast.

Then, on the second half, there's only one piece... however, it's one of the giants, if not “monsters,” of the 19th Century, the Piano Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt, one of the towering pianists of the century who was also a trail-blazing composer both revered and reviled by his contemporaries. (You can read it in this subsequent post.)

You can hear some audio clips of Mark Markham's performances on his website, here. And there's an in-depth article about Mark and how he became a pianist, one who's worked for 20 years with soprano Jessye Norman, and studied with Ann Schein, here.

Have you ever wondered why an artist selects the music on the program? In something of a rarity, the program notes includes a commentary by the artist, which concludes with this telling observation:

“Today's program on paper looks very structured for obvious reasons,” Markham writes, “the titles of the works: preludes, etudes and a sonata. Of course, I tried to select pieces with contrasting moods, but the longer I worked on this combination of music, I realized that there was a common element that I had never consciously thought about, which was holding the program together. From the very first measure of the first Scriabin prelude to the very last note of the Liszt Sonata, it is there. Listen for them: Ringing. Tolling. Celebrating. Chiming. Exalting. Delicately. Proudly. Joyfully. Ominously. Mystically. Inviting us. Guiding us. Warning us. Uniting us. Penetrating our souls. They are everywhere, in all shapes, colors and sizes, just like us. Vibrating and resonating in harmony. Showing us the way.”

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Rather than post a video for each of the twelve pieces – a nice round number considering composers often wrote etudes and preludes in sets of 12 – I'm just going to give you a sample pair from each of Markham's three sets.

Scriabin in 1892
First up is a pair of preludes, then a pair of etudes by Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin, all composed between 1887 and 1895 when he was between the ages of 15 and 23! Initially inspired by the music of Chopin, his later music would strain against the traditional boundaries of tonality until eventually he was composing with chords that had no resemblance to what his audience was familiar with. These pieces, however, are full of an intense romanticism that became the bedrock of a Russian school of piano-playing and -writing that reached a more popular climax in the world of Rachmaninoff (coming up...).

Scriabin's Etude Op. 2/1 in C# minor – hard to imagine this is by a teenager – is played here by Vladimir Horowitz during his historic return to Moscow in 1986, telecast live when he was 82.

The emotion of the performance is striking enough, here – perhaps the emotion behind this performance, the pianist's first trip back to his homeland since leaving it when he was 22 – but sometimes it is just as telling to watch an audience listening to the music.

A more recent Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev, performed Scriabin's Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 in 2015 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Even at 22, you can already hear many of Scriabin's musical fingerprints including the sprawling left-hand arpeggios stretching across wide intervals.









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Claude Debussy wrote two books of Preludes, each one inspired by a particular image or story and usually described as “impressionistic.” A few years later, his music became less “picturesque” and more abstract, and he composed two books of Etudes, each given a title about the technical difficulty each work presented for the performer.

The 24 Preludes, issued in two "books," were completed by 1910 when he was 47; the 24 Etudes, also published in two books, were completed in Paris in 1915, a year into the horrors of what we know as World War I. He was also already ill with cancer and would die before the end of the war in 1918. Next Sunday, in fact, March 25th, will mark the 100th Anniversary of his death.

The 7th Prelude from Book 1 is entitled “Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest” (or “What the west wind saw”) and was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Garden of Paradise,” a rather grim story which ends with Death approaching a young prince and warning him to atone for his sins since one day he will come for him and "clap him in the black coffin".

In this performance, the pianist is Eloïse Bella Kohn.


While you may be familiar with some of the more gentle preludes like “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” or “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the snow') which opens the Debussy set on this program (just to remind us that snow is still possible even after the first day of Spring...), this prelude is dramatic and technically challenging – and perhaps unsettling, if you're thinking “oh, fairy tale, how cute is this going to be?” Debussy very carefully placed this prelude between the two easiest of this set of preludes – easier in the sense of technical demands as well as listening – no doubt for a greater emotional impact.

Debussy c.1912
Debussy is one of the most “visually-oriented” composers I know, practically everything intending to tell a tale or depict a scene whether it's a painting or some image, or a visually evocative description that can be as vague as “Sails” wafting in the winds. In that sense, his music can be called “impressionistic” whether it is a musical equivalent to the painters' style of the time or not.

But the Etudes are less well-known. Perhaps the reality of the war, so close to his home in Paris, changed his perspective, but in this last phase of his life, perhaps better described as a “mid-life style change” – he was only 55 when he died, by the way – he was becoming more interested in “classical forms,” writing sonatas and these “abstract” etudes focusing on technical demands rather than imagistic sonorities. About the Etudes, he wrote they were "a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands."

Markham plays two of them – the one “for the octaves,” prefaced by this one, “pour les sonorités opposées (for opposing sonorities).” It may sound very much like one of the Preludes, full of those layers of lush “sonorities” which define so much of his earlier, more “impressionistic” works and which require skills of touch to balance the different layers. I've posted a recording of Walter Gieseking's with a score so you can see how the layers are written out sometimes on three rather than the traditional two staves for the piano. Or, at 0:52, how a staccato (separated) line in the middle has to be played against the legato (sustained) lines in the upper part of the same hand. Notice also how, initially, the left hand is playing above the right hand.

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Rachmaninoff in 1910
Along with Scriabin, Rachmaninoff is part of a great Romantic school of Russian Piano-Playing – both as performers as well as composers. World War I and, here more importantly the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution, had an impact, no doubt influencing Scriabin's more adventuresome (if not “experimental”) late style – who knows where his music might have ventured if he hadn't died in 1915? In Rachmaninoff's case, the Revolution prompted him, a son of the wealthy aristocratic class, to leave his homeland behind, a move that forever affected his ability to compose – well, that, and the need to become a full-time performer to earn money.

Still, the four works Markham closes the first half of the program with were all composed within a period of six years, around the same time Debussy was writing his four works on the program: the Preludes of Op.32 in 1910 and the Etudes-tableux in two sets between 1911 and 1916. At the time, Rachmaninoff was between his late-30s and early-40s. It is hard to imagine a composer of such great concertos – the famous Third was composed in 1909 – essentially giving up composing when he was in his mid-40s. The last work in this set – the impassioned Etude-tableaux Op. 39/9 in D Major of 1916 – was essentially the last work he completed before fleeing his homeland a year later.

Here is Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Minor, Op. 32/10 recorded by David Fung in Brussels in 2013:


And here is Rachmaninoff's Etude-tableaux in D Major, Op. 39/9 with a young pianist I've not heard of before, but this performance impresses the hell out of me: Szymon Nehring, performing at a festival called “Chopin and his Europe” in Warsaw in 2016. Notice how both of these pieces are full of bell-like sounds. The Russians - not just Rachmaninoff - love their bells!

(With Liszt on the second half, I just have to include this link to Nehring's encore to that recital, one of Franz Liszt's more virtuosic bits, the 5th of the Transcendental Etudes, “Feux follets (Will o'the Wisps).”

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To keep this from becoming one of those book-length posts, I'll save Liszt's epic Sonata for the next installment which you can read here.

- Dick Strawser 

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Escher Quartet: Alexander Zemlinsky, from A to Z

Zemlinsky by Emil Orlik
With this post on Alexander Zemlinsky's last string quartet, we come to the end of the series about February's Market Square Concerts program with the Escher Quartet on Sunday at 4pm at uptown-Harrisburg's Temple Ohev Sholom. You can read a general introduction (including a video of the complete concert they performed in November 2016) and about the quartet by Dvořák on the program in the first post; and about Bartók and his 3rd Quartet in the second

The music on this program originates in a fairly limited geographic area of Central Europe – from Prague to Budapest and back to Vienna – that would fit into an area roughly covering the distance from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. The works were written within a span of 41 years. While the Bartók quartet may sound more “modern,” the Zemlinsky quartet is chronologically the most recent of the three, composed in 1936.

And going from Dvořák/Prague/1895 to Bartók/Budapest/1927 to Zemlinsky/Vienna/1936 also takes us from the more familiar to the most likely unknown.

Who is Alexander Zemlinsky (or as you might sometimes see him, Alexander von Zemlinsky)?

I admit I'm not that familiar with his music and though I've listened to a few recordings of his works, I don't recall ever hearing anything of his “live,” or (more damning) remembering anything beyond a general curiosity: the fact his music never grabbed me quite the way hearing Bartók's 3rd did when I was a student, reflects more on me than on Zemlinsky, but it's often the fate of composers who, thinking of the Olympics we've been experiencing the past two weeks, never made it onto the medals podium at the end...

Considering how little of Zemlinsky or his music is known, I decided to opt for a more complete life-long biography rather than just discussing the work-in-question. I apologize for the length (if I had more time, I would have written less).

Feel free to scroll down till you find the music videos if you don't have the time or inclination to read everything. But also remember, you can return to the post and read it after the concert. It is – trust me – an interesting story and worth the effort.

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One of the things that fascinates me about him is how a composer with the connections he had never attained a more enduring reputation? He had the backing of no less than Johannes Brahms at the start of his career; and it was a similar kind of mentoring that could've developed into the same kind of sponsorship Brahms gave Dvořák if only the Grand Old Man had lived longer. Along the way, he was championed by Gustav Mahler who conducted two of his operas in Vienna, the first when he was 29. With his friend, sometime student, and eventual brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg, he was regarded as a leading light in Vienna's “new music scene.” As a member of various musical organizations in a city full of such “clubs,” he was regarded as an influential musician, teacher, and composer in a city loaded with composers, most of whom are even more unknown than Zemlinsky (if we continue the Olympic analogy, ones who never made it to posterity's preliminary rounds).

Zemlinsky is, in a way, an ethnic miniature of the Austrian Empire, a polyglot political patchwork that imposed Germanic culture across most of Central and South-Eastern Europe from the 16th Century to the end of World War I. His paternal grandfather was of Polish Catholic descent who was born in a part of Hungary now in Slovakia who married an Austrian woman. His maternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo in the Balkans (previously part of the Ottoman [Turkish] Empire) who married a Bosnian Muslim woman. When Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871, the entire family had been converted to the Jewish faith. For some reason, the composer's father had added the aristocratic “von” to his name, but as soon as Alexander was gaining recognition as a composer, he dropped the “von” which was, essentially, if not illegal, at least pretentious.

Zemlinsky in 1898
Like many Jews – Mahler, included – there was little hope of advancement or official state recognition unless you converted and so in 1899, Zemlinsky became a Lutheran (which I find odd, considering Austria's bureaucratic government treated Catholicism as a state religion). Not that it mattered, in the long run: like Mahler and like Mendelssohn before them, they were born Jews and therefore always a target of the wide-spread anti-Semitism of 19th-Century German culture that made them and their music a target of the Nazi regime well into the 20th.

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Most of what we know of Zemlinsky orbits around the peripheries of three people: Schoenberg, Mahler, and a composition student of his who would later become Mrs. Gustav Mahler (and would eventually marry the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel) – Alma Schindler.

In 1900, Gustav Mahler accepted Zemlinsky's new opera, a fairy-tale story called Es war einmal (the German equivalent of “Once upon a Time”). He was 29 and it seemed his whole future was quickly opening before him.

Shortly after the relatively successful premiere (the opera ran for a dozen performances, at least), Zemlinsky was having dinner at a friend's in late-February where he found himself chatting with a beautiful young lady who was studying composition but who had not yet seen Es war einmal though she was quite a fan of the conductor, Mahler. He suggested she should make an appointment to meet him, impressing her with his connection.

Alma Schindler in 1900
In her diary, Alma Schindler confided, “Spent most of the evening talking with Alexander Zemlinsky, the [29]-year-old composer of Es war einmal. He's dreadfully ugly, almost chinless – yet I found him quite enthralling.” The conversation turned to the music of Wagner whom she considered “the greatest genius that ever lived.” When she told him her favorite work of his was Tristan (with its celebration of adulterous love), she wrote “that so delighted him, he became entirely transformed. He grew truly handsome. Now we understood each other. I find him quite wonderful. I shall invite him to call [on me].”

Eventually, Zemlinsky became her composition teacher (it's quite possible he was more dazzled by her beauty than her musical talent) and wrote maddeningly passionate love-letters to her. As one source put it, “she tortured him for about a year” before finally breaking off their relationship on the advice of her family who's primary objection was he was Jewish as well as ugly. Alma's diaries are full of anti-Semitic comments, yet two of her three future husbands were Jewish – Mahler and Franz Werfel. In 1901, Alma Schindler began seeing Mahler and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married in 1902 – once Alma promised to give up composing (he insisted he wanted a wife, not a colleague).

More to the point of Zemlinsky's music, let's return to his friendship with Schoenberg. They'd met around 1895 (the year Dvořák composed his last quartet) when Zemlinsky founded an amateur orchestra in which one of the cellists was a self-taught would-be composer named Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky, though only three years older, gave Schoenberg advice and general instruction about his compositional endeavors, and they became close friends. In 1898, Schoenberg converted to the Lutheran faith – he would later, in the face of the Nazi occupation of Austria, reconvert to his Jewish roots before fleeing to the United States – and in 1901 he married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde.

Gerstl's Group Portrait with the Schoenbergs
It would not be an entirely happy marriage: by the summer of 1908, Mathilde was having an affair with Schoenberg's painter-friend, Richard Gerstl, and actually left her family to live with him (it was during this time, he composed his 2nd String Quartet which includes his first foray into atonality in its last movement). She eventually returned to her husband and Gerstl subsequently burned most of his paintings and committed suicide.

[Gerstl's painting, by the way – see above – was done that summer and consists of three couples: Arnold and Mathilde Schoenberg (standing) with Alexander and Ida Zemlinsky (seated in front) with another couple that (not surprisingly) cannot be identified.]

Mathilde died in the fall of 1923 and the following summer, Schoenberg married the sister of a pupil of his, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who would found a quartet that would champion Schoenberg's music.

Now, I mention all of this because – regardless of the argument against the impact of biographical details on a composer's music – these events had a direct influence on Zemlinsky's music.

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But first, let's hear a little bit of what Zemlinsky sounded like before he wrote the quartet we'll hear on Sunday's program: the Escher Quartet has recorded all four of Zemlinsky's quartets, and here they play the opening movement of his 1st Quartet (listen to a few minutes of the opening if you don't have time for the whole thing):


The 1st Quartet was written during the time Brahms had arranged a monthly stipend for the 25-year-old composer so he could concentrate on writing, and after its premiere in 1896 (compare this “sound-world” to Dvořák's last quartet in the first post), Brahms told friends it was “bursting with talent,” though he objected to some of its “modernist” tendencies in an awkward private conversation with its young composer. Basically, he pulled out a score of a Mozart string quintet, pointed out a particular passage as “perfection” and said quite matter-of-factly, “that is the tradition handed down from Mozart – to me.”

Zemlinsky's 2nd Quartet was begun in 1913 in the years following the episode in which his sister had run off with the painter Gerstl, and reflects the emotional turmoil he felt and observed both his sister and her husband going through. This is far from an abstract work built on forms and harmonic formulas! Completed in 1915, the quartet was dedicated to Schoenberg.

It's a vast, dramatic expanse lasting some 40-45 minutes, full of musical cyphers where motives are associated with people or events and sometimes motives that act like “code” created from a person's name. He assigns one three-note motive, D-E-G, to “the self” (basically, himself) and by transposing it to A-B-D, adds an E to create “Mathilde,” keeping in mind B in German is represented by H (that's how you can spell B-A-C-H in musical pitches): so, we have mAtHilDE.

The quartet opens with “The Self” motive as if Zemlinsky is the observer, the teller-of-the-tale. One also hears a chord – a D Minor triad with an added G-sharp – which becomes a “code-sonority” for “Fate,” something Zemlinsky used frequently in many of his later works, as well.


In the intervening 17 years, Zemlinsky's style has gone from being heavily influenced by Brahms to absorbing the chromaticism of Wagner's Tristan. Keep in mind, Schoenberg wrote his Wagnerian Verklärte Nacht by 1900 and his atonal break-through piece, Pierrot Lunaire, in 1912. While Zemlinsky has gone much farther afield from Brahms' advice than the Grand Old Man could ever have imagined, he has never gone nearly as far as Schoenberg: despite the intensity of his chromatic harmony, this quartet is still distinctly tonal and reminds me more of Schoenberg's own 1st Quartet (also in D Minor) from 1905 (and also in one unbroken span of about 45 minutes).

Zemlinsky & Schoenberg
A few years before he wrote the 2nd Quartet, Zemlinsky moved to Prague to become the chief conductor of the provincial German “National” Theater. He was responsible for productions of some 50 operas per season which left him very little time to compose. He wrote two operas of his own and then, in the early-1920s, a vast seven-movement symphony with baritone and soprano soloists setting translations of poems by the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. In scope, this work was inspired by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth,” setting Chinese poets, with tenor and alto soloists). Zemlinsky called his work the “Lyric Symphony” and premiered it in 1924. It is generally considered his greatest work.

He also realized he had taken his style about as far as it could go and so he fell into a period of silence as he tried to figure out what he might write next, what he could do to find inspiration – not unusual for composers facing a “style change.”

Zemlinsky with Cigar
Then two things happened: a festival of contemporary music was held in Prague that year and while Zemlinsky conducted Schoenberg's Erwartung, his vast and psychologically intense monodrama in a totally atonal style, he also heard many new composers he'd been unaware of before. All these different nationalities and styles got his creative juices flowing again.

Then, later that same year, his sister Mathilde died. It was customary in the Jewish tradition for the surviving spouse to wait till the end of the official “year of mourning” before remarrying, but Zemlinsky was shocked when Schoenberg announced two months before the mourning period ended that he was marrying Gertrude Kolisch. Whether Zemlinsky saw this as a “substitution” for his sister or not, he clearly was very distressed by Schoenberg's decision. (Admittedly, this doesn't make a lot of sense to me since, by this time, neither was still active in the Jewish faith, and while Zemlinsky never considered himself religious, his widow told his biographer in the 1980s “My husband did not consider himself Jewish,” but that's another story.)

Around this time, Schoenberg had gathered his friends and students together to introduce his new ideas about “composing with twelve tones,” a systematic approach to organizing pitches in lieu of tonality – and for that matter, the arbitrariness of atonality – something that later became known as “serialism” and something which Zemlinsky opposed. As much as he was interested in the expansion of chromaticism – not to mention working with “numerology” – Zemlinsky was never comfortable with abandoning tonality completely: he felt that would be ignoring the spirit of nature. In the “Theme & Variations” of the 3rd Quartet, then, he parodies Schoenberg's new “serial” style.



By now, Zemlinsky's own musical voice had become less reliant on internal creative processes and more on external reactive impressions: from the imitations of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde to parodying Schoenberg's serialism. While the new operas he began composing at this time – when he had time – were lush, post-Romantic scores that often ended in some kind of utopian D Major, it was his last quartet that came directly out of his emotions but again inspired by external events: in this case, the death of his close friend, Alban Berg, who died suddenly just before Christmas of 1935.

By this time, Zemlinsky left Berlin with its increasing presence of the Nazi Party and returned to Vienna. His new quartet, started almost immediately after Berg's funeral, became a Requiem for his friend – just as his 3rd Quartet had begun as a threnody for his sister Mathilde. He was always more attuned to Berg's more flexible approach to Schoenberg's styles (both atonal and serial) and since Berg had quoted from Zemlinsky's “Lyric Symphony” in his 1926 string quartet, the Lyric Suite, and dedicated it to Zemlinsky, Zemlinsky in turn wrote a string quartet he subtitled “Suite” – like Berg's, in six movements – though without the intricate and highly personal program (which Zemlinsky was certainly unaware of). [For links to Berg's Lyric Suite, see the previous post for its references regarding the inspiration for Bartók's 3rd Quartet.]

It's not really “six” movements but rather three pairs of movements: each pair being, in a way, reflections of the same material but presented in different and often violently contrasting ways – the way, for instance, memories and a sense of grief can unexpectedly turn into incomprehension and rage.

The first movement serves the purpose, as an introduction, of both a chorale and a funeral march in music that reflects Berg's melodic style but sometimes, in the contrapuntal texture, a conversation of mourners. The “burlesque” of the second movement – in the sense of being a parody – with its scurrying frenzy (reminiscent of the famous 3rd movement of Berg's “Lyric Suite”), takes on an entirely different and often violent surface.

Preludium

Burlesque


The third movement, an adagietto, unwinds slowly in dense threads that might bring to mind Wagner's chromaticism by way of Berg's. In contrast, the Intermezzo is clearly a jazzy if at times delicate, understated dance, before breaking out in a slightly cheeky remembrance of good times past.

Adagietto

Intermezzo


As the Intermezzo's rowdiness subsides, the composer – represented by the cello solo – is left alone with his thoughts in what becomes the theme for a set of variations, a truly elegiac moment and the most personal music of the entire quartet (if not all four of Zemlinsky's quartets). The elegy – labeled “Barcarolle” or “Gondola Song” – is passed from one player to another, accompanied by a haze of reminiscences in the others.

The finale – perhaps thinking back not only to Berg's often complex counterpoint but also the performance Zemlinsky conducted in the mid-1930s of an orchestration of Bach's Art of Fugue – is a Double Fugue that parodies the motive that opens the Elegy. This again reminds me of an overt reference to Berg's Lyric Suite. The movement ends in a blast of “tonal resolution” with the fugue subject in unison, sounding less “modern” than Beethoven's Grosse Fuge and not, perhaps, what one might expect from a work with such mournful origins.

Theme & Variations: Barcarolle

Double Fugue


But as with his operas of the mid-'30s ending with their “utopian optimism,” perhaps even in such a state, Zemlinsky was not yet ready to end his memorial tribute with any sense of negativity – or abandonment of tonality despite the intense chromaticism of the rest of the work – to fade away into nothingness the way Berg ended his Lyric Suite, in desolation.

As luck (or lack of luck) would have it, Zemlinsky had little chance to write much more after this 4th Quartet. In 1938, when the Nazis occupied Vienna, Zemlinsky and his wife Louise fled once more, this time through Prague to Holland, arriving in New York City just after Christmastime, nearly broke. About six months later, he suffered a severe stroke and was no longer able to compose. Several subsequent strokes weakened his health. When his brother-in-law arrived from Europe in 1942 with the remains of his wife's family's fortune, they were able to buy a house in suburban New Rochelle. Four days after they moved in, Zemlinsky died at the age of 70.

It is not a pleasant story, this life, and after putting it together for you, I find I am even more curious about why Zemlinsky – receiving the support of Brahms and Mahler when he was in his 20s, and given the connections he knew – never realized his potential. It is hard to think of him as a failure – given the American attitude about competition, “you don't win the silver: you lose the gold” – but sometimes it makes you wonder why, for some, life (and fame) can be so unforgiving.

Dick Strawser