Monday, January 26, 2009

Cabbages & Turnips Couldn't Keep Me Away

After some brain-numbing cold weather and too few days of what may pass for the January Thaw, it was great to see a good turn-out at Whitaker Center for Matthew Bengtson’s recital on Sunday afternoon, the first concert of the new year for Market Square Concerts.

(Pictured are Market Square Concerts director Ellen Hughes with composer Jeremy Gill and pianist Matthew Bengtson.)

The program was neatly divided into two halves, starting with an emotional work from the end of the 19th Century in Alexander Scriabin’s first piano sonata, followed by works of the more recent end of the 20th Century (and start of the present century) before going back 260 years to a work that is often considered intimidating even, sometimes, to the initiated (though its reputation outweighs the actual experience).

For people who like to avoid something unfamiliar, this would be a challenging approach to building a program: where’s my Beethoven and Mozart? For those who fear anything written past 1900, at least there was Bach even if the Goldberg Variations can have a reputation as a daunting mountain climb. For those tired of the “same old/same old,” it was a refreshing way to explore both the unfamiliar and one of the great masterpieces, infrequently heard live or not, in something that promised more than just a chance to come in out of the cold.

More pianists today may be playing Scriabin’s sonatas than before – his shorter works find themselves more frequently grouped together in place of or in contrast to similar pieces by his idol Chopin or his colleague Rachmaninoff – but the 1st is not likely to fall prey to over-exposure. It might be closer to Chopin in sound and closer to Rachmaninoff in spirit than some of the later sonatas which quickly begin to push the limits on both what the piano can do and what a sonata can be, yet every time I hear it, it always amazes me how early Scriabin had found his voice, in the year he had turned 20, no matter how far afield he would later go. The motor-like build up of rage that permeates the third movement, marked “Presto” but hardly the typical scherzo, breaks off suddenly as it build up to what could become a terrifying climax, then collapses into the funereal last movement. Using only a limited register of the keyboard to create a shattering response, this is the emotional out-come of a hand-injury that seemed likely to destroy the young composer’s hopes for a concert career. Small wonder than Scriabin himself only ever played the sonata once in public.

There is a stylistic trait in some of Scriabin’s later music – I’m thinking especially of one of his late works, Vers la flamme (from 1914) – that unhinge the piano from not only traditional virtuosic gestures (you can watch Vladimir Horowitz, getting down to shirtsleeves, play it here) but also from traditional harmonic gestures with chords built on intervals other than those that create standard chords and they way they would normally move (you can follow Horowitz’s performance here with the score).

Two of the short pieces by Luciano Berio which Bengtson played next explore the piano as a percussion instrument, creating a variety of sounds similarly freed from the previous century’s standard-operating-procedure – the Scriabin-like sound-world most clearly in the “Air-Piano” piece with its quick repeated notes and wispy roulades of sounds spinning off in different directions (here’s a performance you can watch that will give you an idea - not even close, btw, to “Air-Guitar”).

The different layers of sound – like the melody-plus-accompaniment (and possibly plus-inner-harmony) of Beethoven or Brahms that we heard in the Scriabin and then refracted in the Berio may be more challenging for the listener to define in the space-shifting world of Elliott Carter.

Composer Jeremy Gill, whose work on the program was a “sequel” of sorts to Carter’s “90+,” also served economically as both guest commentator and page-turner, explaining how Carter created this brief five-minute world out of 90 different accented pitches around which others flow or contrast. Since the work was written to celebrate the 90th birthday of fellow composer Goffredo Petrassi, this play on 90 continued the way most renditions of “Happy Birthday” conclude: “and many moooooore!” So Carter creates a pattern that he then directs the pianist to repeat “at will,” extending birthday wishes with a series of musical pluses, + + + +...

In the work that Gill wrote to honor Carter on his then-impending 100th Birthday, he took this final figure from “90+” as a starting point and wrote a series of fragments of maybe four minutes’ length, total, each one inscribed by lines from the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Carter himself is an inveterate punster when it comes to titles and dedications. A solo violin piece for Robert Mann of the original Juilliard Quartet is based on the notes D and E – in Italian, Re and Mi – or R.M., the dedicatee’s initials which also finds it way into the title, “Rhapsodic Musings.” A short birthday tribute to composer and conductor Oliver Knussen is called “Au quai” which would be pronounced “O.K.,” the dedicatee’s initials, okay? So poet Eliot for composer Elliott in Gill’s fragments is not a misprint.

Surprisingly, the first sound Gill spins off from Carter’s “many more” is what might seem a pretty banal C Major chord, as if he’s tweaking one of the most rigorous non-tonal composers of the 20th Century. But if you look at the raw material Carter utilizes to create his sound-world, you can divide and subdivide them into various combinations of notes, some of which might well include standard chords from the past. Gill explained that, in the past, composers may have found inspiration in limited options but today, a young composer can pick and choose not just from the present-day world and the immediate past but also going back centuries and into different lands all together. It made me think also of the comment Schoenberg once made to his students, this creator of a sound-world that seemingly rejected everything C Major stood for, by saying “there is still a lot of great music that can be written in C Major.” As the end can also be found in the beginning – the first fragment’s epigram is “In my end is my beginning”; the last’s, “But our beginnings never know our ends” (I’m thinking also of a song by 14th Century composer Guillaume de Machaut) – Gill ends his piece with another C Major chord. In between, he creates brief – too brief, for me – rhapsodies (barely long enough to be musings) on a tonality, a texture, a sonority, an accented beat.

One of the more fascinating sounds he creates use “sympathetic vibrations” with the overtones of a piano’s strings.

Overall, I was sorry they weren’t either longer or more developed. He quipped that it was taking longer to explain the pieces than it did to play them. It was also a nice touch to pause only briefly between Carter’s ending and Gill’s beginning to catch the quotation, though some people around me may not have been aware we had moved on to the next piece.

Bengtson described the three etudes by György Ligeti – concluding the first set of six – as jazz-inspired pieces. I had landed on a quote used in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of them describing the inspirational process from the realm of African music and not just the common ground African music and American jazz might share. Even though you might be hard pressed to hear overt quotations from either realm, what a composer absorbs into his own voice is often very personal, if only the result of a response, “wow, I like that – how can I do that ‘my way’?” That became more obvious when Bengtson described the second etude as jazz pianist “Bill Evans playing a Chopin Nocturne.”

Here, the pianist took the time to dissect different aspects of the etudes – particularly the rhythmic complexities of the last of the set, with its descending figures in three and four different “tempos” – which helped listeners make better sense out of them when he put them back together for the performance. At the end, a lot of people responded to it as if he had been playing Chopin himself, finding a comfort level in what others might dismiss as noise when really it was only unfamiliar.

I was surprised to look at my watch and see the second half of this concert was going to begin at 5:27. Having started a little past 4:00, a first half of short fragments almost 90 minutes long implied the second half – one work of 32 small components – might make for a long second half. The Goldberg Variations - which I posted about here and here - have been known to clock in in excess of an hour or more, after all.

But once I realized Bengtson had chosen a less languid tempo than I had become accustomed to for the Aria and was not going to be taking the repeats, it was ironic that his Bach was shorter than the combined sound-bytes on the first half: in all, the second half took about 37 minutes.

For anyone who equates quantity with quality, Glenn Gould’s later recording takes 51 minutes in 1970 as opposed to the 38 minutes of his 1955 debut recording. By comparison, Simone Dinnerstein’s hypnotic recording (one of my personal favorites) takes over 78 minutes. And yet, it’s the same piece of music.

In addition to not taking the repeats, Bengtson’s approach was more “classically” minded than other, more “romanticized” recordings or performances you may be familiar with. This may be due to his also playing the harpsichord which has its own sound-world and could not possibly sustain the tempos many modern pianists (on a nine-foot concert grand) may choose to superimpose on Bach’s music (because they can). It makes the argument that “historically informed performers” would apply to music that has been stretched beyond recognition by a more modern, more emotional preference for slower tempos. Though Bach doesn’t give us specific tempos for each variation, the question is not how fast he played them but how he played them fast.

Still, after the last variation's quotation of a popular song (unrecognized by us, these days) with the line “Cabbages and Turnips have kept me away,” the return of the Aria at the very end was still a moment of magic.

He brought it neatly around, then, with an encore by Scriabin, the first of his Op. 3 Mazurkas, the end-in-the-beginning aspect aside, but I wouldn’t have minded if he played all of the Variations again, not because I expect someone to take all the repeats but just because it’s so wonderful to savor this music in a live performance.

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

By the way, for those of you who may be reading one of my post-concert posts for the first time, I’m not trying to be a critic. I dislike being one and would prefer to leave that to those who are either trained for it or by inclination are capable of dealing with it. I prefer writing about the experience of the performance rather than whether those notes in the left-hand were as clean as they should’ve been and so forth. It amused me to find this article on-line this morning, so I’d like to quote one paragraph from it:
- - - - -
[Tom] Moon, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer before he left to write his new book, “1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die,” believes the biggest difference between old reviews and reviews now is that in the past, the critic’s job was to give readers a deeper sense of the work. But blogs’ rise has led to what Moon calls a “megaphone” culture. “People think that their own reaction is more important than the work itself,” he says. “It’s a lazy way to write.”
- - - - -

Instead, I prefer writing what one friend described as “essays about the concert-experience,” another friend accusing me of trying to revive the feuilleton, whatever that is.

And, to quote Lord Chesterfield’s comment to his son, “If I had more time, I would have written less.”

-- Dr. Dick

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Road Map to the Goldberg Variations

How is it possible to describe one of the great works of Western Art in 25,000 words or less? You have a chance to hear it live this weekend when Matthew Bengtson plays it at Whitaker Center at 4pm - but what if you are relatively new to the Goldberg Variations?

I’ve already posted about the “Human Side” of a work that is often considered Divine by many music-lovers. Bach’s “Air with Diverse Variations for Harpsichord with Two Manuals” is better known as “The Goldberg Variations” – if not the most accurate title, at least it’s shorter – and even though it can clock in at an hour or more in performance, timing, as usual, is relative. If you love the work, it will not seem like that much time; if you’ve never heard it before and are confused by hearing 32 short little pieces one after the other, it could be interminable.

So whether or not you’re like the man who will drive for miles around the countryside because he just can’t ask for directions, I’ve supplied a “Road Map” to the Goldberg Variations which may help you come to terms with it on first (or tenth) hearing.

As I mentioned, if you think of it as the Opening Aria with 30 Variations that then concludes with the Aria summing everything up at the end, it might be easier to approach it.

That’s how many pianists do. To learn a piece that could take more than an hour to perform is a daunting commitment, but to work on it on the installment plan – one variation at a time – makes it grow a lot more smoothly. Some are more difficult than others, so you do the “easier” ones first and save the knuckle-busters for last. Then, once you’ve got the individual components down, you can put them all together. It can be the difference between meeting life one day at a time or taking on Mt. Everest in a single climb. One pianist, afraid of being sidelined by the birth of her first child, approached it this way, working on one short variation at a time when she had the rare free moment to practice – a few minutes here, a few minutes there – which she couldn’t do if she were trying to learn big Beethoven sonata.

It almost seems as if Bach did this on purpose. There are 32 parts – though the first and last are identical – and all but one of them is 32 measures long (the one that isn’t could be if it’s in 2/4 and not 4/4, but then I’m wondering if that’s my edition rather than how Bach wrote it?). Each unit breaks down into two parts – called “Binary Form” – in the which both the A-Section and the B-Section break down further into two parts. You can learn 8 measures of music in a fairly short amount of time.

But doesn’t that sound kind of boring? I mean 8+8+8+8 = 32 x 32 times. They’re all the same!?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about these variations is that they don’t really sound “all the same,” despite the underlying structure. Bach places them in a specific context that is far from random.

Add to this phrase structure which creates the individual units’ form the realization that the harmonic scheme of each variation is also largely identical. The first 8 bars begins and ends in G Major, the home tonality. The second 8 bars moves to the key of D Major, the “dominant.”
The third 8 bars starts to move a little further afield, becoming more active as it tries to figure out how to get home to G Major (the goal of this tonal scheme). It stops briefly at E Minor. For those 3 Variations in G Minor, this pause happens in E-flat Major, the same scale-degree in the home key’s “parallel minor” mode (for fans of “Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer” from The Sound of Music, this stop would be “La”). However, you can’t stay there: G Major is calling.

Realizing there are only 8 more measures to go before reaching home, Bach moves quickly on to a final cadence in G Major. Now, he could’ve done this in 4 measures, but that wrecks the symmetry, doesn’t it? So he expands this cadence by swerving off briefly toward C Major which then returns to a D Major chord (the dominant) which then takes us back to G (the tonic). This extension is almost as if Bach had underestimated the time it takes for a character to walk across the stage and so these last few measures amount to “taking a bow” just to let everybody know - yep, you’ve made it home safely.

Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria:

Truman Bullard suggested thinking of it like a game of baseball. Now, Dr. Dick doesn’t do sports and the tempo most of these variations move in, it would be a pretty slow game, at that. But the analogy still works as long as you can take a leisurely walk from base to base.

The first phrase basically gets us easily to First Base. The end of the second phrase, the mid-point of the piece, lands us on Second Base, exactly half-way-through the variation exactly half-way around the bases. When we get to Third Base, it’s as if there’s something distracting us along the way (a chat with the short-stop? A friend we recognize in the stands? A pretty cloud formation out of left field?) But then we realize if we’re going to score, we have to get back to Home Plate without further delay. Considering there’s no delay, no one ever gets struck out or tagged along the way, it’s as if the opposing team had gone home long ago, so the final four steps into Home Plate can become a kind of “end-zone dance” (sorry, I know, wrong sport) just to let everyone know we’ve gone all the way ‘round the diamond.

Another thing that doesn’t quite fit the Baseball Analogy is Bach’s marking each half of the variation to be repeated. It’s like running 1st to 2nd, 1st to 2nd, then to 3rd to 4th and back to 3rd again before you get toe 4th again. But you get the point...

The reason composers marked things like this to be repeated, most people would have few opportunities to hear this music in the days before recordings where you could listen to it over and over again. So to familiarize the listener with what was happening, they’d play it again just so you get a second chance for it to sink in. Sometimes performers will take all the repeats, sometimes none. Glenn Gould recorded the work twice in his career – in the first one, he didn’t take the repeats; the 2nd time, he did. Other performances he gave, he might take some repeats but not others. Whatever.

Another thing that helps you know, these are not Variations on a THEME, the way most variations are composed (at least the familiar ones, most of them written after Bach’s day). What Bach does with this gorgeous, unassuming little Aria is take the Bass Line (and that’s “bass” which in music rhymes with “base” in baseball) and build something new over this harmonic structure for each variation. It’s called a “ground bass” – it’s what keeps it grounded.

Now, this too can become very boring after a while, but in each variation, Bach manages to keep you focused not on the bass-line but on the melodies that he creates over it. You can easily forget all about the bass, the repeating harmonic patterns, the straight-laced structure in the variety that he creates within this highly structured context.

Even more structured is the fact that every third variation is a canon. Basically, a canon is a more intellectualized version of a “round” like “Row, row, row your boat” – there’s a leading voice and a following voice that comes in a tad later.

But even so, none of these canons are the same. Each one separates the leader and follower by a different interval – first in unison, then a second apart (a whole step higher), then a third, a fourth and so on, until we reach the octave, 8 notes higher. But there’s one more canon, so that one becomes a 9th (or an octave and a second). In this sense, you get the feeling Bach could’ve just kept going and going and going... Of course, the point is to make it sound easy, not intellectual (like “I’m working really hard here to show you I know how to write a canon”), so you may not even be aware you’ve been listening to one of the most academic-sounding procedures in classical music.

After each canon, then, Bach writes something that might be a dance or a little fugue or an aria-like variation, something that could be identified by a “name” – they would be called “genre pieces” by analysts. The next variation is also the one before the next canon, and these are usually more light-hearted, virtuosic displays for the keyboard player. Sometimes there’ll be an intellectual sounding fugue-like variation followed by something so skittish and light-hearted it seems almost empty-headed by comparison. Something edifying, something entertaining: a little something for everybody.

One of these aria-like variations, a long-lined, slow, almost tragic-sounding one near the end with lots of unexpected “chromatic” notes – it’s in G Minor but suddenly we’re hearing notes that don’t belong in G Minor – has often been described as “The Black Pearl” Variation (which has nothing to do with Johnny Depp). It is the emotional high-point of the work. And also the longest of the variations, even though it’s still just 32 measures of music (taken at a slower tempo than the others, it just takes longer to play them).

So in all, this is a very varied framework. And yet at its core, each variation is based on the same skeleton. As you look around the room and realize how many different people may be in the audience, everyone looks different (unless you’ve got identical twins dressing identically - they always screw up analogies like this), the way they dress, the color of their hair, the different shapes and builds we all come in – but underneath that variety is the same basic skeleton that works the same basic way.

Then, just before the end, the last variation is the quodlibet, which I described in the earlier post – how Bach and his family would make these up on the spot, using popular songs of the day which they’d turn into fugues or pit against a chorale tune. I can imagine Count Keyserlingk, a friend of the Bachs who probably would have spent evenings in their company, sitting through some of these little home-made entertainments. For the piece Bach wrote for him, he uses at least two songs with the words “I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer" and another little ditty including the lines “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay.” What has he been so long away from? The Aria which opened the piece maybe an hour or more ago? And here it comes, completely unchanged, replayed note-for-note but how must it sound now in this context, after all this stuff in between? A revelation? Perhaps.

Now, I had trouble trying to figure out how to get my “road map,” which I’d used as a hand-out at the CASA presentation, posted on the blog, so we’ll have to settle for three jpegs... you may need to open them individually to read the fine print. The idea is to go down the far left column first, from the Aria at the top to the 15th Variation at the bottom, then move over to the far right column and follow it upward, from the 16th Variation – an “Overture,” by the way! Don’t Overtures start things? Well, here, it start’s Part Two... – all the way “up” to the Quodlibet and, to conclude, once again with the Aria.

Well, that's about 1,969 words about the Goldbergs...

Here's Glenn Gould playing the opening Aria up to the 14th Variation:

Jumping ahead (I could not find the intervening variations to post the whole thing), Glenn Gould plays the Black Pearl Variation (No. 25).

...and now the conclusion of the set, starting with Variation #26 to the restatement of the Aria.

There are lots of ways to interpret this piece: Gould's is just one of them. I could also recommend recordings by Simone Dinnerstein, Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia.

I hope you get a chance to hear the concert - it's not every month you get to hear a masterwork like the Goldberg Variations, not to mention exciting new approaches to the keyboard with works by Elliott Carter or Ligeti or Berio - and a new work by a composer who grew up right here in Central Pennsylvania, Jeremy Gill.

So, see you at Whitaker Center to hear Matthew Bengtson on Sunday (January 25th) at 4:00!

- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts' kammerblogger

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Soundscape at CASA: Piano Music of Carter, Ligeti and Bach

On Tuesday, I spoke to a number of students at the Capital Area School for the Arts which meets at the Salem Church on Chestnut Street in Harrisburg. The cornerstone says it was built in 1821, only about 60 years after Johann Sebastian Bach published the Goldberg Variations, one of the works on the Market Square Concerts program this weekend.

This presentation was part one of Market Square Concerts’ latest “SOUNDSCAPE,” a cool thing that introduces the students to some of the music on the concert program and then, a day or two before the concert, they get to hear the artists talk about and play some of the music live just for them.

Truman Bullard had done one of these before the Antares Concert in November, introducing the students to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Then a few days later, the members of Antares played excerpts from the work and gave them the performers’ perspective on the piece. Many of the students then attended the concert Saturday night at Market Square Church. Truman will be back to do another one in February, prior to Maria Bachmann’s recital which will feature the world premiere of a violin sonata by Philip Glass.

Yesterday, there were close to 70 students from the different programs at the school with theater, visual arts, film and video, dance as well as music students. I took a couple of photos before we got started but I was looking right into brightly back-lit stained glass so all you can see are a couple of silhouettes in what would appear to be windows. Wasn’t sure I could pass them off as artsy or just examples of bad photography, so I decided not to post them...

On Friday, then, they’ll go over to Whitaker Center to hear pianist Matthew Bengtson and composer Jeremy Gill who will talk about the music for this concert, including Gill’s “Eliot Fragments.” Gill, a Harrisburg native, now teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and will have his Symphony No. 1 played by the Harrisburg Symphony in May.

Though Bach’s Goldberg Variations are clearly the “major work” for this concert, I began my share of the program by talking about some of the composers on the first half of the program.

Sometimes, young artists discover their dreams need to have a back-up plan in case the dream doesn't come true. Alexander Skryabin, still a conservatory student, was studying to become a concert pianist when an injury to his left hand looked like it was going to mean curtains for his career. Influenced by this dreadful realization, he concluded his first piano sonata which he was composing at the time – thinking he’d be, like most concert pianists of the day a pianist who also composed – with a funeral march (incidentally, pre-dating Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique by a year). Fortunately for him, he recovered and went on to become one of three major concert pianists in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, along with Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. Unfortunately for us, it meant he wrote less than he might have, but still, for him, he was following both Plan A and Plan B.

Luciano Berio - two of his piano works are also on this program - had been drafted into the Italian army during World War II. On his very first day of training, being shown how to fire a rifle, he injured his hand. I’m not sure what this did for his military service, but in his case, it meant his dream of becoming a concert pianist was shelved: instead, he turned to composition, becoming one of the leading Italian composers of the 20th Century.

Elliott Carter, who celebrated his 100th Birthday last month, had been involved in music lessons but was rather vague about what he wanted to do about them. His parents were not keen on his becoming a musician. He was 15 when he heard the first American performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, fascinated as much by the music as he was by watching people troop out of the hall. Anything that could create that strong a response in people, he decided, was something he wanted to be a part of: even though he came late to identifying his own musical voice (he was in his 40s when this finally happened), he spent much of his life writing music that caused lots of people to troop out of the hall. More recently, his music has elicited cheers and standing ovations so he joked about perhaps having gone wrong, somewhere, after all these years.

I told the students how I had heard all five of Carter’s challenging string quartets in a single performance a year ago and how inspiring it was to see the auditorium filled with people there to hear this difficult music and who clearly loved it. It also inspired me that you must also have the conviction of your own integrity to realize your dreams, not to give in when people tell you “you know, it’d be much easier if you wrote in a style that would be easier to listen to.”

In his music, Carter explores different ways of organizing his sound-world not by using chord-structures and harmonic directions even remotely related to what composers had been doing for centuries before him but by creating music in layers which we call “polyphony” (many voices) or “counterpoint” (the skill of creating independent layers of voices related to each other) that often sound like several tempos playing simultaneously.

Playing a recording of the opening of “90+” – a work Carter composed for a colleague’s 90th birthday, written when he himself was a mere 86 – I pointed out that Carter chose ninety short, accented notes which are played in a slow tempo and then all around this, creating the other layers, are related notes and chords moving in different, often rapid but seemingly independent tempos. It’s a kind of “temporal” counterpoint, dealing with what sounds like “audibly independent tempos” all written out in some kind of common-denominator notation. But the relationship between these lines, these sonorities (“chords,” in a new-fashioned sense), may be no more organized than how composers worked 150 years ago.

Holding up my copy of Elliott Carter’s “Harmony Book,” I said it wasn’t really a book telling you how to write like Elliott Carter. It’s basically a collection of every possible pitch combination and how each one relates to other possible combinations – a chapter on chords of 5 notes shows you what 3- and 4-note chords are related to each of them and how you can add 1 note to them to make 6-note chords. And so on. Not great reading but for a composer in this style, a more systematic way of organizing your sound-world than just arbitrarily trying to find the next pitches you need and better, too, than re-inventing the wheel by exploring these possible relationships with each new piece you write.

(Afterward, I was amazed and delighted to have two students come up to me to look at the “Harmony Book,” both wanting to know how they can order copies for themselves! Whoa!)

In Beethoven’s day, composers may not have thought about it as “mathematically” as many of them might today, but the Rules of Harmony that evolved in the 18th and 19th Centuries were pretty specific about what you could and could not (or should not) do, not very different from the kind of thinking many composers in the 20th Century (that would be “the last century”) thought about tone rows in a system called serialism.

Carter’s was just another way of figuring out how to “organize sound” and yet still follow the same basic precepts that underlie all Western music – the idea of getting (or not getting) from beginning to end, creating variety but maintaining some kind of unified way of doing it. The structure may not sound the same but it is often, underneath, not very different from what people may be familiar with and find more easily likable because of its familiarity.

Here is a recording by Ursula Oppens of Elliott Carter's “90+” ...

Jeremy Gill, in his Eliot Fragments, taking part of its inspiration from lines of the poet T.S. Eliot, pays a musical tribute to Elliott Carter by incorporating ideas from 90+ into his own work. The students will have the rare opportunity of actually talking to a living composer and asking him questions about the music he composed and which they will then hear.

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

Next, I talked briefly about two of the three piano pieces by György Ligeti on the program, from his first book of Etudes written in 1985. Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who was very much influenced by music from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the mbira or “thumb piano.” He is more influenced by the way this music was organized, not so much by the actual sound of it, the way other composers usually incorporated elements of folk music into their own voices. (As a side-light, I mentioned I’m not sure what influenced Ligeti was actually folk music or the “art music” of this culture.)

There is a similar kind of “tempo-awareness” as in Carter’s music: in “Fanfares,” there is a consistent pattern of persistently rising notes pitted against a more rhythmic East European-like folk-dance which flash around in different registers, often colliding rhythmically which each other in the ways they tumble over each other and shift around the keyboard. In “Autumn in Warsaw,” the patterns are descending – given the title, it might be a musical depiction of falling leaves – but they also (as falling leaves do) move at different rates of speed. In fact, the pianist ends up playing sometimes four or five different “rates of speed” simultaneously – audibly perceived as different tempos, really – over a steady ostinato pattern in the background.

Again, this is counterpoint, layers of sound where the individual lines’ independence is clarified as much by pitch as it is by rhythm. Bach could write steady eighth notes in the right hand over steady quarter notes in the left hand which, essentially, means one is moving at half the speed of the other. It may sound like Ligeti is taking this to an extreme, but in reality, it’s not that different from what Bach did, just translated into a new approach.

Pianist Volker Banfield plays three of the Etudes (from Book 1) by György Ligeti which Matthew Bengtson will be performing on his Market Square Concerts recital this Sunday: first, "Fanfares" and "Rainbow"...

...then "Autumn in Warsaw."

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

Tomorrow, I will post the portion of my talk about the Road-Map for the Goldberg Variations. But if you haven't already read it, check out "The Human Side" from an earlier post.

-- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts kammerblogger

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Human Side of the Goldberg Variations

Matthew Bengtson’s program on Sunday afternoon with Market Square Concerts – this one’s at Whitaker Center, Sunday at 4pm – opens with the first piano sonata by Alexander Skryabin (or Scriabin, if you prefer the standard Western spelling), followed by a number of short works by a number of composers from the 20th and 21st Centuries including one called “90+” which Elliott Carter composed for a colleague’s 90th birthday and a set of pieces by Jeremy Gill (a native of Harrisburg) who composed his “Eliot Fragments” (inspired in part by lines from the poetry of T.S. Eliot) as a celebration of Elliott Carter’s 100th Birthday (which occurred officially last month).

To call the single, large-scale piece on the second half of the program a “major work” is something of an understatement. It’s one of those monolithic masterpieces – I’m assuming that’s the right word, since it makes me think of one of those great stone monuments like Stonehenge – that is often more heard about than heard. And for some reason, often feared.

First of all, it’s long. Depending on the performer’s tempos and other considerations, it could be between 50 and 80 minutes long. The good news is, for those who are concerned about their attention spans, it’s comprised of 32 sub-units that make the more massive-seeming whole a little more first-time friendly.

If you’d just experienced Mahler’s 9th Symphony, played earlier this month by the Harrisburg Symphony (I wrote about it at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train), you’ve already sat through about 90 minutes of very intense music. According to some of the people I talked to after both performances, it didn’t really seem all that long and was, as one older listener put it, “worth the ride.” For many people, the trick is to figure out how to balance drinking enough coffee to keep you awake without your needing to hit the rest rooms for an hour and a half...

So how would a first-timer face this presumably daunting work by Johann Sebastian Bach, aside from making sure you visit the little room during intermission? How would you get beyond any first-time jitters to understanding and enjoying one of the Great Works of the Western World?

I’ve often described the “Goldberg Variations” as walking through a gallery where you get to view 30 miniatures in succession - only you can’t walk around. Sitting still that long may be a challenge for some, but think of it as a gallery where each piece comes to you.

If there are 32 separate component parts to this piece, is it really “a piece”?

Well, in the same respect that a gallery exhibit may have a theme, yes. There’s nothing really random about the variations (the paintings) and in fact there’s much more going on behind them than meets the eye - or rather, ear.

You enter the exhibit through the first piece you hear. It’s called simply “Aria.” Having experienced thirty separate variations after that, you come around full-circle to the Aria again.

Really all Aria means anyway is “a theme or air,” not necessarily something that should strike you as operatic: if anything, this aria is one of the most poignant, absolutely lovely miniatures Bach ever wrote. And I’m not even sure he really wrote it.

This aria – gorgeous just by itself – appears first in the 2nd volume of the “Anna Magdalena Notebook,” a manuscript collection dated 1725 where Bach’s wife (and sometimes the children) wrote in short pieces that were intended for household performance. Some of the most famous pieces which, because they were here, were considered to have been composed by Bach turn out to be by someone else, but someone copied it into the “musical household book” without thinking any crime was being committed by leaving out a composer’s name! For instance, the aria “Bist du bei mir,” one of Bach’s most beloved melodies, is actually by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Several pieces are presumably by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, No. 2 Son, and some in the collection of lighter songs and dances might be by the other children as well, including their son Gottfried Heinrich who was what would be called today a “special needs child,” though he played the harpsichord well and his older half-brother C.P.E. said he possessed a genius that “never developed.” Several of the daughters were musically talented, as well, perhaps even did some composing themselves.

Now, considering there’s considerable debate these days about Anna Magdalena being the actual composer of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, isn’t it possible she might have composed this simple, ingenuous little aria? Of course, it’s just conjecture, but if there are people who point out certain things that might not be Bach’s musical fingerprints, couldn’t they be his wife’s?

At any rate, the aria was in a book compiled in 1725. Bach’s “Aria with Diverse Variations,” as he called it, was published in 1741 and probably composed the year or so before. Now, noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has theorized that Anna Magdalena copied the aria from Bach’s original manuscript into two pages that for some reason or other had been left blank in her notebook for the last 15 years. I suppose it’s possible...

The question can never be answered because the manuscript in Bach’s own handwriting has never turned up. It’s unfortunate that when Johann Sebastian died in 1750, his library and his manuscript collections were divided between the two oldest sons. No. 2 Son C.P.E.’s share remained largely intact. No. 1 Son, Wilhelm Friedemann, ran into financial difficulties, had a little problem with alcohol and sold much of his share of the collection. And some of his also was just simply lost.

Wherever the “Aria” came from and who wrote it is not important: it was common for composers to take a “found source” – a theme by somebody else – and use it as the basis for their own variations: Beethoven’s Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (a theme which actually Haydn borrowed from an old chorale tune, so it’s not even his to begin with) – Mozart, in an odd twist of fate, even wrote a set of variations on a theme by Antonio Salieri, the man who would later become more famous for the rumors surrounding his involvement in Mozart’s death than for all the music he composed in his long and successful career.

Bach’s set of variations are called “The Goldberg Variations” not because Goldberg wrote the theme. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was a student of Bach’s and an employee of Count Keyserlingk (the name can be spelled different ways), the Russian Ambassador to the Saxon Court. Occasionally, Keyserlingk brought Goldberg to Leipzig to study with his friend Bach. One could imagine the Count, who suffered from insomnia, listening to someone in the family playing things from the Notebook one evening. He was supposed to have asked Bach to write some keyboard pieces for his household musician Goldberg to play for him during those long late-night hours when he couldn’t sleep – as Bach’s first biographer describes it, “some clavier pieces for his Goldberg which would be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” I could imagine them, sitting there discussing this, while one of the daughters, say, was playing the harpsichord in the other room and when she came to the little Aria in G Major, Keyserlingk stopped to listen and would say “maybe some variations on that?!”

Pure Hollywood, I’m sure, but barring anything beyond such conjecture, still a possibility.

Bach called the work “Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals, Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits” and signed himself Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, a title that Keyserlingk had a few years earlier helped Bach obtain from the somewhat slow-moving Saxon bureaucracy in Dresden.

We know them as “The Goldberg Variations.”

Incidentally, Young Mr. Goldberg must have been quite talented: at the time these were published – and he would presumably have been the first person to perform them – he was 14 years old.

At the very end of these “diverse variations” is an odd little variation called “the quodlibet.” Now, a quodlibet was an odd kind of thing, like a musical happening. The composer would weave various popular songs of the day into the fabric of a piece of music. It wasn’t exactly a “serious” art form and we would consider it, since we are intent on putting everything in its proper pigeon-hole, a “novelty.”

One of Bach’s earliest biographers – Forkel, as I recall, writing about 50 years after J.S. Bach’s death – probably got this story from C.P.E. Bach himself, how the family would sit around and, in days before TV and stereos, would make their own music. They would begin their gatherings with a chorale, being good devout church musicians, and from their proceed to musical jokes quoting “popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment.” Certainly an inside joke for the performers and their audience if lost on modern-day listeners who, of course, would no longer know what these songs were.

If Keyserlingk had partaken of one of these quodlibet-evenings, it would make sense why Bach chose to “almost” end his variations with a piece that quoted at least two popular songs – one with the line “I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer" and another little ditty including the lines “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay.” There are other tunes which “have been lost to us” but it amazes me that in so short a piece as this, he could have crammed in even that much!

Whether “cabbages and turnips” had anything to do with helping cause Keyserlingk’s insomnia, the inside joke for the first tune sets up the unexpected reappearance of the Aria, played exactly as it was at the beginning, perhaps an hour earlier. If the Count had expressed a particular affection for this charming little piece, it would make sense. And the quodlibet – which to us may not have that same kind of humor Keyserlingk would have heard in it – would give us a very personal glimpse into a very private moment of music-making, and something that, I’m sure, would make Keyserlingk smile each time he heard it.

There’s an old joke that Bach composed the Variations to help the insomniac Count drift off to sleep – and true, there are those who might indeed find it somniferous – but he probably created this enormous and encyclopedic collection on the “Art of Variation” to give his friend something to chew on, musically speaking, so that at least his mind could be engaged if he was going to be kept awake late into the night. I mean, why sit up and just watch old re-runs of “American Idol”?

My next post will be a little more detailed about the Variations themselves – including the “Road Map” that I’m going to be presenting to the students at the Capital Area School for the Arts on Tuesday afternoon. But for now, I just wanted to share with you a few of these little personal insights behind the music.

- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts' kammerblogger

Monday, January 12, 2009

Welcome to the New "Market Square Concerts Blog"

Greetings, friends of Market Square Concerts and friends of chamber music in general! Or friends of the Arts Scene in Harrisburg! Or maybe someone who's new to "all-of-the-above" and just checking things out!

This is something new. So let me give you an introduction.

I'm Dick Strawser, Market Square Concerts' kammerblogger, and you might be familiar with me (or at least my voice) from my 18-years' on-air involvement with classical music at WITF 89.5, the area's public radio station, or from my other blogs like my old station blog, Dr. Dick's Blog, or my personal blog, Thoughts on a Train.

I'll be posting about the up-coming concerts and related events for Market Square Concerts here, including a presentation I'll be making to the students at Harrisburg's Capital Area School of the Arts next week, preparing them for Matthew Bengtson's piano recital at Whitaker Center at 4pm on Sunday, January 25th. The students will also get to attend a special session with Matthew in which he'll talk about and play some of the music on that program. The major work he'll be playing is one of The Major Works -- the "Goldberg Variations" of Johann Sebastian Bach -- but there will also be several new works including a short piece by Elliott Carter written as a tribute to a friend of his who was turning 90 and a work written by Harrisburg-born composer Jeremy Gill as a tribute to Elliott Carter who turned 100 a month ago.

I'll be telling you more about that concert in a few days.

And looking ahead to February, Truman Bullard will be doing a presentation at CASA before the recital by violinist Maria Bachman, joined by pianist John Klibonoff, who'll be playing among other things the world premiere of a brand new violin sonata by Philip Glass, one of the major composers in the world today, a tribute to Lucy Miller Murray, Market Square Concert's founder and former director for the past 27 years.

We'll also be posting comments and reactions to the concerts here -- plus any late breaking news whether it's program changes or those dreaded winter-weather updates or whatever other current stuff we can bring you. Maybe I can even cajole Ellen Hughes into writing a little about her experience as MSC's new director, getting ready to prepare Summermusic 2009, looking ahead to the next season or hearing new artists she'd like to bring to Harrisburg.

So I hope you'll stop back and check it out -- better yet, put it on an RSS feed-of-choice or your Google Reader so you can be alerted when things are posted.

And I certainly hope you'll be attending the concerts!

There's nothing like a live performance to help connect you with music, whether its familiar or new to you, with the performers and the other people who are listening and experiencing it along with you, but also to all those years of heritage and experience behind the music, whether it was composed just last year or almost 300 years ago.

-- Dr. Dick