Thursday, December 1, 2011

Did you hear about the Classical Grammy Nominations...?

The Grammys announced their nominees for the 2012 awards, in case you missed the concert televised on network TV last night or read that Kanye West received seven nominations.

And even if you did watch it, I doubt you noticed there were any classical music recordings nominated. (If you're wondering, you can check my post here.)

But that's always been the case. Even on those rare occasions when a classical artist did appear on the awards broadcast live, it was met by either indifference or incomprehension (as when host Ellen DeGeneris had to pronounce Shostakovich, Gil Shaham and Zdenek Macal all in one breath).

It's always nice to look through the list, scrolling down to the very bottom to find the Classical Categories, finding artists you've enjoyed, recordings you've bought or heard, and, in the case of this blog, performers who have appeared on Market Square Concerts' programs in recent (or even distant) seasons.

But this year, I'm looking through the list and can't even find the Chamber Music Category. Doing a search on "string quartet," for instance, turns up no category and few mentions - though the Pacifica Quartet's recording of Shostakovich and his contemporaries and the St. Lawrence Quartet's recording of the John Adam quartet they played here last year were nominated under the category "Producer of the Year, Classical."

It turns out that, in April earlier this year, the Grammy Awards announced the stream-lining of their categories, either eliminating or consolidating several awards, whittling it down by some 30 categories. This mostly affected the Classical and Jazz divisions.

Chamber Music has been absorbed by the category "Small Ensembles" which can still include chamber orchestras. This year, no string quartets or comparable ensembles were nominated.

Now, solo albums must compete with artists appearing as concerto soloists. Only one solo performer received a nomination this year - pianist Ursula Oppens playing music by John Corigliano.

Classical Music in general is rarely served by the print and broadcast media across the country. The Grammys paid scant attention to classical recordings even in the past and most media outlets ignored those classical categories at the bottom of the list, unless you were reading the New York Times.

Now, the Grammys serve classical musicians, already struggling to make, release and promote new recordings, even less.

While I wish Kanye the best, but I mean really dude, the JACK Quartet's recording of George Edwards' 2nd String Quartet on Albany Records was SOOO much better...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

JACK, Part 3: Well, Hello, Iannis...

(The JACK Quartet performs Saturday at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg on Front Street below Seneca Street. I'll be giving a pre-concert talk at 7:15. I've posted about the other pieces on the program here.)

You know those stories that begin something like “it was a dark and stormy night”? You usually know what to expect at least in a general if not in a specific sense: anticipation and dread, mostly.

For some, the idea you’re about to hear something “challenging” sets up mental roadblocks to enjoyment. Today, we have a fairly lame attitude to “enjoyment,” though, which implies the music we listen to (the TV we watch, the art we look at) must “entertain” us (cue the dancing girls, now).

Many listeners have lost sight of other emotional responses we might have in reacting to music, transferring the bottom line of the arts experience to “I liked it. I didn’t like it.”

For some people, listening has become a passive skill: it's on in the background while you focus on something else. But even in Brahms and Beethoven, if you listen “actively,” you’ll get more out of it rather than just letting it wash over you. That’s easy to do with something you’re familiar with. (“Active listening” is also something that will help you enjoy your marriage a little more, too.)

But with something unfamiliar and initially “off-putting,” letting it wash over you can start to feel like you’re drowning.

Take this statement, a contemporary comment but I’ll leave the composers’ names blank for the moment:

= = = = = = =
“[COMPOSER #1’s] works do not in general please quite so much as [COMPOSER #2’s] – they confirm he has a decided leaning toward the difficult and the unusual.”
= = = = = = =

This was published in London at the end of the 18th Century when Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets were still new enough to be “New Music.” Which one of these composers do you think is going to be Mozart?

Not to pick on London critics, but here’s one from 1900 and the Dawn of 20th Century Music: which composer (and piece) do you think he’s describing?

= = = = = = = 
"The [Piece by This Composer] is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of _____, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. You feel an undercurrent of… quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. But, it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The [Piece] was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."
= = = = = = =

In the first quote, Composer #1 is Mozart. Composer #2, the one who proves more pleasing to the critic (if not the audience he’s writing for) is Leopold Kozeluch. (You may need to look him up: check here.)

In the second quote, the mathematically minded composer is Johannes Brahms and the example of musical trigonometry is his Sextet in B-flat, written in 1860, forty years before that review was written.

As a famously "difficult" composer himself, Roger Sessions once said "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart - as if the one could function without the other."

So, considering the music of Xenakis is often labeled, for better or for worse, with mathematical attributes – regardless of whether it was conceived mathematically or not – I thought those two quotes might give a listener in 2011 something to think about.

And perhaps no better introduction to the impact his music can have on a listener would come from someone who did not at first like it. 

Kevin McFarland, the “K” in JACK, wrote this for their concert’s program notes:

= = = = = = =

I first encountered Xenakis' music rummaging through my teacher's CD collection. The liner notes described his works using words such as “mathematical,” “calculus,” and “scientific,” which I found a bit off- putting. At the time, I had inherited my teacher's skepticism of the application of math to composition, even though I enjoyed math (especially calculus) often to the chagrin of my peers. The sounds I heard couldn't have been more contrary to my expectations. I would have described them as being brutal, primitive, and alien. I didn't quite know how to process what I was hearing at the time; I didn't know whether I liked it, hated it, or what.

I rediscovered Xenakis in college when reading Formalized Music, his treatise on composition. The book completely changed my approach to writing music. Influenced by the ancient Greeks, he believed that music should be treated as a science as well as an art. For example, he demonstrated the application of stochastic processes (previously used to model chaotic systems such as the behavior of gas molecules) to “clouds” of string pizzicati or the density of woodwind attacks. These techniques were very exciting to me as a composer; there existed an entire world of potential mathematical processes that seemed much more interesting than, say, twelve-tone rows.

However, at the same time, I was listening to many recordings of Xenakis' music, and the paradox of process versus aesthetic became apparent again. This was not heady-sounding music at all, but rather visceral, primal, corporeal. The process of composition was not obvious on the surface of the music. Instead, one might imagine the wailings of a mourning woman, the thunder of a summer storm, or even sexual or religious ecstasy.
= = = = = = =

Earlier this year, when the St. Lawrence Quartet performed the quartet John Adams had written for them, I was intrigued to read that Adams himself had difficulties when he first heard Béla Bartók’s 1st String Quartet which you’d think, compared to the dramatic 3rd, the structurally involved 4th and 5th, and the enigmatic 6th Quartets, would be a walk in the park. But for him, it involved a good deal of “active listening” to make sense of the piece – in the sense another composer makes “sense” of something, perhaps. He said it took several hearings to “get” it.

What does “get” it mean? To each of us, probably something different: a composer wants to understand how a piece is put together, what the composer he’s listening to did to make this piece work; a performer probably listens more to how the players are making sense out of it, handling technical aspects or projecting the structure of the piece into something audible and compelling; a listener will probably be happy enough with “enjoying” it, finding some satisfying emotional response.

Even as someone who composes music, I cringe reading composers’ program notes about “How I Wrote This Piece” using technical jargon that perhaps they expect will snow the audience into submission. That’s fine but I can drive a car without needing to understand the physics of the combustion engine.

So, rather than thinking about quadratic equations and slope formulas and other aspects of trigonometry turned into music, just listen to how it works.

Listen for the visceral, dramatic response to what the composer has created from his architectural plan just as you would look at his building and not be conscious of… whatever architectural terminology one architect would use to impress the pants off his colleagues.

To the untrained listener – the Xenakis Virgin – it may sound like they’re making this up, up there, aren’t they?

But it’s not improvised, it’s not “aleatoric” (left to chance).

Instead of the kinds of phrases and cadences and melodic shapes you’re used to from Bach through Brahms – or for that matter even Schoenberg – Xenakis is finding other ways to express the same underlying concepts.

In a way, it’s like taking a plan for a church – you have the basic idea of what a church is supposed to be, but does it look like the gothic Notre Dame in Paris, the Renaissance cathedral in Florence, the modern Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or this unidentified modern church (the joy of surfing...)? They're all churches but they each look different: different times, different places but same purpose.

You can listen for Xenakis’ musical gestures (rather than thinking of them as melodies, they’re more like shapes and cells that expand to create longer musical ideas) and hear how they contrast (just as Beethoven’s often cellular ideas grow and contrast), played first in this register or instrument, then in another, or how they sound similar here and there, giving the overall soundscape some sense of unity.

Or you can sit there, annoyed, and think of a few choice gestures of your own.

But I think, if you open your mind to the point you’re not focused on negative brain-waves at this point, you’ll walk away with a more positive (or less negative) impression.

Back in the ‘80s, the Harrisburg Symphony played a piece that is often described as “The Great American Symphony” though it’s never played that often – William Schuman’s 3rd. It is not a difficult work – compared to much music written in the 1940s – but it is not an easy work on first hearing.

Two people in front of me were applauding vociferously. I thought they “got” it but then I heard one say to the other, “I really didn’t like it, but they did a marvelous job trying to convince me.”

Live performances have a much better chance to “convince” you than listening to a recording. And a committed performance from players who are convinced what they’re doing is vital will be more likely to convince you than other performers who may only be going through the motions (though technically proficient) because they feel “hearing contemporary music is good for you” (like green beans and broccoli, not likely to be on top of the “what’s for dinner” list).

In a sense, I’m reluctant to post a video of “Tetras” for fear someone will just click on it and, after 10 seconds, exit the page and go listen to this bit of trigonometric music. But hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll give it a chance.

To return to Kevin McFarland’s program note about Xenakis’ music:

= = = = = = =
Perhaps no composition better embodies this contradiction than Tetras. Written relatively late in his career, Tetras is a work of starkly contrasting textures. The piece opens with a virtuosic glissando violin solo followed by the viola in double stops and then the whole quartet in quiet echo of the solos. From there the piece moves through a handful of sections, often with little or no transition in between. The feeling I get from this work is that Xenakis had already liberated string sounds from traditional roles and was then completely free to create in the wake of this revolution. It is a work of uncompromising vision, savage brutality, and startling beauty.
= = = = = = =

Here’s the JACK Quartet recording “Tetras” by Iannis Xenakis:

If you’re not one of those immediately taken in by the whole new sound-world this may open to you and you’re thinking instead, “How do I listen to this stuff?”, listen to it again and follow these points:

Long opening violin solo (single notes, sliding up and down through different registers of the violin which may sound a bit like someone talking.

At 0:32, the answering solo in the viola (two notes at a time, still sliding, but responding, making it a conversation).

At 1:02, other instruments enter with brief swirls of colors and different textures, as if commenting on the conversation between the violin and the viola ("discuss amongst yourselves"). 

At 1:15 accents contrasting with quiet flurries and sudden “rude noises” like sharp chords.

At 1:48, the tension’s been increasing to a point where – suddenly – the energy is released, and this excerpt ends with sounds (you might call them ‘noises’) that punctuate the texture like an unexpectedly loud chord in Beethoven puts a period on a musical paragraph.

(By the way, you’ll notice, looking over Chris’ shoulder, the music he’s playing from is completely (and complexly) notated, not left to improvisation.)

Instead of something that might be the logical equivalent of a still-life painting with fruit and a bowl, or somebody's barn in winter, you're looking at a colorful kaleidoscope of images, or fragments of images - or the shadows of fragments of images...

If this is your first time hearing any of Xenakis’ music, I envy you the excitement of discovery but also understand how you might feel lost. Think John Adams and Bartok’s 1st – or Kevin McFarland’s first encounters with it (and here he is, playing it for you, now).

Keep in mind, it took a while for Columbus to figure out where his explorations “got” him, too.

So if you decide you don’t like Xenakis’ music, that’s fine, if you’ve made an honest attempt at listening to it. (I remember, after making a face the first time I ate an olive, my mom said “You have to eat seven olives before you’ll like them.”)

And if you decide you never want to hear Xenakis again – which is your perfect right as an individual – you can always go home and listen to your Kozeluch CDs.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JACK, Part 2: Meet G, C and P

The JACK Quartet will be performing their GPCI Program on Saturday – November 12th – at 8pm at the Temple Ohev Sholom on North Front Street in Harrisburg (just below Seneca Street) – I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk at 7:15, by the way.

G = Guillaume Machaut (c.1300-1377): Three Pieces arranged by Ari Streisfeld 
P = Philip Glass (b.1937): String Quartet No. 5
C = Caleb Burhans (b.1980): Contritus (a work composed for JACK)
I = Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001): Tetras

Very often, when people go to concerts where a work by a still-living composer is performed, if they don’t like the “new music,” it’s the composer’s fault but if they don’t like the Beethoven, it’s the performer’s fault.

Most of that comes from familiarity. The Beethoven You Know, whether it’s from recordings or other performances you’ve attended, is something “measurable.”

The New Guy is not.

It’s possible you’ve never heard his or her music before, much less this particular piece. And if it’s a World Premiere, no one has a yard-stick they can measure it by so you can’t even use somebody else’s opinion – a critic or the friend who talked you into coming to this concert – to base your own reaction on.

I got a phone call one night, when I worked at the radio station after playing some music by a Living Composer (something this listener equated more with a Zombie), something he didn’t particularly like. In fact, he was arguing that it wasn’t even, really, music, much less “classical music.”

Of course, I could spend hours writing about that, alone, but the comment he made about not playing music that has not reached a certain level of popularity struck a chord with me (so to speak).

This is what I now call the Reality TV Reaction – a combination of “Survivor: New Music” and “American Composer Idol” – in which listeners essentially get to vote new pieces off the island.

He said if it doesn’t “reach” an audience, “it has no right to stand next to a great work of art like the Beethoven Violin Concerto.”

I thanked him for choosing that particular piece because he just made his own argument invalid.

I explained: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is regarded as one of the Two Greatest Violin Concertos ever written. Beethoven wrote it in 1806 and it was a disaster at the premiere (for any number of reasons: the soloist did not have enough time to learn it and was, essentially, practically sight-reading parts of the last movement). It was rarely performed because many considered it too long and too difficult to play and listen to. It did not enter the repertoire until Joseph Joachim championed it after playing it the first time in London with Felix Mendelssohn on the podium in 1844. If you’re not quick on the mental math, that’s 38 years after it was composed and 17 years after Beethoven’s death. (Oh, and Joachim was 12 at the time.)

So yes, sometimes it takes a while for a work we think of as great to “find its audience.”

As a composer, I find no more reassuring literature to read than the famous bad reviews that Nicholas Slonimsky (himself a composer and conductor of then new music) collected in an amazing little volume called The Lexicon of Musical Invective which could be subtitled “They Don’t Write Reviews Like That Anymore.”

In “classical music,” we regard what the composer wrote with all the reverence of a sacred text. Modern performances can succeed or fail on how closely they come to the composer’s intentions (whatever that is).

At least as long as the listeners are familiar with it.

One of my favorite “gottcha” moments was the fallout following a concert about 30 years ago by a famous interpreter of modern piano music – unfortunately, I’ve now forgotten her name; French, I believe – and a major Carnegie Hall recital which included works by Schoenberg and Xenakis. It was hailed as a triumph, especially the Schoenberg which, amazingly enough, she played from memory. I remember, reading the review, thinking how true it is that committed playing can win over a doubtful listener who still finds Schoenberg daunting to listen to.

Well, as it turned out, Paul Jacobs, who was a pianist also specializing in contemporary music and who’d recorded all of Schoenberg’s piano music, was sitting in the audience wondering the 1980s equivalent of “WTF?!” And he wrote a “letter to the editor” in which he voiced his opinion that very little of what she played was actually Schoenberg.

It turned out – and the pianist admitted this later, out of embarrassment – she had several memory lapses and rather than stop and start over, she kept on going, improvising “in the style of” Schoenberg and some of the most astute critics in New York City were none the wiser. (She said she’d spent so much time worrying about the Xenakis, she took her memory of the Schoenberg for granted.)

Would the same thing have happened if she’d had a similar problem in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata?

(True story: when I was a child and first taking piano lessons, I used to improvise at the piano all the time and of course hated all the time spent practicing. I decided I wanted to become a composer because that way, I would be the only one who’d know if I was making mistakes.)

So, to give you an idea of how differently interpretations may affect how you react to it, here’s a “period instrument” version of one of Machaut’s “greatest hits,” the song, Douce dame jolie. I’m not saying either of these are “wrong” or “better” – just different interpretations of what was once on the 14th Century Hit Parade.

Here, Theo Bleckmann performs the same song: the title translates as “Sweet, lovely lady (do not think any has sovereignty over my heart but you alone).”

Ari Streisfeld, the “A” in JACK, has arranged three works by Machaut for string quartet, playing with the lines, moving parts around, making good use of the timbres available in a string quartet.

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

Caleb Burhans is a more recent composer – to put it mildly – born 31 years ago rather than over 700. And one I’ve not heard before, so I am definitely looking forward to discovering his music. Here’s a link to his web-site bio.

About the work he composed for his fellow Eastmaniacs in JACK – entitled Contritus – he wrote this which is included in the program notes:
--- --- --- ---
Contritus is Latin for “crushed by guilt”. In the Catholic Church there are many prayers of contrition and penance. Composed in the fall and winter of 2009, Contritus is in three sections that organically flow into one another. These sections represent three different prayers of contrition. Much of the string writing in Contritus is evocative of early music and viol consorts while still portraying a sense of modern guilt. 
--- --- --- ---
When I saw the title, my first expectation was he might be finding some inspiration in medieval or renaissance church motets – or maybe not: it could also sound completely (and possibly) wildly different, a 21st Century take on a 15th Century model? But reading his comment about the piece, it seems that first expectation might be more accurate. I’m eager to find out how he translates one age into another.

Here is an example of another work of his, excerpts from “The Things Left Unsaid” for cello ensemble, composed in 2006.

Philip Glass has become one of the “Grand Old Names” in Modern Music, recently surviving the public recognition of his 70th Birthday. Glass’ music is no stranger to Harrisburg – his Violin Sonata was given its world premiere on a Market Square Concerts program at Whitaker Center, commissioned to honor Lucy Miller Murray.

Glass himself, with his ensemble, played the filmscore to Koyaanisqatsi live at Whitaker Center and though I find it difficult to sit in a room and listen to the full recording of the music, the actual experience of hearing (and feeling) it live while watching the film it was meant to accompany was astounding – riveting, in fact – and by the time it was over, I thought we had only reached intermission. 

Here is a performance of the 5th Movement of the 5th Quartet which JACK will be performing Saturday night. And this is also an example of another great name for an all-male quartet – I suspect it must be pronounced in the Italian way as “tes-tahs-steh-ROH-neh”…

For Iannis Xenakis, the last composer on this program, I’ll include an introduction to his “Tetras” in a separate post.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, November 7, 2011

JACK comes to town

1. Belonging to the same period of time (a fact is documented by two contemporary sources)
2. Of or about the same age (Brahms and Wagner were contemporaries)
3. Current or modern (art work that is contemporary with our own times and sensibilities)

It’s the third definition we’re using to describe the music the JACK Quartet will be performing this Saturday at 8pm for Market Square Concerts, a program that will be held at the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg at Front below Seneca Street.

There is a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15 presented by Dick Strawser (that would be me) and I’ll try not to duplicate everything verbatim I will post here on the blog.

There are additional posts about the music on the program: Part 2 introduces the Machaut, Caleb Burhans' Contritus, and Philip Glass's 5th String Quartet. Part 3 is an introduction to Iannis Xenakis' Tetras.

Opening the season with the Juilliard Quartet brought one of the Great Quartets of All Time to Harrisburg, a group that has been performing (in one personnel configuration or another) for sixty years.

This month, Market Square Concerts offers listeners one of the newer, cutting-edge ensembles that’s only been around six years, officially forming into a quartet after they’d all graduated from the Eastman School of Music (when I was a student there in the Trying to be Wild & Crazy ‘70s, there was much talk of trying to get out from under what we called “Eastman Gothic”…).

They call themselves the JACK Quartet and the name comes from the first letters of their first names:

J = John Pickford Richards, violist
A = Ari Streisfeld, violinist
C = Christopher Otto, violinist
K = Kevin McFarland, cellist (who, incidentally, is from Lancaster PA)

(In this photograph, I guess that would be JCKA but in the photo at top, it's CAKJ though since the violinists share 'who's on first,' so to speak, it could sometimes be ACKJ.)

Tickets are available on-line through Whitaker Center, by calling (717) 214-ARTS, in person at The Box on the 2nd level of Whitaker Center or at the door prior to the concert.

Student Tickets: We also offer $5 tickets for college and university students.

School-age students are free.

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

Going to concerts presents a multiplicity of possibilities. As far as the composers go, consider familiar works by familiar names – Beethoven’s 3rd Razumovsky Quartet or Brahms Piano Quintet – things you’ve heard before and perhaps enjoy meeting whenever they come around. Or maybe it’s an unfamiliar work by a familiar name: let’s say it’s Dvorak but it’s not his “American” Quartet – knowing you like the familiar one, chances are good you might like another of his works.

Even if you’ve never heard a piano trio by Anton Arensky (whom you may not be familiar with), you might realize liking some of his European contemporaries or other Russian composers from the late-19th Century might mean this could be a pleasant discovery.

Of course, speaking of Russian composers, just because Cesar Cui is one-fifth of ‘The Mighty Handful’ doesn’t mean you’ll find him up there in the same league as his colleagues Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakoff.

Then, of course, there are programs where one of the names, unfamiliar or not, inspires fear. For some people, it could be Brahms. More listeners tend to suffer from contemporariphobia, anything (usually unfamiliar) which strikes them as New Music even if it’s older than their grandparents – for instance, did you know 2012 is the Centennial of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire?

I have been told that Ives and Cage are four-letter words (then, too, so is Bach).

One of my favorite composers is Elliott Carter (who incidentally turns 103 in a month and is still composing). For some, Carter is an acquired taste, but he must be doing something right to be regarded as one of the great composers of the 20th Century.

The problems some listeners have in dealing with “new music” come not so much from their lack of familiarity with it but from listening to it the same way they’d listen to Beethoven and Mozart. You would tell a Vivaldi-fan who can’t stand Wagner that you can’t judge Wagner because he’s not Vivaldi but we do it all the time with most “contemporary” music, dismissing it because it’s not Beethoven.

Listening to unfamiliar music will be one of the topics I’ll be getting into at the pre-concert talk I’m offering before the JACK Quartet’s performance on Saturday. So if you’re cautious about what’s on the program and debating whether you should go or not, I would say, yes you should go and yes you should go with an open mind as well as ear and, of course, yes you should come to my pre-concert talk ;-)

Their program opens with something not terribly contemporary – the music of Guillaume Machaut who died in 1377. Yes, the 14th Century! When you consider most concert music we hear these days rarely pre-dates 1700, this would seem a bit of a stretch, contemporaneously speaking.

Keeping in mind that Steve Reich (a leading composer in today’s so-called “minimalist” school) once said his music had more in common with Hildegard of Bingen (12th Century) than with Haydn (18th), it’s important to realize that music, first of all, is music, whatever era it comes from, and in many cases has many of the same attributes, though they may be realized differently.

There might be phrases and elements of tension and release that create cadences and form which might be easier to hear in more familiar works like Beethoven and Mozart, but you can still hear a composer like Iannis Xenakis who can create lines and forms and textures and tensions in many different, sometimes similar ways yet sound completely different from anything you’ve ever heard before.

Now, if you’ll pardon one more analogy, you’ve never had Thai food before, you know it’s spicy and you walk into the first Thai restaurant you find. You look at the menu and stab your finger at, say, a Chicken Panang Curry. After you realize you can no longer feel your lips and the roof of your mouth is melting, do you say “I don’t like this; it’s not a cheeseburger”?

Stay tuned. More posts on the way.

Dick Strawser

Friday, September 30, 2011

Mozart & Haydn: the Birth of a Musical Legacy

Since the Juilliard Quartet is playing one of Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets (that is, from a set of six quartets dedicated to his friend Haydn) at their 8:00 concert on Saturday evening at Whitaker Center, opening Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary Season, it would seem logical I should post a little [sic] something about it. Part of the problem writing anything in-depth about any one of these six string quartets is that you would need to get into detail not only about the other five quartets but also the six quartets Haydn published as Op. 33 which inspired Mozart to begin his own set. And since Haydn published his in 1781 and Mozart completed his in 1785, that’s covering four years of a very busy time in Mozart’s life (and times).

Merely mentioning the quartets, what keys and catalogue numbers they are and what year they were written doesn’t really tell you much about what was going on behind the music. But going into detail takes on the appearance of a doctoral dissertation and risks the comment, as I do some research and look over my notes, that – to quote Emperor Joseph II’s comment about Mozart's new opera, Abduction from the Seraglio – there are "too many notes.”

One of the problems is the unfamiliarity of Haydn’s inspiring collection and the fact that, for most of the repertoire we’re familiar with in string quartet programs, Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets are essentially the chronological starting point. While you might find the occasional earlier Haydn quartet, you rarely hear any of the quartets Mozart composed before 1781. Even though Haydn more or less “invented” the string quartet, still the most regularly programed are those from the late-1780s and ‘90s (Op. 50 to Op. 77, or #36 to #67) and of those, more likely the last dozen or so.

Like the symphonies, the typical concert-goer is still more familiar with only a few Haydn Symphonies outside the basic handful of “London” Symphonies just as one rarely hears more than a half-dozen of those Mozart wrote in the last decade of his life.

And it’s unlikely many concert-goers would know any of the first dozen or so quartets Mozart composed before the six “Dedicated to Haydn,” even the 1773 set of six written in Vienna when he was inspired by Haydn’s Op. 17 and Op. 20 sets.

So it’s a challenge for a modern listener – familiar with “Beethoven and Beyond” – who doesn’t know much about what the quartet had been like before in order to appreciate what it was Mozart accomplished in these six quartets.

Now, Haydn is generally known as the “Father of the Symphony” (the nickname “Papa” Haydn originates from a different perspective) but he also was very instrumental (pun intended) in the birth of the String Quartet.

He did not “invent” the symphony – it already existed as a form, evolving from the three-part opera overture called a sinfonia. But he may have had more to do with the “invention” of the string quartet.

During the Baroque era (especially from c.1700-1750), one of the most common musical combinations was called a “trio sonata” which included two melody instruments as a duet (more likely two violins but also possibly flutes or oboes or a combination of them) with “continuo.” For us, it’s confusing to think of a trio sonata being played by four people but “continuo” meant an instrument capable of playing chords (a keyboard instrument or a lute) with a lower register instrument like a cello or a bassoon that doubled the all-important bass line. This is a typical Baroque “sound.”

The texture of this “sound” is also significant. The melodic line was important, the two upper instruments often echoing or answering each other, sometimes one stepping into the background as the other moved into the foreground and vice-versa. The bass-line just plodded along, keeping the ear grounded in the harmony.

The harmonic portion of this “continuo,” however, was so insignificant composers didn’t bother writing it out. Performers were expected to improvise their part based on a series of coded numbers – numerical figures written under the bass-line (that’s why this theoretical detail is called ‘figured bass’) – that told him what notes were to be filled in to create the correct harmonies. Improvisation in this case didn’t mean completely winging it but, as in jazz, working within given parameters to create something out of virtually nothing more than a few provided guidelines.

In many (if not most) cases, pieces probably could be played without the keyboard part if the bass-line and the two melodic parts took into consideration proper harmonic voicing.

As Haydn later told his biographer, when he was 18 or so and a free-lance starving musician in Vienna freshly expelled from school and trying to make ends meet giving lessons, he got a paying gig with a Viennese baron who had a country estate about 50 miles outside the imperial capital. Considering the request for some music-making, the only musicians available were the baron’s pastor, his estate manager – both amateurs – and a friend of his, but no keyboard instrument. So, out of necessity, having to compose a work for four players - two violins and ‘cello without continuo - he realized he could fill in the missing harmonies by using a mid-range instrument, the viola.

And thus was born – generations of viola jokes aside – the string quartet.

Now, it’s true that Grigorio Allegri, most famous for his Miserere, had composed a piece for an ensemble of four strings before the mid-1600s. Alessandro Scarlatti had published a set of “Quartet Sonatas [as opposed to “Trio Sonatas”] for Two Violins, Viola and Cello without Keyboard” somewhere between 1715 and 1725, it was viewed as a “natural progression” from the idea of the Trio Sonata plus the occasional lack of a suitable continuo instrument like the harpsichord or organ.

But even Grove’s Dictionary says of Scarlatti’s instrumental music, “none of these shows him at his best.” Famous as a composer of over 60 operas and a great deal of church music, he is best known today as the father of Domenico Scarlatti. Since by 1686 he established the three-part form of the Italian opera overture which would later become the symphony, he should at least be remembered as the “Grandfather of the Symphony.”

So, why did Haydn become the “Father of the String Quartet”?

Because in 1750 he was probably unaware of Scarlatti’s little-known work and no one else, in the intervening decades, seemed to have followed Scarlatti's lead. Haydn’s early endeavors were successful enough to catch on. Though his first 28 quartets were originally called “Divertimenti,” his first published works were String Quartets in 1762. If the 1750-ish date for the “birth” of the String Quartet is accurate (and some musicologists doubt it), even so, Haydn didn’t compose his first symphony until 1759.

Now, the texture of this string quartet was also important to note: in Baroque music, even if 1750 is an arbitrary cut-off date made convenient by the death of J. S. Bach, though the Baroque Style was already out-of-fashion by then, the general texture of music was polyphonic – several voices (or instrumental parts) moving independently.

Here’s an example of typical Baroque polyphony, from Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. 

Contrast that with the opening of Haydn’s first published string quartet, written about 40 years later.

Unlike the Bach Brandenburg Concerto where four different soloists each have their turn in the spotlight and continue playing independently as equal parts of the whole – note the background role of the continuo plus the other members of those string players in what passed for “the orchestra” in those days – Haydn’s quartet is primarily a violinist supported by three other string players where the 1st violinist gets most of the work while the cello plays the harmonic bass (sometimes not even a smoothed-out melodic line but just the ‘table legs’ of the chord progression) while the “inner parts” – 2nd Violin and Viola – play other notes in the chord to fill out the necessary harmony. (Ever wonder where the term “playing second fiddle” came from?)

This texture is called “homophony” – unlike polyphony which means “many voices,” homophony implies a single melodic voice supported harmonically by accompanimental voices. For instance, in keyboard music, it would be a melody in the right hand with some accompanimental pattern in the left, like the opening of this famous Mozart piano sonata, beloved of beginners everywhere.

It is not the only solution to the question “what to do with four players,” but it is the most common one, in one form or another. If you listen to other movements from Haydn’s Op. 1 quartets, it is still the 1st Violinist’s show.

Now, compare that with one of Haydn’s later quartets, published in 1781, that inspired Mozart: this is the opening of the B Minor Quartet, Op.33 No. 1:

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While the division of labor is still geared to the 1st Violinist, the others have more to do, their parts are a little more independent and the 1st Violinist isn’t always getting the spotlight. The other three parts are becoming both more independent and more interesting both to listen to and to play.

Enter Mozart. (Finally.)

When he was 23 years old, he heard two sets of Haydn quartets on a visit to Vienna in 1773. There hadn’t been much call for him to write string quartets as a musical employee of Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo, for whatever reasons. In fact, all of them, so far, had been written for other courts – his first while on tour in Italy in 1770 when he was 14, the next six for Milan during the winter of 1772-73. So these Haydn-inspired quartets of 1773 (K.168-K.173) show a considerable state of advancement over the earlier ones.

Part of that difference is what we might call “demographic targeting.” Mozart wrote the earlier set in Milan for an Italian audience whose attitude about ‘what good music should be’ required a more carefree, more melodious, generally more entertaining style. In Vienna, audiences would prefer something with a little more fiber to the texture (think more polyphony than homophony) and a somewhat more intellectual approach (though Germans in Leipzig, say, still thought Vienna was more empty-headed than light-hearted).

So when Mozart finally moved to Vienna on his own in the spring of 1781, having resigned his post with the Archbishop of Salzburg (and, yes, booted out the door by the archbishop’s chamberlain, probably Count Arco’s sole claim to fame). Not long after that, he begins work on a new opera – The Abduction from the Seraglio – the one Emperor Joseph II famously complained had “too many notes” when it was premiered in July the next year.

A month later, Mozart married Constanze Weber.

Another thing that happened to Mozart, aside from trying the life of a free-lancer with lessons and concerts, was discovering Haydn’s latest set of string quartets, the six of Op.33, known variously as the Russian Quartets because they were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul, son of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and Russia’s future if short-lived tsar.

Here is the opening of Haydn’s Op.33 No.3.

And though it might not sound that different to us – again, with everything that came after these works – there is a marked difference in the approach (overall) to the individual parts.

Compare that to the first of the six quartets Mozart began composing that next year: the G Major Quartet, K.387, was completed in December of 1782, four months after his wedding and their move into a newer and larger apartment. Here is the Hagen Quartet in a live concert recording – the performance actually begins at 1:20 into the clip.

Though the 1st Violinist still leads the ensemble, note that the other parts are a little more individualized and that the 2nd Violinist actually gets to state the second theme at 2:11!

Keep in mind, though we think of Mozart as a pianist, he was also a fine violinist and preferred playing viola in a string quartet – he said it was more interesting to hear everything going on around him rather than to be playing the lead. That, diplomatically or not, he left to his friend Haydn when they would gather for “quartet-playing parties” with Dittersdorf playing 2nd Violin and Vanhal playing ‘Cello, all four of them leading composers of the time and, technically, “amateur” musicians.

The one the Juilliard will be performing at Whitaker Center this weekend is actually the next-to-last of the six.

Unfortunately, I’m running out of time to find a reasonably good live performance, so we’ll go with this “audio” clip of the Quatour Mosaiques.

1st Movement:

2nd Movement:

3rd Movement:

4th Movement:

One of the trademarks of the “new” quartet-style Mozart was exploring was the contrapuntal independence of the parts which you can hear especially in the opening of the last movement. His very next work – and generally the “most famous” of the set – is the last of the group, nicknamed “The Dissonance” because of its curious opening.

Even if it sounds fairly tame by our standards (after hearing Wagner and Schoenberg), in Mozart’s day it was a rather alarming sound – notes that create unexpected harmonies that should resolve one way but move on to different chords than expected. Keep in mind “dissonance” really means “a note that doesn’t ordinarily belong to a given chord and requires some form of resolution” rather than “wow, that was nasty!”.

Once they were completed over the winter of 1784-85, Haydn first heard the quartets at two separate gatherings at Mozart's home, the first three on January 15th and the second three on February 12th, 1785. One assumes, on these occasions, he just listened, rather than playing in the ensemble himself). After hearing them all, Haydn made a now-famous remark to Mozart's father Leopold, who was visiting from Salzburg: "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Juilliard & Stravinsky: 3 Pieces Build Bridges

This weekend’s concert with the Juilliard String Quartet opens the 30th Anniversary Season of Market Square Concerts, Saturday at 8pm at Whitaker Center. The program ends with one of the quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn and will include a quartet by Leos Janáček inspired by a neurotic novella by Leo Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata” (Beethoven’s violin sonata plays a significant part in the story’s mounting tension but not in Janáček’s quartet).

You can read earlier posts about the legendary Juilliard Quartet here – founded 65 years ago, later this month, their newest member is 33 years old – and also about the Janáček that includes video clips of the complete quartet as well as background information on the piece and the novel that inspired it (you can also read more background – kind of like extra credit, if you’re interested – about Tolstoy’s novella on a post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train).

One of the things I like to do in these posts is get “behind” the music that might give a listener some different insights into the piece or the composer who wrote it, given what was going on in his life at that time in history and how it might affect how you’re listening to it. While it can certainly be appreciated and enjoyed without that background – or “context” – if you believe “the more you know, the better you’ll be able to appreciate it,” then these posts might help you understand the music a little more.

Music, of course, is difficult to “describe” in words. It is very subjective, it is gone as soon as you hear it and the impression you’re left with is more the memory of it than the music itself. How you respond to it, on what level you respond to it, will differ from person to person. Sometimes, it is just a matter of liking or not liking a piece; rarely do we have the time to react as to why you might like or dislike it. That could be because of the music itself, the performance or what you had for dinner or how your day went.

When people who love classical music but rarely get beyond 1900 except for the more “accessible” composers see the name Stravinsky on a program, they think “contemporary music” which immediately sets up certain barriers. Whatever your automatic viewpoint might be about this – “I want my Beethoven” or “ah, something other than Beethoven for a change” – I hope you’ll read this post and find a way to engage yourself during the performance of what Stravinsky rather blandly called “Three Pieces for String Quartet” which in fact are three short and perhaps confusing pieces.

What do you think of when you see the name STRAVINSKY? Probably the three great ballets he premiered between 1910 and 1913 – The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Each of these is quite different from the others: there’s a folk-lore element common to all three and they’re all for big orchestras and full of brilliant colors and what me might call “special effects.”  

The Firebird is based on an old Russian fairy tale and sounds like a direct descendant of the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff (logical, since Stravinsky was 28 when he ballet was first performed and had been a friend of the family and a student of the old master who died that year himself).

Petrushka is set in the folksy rabble of a pre-Lenten street fair with crowds of ordinary people who catch a glimpse of the private lives of puppets, the music full of Russian folk songs giving it a certain “local color.”

On the other hand, The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) burst upon the world with its famous riot – caused more by Nijinsky’s avant-garde choreography than Stravinsky’s music, actually – and was full of brute-force energy in its rhythms and dissonant music: even though a heroine who dies at the end is fairly commonplace in ballet, one who dances herself to death as part of a pagan sacrifice was considered a bit much.

One of the first pieces Stravinsky composed after the premiere of The Rite of Spring were these curious pieces for string quartet. Not a vast orchestra that he could play like a color-machine, but just four string players. Nor was it comparable in any other way in terms of the technical aspects of the music: short and condensed, they often leave first-hearers with the impression, “that’s it?” It’s as if Stravinsky, having realized The Rite of Spring was about as far as he could go in that direction, consciously started exploring other ways he could express himself.

If you believe music and its creation is like a path leading in one direction, the progress from The Firebird to Petrushka to The Rite of Spring, heard in that order, seems logical, each one more colorful, more rhythmic, more “new” in terms of its sense of melody and harmony and form (those things we can grasp onto in a traditional sense): the music that Stravinsky composed after that never seems to match our expectations. Even when we talk about Early, Middle and Late Beethoven, we still hear a continuity between his first string quartets and his last, which Beethoven’s own contemporaries (who hadn’t yet heard Wagner, Brahms and Schoenberg) might not. It is difficult to comprehend the same composer wrote The Rite of Spring, The Rake’s Progress and, say, The Huxley Variations.

Stravinsky was born in Russia during the age when ballet meant dancing aristocrats and perhaps a flock of swans or dreams come to life. Tchaikovsky died when Stravinsky was 11. Part of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s circle – the famous “Russian 5” or “Mighty Handful” who, like many artists and writers, favored a “nationalist” approach to art as opposed to the Western-influenced, more abstract world of Tchaikovsky or his teacher’s brother, Anton Rubinstein – it was natural that the young Stravinsky (a late-bloomer by most classical music standards) would be influenced by story-based music built, one way or another, on folk music.

In 1910, he was in Paris, working with the impresario Serge Diaghilev and, after Anatol Lyadov (one of the largely forgotten generation between Tchaikovsky and “The 5” and the next generation that would include Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich) failed to produce a score for the Ballet Russe’s new work based on the story of the Firebird. Essentially a house-orchestrator for the ballet company, Stravinsky had yet to write a single large-scale work that anybody had taken serious notice of, yet he was given the assignment to create a full-scale ballet in a short time. Had Stravinsky stayed in St. Petersburg and never had the chance to be “in the right place at the right time,” it’s quite possible we might never have heard of Igor Stravinsky or, if we did, he might have been a very different composer.

(The photograph [right] was taken in July 1915: from left, dancer Leonid Massine (who, when this photo was taken, had just replaced Nijinsky as principal male dancer and choreographer for Ballet Russe), costume designer Natalia Goncharova (seated), composer Igor Stravinsky (seated), artistic directors of the Ballet Russe, Mikhail Larionov and Leon Bakst.)

Now, by the time he’d become a kind of enfant terrible with his ballet about pagan Russia and violent sacrifice, Stravinsky’s path seemed secure: he wrote a piece of music that the whole world was hearing and even if people walked out of its performances, either in the theater or in the concert hall, at least they were responding to the power of the music.

The riot that the Paris world premiere inspired became so legendary, that performance is often considered the “revolution” that began the 20th Century, musically speaking. (Considering that was 1913 and we are still in 2011, it might give us pause to wonder if we’ve really heard the work that will define the start of the 21st Century, but I digress…)

Aside from Les Noces (The Wedding) which he’d begun working on before the premiere of The Rite though which went through several revisions before it was finally premiered in 1923 (the same year Janáček composed his 1st String Quartet), Stravinsky’s indebtedness to folk song soon disappeared. By 1920, when he wrote Pulcinella, a ballet inspired by the puppets of Italy’s commedia del’Arte and the music of (or at least had been attributed to) the Baroque composer Pergolesi (who died two centuries earlier), it seems Stravinsky’s path had taken a 180° turn.

Enter the Three Pieces for String Quartet.

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On the surface, these are three very contrasting short pieces – all three take about 7 minutes, the first one clocking in under a minute. The titles of each piece came later, when he orchestrated them and added a fourth piece.

Listen to them once, then read this:

“Dance” is fairly obvious as a title, but the music is fragmented, repetitive and layered: the cello plays the same rhythmic punctuation, pizzicato (plucking the strings); the viola plays a long sustained single pitch, a drone, until the very end; the 2nd violin plays an unchanging descending four-note pattern, roughly played; the 1st violin plays what passes for a melody, a primitive-sounding, almost child-like ‘tune’ circling within a range of four notes. And yet they never seem to coincide into typical phrases or harmonies, as if they’re each on their own (except the poor violist).

The 1st violin’s ‘tune’ sounds like a Russian or at least East European folk song, the 2nd violin’s pattern gives it a peasant-like crudeness matched by the cello’s unsteady rhythm underneath everything, and the viola’s off-key drone gives it a kind of medieval quality. Though each of the four parts are independent and easily identifiable, it would be difficult to call this “counterpoint” in the traditional European sense of the word – independent lines working in harmony.

The folk-like quality might be the legacy of Petrushka and the independent rhythms and texture – not to mention the limited range of each part – is certainly part of the after-glow of The Rite of Spring. A few rounds around the circle and the work stops with an added note for the violist.

The second piece is called “Eccentric” and is presumably inspired by the actions of a once-famous English dance-hall comedian known as Little Tich. Here, as opposed to the “Dance,” we have a wealth of tiny little fragments that flit in and out of consciousness like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. Some of these remain static whenever they recur, others expand or contract and they all create a kind of contrast as they jostle up against each other, seemingly in no particular order. This is something Stravinsky would later use, particularly in his “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” in 1920.

This became known as “moment form” – the structure of the piece formed by these different moments rather than by traditional themes and harmonies flowing in a logical order. When we describe motives or thematic fragments as “gestures,” listen to the different fragments and imagine them choreographed by the motions of a single dancer who never really needs to move from a single spot.

If you’re not familiar with Little Tich (see above, right), imagine perhaps a classic pantomime by one of Red Skelton’s clowns

The third piece, called Cantique or Hymn, is the complete opposite of the first: rather than independent lines, the four string players form a choir moving in harmony, first a chorale-like statement (full of quiet ‘wrong-note’ harmony) that also circles around a limited range of notes, followed by an upper-register response that proceeds to expand and blossom as one alternation leads to another. Compared to the second piece, this final piece (despite its slow-motion kaleidoscopiality) seems static, almost ascetic, and again, rather than ending, merely stops.

Later on, Stravinsky would use this kind of ending for works like Les Noces(begin c.4min into this clip) or the “Huxley Variations” of 1964 (begin at 4:40 into this clip). (By the way, coincidence or not, check out this clip from Aaron Copland’s very American story of a “folk” wedding, Appalachian Spring and its ending, beginning at 3:48!)

Incidentally, Stravinsky considered the last twenty measures of the 3rd piece to be the best music he had composed up to that time.

Now, listen to the video clip again. Have you listened a little differently, now?

Stravinsky once said, exasperated by people who found his music difficult to listen to, "To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears, also."

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Musically, if Stravinsky three great ballets were the last gasp of 19th Century Romanticism – in the case of The Rite of Spring, at least with its large-scale orchestra, sense of color and its emotional impact – the new trend in music composed in 1914 and later could relate to the new shift in painting, especially with the works of Picasso and Bracque, a style known as “Cubism” which most sources say began around 1907.

This “Portrait of Stravinsky” (see left) was painted by cubist artist Albert Gleizes in 1914.

The fact these three short pieces for four players were written a year after the premiere of The Rite of Spring is one thing, but consider what that year was: 1914. This was the start of World War I.

Stravinsky, the son of Russian aristocrats, had left Paris in 1911 to return to his family’s country estate in Ukraine where he spent the time working on the new ballet originally called “The Great Sacrifice” and “Sacred Spring” before becoming Le Sacre du printemps or “The Rite of Spring.” He left Russia in the autumn of 1912 to return to Clarens, Switzerland, where he completed the ballet. It was too late to have it produced that season, so the premiere was postponed until the following summer season on May 29th, 1913.

Whether it was a result of the strain of seeing the new ballet through its performance or the riot with which it was met, Stravinsky came down with typhoid fever, spent several weeks in a nursing home. After that, he spent the rest of the summer back in Russia, returning to Switzerland early in 1914 when his wife, pregnant with their fourth child, came down with tuberculosis.

That summer, in four days, he composed the Three Pieces for String Quartet. Then, he began working on what would become Les Noces, making a quick return to his home in Russia during mid-July to retrieve certain works from his library that might come in handy during its composition.

On July 28th, 1914, a month after the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the small kingdom of Serbia. But Russia was concerned about its influence in the Balkans which had been undergoing a series of “local” wars the previous two years, and so to protect its ally, Russia declared war on Austria two days later. With a week, Germany had declared war on Russia, France was mobilizing against Germany and England declared war on Germany. A week after that, Austria invaded Serbia, setting off a war that engulfed all of Europe until the armistice of November, 1918.

Switzerland was one of the few neutral places in Europe. And Stravinsky settled into his new home on the shores of Lake Geneva “for the duration.”

A side-effect of the war was the February 1917 Revolution that toppled the Tsar, replacing him with a provisional government. Stravinsky, from his home in Switzerland, telegraphed his mother – still living in their house in Petersburg (now Petrograd): “All our thoughts are with you in these unforgettable days of joy for our beloved Russia freed at last.” But by the end of October (November, by the old calendar), the Bolsheviks overthrew the weak provisional government and this not only made it impossible for Stravinsky to return to Russia as he had hoped but cut him off not only from his estate and its income (now confiscated) but also from any royalties he was earning from Russian publishers and performances.

In need of money and with little likelihood of engaging large orchestras and ballet companies like he had access to before the war, he wrote several small-scale works that could be played by a handful of musicians and could easily be taken on the road – works like L’Histoire du soldat (a modern-day take on the Faust story as a returning soldier sells his soul to the devil) and Renard (“The Fox,” a barnyard morality play). Naturally, these limited forces required leaner textures and the use of Russian folk music would not, perhaps, have translated as well into Western European sensibilities. Instead, there are elements of Spanish music (following a brief visit to Madrid) and even American rag-time (his friend, Ernest Ansermet, the Swiss conductor, came back from an American tour with sheet music of several rags).

Diaghilev, meanwhile, had come to him with an idea for a new and somewhat scaled-down ballet called Pulcinella along with scores of pieces written by (or at least attributed to) Giovanni Pergolesi who died in 1736. It was a success in Paris in 1920 – listen to a bit of it, here, and compare it to The Rite of Spring written just eight years earlier – and helped solidify a new movement in which many European composers began basing pieces of music of earlier, mostly unknown eras: Respighi had already written his 1st Suite of “Ancient Airs & Dances” in 1917, and two years later, Stravinsky began his newest ballet.

In this sense, these three seemingly insignificant short pieces for string quartet are more importantly a step between the three great ballets and the new post-war and post-revolution style that would become his Middle Period, usually described as “Neo-Classical,” with thinner textures, more distinct definition of melody and accompaniment and, above all, a clarification of tonality.

It became a way of returning to the control of the 18th and 19th century music – that is, “tonality” – and it’s interesting that in 1921, Arnold Schoenberg – whose Pierrot Lunaire became one of the first great works of “atonality” in 1911 and which Stravinsky, hearing it at its premiere in Berlin, admired very much – was developing another way of controlling those same textural and harmonic elements in a “system of composing with twelve tones,” later described (without Schoenberg’s approval) as “serialism.” But that’s another story…

So, in the end, listening to these pieces can give us some understanding not only into the mind of composer rethinking what and how we wants to compose, but also into the general flow of musical styles at the beginning of the 20th Century, making the transition between one century and the next.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Janáček's 1st String Quartet: Behind the Scenes

One of the works on the program opening Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary Season - at 8pm on Saturday October 1st at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center - is a string quartet not that well known on the average concert circuit. The Juilliard Quartet, celebrating its own 65th Anniversary, will be performing it along with Three Pieces by Igor Stravinsky and one of the quartets Mozart dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn, his String Quartet in A Major, K.464.

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If you’re looking over the program and see a string quartet by Leoš Janáček (see portrait, right) called “The Kreutzer Sonata” and you don't know it but the name sounds familiar, be warned it has nothing to do with a particular Beethoven violin sonata.

Yes, Beethoven wrote a violin sonata in 1802 which he eventually dedicated to the great French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer and consequently his Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 47, a grand work in the heroic style, has always been known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

But Janáček’s first published string quartet, composed over the space of 15 days in October, 1923, when he was 63 years old, is not an arrangement or adaptation of Beethoven’s sonata nor is it based on themes from Beethoven’s sonata, at least in any explicit way.

Actually, the string quartet was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s controversial novella, written in 1889, which he called “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And yes, Beethoven’s sonata plays a kind of incidental role in the story though it’s less of a story than a lecture about the nature of love, marriage and the societal roles of men and women.

Here’s the brief summary of Tolstoy’s book:

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During a train ride, a nervous man named Pozdnyshev overhears a conversation concerning marriage, divorce and love. When a woman argues that marriage should not be arranged but based on true love, he asks "what is love?" and points out that, if understood as an exclusive preference for one person, it often passes quickly. PPP Convention dictates that two married people stay together, and initial love can quickly turn into hatred. He then relates how he used to visit prostitutes when he was young, and complains that women's dresses are designed to arouse men's desires. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire, but yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions.

After meeting and marrying his wife when he is 30, they experience periods of passionate love alternating with vicious fights. She bears five children, and then is given contraceptives by a doctor because her health is frail and she should bear no more children.

"The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever."

Moving from the country into the city, the tension relaxes briefly as they adapt to a new life-style. His wife, returning to the piano once again, has taken a liking to a friend who’s an amateur violinist, and the two perform Beethoven's “Kreutzer” Sonata together.

Pozdnyshev complains that some music is powerful enough to change one's internal state to a foreign one. He hides his raging jealousy and goes on a trip, but returns early, finds the two together and, sneaking up on them after taking his boots off, kills his wife with a dagger.

The violinist escapes: "I wanted to run after him," Pozdnyshev explains to his listener, "but I remembered it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."

Later acquitted of murder in light of his wife's apparent adultery, Pozdnyshev rides the trains seeking forgiveness from fellow passengers.
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(Incidentally, this famous painting by René François Prinet called The Kreutzer Sonata - and long familiar to recent generations for its use in a famous perfume ad - was also inspired by Tolstoy's story in 1901.)

Now, this whole story is entirely told from the husband’s viewpoint and, in this summary, the expression “finds the two together” suggests something other than what he actually describes, how they were actually seated in the drawing room in the midst of conversation. But the implication of that expression, “finds the two together,” is what drives the husband’s rage and he vividly remembers every detail of the murder.

Janáček’s style is partly inspired by a love of folk music but more by the patterns he discovered in, for example, human speech. He often notated phrases and would use these to create more realistic sounding characters in his operas. Very often, there seems to be a kind of psychological fragmentation of something one might hear but is reflected on differently, as if one didn’t hear it the same way as others might. Often, a melodic line (or something that passes for one) might be interrupted or accompanied by often frenzied outbursts in other instruments as if there might be multiple layers to the perception of the music: what one hears (or speaks) and what one thinks as well as how others might hear it and respond. For examples of this, you only need to listen to the opening of the quartet and of the 2nd movement (at 4:00 into the first clip) and especially the opening of the 3rd Movement (beginning of the 2nd clip).

(Here, the Zemlinsky Quartet performs the four movements of Janáček’s 1st Quartet (“The Kreutzer Sonata”) in two clips. The sound is not great but it will give you a good idea of the piece.)

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But what does this lurid story have to do with Leoš Janáček and his 1st String Quartet?

He does not approach the story as a continuous narrative nor are there themes necessarily representative of specific characters or dramatic instances. Certainly, the constant nervous interjections in the background (though a common fingerprint of Janáček’s style) offer psychological commentary on the situation. The constant repetition of small motives – fragments of ideas, really – could represent the obsessive jealousy of the husband or the constant tension between the husband and wife. But this is all conjecture since nowhere did the composer say this is this and that is that.

One thing he did say is this: "I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and battered to death by her husband, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” It is quite possible Tolstoy’s novella was only a starting point and that Janáček wasn’t really using it as a basis for the piece, only an inspiration for it.

Certainly, as we can see from Janáček’s operatic heroines, he definitely sides with the women in his stories: in fact, the only opera of his that doesn’t (his final opera, based on Dostoievsky’s From the House of the Dead) doesn’t have a main female character. Janáček has little sympathy with Tolstoy’s attitude towards women as he expressed them through his character Pozdnyshev’s socio-political rant.

Rather than focus on the gory details of the murder, he turns this intensely violent drama into such psychological turmoil, it is almost difficult to imagine what is happening where. It could be as if the music takes place all in that single moment where the husband walks in on his wife and her violinist friend and… well, sees what? What is she imagining, expecting? How does one explain the enigmatic ending: a meditation on what led to the crime? After all, regardless of the court’s decision, the husband felt he was right and justified.

But don’t forget, Janáček is “telling” this from the woman’s point of view.

Anthony Burton, writing the liner notes for the Emerson Quartet’s recording, pointed out what he saw as similarities between the opening melody of Janáček’s 3rd Movement (the start of the 2nd clip, above) and the lyrical second theme of Beethoven’s otherwise generally heroic violin sonata ( listen to 2:50 into this clip with Itzhak Perlman & Martha Argerich) though I can’t hear it, myself. Certainly, there is little of Beethoven’s heroic quality in this piece in Tolstoy’s story or Janáček’s approach to it.

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Much is made of Janáček’s late-in-life affair – if one can call it that – with Kamila Stösslová, the young wife of a young antiques dealer. They met in 1917 at a spa on a summer holiday, the wife (then 25) with her infant son (see photo, left, taken in 1917 with her son, Otto) left alone for a week while her husband is away on business. Janáček befriends her and he almost immediately notated in music a fragment of her speech. Despite the difference in years and her basic indifference to him and to music in general – even Janáček’s wife couldn’t see what he saw in her, intellectually – a long and involved correspondence developed between them, consisting of over 700 letters.

His feelings (see photo, right: the composer, taken in 1917 when he was 63) were not reciprocated. However, he himself confessed to her things that must have made her cringe (today, we would call this TMI) but he also acknowledged that his love for her inspired most of the major works he composed in the last ten years of his life.

This was not Janáček’s first affair. The success of his opera, Jenufa, in 1916, introduced him to the soprano Gabriela Horvátová, and he became enchanted by her. Revealing this new passion to his wife Zdenka – their relationship had long cooled since their first years together (see photo, below left, taken in 1881) – she tried to commit suicide. Janáček wanted to file for a divorce but after the composer lost interest in Horvátová, they agreed instead to an “informal” divorce to avoid a public scandal. From then until his death in 1928, Janáček and his wife lived separate lives in the same household.

So it would be easy to read into life’s reality something of Tolstoy’s story, perhaps. He had known Kamila for six years before he composed the work in two quick weeks in 1923, in between having written The Cunning Little Vixen which can be quickly summarized as a love story set among the animals of the forest, and then The Makropolous Case, an opera about a woman who, having drunk a magic potion as a child, lives to be over 340 years old and for whom relationships are nothing (“she is cold as ice, brrr”), which he began composing a few weeks later.

And adultery or marriage difficulties figure prominently in his earlier operas, Jenufa and Katya Kabanová. Given Pozdnyshev’s constant harping on the base animal instincts behind man’s relationship with woman – “this swinish behavior,” as he keeps calling it, this need to have sex and procreate – was this suggested by the completely natural – that is, asocial – love experienced between the vixen Sharp-Ears and her mate, the fox Golden-Skin?

It is not the first time this lurid story of a husband murdering his wife in a jealous rage, attracted the composer. In 1908, apparently, he had begun a string quartet which he abandoned after three movements which also was inspired by Tolstoy’s tale, put aside, turning it, then, into a piano trio. This is presumably lost but the implication, from statements the composer made, was that some of this material eventually found its way into the String Quartet of 1923.

(This would not be the first string quartet that got caught up in the reality of marital infidelity. When Arnold Schoenberg was in the midst of composing his 2nd String Quartet, he discovered his wife having more than a conversation with an artist friend: you can read more about that in this earlier post on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

But the stories in most of Janáček’s operas are told from the woman’s viewpoint, whether it’s a female fox, a woman wronged by society’s moral attitudes like Katya Kabanová or even Elena Makropolous in all her various disguises over the centuries who tires of the idea of love and eternity. 

His Second String Quartet, however, will be all about Kamila Stösslová, inspired by the more than 700 letters they had written each other over the past 11 years:

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"You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately..."
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Small wonder it’s known by the subtitle, Intimate Letters. Written in Febraury of 1928, it was premiered later that year, about a month after Janáček’s death.

But that’s a whole other story…

(Speaking of which, if you're interested in extra credit, check out this post on Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Celebrating Legacies: Market Square Concerts & the Juilliard Quartet

Five years ago. the Juilliard Quartet was celebrating its milestone 60th Anniversary when they helped Market Square Concerts celebrate its 25th.

This fall, Market Square Concerts begins its 30th Anniversary Season with a performance by the Juilliard String Quartet on Saturday, October 1st at Whitaker Center, just ten days shy of their official 65th "birthday."

It was on October 11th, 1946, that William Schuman, the American composer who was the president of the Juilliard School of Music then, told a 26-year-old violinist named Robert Mann he wanted him to form a string quartet that would be in residence at the school and would have a dual role as a performing ensemble and a teaching unit which could have a significant impact on the musical life of the students and the community. Though quartets had existed in history before, this was the first time one had been formed with that particular concept in mind and its success led to many other schools and music departments forming their own resident teaching and performing ensembles.

Long recognized as one of the finest string quartets in the world, they have numerous highly acclaimed recordings and quotes in their resume like “The Juilliard String Quartet remains the standard by which all other quartets must be judged” from the Los Angeles Times, a sentiment shared by many of the major critics around the world. 

Robert Mann, the first 1st Violinist of the group, retired after 50 seasons with the ensemble, a tenure rare in the chamber music world – especially considering the pressure of constantly working at that level of excellence with only three other people: burn-out is a frequent ailment among quartet players and personnel issues, given the percentages, can easily become personality issues that can be devastating.

There has been surprisingly little turnover in the quartet’s history and considerable longevity in the process: five years ago (see photo, right), the new guy, 2nd violinist Ronald Copes, was celebrating his 10th season with them. Joel Smirnoff had been with them 21 years; cellist Joel Krosnick, 33 years; and violist Samuel Rhodes, 37 years.

But in the past three seasons, after Mr. Smirnoff left to become the president of the Cleveland Institute of Music, Nick Eanet joined them in 2009, unfortunately having to step down due to health reasons the following year. The new "new guy" is Joseph Lin, now in his first season with the legendary Juilliard Quartet, only the fourth 1st violinist in its history.

As the quartet officially turns 65 (see photo, left), its newest member is 33 years old.

The quartet had been here on occasions past and looked forward to coming back for that double celebration in 2006. We were very lucky to have them here on the occasion: after all, a group in demand around the world planning a huge anniversary tour and yet four days into their 60th season they’re in Harrisburg PA?!

So, having them return again is a great way to start the 30th Anniversary of Market Square Concerts which, thanks to Lucy Miller Murray (left), had been bringing ensembles like this to the mid-state since the beginning, often against all kinds of odds, despite the woes that have befallen the classical music scene and support for the arts in general, not only here but across the country.

It certainly has been a labor of love – and a great deal of both labor and love has gone into those first 25 years. She’s been recognized around the country for her work in the chamber music world as a presenter and also as a writer about issues affecting music in general but chamber music in particular (for example, her article posted at The New Music Box).

Pianist Peter Orth was the artist for the very first concert given by Market Square Concerts which were then regularly held at the Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, an off-shoot of an occasional series of concerts being held there that was being disbanded and which she thought she’d take over. She told me recently that “I thought all you’d have to do was post a sign on the door of Market Square Church and people would just show up” which is pretty much how it went for awhile.

Over the years, she feels she’s learned to run a small business, dealing with contacting the artists and setting up the season, handling the marketing, getting the programs printed not to mention writing the program notes (she’s collected these into a volume published by Concert Artists Guild entitled “Adams to Zemlinsky: a Friendly Guide to Selected Chamber Music”), handling ticket sales, arrangements for dinners and receptions and even turning pages on-stage during the performance!

And there have been personnel changes since that Anniversary Concert - Lucy Miller Murray decided to step down as director, though she is still very active in the organization beyond writing program notes. Ellen Hughes (left), a pillar of the regional arts' scene in both music and theater as well as a column in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, stepped down at the end of last season as the director, and is also still active in the organization, passing the reins on to Peter Sirotin, the Artistic Director (below, right) and Ya-Ting Chang, the Executive Director (below, left).

Both performing musicians, they are two-thirds of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio and teach at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. Peter may also be familiar to Harrisburg audiences having shared the first stand of 1st Violins in the Harrisburg Symphony with concertmaster Odin Rathnam.

And they begin the season by welcoming an ensemble whose former 2nd Violinist, Earl Carlyss, a member of the Juilliard Quartet from 1966 to 1986, was an important mentor to them both and continues to be a role model for them.

Today, Market Square Concerts' performances can take place not only at the original "home base" of Market Square Church but also at Whitaker Center where it's one of the "ensembles" in residence; at the Rose Lehrman Center on the campus of Harrisburg Area Community College; and most recently adding Temple Ohev Sholom at N. Front & Seneca Streets in uptown Harrisburg (where the next concert will take place on November 12th with the JACK Quartet).

Market Square Concerts presents the Juilliard String Quartet -- Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 ("The Kreutzer Sonata") & Mozart's String Quartet in A, K.464 -- Saturday, October 1st, 8pm, at Whitaker Center in Harrisburg.

- Dick Strawser

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Image credits: Juilliard Qt in 1952 -- G.D. Hackett
Juilliard Qt in 2006 -- Nana Watanabe
Juilliard Qt in 2011 -- Steve J. Sherman