Friday, July 22, 2011

Summermusic: Brahms & His String Sextets - Part 2

Sunday’s program with Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 includes the second of Brahms’ two string sextets. Written just about four years apart, they mark an important development in his finding his own voice. The B-flat Sextet, which you can read about in this previous post, was almost a political response to the modernist credo espoused by Franz Liszt and his “New German School,” finding a path toward the Music of the Future. Brahms had found his calling not in the future but by going Back to the Past.

The 2nd Sextet is not only a more assured work, it is more concentrated, better crafted and yet all that matters little to someone listening to it from a purely emotional viewpoint over 150 years later.

Instead, this post concentrates more on the personal life behind the music.

(You can hear a complete performance of the 2nd String Sextet recorded at the LaJolla SummerFest 2007 in an earlier post, here.)

A couple of years before he had started composing the 1st String Sextet, Brahms (right) was still living in his hometown of Hamburg in 1858 when a friend invited him to come check out Göttingen, a college town about 170 miles south of Hamburg. This friend, Julius Otto Grimm, composer, teacher and music director of the local choral society, the Cäcilienverein, wrote to him, “If it would please you to have a few good voices lodged in very lovely girls, sing for you, they will take pleasure in being at your disposal. Come quickly!” Odd that Brahms had hesitated, at first.

So, in the midst of working on a serenade originally for a small group of strings and winds, he did so reluctantly, even if it was part of a holiday with Clara Schumann, her five youngest children, her half-brother, composer Woldemar Bargiel and violinist Joseph Joachim. It didn’t, however, take Brahms long to succumb to the charms of the town and especially some of the young ladies in town – one soprano named Agathe von Siebold, in particular.

In addition to having long dark hair, a lush figure, a fondness for practical jokes and a voice that Joachim likened to an Amati violin, Agathe (left) was also studying composition with Julius Grimm who once berated her for some sloppy counterpoint exercises. When Brahms agreed to play a trick on his friend, he wrote out her assignment himself which she duly handed in as her own. Grimm exploded over this “swinish mess” and when Agathe asked “well, what if Johannes had written it,” he said it would be even worse. Here, Brahms had actually screwed it up on purpose, playing a joke on both of them.

Oh, those wild and crazy musicians… such larks…

At the end of this extended vacation, Brahms returned to Detmold, about 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, where he was employed part of the year as a “court musician,” performing with the orchestra there and teaching music to the family of Prince Leopold III. In addition to organizing chamber music concerts, he also conducted a women’s choir for whom he wrote numerous short choral works.

In addition to playing concertos by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin (I’m trying to imagine Brahms playing Chopin, but hey…), he also conducted his first Bach (the cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”) and was known to accompany Mozart violin sonatas by starting them in the wrong key to “test” his colleague’s transposition skills. As a composer, his B Major Piano Trio (the original version of Op. 8) and the G Minor Piano Quartet were received coolly.

Visiting Göttingen again in 1859, he and Agathe continued their friendship and apparently became secretly engaged. According to his friends, they seemed perfectly happy with each other.

Then he left for two performances of his finally completed D Minor Piano Concerto which was neither a success nor a failure in Hannover but which was frostily received in Leipzig five days later. After a long silence, perhaps three pairs of hands bothered to applaud before the hissing began. Critics called it “banal and horrid.”

By then, returning to see Agathe, Brahms suffered what today would be called “a fear of commitment.” When he wrote to her, "I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!" she responded by breaking off the engagement.

To his friends, Brahms would admit to “playing the scoundrel” to Agathe. Over a decade later, he recalled those days, how he would like to have married but when his music was hissed in the concert hall and so icily received, he realized while this was something he himself could tolerate, returning alone to his room,

“...if, in such moments, I had had to meet the anxious, questioning eyes of a wife with the words ‘another failure’ – I could not have borne that! For a woman may love an artist… ever so much… and if she had wanted to comfort me – a wife to pity her husband for his lack of success – ach! I can’t stand to think what a hell that would have been.”

During the first months in Göttingen , he wrote several songs for Agathe to sing, many of them using a musical motif based on her name spelled out in notes

using the old German notation where B = B-flat and H = B-natural, where S (or Es) = E-flat and “As” = A-flat.

This idea of “carving” a motive out of a word or name was something he learned from Schumann who often used such motivic ideas – the “Abegg Variations” in which the name Abegg is spelled out in pitches A-B-E-G-G or the town where an old girlfriend lived, Asch, which became A–E-flat (the old German ‘Es’)–C–B-natural. There was one motive Schumann associated with his wife Clara, based on what letters could be turned into pitches: C-(L)-A-(R)-A but he would arbitrarily substitute B for L and G# for R.

There was also the “F-A-E Sonata” that Schumann, Brahms and Albert Dietrich collaborated on as a surprise for Joseph Joachim whose “lifestyle motif,” so the story goes, was “Frei aber Einsam,” Free but Lonely.

In the mid-1850s, Brahms and Joachim worked out an extensive fugue-writing correspondence. One of the fugues Brahms sent to Joachim wove together his F-A-E Motive with the pitches G#-E-A (G# = ‘gis’, A also = the solfege syllable “La”) which represented Joachim’s then-fiancé, Gisela von Arnim. (Later, Brahms would create a similar motive for his 3rd Symphony, the rising figure F-A-F for “Frei aber Froh,” Free but Happy…)

This idea was not new with Schumann, of course: Josquin des Pres did it in the 15th Century and Bach famously used his own name frequently in his music (B-flat–A–C–B-natural) as did other composers making direct references to the Great Johann Sebastian.

In the months following his break-up with Agathe, Brahms composed more songs, still occasionally employing the “Agathe Motive” but setting it to words about parting and lost love.

Brahms would use this “Agathe Motive” again in the 2nd String Sextet which he completed a few years after he and Agathe von Siebold parted ways.

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Moving ahead a few years, Brahms had completed two new piano quartets and three versions of his Piano Quintet, before writing to his Göttingen friend Julius Grimm once again, asking how things were “in all the houses where one used to go so happily… of that house and gate – ” which he didn’t need to explain was the house where Agathe von Siebold lived with her father.

Grimm told him “the old Professor had died three years ago” and Agathe had taken a job the past year as a governess in Ireland where she teaches music and German to the daughters of a rich young English family. She had to get away, he said, from “the shadowed pages of her life… what a gloomy lot is that of a girl alone.”

Brahms returned to Göttingen and stood by that ruined gate, looking at the empty house (such images typical of the lovelorn poetry of the Romantic Age). In September, he composed the devastated and exalted songs of Op. 32 which included the lines “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to live for you, with you, and never die.”

That same month, he began the first movement of the 2nd String Sextet. The second movement was based on a Baroque-like gavotte he’d written (part of a collection of tongue-in-cheek dances in the early-1850s) contrasting with a jocose middle section. The original sketch of the slow movement’s variations was written in 1855 and the overall sound is basically “wandering, empty, tragic.” The finale sounds like it might be a proper scherzo with a warm contrasting section with a bit of a dance to it: perhaps a “last dance, at the end of an affair,” as Swafford describes it.

The opening is a gem of a motive – an oscillating G-F# connecting first a G Major triad and then, unexpectedly, an E-flat triad (the G being a common pitch). It would be possible to analyze this music in terms of these two sounds (the oscillation and the G—D , E-flat—B-flat) but the most striking element, considering the theme of this post, is a motive that appears in the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes of the Sonata’s exposition:

This is Agathe’s Motive - and at its most obvious, climactic point, it is repeated five times. Yet this time, there is another note inserted within the motive – a D – which helps spell out the word “Ade” or “Adieux, Farewell.” One could even sing "Agathe, ade" to this fragment of a melody.

Brahms is certainly saying farewell to Agathe, taking his leave, musically if not emotionally. Yet in the very first song he wrote for her – Op.14 No. 1 – this “ade” motive appears when the night-watchman sounds his horn as the lovers part.

We may think of this as purely abstract music with no literary allusions or suggestions of telling a story, the sort of thing Liszt and the New German School espoused. But even Brahms must have had something on his mind, here, when he was writing this – a young girl who used to sing his songs for him and with whom he once contemplated marriage.

Yet you can still appreciate the magic of this climactic moment whether you understand the symbolism or not. It is one of those aspects of great art, regardless of its 'political' persuasion, that allows you the opportunity of discovering new things.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summermusic: Brahms & His Two Sextets - Part 1

You can hear both string sextets by Johannes Brahms this week with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic Festival 2011 with the Fry Street String Quartet joined by Market Square Concerts' new artistic director and violinist Peter Sirotin, playing the viola this time, and his colleague from the Mendelssohn Trio and principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony, Fiona Thompson. The B-flat Sextet concludes Sunday afternoon's concert, at 4:00 in the Climenhaga Arts Center of Messiah College in Grantham. The G Major Sextet, which you can read about in Part 2 of this post, concludes Tuesday evening's concert which begins at 6:00 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg. 

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In his day, no one would have accused Brahms of “boldly going where no man has gone before,” certainly not his colleagues Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Both twenty years his senior, they initially tried recruiting Johannes Brahms for their project, “Music of the Future: The Next Generation.” Later, Brahms would become the leading conservative composer while Wagner and Liszt led the liberal faction espousing the 19th Century's avant-garde.

In this episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Data and Friends perform the slow movement from Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major at a special concert aboard the Enterprise.

Music considered so beautiful, it could even move a Vulcan to tears – well, one Vulcan to a tear…

In the 1850s, “Music of the Future” was a pejorative term leveled at both the liberal team of Wagner and Liszt as well as Robert Schumann who wasn’t really conservative as “less liberal.” Many lesser-known composers of this era – known as “Biedermeier” in Germany (you can read more about that, here, if you’re interested in some background) – were more conservative, rallying behind their most famous representative, Felix Mendelssohn who had died in 1847, and Ludwig Spohr who was one of the great violinists of his day and, at his prime, was probably more popular than Beethoven though by the 1850s pretty well washed up.

Germany also wasn’t a nation, then, more of a culture behind a loose political federation. After the collapse of that medieval relic, the Holy Roman Empire, in 1806, Napoleon had seen to it that “Germany” stayed that way. It would take most of the 19th Century for all these little city-states and principalities orbiting around three major centers – Prussia and Berlin, Bavaria and Munich, Austria and Vienna – to come to some terms with nationhood. It wasn’t until 1871 that Prussia managed to coalesce the rest of these territories into the German Empire, now pitting itself against the Austrian Empire, the two major überpowers of German culture.

That was five years before Brahms (finally) completed his 1st Symphony.

It took Brahms some 20-plus years to finish that symphony – you can read more about that, here – mostly because Robert Schumann (pictured here with his wife, Clara), wearing his hat as a major critic and writer-about-music, had prophesied Brahms would become the Heir to Beethoven. That was late in 1853 in an article called “New Paths.” What struck people (especially those like Wagner and Liszt) as odd was the simple fact Brahms was only 20, totally unknown and so far had published nothing. Considering the struggles Wagner was still having trying to get his music heard, who was this Brahms kid that a critic like Schumann would declare him a potentially Great Composer? It wasn’t like someone could just say “Make it so” and it was.

Today, of course, there’s “Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” the great triumvirate of Classical Music. Few of us may notice that this was originally a marketing brand innocently coined by the conductor Hans von Bülow in 1877, the year after Brahms finished his 1st Symphony (which von Bülow had dubbed “Beethoven’s 10th”).

We think of Brahms and Wagner as contemporaries with very similar styles – highly Romantic – and pay no attention to the stylistic details that fueled this bitter aesthetic rivalry. Brahms had learned early that polemics were not his style, leaving the essays and the pamphleteering to Wagner (see photo, right, taken in 1865) and his followers.

Wagner became the bold and forceful leader of avant-garde music. Brahms was regarded as the stodgy keeper of antiquity - or the upholder of aesthetic integrity that would keep music from falling into the dungheap of history.

(Surely, there’s a Star Trek episode in that?)

So while Brahms was avoiding writing that symphony – or rather, biding his time before he felt he was ready for that symphony – he composed a great deal of chamber music. Very little of it, however, ever saw the light of day.

Brahms once told a friend how he papered the walls and ceiling of his Hamburg apartment with pages from his rejected compositions – enough music for twenty string quartets, he once said, and he probably wasn’t exaggerating. He had only to lie on his back to admire his rejected works…

Of course, writing symphonies and string quartets, even in 1860, you still had to contend with “the tramp of giants behind you,” Beethoven in particular (regardless of Schumann’s article) and Brahms had early decided he was not going to write and publish any of those “on-the-job training” works like most young composers did, leaving a trail of less than perfect works that might later prove an embarrassment.

His first attempt at a symphony – one in D Minor, its theme sketched down days after Schumann’s attempted suicide in 1854 – turned itself into his 1st Piano Concerto which proved to be a dismal failure, along with a couple of serenades regarded as pre-symphonic studies in orchestration but also opportunities for Brahms to create longer forms without actually writing something as serious as a Symphony with all the historical baggage that entails.

The same thing went for string quartets.

Instead, he found himself attracted to the idea of larger combinations, richer ensembles that not only were “easier” to handle than the spare quartet sound (more orchestral, almost, by comparison), they also didn’t carry the same kind of serious quality and historical baggage the Quartet did, again thanks to Beethoven.

And with sextets, nobody was going to call him the Heir to Boccherini…

Between 1860 and 1865, then between the ages of 27 and 32, Brahms completed and “released” two string sextets, two piano quartets, a cello sonata and the Horn Trio in addition to three versions of what became the Piano Quintet (originally a string quintet, then a sonata for two pianos before combining the best of both).

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(in this video with score, members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet perform the 1st movement of Brahms' 1st String Sextet - the 2nd Movement is posted, below)

It was around this time that Brahms began working on the B-flat Sextet which he finished the following year. It makes substantial use of traditional forms that would not have been unfamiliar to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, very clearly defined: a sonata movement followed by variations on what is actually an old Baroque dance, La Folia complete with the cello raking its bow across the strings like an old-fashioned viol, a scherzo and, to conclude, a standard rondo.

(the third movement is performed by an apparently ad hoc ensemble – they give their names in the 1st movement’s clip – and recorded in a very boomy church. It’s difficult to find reasonable performances on-line...)

(the fourth movement is from a 2011 music festival with the Prazák Quartet and friends)

To us, this would seem to be nothing more than continuity with Beethoven’s generation from 45 years earlier.

It is easy to forget that at this time there was something akin to a musical “war” brewing, a matter of aesthetics comparable to the bitterness between the serialists and the tonal composers of the past several decades of modern music.

In the one corner, as I mentioned earlier, was Wagner and Liszt – mostly Liszt (see photo, left), who seemed to thrive on the polemics, despite Wagner’s political activities in other areas. The critic Hanslick, Brahms' chief apologist, pointed out that whenever a new work appeared from either of them, it always seemed to be accompanied by a flurry of pamphlets and essays about its importance: new music had to be explained and they each had their entourage who acted as a public-relations effort – or, depending on your viewpoint, a propaganda machine.

When Brahms and Joachim (see photo, right) chose not to be converted to their followers, they, as Swafford writes in his biography of Brahms, “stewed over Liszt’s sensationalism, his rambling and histrionic music, the credo of the ‘New German School’ that music required other arts to buttress it.” In 1860, with his faith in abstract music never stronger, Brahms “itched to write anti-Liszt.” These two members of the younger generation produced their own manifesto which, unfortunately, was leaked to the rival press before any more than two other people had signed on to it.

And Liszt and his followers had a field day with it.

So, coming so soon on top of this public-relations debacle, the untried and so far unsuccessful Brahms wrote a very conservative and adamantly traditional string sextet that had no program, no revolutionary harmonic progressions or tonal schemes (though Joachim did think the opening digression from B-flat Major to D-flat Major in the first phrase was a bit much), no obfuscated formal structures, no over-the-top emotions or even any literary allusions a listener could hang on to to make sense out of the music (“but what’s it about? It was just music about music - I mean, what the heck...?")

These were things Brahms and Joachim thought spelled the death of music as they knew it. For his part, Liszt dismissed them as “the posthumous party.” Followers of both sides produced propaganda, demonstrations and even organized cadres of supporters to disrupt performances of the other party’s concerts.

Today, we listen to this music and are so overwhelmed by its beauty, all this “reality” seems impossible to imagine.

And yet, in 1900, Vernon Blackburn, a London critic, wrote

"The Brahms Sextet [in B-flat Major] is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of Brahms, 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 surds (a quantity not capable of being expressed in rational numbers) 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 Sextet was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."

Toward the end of his life, Brahms was still complaining about the state of music, how, after him, it was all downhill. He had had lunch with a young conductor he admired (though he didn’t think much of Gustav Mahler's music), who, as they walked past a flowing stream near the restaurant, grabbed Brahms’ arm, pointed at the water and said, “Look, Doctor, look!”

When Brahms couldn’t see what he was pointing at, Mahler said, “See? There goes the last wave!”

Brahms chuckled but insisted there was still a question whether it would end up going to the sea or into some swamp, instead.

Could he ever have imagined his music being played centuries in the future on a space ship to entertain dignitaries from a distant galaxy? Well... uhm...

It would probably as far fetched for him to realize one of those modernist composers in the not too distant future, following in the footsteps of Wagner and Mahler, would have hailed him as "Brahms the Progressive" and a significant influence on his development of his own distinct musical voice!

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Follow this link to read Part Two of “Brahms & his Two Sextets” for information about the String Sextet in G Major, which concludes Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 on Tuesday evening, a concert that begins at the earlier-than-usual time of 6:00 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Music Making: Dvořák & Brahms

'Tis the season for summer concerts and while I’ll post separately about the two Brahms sextets on this summer’s series, I wanted to include these two videos from another summer festival, recorded at the La Jolla SummerFest, performances of works you can hear with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2011.

The first video is a performance of the Dvořák Piano Quintet which is on our first program as Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, joins the Fry Street String Quartet for the concert Friday night at 8pm in Market Square Church.

The Dvořák Quintet may be one of the more popular of the basic piano quintets out there – and follows a direct line from Johannes Brahms’ F Minor Quintet which was directly inspired by Robert Schumann’s E-flat Major Quintet.

This performance, recorded in 2006, features violinists Lindsay Deutsch and Bei Zhu, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Gary Hoffman, and pianist Weiyin Chen.

(Incidentally, Gary Hoffman will be performing with Market Square Concerts during the May 2012 concert, joining the Cypress String Quartet for another famous quintet, the String Quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert. But more of that, later.)

Friday’s first concert of this season’s Summermusic will also include Haydn’s Quartet Op. 17 No. 6 and Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3 (you can read about Bartók here and listen to video clips of the quartet in this post) along with the Duet for Oboe and Viola by American composer, Alvin Ettler.

Hey, the music will be hot but the place is air-conditioned!

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While there’s lots of talk these days about Washington’s “Gang of Six,” Cho-Liang Lin’s introduction to this video from the La Jolla 2007 summer festival of Brahms’ Sextet in G Major, may help us understand why politicians would never be able to play chamber music, as he gives you an insider’s insight into the give-and-take of making music together.

In this performance, Cho-Liang Lin is joined by violinist Sheryl Staples, violists James Dunham and Che-Yen Chen, and cellists Ralph Kirshbaum and Alisa Weilerstein.

The Fry Street String Quartet will be joined by Market Square Concerts’ artistic director Peter Sirotin playing the viola and his colleague from the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, cellist Fiona Thompson, who’s also the principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony.

This concert - which also includes Halvorsen's arrangement for violin and viola of a Passacaglia by Handel, Josef Rheinberger's Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Viola and Cello, and Joan Tower's "Island Prelude" for oboe and strings - takes place next Tuesday (the 26th) at the earlier-than-usual time of 6:00pm at Market Square Church. 

More on the background of Brahms’ Sextets in a bit…

Meanwhile, hope you’re staying cool!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summermusic 2011: Bela Bartók, the Man Behind the Music

Looking ahead at the week’s on-going heat-wave, it’s welcome news, in a season of out-door summer concerts, that all three of Market Square Concerts’ “Summermusic 2011” take place inside in air-conditioned comfort. The opening concert this Friday takes place at 8:00 at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg – as does the final concert, next Tuesday, the 26th at 6:00 (yes, that’s six o’clock). And the middle concert takes place at the Climenhaga Arts Center at Messiah College in Grantham, at 4:00 on Sunday the 24th.

You can also read about how people used to listen to new music in Haydn’s day, here, and how that changed in the 19th Century. The post includes some video clips of the Haydn as well as the Bartók quartets the Fry Street String Quartet will be playing in their opening program on Friday. The program also includes Antonin Dvořák’s ever-popular Piano Quintet (you can hear a video of it here, starting with the first movement).

In this post, I wanted to write about the opportunity I had earlier this year to interview Bela Bartók’s son, Peter, via Skype when the Calder Quartet played all six of Bartók’s quartets in Elizabethtown as part of Gretna Music’s Leffler Chapel series (their summer season is set to begin shortly, too).

Peter, who just turned 87 this summer, was three years old when his father composed his Third Quartet and 21 when Bartók died at the age of 64. It’s not so much the insights he might have had concerning his father’s music, but more about the man who was his father and, coincidentally, one of the great composers of the 20th Century. His book, called simply “My Father,” was published in 2002 and it’s an invaluable source for anyone interested in first-hand accounts of composers’ lives, especially if you’re a fan of Bartók’s music.

Since Bartók never really discussed the technical details of his creativity with his colleagues, it was unlikely he’d talk about these over dinner with his young son. But there are insights here that might be overlooked in more technically oriented sources that give some insights into the man’s inspiration and his character.

Bartók was interested in Nature. Peter mentioned how, when he was a child, they would have chickens in the backyard of their Budapest home (one that was relatively in the quieter suburbs) as well as rabbits and how Bartók wrote to his son (then visiting his sister’s farm during the summer) that baby rabbits had been born and how he was building wooden coops to accommodate them. Sitting in the backyard with a picnic lunch, it was not unusual for one of the hens, by that time more of a family pet than a provider of fresh eggs, to wander around through the grass.

In any of my classes that mentioned Bartók’s music, I was always told the frequent occurrence of what he called “Night Music” was an abstract rendering of various night sounds – breezes, insect noises, bird cries and the like.

Years later, listening to pianist Leonid Hambro play the suite, “Out of Doors,” Peter told him how well he’d caught the frogs from his aunt’s farm, a memorable sound from those summer holidays, much to Hambro’s surprise. “Frogs?” he’d said, never having thought what the sounds were, so explicitly, in the movement called “Music of the Night.”

I’d never considered them in, say, the slow 2nd movement of the 5th Quartet. About 10 minutes into this “audio” clip from YouTube with the Novak Quartet, you’ll hear soft pizzicato sounds, mostly in the cello: they’re two notes, but only the first is plucked, giving a kind of guitar-like sound as the cellist slurs the two notes together. Now, the movement isn’t labeled “Night Music” but when I heard the Calder Quartet play this in April, the cellist slid from the first to the second notes and suddenly I realized “More frogs!” Was that what was in Bartók’s mind? There are a lot of nature-like sounds in this movement, but like many of the folk-song elements of his earlier works, he absorbed them more abstractly into his own voice in his later pieces. Perhaps he was doing the same with Nature, here?

When he was visiting his father after he’d come to the United States at the start of World War II, Peter found him notating several bird-songs outside his window when he was staying in Asheville, NC. Later, when Bartók’s last works were performed, there, in the 3rd Piano Concerto was one of these bird-songs.

At the time of his death, following a long but largely undiagnosed illness, Bartók had been working on or thinking about a number of pieces. Peter tells how, visiting his parents at their tiny cottage in Saranac Lake where his father was composing during a respite, just weeks before he died, his mother would be cooking their simple lunch in the kitchen while his father sat at the table working on the viola concerto that had been commissioned for William Primrose. But when his wife stepped out of the kitchen, Bartók lifted up the sketches of the viola concerto he was working on to show his son another score lying underneath – a piano concerto he was writing as a birthday surprise for his wife: it was almost finished.

He completed the enigmatic 6th String Quartet before leaving Hungary in 1939 – the overall sadness of the piece stemming more from the imminent death of his mother, to whom he was very close, than a political commentary on the state of the world. He composed no major works in the next three years, mostly due to the frustrations of adjusting to American life and not having a secure footing economically or musically. But the reception of the Concerto for Orchestra (written in 55 days at Saranac Lake during the summer of 1943) prompted a resurgence of creative security, enough for him to contemplate, among other things, a 7th String Quartet. Though he did complete the Sonata for Solo Violin the next year, he was unable to officially complete both the 3rd Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto by the time he died in 1945.

When his health began deteriorating those last weeks and the doctors insisted he go to the hospital, Bartók wanted a day’s reprieve, figuring it wouldn’t make much difference. As a result, Peter explained, the last 17 measures of the piano concerto never had a chance to be filled in, something he’d felt would only take another day’s work.

Life in America was not kind to Bartók. The potential for concert performances was limited – he was not as well known here as he was in Europe – and there were problems about the royalties from his publishers in Britain. As a touring performer, Bartók had been given the use of a piano for their apartment by a company but once the concert offers dried up and he was no longer performing, the company regretfully took the piano back.

Reality 101 was a bureaucratic nightmare for the Bartóks: for instance, issued several months’ worth of food rationing coupons during the war, they used them all up at the grocery stores where unscrupulous cashiers didn’t advise them how they should be used and probably kept them to use themselves or sell them on the black market. As a result, the Bartóks were unable to buy any meat, butter or cooking oil, for instance, for several months, instead making do with a kind of improvised peasant fare from what they could. A bottle of olive oil, the gift of a friend, was treated like gold and stretched out to last most of the summer.

It seems odd, reading about Bartók railing against the soft white stuff Americans called bread – as opposed to the hearty fiber-filled home-made loaves Bartók was used to in Hungary. He even hated the smell of vanilla – more appropriately, “vanilla extract” – a pale imitation of what they had back home, and refused to eat anything made with it, including vanilla ice-cream.

He also hated commercial radio and how music was used to sell American products. More significantly, the idea of listening to radio broadcasts of classical music, he said, would destroy people’s interest in making music themselves – the old-timed parlor music generations of middle-class families shared in the evening.

Not only would it replace the need to go to a concert to hear live music, it might also lead to superficial listening, relegating it to background noise, the equivalent of “being caressed by a lukewarm bath.” And of course, it would also lower the listeners’ inhibitions, even leading them to chat during the music!

A proud man, Bartók was reluctant to accept charity. Friends had to revert to subterfuge and often failed when they tried to give him money to help with expenses. Peter, who had joined the US Navy and spent much of the war stationed in Panama, sent money home from his pay check to help his parents out, but after his father’s death, he found all of the money neatly set aside and untouched.

We think of Bartók the Composer – but he was also highly respected as a concert pianist and chamber musician as well as a teacher, a profession he not always enjoyed.

When he was a child, growing up in the suburban home in Budapest, Peter listened to his father practicing at home and playing duets with his mother, a former piano student of Bartók’s. He wrote the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion for him and his wife to play and Peter, then about 12, recounts hearing a run-through of one movement while he sat in the next room.

In addition to listening to his father composing his own music, he said he also heard him and his mother playing works by Mozart and one time when a violinist-friend was preparing a recital, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (you can hear a recording here Bartók made with Szigeti in 1940).

Then there was the time young Peter asked his father, apparently concerned about the public reaction to his own music, why he didn’t write music more like Mozart. If his father was wounded by this question, Peter said he didn’t show it but carefully explained how music changes with times and a composer today had to write music for today: it wasn’t a matter of writing what pleased audiences more.

If you’ve ever played any of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos as a piano student, several of them were written as pieces for Peter to play in his lessons: he tells how his father would sit down, write something out and then put it in front of him to sight-read, letting him go through the short piece first and only then going back to point out things and make corrections. Many of these teaching pieces were later published in the early volumes of Mikrokosmos.

Peter didn’t grow up to become a pianist – instead he became a recording engineer. He explains how, when he was a child, a “white-noise machine” someone devised to help mask the sound (mostly of a radio) from their neighbor’s apartment before they moved to the quieter suburbs, turned out to be more noise than the original distraction, so the machine was given to young Peter as a kind of tinker-toy. Later, Peter accidentally caused a short by inserting a bent wire in a pair of outlets, leaving the house without electricity. Instead of punishing the boy, Bartók explained some of the principles of electricity and why you shouldn’t do that. Eventually, Peter became an electrical and then a recording engineer, ultimately shepherding his father’s legacy of recordings and compositions through the modern technology with re-issues both on LP and CDs through his own label, Bartók Records.

As part of a radio interview, Bartók performed four Scarlatti sonatas as part of the live broadcast. Later, when he was told they had been recorded and they wanted to release the recording, Bartók denied them the necessary permission not because there were a few minor glitches along the way as could happen with any live performance, but because, not knowing they would be recorded, he had not prepared himself mentally for something that would be so permanent.

He gave the test recording to his son when he was 10 and, despite his father’s injunction on its release, Peter would later issue the recordings when the question of the legacy of Bartók’s performance outweighed the initial argument. (You can hear them, here, in this YouTube video.)

One last anecdote. Peter recounts how, in the 1930s, the family was in Switzerland – one of Bartók’s favorite vacation destinations (he loved mountains) – visiting the home of Stefi Geyer who years earlier was a budding violinist and the first serious love of Bartók’s life. In fact, he wrote a violin concerto for her which, after she rejected him in 1908, he suppressed, using the first movement as the idealized first of “Two Portraits,” adding a bitter second one he called “Distorted” or “Grotesque.” This concerto only came to light after Geyer’s death in 1956 and would later be published as No. 1; the famous mature Violin Concerto completed in 1938 and regarded as one of the great but less frequently played concertos of the 20th Century, then became No. 2.

In fact, this relationship so affected Bartók, he wrote to Stefi shortly after their break-up that a new work he was just beginning - his 1st String Quartet - started with what he called "my funeral dirge."

Anyway, considering her family’s disapproval of young Bartók, only still a “promising” composer (and, incidentally, an atheist), Ms. Geyer instead married a successful lawyer and then, after he died during World War I, a Swiss composer. They met again in the 1930s and renewed their friendship.

Knowing how Bartók disapproved of recordings, she had her daughter go turn off the phonograph when the composer and his family showed up to visit this one particular time. But he said he liked what they were listening to and was curious about it, so they listened to it – arrangements of George Gershwin songs played by clarinetist Benny Goodman and his band.

A couple of years later, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti asked Bartók to compose a short two movement piece, maybe about 6-7 minutes long, something that could be recorded on two sides of a 78rpm record. It was actually commissioned by Benny Goodman and they premiered the original version of the work, called Rhapsody, at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Later, Bartók added the middle movement and joined the other two for the performance of what was now called Contrasts and its subsequent recording for Columbia – which you can hear here – in 1940, shortly after Bartók arrived in America.

So, good things can come from listening to recordings, after all!

- Dick Strawser
- - - - - - -
Photo credits: 
Top right, uncredited portrait of the composer found on-line.
Left, photo taken by Michael Murray at Gretna Music's April 8th pre-concert talk at Leffler Chapel, with Dick Strawser (left) interviewing Peter Bartók (right) via Skype and posted on Facebook.
Right, photo of Peter Bartók and his father taken in 1932 when Peter was 8 and his father 51, the year he began composing Mikrokosmos originally for his son's piano lessons.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summermusic: Listening to Old and [relatively] New

The first concert of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 - Friday, July 22nd at 8pm in Harrisburg's Market Square Church with the Fry Street String Quartet - features one of the most popular piano quintets in the repertoire (by Dvorak), a string quartet by the “Father of the Symphony” (Haydn), a major quartet by an early 20th Century giant (Bartok), and a work by a mid-century American composer you’re probably not familiar with (Alvin Etler - more on him later).

While I'll write a bit about some of the individual works on the three programs, this post is for those who might be a little skeptical about that "20th Century giant" (though 1927 might arguably be no longer "new") or who haven't really thought about how they listen to music, since this program gives you a chance to listen to three different centuries of musical style.

While we may hear less of the 20th Century in our concert-going experience compared to the 19th, I thought it might be interesting to point out a few ways people used to listen to “new music” when Haydn or Dvorak were considered “new.”

Haydn and Mozart are the two major composers of what we call the Classical Era of classical music – using the term ‘classical’ in two different meanings.

We essentially use the small-c “classical,” essentially indefinable, to refer to music of long-standing durability, music that has been around a long time and proven by the test of time (though proving what may also be indefinable) even though we can also talk about the Beatles or Elvis Presley as being “classics” since the shelf-life of popular music – usually considered the antithesis of classical music (or is it the other way around?) – is considerably shorter.

(Like most terms, this does not always create smooth sailing since one can therefore argue, in the traditional 20th Century antithetical way where there is only black or white, that classical music, the opposite of popular music, is therefore “unpopular” music. But I digress…)

In the big-c “Classical” sense, it refers to music of the second half of the 18th Century, an era in which music was regarded primarily as an abstract, intellectual craft as opposed to the emotional response that was the primary aspect of “romantic” music in the 19th Century, a dichotomy expressed in terms of the clarity of Apollo versus the… well, messiness of Dionysus. Today, this separation between logical and irrational would be defined in terms of the Left Brain versus the Right Brain, science (once again) replacing art (or religion) as a way of explaining the inexplicable.

Anyway, according to 18th Century philosophers like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, instrumental  music was “a complete and regular system [filling up] completely the whole capacity of the mind so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of anything else… The mind in reality enjoys …a very high intellectual pleasure, not unlike that which it derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.”

(Keep in mind, as I often point out, the ‘classical’ Greeks had no word for creativity or inspiration, using instead the word “techne” from which we get technique and technical: you get the picture.)

“Music,” Smith continued, was no mere “pleasurable pastime for the leisured.”

Here’s the last movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 17 No. 6 which the Fry Street String Quartet performs on the first program of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2011.

(You can hear the whole quartet at the Israel Haydn Quartet's website, here.)

For Burke, now considered the “philosophical father of modern conservatism,” music can “anticipate our reasonings and hurries us on by an irresistible force” which he regarded as 'the “positive pleasure” of beauty, the result of a “mechanical” intervention of qualities evident in works of music and which included the virtues of consistency and formal balance created by resolution of contrast.’ [quoted from Leon Botstein’s essay, “The Demise of Philosophical Listening” in Haydn & His World published by Princeton in 1997).

On the Continent, Schiller’s idea of an “aesthetic education” was important to achieving a sense of beauty through music: “whatever meaning we are able to find in it is of a high order,” and is shaped by us, the listener, especially regarding the basic premise of tonality and form – the statement of ideas in a key, the digression from that key (the development section’s creating dramatic tension) and finally the resolution of that tension by returning to that key. This concept of the "sonata form" created a perfectly architectural dramatic structure that is both logical and reliant on our emotional response to comprehending that resolution.

Even though “pictorialism” – think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Pastoral – existed in the Classical Era, it transcended subjectivity because it could still operate on a purely objective level (as it does in Vivaldi and Beethoven).

In the messy years following the French Revolution when the Age of Enlightenment was eventually replaced by all-things-Napoleon, this attitude was reversed: it was the emotional response that mattered more and the architectural niceties of the previous age became less evident as architectural observation points. No longer was it necessary to know whether you were in the Exposition, Development or Recapitulation of that dramatic digression-and-return that is the soul of the Classical sonata form. A great part of that tension is created by not knowing where you are, sometimes even in relation to the initial tonality (“Is that G Major?” “No, I think it’s F Major.” “What are we doing there?” “I don’t know, shut up and listen!”)

So people who raved about Berlioz’s drug-induced fantasies in his Symphony in C Major (better known as the “Symphonie fantastique”) would find Haydn rather dull. His wit – the unexpected turns that tweeked a listener’s expectations – became funny instead of intellectually engaging (the difference between being clever and being cute). Mozart, on the other hand, managed to survive but mostly in works that were less “Classical” like the D Minor Piano Concerto and Don Giovanni which exhibited darker, almost demonic qualities more suitable to Romantic susceptibilities.

As the age of the virtuoso turned music into a business as performers and composers relied on a ticket-buying public (rather than the courtly age of aristocratic patronage), surface replaced structure as the key element for a listener to respond to – the big theme, the dashing technical display, the story told through the music – which may explain why Brahms, in his day (if not beyond) was considered old-fashioned because of his interest in abstract forms (as Wagner basically said of Brahms’ Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel, “it’s a good fugue as fugues go, but who would want to write one today?”).

(For those who turn up their collective noses at the mob-orientation of this Age of the Virtuoso, when, compared to Beethoven and Brahms and certainly Bach, we describe it as “vapid” or consider virtuosity for its own sake shallow – after all, how much Kalkbrenner or Moscheles or even Hummel do we hear in our concert halls today? – consider these days who the best performers are on TV (the winners of American Idol or America’s Got Talent) and which are considered the best movies (those with the biggest box office take)? But I digress…)

What do we respond to in Tchaikovsky symphonies? Not their structural clarity or his skill with counterpoint but the emotional appeal of his melodies, the tension of his climaxes and the nature of his symphonic drama ("here comes that Fate Theme again").

Along came Gustav Mahler at the end of the century, trying to write “abstract” symphonies (at the time Brahms and Tchaikovsky were writing their last works) but supplying detailed descriptions of the music in terms of a program or story either before (as in his 3rd) or after the fact (as in his 1st), essentially so the listener would have an idea what's going on in this intensely dramatic and increasingly longer pieces - then trying to remove these 'srtoies' later when he changed his mind.

By the time the 20th Century began, Arnold Schoenberg had taken Wagner’s chromatic digression from easily comprehensible concepts of tonality beyond what could be considered “tonal.” Music became either so chromatic, the listener had no idea where they were in terms of “a home key” (which is what essentially defines tonality at its simplest) or whether they were in “any” key or, if it moved too quickly from one to another, perhaps in “no” key at all (though still using traditional chords). From there, it wasn't far to go before composers started using chords other than those traditional, familiar chords that moved in familiar and expected (therefore comforting) ways.

Listeners lost this ease of being able to figure out where they are when listening to a new piece of new music because they’re unfamiliar with what’s behind the musical surface. In some cases, I think many composers might be unfamiliar with that as well: some enjoy writing dissonant music for dissonance’s sake and others understand how tension-and-release operate to be able to use that sense of dissonance to be able to create a flow that draws the listener along in much the same way a harmonic progression did two hundred years ago.

(Is it necessary to point out how a bad performance of Beethoven will be blamed on the performer but a bad performance of a new composer you've never heard of before is always the composer's fault?)

So, after hearing Haydn and his clean, clear “Classical” sensibilities and while you’re anticipating the lush tunes and dance-rhythms of a familiar work by Antonin Dvorak, there’s Bartok’s 3rd String Quartet which may sound (to some unfamiliar with it) a bit… well, messy. It’s nominally in C-sharp not that the typical listener would ever hear that, but the idea that there is a tonal center is something for the composer to latch on to in creating something to digress from and resolve to, whether the listener comprehends it or not (just as you might not comprehend every nuance of a poem on a single hearing).

The fact that chords are different, that there are a lot of “dissonant” sounds shouldn’t become the focus of what you’re listening for – like Haydn, there are elements of contrast (changes of mood, different tempos, types of texture) which Bartok handles in similar ways that would never be confused with what Haydn was doing but yet achieve the same kind of response: an intellectual response to structure (notice how many times some rising figure is mirrored by a descending figure, often at the same time) or how “melodic” ideas recur (figures might seem similar in shape or design when they recur elsewhere in the piece). But how does he go about building tension? Listen to those long, slow slides and what they ‘resolve’ to, often exploding into something rhythmic that can be hair-raising as it continues building toward a point of resolution.

If you’re not familiar with Bartok’s musical style, let me suggest listening to this clip, first. It’s from his 2nd String Quartet, written nine years earlier than the 3rd. It might be more recognizable, based on folk dances and song patterns of his native Hungary – but not the same music that inspired Brahms and Liszt in their Hungarian dances and rhapsodies (that was gypsy music and the equivalent of pop music or jazz in 19th Century Vienna). Listen to the players’ intensity (as I joked on Facebook, “you could grill hamburgers on this performance”) but also to the regularity of the phrases, the types of contrast, how one accompanies another, but above all to the rhythmic drive (and anything that interrupts it).

Now, here’s the same ensemble’s performance of Bartok’s 3rd quartet – the one the Fry Street Quartet will play at their first concert next week (and knowing them, with a name like “Fry Street,” I fully expect them to cook, as well).

By this time, Bartok has absorbed the essence of Hungarian folk music to create what is often described as “imaginary folk music” which often infuses his original (and abstract) works with the sounds we identify as, nationalistically, Hungarian.

Though you might think it’s dissonant all the way through, listen to how “relative dissonance” creates tension between sections that are more “dissonant” and less “dissonant.” Eventually, dissonance becomes a relative term.

Even though you might not sense a tonal center, the way he drives you to the piece’s climaxes are no different than what Beethoven did in his own quartets and you’re probably no worse the wear for not knowing whether you’re in G Major or B-Flat Major.

Here is the conclusion of the quartet – pardon the overlap, but it’s very difficult to chop one clip off and start the next one cold. The work is in one continuous movement divided into parts defined by senses of tempo and rhythmic drive.

But once it reaches the conclusion of this very intense 15 minutes – it’s the shortest and most concentrated of Bartok’s six quartets – you’ll probably agree that… well, at least there are things to listen for rather than just sitting there waiting for intermission.

And if you’ve already figured that out, you’ll realize it can be an exciting ride along the way, however you choose to listen.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summertime Music Making

Before long – eventually, one can only hope – summer will be a memory and we’ll all be complaining about how cold it is and dreading the possibility of another weekend snow storm.

But before it comes to that, put Market Square Concerts “Summermusic Festival 2011” on your July calendar.

Two thirds of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio (see left), Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, are the new directors of Market Square Concerts – it became official on July 1st – and they will be among the performers of this summer's festival, along with their colleague Fiona Thompson, joining the returning Fry Street String Quartet (see below, right), oboist Gerard Reuter and frequent visitor pianist Stuart Malina, a.k.a. conductor and music director of the Harrisburg Symphony.

There are three concerts – as usual – but this year, none of them will be held at the Glen Allen Mill as in the past. While the mill was a lovely setting, the festival was just outgrowing the space that was available there – and since weather is always a gamble with any summer performance, the idea of having all the concerts inside an air-conditioned space was not unwelcome.

The first program is Friday, July 22nd, at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, beginning at 8pm. The concert begins with a Haydn quartet – Op. 17, No. 6, not one of the one’s you’d expect to find – along with Bela Bartók’s Third Quartet, and in between, a duet for oboe and viola by American composer Alvin Etler. The program closes with one of the most popular piano quintets, the one by Antonín Dvořák.

In the past, the series was set up for a Wednesday evening, with two more concerts on the weekend, but this year the schedule’s a little different, too.

The second program takes place on Sunday, July 24th at 4pm and will be held in Poorman Recital Hall of Messiah College’s Climenhaga Arts Center in Grantham, and opens with a Beethoven rarity (‘rarity’ and Beethoven not usually found together): a set of variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni for oboe, violin and viola. A work many might feel isn’t heard nearly enough is Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for piano duet (two on a bench) and the program concludes with the first of Brahms’ two string sextets, the one in B-flat Major. In between is a delightful pair of waltzes from the pen of Broadway legend, Stephen Sondheim.

The third program returns to Market Square Church on Tuesday, July 26th and it begins at a slightly earlier time than usual – 6:00pm. This program includes the other string sextet by Johannes Brahms, the “late” one in G Major along with Johann Halvorsen’s “arrangement” of a Handel passacaglia for violin and viola, the quartet for piano, oboe and cello by Josef Rheinberger, a contemporary of Johannes Brahms’, and a work inspired by a Caribbean island vacation, “Island Prelude” for oboe and strings by Joan Tower.

I’ll be posting more, shortly, about the music on each program.

For ticket information, call 717/214-ARTS or go to the Whitaker Center Box Office. Check the website for more information about the series. Tickets for all three programs are $80 each ($70/seniors) and individual program tickets are $30 each ($25/seniors).

The series is generously supported by contributions from the Jason Litton Memorial Fund and Dr. Linda Litton. The festival sponsor is the Orthopedic Institute of Pennsylvania and the season sponsor is Capital Blue Cross.