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