Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Before They Were Famous

Maybe you’ve seen those segments on the Entertainment News Programs about “Movie Stars Before They Were Famous” or watched some early movies of your favorite actors or directors and wondered how they got from that point to where they are today?

In a sense, this year’s Summermusic series is kind of like that, as far as composers are concerned, whether it was intended that way or not. In the first two concerts we heard Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds, written a few years before his “break-out” pieces, the Op. 18 String Quartets and his 1st Symphony and, on a smaller scale, the “Pathetique” Sonata which always surprises me when I think it was written before 1800.

(You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he composed the quintet here.)

Poulenc w/Sirotin, Chang & Malina
Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Duet (see photograph, left: the opening skirmish - having fun with piano duet 'turf wars' - performed here by Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina, as Peter Sirotin tries to stay clear while turning pages) is also a very early work, composed in 1918 when the composer was 19, listed as No. 8 in his chronological catalogue. His first surviving composition was written only the year before, a piano piece that caught Stravinsky’s attention.

Les Six in 1921 at the Eiffel Tower
In 1920, Poulenc (2nd from left in this photograph) and a bunch of his rowdy young friends were meeting at an artist’s studio in Montparnasse when somebody started calling them Les Six. Only in 1921 did Poulenc actually begin his first formal compositional studies – with Charles Koechlin.

What strikes me as so amazing, listening to the piece, is how much it sounds like Poulenc, that it would never have occurred to me this was a bit of “juvenilia” – especially a piece he wrote before he even started studying with a teacher!

Britten in 1933
On the second program, I’d forgotten Benjamin Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” for Oboe & Strings – a staple of any oboist’s repertoire – was composed in 1932 when he was still a teen-ager. Even for his Opus 2, it’s a very mature-sounding work – maybe the second work he published, but not the second work he wrote. Though he started studying composition shortly after he turned 14, there are some 800 works and fragments written before he published anything. This quartet was composed while he was studying at the Royal College of Music.

And while it might sound at times like his version of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (Stravinsky had written the ballet Apollo in 1927, Les Noces in 1923 and L’Histoire du soldat in 1918), it is very obviously a work by Benjamin Britten, full of those musical fingerprints that we associate with other, more familiar works of his written after World War II.

Sirotin, Stepniak, Thompson & Reuter rehearse Britten
Talking with Gerry Reuter afterward, I told him it was the best, most compelling performance I'd ever heard of a piece that usually strikes me as “let’s go for a nice walk and then it gets weird.” Gerry was full of praise for his colleagues – Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak and Fiona Thompson – because, for the first time in his career (and I’d first heard him play in New York back in the late-70s), they actually followed the composer’s tempo indications and worked very hard to make the opening slower than you’d normally hear it and the climactic section faster, creating certain technical challenges in playing it cleanly and sounding "nice." In fact, Sirotin, in introducing the work, said "If you walk up to us afterward and say 'that was nice,' then we failed miserably: we weren't doing our job."

Usually, Reuter explained, most string players he'd worked with felt - Britten being a teen-ager and all - he didn’t understand how to write for strings (though he’d been studying the viola since he was 10) and so they would end up homogenizing the contrasting metronome markings almost to the point of finding a common denominator.

By following the composer’s well-thought-out and clearly indicated intentions, they turned it into a harrowing piece that made me think “wait, this wasn’t written during World War II, was it?” But then Fiona Thompson, born in England, said, “no, there was a lot of anticipation of the next war during that whole generation between the wars” – like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact the Nazis hadn’t come to power yet had no impact on this sense of foreboding or on Britten’s music.

But then, recalling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ chilling Sancta Civitas premiered in 1926 and the Dona nobis pacem of a decade later, despite their titles these are decidedly anti-war works. Britten was, all his life, a pacifist. One can hear his reaction to this inevitability of war in the mechanistic tread that opens the Phantasy Quartet which, despite its small forces, rises to an unexpected intensity before the march resumes, harrowing, hollowed out before dying away with one final breath.

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

From Friday Night's Concert
Thinking back to the Beethoven Quintet (see photo, right), which was a conscious imitation of Mozart’s Quintet for Piano & Winds in the same key, the prominence of Mozart’s influence is difficult to ignore and while it might show us, over 200 years later, where Beethoven’s maturity evolved from, we also hear “fingerprints” of his own voice (evident in other works he composed at this time – already in the Op. 1 Piano Trios and the Op. 2 Piano Sonatas) that make this unmistakably Beethoven: for instance, several modulations, the series of off-beat accents and so on.

If he’d been trying to create a musical forgery that could be passed off as a newly discovered work by the late Master, his colleagues would’ve immediately caught him up on it: no, the reason for the imitation was so he could learn from what Mozart had done – and then do it “his way.” Despite the fact he was past his mid-20s, he was still thinking of himself as a student but once he had learned from Mozart what he could, he now had the self-confidence to head out on his own path.

In the third concert of the series – tomorrow, back at the Market Square Church and beginning earlier than usual at 6:00 (that’s six o’clock) – the program includes a reading of Lucy Miller Murray's poem Sonata with excerpts from three of the five string trios Beethoven wrote around the same time he was working on the Quintet and all completed before he began work on the string quartets and the symphony.

If the Quintet was an homage to Mozart, these trios branch out from the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart and Haydn, music for “easy listening” written as background music for dinners and garden parties. Written between 1796 and 1798, the first two – published as Op. 3 and Op. 8 –  are closer to this sense of “art as entertainment.” Another serenade-like work written at this time - for flute, violin and viola - wasn’t published until 1802 as Op. 25.

 But the three trios of Op. 9 – the first in G, the second in D and particularly the third in C Minor (a more dramatic work in what, for Beethoven, was always a dramatic key) – go beyond that ease of function.

- - - - -
2nd Movement, Andante, of the String Trio, Op. 9/2 (up to 4:48)

- - - - -
Scherzo from the String Trio, Op.9/1 (up to 2:38)

- - - - -

In fact, Beethoven considered them “among his best” even though a few years later he would declare he was unsatisfied with everything he’d written so far, including the first quartets and the first two symphonies.

That, however, would come with maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness. The confidence to achieve that was something he learned in the process.

Another work on tomorrow’s program is the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Richard Strauss, written when he was 20. You can read more about it in a subsequent post.

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment