Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Britten Centennial: The Daedalus Quartet with Britten and Beethoven and Purcell (oh my)

The Daedalus Quartet (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
While Spring has finally arrived, so has the end of another season! This last concert – Tuesday at 8pm at the Market Square Church – brings the Daedalus Quartet to town for a program of quartets by Benjamin Britten and Ludwig van Beethoven (his Op. 130 Quartet with the original Grosse Fuge finale) and, joined by tenor Rufus Müller, the song cycle “Winter Words” by Benjamin Britten setting poems by Thomas Hardy.

The program is prefaced by fantasias of Henry Purcell, so let me begin there, briefly.

Purcell (painted in 1695)
Purcell is one of the great composers of the Baroque era – he died in 1695 at the age of 36 which places him in the generation before Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel. Considering he died on November 21st, I should also mention (just to tie things in) that would mean he died 218 years and a day before Benjamin Britten was born.

That may not be so astonishing, but consider that between Purcell and Britten, no English composer was considered “great enough” on the international stage. The most popular composers in England would be Johann Christian Bach (son of Joh. Sebastian) and George Frederic Handel – both German emigrees – then Felix Mendelssohn (a frequent visitor from Germany), but there are few English-born (and fewer English-trained) composers to be acknowledged on the international stage until... Benjamin Britten.

You can mention the likes of Sir Arthur Sullivan (better known as a composer of light opera with his colleague, Mr. William S. Gilbert), or Sir Edward Elgar or Gustav Holst or Ralph Vaughan Williams and, yes, they were esteemed at home – but as far as Europe was concerned, most music-lovers agreed with Richard Strauss' assessment of the country's musical life: “it is the Land without Music.”

Curiously, one of Purcell's achievements was to absorb musical styles from Italy and France and out of this to create his own voice with a decidedly English accent. In a sense, this might seem easier to us than it is, especially as we're not generally aware of other English composers of the previous hundred years.

And what makes Britten stand out on the international stage? He was able to combine “continental” stylistic ideas into his English heritage which, before him, is usually described as the “English pastoral” or “cow-looking-over-the-fence” style (one could hardly say that of Holst's The Planets, however) and in this sense created a musical language that was of more interest to the rest of Europe. As much as I love Vaughan Williams or you may hum along with Elgar's “Pomp & Circumstance,” it was not music that traveled well.

Britten's did.

And while many European composers learned the basics of counterpoint – the handling and balancing of textures – from the music of Bach and Handel, Britten learned his primarily from Purcell and the Elizabethan Renaissance.

Here, as an example, is one of the “Trio Sonatas” by Purcell (not on the program) but which will give you an idea of his style.
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This is a “chaconne” or a “passacaglia.” Though we are trained to differentiate the two, in Purcell's day the two were nearly interchangeable: the important thing is, it's a set of variations over a “ground” or repeated theme or figure in the bass – kind of like (I hate to mention it) Pachelbel's Canon (which is also a piece based on a “ground”). There are famous passacaglia's by Bach, but they are very different in approach: the bass-line is a theme, and the variations are more-or-less self-contained (or “sectional”). In this example, Purcell's variations (the top part) often overlap and push through the bass-line's cadences to create a more fluid texture and continuous form.

Also, listen to how sometimes the upper parts swerve off harmonically and create some amazing dissonances (like 6:47 to the end). This will come in very noticeable when you listen to Britten's music!

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Benjamin Britten
Technically, this is the Benjamin Britten Centennial Year, beginning with his birth-date of November 22nd, a good excuse as any to program anything by him, as far as I'm concerned. It also happens he was born on the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

He is primarily known as an English composer – he traveled little, spending most of his time on the chilly shores of Suffolk where he was born and where he died in 1976, not long after his 63rd birthday. Most of his life, he lived at Aldeburgh on the coast of East Anglia, a wind-swept region that figured prominently in his first international success, the opera Peter Grimes in 1945 (if you don't know the opera – and you should – you've probably heard the “Four Sea Interludes”).

There is a story about how he had emigrated to the United States before World War II because the political and artistic climate in England was not conducive to a young composer: Europe, about to be embroiled in another war, had little to offer – America was, he thought, where it's at. It was while he was in California, far from home, that he had an attack of homesickness after reading George Crabbe's poem, “The Borough” which had a passing mention on a village outsider, a fisherman named Peter Grimes. And so he decided – now, mid-war – to return home where the premiere of the opera based on that episode became a symbol of the revival of English art and, quickly enough, its arrival on the international stage.

But the String Quartet No. 1 is not one of Britten's “English” Works – it was written in America and was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who had done so much for contemporary music (including, among others, the 4th Quartet of Arnold Schoenberg who was by then a resident of Beverly Hills).

Britten, Copland & Pears
Arriving first in Canada along with Pears and the poet W.H. Auden, they eventually moved to New York City after which he and Pears chose to stay with friends in Amityville, on Long Island, where he began working on a new string quartet. Caught up by the war and advised to stay in America as “cultural ambassadors” by the embassy, Britten and Pears then went to California where he continued working on the quartet in a garden tool shed in Escondido until he finished it in the fall of 1941.

It was given its first performance in Los Angeles but, due to difficulties with their host, the pair “borrowed” their car and drove cross-country back to New York and then returned home to England (it was on this perilous voyage – the ocean was not safe from Nazi U-boats – that Britten composed one of his most familiar works, A Ceremony of Carols).

Among the works he composed in America are the Violin Concerto, the song cycle Les Illuminations, the Sinfonia da Requiem, the “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo,” an “operetta” based on Auden's version of the folk-tale Paul Bunyan, the String Quartet No. 1 as well as “An American Overture” in which he absorbed his friend Aaron Copland's “wide-open sound” to sound more American (it was never performed and had been left behind, forgotten, when he returned to England) as well as sketches for a Clarinet Concerto left incomplete.

Here is his String Quartet No. 1 – not his first quartet, just the first one published: there's one from 1931 (he was 17) and another from 1926 (he was 12) and perhaps three others in one shape or another – “in,” as he admitted to Ms. Coolidge, “would you believe D Major?”

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The Escher String Quartet (Chamber Music Society video)
1st Movement: Andante sostenuto / Allegro vivo

One of the things about discovering earlier, less-well-known works is that we sometimes hear them through these later, more familiar works. I can't help but notice the opening of this quartet (a kind of slow-introduction that recurs through the movement) reminds me of the opening of his 1952 canticle, “Abraham and Isaac.” Not a direct quote, as it seems, but so similar it obviously has to have its roots in the earlier quartet. Listen to the first few minutes of the canticle, here. He would again use this for obvious reasons in his “War Requiem” of 1961, setting Wilfred Owens' lines before “but [Abraham] slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

But what did this passage mean to Britten in America at 27? Whether or not it had some deeper, psychological impact on him, it is a distinctly memorable if not original sonority.

The second movement is a brief scherzo and strikes one as an extension of the fast section that is the basis of the first movement.

2nd Movement: Allegretto con slancio (with momentum)

The third movement returns to sonic images of the first's introduction, but also brings to mind one of the Moonlight sea interlude from Peter Grimes written four years later.

Keep in mind, it was written in Escondido, CA, which is just outside San Diego and inland from the ocean. My question here is, when was this written in relation to his reading George Crabbe's “The Borough” which would not only inspire Peter Grimes, but make him think of home and the North Sea beaches of Suffolk?

When I first heard this work, I thought it went on too long without much happening; now, to me it's the emotional highlight of the piece and this, from a composer who's often described as being unemotional (critics – even a friend of his – described his early music as “existing in a vacuum”).

3rd Movement: Andante calmo

The finale is again a brief, quick-paced movement, lively and rambunctious (not to mention highly contrapuntal) with strong contrasts (after the opening, the long upper “theme” which slowly unfolds over a frenzied cello line; the contrasting sustained chords with nervous interruptions).

And because they have it available on You-Tube, for the final movement, we'll hear the Daedalus Quartet play the 4th Movement: Molto vivace

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Just when we thought we've left winter behind us...

Pears & Britten painted by Kenneth Green (1943)
Benjamin Britten is considered one of the great song composers in the tradition of Schubert and Hugo Wolf. He has written many songs and collections of songs (song cycles) that have become major parts of the repertoire, most of them (like most of his operas) composed for Peter Pears whom he met in 1937. They remained both partners in music and in life until Britten died in 1976.

Britten & Pears
Schubert's song cycles – Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise – set several poems by the same poet, Wilhelm Müller, each telling (and commenting upon) a specific story. Often called a song cycle, Schubert's final songs are grouped into a collection called Schwanengesang (Swan Song), but this was not Schubert's intention nor are they a dramatic unity.

Britten wrote several works that are collections of different texts by several different poets – the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings of 1943 for one – but most of his song cycles focus on a single poet whether they constitute a narrative or not. Les Illuminations sets Rimbaud, the “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo” (both from his American stay), and later, Poet's Echo setting Pushkin and the Songs & Proverbs of William Blake.

In general, these do not tell a single story but, despite being a collection of like-minded poems, often provide a dramatic continuity.

In Winter Words, he selected ultimately eight poems from Thomas Hardy's posthumous collection, itself called “Winter Words,” though there were two settings he discarded (the Britten-Pears Foundation has made these available for individual performance, but does not recommend they be added to the cycle).

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Originally composed for tenor and piano – and premiered by Peter Pears with Britten at the piano in 1954 – Winter Words has been arranged here for tenor and string quartet by cellist of the Daedalus Quartet, Thomas Kraines, himself a composer (and one whom I would like to hear more from).

While these clips provide an opportunity to hear the composer accompany the person for whom the songs were composed, the recording (or its transfer) from a 1972 recital is not the best and Pears was, at this time, 62 years old. (My apologies for “condensing” the text – otherwise, we'd be scrolling all night long...)

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1. At Day-close in November
The ten hours' light is abating, / And a late bird flies across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting, / Give their black heads a toss.
Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time, / Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time, / And now they obscure the sky.
And the children who ramble through here / Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here, / A time when none will be seen.
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2. Midnight on the Great Western (or The Journeying Boy)
In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy, / And the roof-lamp's oily flame
Played down on his listless form and face, / Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going,
Or whence he came.

In the band of his hat the journeying boy / Had a ticket stuck; and a string
Around his neck bore the key of his box, / That twinkled gleams of the lamp's sad beams
Like a living thing.

What past can be yours, O journeying boy / Towards a world uknown,
Who calmly, as if incurious quite / On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?

Knows your soul a sphere, O journeying boy, / Our rude realms far above,
Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete / This region of sin that you find you in,
But are not of?
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3. Wagtail and Baby (A Satire)
A baby watched a ford, whereto / A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through, / The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across, / The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss, / And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot / A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not / In dip and sip and prinking.

A perfect gentleman then neared; / The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared; / The baby fell a-thinking.
- - - - -
4. The little old Table
Creak, little wood thing, creak, / When I touch you with elbow or knee;
That is the way you speak / Of one who gave you to me!
You, little table, she brought - / Brought me with her own hand,
As she looked at me with a thought / That I did not understand.
- Whoever owns it anon, / And hears it, will never know
What a history hangs upon / This creak from long ago.
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Part 2

(Note to people who post on YouTube: If you're not going to include the encores, why not just cut the introduction...?)

5. The Choirmaster's Burial (or The Tenor Man's Story)
Britten's & Pears' graves
He often would ask us / That, when he died, / After playing so many / To their last rest, / If out of us any / Should here abide, / And it would not task us, / We would with our lutes / Play over him / By his grave-brim / The psalm he liked best—
The one whose sense suits / “Mount Ephraim”— / And perhaps we should seem / To him, in Death’s dream, / Like the seraphim.

As soon as I knew / That his spirit was gone / I thought this his due, / And spoke, thereupon. / “I think,” said the vicar, / “A read service quicker / Than viols out-of-doors / In these frosts and hoars. / That old-fashioned way / Requires a fine day, / And it seems to me / It had better not be.”

Hence, that afternoon, / Though never knew he / That his wish could not be, / To get through it faster / They buried the master / Without any tune. /

But ’twas said that, when / At the dead of next night / The vicar looked out, / There struck on his ken / Thronged roundabout, / Where the frost was graying / The headstoned grass, / A band all in white / Like the saints in church-glass, / Singing and playing / The ancient stave / By the choirmaster’s grave.

Such the tenor man told / When he had grown old.
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6. Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches and Nightingales)
The thrushes sing as the sun is going, / And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales / In bushes / Pipe, as they can when April wears, / As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths' growing, / Which a year ago, or less than twain, / No finches were, nor nightingales, / Nor thrushes, / But only particles of grain, / And earth, and air, and rain.
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7. At the Railway Station, Upway (or The Convict and Boy with the Violin)
"There is not much that I can do, / For I've no money that's quite my own!"
Spoke up the pitying child - / A little boy with a violin
At the station before the train came in, - / "But I can play my fiddle to you,
And a nice one 'tis, and good in tone!"
The man in the handcuffs smiled; / The constable looked, and he smiled, too,
As the fiddle began to twang; / And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang
Uproariously: / "This life so free / Is the thing for me!"
And the constable smiled, and said no word, / As if unconscious of what he heard;
And so they went on till the train came in - The convict, and boy with the violin.
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8. Before Life and after
A time there was--as one may guess / And as, indeed, earth's testimonies tell -
Before the birth of consciousness, / When all went well.
None suffered sickness, love, or loss, / None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross / Brought wrack to things.
If something ceased, no tongue bewailed, / If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed, / No sense was stung.
But the disease of feeling germed, / And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed / How long, how long?
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Of more recent recordings I would highly recommend American tenor Nicholas Phan but especially English tenor Ian Bostridge who, after Robert Tear and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, has been to my ear the best interpreter of those works Britten wrote with Pears' voice in mind.

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Britten composed these rather intimate songs immediately after he completed one of his most outward large-scale works, the “Coronation Opera” Gloriana, written for Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 coronation festivities which he'd begun work on in October, 1952, and completed the following March. The songs were completed in September, three months after the opera's coolly received premiere.

Thomas Hardy may be best known for his novels – The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure – in which he “examines the social constraints that are part of Victorian society and criticises beliefs that limited people's lives and caused unhappiness.” Some of this same mood can be felt in these last poems of his, published in 1928 following his death in the depth of a January winter.

From there, Britten immediately turned to his next opera, a chamber opera setting the ghost story by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw.

Hopefully, now, I will have left enough additional information to include in my pre-concert talk which starts at 7:15...

- Dick Strawser

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