Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Enso Quartet & Ainsi la nuit: The Dutilleux Centennial

Who: Enso Quartet
What: Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit, Ginastera's 2nd Quartet & Beethoven's “Harp” Quartet
When: Wednesday at 7:30 (with a pre-concert talk at 6:45)
Where: Market Square Church
Why: Because you can help us celebrate the Ginastera and the Dutilleux Centennials - if you've never heard this music, you really ought to take the opportunity of hearing it played live – especially by a group like the Enso Qt! And besides – Beethoven.

You can read earlier posts about the Ginastera, here; and the Beethoven, here.

I'd already mentioned how, three years before his Centennial Anniversary, I could still call Henri Dutilleux one of my favorite living composers. Born on January 22nd, 1916, in Angers, France, he died as recently as May 22nd, 2013 at the age of 97.

Henri Dutilleux (center) working with Quatour Rosamonde on Ainsi la nuit
When I was looking for some videos for this post, I found this “commercial” for a Berlin Philharmonic concert with Simon Rattle of just three sweet minutes from one of Henri Dutilleux's last works, a song cycle he called Correspondances with texts mostly taken from letters. This one sets lines from a letter the painter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer.

“...As long as autumn lasts, I shall not have hands, canvas and colors enough to paint the beautiful things I see... I go outside in the night to paint the stars... Then life is almost enchanted after all."

Keeping in mind these lines were set to music when Dutilleux was 87 years old. Van Gogh, who died when he was 37 (and his brother Theo died shortly afterward at 33), had long inspired Dutilleux's sound-world – especially the painting (perhaps van Gogh's most popular) Starry Night which became Dutilleux's Timbre, espace, mouvement and which he subtitled “or 'The Starry Night'” after van Gogh's painting.

(Painted in June of 1889, it was the view from his window at the asylum where he'd voluntarily committed himself in early-May: he wrote to Theo later that month, “Through the iron-barred window, I can see an enclosed square of wheat... above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory.” The letter quoted above was written in December of 1888, three months before van Gogh cut off his ear.)

Many French composers – and writers, considering Marcel Proust – were inspired by the visual element. And Debussy, perhaps one of the most “visual” of musicians (until his late period, practically everything he wrote had poetic or artistic titles, rarely abstract: “Impressionism” not just in the sense of the painterly style), was a major influence on Dutilleux's early style.

In 1938, Dutilleux won the Prix de Rome – a scholarship to live and compose in Rome once coveted by Debussy – but was unable to complete his stay and finish his education once war became imminent. Then after serving as a medical orderly in the French army during the 2nd World War, he worked as the Head of Music Production for Radio France for 18 years before taking on different teaching positions in two of Paris's major conservatories. He also served as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood in 1995 and 1998, having turned 80 in 1996.

Henri Dutilleux
He was neither a prolific composer nor a self-assured one. He was painstaking, a perfectionist who often fussed over a work even after it had been sent to the artist who was preparing its premiere. Anne-Sofie Mutter, the violinist for whom he wrote Sur le meme accord (“on only one chord”) in 2002 which he described as a “nocturne-like work,” said in the recording's liner notes, “at first he wasn't satisfied with the ending, and he sent me a new version which I learned half-heartedly because I was sure there would be more. And there were: two more versions after that.”

This sense of revision surfaced early: in 1948, finishing a piano sonata written for his wife as his Op.1, he decided to “disavow” all his earlier works – though one of them, his Sonatine for Flute & Piano, is still quite popular. While his newer “mature” style took into account other composers of the first half of the century – notably Stravinsky and Bartók – he had little interest in serialism. And this created some serious problems given the musical politics of France after the war.

French music history is complicated enough, but basically whatever the Germans were doing musically – whether it's Bach, Beethoven, Wagner or Schoenberg – the French were against it. As American composer Ned Rorem said, “everything is either German or French.” By which he meant the German sense of "exactness," for instance in musical development, harmonic and formal structure, abstract details and so on, versus the French sense of laissez-faire which was less about “development” than the visual or programatic element, more emphasis on the surface elements (for instance the love of ornamentation in the 18th Century; instrumental colors in the “Impressionistic” era) rather than the Germanic concerns about structure and texture (for instance, Bach's Preludes & Fugues as opposed to Rameau's character pieces which often bore titles like “La poule,” “Les tourbillons,” “Les sauvages,” or “L'Egyptienne”). Harmony was often an element of “color” than “structure,” perhaps, and counterpoint was generally avoided (in the 20th Century, Eric Satie, something of a “primitive” by German standards, called counterpoint “musical sauerkraut”).

But after World War II, French composers like Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez not only lept on the German Serial Bandwagon, they took a step farther, not just serializing pitch as Schoenberg and Webern did (Berg was less rigid with the theoretical aspects of his style), but serializing rhythm (or duration), dynamics, even registers to come up with a strain of modernism easily vilified as “honk-squeak.” It seemed so intensely abstract and un-French, it has always amazed me that this was the major view of so many French composers in the last half of the 20th Century. And Boulez was a powerful leader of this school who could, essentially, as conductor and administrator in a powerful position, make it difficult for a composer he disliked.

And he disliked Dutilleux.

While only half-joking that opera houses should be burned down (that would make him a suspect for the terrorist watch-list today – he only meant that, if one were to reform opera today one would need to metaphorically burn the opera houses to the ground and start over again), he did find such forms as the symphony obsolete and that anyone not writing in the “serial style” (as it's usually called) had no business composing.

In the 1950s, Dutilleux had the audacity to compose two symphonies – and if that weren't bad enough, they were not serial.

Boulez apparently took this as a personal affront and his disapproval ruined Dutilleux’s chances of being taken seriously by other French composers, schools, orchestras, and anyone interested in commissioning new works. “He was very brutal,” Dutilleux recalled. “When he was young [this was in the 1950s], he didn’t like what I wrote, and I didn’t agree with his aesthetics at all. The problem was he had a lot more power than me.”

Dutilleux walking along the Seine near his home in Paris in 2004
Consequently, much of Dutilleux's music had its origins – commissions and premieres – outside France, especially in England and America.

Toward the end of his life, Dutilleux admitted in an interview, “I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That's why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work and spend a lot of time changing it. It's paradoxical, isn't it?”

And curiously, Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90 on January 5th, 2016 – a few weeks before the Dutilleux Centennial would begin – a famous and important musician, certainly, but one, in most of the world, better known as a conductor who also composed but whose works are more talked about than performed.

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For those unfamiliar with Dutilleux's music in general, I will include some suggestions to get an idea of his style. While he hasn't produced many works over his long life, several of them are considered “major works” of the century – his cello concerto, composed for Rostropovich, and his violin concerto, commissioned by Isaac Stern, are among the best of the modern repertoire, though they bear typically picturesque French titles even though no specific “program” is evoked.

The cello concerto, Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World” is the poor translation – as they say, anything sounds better in French...), was composed between 1967 and 1970, a work that is often meditative and always colorful. Each of its five movements bears a title taken from lines of poetry by Charles Baudelaire though I admit I was unaware of this until recently and for the last ten years, I have listened to this piece constantly!

Here is the “Hymne” that concludes the concerto, quoting the lines “Keep your dreams: wise men do not have as beautiful ones as fools!” Cellist Xavier Phillips performs with L'Orchestre de Suisse Romande and Marek Janowski:
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Regarding the title of his violin concerto, L'Arbre des songe (“The Tree of Dreams”), Dutilleux said, “All in all the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of L'arbre des songes as the title of the piece.” It was premiered in 1985 with Isaac Stern, though a recent recording with Augustin Hadelich – who has performed Mozart, Beethoven and Lalo with the Harrisburg Symphony over the past several seasons – with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. Here is the slow third movement with the final interlude:
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Try following the opening four-note motive through this movement - and yes, that passage beginning at 6:50 may sound familiar (you hear it as part of many orchestra performances: in the middle of the concerto, Dutilleux writes out almost a full minute of music, imitating the sounds of an orchestra warming up!).
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This idea of unfolding the way the leaves of a tree might open in the springtime (something we hope to see soon enough) is also an important part of his structural language. He often creates “interludes” which might look back on a particular fragment or motive or which could start to evolve to another, more fully developed statement or re-evaluation of that fragment or motive.

In this sense, another influence comes into play – as we've had van Gogh (visual) and Baudelaire (poetry), now we have Marcel Proust (literature), particularly the concept of time and memory that is so integral to his vast novel, In Search of Lost Time, particularly “involuntary memory” (the famous episode with the madeline that, in his middle age, unexpectedly brings back childhood memories as if they were yesterday). This element of the past-in-the-present is as significant as the ultimate realization, assuming one makes it beyond Swann's Way, the first of its seven novels, to realize that so much of this becomes the future as well.

Dutilleux's original manuscript: Ainsi la nuit
The only string quartet Dutilleux composed was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for the Juilliard Quartet: he sent them some sketches called Nuits in 1974, completed the work in 1976, but the Parrenin Quartet premiered it in 1977, with the Juilliard giving it its American premiere the following year. This places the quartet between the two concertos I've just mentioned. Like much chamber music, compared to the orchestral canvases a composer could create, the string quartet is far more intimate and the concept of creating colors far more limited. But listen to how he creates all these sounds! Special effects with the bow, different types of pizzicato, the use of harmonics, the placing of certain chords or intervals depending on the register or the time-span of a particular passage – nothing Ginastera might not have used in his own “bag of tricks” one could call them, but used in such a way they become part of the painter's palette, the skill with a brush stroke that proves we're dealing with a true artist, here, not just someone who's read an orchestration book!

Ainsi la nuit is essentially a nocturne. The title, “Thus the night,” again may seem meaningless in English (“such is the night” is another translation I've seen which I marginally prefer), but the idea of “nocturne” here is not intended to invoke the nocturnes of Chopin or the Moonlight Sonata. As in Bartók's “night-music” – which in Ginastera's music is termed “magica,” the fantastical element of dreams and, conversely, nightmares – we experience the sounds of the night which evoke wonder and fear and all manner of emotional and irrational responses.

There are seven movements but there are also, following the introduction, interludes between them the composer labels “parentheses,” these backward- and forward-looking moments. The movements themselves bear titles like Nocturne, Miroirs d'espace, Litanies, Constellations, ending with Temps suspendu (Time suspended).

It has been described as a “labyrinth of memories” but one where the listener supplies his or her own thread to wander through it. That thread, however, can be found in the opening sonority – a tight chord in the middle-register – which becomes, ultimately, the final sonority we hear as the piece dies away.

Of course, the video with the score I'd hoped to use in the January post when this concert was originally scheduled is no longer available – copyright infringement – so let me offer this one on an educational deferment. It's only the opening Introduction and Nocturne, but the analytic approach will give those listeners uncomfortable with non-tonal abstract music something to “hang on to.”

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I'm not sure exactly how the color-coding is used here, since he gives no key to it, and the fact I can barely read the unfocused score doesn't help (I am hoping it will look better on your computer than mine), let's say the light brown highlight of the opening chord is that particular sonority which appears frequently as is (often at the same pitch levels which could “ground” it the same way a C Major chord could “ground” us to the tonality of C Major) – but like a standard triad, it can be inverted or expanded, so at times, you'll see this “brown chord” (man, do I hate calling it that) but not as recognizable as it is at the beginning.

At first in “close formation,” sometimes this chord will be in “open formation” or an even wider formation with larger intervals between the notes of the chord. But it is still the same “chord” even if its transposed to different pitches if it still has the same intervalic structure (remember, a major triad is always a major triad if the “chord-structure” is the same, whether it's a C Major chord or an E-flat Major chord in second inversion).

I'm not sure exactly how this analyst is using “green” (he refers to pitches like C or G# in the French solfege system as do, sol# and so on, btw) or, for that matter, the pink which seems to highlight dynamics and elements of tension.

However, after the Introduction, the 1st Nocturne officially begins at 0:30 – note the dialogue between the 1st violin and the cello against the sustained tones in the 2nd violin and viola (musical colors perhaps resembling the stars in a seemingly static sky?) – then the “increase of tension” starting around 1:00. Then, that “brown” chord (revoiced with open 5ths rather than close-formation seconds) continues increasing the tension with more activity, the opposite of the “static” sounds a moment ago: vanishing into another appearance of the open-voiced initial chord-sonority (perhaps “brown” chord is easier to understand, if not exactly musical geek-speak...).

As this “musical paragraph” ends with a downward sweep, a new idea begins at 1:43 – an “obstinate” theme in the viola (chant-like but perhaps a bit more exotic than “Gregorian” chant) which creates another “static” sonority against sustained tones and occasional colorful flourishes in the other instruments. At 2:06, we hear two “mirror” images – first, the violins descending and then the viola and cello ascending, playing, essentially, arpeggios “in contrary motion” based on that opening chord (just as one can play arpeggios on a C Major triad). However, the viola is playing the same pitches as the 1st violin if you start at the end of the violin part and play it backwards (retrograde). So it's a mirror in two ways: forward and backward as well as downward and upward! Then around 2:15 it also speeds up, leading to another climax which, however, dissolves instead around 2:30.

The obstinate theme originally in the viola is now in the 1st violin's upper register, then joined by the 2nd violin playing it in retrograde, the viola picking it up (same pitches as the 1st violin but lower register) and then the cello playing the retrograde version (again, same pitches as the 2nd violin but lowest register). This again speeds up (the quickening of time) but instead of building to a climax, dissolves into another suspended moment which, officially, ends the 1st Nocturne.

Now... that's a lot of stuff – and I haven't even gotten into how one can analyze the pitches to see how Dutilleux manages to create all of these elements, both melodic and harmonic, out of that opening sonority. And it's not “stuff” the average listener needs to know in order to appreciate it – just as you wouldn't need it when listening to a Beethoven quartet.

But when we're faced with something unfamiliar, it is sometimes a challenge to realize that, deep down, basically both Beethoven and Dutilleux are responding to the same elements of music – the generation of “content” from simple “material” (Beethoven's motives like the opening of his 5th Symphony?) and the use of contrast to create and release tension (again, between Dutilleux's static and active moments in these three minutes, and what Beethoven does in, say, the scherzo of the “Harp” Quartet on the second half of the Enso's program).

In fact, let's “listen” to that Beethoven scherzo as an example, just the opening section:

So it begins with a “blustery” idea in C Minor, but at 0:03 there's already a contrast in dynamic, “color” and direction – rather than jumping upwards, it's more concise and downward, eventually ending up in the lowest register of the cello. It also contrasts a chordal idea against a more linear one. Repeat. The aggressive manner returns – doesn't that rhythm (da-da-da-dum) remind you of the “Fate” motive from the 5th Symphony? – also, by the way, in C Minor) with all the strings playing in octaves (basically “unison in different registers”) as opposed to playing “harmony.” Then what happens at 0:17? Suddenly we're on a major chord in an arpeggio (notes of the chord played linearly rather than harmonically) with an entirely different rhythmic profile – isn't that what Dutilleux did with his opening chord-sonority and the “obstinate” linear chant-like theme?

Anyway, “bluster” returns at 0:27 except now it practically splinters apart, short staccato notes tossed back and forth between the instruments until, at 0:34, more sustained pitches in the 1st violin seem to want to calm things down but the “bluster” is still evident in the other parts. Until it finally starts to wind down or “dissolve” (not too differently than many of Dutilleux's phrases did). But then at 0:57, the “unison” aggressive bit returns – basically, here, Beethoven is following the convention of having a section repeat, so we've heard all this before: it merely reinforces the structure in our mind – our memory (our perception of form is, essentially, memory). By the time we reach 1:42, we're basically where we were structurally at 0:57.

Now, a whole new idea appears – a contrasting section in C Major, still kind of blustery but because it's in the major mode, sounding maybe more “athletic,” fast scrubbing notes in the cello with longer notes in the viola that gradually fills into all four parts. And so on...

See? Basically, looking at it this way, the Dutilleux and the Beethoven are not that far apart in “the process” of things but still sounding wildly different – miles apart more than just the difference of 167 years that separate them. Or are they? Two different languages, perhaps, yet like any language whose primary function is to communicate, still based on the “basics” of language. To someone who, say, only speaks "19th Century Classical Music," the other language may sound like so much gibberish; to someone fluent in both 19th and 20th Century Classical Musics, perhaps they're both equally accessible.

Here, now (finally) is a live performance of the complete work, Ainsi la nuit by Henri Dutilleux. This string quartet apparently is four individuals rather than a known quantity, so their cohesion impresses me as this is not a good work for “a pick-up bunch.”
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(not sure what that is that happens around 12:22 - certainly not part of the piece; just a bad edit.)
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Ultimately, the work is not "about" special effects, using what theorist Allan Forte calls the "6-18" hexachord, whether the work is or is not serial (it is atonal in the traditional sense but not serial), is built on the octotonic scale, is a kaleidoscopic hodge-podge of unorganized notes, a highly controlled architectural structure or whatever other "system" the composer may have had in mind when writing the piece - it's about creating something which, through the performers, connects with the audience to evoke a response, whether emotional or intellectual or both, just as Beethoven sought to do.

- Dick Strawser

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