Monday, July 18, 2016

Summermusic 2016: String Quartets in an American Voice

Tuesday's forecast is calling for slightly cooler temperatures (88° is still cooler, technically, than 94°) and lower humidity, but the last Summermusic 2016 concert will still be held indoors at the air-conditioned Market Square Church as planned. And that plan includes a 6:00pm start-time – so just because it's a week-night, don't automatically assume it's the traditional evening concert!

The program features the Curtis Student Quartet who played Schubert, Mozart and Elgar on Sunday's concert, this time on their own, playing three string quartets by American – or, to be honest, American-associated – composers.

Samuel Barber is not only an American, he hails from West Chester, PA, originally, and like our performers, a Curtis Grad and former faculty member! Jonathan Bailey Holland, likewise a Curtis Grad, is based in Boston and his 2nd String Quartet, “Forged Sanctuaries,” will be receiving its first public performance at this concert! You can read more about it, and hear two other works of his, here.

The concert – and the series – concludes with a lively warhorse of 19th Century Americana, the Quartet No. 12 in F Major by Antonin Dvořák who, while being Czech-born, got a teaching gig in New York City back in 1892 where he taught at what later turned into the Juilliard School of Music and, while there, wrote, among other things, a little something called “The New World Symphony.” The string quartet he composed while on a summer vacation in Iowa has always been known as “The American Quartet” and so... why not include it on an American program?

This post previews the Barber and Dvořák. I'll tell you more about Jonathan Bailey Holland in the next post!

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Samuel Barber
If Dvořák wrote his “American” Quartet in Iowa, American composer Samuel Barber began his string quartet while vacationing in Austria with his partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti (fellow Curtis student and a composer who would become famous in his own right for Amahl and the Night Visitors) after finishing up his stint with the American Prix de Rome in 1935. The 25-year-old composer had planned to write a quartet for the Curtis String Quartet but unfortunately, as he wrote to the cellist, Orlando Cole, he had only just finished the slow movement (which he described as “a knockout”) which meant the whole work wouldn't be ready in time for the scheduled premiere and subsequent tour.

That slow movement was indeed a knockout. When Barber showed the manuscript to conductor Arturo Toscanini, he told the composer it would make a very fine string orchestra piece, and so he arranged it for a full orchestral string section which is how it has become best known: the Adagio for Strings.

For an older generation, it became the National Mourning Piece following its frequent radio broadcast during the dark days following John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. To a later generation, it became the heart-rending soundtrack to a scene from “Platoon.” Somehow, it has made it, in one form or another (Barber himself arranged it for choir and for solo organ) onto numerous recording compilations. I have seen it on an album with ZZZZs, a sleepy crescent moon and child-like lettering of Music to Sleep By (how could one possibly sleep blissfully to this music?!) and one of “Great Horror Classics” (seriously, who comes up with these ideas?).

But the original quartet is rarely heard. Why is that?

Here is a recording of the complete String Quartet in B Minor, Op.11, by Samuel Barber, performed by the Paris-based ensemble, Quatuor Diotima:

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As usual, you can spend hours perusing YouTube to find reasonably recorded and performed examples with decent images if not actual live performances... and still have problems finding one that works on all counts. Such was the case with trying to find a complete performance of Barber's String Quartet Op. 11. Videos of the famous “Adagio” abound, for better or worse, many of them mediocre or of personal interest only to friends of the performers, but considering the usual sound quality of recordings posted (mostly recorded on phones, it seems - giving new meaning to the expression "phoning it in"), I decided to go with what strikes me as an actually very strong performance from Quatuor Diotima's album called “American Music” which, not surprisingly, includes cover art that many Europeans would consider typical of American culture: a man's hand holding a pistol. As for the image used in this YouTube post, it is a photograph of the violinist Iso Briselli for whom Barber originally composed his Violin Concerto and has absolutely nothing to do with the Quartet or, to my knowledge, the ensemble playing it...
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Part of the problem, I think, stems from the finale. While the opening is a tour-de-force of its own, what can you do to follow a slow movement as intense as that?!

To me, the finale has always been a let-down or a cop-out, going back and essentially recapitulating the opening movement and shortening it at that, leaving no real resolution to this emotional outburst that followed it the first time. It always sounds to me like he'd run out of time. And yet he reworked the finale at least three more times over the next six years.

The fact Barber finished the quartet in time for a December premiere by the Pro Arte Quartet in Rome in 1936, but withdrew the finale in order to rewrite it indicates the composer himself had reservations with it. Never having heard this original version, I'm not sure whether he revised it or completely rewrote it. At any rate, the new finale was ready by the following April and he then rewrote it again before it was published and “officially” premiered in 1943 by the Budapest Quartet at the Library of Congress.

Sadly, the commission he received in 1947 for a second string quartet never progressed beyond a few sketches.

Samuel Barber
This is part of the sad story that is Samuel Barber's career: a brilliant and initially successful superstar of American Music with so much potential when he was in his 20s, his Romantic style was considered too “old-fashioned” in the progressive politics of the day and he took these attacks personally. Sometimes, during his 40s, it hampered his creativity, though he could produce magnificent works like “The Hermit Songs” in 1953 and the piano concerto in 1962 (for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize), and the opera Anthony & Cleopatra commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966 though everybody was talking more about Franco Zeferelli's over-the-top sets and costumes and their problems than Barber's music.

His self-confidence never quite recovered from this “disaster” and he produced very little music in the remaining 15 years of his life. There was an oboe concerto he was working on which, I was told by friends of his, he burned in the fireplace one night: all that was salvageable was the middle slow movement which became his last published work, the Canzonetta for Oboe & Strings.

And yet, at its best, Barber's music had an integrity and sincerity regardless of style that most composers in the 1950s and '60s could only dream of. How ironic that, had he managed to live another 10-15 years, he might have felt justified, discovering his musical language would once again become “acceptable” in the Style Wars of the wider world.

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A view of Spillville, Iowa, in 1895
In 1893, Antonin Dvořák left New York City and his teaching responsibilities at the National Conservatory behind to spend the summer in Spillville, Iowa, where there was a group of Czech-speaking immigrants who had settled there. One of them, Josef Jan Kovařík, had returned to Prague to study violin where he'd met Dvořák; when he was ready to return home to America, a trip which coincided with Dvořák's leaving for his new job in New York, Dvořák offered him a job as his personal secretary. After that first school year was over, Kovařík invited his boss to join him for a trip to the American heartland, though one where he would find himself immersed in his own Czech language and culture!

Ah, immigrants! Kovařík's father was a schoolmaster there, and played the cello; his sister played the viola. Together, they joined their eminent guest as the first violinist in the domestic playing of string quartets. In fact, they would give the first hearing of his latest string quartet, one in F Major he began shortly after his arrival, one that would become known as the "American" Quartet.

Final page of initial sketch of the "American" Quartet
A happy and productive period – not just sitting around, soaking up the local ambiance – Dvořák sketched the entire quartet in three days and completed the first draft in thirteen more. At the end of the initial sketch (see photograph, above) he wrote, "Finished on 10 June 1893 in Spillville. Thanks God. I'm satisfied. It went quickly."

Here's a recording with the Emerson Quartet and the complete score of Dvořák's “American” Quartet, the String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op.96:
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Dvořák and his family reached Spillville on June 3rd and planned on staying until the second half of September when he would return to the bustle of New York. His children had recently arrived from Europe and, he wrote to a friend, “we’re all happy together. We like it very much here and, thank God, I am working hard and I’m healthy and in good spirits."

Dvořák in 1895
He had recently completed a new symphony – he himself called it “From the New World” – which he'd begun composing in January and finished in May, though it wasn't scheduled for its world premiere until December, after he would return from vacation.

Much is made of his discovery of “Negro Music” and “Indian Music” and how he advised his students, seeking to create an American Voice, to turn to these folk influences as he had turned to the influences of his own native folk music from Bohemia.

The common denominator he discovered, however, was nothing more than the pentatonic scale, a five-note scale that can be found in many cultures – for instance Scottish music as well as Native-American music and American Spirituals, not to mention the quintessential stereotype of Asian exoticism (as used by Ravel, for instance, to suggest the Far East in his “Mother Goose” Suite).

The opening theme – first heard in the viola – is in fact a pentatonic melody. It doesn't sound particularly Indian or African-American and, as it unfolds, if anything it sounds more Czech than American. There was the famous tune Dvořák scribbled down on his shirt cuff while visiting Minneapolis in September and seeing the Minnehaha Falls, there, which became the opening theme of the 2nd movement of his Violin Sonatina, composed later that month. The tune may look “Indian-like” but it is the way he harmonizes it that makes it sound “not Indian at all.”

This was often a problem for 19th Century composers inspired by any folk music, trying to cram a modal melody built on a non-traditional scale into what was really traditional harmony. Beethoven ran afoul of his Russian folk-tunes in the Razumovsky Quartets, even turning the one into a decidedly un-folk-like fugue. Even Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had their moments, pounding the round peg of a Russian folk-tune into the square (often very square) hole of Western harmonies and meters.

While Dvořák described visits from some of the local Kickapoo tribe, people have tried to claim this or that tune was one he jotted down after hearing them sing and dance at an evening's entertainment. The same tunes are often described by other writers as being originally Negro Spirituals. (In fact, I regret to point out, even the 1950 edition of Grove's Dictionary refers to the Op. 96 Quartet of Dvořák not as the “American” but instead by using the N-word...)

The fact is, the only American thing about the music itself is that is was written in America. Which is not to be small-minded since Dvořák's music and his general folk-based aesthetic had a profound influence on American composers of the late-19th, early-20th Centuries. These pentatonic tunes or the textures he presented them in – again, the opening of the quartet is a prime example – created an open, often simplified sonority that became identifiable eventually as The American Sound, long before we heard Aaron Copland's wide-open prairies.

After returning to New York, Dvořák became homesick and, in 1895, when the school's money ran out, Dvořák didn't renew his contract and quickly returned home even before the spring term was over, not even hanging around for the premiere of another American work of his, a cantata called “The American Flag.”

In addition to the Quartet and the Sonatina I'd also mentioned, he composed a String Quintet in Spillville and then a Suite in A Major originally for piano which he later orchestrated – all of these works being dubbed “The American.”

Another piece he composed while in New York, inspired by a work he'd heard by Victor Herbert, a well-known composer and cellist in the city at the time, was his Cello Concerto in B Minor and nobody has ever tried calling it the “American” Concerto... it sounds thoroughly Czech, through and through.

Whatever Dvořák may have experienced here, he absorbed it into his own musical style and it became part of him. In a letter written in mid-September, 1893, Dvořák wrote to a friend “I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America.” True, they would no doubt sound different had he never left Prague in those years, but it's also quite possible the openness to new sounds and influences was part of the adventure he had undertaken, coming here from the Old World.

One thing certain, though, he probably would have had no reason to write a symphony like “The New World.” Another thing to consider is he might never have considered writing a cello concerto at all if he hadn't heard Victor Herbert play one of his own at Carnegie Hall.

So there is, at least, that.

- Dick Strawser

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