Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Midori Opens the Season with Brahms and Fauré: Part 1

Midori (photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
One of the great violinists of the day comes to Harrisburg to open Market Square Concerts' new season with a program featuring works by Johannes Brahms and Gabriel Fauré on Friday, September 20 at 8 pm.

Midori made her debut at 11 playing Paganini with the New York Philharmonic and, as Heifetz described it, "survived prodigism" to become one of the leading stars of today's musical firmament. Not only a major artist recognized around the world, she is also a teacher, arts advocate and a champion of education. A persuasive advocate of cultural diplomacy, Midori was honored for her international activism in 2007 when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Midori a Messenger of Peace, and again in 2012 when she received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In the current state of the arts, major artists these days rarely need to appear in "smaller venues" around the country, limiting their concerts to major cities and orchestras. But Midori's foundation, “Partners in Performance,” supports not only her performances in smaller communities around the country but also creates performing and educational opportunities for emerging artists like Francisco Fullana who appeared here last season. Market Square Concerts is proud and grateful to be among the few recipients of this grant.

She and Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute will perform two sonatas and two shorter works by Brahms and Fauré: on the first half, there's Brahms' early work, the Scherzo from the collaborative "F.A.E. Sonata," written when he was 20, and Fauré's 1st Sonata, generally considered his first major work written when he was 30 but by no means a late-bloomer. On the second half, there's a transcription of a short song by Fauré and then, to conclude, Brahms' last violin sonata, the D Minor Sonata, Op.108, one of his last works.

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“For me, art, and especially music, exist to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.” – Gabriel Fauré
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While I've never found any source for that quote, it is beautiful, isn't it? And it certainly reflects his own often delicate style and what we, as musicians and music-lovers, hope to attain through music, that sense of “elevation” beyond the reality of our lives, not merely escapism but a fulfillment that completes us, not just a form of entertainment but something that sustains us once we return to the everyday.

Of course, a brief inspirational quote, other than being useful to serve as a pre-technological tweet-from-the-past on your Facebook feed, may not summarize the creative world of a great composer. In looking around for something comparable from Brahms, we might consider this exchange between the composer and the scientist who specialized in the study of acoustics, Hermann von Helmholtz, who attacked the dogmas of Western Musical Theory by arguing that “the system of Scales, Modes and Harmonic Tissues does not rest solely upon inalterable natural laws” as most music teachers will assert, at least initially, “but is at least partly also the result of esthetical principles which have already changed” as music had done from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner, for instance, “and will still further change with the progressive development of humanity,” a scientific approach to music reflecting the going Darwinian attitude toward, well... almost anything.

The “fact” music could evolve with “taste and culture” implying “unheard-of things are possible” would have horrified the staunchly conservative Brahms who at the end of his life, examining new works by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, was convinced that, after him, music was destined for the cesspool. Naturally, an arranged meeting between Brahms and Helmholtz did not go well.

The composer talked of counterpoint and form, the scientist about “sine waves and spectra.” The scientist complained the artist gave him only “artistic musical answers to questions about scientific acoustical problems” and Brahms saw Helmholtz's constructs as “what music was about,” his “progressive development” of style the decline of art and humanity.

To this, Gabriel Fauré would have shrugged his shoulders, most likely. It is, in one sense, the stereotypical difference between German and French culture, the one being precise and well-defined, the other being vague with a certain je ne sais quoi (literally “I don't know what”). The one approach we might consider “rational, intellectual, Classical, Apollonian, Left-Brained,” while the other would be “intuitive, emotional, Romantic, Dionysian, Right-Brained.”

Brahms' ill-fated meeting with Helmholtz took place in 1885 around the time he was finishing work on his 4th Symphony. Curiously, most of Brahms' closest friends found the new symphony dry, academic, a convincing sign that their “old friend” – Brahms had recently turned 62 – was writing himself out. To us, there may be a whole world between the boiling Romanticism of his 1st Symphony and the lofty Classicism of his 4th, but his latest (and last) symphony came only nine years after he completed his first.

And only a year before be began work on his last violin sonata which concludes Midori's program.

I often prefer to talk about the works on a program in chronological order rather than how you'll hear them because in the continuum of a composer's development that context can explain a great deal (or maybe not), allowing you to listen to them within the context of the performance. But in this case, Midoi has chosen to perform them in chronological order, so let's begin with the earliest work, the “Sonatensatz” of Johannes Brahms, from the “F.A.E. Sonata.”

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First of all, what is all that Sonatensatz and F.A.E. stuff about?

It only means that it's a “Sonata Movement,” a fragment of a larger work, in this case the intended third movement of a work written “by committee.” Robert Schumann had the idea of writing a violin sonata as a belated birthday present for the young, up-coming virtuoso (already hailed as one of the great violinists of the day), Joseph Joachim. And, as the resident Master, he assigned the first movement to his student and assistant of the past two years, Albert Dietrich, while he would write the intermezzo of a slow movement and the finale himself. To his new friend and latest discovery, a young man named Johannes Brahms, he assigned the scherzo because one of the many pieces Brahms had shown him was his Scherzo in E-flat Minor, a demonic whirlwind that proved to be his first true success (everybody seemed to love it, even Franz Liszt, whom he'd just met before arriving at the Schumanns').

Collectively, they called it the “F.A.E.” Sonata. Schumann frequently used “musical cryptograms” in his music, spelling out a name in musical pitches to create a thematic motive he would then imbed in his melody. In this case, the pitches F, A, and E represented the “life motif” of Joachim himself who, having just broken up his latest girlfriend, decided he would remain “Free but Lonely.” In German, that's Frei aber Einsam. Therefore, F-A-E.

Now, how each of the composers used that as a melodic building block is not important: the reference on the title page was enough for the occasion.

And it was only just for The Occasion. Written for a musical evening at the Schumanns' home on October 28th, 1853, it was never intended for publication or professional performance.

When Joachim arrived, a day after his concert with Schumann in Dusseldorf playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, he was looking forward to a “house-performance” with the great Clara Schumann at the piano. He was handed a basket of flowers by one of the guests, Gisela von Arnim, dressed in peasant costume. Her mother, Bettina von Arnim, a friend of Beethoven's and Goethe's and husband of the collector of fairy tales known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was also one of the guests.

But beneath the flowers, Joachim found a manuscript – a four-movement violin sonata he and Clara were now supposed to perform and, in the process, he was to identify the composer of each movement who were inscribed on the title page (in no particular order) by their initials only. Not surprisingly, he had no trouble doing so. Also not surprisingly, he sight-read the piece flawlessly.

It's worth pointing out that Gisela von Arnim was, at the time, Joachim's ex-girlfriend, hence his decision to remain “Free but lonely” (can you spell “awkward” as a musical motif?).

By the way, Schumann was then 43 – he would attempt suicide four months later – and Dietrich was 24. Joachim's 22nd birthday had been the previous June, and Brahms was all of 20.

Here is a recording of violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy performing the Scherzo (the “Sonata Movement”) by Johannes Brahms written for the “F.A.E. Sonata.”

(I have to laugh at the unsuspecting producer who, perhaps thinking "since scherzo means joke and it's usually a light-hearted, dance-like piece," decided to include this Scherzo on a collection called Chill With Brahms. Ah, marketing...

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Brahms arrived on the Schumanns' doorstep on Sept. 30th but the composer was not at home, so he returned the next day. Under his arm were several piano sonatas (which Schumann described as “veiled symphonies”) as well as violin sonatas and string quartets (both in the plural). The rest, as they say, is history.

But in this month of October, 1853, consider the chronology:
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October 1st: The Schumanns hear Johannes Brahms playing his music for the first time. During the next few weeks, Brahms is a constant visitor at the Schumanns.
October 3rd: Robert Schumann finishes his new Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim. It's the same day Joachim performed his recent “Violin Concerto in One Movement in G Minor” at the Karlsruhe festival with Franz Liszt conducting.
early-October: Joachim makes a brief visit to the Schumanns, passing through Düsseldorf, apparently in need of a post-Liszt antidote (he was beginning to drift more toward the Schumanns and away from his previous mentor, the avant-garde Liszt, two great poles of German music at the time). Shortly after this visit, Schumann comes up with the idea of the “F.A.E. Sonata” to be written by Dietrich-Schumann-Brahms to be presented to Joachim when he'd be playing in Düsseldorf later in the month.
October 13th: writing to Joachim, Schumann said he was formulating his thoughts on Brahms whom he called “the young eagle,” and began writing an article for his magazine, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the next day
October 27th: Schumann conducted a concert (badly) with Joachim as soloist in the Beethoven concerto and Schumann's Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra, along with Joachim's “Hamlet” Overture (we tend to forget, these days, that Joachim was also a composer). Rehearsals the previous days had gone badly: Schumann was already exhibiting signs of the illness that would destroy his final years.
October 28th: The magazine appears with its lead article, Neue Bahnen (“New Paths”) in which Schumann hails the arrival of the young Brahms, essentially anointing him “Beethoven's Heir.” 

That evening, friends gathered to present Joachim his new sonata. (You can listen to the entire “F.A.E. Sonata” in this continuous audio clip with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov.)
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Brahms, Oct. 1853 (at 20)
During this same month, another visitor at the Schumanns was the French painter, Jean-Joseph Laurens, who drew portraits of both Schumann and Brahms. His Brahms sketch includes a musical fragment from the E-flat Minor Scherzo. It is a rare opportunity to look at a portrait of a composer drawn quite possibly while he was working on the piece of music you're listening to!

Brahms never published his contribution. Joachim kept the manuscript and only published the scherzo in 1906, nine years after his friend's death. The whole sonata was not published until 1935 and it is rarely performed or recorded.

In the month after the Sonata's unveiling, Schumann decided to add two movements as a preface to his own Intermezzo and Finale to create his Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor. Joachim expressed his approval: “The concentrated, energetic addition fits perfectly with the other movements. This is now without a doubt a new whole by itself!”

But this third sonata, which Joachim and Clara performed several times privately, was never published in the remaining years of Schumann's life. Whether it was consciously suppressed like the Violin Concerto completed in October, I can't say – that is a story in itself and involves a ouija board – but even though it existed and was finally published and premiered in 1956, the Centennial of his death, it still is rarely included even in recordings purporting to be “the complete works for violin and piano” by Robert Schumann. One could argue it was not Schumann at his best – many of his final works show signs of decline in his talents as well as his health – but it's still an important part of his story.

(If you're curious, you can listen to the whole of Schumann's 3rd Sonata which includes the original manuscript for the first movement, here.  (If you're wondering about the painting in this video, it's a view of Düsseldorf with the bridge from which Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27th, 1854.)

Given Brahms penchant for destroying works that failed to satisfy him – what happened to those “violin sonatas and string quartets” Schumann mentioned in 1853? – we're lucky Joachim kept the manuscript for the “F.A.E. Sonata.” Since he never published it, it's very likely Brahms would have destroyed it, too. Perhaps these last works of Schumann's may have been a lesson to the young Brahms not to leave his failures lying around for other people to publish after his own death. Still, with a composer who destroyed a 5th Symphony and a 2nd Violin Concerto because friends of his didn't think as highly as he'd hoped of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, we can only wonder what we've lost.

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This dramatic and rhythmically turbulent work, brief as it is, is followed by the Violin Sonata Gabriel Fauré composed when he was 30. The whole mood here is entirely different – compare Brahms' scherzo with the third movement of Fauré's sunlit dance, for example – but part of that is also the difference in the personalities of the two composers.

As his mentor Camille Saint-Saëns told him, while Fauré possessed every quality, he lacked one fault indispensable to every artist: ambition.

The Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op.13, was composed between 1875 and 1876, the same years Brahms was (finally) completing his 1st Symphony and Richard Wagner was (finally) completing his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. And though he was already 30, Fauré had only just begun composing pieces that were not songs or short choral works, twenty-four in all. Still, anyone who could write the Cantique de Jean Racine as a 20-year-old student at a school primarily designed to teach future church musicians, was no late-bloomer.

Realizing he would be unlikely to make a living from being a composer, he focused primarily on being a church organist and choir director, teaching piano on the side and composing his songs for his own and his friends' enjoyment.

Then, in 1875, something changed, there's a choral and orchestra cantata based on Victor Hugo's Les Djinns and an orchestral suite, his first non-vocal work. The same year, he began, for no apparent reason, this violin sonata. It is hardly a youthful effort.

In this 1960 recording, we'll hear violinist Berl Senofsky and pianist Gary Graffman in Fauré's Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op.13.

1st Mvmt Allegro molto

2nd Mvmt Andante

3rd Mvmt Scherzo

4th Mvmt Allegro quasi presto

Its premiere the following January was one of the highlights of Fauré's career, his first great success.

But I said "for no apparent reason." Well, that may not be quite the whole truth...

to be continued... (you can read Part 2 of this post, here)

Dick Strawser

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