Monday, January 9, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 2: Piazzolla & Ginastera

The previous post for the Dalí Quartet's concert focused on the first two works on the program: the 3rd Quartet by Arriaga and the 2nd Quartet by Silvestre Revueltas. This post covers the second half of the program, with Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet" and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet. 

The concert is Tuesday, January 10th (7:30), at Whitaker Center on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets in downtown Harrisburg. Tickets will be available at the door. 

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Due to technical difficulties with the WiFi connection here at Dr. Dick Plaza (a.k.a. La Casa de Mercurio en retrógrada perpetua), combined with the effects of Whatever Variant of Post-Holiday Crud is going around resulting in, among other things, near-constant headaches of 5.2 on the Sviatoslav Richter Scale, I have been unable to finish work on these posts in a timely fashion. If you do not have time to read them before the concert, you can always read them after-the-fact and still gain some understanding of the music's background you'd heard live. 

Dick Strawser

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Astor Piazzolla with Nadia Boulanger in 1955

There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds apocryphal (given the number of variations on its details) but the end result is the same. The advice speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just a 33-year-old Argentinian named Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he had left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera (see below) – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger. However it happened, many young composers, especially from the United States, were drawn to Paris to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). 

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla – his childhood is complicated, as a boy moving to New York City before returning to his native Argentina – grew up in the world of tango bars and became a bandoneon player in various dance bands in the capital city. He met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere. Despite a fight breaking out in the audience between those who supported the “newness” of combining classical and popular influences and those who found this insidious and degrading (really, using not one but two bandoneons?), Piazzolla won a scholarship which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger (see photo, above).

Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on. And you could say, he never looked back. (By the way, imagine if Mozart had waited till he was 33 before “finding his voice”?) 

Primarily, he studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was suc h an important aspect of his environment.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

Following his stay in Paris, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1955 and formed another band, expanding the traditional tango ensemble of two bandoneóns, two violins, bass and piano, by adding a cello and electric guitar. For his Octeto he composed his “Tango Ballet” in 1956 which was later transcribed for full orchestra as well as for string quartet.

Whether intended to be danced or not – and of course, who could resist dancing mentally while listening to a tango? – the program behind the music was meant to evoke six scenes, from an introduction leading to an encounter in the street – then “forgetfulness” – cabaret – solitude – before ending up back in the street.

Considering when it was composed, “Tango Ballet” then is one of the earliest works Piazzolla wrote after studying in Paris, clearly taking Boulanger's advice to heart.

It's always intrigued me how naturally so many of Piazzolla's compositions work for string quartet and yet they were not originally written for a string quartet: they're transcriptions (at least, in most cases) of works he originally composed for one or another of his tango bands!

Since the Dalí Quartet is the 2021 Silver Medalist at the inaugural Piazzolla Music Competition, here they are, playing the first and last movements of the “Tango Ballet.”

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While I had difficulty finding an on-line video matching their vitality, here's one that, if nothing else, will show you how Argentinian fire translates to a quartet from Iceland – the Kordo Quartet recorded in Rekjavik in 2021 playing the entire "Tango Ballet":

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Piazzolla, Bandoneon, & Cigarette
The tango itself – as internationally identifiable as “the Viennese Waltz,” once considered a lascivious form of social expression parents should protect their children from – was the product of an urban immigrant culture, mixing European influences with black, native, and Creole elements like Andalucían flamenco, melodies from southern Italy, the Cuban habañera, candombé (especially with its percussion) from African slaves, along with Eastern-European polkas and mazurkas, the Spanish contradanse, and the milónga, the rural song of the Argentine gaucho or cowboy. Into this melting pot, Piazzolla tossed the complexity of European classical traditions and American jazz. He called it nuevo tango.

Reading through a few brief on-line biographical summaries (mostly quoting material from the Wikipedia post), none of them mention the historical backdrop of the Argentina Piazzolla was living in at the time this piece was written, regardless of any direct effect on the music. But while Piazzolla was studying in Paris, the regime of dictator Juan Peron was under siege, ending with a coup in mid-September, 1955, three months after planes of the national air force and navy massacred hundreds of protesters on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential Casa rosada, images that may resonate following the 2nd Anniversary of the January 6th Riot (or Insurrection) at the Washington Capitol and today's news as protesters attack government buildings for similar reasons in the capital of Brazil.

Peron's ouster ushered in years of political unrest and frequent coups and counter-coups, lasting for decades. Perhaps Piazzolla's return to New York City in 1958 was prompted as much by the conditions in his homeland as it was the search for artistic possibilities. While his music began gaining acceptance in Europe and the United States, at home he had become a controversial figure, not just for his “tampering” with a traditional icon like The Tango: liberal segments of Argentine society embraced his musical revolution as a parallel to their own political agenda. Given the government's attitude toward attacking and arresting (and sometimes torturing or killing) protesters, perhaps even a musician was not safe? 

Whether or not we hear this social turmoil in his music – it would be difficult for those of us outside its cultural awareness – it should remind us that, however we may feel about art and toss around terms like “beauty” and “entertainment,” artists do not create in a vacuum, whether they choose to work within their realities or in spite of them. In the long run – regardless of culture and history, whether its catastrophic events like the Napoleonic Wars, two World Wars, or periods of endless unrest in countries like Mexico and Argentina – art somehow manages to survive and transcend the reality it was born into.

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Ginastera, c.1960
Born in Buenos Aires in 1916 of a Spanish father from Catalonia and an Italian mother – incidentally, to clear the record, the composer always preferred the Catalan soft g for his name (g as in George) rather than the Spanish j (as in Juan) – Alberto Ginastera premiered a suite from his folkloric ballet, Panambi, which earned him national recognition at the age of 21. He became involved with a touring American dance company which commissioned a new ballet but the company folded before it could be produced. The Four Dances from Estancia, premiered in 1943 (the ballet, not until ten years later) only solidified his reputation. Unfortunately, a proposed trip to study in America had to be postponed because of World War II. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School. When Juan Perón rose to power in 1945, Ginastera was dismissed from his post for political reasons. Then he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and some of his music was performed.

It was during this period his music began to undergo a change, from the folk-influenced melodies and rhythms of his earlier works, a style he later called “objective nationalism” creating a nationalist Argentine musical voice, to an increasingly more abstract influence from the “classical music” of modern Europe.

Ginastera began to explore this world outside Argentina in 1948 with his 1st String Quartet. He found inspiration particularly in the works of Bela Bartók (who had died in America in 1945), and now applied these elements into his previous style to create a “Middle Period” style he now called “subjective nationalism.” Simply put, he was creating an internationally recognized style with an Argentinian accent, much as Bartók had gone from quoting folk music to incorporating elements of folk style into the fabric of his original music, in what Bartók called “imaginary folk-music,” particularly in his 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

During this period, he'd returned to Argentina and became involved in promoting Argentine composers both at home and abroad with frequent trips to Europe as a musical representative of Argentina. But because of political tensions, he was dismissed again from the directorship at the La Plata Conservatory in 1952 only to be reinstated after Peron's fall from power in 1955 (see above). In 1958, he attended a music festival in Washington DC to hear his 2nd String Quartet premiered to great acclaim by the Juilliard Quartet: his international reputation was now assured.

While Piazzolla left Argentina for New York City in 1958 amidst the social and political deterioration following the coup against Peron, Ginastera, because he spent more time outside the country, was perhaps less affected by these events. But after his opera Bomarzo was premiered with extraordinary success in Washington in 1967, but subsequently banned by the Mayor of Buenos Aires on moral grounds, Ginastera decided to settle elsewhere, first teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1968 before moving to Geneva in 1970 where he remained until his death in 1983.

Ginastera (not so serious) in July, 1968

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

Like Bartók's 4th and 5th Quartets, Ginastera built his 2nd Quartet – almost as if it were an homage – on a similar arch form. Many of the rhythmic motives and the sense of contrast also bear the stamp of Bartók. Opening with a wild and violently rhythmic opening movement, followed by a lyrical slow movement with prominent solos from each instrument, the middle of this arch is a fantastical “night-piece” also in the manner of Bartók's “night-music” movements, but rather than whispering winds, insect noises and sometimes even the frogs of Bartók's uncle's farm, all background to the imagination's response to night's uncertainty, Ginastera's builds more on the darker side of fantasy, dealing perhaps with magical incantations and folkloric rituals.

Like Bartók, it is also full of unusual playing techniques, including fingernail pizzicatos, pizzicato glissandos, those loud “snap” pizzicatos (let's hope no strings are broken tonight) usually called “Bartók Pizzes,” as well as playing with the bow practically on the bridge to create that eerie hollow, almost metallic sound, and tapping the strings with the wooden back of the bow. As this night-music had been a standard part of Bartók's style, Ginastera's sense of magic was very much a part of his. From there, we work our way back out of the arch's keystone with a parallel slow movement that also employs solo passages before returning to the violent rhythmic, indeed frantic propulsion ending the piece with a huge, unfettered yelp.

Here is a performance by Cuarteto Latinoamericano of the 2nd String Quartet by Alberto Ginastera (complete with score):

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- Dick Strawser

 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 1: The Music of Arriaga & Revueltas

The Dalí Quartet (photo credit, Ryan Brandenberg)

Who
: The Dalí Quartet
What: Arriaga's 3rd String Quartet, Revueltas' 2nd String Quartet, Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet," and Ginastera's 2nd String Quartet.
When: Tuesday, January 10th, 2023, at 7:30pm
Where: Whitaker Center on Market Street in Downtown Harrisburg

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The first half of the award-winning, Philadelphia-based Dalí Quartet's program consists of works by a Spanish and a Mexican composer; the second half, of works by two Argentinians. Silvestre Revueltas is considered one of the most important Mexican composers of the 20th Century (and born on the very last day of the 19th); Alberto Ginastera has long been recognized as Argentina's greatest composer while Astor Piazzolla is easily the most popular one.

Curiously, their program opens with a work from the Days of Beethoven (1823), then progresses chronologically through the 20th Century with Revueltas' 2nd quartet (1931) and, after intermission, two works from the 1950s, Piazzolla's “Tango Ballet” (1956) and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet, written two years later. So, for once, I can take you through the entire program in both Program and Chronological Order and, for that matter, move from Spain to the New World, going from Mexico south to Argentina.

The Dalí Quartet takes its name from the Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí, born in Catalonia on the northeast coast of Spain, near the French border. The first composer on this program was born almost a hundred years earlier on the northwest coast of Spain, near the French border.

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga is not a name well-known to American audiences, or, if he is known, it's probably for having been one of the most short-lived composers to be recognized in a flock of short-lived composers like Mozart (who died at 35) and Schubert (31). A contemporary of Beethoven, Arriaga has been dubbed “The Spanish Mozart” for more, however, than being short-lived: born on the day Mozart would've turned 50 (imagine!), he was also something of a child-prodigy himself. Mozart may have written his first works when he was 6; Arriaga's earliest surviving work – an octet for an odd combination of string quartet, bass, trumpet, guitar and piano with the child-like title, Nada y mucho (“Nothing & Much”) – was written when he was 11, by comparison not so impressive on the Scale of Prodigiousness, but still, given there are three string quartets, at least one complete opera (with fragments of at least five other works that might've been projected if not completed operas), a symphony of almost 30 minutes' duration, and several shorter choral works and chamber pieces, there's enough to realize Arriaga could've become a composer to take note of had he not died ten days before his 20th birthday! Imagine, if you will, listening to this work of a teenager and wondering what Arriaga might have achieved had he lived to be 35, much less 70...

There are clips of some excerpts from the Dalí Quartet's performances available on-line – a gorgeous moment from the slow movement, and from the finale – but for reasons of completeness, I chose this recording by no less than the Guarneri Quartet, one of the few iconic quartets of an earlier generation to take this music seriously. It's in the traditional four movements and follows a standard Classical scheme with the “slow movement” a more leisurely pastorale.

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If the scherzo and finale bring to mind Mendelssohn, remember Arriaga would not have known the German's earliest quartets which were still four years in the future. And while there may be hints of Mozart and Haydn as well as Early-Beethoven, each of whom could have been influential in Arriaga's development, let's consider the fact, since 1821, the young Spaniard was studying at the Paris Conservatoire with a composer considered one of the greatest and most influential in Europe who was not named Beethoven, Luigi Cherubini – who, incidentally, was also a major influence on the young Mendelssohn in Berlin.

In 1823, when Cherubini heard a “Stabat mater” he thought exceptional, he asked simply, “Who wrote this?” and when told it was Arriaga's, said to the boy, so the story goes, “Amazing – you are music itself!” No small endorsement from the most influential composer in Paris!

His three string quartets were all written in that same year of 1823 when he was 17. It would be difficult to dismiss these works as “juvenalia” and though they lack the finesse of such great names as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven (compare them, then, to works Haydn or Beethoven may have written at that age – excepting the likes of Mozart who wrote his dramatic “Little” G Minor Symphony when he was 17; and Mendelssohn, who wrote his Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the same age only a few years later), there is still a pretty astonishing level of accomplishment in these works. And the Symphony, though not on the level of Beethoven (who was?), is certainly as good if not better (or at least more promising) than many of those Contemporaries of Beethoven nobody plays any more.

Yes, for 1823, you might think this sounds “very classical” compared to what Beethoven was writing at the same time – the year of the Missa solemnis, a year before his 9th Symphony, the first of his “Late Quartets” to follow in 1825. But if you know what most of Beethoven's contemporaries were writing like, Arriaga's not so far off the Main Stream.

Given how I like to place composers in the context of their times, remember Arriaga was born in 1803 in Spain – technically, in the Basque region of northwestern Spain – months before the invasion by Napoleonic troops and the onset of near-continuous warfare until the French were driven out after the Battle of Vittoria (celebrated in Beethoven's “Wellington's Victory”) in 1814. A year later, post-Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena. In 1821, Arriaga's father was able to send his son to study in Paris, months after Napoleon's death, when Louis XVIII restored the dynasty interrupted by the French Revolution in 1789. In 1823, the year of Cherubini's resounding endorsement and the production of Arriaga's three quartets, the French army again invaded and occupied Spain in an attempt to restore a pro-French king who'd been ousted by rebellious liberals.

A further side note: whatever influence this may have had on Arriaga's own character, much less his music – he was, after all, like the Italian-born Cherubini, a foreigner in Paris in the aftermath of a generation of Napoleonic wars – there were more direct impacts of the era on composers like Beethoven who lived through two French occupations of Vienna, and Haydn who died in the midst of the second one; of Schubert who, as a boy, saw a French bomb barely miss his school, exploding in the neighboring yard; and of Wagner, five months old when the Battle of Leipzig, the deadliest battle in history before World War I, raged around his home and his father died in the ensuing typhoid epidemic a month later.

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Revueltas in 1930
Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was born on the last day of the last year of the 19th Century – in other words, on the 20th Century's New Year's Eve. In the early-1930s, he composed four quartets in quick succession along with other “musical postcards”. The 2nd, subtitled “Magueyes,” was dedicated to Aurora Maguira, but more of her association with the music later.

These quartets are, compared to standard string quartets, brief works, only about ten minutes each. The 2nd Quartet, in three movements, opens with an Allegro giocoso followed not by a slow movement but a Molto vivace – both consist of alternating contrasting sections, fast and slow, the vivace almost like a variation of the opening – before ending with a brief Allegro molto sostenuto, “very sustained” but more in the sense of “not staccato” like the first two movements. There are a handful of recognizable gestures treated motivically throughout, tying it together.

Here is a recording with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano (with score) of Silvestre Rivueltas' String Quartet No. 2, “Magueyes”:

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Sometimes, when a composer writes a piece, he dedicates it to someone for some reason, sometimes as a thank you for their support or commission (Beethoven dedicated three of his Late Quartets to a Russian prince who commissioned them; the Op. 131, to a general who helped secure a military commission for Beethoven's wayward nephew who'd recently attempted suicide), and sometimes for personal reasons. In Revueltas' case, the dedicatee of this quartet, Aurora Maguira, had been in a 4-year relationship with Revueltas and they'd broken up the year before the wrote this quartet.

While that may be enough to inspire “programmatic thoughts behind the music,” the subtitle “Magueyes” might be confusing, referring to the agave or Century Plant (in the plural) which flowers only once, then dies.

It is also the source of pulque, a fermented drink long produced in Mexico. For some reason, this reference has been interpreted as the composer's cultural attitude toward the Middle Classes' preference for imported European music (over their own home-grown music) or a reference to Revueltas' own rather prickly political philosophies as applied to the development of a nationalist voice in his music (or facing down the historical baggage of the European genre of the quartet).

Not that it might be understood by non-Mexican audiences, Revueltas quoted a folk-song in the opening movement with the lyrics: “I pray heaven dry up the magueys / because these agaves are the cause of my misfortune; / I am very drunk and nothing gives me satisfaction, / because the woman I loved so much does not love me.” (Enough said...)

Apparently, Revueltas was not long without consolation: in 1931, he composed an orchestral work, Ventanas (“Windows”) unofficially dedicated to Ángela Acevedo, whom he married the following year.

It's interesting to note that five of Revueltas' siblings also became acclaimed artists: two as painters, one as an actress and dancer, and another as a writer. His two daughters, in turn, achieved professional success as a dancer and teacher, the other as an essayist; while a nephew is well-known in Mexico as a violinist, journalist, and conductor.

While mentioning the role international politics played in the world of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, however little if any influence it had on his music, Silvestre Revueltas' story is a bit more to-the-point. Growing up in the Mexican state of Durango, his world was deeply affected by the political unrest of what's generally called “The Mexican Revolution” which began in 1910, centered largely around Durango, and which eventually produced such memorable historical figures (whose names, if not their histories, are well known outside Mexico) like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (whose first name was not “Viva”). In 1913, insurrectionists seized Durango and burnt many of the city's businesses.

In 1911, a young violin student named Silvestre Revueltas gave his first public recital. In 1917, the year the establishment of a new federal Constitution should have ended the conflict – a complicated business with considerable outside involvement, particularly from the United States – teenager Revueltas decided to leave Mexico and attend a music school in San Antonio, Texas; then, in 1919, the Chicago College of Music, after which he returned to Mexico to become involved in working with composer Carlos Chavez giving concerts to promote Mexican music, first as a violinist in the orchestra, then as a composer and conductor. It is from this period he began to combine elements of traditional Classical Music techniques with what he was hearing and learning from the folk and popular music of Mexico.

While an eventual fall-out with Chavez proved inevitable, Revueltas also began writing film-music in the 1930s. In 1935, in “Let's Go with Pancho Villa,” Revueltas not only composed the filmscore but also had a cameo as the piano-player in a saloon. When a gunfight erupted in the bar, Revueltas, while playing “La cucaracha” (a song which, incidentally, started becoming popular in 1910 during the Revolution), held up a sign that read, “Please don't shoot the pianist.”

Then, following his political inclinations, he went to Spain in 1937 to take part in the Spanish Civil War, another complicated business with considerable outside involvement, in this case from the German and Italian fascists. He returned to Mexico following Franco's victory in 1939.

The following year, now living in poverty and plagued by alcoholism, Revueltas died from complications of pneumonia the same day his ballet, El renacuajo paseador (originally completed in 1936 and which, apparently, translates to “The Walking Tadpole”), was premiered. He was 40 years old and would have no idea, given the few works he'd completed, his name would eventually be remembered as one of Mexico's most important composers!

His most famous piece, Sensemayá, originally written for chamber orchestra in 1937 but reworked for large orchestra the following year (apparently while he was in Spain), was inspired by a Cuban poet's description of “the ritual killing of a snake.” Here is the 2012 Ukrainian Premiere performed by the Odessa Philharmonic conducted by Hobart Earle (the music begins at 2:14, but the conductor's initial remarks might prove helpful to first-time listeners).

I'm not sure how a Mexican piece fits into their program, “An Evening in Caracas,” but, speaking of politics and the role of warfare on the shaping of a composer's life and music, let's think for a moment about the impact current events, playing out during the on-going Russian invasion, may have on future Ukrainian artists... 

– Dick Strawser

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You can read the second post for this concert's program, featuring music by Argentinian composers Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, here (which will be posted, I hope, soon).



Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Israeli Chamber Project: Meet Ravel and Schoenberg

The Israeli Chamber Project, 1st Rehearsal for Nov. 2022 American Tour
First Stop: Thursday, November 3rd, 2022, 7:30pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

The rest of the Israeli Chamber Project's program, “Saint-Saëns Meets Stravinsky” (read more about that in my earlier post) consists of two other composers, Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg.

Certainly, Ravel had an association with the older French master and a friendship with the younger emigrée upstart from Russia. On another hand, Schoenberg, a native of Vienna who spent much of his early career in Berlin, may seem (as usual) the Odd-Man-Out here, had little association with the composer of “The Swan.” He and Stravinsky, however, had throughout their careers a stylistic rivalry despite the fact, later on, they were neighbors in, of all places, Hollywood.

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[Note: By way of disclaimer, these posts are generally intended to provide historical – or as I like to think of it as “biographical” – background to the music you'll be hearing on MSC programs. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time working on the first post to complete this one well enough in advance of the concert. However, where program notes, briefer by nature, are intended to give you the basics before you hear the music, these posts take the place of “pre-concert talks” which usually run a half-hour or so, and are meant to give you more in-depth insights to the music, usually in some historical context. As usual, if you don't have a chance to read this beforehand, it's always something you can come back to after the concert, and listen to the video links to refresh your ear.]

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This program consists of five works by four composers from two countries, all written between 1905 and 1918. Ravel's “Introduction & Allegro” which closes the first half of the concert, following Saint-Saëns' Fantasy for Violin & Harp and Stravinsky's Suite from L'Histoire du soldat, is actually the “oldest” work chronologically, predating both the Saint-Saëns and Schoenberg's “Chamber Symphony” that follows it on the second half.

Without going into the history of the harp (which goes back to 3300BC, give or take), Ravel's work came about through a commission from the Erard Company, makers of pianos and harps since the late-18th Century, and was, initially, a tit-for-tat response to the rival Pleyel Company's commission of Claude Debussy to write a work – his Danses sacrée et profane – in 1904 to showcase their new “chromatic harp.” Erard wanted to promote their new line of “double-action pedal harps” (imagine Debussy and Ravel, two of the leading modernists in France at the time locked in a competitive ad campaign!)

For some chronological context, here, Saint-Saëns composed his Fantasy for Violin & Harp in 1907, but he'd already composed a fantasy for solo harp in 1893, written as an “examination piece” for the Conservatoire de Paris (which meant that every harp student competing for a prize that year would also be judged on how well they played this new work). Later, he would compose an additional work for the harp, a Morceau de concert (or “Concert Piece”) in 1918 that was a brief concerto-like work for harp and orchestra. But curious – no? – that neither Pleyel nor Erard chose the 70-something Grand Maître to present its new models, but rather two young upstarts, Debussy who was 42 and following the success of his opera, Pelleas et Melisande two years earlier, and Ravel who, just turned 30, was still a student at the Conservatoire.

The creative process for Ravel, student or not, was slow and painstaking. But this commission was finished, for him, at “break-neck speed.” The impetus was not so much the deadline (if there was one) but the fact he was going on a holiday with friends and wanted to get this thing off his plate. As he wrote a friend, he spent “eight days of relentless work and three sleepless nights enabled me to finish it, for better or worse. Right now, I am relaxing on a marvelous trip.”

This may account, between the speed and his apparent lack of artistic conviction, for the observation several writers have made about the Introduction & Allegro being a step backwards from the advance in his style from the String Quartet of 1902 (a masterpiece regardless of its having been written by a student) and the Sonatine, written along with the suite of piano pieces, Miroirs, between 1903 and 1905. Perhaps this had to do with the lack of time to focus on any challenging stylistic details as much as it had the nature of the commission, with Debussy's example as a model rather than something to be out-done, or of the harp itself.

Whatever the limitations, conscious or otherwise, Ravel placed on its inception, the work has become one of the staples of the harpist's repertoire. Here is a performance by the Israeli Chamber Project with harpist Sivan Magen from 2010:

Like his own teacher, Fauré, Ravel was concerned his pupils find their own individual voices and not be overly (or perhaps overtly) influenced by established masters. For instance, he warned one it was impossible to learn from studying Debussy's music, not because of any antipathy for his elder colleague's music but because “only Debussy could have written it and made it sound like only Debussy can sound.” When an American fan, George Gershwin, a newly minted composer of Classical Music with his Rhapsody in Blue. asked to study with him, Ravel declined on the basis it would get in the way of his already natural talent and turn him into a second-rate Ravel.

One of the things Ravel told his students: “Complexe mais pas compliqué.” Complex, but not complicated. It may sound contradictory, but perhaps the reason he took so long before he completed a piece was because it is easy to write something complex, but difficult to keep it from sounded complicated.

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Let's come back to Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin which concludes the program. It would make sense, two works by one composer, to consider them attacca but in this case, given the nature of the programming, let's follow the chronological lead of stylistic development in these pieces from the early years of the previous century. Keep in mind the “newest” piece on this program, the Stravinsky, still often thought of as “contemporary music,” is 104 years old.

Arnold Schoenberg, supposedly when asked if he was Arnold Schoenberg, said “Well, somebody has to be...” With Hallowe'en now past, there are few composers in the repertoire whose presence on a program may frighten your average concert-goer. And while much of the music of his maturity is often a challenge to understand.

Going back to Ravel's “complexe mais pas compliqué,” this is often a criticism leveled at Schoenberg, that he was complex but didn't succeed in sounding “not complicated.”

Perhaps the problem is with the performers who do not understand the music well enough to play it so it doesn't sound complicated?

One of those moments when I knew a student of mine was on the right track (it is nothing I can attribute to my doubtless brilliant teaching) was at a piano recital by a visiting virtuoso, a pianist with a brilliant career (and so shall remain nameless). I was sitting in front of her, a singer who was, like many sophomores, struggling with the sordid details of harmony, as our pianist opened the program with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Three bars into it, she'd leaned over to a friend sitting next to her and whispered with projection worthy of a mezzo, “This is going to be awful...” Perhaps it was because the pianist was bored with playing this belovéd warhorse again or he was bored to be at this small New England college, stuck between concerts in Boston and New York, or whatever – certainly a proficient pianist given the performance but just “not very compelling”. And my student was right: that whole first movement brought to mind a young girl trotted out to play her latest piece for some visiting aunts.

And that is the way I often hear much of Schoenberg's music played, whether through lack of conviction or of sympathy or merely because, beyond the music they're more familiar with, they don't understand what it is that makes this music tick!

"It is brain music," critics complain. It's the result of a “system for composing with twelve notes” – call it serial or think of it as “atonal” – that turns the “compositional process” into the equivalent of a cross-word puzzle (that very word, process...). But, I'm sorry to say, the Tonality we're familiar with from the days of Vivaldi and Bach to Mozart and Beethoven to Wagner (and after that it gets a little fuzzy...) is also a “system” with its own rules and expectations: chords, built a particular way, move in specific ways and while you might argue about things like “parallel fifths,” many of these “rules” are there for a reason, “to create a consistency of sound.” The idea of digressing from a tonic key – D Major, say – leads one to expect, according to the age-old tradition, it should return to that tonic key, resolving the “drama” (real or implied) of its digression and the resolution of the tension that creates.

But too many performers have been unable to apply those same underlying constructs – the skeleton of a musical style rather than the surface language that makes it recognizable as Mozart or Brahms – to composers like Schoenberg. Yes, of course, this “system” allowed a lot of composers without talent the opportunity to produce a lot of bad music, much in the same way those thousands of forgotten composers from the 18th and 19th Centuries did with that system called “Tonality.” A lot of composers who could follow the rules didn't always create compelling art, little more than craftsmen following a blueprint to make a basic chair.

This “craftsman” idea was something frequently thrown at Saint-Saëns – I think I belabored that idea in my earlier post – and yet maybe we don't find anything wrong with much of the music he “crafted.” Yes, some of it may not be as good as Beethoven or Wagner, by comparison, and he may have been derided as the composer of the (in)famous “Wedding Cake Waltz” but by the same token, not everything Beethoven wrote was a masterpiece, either, and similar complaints have been leveled at his Wellington's Victory or his equally frivolous Rage over a Lost Penny, not what you'd expect from the composer of the 9th Symphony.

So, allow Exhibit A in “The Case Against Schoenberg,” this performance of his Chamber Symphony in E Major, Op. 9 by the Israeli Chamber Project:

Written in 1906, this is a work originally for 15 instruments, a rather unusual if unbalanced combination of 10 winds with 5 string-players. Schoenberg's former student and devoted disciple Anton Webern made two arrangements of the piece for more practical considerations, one for the same ensemble needed for Pierrot Lunaire (probably intended to facilitate they're being performed on the same concerts) and another for a standard piano quintet. In this video from 2012, the Israeli Chamber Project performs a conflation of the two, substituting a second violin for the flute; they'll be performing the arrangement with flute on this tour.

The main point to listen for, however, is not so much how different it sounds on the "surface" from the music you might be more familiar with – say, the first of the Brahms serenades which was originally a nonet for strings and winds – but how it may have similar underpinnings with a typical “Romantic” sense of general phrase structure and harmony, not to mention the use of “unity and variety” with the basic material, and especially the often dramatic role played by contrast and the building-up and releasing of tension.

Historically, Schoenberg didn't “invent” the idea of 12-Tone Music or “serialism” (a term he disliked) – this in itself is another book-length feature – until the 1920s. His most famous work, the settings of poems for speaker and chamber ensemble, Pierrot Lunaire, is not yet serial but it is atonal – that is, lacking a sense of traditional tonality achieved in a traditional, harmonic way – and he only started working with atonality in the last two movements of his 2nd String Quartet in 1908. That was still two years in the future from this Chamber Symphony. Though its concept of “E Major” may be a bit loose – despite the standard key signatures, the plethora of accidentals makes you wonder “why...?” – it is still rooted, at heart, to the same rules (let's call them, by this post-Wagnerian era, “tendencies”) that led Beethoven to stretch beyond his teacher Haydn, or, for that matter, for Ravel to push beyond Fauré and in the generation before him, Saint-Saëns. 

Given Schoenberg's eventual directions through this period, it would be interesting to pursue a “Stravinsky Meets Schoenberg” program: aside from the fact their rivalry endured much of their lives, they ended up living not far from each other in Hollywood during the 1940s, and that eventually Stravinsky who, as he'd done with The Rite of Spring before, had taken the Neo-Classicism of L'Histoire du Soldat about as far as it could go (with Neo-Bach in “Dumbarton Oaks” and Neo-Tchaikovsky in The Fairy's Kiss and Neo-Handel in The Rake's Progress) before he discovered that maybe there's something to this serialism of Schoenberg's after all, and his last works embrace yet another approach to how one can organize these twelve pitches of a chromatic scale – and yet still manage to sound like Stravinsky.

But, as I said, that's for another book...

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Back to Couperin – or, rather, Ravel and the long shadow cast by a great name from France's glorious past.

First of all, for non-French speakers (like me), the Tombeau of the title is not a “tomb” in the English sense but more a kind of memorial tribute (beyond a simple tombstone). (Someone once confused it with Tomber which means “to fall” and somehow came up with “The Fall of Couperin”!) And it's a memorial piece on a different level, with each movement dedicated to a different friend killed during the course of World War I (in one case, two brothers killed by the same shell). It is not, thinking of that, a somber piece, nor did Ravel attempt to create musical portraits either of his grief or of the friends themselves: the music is decidedly unmournful and when asked about this, he said “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Ravel, at the front
Ravel tried enlisting once the war against Germany began in 1914 but he was too short and slight – which he thought would make him ideal for the new-fangled Air Force – but he was also pushing 40 and had a slight heart ailment. He volunteered as a truck driver for an artillery regiment and sometimes made night-time drives to deliver munitions while under intense German bombardment. In addition to insomnia and other war-related effects on his health, he underwent a bowel operation following an attack of dysentery in 1916 and dealt with frostbite in his toes the following winter.

His mother died in 1917 which only added to his sense of despair, being in the midst of the fighting, dealing with friends who were dying around him, not to mention his own health, but also the fear over the fate of his country and its culture at the hands of the invading Germans.

In that sense, though the music may sound light-hearted, the idea of paying tribute to France's musical past in the name of François Couperin was a way of expressing his “pride of nation.” He created his own suite of dances in the manner of the early-18th Century Couperin, a string of abstract dance movements typical of the standard Baroque instrumental suites. As the war progressed, he would write one, then another, and then eventually by 1917, complete the set.

In 1919, Ravel would then orchestrate all but two of the original piano pieces. It has since been arranged by various people for various combinations. While there isn't a video of the one the Israeli Chamber Project will perform – made by Yuval Shapiro, a member of the Israel Philharmonic's trumpet section – here's a performance of the complete piano original with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with score:

There are six movements: 

a prelude, in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot who had arranged Ravel's Mother Goose Suite from a piano duet to a piano solo; 
 
a fugue, in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi to whose mother Ravel had dedicated L'heure espagnole
 
a forlane, in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a painter from Ravel's nearby home town; 
 
a rigaudon, in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914; 
 
a minuet, in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a soldier at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized; 
 
and to conclude, a toccata, in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave, killed shortly after hostilities began in August, 1914, a musicologist and the husband of pianist Marguerite Long who gave Le Tombeau its premiere in April of 1919.

In addition to the textures – the overall sound but especially the textures here are very different from what he'd composed nine years earlier – you'll find little nods to Baroque style in the treatment of the hands as if reminiscent of the harpsichord, and in the occasional “ornaments” or appogiaturas in the melody paying an homage of its own to the numerous types of ornamentation used by French composers from the Baroque. We often categorize Ravel, along with Debussy, as “Impressionists” after the style of painting in France at the end of the 19th Century, but that was only a limited influence (certainly one can find it in the Introduction & Allegro) but if anything, Le Tombeau de Couperin is unabashedly Neo-“Classical” – and yet how different it sounds from the neo-classicism Stravinsky was evoking in his own piece written a year later, L'Histoire du soldat.

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It would amount to a scandal not to mention the three scandals associated with our three Modernists on this program. I'd already described the wild premiere of The Rite of Spring, but Ravel's Introduction & Allegro was composed the same year he was involved a scandal of his own.

Already an established talent, Ravel was still studying with Fauré at the Conservatoire and had applied for the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1900 and was eliminated after the first round. He tried again the next year and got 2nd Prize. For the next two years, he won nothing (he was accused of writing works so academic they were judged to be “parodies” and that Ravel must have been making fun of them), and in 1905 he was again eliminated in the first round. Considering he had already written his String Quartet, it seems illogical to argue he was not a “good composer” so it must have been the conservative attitudes of the judges no matter how successful the young composer may have been. 

At any rate, given that and the fact Ravel was now 30, even his detractors (including Eduard Lalo) thought this treatment was unfair and unjustifiable. Somehow this ended up in the Press and the furor escalated when it was discovered all those selected for the final round were students of one senior professor who was on the jury and, needless to say, his insistence this was merely a coincidence, did not sit well with anyone. Apparently this became a national scandal and eventually the director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign and Gabriel Fauré, perhaps the most eminent name on the faculty, was appointed by the government to carry out a “radical reorganization” of the Conservatoire. (Not that it seemed to matter, but Fauré was also Ravel's composition teacher.)

While not quite the same as all the screaming and fisticuffs witnessed at the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony has its own scandal to account for. Now, you'd assume Schoenberg was not inexperienced when it came to negative reviews and audience disapproval, but just two months before The Rite of Spring's premiere, a concert singular enough to warrant being called the “Skandalkonzert” ended up in an out-and-out brawl!

The program, with the orchestra conducted by Schoenberg, began with Webern's Op. 6 Orchestral Pieces, followed by four Zemlinsky songs, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, and then two of the five Altenberg Lieder by Alban Berg, setting poems of a poet prominent in Viennese modernism. (You can hear the second of the two songs performed at this concert here, with no less than Renee Fleming and Claudio Abbado.) Apparently, that's when rumblings of discontent with the earlier music finally boiled over.

Whatever some people thought of the music, it quickly escalated as Schoenberg's followers and fans of modernism retaliated, opponents yelling back and forth, throwing things, destroying furniture, “disturbing the performance” (indeed!) and so on. A composer of operettas who was in attendance testified at the trial – “at the trial”!the assault of one of the concert's promoters on a concertgoer resulted in a slap (another source says “punch”) so loud it was “the most harmonious sound of the evening.”

Skandalkonzert! (in Vienna's Die Zeit a few days after the March 31st, 1913 concert)

  And people say Classical Music is dull...

Dick Strawser







Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Israeli Chamber Project: Meet Saint-Saëns and Stravinsky

Saint-Saëns (c.1900) & Stravinsky (1920) Back-to-Back (or not seeing eye-to-eye)

Who
: The Israeli Chamber Project 

What: “Stravinsky Meets Saint-Saëns” (as two other giants of the Early 20th Century look on: Ravel and Schoenberg): Camille Saint-Saëns' “Fantasy for Violin & Harp;” the piano trio arrangement Igor Stravinsky made of his L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale); Ravel's Introduction & Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, Flute & Clarinet, plus an arrangement of his Tombeau de Couperin; and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in an arrangement for an even smaller chamber combination by his pupil Anton Webern.

When & Where: Thursday, November 3rd, 2022, at 7:30 at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, the first performance in their American Tour (from here to Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City, Kingston (Ontario), and Detroit)

The Israeli Chamber Project (Photo by Yael Ilan)

(This post is about the two composers of their program's title, “Stravinsky Meets Saint-Saëns.” The works by Ravel and Schoenberg will be the subject of my second post.)

In Thursday's concert with the Israeli Chamber Project, there are five works by four composers written between 1905 and 1918, a span of only 13 years, first heard when the lush Romantic style of a by-gone age was being replaced by something new and, to those unwilling to give up the comfortable familiarity of the past, different. And surprisingly, among those composers' names, the one we might assume to be the “oldest” piece on the program is the third in order of composition, but by a composer who'd been born only eight years after the death of Beethoven.

Camille Saint-Saëns presumably wrote his first piece at the age of 3, gave small private recitals when he was 5 and made his debut playing a Mozart Concerto five years later (famously offering any of Beethoven's piano sonatas as an encore, played from memory). He became one of the more acclaimed composers of his day, even if his fame and popularity did not always endure into his old age. Many of his colleagues regarded him as “more proficient than inspired,” a prolific composer with many great works but not necessarily enough to make him a great composer (there's a difference). He died at the age of 86, not long after completing a series of sonatas for solo wind instruments and had recently given a piano recital, his playing “as vivid and precise as ever.”

I'll get to Saint-Saëns' reputation after you've had a chance to hear the work on this week's concert.

The Fantasy for Violin and Harp, Op.124, was written in 1907 when he was 72 years old, two years after Ravel composed his “Introduction & Allegro” which concludes the first half of the program, and six years before the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

He was on holiday along the Italian Riviera when he was approached by two sisters, harpist Clara Eissler and her older sister, violinist Marianne, who asked him if he'd write a piece for them. So he did.

It's not meant to be “great music” but it also doesn't descend to the dismissible level of “salon music” with a collection of pretty tunes strung together with simple textures and charming effects. Clearly, judging from the demands on the performers' skills, they were not amateurs playing in the hotel dining room (though they might have been since even good musicians need to make a living somehow). It's not something for violin and piano where the harp is substituting for the “piano accompaniment” (which happens often enough), but a work for two instruments treated equally. And since it's a “fantasy” with its free-flowing implications, it's not meant to be as “serious” as a sonata with a set pattern of movements, even though there are segments that sound like they could be. Contrasts abound, not the least of which is the final dance, a kind of Baroque-style fandango over a repeating pattern in the bass, which, rather than building to a climax, ends on a note of undisturbed pleasantness.

Here are violinist Itamar Zorman and harpist Sivan Magen – members of the Israeli Chamber Project who'll be performing this work on Thursday night – from a 2008 concert in Tel Aviv with Camille Saint-Saëns' Fantasie for Violin & Harp, Op.124:


It's interesting to note the following year, the risk-averse Saint-Saëns, a conservative in an age rapidly developing in new directions with the end of a comfortable old century, wrote music for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, one of the first films to feature an independent film score by a major composer. Old dog he may have been, but he was still capable of learning some new tricks.

= = = = = = =

There's a famous anecdote that Hector Berlioz, then better known as a writer about music than as a composer, had said of Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” This specifically pertained to his failure in 1864 to gain the coveted Prix de Rome a second time (one could point out that neither of those who'd won those years is remembered today except on lists of winners of the Prix de Rome). However, Saint-Saëns, in his old age, recalled this comment being made about him when he was 18 and it was Gounod referring to one of his early symphonies. (For that matter, Massenet had been the subject of the joke when Auber told Berlioz in 1863, “He'll go far, the young rascal, when he's had less experience.”)

One of the great honors for a French artist would be his election to the Institut de France (consider it a “hall of fame for smart people”). He failed to gain admittance the first time, being beaten out by Massenet, but was elected three years later. While he had championed “contemporary music” when he was young teacher – then, Liszt and Wagner, understandably, but even Schumann in those earlier years – he had a dimmer view of the New Music of his old age. He succeeded in blocking Debussy from the Institut in 1915: “We must at all costs bar the door of the Institut against a man capable of such atrocities,” referring specifically to his recent suite for two pianos, En blanc et noirThis was a time when World War I was well underway – and Debussy was already ill with cancer.

Perhaps Saint-Saëns' most famous reaction to Modern Music happened in 1913 at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's (in)famous ballet, The Rite of Spring, when, shortly after the work began, he got up and stomped out of the auditorium. Of course, easily recognized as the Grand Old Man of French Music (and a leader of the Conservative Aesthetic), everybody at the performance would have gotten the message.

However, Stravinsky remembered it differently. After all, he'd been sitting in the audience at the start of the performance and said later that Saint-Saëns was not at the ballet's premiere but at the first concert performance of the orchestral score, not the ballet. While people often excuse the riot associated with the disastrous premiere as having been inspired more by Nijinsky's avant-garde choreography than Stravinsky's music, this doesn't excuse Saint-Saëns: afterward, without the potential distraction of the dancers, Saint-Saëns was convinced Stravinsky was insane.

In 1918, responding to Darius Milhaud's neo-classical orchestral suite, Protée, Saint-Saëns said, “fortunately, there are still lunatic asylums in France.”

While this did little to endear The Grand Old Man to the young Turks of French music, he was still highly acclaimed as both composer and pianist among the general public, and frequently toured Europe and Northern Africa (which he loved: he would die there while wintering in Algiers). In 1906 and 1909, he successfully toured the United States, returning in 1915 (pushing 80) for San Francisco's “Panama-Pacific Exposition.” For this, he composed a well-received but quickly forgotten extravaganza for large orchestra combined with John Philip Sousa's band and a 117-rank pipe organ called Hail, California!

Saint-Saëns however will be forever remembered by music-lovers for beautiful melodies like “The Swan,” or the grander moments of his Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony, or delightful concert pieces like the Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and of course, at this time of year, his Danse macabre, among numerous other tried-and-true war-horses. And it was perhaps that tramp of the war-horses heard behind them – like Brahms and the footsteps of a giant like Beethoven – that led them to evaluate him as “a consummate master of composition,” with a profound knowledge “of the secrets and resources of the art” but who never really rose above the level of a fine craftsman.

To be honest, though he began as a “modernist” in his early days, he was never one to “keep up with the times” as many other composers did during their careers, especially given Saint-Saëns started composing when he was 3 and wrote his last works shortly before he died at 86! For all his being derided as a conservative by his critics, Saint-Saëns wrote in his memoirs:

“Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotions, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.”

As Grove's Dictionary notes, following this quote, “it was perhaps his aesthetic rather than his music which most influenced his pupil, Gabriel Fauré, and later, Ravel.”

In that sense, Maurice Ravel (represented by two works later on this program) could make these two contradictory comments about Saint-Saëns around the same time:

When Francis Poulenc was an 18-year-old would-be composer looking for a teacher (this would've been 1917) and a pianist-friend had recommended he talk to Ravel (working on his Tombeau de Couperin around the time), Ravel thought the young man needed to learn the craft of composition, the ins-and-outs of what makes harmony work, for instance, or how to employ the old rules of counterpoint to your own style – in fact, Ravel's own teacher, Gabriel Fauré, had said much the same thing to him at the start of his studies – but Poulenc was dumbfounded when Ravel suggested he should study the music of Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now, from what I've found on-line, already suspect (and even a lot of the anecdotes in otherwise reliable biographies can be, as well: history is such a fickle creature...), I'm not sure he didn't mean to “examine his music, study his scores, look at how he handles his harmony, his counterpoint” and so on, rather than “go and ask to study with the man” which I don't think would've seriously happened, anyway. But the regard was there, whether he actually called Saint-Saëns a genius or not. It is important for young composers to learn craft: what they do with that craft is what makes them composers.

But Ravel is also supposed to have said, in response to some new piece of Saint-Saëns' just premiered, “If he'd been making shell-cases during the war, it might have been better for music.”

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The curtain goes up on The Rite of Spring

Imagine you've just created your third ballet and suddenly found yourself famous for having created one of the most startling works in the world of Classical Music, credited with the unlocking the floodgates to the New Music of the 20th Century. 

It's Paris, May 29th, 1913, and your ballet is called Le Sacre du printemps or, as it's usually translated into English, The Rite of Spring (the original Russian title is more literally Sacred Spring). It caused one of the great riots in Classical Music, if you can imagine that. Boos and catcalls that made it difficult to hear the music eventually crescendoed, as the composer described it, into “a terrible uproar” that was so loud, the dancers could no longer hear the orchestra or the beleaguered choreographer shouting out the numbers to help them keep in time with the complex rhythms and dance patterns. (It's interesting to note the New York Times, reporting on it several days later, headlined the review “Parisians hiss new ballet” [indeed!], that the house manager “has to turn up lights... to stop hostile demonstrations as dance goes on”... but deemed the work “a failure”.)

I've already mentioned the famous legend of Camille Saint-Saëns, 78 at the time, stomping up the aisle shortly after the music started (see above) which no doubt gave everybody the go-ahead to express their own opinions.

Now, most ballet audiences were there to be entertained, especially with beautiful young dancers in diaphanous costumes dancing gracefully to pleasant music that told a story, usually romantic and most likely sad if not tragic. The Rite of Spring was none of these things. (Well, tragic, maybe, if you were the Chosen One...)

Books have been written about the importance of this single piece of music, its “liberation of rhythm” and changing the focus away from the beautiful melodies of the Romantic Age and those complex harmonies that had evolved through Beethoven to Wagner; not to mention about its premiere – including one by our own Dr. Truman Bullard. I was going to include a lot more background about this musical episode pitting the Old World of Saint-Saëns against the New World of Stravinsky, but in the interest of not bogging the reader down at this point, I'll get on to the Stravinsky piece that's actually on the program! 

So, if you were Stravinsky and you've taken this new musical style of yours about as far as it can go where do you go from here?

Though a non-musical factor, let's consider the environment he lived in: Paris was a place where someone could manage to pull off a Rite of Spring, but now the World itself was in chaos: World War I had begun shortly after The Rite was premiered and in 1917, Stravinsky's native Russia ceased to exist. There were personal losses and he found himself in financial difficulties. With everything else, he found himself a composer without a country. Eventually, he spent the war years mostly in Switzerland (he had written much of Le sacre there while on holiday).  

Economically at least, this was not the time to be writing lavish works for large orchestras and theaters. Instead, he wrote a number of songs, small chamber works, and clearly started redirecting the focus of his musical language. 

After the vast scores of the Late 19th Century, a new, more “slimmed-down” approach to music began to focus more on leaner textures, clearer structures with a simpler harmonic language of a previous age with an increase of interest in “ancient music” like the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn and the baroque works of the early18th Century. Despite the reliance of a number of influences from the Baroque, this particular style of music is known as “Neo-Classical.” But that refers to the classical concepts of its texture and clarity of form rather than its stylistic “surface language.”

Aspects of music, incidentally, championed by the likes of Camille Saint-Saëns

And that is what we hear in this new work Igor Stravinsky began in 1917, a work intended for a small ensemble that could be taken around and performed in smaller venues, not the great opera houses and concert halls of the world's major cities. It was, in any number of ways, more economical.

L'Histoire du soldat or “The Soldier's Tale” is a theatrical work meant to be played, spoken, and danced. The story is based on a Russian folk-tale , a Faustian parable adapted by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz, writing in French, where basically Boy (in this case a young soldier on leave) plays fiddle, Boy loses fiddle (to the Devil in return for untold wealth), Boy gets fiddle back (in a card game with said Devil), then plays an ailing Princess back to health (a series of dances including a tango and some rag-time); Boy marries Princess, Devil attacks Princess, Boy subdues Devil with his fiddle (in the Devil's Dance), but then is cursed that if he ever crosses beyond the border of the Princess' realm, Boy will lose everything – which, of course, he does. And so, the Devil wins after all. 

The instrumental ensemble, unlike the vast orchestra of Le sacre, consists of only seven players: violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, cornet (or trumpet) and trombone – in other words, balanced pairs of upper and lower register strings, winds, and brass – and an array of percussion instruments played by one musician – a snare drum, two side drums (large & small) without snares, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle. There are three actors taking the roles of the Narrator, the Soldier and the Devil; the role of the Princess is played by a dancer (additional dancers are optional).

But that's the original piece. You can watch a full, staged production of it here (in English) or follow the score in this full performance (with spoken text in French) where you can see how many of these rhythmic cells overlap between what you hear and what is written.

Like many operas or sets of incidental music, composers compiled collections of highlights into a suite, and that's exactly what Stravinsky did with this version for piano, violin, and clarinet. Not the whole piece, just some of the best bits, and instead of being a real piano part, the pianist substitutes for many of the missing instruments, even the percussionist.

It seems the financial backing for this project – think of it as L'Histoire, LLC – came from Swiss financier Werner Reinhart who was a major philanthropist, supporting several composers, painters, and poets in those years around and after the war; he was also an amateur clarinetist. After bankrolling Stravinsky's premiere, he gave additional money to back the tour of subsequent performances, and out of gratitude Stravinsky arranged this suite with the clarinet as a nod to Reinhart.

Here's the Suite – which consists of the opening “Soldier's March,” an introduction to the Soldier's fiddle, “Un petit concert” after the Soldier defeats the Devil and wins back his fiddle, then the set of three dances (Tango, Valse, and Rag) in which the Princess is cured of her curious malady, and, to conclude, “The Devil's Dance” in which the Soldier once again defeats the Devil.

The Ducasse Trio performs the Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat, “The Soldier's Tale,” in this performance recorded live in Manchester UK in 2016:

There are many fingerprints of this new “Neo-Classical” Style in Stravinsky's music, compared to what we'd heard a few years earlier in The Rite of Spring. While the bass (or in this case, the pianist's left hand) plays a constant “left-right/left-right” beat one could easily march to, everything above it is in the constantly fluctuating meters that were a hallmark of The Rite, a bane to many foot-tappers' existence. Instead of the rich layers of sound in Petrushka or Le sacre, what we hear here is more often something melodic (not necessarily a tune) superimposed over a simple, often repetitive accompaniment (not unlike an old-fashioned Mozartean Alberti Bass, so simplistic even a child could play it).

Stravinsky also has started to borrow material from the past. From Petrushka with its folk-song quotations, this quickly evolved into folk-like motives or themes in Le sacre with its original but derivative ideas. There are chorale tunes in L'Histoire meant to signify religious piety to remind us of Martin Luther or Bach, and of course those three dances evoke a sultry Parisian night-life. Interestingly, Stravinsky never heard ragtime live – he only saw it in printed sheet music and admitted his rag is more like a portrait of ragtime, much the way Chopin's waltzes are “portraits of the waltz” rather than waltzes intended for actual dancing.

It's interesting to look back on what Saint-Saëns thought was important in music – clarity of texture, harmony and form – things he imparted to his students and who, like Fauré, imparted to theirs (most especially Ravel). While Stravinsky “experimented” with Old Music after The Rite of Spring, a style that would be perfected by French composers like Milhaud and later Poulenc in Les six, or with Respighi in Italy in the 1920s that would become the “Neo-Classical” style (what critics called “The Grave-Robber School of Music”), Saint-Saëns had already been doing that: listen to the film score he wrote in 1908 for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise or movements of earlier works like the 1863 Suite, evoking the 16th Century dance suites of Rameau and Lully, though more rigidly and with less imagination than Debussy or Ravel would do in their own style at the turn of the century.

So, the Stravinsky that metaphorically met Saint-Saëns at The Riot of Spring in 1913 was not the same Stravinsky you're hearing in The Soldier's Tale four years later. In these age-old aesthetic skirmishes between Conservative and Contemporary, perhaps, like the Devil in the story, Saint-Saëns won after all.

– Dick Strawser