Monday, April 26, 2021

Stuart & Friends, Part 2: Meet the Talented Mr. Korngold

Korngold in 1920
In Part 1 of this concert's post, you can read about the first three composers on the program – Zev Malina who opens the evening as a Young Artists Program performer playing a composition of his own, Schemin', an homage to Zez Confrey; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose Violin Sonata K.454 will be played by Alexander Kerr and Stuart Malina; and Ernest Bloch whose Suite hébraïque will be played by violist Michael Strauss and Stuart Malina.

This post will be about the one remaining composer on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold who'll be represented by two works: a suite from his 1918 incidental music for Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing arranged and performed by cellist Julian Schwarz with Stuart Malina; and his Piano Quintet in E Major written a few years later in 1921, in which Kerr, Strauss, Schwarz, and Stuart Malina will be joined by violinist Peter Sirotin.

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In 1918, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, all of 21 and back from service in World War I, was asked to compose incidental music for Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Later, he arranged a selection of movements to form a suite for violin and piano. Here is violinist Gil Shaham with pianist Andre Previn:


The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber” gives you an idea of Korngold's harmonic style (clearly courtesy of Richard Strauss but not in the sense of simple imitation) where there are many a slip between tonic chords. The most magical of these is at 2:54 where, for you music geeks, an expected resolution to tonic D-flat suddenly becomes a B-flat Major chord (with a D-natural), a moment worthy of applause in its own right. The “March of the Watch: Dogberry & Verges” contains delightfully comic stumbling through short accelerations and occasional dropping of a beat, painting the scene so expertly, one can imagine how, in 15 years' time, Korngold would find a home in Hollywood.

When you see the score for its most famous moment, “The Scene in the Garden” looks by comparison to the first two movements so harmonically simple as to appear naïve, but good grief, what incredible beauty! This suite's concluding “Hornpipe” offers a suitably lively ending.

Cellist Julian Schwarz performs his own arrangement of music from Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing.

While sources list it as composed in 1918-1919, the production didn't open until 1920 (which is often when some sources say it was composed). This had more to do with life in post-war Vienna. Keep in mind the long “Golden Age” of the Austrian Empire came to a disastrous and sudden close when the treaty ending World War I carved up an empire that (for better or worse) stretched from Northern Italy across the Balkans and from Prussia and Poland in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, becoming a mere land-locked “rump state” that we know as Austria today. The psychological impact of this can't be underestimated, not just the loss of territory but the demise of its Emperor, Franz Josef I, who'd ruled it for 68 years!

There were also practical matters, not just economical ones: the original theater went bankrupt and the production was taken up by the larger Burgtheater which had money in the budget to hire members of the Vienna Philharmonic to play the score Korngold composed for a chamber orchestra of 17 musicians intended to fit the original theater's small pit. The play – along with its music which consisted of 23 different numbers – was such a success, the run was extended but this became a problem since many members of the orchestra had other contractual commitments. So rather than hire a new orchestra, Korngold quickly arranged the entire score for violin and piano!

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Korngold at 13
Prodigy,” like “genius,” is a much overused word. Mozart is usually the Gold Standard by which prodigies are weighed and the comparison is only daunting when young performers and composers are already vulnerable enough to the normal pressures of youth. But yes, there's the good aspect of prodigyhood, considering Mozart wrote his first violin sonatas at the age of 6 – the one of this program was written at the ripe old age of 28; and there's the bad aspect of prodigyhood where Mozart and his sister were led around Europe by their enterprising father, Leopold, like a circus act, performing for the crowned heads of Europe and where people off the street could come view them perform Amazing Feats of Musical Genius for a fee.

No doubt Leopold comes off more the villain in this story than is accurate – regardless, he certainly fits the “stage-mother” prototype, viewed from our gender-equality age – and the arguments pro and con have filled books on the subject.

Not every child who starts playing the piano at 4 would be a “prodigy” unless they're playing concertos by the time they're 8. There is a fine line between that and being talented or precocious. And while we may worry about a young musician who's missed out on a “normal childhood” (whatever that is), keep in mind for the child who only knows this drive to learn, to study, to practice, to perform, to compose, to become a musician with hours spent in solitude, that for them, this is normal, this is what they do – and for them, playing the piano for an audience or making music with like-minded young friends is the equivalent of riding off on a bike with reckless (and hopefully wreckless) abandon or engaging in team sports. And it only adds another dimension to the worries any parent already has about their child.

So, like the first composer on the program – and in this case, I mean Zev Malina who started playing the piano at 4 and began composing at 11 – the last composer on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, had a ballet performed at no less a venue than the court of the Austrian Emperor in Vienna when he was 11; and who had among his earliest fans the likes of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. His first published work, the Piano Trio in D Major, was completed in 1910 when he was 13. Just before he turned 15, he began work on a Sinfonietta (which technically means “Little Symphony”) though the orchestration would take another year: it's in four movements and runs about 44 minutes (did I say “little”?).

By the time he was 18, he had written two one-act operas and saw both of them performed. It's important to note that he wasn't just writing these pieces – he was getting them performed and by high-powered conductors and pianists. Artur Schnabel was touring Europe with his Piano Sonata, Op. 2, shortly after it was finished; Mahler's assistant, Bruno Walter, conducted his operas in Munich. Felix Weingartner, one of the leading Viennese conductors of the day, premiered the Sinfonietta two months after it was completed.

Like many great mysteries about creativity, no one can explain where genius comes from or what makes a prodigy. Mozart's example (for better or worse) inspired many would-be Leopolds to push their talented offspring into the Musical Firmament, Beethoven's father being one of them, only to be sadly disappointed.

In Korngold's case, much is made of the similarities with Mozart – after all, his middle name is Wolfgang. Yes, of course, that's a common enough German name (had it been Amadeus, it would've been more prescient), but what are the odds when you realize his father's middle name happens to be Leopold?

And who was Korngold's father? Julius Leopold Korngold just happened to be the leading music critic in Vienna during the first decades of the 20th Century and so one could argue, being a man of some artistic prominence, not only would he call in a number of favors from some of those he regularly reviewed, but that these same performers, conductors, and composers would be willing to curry a little favor by humoring the critic. However, listening to these early pieces, there's little to suggest cronyism here: many composers well into their careers would be happy to produce works as self-assured and well-crafted as those by this boy!

Plus, whatever strings he may have pulled behind the scenes as a proud father, Julius Korngold was no Leopold Mozart. Which is something to be said for Korngold's own mental if not creative health once he was no longer regarded as a prodigy and became just another talented composer.

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Which brings us to the last work on the program, this one a Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15.

Now, many composers have written piano quintets (the earliest one to remain in the repertoire is Schumann's), but few have caught the modern audiences attentions like those by (in this order) Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Shostakovich, and, probably a more distant fifth, Franck.

Korngold began his in 1921, finished it the following year, and premiered it in Hamburg in February of 1923 to great acclaim. It's in three movements, an expansive opening marked Mäßiges Zeitmaß, mit schwungvoll blühendem Ausdruck (in plain English, “Moderate Tempo with buoyant flowering Expression”); a slow movement, Adagio, a set of variations on one of four recently completed “Songs of Farewell,” marked Mit größter Ruhe, stets äußerst gebunden und ausdrucksvoll (which basically means “With greater quiet and always extremely controlled and expressive” which is better than the on-line translation I got of “extremely bound and out of print...”). There are moments in some of these variations that go so far beyond Strauss, you begin to wonder if he knew what Charles Ives was up to in New England. The finale is marked Gemessen beinahe pathetisch (Measured, almost pathetic) but that does not adequately prepare one for most of this exuberant conclusion, which at times could be marked Böse schnell (“wicked fast”) if such a direction would have occurred to him.

The complete Piano Quintet with score (Boris Brovtsyn & Clara-Jumi Kang violins; Gareth Lubbe, viola; Torleif Thedéen, cello; Eldar Nebolsin, piano)

While the forensic musicologist in me is tempted to point out the keen influences of Richard Strauss, the leading German composer at the time Korngold was writing – at least, the Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier – it's not a matter of mere imitation. Korngold has absorbed the harmonic slipperiness and the motivic gestures of Strauss, something many other German-speaking composers of the day failed to imitate so well, and combined them with a fluid sense of meter that is a world away from the changing meters of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a decade earlier. In Korngold's case, they form an expressive pulling of the musical rhythm, a kind of written-out rubato (stretching the tempo at spots), without drawing attention to itself. In the slow movement alone, there are some 54 meter changes in 12 minutes.

One of Korngold's trademark sounds is the “Gorgeous Slow Song” like the “Scene in the Garden” from Much Ado About Nothing. It predecessor would be “Marietta's Song,” the most famous moment in his opera, Die Tote Stadt, begun in 1916 but not completed until 1920 and which became one of the Great Hits of the 1920s. Here's a performance from the opera with score where you can also see this “flexible” use of changing meters that elevates the music's expressive flow, as well as those harmonic digressions I'd mentioned earlier (especially little chords like those in the accompaniment at 5:00 which are lovingly ripped off from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier of 1911).

I have heard excerpts from two other Korngold operas in my life, and each of them have been equally gorgeous lyrical highlights to the point I felt disappointed it's become a cliché. Regardless, there's no denying its beauty and there's also no denying as soon as you hear it you smile and know immediately, “That's Korngold!” I have met or heard many composers who have never really found "their own voice," and yet, when you listen to Korngold's Op. 1 Trio, here's a 13-year-old boy who has!

Korngold admitted, after he found success writing scores for Hollywood, he considered each film's script an opera libretto so he could write music to match the scene's action and its characters just as he would've done if he were writing an opera. Before the days of film, composers would write “incidental music for plays” to be performed from the pit of a live theatrical presentation. Korngold's move to Hollywood is an example of one composer adapting to modern technology,

It is a shame Korngold's career has been overlooked by those who dismiss him as a “film composer.” Granted, he was one of the most important musical voices that created that lush Hollywood sound so familiar for generations. Speaking of “flexible meters,” try marching to the opening fanfare of the Main Title music for his first swashbuckler film, Captain Blood introducing Errol Flynn; also try listening to this without thinking of John Williams!

To bring us full circle, if you heard Zev Malina's Suite for Orchestra in 2019, the composer specifically mentions how Maiden Voyage, the opening movement (the third to be composed) “is bold and heroic, influenced by the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and other post-Romantic composers.”

So a prodigy coming of age a hundred years ago is still influencing young composers coming of age today. 

Not a bad legacy.

Dick Strawser




Saturday, April 24, 2021

Stuart & Friends, Part 1: Mozart, Bloch, and Malina

Who: Stuart Malina (pianist), Alexander Kerr and Peter Sirotin (violinists), Michael Strauss (violist), and Julian Schwarz (cellist); and Young Artist Program performer, Zev Malina (pianist and composer)

What: Mozart's Violin Sonata in B-flat, K.454; Bloch's Suite hebraïque for Viola and Piano; Korngold's Suite, “Much Ado About Nothing” (arranged for cello and piano by Julian Schwarz); Korngold's Piano Quintet Op. 15; Zev Malina's “Schemin',” an homage to Zev Confrey.

When & Where: Wednesday, April 28th, 2021 at 7:30pm at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg

(This post will cover works by Zev Malina, Mozart, and Bloch. For the two works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, you can read Part 2, "Meet the Talented Mr. Korngold.")

Programs called “Stuart & Friends” have long been part of the Harrisburg Music Scene with Harrisburg Symphony Music Director Stuart Malina playing chamber music with members of the orchestra. Chamber music is an integral part of Stuart Malina's life, both musical and personal. It also has a specific impact on his relationship with the orchestra: every time I hear him play a concerto – whether it's Mendelssohn, Mozart, or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue – conducting from the keyboard (a skill-set of its own), it's like watching and listening to chamber music on a grand scale, not just three or four other players but maybe 50 or 60.

This time, the cast of “Stuart & Friends” includes musical friends, violinist Alexander Kerr and violist Michael Strauss. Kerr has appeared as a soloist several times with the orchestra (currently concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, he was also concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam the first time I'd heard him play here) and played Jonathan Leshnoff's Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra with violist Michael Strauss and the Harrisburg Symphony in 2015 (with Stuart, a reunion of three friends from their days as students at Curtis).

Kerr will play a Mozart Violin Sonata, K.454; Strauss will play the Suite hebraique by Ernest Bloch; cellist Julian Schwarz will play his own arrangement of Korngold's Suite from Much Ado About Nothing – the common denominator being the pianist, Stuart Malina – and then, joining all four of them for the Piano Quintet by Korngold will be Peter Sirotin, not only Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts but also the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony, a friend and colleague and frequent musical collaborator with Stuart.

And the program also opens with one of those “Young Artist Program” performers giving a spotlight to a young performer to help nurture a future career. In this case, the artist will be Zev Malina, pianist and composer. If you're not already aware of it, he is the son of Stuart Malina. And as Stuart said at the opening of the 2019 Season with the orchestra, when he conducted his son's “Suite for Orchestra,” “People always ask me who my favorite composer is and I'm like... I don't know, the one I'm working on at the moment?” Beethoven, Brahms... those are some of the anticipated responses. “But now I know who my favorite composer is – Zev Malina.”

So let's begin this post there.

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Zev Malina, born in 2002, the official biography reads, “started composing at age eleven, writing short piano works. In 2014, he received the first Young Composer’s Award of the Double Bass Coalition for his Double Bass Quartet, which he wrote for the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. As a fund-raising project in 2015, Malina composed a setting for narrator and chamber ensemble of Robert McCloskey’s children’s book Blueberries for Sal, which has raised over $50,000 for Harrisburg area libraries and was used for several educational concerts by the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. In 2017 and 2019, he won the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s National Young Composers Challenge. Malina attended the summer composition program at the Interlochen Arts Academy in 2017 and the Brevard Music Center Summer Festival the following year. He currently works with composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Zev Malina has studied piano since 2006 with Josefina Melgar and Ya-Ting Chang [executive director of Market Square Concerts], and bassoon since 2014 with Kimberly Nolet.”

If you had a chance to hear this concert which opened Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary Season with the orchestra – it seems so long ago, and a celebration sadly cut short by the pandemic – you heard music Zev Malina composed during his mid-teens. For full orchestra. And while each movement was a tribute to some aspect of the world of the Hollywood film (including Erich Wolfgang Korngold whose music concludes this program), the imitation is not just a form of musical flattery, but deeply genuine and completely sincere – and more heart-felt and accurate than a lot of mature composers who try to capture this style. 

While many young composers imitate composers or pieces they like, Malina – and here I'm referring to the composer since it seems odd to officially call him Zev, in this context (I mean, I wouldn't write “and then Wolfgang wrote...” talking about Mozart, would I?) – anyway, Malina absorbs everything that makes these composers and these pieces tick with an uncanny and completely innate grasp most fully doctored, middle-aged composers would kill for. And he wasn't even out of high school, then! If there's a stylistic equivalent of “perfect pitch” that intuitively allows one to automatically find the right note, he's got it.

I suspect Zev Malina might have been attracted to the piano works of Edward Elzear Confrey – known to the world as Zez Confrey – initially because of their first names. Referred to as a “novelty pianist,” Confrey's works, over a hundred of them, are not the typical fare for young pianists growing up today. Probably his most famous works are such delightful classics as “Kitten on the Keys” and “Dizzy Fingers” and so Malina's tribute entitled “Schemin'” fits right in.

Here's a piano-roll performance made of Zez Confrey playing “Dizzy Fingers” (since it's always good to know what's being “homaged”) written in 1923 – and I find it interesting to hear the composer's choice of tempo, not nearly as fast as people I know who've tried to take the “dizzy” part of it a little too literally.

 

To give you an idea of Zev Malina the pianist, here's a bit of an in-home recording for a piano recital which ended with a four-hand piano duet encore of three movements from Astor Piazzolla's “The History of Tango” with Zev Malina playing the primo part, and Stuart Malina playing the secondo part. Which I guess makes the duet “Malina and Dad.”

I'm probably not the first person looking forward to a series of concerts called “Stuart and Son.” 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in B-flat, K.454 

in 1785
One might as well begin with the famous anecdote about this work which is, given the limited time and space usually assigned to introductions, all one ever hears about it. At its first performance – incidentally, April 29th, 1784 (237 years ago almost to the day) – Mozart played the piano part from a blank manuscript, even turning pages. The Emperor – Joseph II, he of the famous “too many notes” quip – was in attendance and, by judicious use of his opera glasses, noticed this. Afterward, he called Mozart up to him, asking him to bring along the manuscript; and there it was: blank. How do you explain this?

Sheepishly, Mozart said he'd not had time to write down the piano part, barely getting the violin part copied out for the performance and so he played it “from memory.” Whether it was a trick like those devised by the young composer's father to show off his son's genius back in the old days when Mozart, a boy not yet 12, was paraded around Europe like a musically-trained monkey, or the results of serious time constraints as he admitted, it sounds perfectly logical given Mozart's personality as much as his creative abilities. It wasn't that he was “making it up” (or “filling it in”) as he and the violinist played the sonata, because Mozart would've had the complete work completely finished in his mind, a feat of memory for some of us but not a challenge for the likes of Mozart.

(David Oistrakh & Paul Badura-Skoda, 1974)

The thing is, this story also exists regarding the previous violin sonata, K.379, written back in 1781, completed the month before Mozart, quite literally kicked out of the Archbishop of Salzburg's employ, decided to become a free-lancer in Vienna (a then unheard of path to success for a professional composer). Perhaps it's true in both cases, or maybe Mozart just had a thing about completing violin sonatas in a timely fashion. Certainly, given the Emperor's involvement, the story is likely true as far as K.454 is concerned since the earlier sonata would've been performed before the Archbishop who couldn't've cared less whether Mozart's manuscript was blank or not. And while the Emperor's reaction has been described as either annoyed or amused – annoyed he'd been pranked; amused maybe there really was something of the genius about this “quirky,” self-confident young man his other court musicians couldn't quite match – I suspect it was probably a bit of both.


And if you could see the original manuscript (here's the first page, completely filled in), you could see the violin part written in one shade of ink, the piano part added in a different shade and frequently crammed in to fit measures whose length had been determined by the notes in the violin which were written down first. 

The sonata was requested by a famous Italian violinist, Regina Strinasacchi. Mozart wrote to his father, "We now have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist. She has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing. I am at this moment composing a sonata which we are going to play together on Thursday at her concert in the theater." This was a time "when few women performed on the violin public." Also a guitarist and a composer, she was a graduate of that orphanage school where Antonio Vivaldi once taught, the famous Ospedale della Pietà.

(György Pauk & Petr Frankl, with the published score

Still, if Mozart completed the sonata on April 21st and the performance before the Emperor wasn't until the 29th, why, during the week in between, didn't he have time to finish writing out the piano part?

The Spring of 1784 turned out to be the peak of Mozart's popularity in Vienna. Financially, it was his most profitable year, bringing in a total of 3,720 florins. Whatever a florin would be worth by today's economy, in January 1782 Mozart wrote to his father Leopold (who had his own fixations with money) that with 1,200 florins “a man and his wife could live quietly and in the retired way which we desire” [as he hoped his disapproving father would believe (he did not)] and the year after this violin sonata was composed, Leopold noted “if my son has no debts to pay, I think he can now lodge 2,000 florins in the bank,” thinking his son was doing quite well in this new adventure. But in other letters Leopold complained of the Mozarts too-fashionable neighborhood or the high rent he was paying with all its fine furniture. For in fact Mozart believed “one must not make oneself cheap here – that is a cardinal point – or else one is done. Whoever is most impertinent has the best chance.” Hoping to impress aristocrats, his intended demographic after the Emperor, he needed to live among them and live well enough to impress them.

The begging letters Mozart would later send to his Masonic friends, hoping for a loan, would still be in the future, after his popularity had begun to wane and the sales of tickets for his concerts or of newly published scores dropped off considerably. Except for 1785 when he earned 900 florins from publications, he still earned only 180 in 1784, compared to an average of 243 between 1786 and his death in 1791. But he earned 1,200 from various concerts and 1,800 from “salon appearances” alone in 1784, and Mozart must have felt quite the success!

Given he died at 35 and we think of him begging for money from friends and being buried in a pauper's grave (except for the aristocracy, most people were buried in unmarked graves; it was the custom in Vienna), it is pleasant to remember the Good Times like the Spring of 1784 – the Lenten Season, the busiest concert-time in the city – when listening to music composed in the midst of so much achievement. No wonder he was so confident. Everything, especially the music, just came to him so easily. But that, with Mozart, was always the case.

And I haven't even begun writing about the sonata itself!

As usual, it's in three movements – fast, slow, fast. Or in this case, not usual, is the slow and stately introduction (harking back to the Baroque days, perhaps a nod to his conservative colleagues at the court – this was his first violin sonata performed for the Emperor).

Not usual also is the relationship of the keyboard and the violin. It never makes sense to anyone familiar with sonatas from Beethoven on that these two would not be of equal rank even if we still think of the pianist as the accompanist (grrr) but in Mozart's day (and even Beethoven's earlier efforts), the premise was a “sonata for piano with the accompaniment of the violin” even if the piano part was clearly secondary to the status of the violin. So here, rather boldly going where few if any composers had gone before, we have an instance where the musical material is shared equally by two equal parts.

We also tend to overlook Mozart, better known to us as a pianist from his Vienna days, playing his concertos at public concerts, was primarily a violinist as a teenager in Salzburg, writing five violin concertos for himself to play when he was 17 to 20 years old (his father, after all, was one of the leading violin teachers in Europe). After arriving in Vienna, Mozart never wrote (nor played) another violin concerto but wrote 15 piano concertos for the city he'd described in letters home as “The Land of the Piano.” 

Plus he noted he could make more money being a performer and teacher as a pianist than he would as a violinist. Still, there are at least 16 complete violin sonatas, many written for the amateur market, dating from Vienna, added to the 16 or so written in Salzburg, the first ones when he was all of 6 years old. 

This one, then, would be considered “Vintage Mozart.” He was 28. 

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Ernest Bloch: Suite hebraïque

Since Ernest Bloch began piano lessons at 9 and began composing shortly afterward, he probably rates being considered a “prodigy” in the common sense of “beginning early,” but compared to the quality of works written by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, or Shostakovich through their teens, the word may be a bit of an overreach. In this case, “precocious” is probably better, not that anything's wrong with that (some of my best friends were precocious).

And since the work on this program was written by Bloch after he turned 70, an age few prodigies live to reach, perhaps we should create a special term for composers who are still creative after reaching retirement age (led by Elliott Carter who was still composing two months before he died shy of his 104th birthday, but I digress).

Anyone familiar with Bloch's music would soon mention the strong Jewish influence in his style, not just because he wrote things like Schelomo (a Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra inspired by the biblical king, Solomon) or a magnificent setting of the Jewish liturgy in his Sacred Service (written in the dark years before World War II) which Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony performed with several choirs a few seasons ago (back in the Good Old Days before the Pandemic).

There are six works usually referred to as his “Jewish Cycle,” written between 1911 and 1916, before he left Europe to settle in the United States. He had not left these Jewish influences back in the Old Country, but composed his well-known suite, Baal Shem, in Cleveland in 1923, and the Sacred Service a decade later, most of it written in Switzerland.

He had also written a suite for viola and piano in 1919 in New York (he was teaching composition at the Mannes School of Music then) and it was the orchestra arrangement of this work, played by Milton Preves, principal violist of the Chicago Symphony, at a Chicago celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. Preves was inspired to request a new suite from the composer, something similar to his “Hassidic Suite,” Baal shem.

Bloch responded with five pieces he eventually divided into two separate works: three of them – Rhapsody, Processional, and Affirmation – became the Suite hebraïque and the remaining two became the “Meditation and Processional.”

Rhapsody (Matthew Lipman & Henry Kramer, 2018)

Processional (with Gerard Causse, orchestral version) Affirmation (with Paul Neubauer & Margo Garrett

Just as many composers of the mid-to-late-19th Century were finding their musical roots outside the standard German, French and Italian centers – whether it was Dvořák in Bohemia, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky in Russia, or Vaughan Williams in England, Ernest Bloch was finding his own in the music of his Jewish faith. Perhaps his father's hopes of becoming a rabbi had some influence on this or it was his own deeply felt religious life. 


The question of an artist absorbing his racial heritage into his art, involves, in this case, more than using those “exotic scales and intervals” (exotic to Western Christian Europeans unfamiliar with folk music or religious music from outside their own experiences), things that are by and large on the surface. It is more than just applying one's inner ear to attune itself to the culture, imitating what one finds, but absorbing the soul of it into that essence illuminating the artist's soul to find its reflections in the listener's.

Call it “diversity in music” for some of us or identifying what makes us “us,” but these days – beyond the Virus affecting all of us – perhaps this inclusiveness helps define this awareness as a way of bringing the world into us – and vice-versa.

Incidentally, looking back from our times, it's interesting to note that “in 1963, [Milton Preves, the violist who asked Bloch to write his Suite] resigned as conductor of the Oak Park-River Forest orchestra, because Carol Anderson, a talented black female violinist whom Preves had recruited for the symphony, was pressured to resign because of her race.” After the Board President apologized and asked Preves to return, he did not.

Music, whether it entertains us or inspires us (or both), has always had this capacity to bring us all together if we'd listen to it. And out of this past, we somehow find our future.

Dick Strawser

(to be continued...)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Verona Quartet, Part 2: Voices from Central Europe

The Verona Quartet, Informal Mode

This Sunday, the Verona Quartet returns to Harrisburg for Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center – that's 4:00 EDT (note the “daylight” in EDT) – this time as the winner of the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award. They're making their nationwide tour under the award's auspices (Harrisburg is one of eight locations to host these tour concerts, including Carnegie Hall and Washington's Freer Gallery) even though, with everything else, it's been an otherwise inauspicious year to be touring...

For their program here, they'll play selections from Antonín Dvořák's Cypresses and Karol Szymanowski's 2nd String Quartet on the first half; and on the second half, Beethoven's Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131 (which was the subject of the previous post). 


The Verona Quartet has programmed five selections from the twelve “songs” making up Dvořák's Cypresses so I've selected these “audio clips” via YouTube recorded by the Cypress Quartet which takes its names from this work (these works?). You may remember them from frequent visits to the Mid-State: introduced by Ellen Hughes during the “Next Generation Festivals” of yore, they appeared often with Market Square Concerts and other venues across the region in the past.

I've also included links for four of the original songs' translations but note that the numbering for the songs may differ from the numberings of the quartet arrangements. And being translations, those texts may differ from the titles given here.

(#2) Allegro ma non troppoDeath reigns in many a human breast


(#3) Andante con motoWhen thy sweet glances on me fall


(#12) Allegro animato – You ask why my songs


(#9) ModeratoThou only dear one, but for thee


(#11) Allegro scherzandoNature is held in light sleep 


If you're interested in the whole set (which, apparently, may not have been intended to be performed as a continuous set), you can listen here to a performance (presumably) by the Prague Quartet complete with score. 

And since the Verona Quartet says they enjoy telling stories in their music-making, what story exists behind these short works that are originally, after all, setting poems about... well, unrequited love? (I mean, the first one they've chosen starts off "Death reigns in many a human breast"...!)

Typically, this story is quickly told: twelve pieces for string quartet based on a selection of earlier songs.

Josefina Čermáková
The slightly longer version would be something like: “The composition of the song cycle Cypresses was a response to the young composer’s rejection by the actress Josefina Čermáková whom he'd met working at the Provisional Theatre and she'd become one of his piano students. He found a reflection of his state of mind in the collection of poems, Cypresses, by Gustav Pfleger Moravsky, 18 of which he set to music between July 10th and 27th, 1865. Dvořák later married her younger sister Anna in 1873. They had 9 children. Later, Dvořák arranged 12 of them for string quartet.

The version you'd expect from Dr. Dick is a little more complicated and a lot longer than that – but may give you more of the composer's state of mind both when he composed them initially and why, perhaps, he returned to them 22 years later.

His first published songs, Cypresses (the song cycle) is among his earliest surviving works, written when he was 23. Keep in mind that, though his musical talents developed fairly early, his first public performances didn't come about till 1872, and success only later. By then he was already in his 30s.

Going to Prague, a young man previously destined to follow his father in the butcher's trade, Dvořák joined an orchestra (since he couldn't afford tickets, it gave him a chance to experience a lot of music he might not have heard otherwise) and shared an apartment with five other young men, including a couple other musicians, one of whom owned a small upright piano. Since (as more than one source says) he was making the equivalent of about $7.50 a month (however and whenever that figure was estimated), he supplemented this by becoming a piano teacher, in those days one who went to the students' homes to give the lessons.

One of his students was a young actress, Josefina Čermáková, still a teenager and specializing in ingenue roles at the theater where he played in the orchestra. He fell in love with her but she (as they say in the romance novels) “did not return his love” – hence, songs of unrequited love.

However, one of Dvořák's other piano students was Josefina's younger sister Anna and whether their relationship began on the rebound or was genuine – the same thing had happened to Mozart and his wife-to-be Constanza – they married in 1873 and, yes, would eventually have nine children.

The Kounic's Vysoka “chateau”
But at the time Dvořák married Anna, Josefina was still unmarried. Later, she met a count and a prominent politician named Vaclav Kounic who owned an estate outside the village of Vysoka. He and Josefina married in 1877 and the Dvořáks attended the wedding at their Vysoka “chateau”. In 1880, the composer and his wife spent the summer there and, after he began earning enough money (particularly after his first London visit which resulted in a commission for the 7th Symphony), Dvořák bought some land from Kounic and converted an old farmhouse there into a summer residence and studio in 1884.

Dvořák at his Vysoka home
So keep in mind that though he had “loved and lost” Josefina in a sense, she became his sister-in-law and after 1884, they were in close contact since Josefina spent much of her life on the estate in Vysoka. While this should imply nothing beyond their relationship than his having been turned down by her the first time – Dvořák may have admired Wagner's music in the '60s and '70s, but he was not the kind of man who'd have an affair with his landlord's wife (Matilda Wesendonck, a relationship which also gave us a set of love songs and, not coincidentally, inspired Tristan und Isolde) or with his closest musical associate's wife (Cosima von Bülow) – it's interesting to note that, a few years after moving into his summer house, Dvořák's thoughts turn again to the songs of unrequited love written over his First Love who happened to live in the next house over...

Years after they'd been written, the composer characterized the idea behind the songs, saying, Just imagine a young man in love – that’s what they’re all about! When he arranged them for string quartet and originally called them, tellingly, “Echoes of Songs,” he was in his mid-40s. It was his son-in-law, the violinist Josef Suk, who decided they should just be called Cypresses when they were eventually published. However, that didn't happen until 1921, 17 years after the composer's death. Four of them had been performed privately in 1888 at a “composers' forum” in Prague and under the title "Evening Songs" – but if Dvořák himself chose not to publish them, why did he come back to these songs (especially now) and make these arrangements if he didn't intend to make them public?

While Dvořák would rework several of the original songs from Cypresses into opera arias and even other song collections as well as these famous string quartet pieces, the most famous recycling Dvořák employed of any of his songs can be found in the beatific final moments of the Cello Concerto, before the triumphant ending, where quotes his song (not one of the Cypresses, however, in case anyone was wondering) "Leave Me Alone", Op.82/1, a favorite of Josefina's. She died in May 1895, shortly after Dvořák returned from America, after which the concerto was further revised to include this most personal of tributes. 

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Dvořák, famous in the wider world, is one of the key figures in establishing a Czech musical voice in a region dominated by German culture. Karol Szymanowski, not so internationally recognized, played a similar role musically in his native Poland during the early-20th Century, blending elements of folk music (though not as overt as those of his colleagues Bartók and Kodály in Hungary) with other influences from German, Russian, and squeezed in between both culturally and politically and overshadowed by both Polish music. 

Szymanowski in 1924
If you're not familiar with his name or his “story,” much less his music, this biographical background may help you appreciate the string quartet the Verona Quartet plays on the first half of their concert.

Born into the Polish landed gentry on an estate near Kiev, his home was once part of a greatly expanded Poland (long divided up over centuries among its neighbors), that was by then part of the Russian Empire but is now in Ukraine. The family's estate was burned to the ground during the unrest following the 1917 Revolution and the family fled to the regional city of Elizavetgrad (a city which, since 1924, has undergone four name-changes) where Szymanowski had previously gone to the music school in the 1890s.

Eventually he settled in Warsaw, traveled extensively, pursued interests in Islamic Culture, Ancient Greek drama, and philosophy – at this time, in his mid-30s, he also wrote a lengthy novel (more on that later) – before settling more comfortably into becoming a composer. Initially influenced by Wagner (as Dvořák had been) and Richard Strauss (as Bartók had been), Szymanowski later absorbed the middle-period music of Scriabin (who'd died in 1915) along with Impressionism from Paris (including a more colorful sense of orchestration, courtesy of Stravinsky and Ravel) spiced up a bit with some “atonality” from Germany – his lushly orchestrated 3rd Symphony, “The Song of the Night,” begun in 1914 (just that opening chord!) and his 1st Violin Concerto (from 1916), both rejecting traditional tonality as well as generic Romantic attitudes while still maintaining the beauty of texture and sound we associate with them. In fact, the violin concerto, when I first heard it, reminded me a bit of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, except Ravel started writing his concerto in 1929! 

Keep in mind also that “rejecting tonality” does not necessarily mean “embracing atonality” – he would still use triads and key-centers but without using them in traditional “tonal” ways. (Never mind, it's a long, technical, and, to all but the geekiest of musicians, boring story!) Don't forget, though, Bela Bartók said his String Quartet #3 was in C-Sharp Major!

Boring and technical they may be, yet these were major issues – aesthetic things, stylistic things – happening all across Europe and every composer, one way or another, had to deal with them, all part of the artistic turmoil before the outbreak of World War I and the eruption of mind-blowing and tradition-bursting works like Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring.

However, all that is beyond the scope of this post. Still, it's good for a listener unfamiliar with Szymanowski's music or his place in the 20th Century to be aware of these issues and the impact they could have had on his music.

In 1927, the same year Szymanowski composed his 2nd String Quartet and around the time he was gaining an increasingly international reputation, he had been offered two music school directorships: he chose the Warsaw Conservatory over the one in Cairo – even though Cairo had offered him better terms and was in a better climate given his health concerns (dealing since childhood with the threat of tuberculosis) – primarily because he saw this as an opportunity to improve the state of Polish music which had been largely overlooked during past decades. And what better time, now, than when Poland, free of its Russian occupation, was finally an independent nation.

Szymanowski sent his new quartet off to a competition, hopeful of winning a prize (as he wrote to friends – see below). As it happened, he did not win: the prize went to Bela Bartók for his 3rd String Quartet which was – (wait for it) – written in September of 1927.

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I'll include two videos for you – a live performance with the Belcea Quartet, and the second, one of those “videos with score” for those who want to follow along, regardless of your geekiness (performed by the ensemble called the Schoenberg Quartet):



At this point, I'm just going to quote extensively from the University of Warsaw's Karol Szymanowski website because of its wealth of detail that I see no sense in paraphrasing (my edits are marked with [italics] or […]) 

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Szymanowski's apartment
In the autumn of 1927, [a friend] was climbing to Szymanowski’s flat in [Warsaw...] “On the stairs I heard thoroughly familiar sounds. It was Szymanowski at his old, trusty piano, working on the second Quartet… the work was not flowing. He would repeat one musical phrase a number of times, looking, perhaps, for the appropriate shape or harmonic background for it. It was a reminiscence of some Highland melody [from the Tatra Mountains and the area around Zakopane, a favorite vacation spot of Szymanowski's in the south of Poland]… Then silence, as Szymanowski made notes.”

The composer’s return to the quartet genre after ten years was brought about by an invitation received from the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia, encouraging Szymanowski to take part in a competition for a chamber composition. The aim of the competition was worthy: “to add valuable works to the repertoire of chamber music”, as Szymanowski reported in a letter to [close friends]. Additional motivation was provided by the high value of the prizes: “[...] what a delight it would be to get even that last one of $2,000”, he said in that letter, enclosed with the finished score.

Szymanowski at that time was short of time, busy with work at the conservatory. He thus viewed his new composition with a degree of reserve: “I have no idea if it’s worth anything! (But I do think it will sound very well).” Unfortunately, the quartet was not worthy of a prize in the opinion of the jury (the prize went to Bartók and Casella), but it would be difficult to disagree with the remark in brackets: out of an ensemble of four related instruments Szymanowski really did extract an enormous richness of timbral effects.

Like the earlier quartet, this one is also constructed in three movements. The form of the first movement is sonata-allegro, the second combines rondo with variations. In the third movement, Szymanowski put into practice an idea he had many years earlier, crowning the quartet with a fugue, and a double one at that. The main theme of the first movement (Moderato) is intoned by the violin and the cello in a high register characteristic of Szymanowski, against the background of rustling tremolo. As the theme undergoes transformation, the music becomes not only more expressive, but more colourful. It owes this last characteristic to the great diversity of articulation, such as sul tasto (with the bow close to the fingerboard), sul ponticello (near the bridge), a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow) as well as numerous tremolos, trills and use of harmonics. After a rhapsodic Moderato the resolute rhythmic patterns of the scherzo introduce a more lively tempo. The chords sound rough, even dissonant. The quartet is one of the most “modern” of Szymanowski’s compositions, perhaps inspired by the modernist music which he had the opportunity to hear, if only by participating a year earlier in the festival organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in Zurich. Today, however, its most striking aspects are the motifs clearly associated with the highland folklore of Podhale, more precisely the brigands’ melody “Pocciez chłopcy”.

Echoes of the highland [melodies], similar to [his still incomplete ballet set in the Tatra highlands] “Harnasie,” can also be heard in the finale (LentoAndanteModerato, tranquillo), while the quartet closes with chords which stylise the play of Zakopane folk bands, to which Szymanowski had for years been listening with great enthusiasm. This must have given additional pleasure to the persons to whom the Quartet is dedicated, doctor Olgierd Sokołowski and his wife Julia, the composer’s friends from Zakopane.

View of Zakopane with the Tatra Mountains

String Quartet No. 2
op.56 was first performed by the Warsaw String Quartet on 14 May 1929. However, a performance of it a few months later and far from Warsaw created a much greater stir. In the autumn of that year Quatuor Kréttly presented the new work at a concert of the Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris. After that performance, Szymanowski received many letters of the highest praise from [several] members of the young generation of composers.

Danuta Gwizdalanka

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When I was first following the score video – the first time I've listened to the work in decades – I was struck by the realization, “geez, this sounds like Schoenberg” (the same way the 1st Violin Concerto reminded me of Ravel). And enjoying being a forensic musicologist on occasion, I thought I'd check it out: compare the opening of Szymanowski work, composed “in the autumn of 1927,” with the opening of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 3, the work it reminded me of – which was premiered in Vienna on September 19th, 1927! It's not that this "sound" is unique, here, to either of them (in fact, Ms. Gwizdalanka mentions it as a kind of fingerprint of Szymanowski's, the high melody over "a rustling tremolo") and while Schoenberg's is not a rustling tremolo, there's something about the harmonically vague patterns in both (Schoenberg's is serial, Szymanowski's is "non-traditionally harmonic") that spark some aesthetic kinship, not dissimilar from how Mozart or Brahms (or Sibelius in his Violin Concerto) might open a piece, but each in their own way.

Now, the chance Szymanowski might've just returned from Vienna and hearing Schoenberg's new quartet there are slim – the report above does mention how he'd been inspired by hearing several new works, recently, before beginning his own quartet – and of course it could be sheer coincidence that two composers found a similar “sound” in the texture they used here, but there are connectivities that sometimes exist between works and composers, even styles, whether it's inspiration, or what Vaughan Williams called “cribbing” (which he admits to frequently, borrowing ideas from other composers to do them “his way”), perhaps a referential homage, or even an outright plagiarism. Or just because there are only 12 notes and they're always going around in the atmosphere waiting to be picked out and placed in whatever order a composer chooses to use them.  

As a child, I was introduced to Szymanowski's music through the Mazurkas included in Artur Rubinstein's historic 1961 Carnegie Hall Recital (I'm not sure when I first heard the recording). If you have a chance, I highly recommend spending a few minutes with the video (and score) here. Composed between 1924-1925, the first set of four (published in 1926) was dedicated to Rubinstein.

Another work I first heard in the late-1970s was Rubinstein's recording of Szymanowski's 4th Symphony which is really a piano concerto (he subtitled it “Symphonie concertante”), dating from 1932. Here's a 3 minute clip from the end of the first movement in a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic with Marc-Andre Hamelin, also highly recommended. There are melodic and rhythmic influences here from the regional folk music around Zakopane (by then, he was living there) but also, especially in the big brassy climaxes, harking back to those middle-period symphonic works of Scriabin's like “The Divine Poem.”

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For extra credit, here's some information about Szymanowski's novel I'd mentioned earlier.

Maybe 30 years ago, I'd read somewhere that Szymanowski wrote novels (plural) as well, but I can now only find references to one, a two-volume draft of one entitled Efebos, finished in 1918 or so but which was never published. Always interested in how creative artists in one medium create in a different one – composer as novelist; think also Schoenberg (or Gershwin) as painter – I was curious about this aspect of it, too.

After Szymanowski's childhood home was destroyed during the Revolution and the family was displaced, he found himself unable to compose. Instead, he explored religious and homosexual themes in a novel inspired by his studies of Greek drama and his coming to terms with his own identity. While the final draft of Efebos has been lost, burned in the fires of Warsaw at the start of World War II, its central argument has been preserved in a 150-page Russian translation the author made and sent to a friend in 1919. It was discovered among the friend's papers in 1981 and was published in German in 1993.

The book's plot focuses on ideas Szymanowski expressed in his music, as well, specifically with the opera King Roger (begun in 1918; premiered in 1926) which explores the "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as it affects faith, given a medieval Christian king contending with a handsome stranger, a pagan prophet (a not too thinly disguised adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae). The plan had been to publish Efebos but he wanted to wait until his mother died, presumably to spare her any embarrassment, given the contents of the book. As it turned out, he died in 1937. His mother died in 1943.

You can read an excerpt from this summary of the work, here.

One thing that intrigues me is how this contrast of “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” is reflected in our regular use of “classical” and “romantic” (with or without a capital C or a capital R) as well as “logic” and “emotion” (as in “following rules versus “proceeding intuitively”). For example, the Classical Period had strict ideas about chords, how they're used (tonality), form and how musical structures evolve. The Romantic Period is more about emotional responses with a lack of concern for those old-fashioned rules: form becomes more intuitive, composers don't care about the clear definition of a work's structure. Not all 19th Century composers were Romanticists – there was Wagner and Liszt on one side, and Mendelssohn and Brahms on the other, Liszt being viewed as “anarchic” by artistic conservatives and Brahms being “too intellectual and archaic” by the left. This was again a big part of the artistic changes going on in the early-20th-Century, too, this time with its approach to tonality: those who adapted tonality (or never changed from it) to those who abandoned it altogether.

At the same time Szymanowski was writing this novel, he sketched (but did not complete) a cantata setting the climactic scene near the end of Euripides' The Bacchae. The whole plot of Euripides' drama (its interpretation is more complex than any summary can provide) focuses on the destructive nature of both the Apollonian (exemplified by Pentheus' rigorous logic) and the Dionysian (the Stranger is really Dionysus himself in disguise, with his emotional irrationality). In this scene, Agave, the mother of Pentheus, returns from the bacchanalian frenzy where, thinking she has just killed a lion, tearing it apart with her bare hands, slowly realizes as the ecstasy wears off that is not the head of a lion she holds in her hand, but that of her son.

While “classical” versus “romantic” is a common thread in art – for that matter, think of those police detective shows where one partner uses scientific logic to solve a case and the other “jumps to conclusions” without evidence but figures it out at the same time (going with the gut) – it might be interesting to listen to the stylistic conflict still going on in Szymanowski's quartet ten years after these Greek-inspired pieces. Imagine the composer's approach to tonality and form and, most evidently, to the use of contrast and the creation of tension. Often, ambiguous or dissonant passages resolve to a consonant chord or what sounds like a “tonic resolution” you might hear in a work by Beethoven. Listen again to the very ending of the quartet, beginning at 18:45 which, after an earlier fugue (really? that old hide-bound tradition from Bach's day?) is saturated with this flexible 4-note "cross motive" (sometimes whole steps, sometimes half-steps sounding like an inverted B-A-C-H motive or hey! a premonition of Shostakovich's signature D-S-C-H). Through all its frenzy (Bacchic or otherwise), it finally ends with an abrupt Dominant-to-Tonic Cadence in A Major, perhaps here more Bartók than Beethoven, but still definitely A Major

It is interesting to follow the course of this musical tension in his style in subsequent works. Did a more tonal style (or a less dissonant sound) have more to do with his change in health (illness can affect an artist that way as we've seen in Beethoven and his deafness) or just that, coincidentally, he'd already "done all that," gotten it out of his system and moved on (as, say, did Stravinsky after The Rite of Spring)?

as a patient in Davos, 1929
Speaking of final cadences, it's time to bring Szymanowski's biography full-circle: the year after completing the 2nd Quartet, he was diagnosed with an acute form of tuberculosis and went to "take the cure" in Davos, Switzerland, a famous sanatorium (the actual setting for Thomas Mann's fictional Berghof in The Magic Mountain, published in 1924). When he returned to Poland in 1930, he retired to Zakopane where he composed a great deal of music, including the 4th Symphony, the 2nd Violin Concerto, and a pair of mazurkas completed in 1934. But in 1936, he returned to Switzerland for more treatment and died there at the age of 54 the following year. 

Today, he is recognized as one of the greatest Polish composers. I'm glad you'll have a chance to hear his 2nd Quartet in a live performance, though. It's a very powerful work and a voice unfortunately not that familiar in our nation's concert halls.

Dick Strawser