Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Maurice Ravel's Piano Trio: Before Everything Changed

Wednesday night, Market Square Concerts celebrates 30 years of bringing chamber music to Harrisburg with a special (non-subscription) concert starting at 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Center of the Harrisburg Area Community College. The current directors – Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang – will be among the performers with the music of Brahms and Ravel. And Founding Director Lucy Miller Murray’s words will be featured on the program as well, seven of her poems set to music by three different composers and receiving their world premieres.

Ravel, c.1912
After playing Brahms’ 2nd Violin sonata, Peter and Ya-Ting will be joined by their colleague Fiona Thompson – now constituting the Mendelssohn Piano Trio – in a performance of one of the great piano trios in the repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Trio in A Minor.

It’s not one that seems to be programmed that often, though, so I thought I’d say a few words about it, by way of introduction.

First of all, it’s not an easy piece to perform from a technical standpoint but that doesn’t imply it’s a difficult piece to listen to.

Here’s a classic recording with three of the greatest musicians from the 20th Century – pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. It was recorded in 1950 and so therefore monaural but Peter, who suggested this recording, feels the musicianship outweighs the technical aspects of its recording and, after checking other videos available, I have to agree.

It’s in four movements – the first’s tempo is marked “Moderate” (Modéré), a languidly unfolding, almost traditional sonata form, its main theme based on the rhythms of a Basque dance.

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The second movement is the famous “Pantoum” which sounds like something exotically perfumed, though it is a lively scherzo and full of those harmonic touches that give Ravel’s music its sense of a different world altogether. Actually, a “pantoum” is a Malaysian verse form popularized in France in the mid-19th to early-20th Century: I’ll describe it a little later.

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The third movement, the slow movement, is a Passacaglia which sounds very Baroque – a set of variations over a constantly recurring theme in the bass – but Ravel, being Ravel, treats it his own way: the theme migrates through different registers and creates variety with its textures and harmonies before dying away, the entire work’s “center of gravity.”

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The finale is a lively conclusion with brilliant instrumental, almost orchestral effects and constantly shifting meters – 5/4 and 7/4 rather than the standard ¾ or 4/4 – before ending with a brilliant flourish.

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Every work a composer creates is the product of his mind and heart – or, perhaps, heart and mind (the creative equivalent of the chicken and the egg) – and exists in the environment in which it was created: the composer’s life, the time in which it was composed, even if it seems to have no direct bearing on the music (for instance, Beethoven was writing the 3rd and 4th movements of his 2nd Symphony when he was so distraught by symptoms of deafness, he also wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament at the same time, yet the music reflects nothing of this reality; on the other hand, Brahms 2nd Violin Sonata no doubt captures the ease and tranquility of the summer vacation during which it was written – but then he also started sketching the turbulent 3rd Violin Sonata that same summer).

Whatever happens in and around this time-frame constitutes a creative context for the music whether the impact is positive or negative.

In Ravel’s case, the Trio was composed in the months before the start of World War I. In fact, he rushed the ending knowing, since hostilities had already begun by then, that he would “join up” and he wanted to get it finished before he would leave for the front. Does it reflect the anxiety of the times? No – in fact, there’s little dread in this work (even if one could think of some foreshadowing in the slow movement) and the finale is a joyous romp.

But he composed it in St. Jean-de-Luz, a popular seaside resort in the southwest of France not far from the Spanish border and this does have considerable bearing on the music – not the Spanish aspect of it (as would occur in other pieces he’d write – the Bolero most famously, but also the Rapsodie espagnole and the opera, L’Heure espagnole – but the facts that (a.) he is in the Basque Country (an ethnic minority whose homeland spans the French and Spanish border, here; the Spanish side has long since been agitating for independence, resorting to terrorism to make its point until only recently) and (b.) his mother was Basque.

In fact, he was born only a few miles from St. Jean-de-Luz. This was his home.

He began work on the trio officially in March of 1914, but he had already been at work on a piano concerto of sorts which he called Zazpiak Bat which is Basque for “The Seven Are One,” a reference to the seven Spanish and French provinces that constitute what should be a Basque nation and which was the motto of the Basque nationalists (or “separatists” as they are usually called in the media).

However, work on it was going badly and he decided, as he often did in such cases, to put it aside. He might come back to it, he might start over or, as happened here, he might recycle it into other works. The one remaining fragment of the concerto became the opening of the Trio.

Now, Ravel had been telling friends for years he wanted to write a piano trio. Avoiding the distractions of Paris in 1914, Ravel settled not far from his hometown in the Basque region and absorbed lots of the Basque and Spanish dance music he could hear on the local scene, mostly in the restaurants and taverns.

In fact, in March he wrote to a friend and former student of his, Maurice Delage (who was only four years younger than Ravel) that he’d already finished the Trio – “all I need are the themes.”

Most people would think this an odd statement. He only began putting notes down on paper after he wrote that letter in mid-March and the end-date wasn’t placed into the score until September, the month after World War I had started.

So what did he mean by that?

Ravel & Stravinsky
When Igor Stravinsky – whose Rite of Spring had just set the [old] world on fire the year before – called Ravel “a perfect Swiss watchmaker,” he wasn’t condemning some mechanical lack-of-creativity but referring to his meticulous attention to details, to the intricacy and precision of his music.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who would have ever visited Ravel’s home which was full of clock-work toys. There is the famous anecdote of him holding up one particular toy and saying “listen, I can hear its heart beating!”

Given the child-like wonder of a lot of his music – the Mother Goose Suite is only one example – we should also remember his father was a Swiss-born inventor from the French Savoy region, his creations ranging from an early internal combustion engine to a circus machine called “The Whirlwind of Death,” successful until it caused a fatal accident in 1903 at Barnum & Bailey’s. Joseph Ravel shared his mechanical interests with his son, taking him to museum and science displays (who knows, that 12-year-old going through Whitaker’s Science Center this weekend might grow up to become the 21st Century’s answer to Maurice Ravel) but it was music that Maurice was most interested in. But this sense of wonder, this interest in how things worked remained with him throughout his life.

So when he said he had everything written but the notes, he certainly meant he had already mapped out his Trio – the kind of theme he would use here, how he would contrast it here or vary it there, how the “Pantoum” might be converted into musical form, how the Passacaglia would rise to a climax, then recede.

That also didn’t mean it was just a matter of sitting down and “filling in the blanks.”

Ravel may have been painstaking and precise – a perfectionist, knowing he would never achieve perfection, he said – and this resulted in a slow creative process and a rather small catalogue of completed works during his life.

Though he’d already completed the 1st movement on paper by the end of March, he found himself stuck during the summer and in late-July he wrote to the wife of the pianist who would eventually premiere the piece,

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"…in spite of the fine weather, for the last three weeks the Trio has made no progress, and I'm disgusted with it. Today, however, I have decided that it is not too nauseating . . . and the carburetor is now repaired."
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A few days later, he was writing to his publisher, Durand,

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“I am continuing to work, still rather slowly it is true, but more surely. I am counting on the participation of the weather, which is turning fair again. This morning I resumed my nautical pastimes, which, I hope, will stir up inspiration.”
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But on July 28th, the war started and France mobilized its army on August 1st in preparation for the inevitable invasion from Germany. Ravel was caught up in the idea of enlisting but he was short, underweight and also 39. Still, the music came first – he had to finish the Trio and the sooner, the better.

He wrote to friends,

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"I have never worked with more insane, more heroic intensity."
"Yes, I am working on the Trio with the sureness and lucidity of a madman."
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And to Stravinsky on September 26th, he wrote, after telling him his brother had already enlisted and that he himself had been turned down repeatedly not only for his height and weight but also his bad heart,

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“The idea that I should be leaving at once made me get through five months' work in five weeks! My Trio is finished…”
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He wanted to make sure the Trio would be of the best quality and his sense of patriotism made him hope it would be considered one of his finest works. He left careful instructions with his publisher in case “the composer was absent,” away fighting at the war.

But earlier, before it was finished, he had written to a close friend,

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“[Before trying to enlist the first time,] I spent one month working from morning till night, without even taking the time to bathe in the sea. I wanted to finish my Trio, which I have treated as a posthumous work. That does not mean that I have lavished genius on it but that the order of my manuscript and of the notes concerning it would allow anybody else to correct the proofs.”
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Perhaps it had occurred to him, after all, he might not come back to see the Trio into print or hear it performed.

Though he started caring for wounded soldiers at a hospital at St. Jean-de-Luz that same month, it wasn’t until March of 1916, after several attempts, that he was finally accepted into the army as a truck-driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment and sent to the front at Verdun. That summer, he came down with dysentery and was sent to hospital and from there, back to Paris to recuperate.

During the course of the war, Ravel's regiment engaged a German unit that included a young man named Adolf Hitler.

As it happened, there were so many mistakes in the printed edition of the Trio, Ravel joked about it being “another trio,” different from the one he had composed. It is apparent he did not get a chance to check the proofs beforehand, judging from the number of errors he later found on each page. The premiere was given in Paris, January 28th, 1915, and completely overlooked by most critics and the public. Ravel was not present at the performance and presumably hadn’t even coached the musicians, focusing all his energies on getting past the army’s medical examinations.

Meanwhile, other works from that summer were, obviously, put aside. The Basque-inspired piano concerto was abandoned, a tone-poem called Wien (Vienna) was put aside along with a suite of piano pieces evoking the old French Baroque style of Couperin. He returned to both of these after the war and completed them. The first eventually became La Valse and the piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin with each movement dedicated to friends of his who had died during the war.

It is said World War I changed the world forever. In that sense, the Piano Trio is then the last work Ravel completed before everything changed.

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The opening theme of the Trio – the one borrowed from the eventually doomed Zazpiak Bat is a lilting dance written in 8, but an 8 that divides not into 4+4 as most European classical music would do before 1914, but 3+2+3. These patterns can be heard throughout the movement. In the last movement’s vitality, the rhythms of other dances are reflected in the shifting 5/8 and 7/8 (as one biographer remarked, “encore le Basque”). It’s amusing to consider that a year earlier Ravel had heard his friend Stravinsky’s latest ballet, The Rite of Spring and what impact this powerful, rhythmic music had on him.

The “Pantoum” is perhaps the most intriguing movement from a structural standpoint, if you're wondering how he took this “Malaysian verse form” and translated it into music, though it still turns out be a perfect “Scherzo-and-Trio” A-B-A form like any other minuet or scherzo from the past 150 years.

Whether he succeeds literally or not, I haven’t examined the exact phrase structure to tell, but a Pantoum is a form based on a rigid pattern of repetition where the 2nd and 4th lines of a quatrain become the 1st and 3rd lines of the next quatrain and so on till the last quatrain which then restates the so far unrepeated 3rd and 1st lines of the opening quatrain.

Though they were popular in late-19th Century France, with some then-famous examples written by the likes of Hugo and Baudelaire, here as an example is a more modern one by the American poet, John Ashbery. (Unfortunately, the 3rd and 4th quatrains are repeated exact which is probably, I would assume, a misprint: you know how things are on the interwebs… from comments elsewhere about subtle shifts in punctuation with these repetitions, I’m also not sure there aren’t other errors as well.)

With a standardized rhyme-scheme of a-b-a-b, the structural outline would look something like this:

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1st Stanza = lines 1… 2… 3… 4…
2nd Stanza = lines 2… 5… 4… 6…
3rd Stanza = lines 5… 7… 6… 8…
And so on to the
Nth Stanza = lines x…3... (x+1)… 1.
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Ravel uses several small fragmentary thematic ideas to represent a “line of text,” creating a near kaleidoscopic energy with the repetition of these fragments fitting in, more or less, to the smaller level of each successive phrase.

Keep in mind, Ravel may have been an innovative composer – much as his father was an inventor – but he was not a revolutionary. Never comfortable being labeled with the term “impressionist” (as much as it could apply to some of his music at a particular time in his career), he was primarily a classicist who loved – no, adored – Mozart and was very conscious of the lessons one learned from the past.

Of all his teachers, Ravel credited André Gedalge, one of the major teachers of the day and usually considered – if not pedantic – a very systematic teacher best known for his strict approach to counterpoint, fugue and what we call “ear-training” today, for giving him "the most valuable elements of my technique."

Is it any surprise, then, considering Ravel wanted this Trio to be his best work, that he dedicated it to Gedalge?

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Celebrating 30 Years with Words of a Poet

This season, Market Square Concerts celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a special concert on Wednesday night at the Rose Lehrman Center of Harrisburg Area Community College, beginning at 7:30, which will include performances by the present directors of Market Square Concerts, artistic director and violinist Peter Sirotin and executive director and pianist Ya-Ting Chang playing Brahms' 2nd Violin sonata (then joined by their colleague, cellist Fiona Thompson, to complete the Mendelssohn Trio for a performance of the Piano Trio by Maurice Ravel) as well as the world premiere of songs by three composers setting words by Lucy Miller Murray, the founder of Market Square Concerts who, thirty years ago, thought it would be fun to bring much-needed live performances of chamber music by world-class artists to Harrisburg.

After the Premiere of the Glass Sonata
While there would be so many concerts to mention, one immediately comes to mind – the world premiere of the Violin Sonata by Philip Glass, one of the leading composers in the world today, commissioned by her husband, Martin, as a surprise birthday present for Lucy.

(You can read about the premiere in these earlier posts, here and here.)

Listen to Cary Burkett’s interview with Peter, Ya-Ting and Lucy as well as Ellen Hughes (the previous director of MSC) and composer Jeremy Gill in this installment of WITF’s “The Creative Zone.”

After the last concert, I chatted briefly with Lucy, in addition writer of program notes not only for Market Square Concerts but also of the collection of program notes, Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Selected Chamber Music and who had been seen turning pages for pianists at many a concert, and joked about her being “the supplier of words” for the Anniversary Concert. She laughed but thought it brought to mind the image of someone shoveling words out onto the stage. Perhaps “Purveyor of Words” would have been more graceful but then I started thinking about a poet standing behind a counter, pouring words out of a bottle… (it should be so easy).

So let’s just say there will be seven of Lucy’s poems set to music by three different composers, all receiving their world premieres:

Jeremy Gill: Three Songs About Words
Jake Heggie: Ode to Image
Paul Moravec: Three Songs of Love

They will be performed by soprano Sarah Wolfson and pianist Renate Rohlfing.

Jake Heggie is perhaps best known for his opera, Dead Man Walking, completed in 2000, and after three more operas, completed Moby Dick in 2010. He’s written over 200 songs in addition to chamber music and instrumental music, and singers who’ve performed his music include Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Joyce DiDonato and Bryn Terfel, among others. As a pianist, he has accompanied many of these artists in recitals.

Technically, Lucy mentioned the other night, she hadn’t heard any of the songs yet but said how, shortly after he’d completed Moby Dick, Heggie came over to show her his setting of her poem, sat down at the upright, then played and sang through “Ode to Image” for her.

Not always the way every poet gets to hear her words turned into music for the first time!

Paul Moravec, described as a “New-Tonalist” (“neither embarrassed nor paralyzed by tradition”), received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his “Tempest Fantasy” which Trio Solisti and clarinetist David Krakauer played in Harrisburg around that time. Sort of a break-through piece for him, it more or less officially put him on the map, though he’d written a great deal of music before and since.

Jeremy Gill, a Harrisburg native now based in Philadelphia where he is now focusing on composing and conducting, is well-known to Harrisburg audiences through performances of works on Market Square Concerts including a work composed for the Parker Quartet to celebrate MSC’s 25th Anniversary, and by the Harrisburg Symphony (most recently, his Symphony No. 1). A recent CD on the Albany label includes his “Book of Hours” with pianist Peter Orth (another name familiar to Market Square Concerts regulars – he played on the very first concert in 1982) and a powerful song cycle “Helian” which Jeremy and baritone Jonathan Hays (another Harrisburg-area native) performed just this past Friday at Pine Street Presbyterian Church.

After identifying the composers she wanted to include in this commissioning project, Lucy selected 15 of her poems, spanning the years but which have always been kept “in dusty drawers,” and sent them out to composers, asking them to choose which ones they’d like to set.

For instance, as he explained to Cary Burkett, Jeremy Gill chose three poems “reflective in some way on the act of writing or on the personality or the philosophy of the writer.” He described the middle song, “On Hearing a Very Famous Man Speak Profoundly” as a young student (presumably Lucy) sitting in a lecture hall listening to this man droning on and on and she’s not the least bit interested in what he has to say – more interested, actually, in the bird outside the window. If the first song is nervous, a young poet concerned about being heard, about finding her voice, the third is a plea by a poet to take her words and turn them into songs.

So in addition to having been the founding Director of Market Square Concerts, writer of program notes, frequently page turner and occasionally stage hand, Lucy Miller Murray now helps celebrate the organization she so innocently started in 1982 by taking on the role of Poet.

Which, now that I think of it, she has always been – as someone choosing the artists and suggesting the repertoire, bringing performances to life (as much an act of creation as anything), eloquently advocating for the arts, even filling out grants, not to forget everything else that goes unseen behind the curtain – except now, finally, it’s official.

- Dick Strawser

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In the 2nd photo, taken following the world premiere of the Violin Sonata by Philip Glass: L-R with pianist Jon Klibonoff, Ed Harsh from Meet the Composer who was instrumental in arranging the commission, Martin Murray and Lucy Miller Murray (holding the score of the sonata), and violinist Maria Bachmann.