Thursday, March 26, 2015

No Strings Attached: Music Not Originally for Saxophones

Not the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet
Today is March 26th – and on this date in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died without ever having known the saxophone existed. That could be the main reason he never wrote for it.

This Saturday, March 28th, at 8pm, Market Square Concerts presents the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet at Whitaker Center, performing a program that is not quite what it seems: it's called “No Strings Attached. ” 

The program includes works originally for strings but arranged for four saxophones including the “American Quartet” by Antonin Dvořák, composed during his stay in the United States, especially during a delightful summer holiday in Spillville, Iowa; Shostakovich's autobiographical 8th String Quartet, written during a post-war visit to the bombed-out city of Dresden, Germany; Barber's “Adagio for Strings” originally for String Quartet and best known as a work for string orchestra though it has been arranged by the composer for choir (his Agnus Dei) and by others for organ, clarinet choir and band (so why not saxophones, right?); and a suite for string orchestra Edvard Grieg composed in 1884 and originally called “From Holberg's Time,” intended to reflect musical styles from the era of a Danish playwright born two centuries earlier.

For example, here's the “Preludium” to Grieg's “Holberg Suite.”

= = = = = = = 

= = = = = = =

Notice the rapid repeated notes and the pizzicato (or “plucked”) notes in the lower strings, especially in the basses at 0:20.

What, you might ask, does that opening sound like played by four saxophones?

= = = = = = = 

= = = = = = =

This is a quartet of students from the University of Michigan, all students of the legendary saxophonist and teacher, Donald Sinta. In fact, the young man playing the soprano saxophone (the one that doesn't look like your typical curvy saxophone) is Dan Graser, now a member of the quartet named for their teacher.

Here they are, the real Donald Sinta Quartet, playing a movement of Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Quartet written in 1932:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

If you consider the saxophone wasn't invented until 1840, 13 years too late for Beethoven, it still doesn't explain why the instrument never caught on with the likes of, say, Brahms or Tchaikovsky, Wagner or Verdi. After all, the clarinet was a fairly new addition to the classical orchestra, available even before Vivaldi used it a few times before the 1720s, but Haydn didn't use it until he was writing his 99th Symphony in London in 1795, almost four years after Mozart died. It was Mozart who wrote such incredible clarinet parts in the orchestra for several of his Viennese piano concertos. And then he wrote a trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano plus two of the most amazing works in the repertoire, his Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto.

“So, what's the story, here?” you might wonder.

While the instruments were around, good and reliable instrumentalists were not except, perhaps, in dance bands of the day. It was Mozart's friend Anton Stadler, an exceptional clarinetist, who inspired him to write parts for the instrument if he knew he could hire him for the concerts. Haydn was less adventuresome, perhaps unaware there were any good clarinetists in London for his first visit there in 1791. But on his second visit, suddenly there are clarinet parts – even though they're fairly conservative as far as any solos go.

Of course, soon, there were more clarinetists around – and good ones, too – and the clarinet became an indispensable part of the symphony orchestra.

Why not the saxophone?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It was one of many projects a Belgian instrument-maker named Adolphe Sax was working on (actually, he was born Antoine-Joseph Sax but everybody called him Adolphe). He didn't patent his invention until June 28th, 1846. By that time, he'd moved to Paris where he also continued working on another musical invention of his, the Saxhorn, which he managed to get to the patent office in 1845.

While the Saxhorn proved very popular with military bands across Europe before it wound up on the Island of Misfit Instruments along with the ophicleide and the sarussaphone – the instrument manages to survive in the modern-day euphonium – Mr. Sax's fame rests primarily on this combination brass-and-woodwind instrument he began exhibiting in Paris in 1844, the saxophone.

It's a woodwind made of brass or a brass instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece and a key system like a clarinet. But he called it a saxophone rather than, say, a saxinet because wind instruments, regardless of their being made of wood or brass, are technically aerophones. (And frankly, saxinet just sounds... I dunno... gimmicky.)

Now, when you consider the first surviving saxophone concerto and saxophone quartet by someone we'd consider a mainstream composer were composed by Alexander Glazunov in 1934 and 1932 respectively – not counting Claude Debussy's little-known and unfortunately brief “2nd Rhapsody” which he began for saxophone and orchestra in 1901 for an asthmatic amateur saxophone player from America and only finished in 1908 (it still wasn't orchestrated and performed until a year after Debussy's death in 1918) – there may be a reason you don't hear much in the way of 19th Century repertoire for the instrument.

Even though Brahms may have known of its existence – one wonders – he never met a saxophonist who inspired him like the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, bringing him out of retirement to compose a Clarinet Trio, a Clarinet Quintet and two Clarinet Sonatas all late in his career – one can only imagine!

But there had been a friend of Sax's from his Brussels conservatory days who decided to take his friend's invention on as a cause. Violinist Jean-Baptiste Singelée wrote, apparently, twelve concertos (with piano) and other “competition pieces” for conservatory students of the saxophone. In 1857, he even composed his “Premier Quatour pour les Saxophones,” the first known Saxophone Quartet.

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

For some reason, this performance drops the slow introduction of the 1st movement and then plays the 3rd movement, a scherzo. (You can hear the entire quartet, here.) 

Being a violinist, he tends to write for the ensemble much as one would write for a string quartet, though I don't think the Juilliard String Quartet is going to be adding a transcription of Singelée's Saxophone Quartet to their repertoire because, frankly, they have enough stuff to choose from.

Saxophone players, alas, do not.

Like many successful composers in their days, M. Singelée is forgotten today except possibly by saxophonists and saxophonistas. I had never heard of him before and noticed he did not even appear in my 1982 edition of Grove's Dictionary between “Singapore: Music traditions in (see Malaysia and South-East Asia)” and “Singende Säge (Ger) see Saw, musical.”

Which is a shame, because the music is certainly pleasant to listen to, well-crafted, and typical of the era it was written in. One wonders if M. Singelée wrote more than a First Quartet?

So what do saxophonists do?

Like any players of instruments lacking traditional concert-fare repertoire by the Top 40 Classical Composers, they steal.

We like to call it “transcribing.”

The challenge, of course, is to transform the sound from the variety of sonorities a string quartet can produce – the pizzicato line from the opening of the “Holberg Suite,” for instance – to something comparable for the saxophone.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is phrasing. A string player just saws the bow back and forth without needing to breathe. A wind player, on the other hand, would keel over trying to play long melodic lines like that without catching a breath.

So they develop a trick – certainly a skill – called “circular breathing” in which they can continue to exhale air they've already breathed in while taking in more air through the nose. To say this works like a bag-pipe would only give you the wrong sound-image, but yeah...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Here are video-clip samples of the original string versions of complete works the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quintet will be performing on their program entitled “No Strings Attached.”

This is the 1st Movement of the Dvořák String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, the “American” – played by frequent visitors to Central PA over the past nearly 20 years, the Cypress Quartet:

= = = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

The 8th Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich written in just 3 days in 1960 while working on film music for a Soviet documentary about the World War II bombing of Dresden: here is a live performance by the legendary Borodin Quartet.

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

This is a harrowing work, almost the complete opposite of the holiday-spirited Dvořák, from the opening four-note motive which is the composer's musical signature – DSCH or the notes translated into German: D, S=E-flat, C, H=B-natural (in German, his initials Д Ш would be spelled out D-Sch) – to the evocations of Jewish folk-songs quoted from his equally harrowing 2nd Piano Trio, not to mention its range of emotions from violent climaxes to the icy resignation at the end.

Keep in mind, it was dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” His son has said it would have read “totalitarianism” and that the composer considered himself such a victim, giving the DSCH motive even deeper emotions. A friend of Shostakovich's said the composer considered this his musical epitaph (in fact, the DSCH motive appears on his tombstone) and that he had considered committing suicide around the time: not only had he finally (reluctantly) joined the Communist Party, he had just started experiencing symptoms of an extreme “muscular weakness” which would eventually be diagnosed as “Lou Gehrig's Disease” which would kill him in 1975.

For many of us – at least those of us “of a certain age” – Barber's Adagio for Strings became the National Mourning Piece following its broadcast during the hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was originally the middle movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, but looking over some of the young composer's scores, conductor Arturo Toscanini said “You know, this would make a great string orchestra piece.” Here is the original quartet version, once again with the Cypress Quartet:

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Since its use in the film Platoon, it has also become familiar to a whole new generation of listeners as “The Theme from Platoon,” associations Samuel Barber could hardly have imagined when he composed this piece when he was in his mid-20s. On September 19, 1936, Barber wrote to the cellist of the Curtis Quartet who were to premiere the work, "I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout!"

And now for the Happy Ending: if anything could be called “Smiles of a Summer Night,” it could be this piece, tossed off by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg to celebrate the Bicentennial of the birth of the Danish playwright, Ludvig Holberg. Here's the final movement, the Rigaudon, perhaps more Norwegian country fiddling than Baroque dance:

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Incidentally, Grieg originally composed the entire suite for piano and then arranged it for strings the following year. So... why not the saxophone?

- Dick Strawser