Thursday, April 30, 2020

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

“This week’s dose of great music aims to inject exuberant energy into our currently subdued quarantined existence. I hope that Schumann’s uplifting Piano Quintet featuring Stuart Malina at the piano will brighten your weekend.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts

You've seen those memes about Newton discovering calculus and formulating the law of gravity while being quarantined during the Plague Year 1665, so you're probably asking yourself what have you been doing with your time? (All I know is I'm not writing the Great American Novel or even the Great American Piano Quintet during the Coronavirus Pandemic). Still, keeping healthy is important, and listening to great music, music that moves us, inspires us, entertains us, whether it makes us think and ponder the Meaning of Life or just makes us tap our toes, is a good way to get our minds off the constant barrage of news and the fear it creates (as if the virus weren't scary enough), even if only for a little while.

So, to brighten your day – especially given much of the weather we've had the past 144 days of April showers – let's begin the Month of May with this performance of Schumann's justifiably beloved Piano Quintet, so full of energy and sunlight, recorded during Summermusic 2014 with pianist Stuart Malina (as we continue this year celebrating his 20th Anniversary with the Harrisburg Symphony) joined here by violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee.

(As usual, the blog format reduces the size of the videos to fit the dimensions of narrow columns. To view full-screen, click on the box-like icon in the lower right corner of the video once it begins to play.)

1st Movement: Allegro brillante

2nd Movement: In modo d'una marcia, un poco largamente

3rd Movement: Scherzo

4th Movement: Allegro ma non troppo

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Many people think a composer sits down and writes a piece of music because he (or she) is inspired and when feeling happy, writes happy music; or feeling sad, writes sad music. If only it were that easy...

Much of Schumann's music would be considered “uplifting” or “delightful,” helping us through difficult times, perhaps taking us away from our anxieties whether as an escape or a chance to “recharge our batteries.” Yet, every time I listen to the Piano Quintet especially, I'm amazed it exists at all! Pessimistic though it may sound, it may remind us every silver-lining has a cloud which in turn might give us hope that, from the deepest turmoil, we can overcome what seems insurmountable.

If you've read the earlier post about his A Major String Quartet, you're aware how Schumann's life-story was dominated by his mental health, what we now call “bipolar disorder,” formerly known as “manic depression.” His father and sister dealt with it – his sister committed suicide when Schumann was a teenager – and Schumann himself would end his life in an asylum, following his own suicide attempt, where the kind of crude treatment he received might have done little to mitigate the pain and fear of his final years.

Who knows if he'd been treated with modern medication whether his music would've been any different? One thing is certain: the circumstances under which it was created would've been very different.

Much of the time, he did not compose just because he was no longer troubled by this cloud of depression: the manic swing in the opposite direction is what usually triggered a creative phase that often stretched until it wore itself out and he sank back under the clouds again. Whether anyone was aware it was a disease, these constant “mood swings” were also a trial for those around him, especially his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann who had to balance being a wife and mother (they had seven children; an eighth was born shortly after Schumann's suicide attempt) with her own concertizing.

The “Year of Chamber Music” – from June, 1842, to January, 1843, when Schumann composed three string quartets, the Piano Quintet, the Piano Quartet, and several smaller pieces which he would later revise – came at a time following his marriage to Clara in September of 1840, a happy time which inspired a year devoted almost exclusively to songs; and a productive symphonic year in 1841 (his 1st Symphony, the “Spring,” and what eventually became his 4th Symphony; plus two other large-scale symphonic works, one he did not complete and the other which he only published later).

At the time, Schumann was well known more as a writer about music than as a composer of music. He had trained to become a concert pianist, studying with his future wife's father (a very long story in itself), but due to an injury, he was no longer able to play the piano and so turned more seriously to composition. Before then, he had written a great deal of solo piano music, ostensibly for himself to perform, but this was not very different from what many concert-pianists of the day would have been doing.

Schumann – or at least his ego – was also bothered by his wife being more famous than he was: he was, essentially, “Mr. Clara Schumann,” the husband of the great pianist...

In early 1842, the Schumanns had gone off together for one of Clara's extended concert tours across northern Germany when it really hit him, this being in the shadow of his wife, so after a month he returned to Leipzig and his job as journal editor while Clara went on to Copenhagen without him. During her month-long absence, unable to compose and dealing with a “deep melancholy” he tried drowning in “beer and champagne,” he studied fugue and counterpoint and examined quartets by Mozart and Haydn, then later those by Beethoven. Meanwhile, Friedrich Wieck, his former teacher and current father-in-law who had bitterly opposed his daughter's marriage, managed to spread the rumor they’d separated and were heading for a divorce. Thoughts of a tour of America – which Robert dreaded and didn't help his depression – were shelved when Clara returned in late-April.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to a fine. The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first. And none of them reflect the despondency and anxiety he'd experienced only a few months before.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation - the Schumann’s second child would be born nine months later - then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September.

On the 23rd, then, just ten days after the quartets' private premiere for Clara's birthday, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he started.

Despite the “constant, fearful, sleepless nights” (I can't find any reference when these started), twelve days after completing the Quintet he began work on the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month.

In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he wasn't satisfied with, seven years later recasting as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88); a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

1843 looked to start off as a Year of Choral Music. The new Leipzig Conservatory opened in April, his friend Mendelssohn in charge: Clara was a professor of piano, and Robert a professor of “piano-playing, composition and playing-from-score.” But by June, Schumann was again struggling with new projects that failed to take: he remained “fallow,” compositionally, for the rest of the year.

During the first half of 1844, the Schumanns went on a long Russian tour, though Robert spent a week in one town too ill to travel. In St. Petersburg, Clara played before Tsar Nicholas I and an aristocrat's private orchestra played Robert's “Spring” Symphony. Clara's public audiences were small but Robert's Piano Quintet was well-received in Moscow. Otherwise the tour did not achieve what they had hoped and they returned to Leipzig by the end of May.

Schumann spent much of this tour “tortured by fits of melancholy,” irritated he was wasting his time, unable to work on an operatic setting of Faust he'd been planning since the previous November. Shortly after they returned, he resigned from the magazine he'd founded in 1834, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and began more serious work on Faust which became increasingly frustrating during the summer – setting it aside in July, he suffered another breakdown in August when it became intolerable for him to listen to music, which, he said, “cut into my nerves as if with knives.” In October, Clara often found him “swimming in tears” during sleepless nights when he was “seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death.” In December, he set Faust aside once more, leaving the work unfinished until 1853 when he described it as an oratorio, “Scenes from Goethe's Faust” (his suicide attempt, btw, was in February, 1853).

So, in the midst of all this pain and anguish – before and after – he found time to write some of the most joyous chamber music ever composed, his three string quartets, this Piano Quintet as well as the Piano Quartet, all within the space of six months!

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One of the curious things most people forget today is that, before Schumann’s, there were no famous Piano Quintets to serve as models.

To Schumann’s example, we would later add those by Brahms and Dvořák, both famous but both later, as would be the less-well-known one by Cesar Franck and the most famous 20th Century one by Shostakovich. There are no Piano Quintets by Mozart or Beethoven (though they wrote piano quartets), much less by their also-rans.

Except for one by Prince Louis Ferdinand, who published one in 1803.

Also-ran he may be, but this prince, a nephew of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (a great general and a talented if not-so-great composer himself), played the piano “not like a prince but like a real pianist,” according to Beethoven (who dedicated his C Minor Piano Concerto to him). The entry in Grove's Dictionary for “piano quintet” indicates he was a student of Beethoven’s, but the same dictionary’s biographical entry on the prince does not mention this fact.

He was also considered a brilliant soldier, dying on a Napoleonic battlefield in 1806 about a month before his 34th birthday, killed by a French soldier after he refused to surrender. He wrote thirteen published works, his Piano Quintet in C Minor being his Opus 1, his only work published in his lifetime. There are three piano trios and two piano quartets, as well.

I suppose you could ask – considering Schumann knew Prince Louis’ quintet and one could imagine him thinking “here’s a good idea that’s never caught on, take a string quartet and add a pianist” – what prompted Prince Louis to write one?

There are, basically, other works for keyboard and four string players – those by Padre Antonio Soler were intended for the organ, and those by J.C. Bach included the fortepiano or harpsichord more in its role of continuo, the traditional baroque duty of supplying the “harmonic filler” between the melody line and the bass line.

It was also the tradition, in the days before radios, television and stereos when people provided their own entertainment at home, that publishers made piano concertos available to the amateur public. Rather than deal with an orchestra (even the much smaller sized ones in Mozart’s day than the one we think of today), the orchestral part was either arranged or written for three or four string players. The piano here is purely a soloist and the strings, in the standard sense of chamber music, are not equal partners to the piano.

Yes, while Mozart wrote two piano quartets with strings, he did write a quintet for piano and winds (not surprising, since he was delighted with the great wind players he found in Vienna), a work which Beethoven thought so highly of, he imitated it in one, himself. But Beethoven’s publisher also realized there were few opportunities for performances, given the number of wind players as opposed to the number of string players around, so he suggested Beethoven also arrange the work for strings and get more mileage out of it. But curiously, rather than arrange the four wind parts for four strings, one to each wind part, he reworked it into the more standard format of piano quartet with just three stringed instruments. Perhaps if he had decided on four strings, he might have written the first Piano Quintet and decided it was really a good medium, then maybe he'd've written an original one or two. And others may have come along and done the same. But, alas... another chapter in the great game of “What If...”

By the way, a “Piano Quintet” implies a piano with four other players, though it’s usually defined as a piano plus a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) – or if you’re a string player, a string quartet plus a piano (since it’s more likely you’ll find a pianist being added to a string quartet program than vice-versa). To distinguish them, the two works with winds I mentioned by Mozart and Beethoven are called “Quintets for Piano & Winds.” And since the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert uses one violin, viola and cello, then adds a double bass, it’s technically not a “piano quintet.” Fortunately, it can just be called the Trout Quintet on the fly rather than the official “Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings.” But that’s another topic...

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů
Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Welcome to this week’s dose of great chamber music which, as Market Square Concerts Artistic Director Peter Sirotin said, “offers two charming and whimsical oboe quartets featuring soulful playing by Gerard Reuter, who performed for our audience on many occasions. While Josef Rheinberger and Bohuslav Martinu are not composers familiar to everyone, their light-hearted pieces are full of ear-teasing surprises.

And while "quartets" usually brings to mind string quartets, these two works are written for slightly different combinations of four players, featuring first and foremost the oboe.

While many people are “passing the time” (a euphemism for “trying not to go stir-crazy”) during 40-some days and 40-some nights of isolation either by refamiliarizing themselves with old favorites or by discovering new things, here's something that will probably fall under the category of “discovering new things” that are yet somehow familiar.

How many of you could say Joseph Rheinberger is a familiar composer? Probably not many – and I mean more than those who heard the original performance of this piece in July of 2011.

And yet he was one of the leading composers in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a respected teacher at the Munich Conservatory from 1867 until his death and no less than the conductor of the Bavarian royal chapel in Munich from 1877 until he retired in 1894 for reasons of health. He died in November of 1901 at the age of 62.

The Quartet for Oboe, Horn (or Viola), Cello and Piano in F Major by Joseph Rheinberger is a work in two movements, the first being basically an extended slow introduction to a sonata-form second movement marked “Allegro molto.” Here's the 2nd Movement from Summermusic 2011 recorded at Market Square Church with oboist Gerard Reuter, violist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang:

While the composer's name might be unfamiliar to you, his musical style might remind you of Robert Schumann (who'd died in 1856) and a bit of Johannes Brahms (who died in 1897). Rheinberger would fit in with this more conservative wing of German Romanticism and it's quite possible this piece was written fifty years after it sounds like it was.

The first theme unfolds in a leisurely lyrical fashion that might also remind you of Mendelssohn (who died in 1847). The second theme, also lyrical, begins in the cello at 1:28, the exposition of the two themes is then repeated beginning at 3:37. The expected development section which treats the two themes in various ways, deals with them less lyrically, more dramatically this time with a decidedly old-fashioned fugal work-out (a good sign of a good academician) until the first theme reappears (this is the “recapitulation” of sonata-form) at 8:50, the second theme at 10:13, before proceeding to a triumphant ending.

Grove's Dictionary says “His career was accompanied by many, if not all spectacular, successes which brought him numerous honours and marks of recognition.” No less than Hans von Bülow, one of the leading conductors of the day, champion of both Wagner and Brahms, had said of him, “Rheinberger is a truly ideal teacher of composition, unrivaled in the whole of Germany and beyond in skill, refinement and devotion to his subject; in short, one of the worthiest musicians and human beings in the world.”

So why is he virtually unknown, his music largely forgotten?

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When Peter said he'd chosen this piece for this week's program, I went back to my posts for Summermusic 2011, expecting to copy "the Rheinberger bit" verbatim into this one. While I've often been accused of writing 30,000 words about 30 minutes of music, my mention of Rheinberger's Quartet over six separate posts consists of 24 words: two mentions of the composer's name and the piece's title, plus the detail “a contemporary of Brahms.” Not much, eh?

Granted, in many cases, that might be all you need to know to enjoy the music – in fact, you could enjoy it with considerably less, that's true. But my purpose here (if I have one) is to fill in the wealth of background that makes the composers something other than those marble busts we sometimes see and to let you know what was going on in their lives around the time they were composing these works: the human context, if you will.

But I can't even find an opus number for this piece or a date is was composed or published! If he was a contemporary of Brahms', what was Brahms writing at the time? How does Rheinberger fit into the "contemporary music" scene?

Executive Director (and pianist) Ya-Ting Chang told me this was definitely something that Gerry Reuter had discovered, I assume from rooting around in old libraries or back catalogues, always on the look-out for unknown if not downright unusual repertoire for the oboe. She told me when the score arrived, it came with both a horn part and a viola part: as was often the case, composers who wrote for "unusual" instruments, alternate versions had to be published, substituting something more likely found among the amateur demographic where the publishers expected to make their money. If it weren't for that kind of reasoning, violists wouldn't have two of their finest Sonatas, the ones Brahms didn't write for them...

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Joseph Rheinberger
Despite his reputation, despite the vast amount of music he composed, lists of his works are far from complete and those that are mentioned are often completely lacking in detail. Even Grove's Dictionary glosses over his chamber music output without mentioning the instrumentation of the few pieces they've included. However, one – the only one in F Major, this Quartet's key – is his Op.191a (which makes me wonder what plain old Op. 191 is...?) but a closer inspection, and the use of a magnifying glass, indicates this is apparently one of a set of piano trios (and itself a pleasant, rather Brahmsian work from 1898, the year after Brahms died).

So, who was Joseph Rheinberger? You might assume he's a German composer but without getting into the complex history of Germanic culture as opposed to its political identities, technically Rheinberger is a Liechtensteiner, from an independent state within the former Holy Roman Empire that, since 1396, was not beholden to Bavaria (to the north) or Austria (to the east), and which, by 1719, became the present-day principality, named for the family who'd owned these lands as feudal lords since 1140 or so. (There was a time, during the Napoleonic Wars, Liechtenstein was part of Napoleon's “Confederation of the Rhine” until the Congress of Vienna restored its independence in 1815, but I digress.)

Rheinberger, born in the capital city of Vaduz in 1839, was the son of the court treasurer of Prince Aloys II who ruled until 1858 – two of his sons would, in turn, become Princes: Johann II reigned for 70 years (the second longest European reign ever); his younger brother Franz I till 1938; his grand-nephew Franz Josef II, ruled till 1989, when his son Hans-Adam II (Aloys II's great-great-grandson) became the current reigning Prince – and while we might think little of a little country of a mere 62 square miles, it does, after all, have the highest income-per-capita of any European state today!

At any rate, young Rheinberger was clearly a prodigy: by 7, he was already organist at the parish church in Vaduz, his first composition performed a year later. In 1849, he crossed the border into Austria's Voralberg province to study music, and then on to Munich where he entered the conservatory in 1851, joining the faculty shortly after graduation. He spent the rest of his life in Munich.

Ludwig II, who, besides his mania for building castles, was a huge fan of Richard Wagner, became King of Bavaria at the age of 18 in 1864, when Rheinberger was a rehearsal coach and pianist at the Royal Opera House in Munich. As a composer, Rheinberger was more inclined to favor the classical side of German Romanticism, primarily Schumann and Mendelssohn – and, as an organist, going back further to Bach – so it was not a pleasant experience for him, working with Wagner in preparing the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865.

Mr. & Mrs. Rheinberger
At any rate, two years later Rheinberger resigned from the opera and also married a student of his (she was actually 8 years his senior) – (see photo of him and his wife Fanny (Franziska) taken shortly afterward) – then ten years after that was appointed court conductor for the royal chapel which required he also write a great deal of music for the Catholic church (he wrote 14 masses, 3 requiems, numerous motets, and the Christmas oratorio, The Star of Bethlehem).

Today, if he's remembered at all, it's as a composer for the organ: apparently, he had planned to write a series of 24 organ sonatas, one in each key, but completed only 20 of them; there are two concertos with orchestra that have been recorded (check out the finale of the 1st, written in 1884) and could be substituted once in a while for the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, completed in 1886 – but then who would buy tickets to hear an unknown like Rheinberger when you know people will flock to hear a beloved war-horse like the Saint-Saëns?

In addition to several stage works, two symphonies and a piano concerto, he wrote a great deal of chamber music – three string quartets, a string quintet, four piano trios, even a trio for organ, violin and cello (here's the Finale), as well as a piano quintet in 1878, plus a nonet for winds & strings – and somewhere along the way this otherwise unmentioned Oboe Quartet – there's also enough piano music (including four sonatas) to fill a 10-CD box set.

He was an influential teacher, in a time when many young Americans were still coming to Europe (especially Germany) to study before American schools had set up reputable music schools of their own: while Rheinberger counted among his students Europeans like the future composer of Hansel & Gretel, Englebert Humperdinck, in the mid-1870s, and the Italian-German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari in the 1890s, he also taught George Whitefield Chadwick (before 1880) and, among others, Horatio Parker in the early-1880s, who would later teach at Yale where one of his students would be Charles Ives.

Given Rheinberger's conservative tastes, one wonders what he'd've made of his future grandstudent's Variations on “America”, written in 1891 by the 17-year-old Ives? (Since Rheinberger would live another ten years, it's conceivable he could've heard it, though I doubt he'd've had the opportunity.)

Oh wait, here's a coincidence, considering there are only 12 notes to go around: the National Anthem of Liechtenstein, “Oben am jungen Rhein,” written in the 1850s, uses the same tune as “America” a.k.a. “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” a.k.a. “God Save the King”! Hmmm...

So, after all that (and all those digressions) – not to mention about 1,500 words – how does such a highly respected and frequently performed composer like Rheinberger who wrote an awful lot of music – which, incidentally, is not the same as “a lot of awful music” – disappear from public awareness?

Trust me, this a question many a composer asks whenever a new piece comes to mind...

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The second piece in this week's program is the Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Piano by Bohuslav Martinů written between September 15th and October 21st, 1947, when he was 56. This performance, with oboist Gerard Reuter, violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, took place during Summermusic 2013.

The first movement is marked Moderato poco allegro, full of that bustling neo-classical texture Martinů made his own. The slow movement, an at-times lilting Andante following a dramatic opening at 5:40, almost blends into the lively, at-times quirky finale, marked Poco allegro, starting at 8:36, which ought to leave listeners smiling.

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Martinů at 5

As Liechtensteiner Rheinberger spent his life in Munich, Paris would eventually become home to the Czech-born composer, Bohuslav Martinů, raised in a small-town church tower in an apartment 193 steps above the street (talk about a “walk-up”...). He gave his first violin recital when he was 14 but since the age of 10 he'd been focused on becoming a composer. He played in the 2nd Violin section of what became the Czech Philharmonic after the nation's independence following World War I, but in 1923, now in his early-30s, he received a scholarship that allowed him to study composition in Paris where he remained for the next 17 years, making a living as a “poor, starving musician” – a true Bohemian! With the outbreak of World War II, he managed to escape before the Nazi Occupation of Paris and settled in the United States. It was here that he wrote the Quartet we're going to hear on this program.

Martinů in 1945
Martinů was a prolific and seemingly effortless composer. A great deal of his music has this overall happy sense of well-being, usually energetic and often optimistic. It's not that his life was necessarily well-adjusted: aside from the poverty of his Paris days (recognition came slowly, if at all), when he fled the approaching Nazis who had already black-listed his music (which, I suppose, was a kind of recognition, though it was primarily for his role in the Czech Resistance), he was forced to leave most of his manuscripts behind and had difficulty booking passage to America, first finding refuge in Southern France, then Lisbon. It took almost a year to get a boat to New York City where he arrived speaking no English and bringing with him only the few scores he'd composed in the past year.

It was Serge Koussevitsky in Boston who came to his rescue – much as he did with another war-time immigrant from Central Europe, Bela Bartók (the result, there, was his famous Concerto for Orchestra). And so, Martinů composed his 1st Symphony for the Boston Symphony, gained some recognition and re-gained some much-needed confidence before setting off to write four more symphonies and several concertos over the next five years. After the war, he was invited to return to Prague to teach at the conservatory there, but the new Communist regime blocked his passport and he now found himself stuck in America.

That summer of 1946, he was appointed to the faculty at Tanglewood (another Koussevitsky save) but he was unable to fulfill it because of a serious fall from a balcony resulting in a fractured skull and a concussion, afterward drifting in and out of a coma. All this affected his hearing and his nerves, not to mention hitting him with serious medical bills. As he recuperated, a friend at this time described him as "a different man: gaunt, irritable, crippled and in pain from the accident." It required a few years, as one source put it, before he was able to return to his former state as a solid composer.

And yet the following year, living in New York City in 1947, he composed this Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano, a work that hardly reflects the reality of the context it was written in.

If you're interested in hearing more works by Martinů, I recommend his String Quartet No. 7, also written in New York in 1947, completed in late-June, just before the Oboe Quartet which he began in mid-September.

The first work of his I'd ever heard (friends at Eastman were playing through it, back in the early-'70s, when I walked past their practice room and it stopped me in my tracks) was the duet for violin and viola called "Three Madrigals" (here's a wonderful performance with Arnaud Sussmann and Paul Neubauer), which by the way was also written in New York City in 1947, from mid-February to mid-March, starting it just eight months after the accident! Talk about music written in trying times!!

Later, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in NYC and then at Curtis in Philadelphia – his students included Alan Hovhannes and Burt Bacharach – even after he returned to Europe, where he spent much of his time in the South of France, also teaching at the American Academy in Rome. But he was still beset by financial insecurity: Paul Sacher, a noted Swiss conductor and patron to many famous composers, invited Martinů to live on his estate in Switzerland, where he died two years later at the age of 68.

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser

Friday, April 17, 2020

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue

As we continue our time apart together, this week’s dose of great music includes two masterpieces which, as Peter Sirotin described them,  radiate warmth and generosity of spirit. Beethoven created his 'Harp' Quartet during the final stages of his hearing loss, and Schumann composed his String Quartet in A Major during a bout of severe depression. Remarkably, these miraculous works continue to inspire and lift our spirits after almost two centuries. We are  grateful and delighted to share with you extraordinary performances of this music by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin and the Avalon Quartet.

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin performed Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, the “Harp” Quartet as part of their performance with Market Square Concerts first program of the 2012-13 season at Harrisburg’s Market Square Presbyterian Church. (Both of these performances were recorded by Market Square Church's sound technician, Newman Stare.)

Beethoven in 1806
The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:07-2:17 but especially at two structurally significant moments, 6:11-6:27 (as the “development section” turns into the “recapitulation”) and again at 6:58-7:22, both leading up to the return of the main theme. There's one last hurrah at 8:53-9:22 and 9:41-9:48 during the “coda” (or tail) which wraps up the first movement.

The second movement (at 10:15), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 19:38) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition to the finale (at 21:50) works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background, leaving you hanging on an open-ended Dominant 7th chord which resolves directly into the 4th Movement without (hopefully) a break.

This finale (at 24:48) starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was published several years later. It would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets.”

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If you are a fan of the Dialectic – where, basically, an idea (or thesis) generates its opposite (or antithesis) which then combine to form some combination of the two (the synthesis) which in turn becomes a new idea generating its own opposite and so on – both Mozart and Haydn were interested in fashioning something new out of a combination of the current and the old. Beethoven, in his own way, was doing the same thing in the next generation: we have no idea how Mozart would have reacted to it (he would’ve been 44 in 1800, when Beethoven’s first quartets and 1st Symphony were premiered) but Haydn (who was 68, then) couldn’t make much sense out of this “new music,” admiring some of it but basically at a loss to accept it.

By the time Beethoven wrote his Late Quartets – the ultimate in individualism, music so private it was deemed, for better or worse, the result of his isolating deafness – he was well past the heroic outbursts of his Eroica and 5th Symphonies, now in his 50s (we tend to forget Beethoven died at the age of 56 – his music has not only made him timeless, it’s also made him ageless).

In a sense, Mozart’s K.499 Quartet, the earlier work on this original program, is also a transition work that never had a chance to go anywhere since the composer didn’t live long enough to complete the transition (one can only imagine, given the contrapuntal complexity of, say, the “Jupiter” Symphony’s finale from 1788, written only two years later).

Performers, programmers and program-note writers never seem to know where to put Beethoven’s two “lone” quartets – the “Harp” (Op. 74) and the “Serioso” (Op. 95). They’re not quite Middle Period and not yet Late Period. What they are, basically, is an example of how Beethoven did not wake up one morning with a whole new stylistic approach, the Late Period, which seems to begin around the “Hammerklavier Sonata” (1817-1818) before we get to the last three piano sonatas (1820-1822), the 9th Symphony (1822-1824), the Missa Solemnis (1819-1823) and, finally, those Late Quartets (1823-1826).

There is also that very long, very frustrating unproductive period between 1815 and 1818 or so, when his creative output was the lowest during his career and many of his contemporaries thought he had written himself out. Today, we might think of it as a musical extension of a Mid-Life Crisis (he was in his mid-40s, after all) and it would also be easy to blame it on the sheer amount of time and emotional energy consumed by his legal battles with his sister-in-law Johanna for the custody of her son, Karl, not to forget the sudden change in lifestyle when a man who could not imagine marrying, as much as he might seek the companionship of a wife, suddenly found himself with a teenaged boy under his roof.

What we also don’t realize is, after looking after the dates the “Harp” and the “Serioso” were composed, how much further away they are from this “Late Style” and how very much closer they are to the major works – in fact, even in between some of these major works – of the Middle Period: the 5th Symphony (1804-1806) and the 7th Symphony (1812).

The “Harp” Quartet (Op. 74) was written between late 1808 and 1809 and the “Serioso” (Op.95), despite its later opus number, was completed in 1810, not published for some reason until 1816.

Yet they still sound like “transition works.”

Given the regard the public has always had for Beethoven, even in his own day, it’s difficult to think of him as humanly fallible, at least in his music, that he could ever have doubted his own genius – this man who became the Titan, the supreme example of the confident artist.

But a creative style is a fluid thing – or at least, should be – and once you realize you've said all you can say “this way,” you start branching out for “new ways” to express yourself. But such breaks with the past, if conscious, are often scary – and as much a financial risk if your livelihood depends on the audience response to your work.

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The reality of 1809 can’t be ignored: Beethoven’s world was being turned upside down (again) by the siege of Vienna and its subsequent occupation by Napoleon and the French Army. While composing the A Major Cello Sonata, he had to hide in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his head with pillows because the noise of the bombardment so aggravated his delicate hearing, he was in terrible pain (he was not, as we sometimes overlook, “completely” deaf since the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802: that, with its tragically necessary conversation books, would come much later).

It was also the time Haydn, recognized as the greatest composer of the day, was dying – Napoleon was respectful enough to put an honor guard in front of Haydn’s house at the time during the bombardment. Whatever their often prickly relationship may have been, the impending loss of this colossal figure in his life must have had some impact on Beethoven, his former student.

During the occupation, the Imperial Family fled the capital – including Beethoven’s friend, student and, more significantly, patron, the Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s youngest brother, a talented pianist and a composer in his own right. Several of Beethoven’s works are dedicated to him – not the least of them the “Archduke” Trio but also the Triple Concerto (written for him to perform) and the towering Missa Solemnis, initially composed for his being elevated to the post of Archbishop.

The piano sonata Beethoven composed at this time, always known for some reason in French as Les adieux (the “Farewell” Sonata), reflects the farewell to the Imperial family, the desolation of their subjects during their absence, and then looking forward to their hopefully quick, eventual return.

Another of Beethoven’s “public” projects was Incidental Music for Goethe’s play Egmont with its famous Overture but also numerous songs and marches. Considering the play is about the Dutch patriot’s stand against the tyranny of the occupying Spanish Army and its Inquisition, would there be any more reason for Beethoven – who had torn off his 3rd Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon after he’d crowned himself Emperor and proved himself to be just another power-hungry human – to compose this during the French occupation of Vienna? He began the work in October of 1809, though it wasn’t completed and performed until June of 1810, at which time he then began work on the Serioso Quartet. The French, meanwhile, had left Vienna on November 19th, 1809, and the Emperor returned on the 27th.

Another important event happened: the economy was tanking and Beethoven was looking for a way to get out of Vienna, hopefully finding a more stable location with an actual “gig.” As it turned out, Jerome, King of Westphalia – Napoleon’s brother who’d been placed on the throne of a newly created German kingdom to ensure its political loyalty and act as a “model” for other Germanic states – invited Beethoven to consider becoming his court composer, an attempt to turn his capital, Kassel, into an overnight cultural center.

Though it’s hard to imagine Beethoven, the composer of the Eroica Symphony, who broke his friendship with his patron, Prince Lichnowski because he refused to play for French officers who were guests in his castle, becoming an employee of Napoleon’s brother, but he let it be known he was considering it.

His friend, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, helped to negotiate a pension supported by three of Beethoven’s wealthiest friends and patrons: Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph. This annuity allowed Beethoven the financial support to stay in Vienna. While funding was sometimes difficult, especially with the fluctuations of the Austrian economy during these years of Napoleonic Wars, the Archduke was the only one who never reneged on his obligation.

Now, Baron Gleichenstein was also an amateur cellist. After these finances were finalized, Beethoven composed the A Major Cello Sonata and dedicated it to Gleichenstein.

As it turned out, Gleichenstein was courting a niece of Beethoven’s new physician, Dr. Johann Baptiste Malfatti, and she had a sister, Therese, whom Beethoven liked very much (she was 21; he, 40). Beethoven again engaged Gleichenstein’s help in his pursuit of Therese Malfatti which continued for some time without any encouragement from the would-be bride. Eventually, Beethoven gave up and apologized to her for his “mad behavior.”

Afterward, Beethoven wrote to Gleichenstein, “I can therefore seek support only in my own heart; there is none for me outside of it. No, nothing but wounds have come to me from friendship and such kindred feelings – so be it then: for you, poor B[eethoven], there is no happiness in the outer world, you must create it in yourself. Only in the ideal world can you find friends.”

(Gleichenstein was more successful: he and Anna Malfatti were married in 1811.)

However, in 1810, Beethoven apparently was again making plans to marry someone and there have been rumors (the Beethoven Myth Machine is still potent, even today) he was secretly married to another Therese, this one one of his piano students, one of the von Brunsvick sisters – both of them have long been candidates for the mysterious and so far unidentified “Immortal Beloved.” They, by the way, had a cousin named Giulietta Guicciardi with whom Beethoven had earlier been in love with. To Giulietta, he dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata of 1801; to Therese von Brunsvick, he dedicated the Op. 78 Sonata in F-sharp Major, a seemingly slight work in two short movements but one he frequently called one of his favorite pieces. It was also composed in 1809, around the time he was writing the “Harp” Quartet!

Because an artist is often like one long fabric flowing through time, we discover numerous strands weaving together that can create a complex life as well as an equally complex context for the creative works.

There is another aspect I’ve only barely touched, and that is Beethoven’s health – seriously, much more than just his increasing deafness – which also had serious impact on his life though perhaps less so on this particular piece.

But, also seriously, there comes a time I must simply stop writing or you’ll end up with a book.

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The second work in this week's “dose” is Robert Schumann's String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, performed by the Avalon Quartet from Market Square Concerts' November, 2014, program, recorded at Market Square Church:

It's in the standard four movements with the first movement's graceful main theme (0:40) growing out of a motive of its tenuous introduction.

The second movement, Assai agitato (“very agitated”), takes the place of Beethoven's standard scherzo (usually the third movement), but he's put it here for a stronger contrast after a more leisurely and less dramatic first movement. A set of variations, the theme (starting at 7:22) is full of off-kilter syncopations, with the subsequent variations in more agitated moods: at 8:57, it breaks out into an intense round of canonic writing, not quite a fugue; at 9:45, it returns to a more lyrical mood; before (at 11:58) one more manic episode eventually resolves rather suddenly into a far calmer state at 13:16 to conclude.

The slow movement, Adagio molto, beginning at 14:32, is a lush-textured, slowly unwinding song-without-words.

The finale, marked Allegro molto vivace, beginning at 22:51, is full of rhythmic contrasts, from the main themes' joyful dotted rhythms to slightly stormy passages or rustic dances in the other episodes, until (at 28:38) the coda drives everything to a joyful conclusion.

It's almost difficult to tell Schumann had been dealing with depression only a few months before writing these three quartets of Op. 41.

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In late-April of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home following some concerts in Denmark, one where her husband Robert had decided not to continue traveling with her (he'd not been feeling well, having one of his depressive bouts). As the spring progressed, plans for an American tour were receding (much to Robert's relief) and eventually canceled: he was also glad to have his wife home with him as housewife, mother and hostess rather than concert artist. It was a time they had both begun studying string quartets by Mozart and Haydn when Robert decided to put into practice what he had learned.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) which ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine.” The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation – I should mention, without getting too personal, the Schumann’s second child, Elise, was born nine months later – then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September. All three were performed in a house-concert on September 13th, Clara's 23rd birthday.

On the 23rd, then, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he'd started. Twelve days after that, despite the “constant fearful sleepless nights,” he began the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month. In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he later recast as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88) and a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn that later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

All of that in seven months!

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Schumann in 1844
Better known at the time as a writer about music than a composer of it, Schumann had recently complained about the fate of the string quartet genre, how, since the glory days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no one of the next generation had written string quartets of any comparable value.

It’s important to realize, given the easily jumbled chronology of the music we’re familiar with in the concert hall or on recordings, Schumann wrote this article only 15 years after Beethoven’s death (and the Late Quartets were generally unknown and largely unpopular with the typical concert-going audiences of the day) but also about 10 years before he met a young composer named Johannes Brahms (when Schumann composed his quartets, Brahms was still only 9 years old).

By 1842, Felix Mendelssohn was the only major composer of the time who wrote string quartets during the period since Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths, at least any which endured in the repertoire: his first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29 (one more quartet, Op. 80, came later).

It’s not unusual, then, to see Schumann sitting down to write some string quartets of his own to see how he would fare – and then dedicating them to his friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn.

But if Beethoven had his deafness to deal with, in addition to numerous other physical ailments, Schumann had his own issues. Today, it's called “Bipolar Disorder,” but until fairly recently it was still known as “Manic Depression.” Whatever you call it, this is more than mood swings between being happy and feeling sad (“depression” is a word thrown around much too lightly, but there are different levels between “the blues” and the debilitating depths that too often lead to suicide). Essentially, without getting too clinical about it, it's a “mood disorder” defined by “manic episodes” which often involve sleeplessness, sometimes for a period of days, along with hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid rage, and “depressive episodes” which can be more devastating than merely being incapacitating.

Eventually, an extended episode in 1854 led to Schumann's attempt to drown himself in the Rhine, jumping off a bridge near his home in Düsseldorf.

The year Schumann was born, his father, then 37, was diagnosed with a “nervous disorder” which afflicted him the rest of his life: he died when Schumann was 16. The year before, Schumann's sister Emilie died of “a nervous stroke,” officially, though it was known in the family she'd committed suicide. When he was growing up in Zwickau, Schumann's family lived near what was then called “a lunatic asylum” and the idea of that building (where, according to one unsubstantiated report, fact or myth, his father may have died) gave him a life-long dread of such institutions in general.

His “manic depression” first manifested itself in 1833 as the result of the death of his older brother Julius and his wife – but I've only just learned this detail today: how did they die?

First, a little bit of medical history, considering the times we're living in in the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic. The “2nd Cholera Pandemic of 1826-1837” spread from India across western Asia to Europe, Great Britain, the Americas, then Japan and China, though many feel this particular pandemic was a resurgence of the “1st Cholera Pandemic of 1817-1824” which had lingered in Indonesia until 1830.

I only mention this because – timing aside – Schumann's brother and his wife died in October, 1833, as a result of this pandemic and the news of their deaths triggered his first “severe depressive episode,” a term defined as “at least two weeks of 'low mood'... often accompanied by low self-esteem, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, low energy, and pain without a clear cause.” He recovered in early spring of 1834 and went on to found Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik("New Journal for Music" though it's more of a “Journal for New Music”), first published on April 3rd, 1834. This became one of the most famous music journals in Europe and still publishes today under the aegis of the German publishing house of Schott Music.

Clara & Robert Schumann (1846)
Perhaps the central episode of Schumann's life at this time was his relationship with the young pianist and composer Clara Wieck and his piano studies with her father, Friedrich, which began in 1830. This became a prolonged trial ending in an actual trial after Robert and Clara sued Herr Wieck for permission to marry, a long-delayed event which finally happened on September 12th, 1840 (she was a day shy of 21; he was 30). As a composer primarily of piano music at the time, it might strike us odd this happy outcome should result in a flood of some 120 songs!

Since Robert had to abandon his dream of being a concert pianist after wrecking his hand with one of Wieck's “practice-facilitating” contraptions, he focused entirely on his journal and on composing. Even before their marriage, Schumann had already composed his most famous piano pieces: Carnaval, the Symphonic Etudes, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and the Fantasie in C.

But in 1841, he composed two of his four published symphonies – the “Spring” Symphony, his first, and what eventually became his fourth, in D Minor (but not performed and published until ten years later after being substantially revised) – but also sketched four movements of a C Minor Symphony he never completed (the scherzo became one of his piano pieces, Op. 99 No. 13; material from the Adagio ended up in his 2nd Symphony a few years later), and there's the curious Allegro, Scherzo, and Finale which is essentially a symphony-without-a-slow-movement.

Meanwhile, Clara was becoming one of the greatest pianists of her day. Quickly, he realized he was better known as “Mr. Clara Schumann,” overlooked by her adoring public (even when she played his pieces) and soon, Robert found excuses – usually health-related – not to accompany her on some of these tours. This is all a future part of the story, especially following a more serious break-down in October, 1844, preceded by long fits of melancholy, when Clara wrote in her diary how she often found him sleepless, “swimming in tears,” that ten years later led to his attempted suicide on February 27th.

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We often talk a lot about Schumann’s “split personality,” not that he was schizophrenic in the medical sense or that he was any different from any artist who might be 50/50 Right-Brained/Left-Brained, as we might think of it today. Like the ancient Greek philosophers writing dialogues between teacher and student, Schumann often wrote articles or reviews from the viewpoints or with direct conversations between characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. You can figure out which side of his nature is behind the music in each of the movements of this quartet, written at white heat in the summer of his Chamber Music Year.

People often say Schumann might have lived longer had he been treated for his illness but one has to wonder what impact a healthy life might have had on his music – first of all, would he have had the manic energy to tackle so many works in a single genre all at one time over the span of a few months? He might have been like many of his contemporaries, composers he wrote about and even championed, who were talented and perhaps even popular or at least well respected but, from our standpoint today, completely forgotten.

There's a great deal of biographical information regarding Schumann's illness in the remaining years of his life, too much to go into, here (you can read my post, And Schumann at the Close, for some of it), but if you recall his family history I'd mentioned earlier – his father and his sister – and that dread if not fear of the local “lunatic asylum,” the story only becomes more sad when you realize this brilliant and famous composer, one of the leading lights of 19th Century German Romanticism, spent the last 2½ years of his life locked away in such an institution in Bonn, not far from his beloved Rhine, his wife not allowed to visit him. When he composed his last works under the cloud of an increasing depression full of hallucinations and paranoia not to mention self-doubt and creative paralysis, he was 43 years old.

And yet this string quartet, a product of one of his more manic creative swings, remains a work full of life-affirming beauty, doesn't it?

Dick Strawser

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Music, Less Anxious, For a Time of Isolation

The fourth “Weekly Dose of Chamber Music” presented by Market Square Concerts' Artistic Director Peter Sirotin includes selections from the Brasil Guitar Duo's Summermusic 2017 performance and harpist Abigail Kent's special program at the Susquehanna Art Museum on Bastille Day, 2019.

You can read about the Brasil Guitar Duo and their All-Latin-American program in this post. However, that post focused mostly on the first half of the program which featured such familiar names as Piazzolla and Leo Brouwer. So I will add a little information about the "missing pieces" from the second half in this post.

Egberto Gismonti was born in Rio de Janeiro where he began studying piano at the age of 6 and then, after 15 years of study, went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger (see below) who encouraged him to combine “the collective Brazilian experience” with his own musical style. (Notice, this was a slightly different response than the advice she gave Piazzolla.) He also studied with Jean Barraqué, a serialist who'd studied with Webern and Schoenberg.

Gismonti in Buenos Aires, 2017
Self-taught as a guitarist, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began designing guitars with more than the usual six strings, expanding the possibilities of the instrument. “Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives the impression that there is more than a single guitar player.” This recent photograph of him shows him playing his ten-string guitar.

Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin made a lasting impression. “Brazilian culture,” he says, “is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.”

“Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation,” guitarist Derek Gripper writes of his experience with the composer's music. “In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. ...He just showed me what music could be.”

Jacob do Bandolim was born Jacob Pick Bittencourt in 1918. Like many Brazilians a mix of ethnic and religious heritages, he decided to adopt the stage-name “Jacob the Mandolin” after his preferred instrument. He considered music his full-time job but had various day-jobs to support himself and his band, as a pharmacist, an insurance salesman, finally a notary public.

As a composer, he is best known for his many choros – a chôro (pronounced SHO-ru) is an often lively dance despite the name meaning “cry” or “weeping.” North American audiences might be more familiar with the term from the dozen written in the 1920s by Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos for various combinations of instruments, from the first one for solo guitar to the ninth, for full orchestra.

Borrowing influences from various ethnic backgrounds in Brazil – African and European as well as indigenous – it became the first internationally known form of Brazilian “urban popular music” and was adopted by “serious” classically-trained composers – which I guess means that pop musicians are not serious about their music – much in the same way Brahms incorporated the gypsy music of Hungary in his Hungarian Dances or the finales of many of his works like the Violin Concerto or the Piano Quartet No. 1 – or, for that matter, Chopin wrote mazurkas, based on a lively Polish folk-dance, beloved of the elegant salons of Paris.

While Bandolim's career was more on the side of “popular” music – which, I guess, means what we consider concert or classical music is not popular – Marco Pereira, the second composer in this set of guitar duos, would fall clearly on the “classical,” “serious” side of the continuum with his Masters degree from the Paris Sorbonne and a day-job as a teacher of harmony, composition and arranging, as well as of improvisation at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. But, like Astor Piazzolla in Argentina, he chose not to focus on symphonies and string quartets and other abstract forms of “serious” music, writing a great deal of music as well as books reflecting the particular spirit that defines his native Brazil.

Born in São Paolo the same year as Pereira – 1950 – Paulo Bellinati is a world-traveled classical guitar performer and composer who, after graduating from the conservatory in his home-town, lived in Switzerland where he studied and taught in the late-'70s. As a scholar, he researched the life and music of Brazilian guitarist Aníbal Augusto Sardinha (known as “Garoto”), he also “developed a contemporary approach to Brazilian folklore, enhancing traditional forms with modern compositional techniques and harmonies.”

Together, all these create a varied sampling of the many “dialects” of the Latin American musical language – as varied as one might expect to find when comparing European composers from different countries and eras or even American composers from different backgrounds in our own country.

In an earlier post, I'd mentioned the old argument about “what constitutes an American composer?” – is it a composer who reflects “the American experience” (whatever that is) or someone who is, basically, born and trained in America?

When I started writing this post, I decided to check for some generic information about “Latin American Music” and found this, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States."

And while that may seem self-evident, rather than building pigeon-holes, much less walls, perhaps it's really all we need to consider when trying to define something so richly complex as music?

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And now, some French music – appropriately from a Bastille Day recital given at the Susquehanna Art Museum on July 14th, 2019 (after the past month, that seems sooo long ago) by the harpist, Abigail Kent. From her program, you can hear works by four different composers: Germaine Tailleferre, Gabriel Fauré, Lili Boulanger, and Carlos Salzedo.

These composers all lived around the same time in Paris: Fauré, the oldest of these four, died in 1924, and had long been head of the Paris Conservatoire; Germaine Tailleferre “came-of-age” in Paris during World War I, and became a member of the group known as Les Six around 1920, even though her Harp Sonata dates from considerably later in her life; Lili Boulanger won the Conservatoire's Prix de Rome, the first woman to do so, in 1913 (when she was 19) and died in 1918 only ten days before Debussy; and Carlos Salzedo was a harp student at the Conservatoire where in 1901 he won 1st Prize in both harp and piano competitions on the same day (he was 16).

Like many members of the Younger Generation, past and present, there was a distinct backlash to the going style of the establishment's Older Generation – in this case, primarily Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Debussy – and while Tailleferre was a student there at the same time as Maurice Ravel (who, in our tendency to pair great names of an era into one entity, is often lumped together with Debussy as an “Impressionist”), she would later hang out with other friends like Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and other like-minded souls of what was then the Avant-Garde

Surprisingly, this Sonata for Harp was composed in 1953 when she was in her early-60s – it's often dated 1957, the year it was published – and initially written for the Spanish harpist, Nicanor Zabaletta, the “other” great harpist of the day (see Carlos Salzedo, below). Despite the date, one catches a bit of American jazz, a pinch of the Spanish habañera, and a dash of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto but very little if anything of what was trending in post-World-War-II Europe or America. Barely ten minutes long, it's in the standard three movements with an opening Allegretto and a concluding Perpetual Motion (beginning c.6:36) surrounding a beautiful Lento (c.2:58).

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Erik Satie was the Grand Old Man of French Iconoclasts at the time and in 1917, at the ripe old age of 51, he wanted to form a group of young musicians orbiting around him called Les nouveaux jeunes when the dark days of the War with all its anti-German fervor continued to drag on-and-on. But Satie soon lost interest in the idea and it was taken up by the unclassifiable free-spirit-du-jour, Jean Cocteau when critic Henri Collet quite arbitrarily lumped six young composers whose works frequently appeared on the same programs and called them, rather unimaginatively, Les six.

Les Six: Poulenc, Tailleferre, Durey, Cocteau, Milhaud, Honegger (caricature of the absent Auric by Cocteau)
And so, Germaine Tailleferre ended up linked with Milhaud and Poulenc as well as Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric and Louis Durey for life like Les six was some musical “All-for-One-and-One-for-All” Band of Brothers (and a Sister). Truth is, collectively, they had little in common: technically, they weren't even all French since Arthur Honegger was Swiss-born and more of a Germanic Romanticist. Like Satie who eventually joined the French Communist Party in the late-1920s, Louis Durey quickly drifted away from the pack and himself became a Communist, writing mostly party-oriented songs and anthems. Auric and Poulenc followed in Cocteau's aesthetic footsteps and Milhaud called himself a “Mediterranean Lyricist,” though one of his most famous pieces has decidedly Les sixian roots: one of the places they would hang out was called Le boeuf sur la toit which became the title for his decidedly surreal ballet premiered in 1920. If nothing else, the fact they had a member who was a woman probably made them seem even more “notorious.”

Born Marcelle Germaine Taillefesse in 1892, when she decided she wanted to go to Paris to study music in 1904 and her father refused to support her, Germaine changed her name – just slightly – to Tailleferre to spite him. There, palling around with Milhaud and Honegger, she met Erik Satie and in 1918, her String Quartet appeared on a program given by the Nouveau Jeunes which became her entrance into Les six two years later. Though she never ventured very far from the sound-world of Fauré and her friend Ravel (someone else she used to hang out with as a student), she quickly branched out from The Group of Six and would, over the years, find influences from Couperin and Scarlatti to from Milhaud's forays into polytonality (the use of different keys simultaneously), and even a bit of Schoenbergian serialism in the late-1950s.

Une compositrice avec son chien
One of a handful of “women composers” [though now, finally, called “composers”] recognized internationally before the late-20th Century, the 1980 edition of Grove's Dictionary says “her music has always been gracious and feminine, qualities well displayed in the 1st Violin Sonata... or the sparkling orchestral Ouverture which recaptures something of Chabrier's verve.”

If you want to hear more, there are many works by Tailleferre I could recommend, but I'll just mention two: her 2nd Violin Sonata (written in 1951 but which one source says is an adaptation of a 1937 Violin Concerto) – here's the 3rd movement  – and her Piano Trio (a 1978 rewriting of a work from her mid-20s) with two links, a live performance and a different recording, with score.

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Gabriel Fauré is the common denominator in this set of four French harp pieces: as a leading composer and teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, he was The Old Guard Tailleferre and her fellow students of Les six were reacting against, even if, like many young radicals, her musical approach may have mellowed over the years. Even Georges Auric had said, shortly before the old man's death, “He was the Master of us all.”

Fauré also directly taught Nadia Boulanger and, indirectly, her younger sister, Lili; and even though Carlos Salzedo never studied composition with him, Fauré did sign a waiver so the young harp and piano student could take a counterpoint class after he had written out a Bach fugue from memory.

Here is Abigail Kent, performing the best known of Fauré's works for harp, Une Châtelaine en sa Tour.

This short work, its title cumbersomely translatable as “a lady of the castle in her tower,” is an elegiac piece whose title came from a poem by Paul Verlaine which Fauré had set about 25 years earlier, opening the song cycle La bonne chanson.

The eight songs were written while Fauré was staying at the home of the soprano Emma Bardac and her banker husband. Each day she would sing what he had just written: inspired by his love for her, he admitted they were one of his most spontaneous creations and so he dedicated the cycle to her and she gave it its premiere at a private concert in 1894. Two members of the audience had different reactions: Camille Saint-Saëns thought Fauré, his former student, had gone mad; Marcel Proust, later the author of the memory-inspired À la recherche du temps perdu, one of the great novels of the 20th Century, adored it.

Verlaine's 21 poems, completed in the spring of 1870, were the result of his love for a young woman named Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville whose Germanic first name inspired the Carolingian reference concluding Une Sainte en son auréole (a saint in her halo), a reference to the 9th Century empire of Charlemagne and the distant age of feudalism. It was the second line which provided Fauré with the title of his piece for harp in 1918. And while the term Châtelaine may be mysterious to a modern American, its decidedly medieval reference to “the wife of the lord of a chateau” would bring up a whole other world of knights and chivalry than simply referring to someone as “a lady.”

(You can listen to a recording by Barbara Hendricks of Fauré's setting of Une Sainte en son auréole, here.)

Verlaine's Mathilde was, by the way, 16 years old at the time, and he would marry her not long after writing these poems. However long Fauré's love for Emma Bardac lasted beyond their affair which began in 1892 (around the time he was staying with Emma and her husband, and writing La bonne chanson) – their relationship also resulted in a suite of little birthday pieces for her daughter, Régina-Hélène (a.k.a. “Dolly”), which the composer gathered into a piano duet called, appropriately, “The Dolly Suite.” Bardac, who'd married her husband when she was 17, would later meet Claude Debussy in 1903 (her older son, Raoul, was studying with him at the time), then the following year they decided to divorce their current spouses – unfortunately, Debussy's wife became so distraught, her attempted suicide caused a scandal but that's another story for another digression. Suffice it to say that Debussy and Emma's daughter, Claude-Emma (born in 1905), known to music-lovers as “Chou-Chou,” also inspired some piano pieces: “The Children's Corner.”

So, not to focus on Fauré's love-life, I'll just mention after his affair with Emma Bardac ended he met the daughter of Alphonse Hasselmann, the Conservatoire's harp professor, in 1900, beginning an open relationship with her that lasted until Fauré's death in 1924.

Fauré: Un compositeur à son bureau
One of Hasselmann's students was Micheline Kahn who won first prize in harp in 1904 when she was 14, which included a performance of Fauré's Impromptu, Op. 86, written for the competition. In 1913, the now established performer wrote to Fauré asking if she could publish her arrangements of three of his pieces – two from the Dolly Suite, a third from his music for the play Pelleas et Melisande – a project the composer welcomed.

Then came World War I. The worst battles were fought in the river valleys and woods between Paris and the Rhine and during the course of the war, Fauré arranged concerts to benefit wounded soldiers in Paris. Micheline Kahn was a frequent performer (Fauré used to send her occasionally flirtatious postcards in verse alerting her to upcoming performances with suggestion for repertoire). Eventually, in the spring of 1918, the Germans began shelling the French capital, the first of some 300 bombs to terrify Parisians falling four days before Debussy died.

Holiday Snap: Micheline Kahn & Gabriel Fauré, 1918
In 1918, then, Mlle Kahn was invited to join Fauré and some friends on holiday in Sainte-Raphaël on the Provençal coast near Nice (see photo, above), where he presented her with his recently completed Une Châtelaine en sa Tour which she then premiered on November 30th, 1918, in Paris, just weeks after the end of the war.

Many believe the brief work is an elegy – “but for what?” Fauré never says, but he left two hints, didn't he? The quotation from Emma Bardac's songs may imply memories of a lost love; the timing – written after four years of mind-numbing war – may be more realistic for a country (or at least a city) whose lost innocence was now a thing of the past, as the world (certainly everyone's own immediate, personal world) would begin a necessary healing.

There's also another possibility: the medieval image of the Chatelaine, the lady isolated in her castle tower, watching for the return of her husband (or lover) from some distant war, perhaps the Crusades – waiting for news that traveled far more slowly than it did even in 1918, much less today.

Writing about Fauré as a teacher, the musicologist Henry Prunières said, "What Fauré developed among his pupils was taste, harmonic sensibility, the love of pure lines, of unexpected and colorful modulations; but he never gave them [recipes] for composing according to his style and that is why they all sought and found their own paths in many different, and often opposed, directions." [quoted in Copland's “Gabriel Fauré, a Neglected Master,” published in the October 1924 issue of the Musical Quarterly; Fauré died on November 4th, 1924]

In addition to Ravel, two more of his students were the Boulanger Sisters, Nadia (around 1903-1904; she would later teach Aaron Copland, starting in 1921) and Lili (before 1913). And so we segue to the next piece on the program.

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Abigail Kent performs her arrangement of Lili Boulanger's Prelude in D-flat Major, written originally for piano.

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger, known to the world as Lili, was two years old in 1895 when family friend Gabriel Fauré stopped by for a visit and realized the child had perfect pitch. Her father Ernest (who was 77 years old when she was born) had won the Prix de Rome – a free year in Rome to study and create – in 1835 (ten years before Fauré was born!). Her mother, Raissa Mychetskaya (in one source, she's a Russian countess; in others, a princess) was a soprano who gave both her daughters their first music lessons.

When she was 5, Lili tagged along when older sister Nadia went for her music lessons at the Conservatoire and not long afterward, Lili would be sitting in on theory classes and taking organ lessons (don't ask me how she reached the pedals). She later studied piano, violin, cello – and harp (with Alphonse Hasselmann). Apparently, though, she didn't begin composing until she was 16 and studied primarily with Paul Vidal (whose claims to fame were winning the Prix de Rome the year before Claude Debussy, where he and Debussy played a two-piano arrangement of Liszt's Faust Symphony for the composer in 1886 which, apparently, Liszt slept through).

Lili Boulanger: une compositrice à son bureau
She entered the Conservatoire officially in 1912 and made it to the finals of that year's Prix de Rome competition, but during the rigorous course of writing her entry fell ill and had to withdraw. As no one won that year's award, there were two the following year and Lili won one of them, the first “woman composer” ever to win a Prix de Rome. An attack of measles then prevented her from going to Rome until March of 1914. Going home for what was to be a brief vacation that summer, she was kept in Paris when World War I began, not returning to Rome until 1916 where she faced considerable animosity from the Academy's director who felt the mere presence of a woman would prove a disruption...

Once again, illness became an issue, forcing her to return home before her scholarship had ended. She died of “intestinal tuberculosis” in March of 1918. She was 24.

Needless to say, the loss of such potential, knowing what compositions we do have, is considerable. When Lili won her Prix de Rome, Nadia, herself a composer, decided to give up composing, saying that Lili was the one who had the talent; instead, she decided to focus on teaching (again, another story for another time).

Lili Boulanger's Prelude in D-flat
The Prelude in D-flat which Ms Kent performs on this program in her own arrangement was composed in March, 1911, when Lili Boulanger was 17, one of her earliest compositions written before she officially became a student at the Conservatoire.

What new music might she have heard at the time? Stravinsky's Firebird was premiered in Paris in June, 1910, but his next ballet, Petrushka wouldn't be premiered until June, 1911. Though he began composing The Rite of Spring that summer, it wouldn't be premiered in Paris until May, 1913.

More of a direct influence is evident from the first book of Preludes Debussy published in 1910 – particularly La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) or Voiles (Sails) with their non-traditional use of coloristic harmonies. If anything inspired a young composer to go and do likewise, it would be these pieces that fired her own creative imagination.

Maurice Ravel would become more of an influence on her later music. His Piano Trio was premiered in Paris in January, 1915. Compare Ravel's scherzo, “Pantoum,” to Boulanger's D'un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning), a brief scherzo which was first composed for violin and piano in the spring of 1917 (you can listen to it, here).

She also made arrangements of it for piano trio as well as flute and piano before turning it into an orchestral tone poem. This would be the last work she was able to complete though she needed help from her sister to fill in the dynamic details and performance directions.

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And now, last but not least-well-known, the music of Carlos Salzedo as Abigail Kent closes this program with a virtuosic work by the most influential harpist of the 20th Century, his Ballade, the first of three pieces published in 1914 as his Op.28.

Despite the Spanish name, Salzedo was born in the popular seaside resort of Arcachon on the Bay of Biscay in southwestern France, though only because his parents – musicians who lived in Bayonne just north of the Spanish border – were on vacation and his mother fell down the stairs, going into labor two months prematurely! A musical family – his father was a singer who would later teach at the Paris Conservatoire; his mother, a pianist who was the “summer-court pianist” to the Queen of Spain when she visited Biarritz; his older brother, a violinist – young León-Charles began playing the piano and played for the Queen when he was 3. He also composed a little polka he entitled “Mosquito.” His mother died a few years later, the family moved to Bordeaux and by the time he was 7, Salzedo began studying at the music school there.

Two years later, they moved to Paris where he entered the Conservatoire at the age of 9 as a piano student. His father decided he should also have a second instrument, so he began taking harp lessons as well, studying with Alphonse Hasselmann (see above) and, now 13, entering the Conservatoire this time as a harp student, in addition to being a piano student. When he was 16, he won first prize in the harp competition and in the piano competition, both on the same day. Two years later, he gave his first public recital as both harpist and pianist and changed his first name from León-Charles to Carlos.

Though he hadn't taken the requisite courses to sign up for a course in counterpoint, Fauré signed the waiver to allow the exception for Salzedo after he'd written out a Bach fugue from memory.

Un compositeur avec son piano et sa harpe
But still, Salzedo only began taking composition seriously a few years before the start of World War I when he was already in his mid-20s, after graduating from the Conservatoire and going off to New York to play in the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra (at the invitation of Toscanini) in 1909. He left there in 1913, formed a touring chamber group and, on a tour of England, decided to get married and honeymoon in France where the newlyweds found themselves trapped by the start of the war. Salzedo was drafted, made a cook for his unit (yes, that sounds about right: “you're a musician? Fine, then you can cook...”) and was discharged after a year with pneumonia.

Eventually, he returned to the United States where he became an American citizen, performed widely, taught even more widely, starting the Harp Department at Curtis in 1924 and establishing a “Harp Camp” in Maine which continued to evolve even after his death in 1961.

This Ballade was the first of three pieces called “Trois morceaux” (appropriately, Three Pieces) which he wrote in 1913 and published the following year as his Op. 28. Fauré thought his previous work, a Piece concertante, Op. 27, was “promising.” He would go on to write a great deal of music for solo harp or chamber music with harp, all exploring the potential of the technique for the instrument, mostly in coloristic effects but even in “suitable gestures” which he developed for the players in collaboration with no less than Nijinsky, the great dancer and choreographer, who was a neighbor of his in Maine!

While Salzedo's playing technique has become standard to most music lovers today, to understand the evolution of harp playing, perhaps this analogy with the piano might help. In Mozart's day, the harpsichord-like fortepiano's limited range and scope could not compare to the vast concert grands of the mid-19th Century which had more keys and more effects possible with its pedals. Then, too, there was the difference in “writing for the piano” that evolved from Mozart through Beethoven to Chopin and Liszt. Plus, you can throw in a few of those special effects championed by Henry Cowell (like “The Banshee” of 1925) or John Cage, exploring the insides of the piano with plucking the strings or placing objects on or between strings to affect the timbre which he began in the late-1930s (do not try this at home).

Not that Salzedo was imitating any of these styles – most of his music sounds more related to Ravel who was, as an excellent pianist, also a master of keyboard technique – but yes, essentially Salzedo covered the distance between Mozart and Cage, about 160 years' development, in a mere decade.

One of the technical aspects of the harp which continues to mystify many composers still is the use of the pedals. Unlike the piano, the harp's pedals have a different raison d'etre which does not involve letting the sound ring or affecting the strings' color: they change the harp-strings' pitch. The piano has a string or set of strings for each key, but the harp can only have so many strings if it's to remain practical within the limitations of the human arm. So basically the instrument is what we call a “diatonic” instrument – let's say, a piano that can only play a seven-note scale (where a piano has a key for each of the 12 pitches of the “chromatic” scale).

In order to play, let's say, an F-sharp, the harpist shifts a pedal that affects all the F strings on the instrument and changes them to F-sharp. But it can't play an F-natural in the left hand and an F-sharp in the right: all the F strings become F-sharps at once. So, in a practice that drives theory teachers wild, a harpist would play an F-natural in the left hand, but a G-flat in the right (a G-flat and an F-sharp being the same on a piano, a practice that drives string players wild).

Part of the problem for harpists with modern atonal music – whether “12-tone” or not – is the lack of “diatonic consistency” which means there's a lot of pedal-shifting. I remember a harp student at Eastman (her teacher was one of Salzedo's leading students, Alice Chalifoux) who was confronted by a harp-ignorant composer's chamber piece where the prominent harp part had her feet moving almost as much as her hands were, constantly changing the seven pedals that stretch across the base of the instrument. She eventually could play it as written, though she said it was unnecessarily difficult and would have been greatly improved if the composer had been a little more careful with his choice of pitches and the frequency with which pedals would've needed to be changed.

Her main concession, she admitted, was wearing black sneakers instead of her usual concert-dress shoes: otherwise the constant clattering of her feet on the stage's hardwood floor would sound like an entire percussion section playing a perpetual motion in the background, at times drowning out some of the piece's quieter passages. I remember another harpist holding a special “master class in writing for the harp” for us Eastman composition students: she admitted it was more in self-defense than anything else but I found it very helpful (not that I've ever written much for harp).

This is not a problem limited to students. Elliott Carter (who had studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the early-1930s) wrote his “Mosaic” for Harp and seven instruments in 2004 at the age of 95. This, he explained, was a recollection of having known and worked with Carlos Salzedo “a long time ago.” But yet the harpist's feet are still dancing almost constantly to accommodate his all-12-note chromatic style. When interviewed by the director of an ensemble playing it, Carter said the biggest challenge in fact was this business of “trying not to have the lady changing pedals on every single note,” to which the conductor replied, “you did a very bad job, I have to tell you...”

As far as his own compositions are concerned, Salzedo's impact may be more in his having become a champion for his instrument with most of the great composers of his day, particularly regarding the “expanded techniques” available to the instrument either as a soloist or within the orchestra. This cross-fertilization between composers and performers continues today with the legion of Salzedo students and grand-students who have since populated many of the best orchestras and music schools around the world.

Dick Strawser