Thursday, June 25, 2020

A 30-Something Composer Looks at his Roots: Ligéti & his 1st String Quartet

“For this week’s dose of great music I chose a brilliant and perhaps somewhat challenging String Quartet No. 1 by György Ligéti. This richly nuanced score offers a vast range of sonorities, far beyond typical string quartet repertoire. It was jokingly called “Bartók’s 7th quartet” because of its stylistic connection to Bartók’s masterpieces. That said, it is a deeply authentic work from a musical giant in his own right. The Rolston String Quartet, winner of the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award, gave us an extraordinary performance of this incredibly virtuosic work. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

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The concert a month before this one, marked the return of the Pacifica Quartet, when I wrote about the “classical music Cycle of Life,” how those new, young quartets appearing side-by-side with the Great Quartets of one generation may eventually become the Established Quartets of the Present who might, with any luck, become a Great Quartet of the Future. And then along comes another new, young quartet.

It is now the Rolston Quartet's shot at the brass ring (pardon the merry-go-round analogy but sometimes the music business is like that), having won the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award. At the time of our concert, they were on their prize's tour, bringing them to eight different chamber music presenters, along with Carnegie Hall, around the country, including Buffalo, Detroit, Washington DC, Kansas City, Urbana (IL) and Austin (TX) as well as Harrisburg.

In 2016, they also won first prize at the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition. What does that mean for a young quartet? Well, it's more than just a trophy for their practice room and bragging rights: it comes with a three-year career development program worth $150,000, a recording, and $25,000 in cash.

On their April program to close Market Square Concerts' 2018-2019 Season (that may seem like so long ago, now...), they performed the 1st String Quartet by György Ligéti which he titled Metamorphoses nocturnes. Rather than a standard three- or four-movement format of alternating tempos and moods, Ligéti's quartet is a series of short dream-like fragments interlocked by often evolving motives. While you could follow the program to figure out which segment you're currently listening to, usually by the time you'd figure it out (if you haven't lost your place, one way or another), we're on to the next segment.

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.) - All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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György Ligéti was a Hungarian composer, born in what was once part of Hungary but is now part of Romania, the same region where Bela Bartók was born. His 1st String Quartet, heavily influenced by Bartók's style, was completed in 1954 after he'd started teaching at the conservatory in Budapest, two years before the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution after which he fled to Vienna. Between 1973 and 1989, he taught at the famous music school in Hamburg, Germany, and died in Vienna in 2006.

Music that is “new” – and Ligéti's quartet from 66 years ago is hardly “new” anymore – is often difficult for some listeners unfamiliar with its style. Yes, it's “dissonant” in the sense its harmonies are not the traditional major and minor triads we're most familiar with; yes, it appears “shapeless” if you're listening for recognizable structures like the Sonata Form (frankly, if a contemporary of Haydn's came back 66 years later and heard Liszt and Wagner, they would've thought the same thing); and it might even “lack melody” since it's not based on 19th Century ideals of what makes a memorable tune (something that also might come to mind listening to a Renaissance mass).

But a convincing performance can make up for a lot of misconceptions about “modern” music. I've pointed out many times that if we heard a group play Beethoven without conviction or understanding of its inner workings, we'd think “well, they didn't play that very well!” And then, on the same program, they played a new and unfamiliar piece we'd never heard before, maybe a world premiere that no one has ever heard before, and played it with the same lack of conviction and understanding, we'd blame it on the composer.

You're in for a very convincing performance of Ligéti's Metamorphoses nocturnes from the Rolston Quartet, full of conviction and an understanding of what makes it “tick.”

And while “dissonance” is more “an unexpectedness requiring some form of resolution” rather than just “something unpleasant sounding,” that typical cadence of Classical Tonality which shows up so unexpectedly at 7:10 is truly one of the most dissonant major chords I've ever heard!

György Ligéti in 1984
More people have heard his music – mostly through the use of his Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” – without knowing who he is, much less how to pronounce his name. Despite its looking like an Italian name – Ligeti with an accent on the second syllable – it's Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, regardless of the accent-looking thing on the 'e' (in Hungarian, that's not a stress accent)! His first name, György, is often mispronounced Gyór-ghee but in Hungarian, the “y” softens the “g,” so it's actually “zhorzh” (and those two dots are not a German umlaut).

Regardless, the name often strikes fear in the hearts of unsuspecting concert-goers, hearing he is one of the most innovative of avant-garde composers in the second half of the 20th Century. And true, much of his music can be dizzyingly dissonant, bringing to it an edge and excitement that makes him one of the more identifiable voices in modern music. But everybody has their roots somewhere, and the 1st String Quartet is evidence of his.

The first of two published quartets, this is what the composer himself called “The Pre-historic Ligéti.” It is in one movement but consists of a series of no less than seventeen miniature “nocturnes” (in the sense of night-dreams which can often be nightmarish, rather than in the reflective sense of Chopin) interconnected by various motives but often relying on stark and very sudden contrasts (as can happen in dreams). So the technical “metamorphosis” of these motives and the emotional “nocturnal” imagery lend the work its subtitle, “Metamorphoses nocturnes.” No sunrise and chatty birds, here.

While the program lists all seventeen tempo indications as if they're individual movements, you would do better just to listen to the piece as it evolves rather than try to follow where you are on this list. Some of them will have obvious divisions; sometimes the obvious “waltz-like nature” of one (a bit woozy, perhaps) will erupt into a Bartók dance-frenzy as if you'd tripped over a dime – and you may just miss the shock of it if you're trying to count which nocturne's coming up next. To be honest, since they're not marked in the score and none of them are given programmatic names, several of them don't seem to have beginnings or endings – again, very much like your dreams.

If you're familiar with Ligeti's more famous and cosmically colorful orchestral work Atmospheres from 1961, which one critic described as “a study in orchestration waiting for a piece to happen,” pay attention to the constantly shifting variety of colors he manages to get from just four string players – particularly near the end!

Being a Hungarian composer studying in Budapest – one of his teachers was Bartók's friend, Zoltan Kodály – the influence of Bela Bartók will be a given. And with Kodály's influence, so will the interest in folk music, though less so in this piece than in many of his later works.

The opening of the quartet is pure Bartók – crawling scale-wise passages often a half-step apart – and as the rest of it unfolds, it would be easier to point out parts that are not inspired, directly or indirectly, by Bartók. Considering the piece was composed only eight years after Bartók's death, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. And then, too, Ligeti was still a relatively young man, given how some composers develop. Yes, Beethoven produced his “Early Quartets” around the time he was pushing 30; if Ligéti'd lived only as long as Schubert, this would be about all we'd have of his music and we'd probably have never heard of him.

Ligeti in the mid-1950s
Let's consider a bit of biography which might help explain the composer's psychological development. As Lucy Murray mentions in her program notes – always recommended, whether you read them before or after but not during the concert – critic and author Alex Ross describes Ligeti's work as “artwork that answers horror by rejecting it or transcending it.”

Consider that Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti resumed his studies in Budapest and began this quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.” It would not be performed until 1958, by which time he had fled the failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which the Soviet government put down with fierce brutality. From there, he settled in Vienna and eventually became an Austrian citizen.

(A colleague of mine at UConn described what that time was like: a college student supporting the Revolution, he was warned by friends the police were at his home, waiting to arrest him. So without anything more than what he had on his back or in his pockets, without saying good-bye to friends and family, he set out on foot in the middle of the night for the Austrian border and eventually made it to Vienna and freedom.)

Since anything that happens beyond these events will post-date the string quartet on the program, there's no need, here, to go into further detail. But if you have a chance, I highly recommend acquainting yourself with at least these two piano pieces that represent Ligeti's later style – where, in a sense, this “pre-historic” voice went. Again, they might be considering “nocturnal” in the sense of dream-like ambiguity and the pounding fear of nightmares. These links will take you to two of his etudes, subtitled “Autumn in Warsaw” (1985) and “The Devil's Staircase” (1993) which, frankly, could serve as an anthem for 2020... (but I digress).

– Dick Strawser

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Saint-Saëns' Final Word: A Bassoon Sonata at 85

This week’s dose of great music features a charming Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, a last composition created by then 85-year old Camille Saint-Saens in 1921. In this performance, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, winner of the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, is joined by MSC Director, pianist Ya-Ting Chang.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts.

This program was part of the Summermusic series, recorded at Market Square Church on July 19th, 2013.

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.) - All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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The sonata opens with a gentle but brief Allegro moderato, continues with a sprightly Allegro scherzando (at 3:10), followed by a Molto adagio (at 7:16) blending into another gentle Allegro moderato with a lively but brief finale (at 12:22) to conclude. As is often typical of creative artists in old age, this music is a distillation of those classical influences, especially his beloved Mozart, rather than the "excesses" (as he called them) of his earlier maturity, more familiar works from the age of late-19th Century Romanticism. One commentator described the sonata as "a model of transparency, vitality and lightness" containing humorous touches but also moments of peaceful contemplation.

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Camille Saint-Saëns, famous for his popular Carnival of the Animals and the “Organ” Symphony, offers us a little-heard Bassoon Sonata that was the last piece he composed when he was 85. Hearing this work for the first time only a few years ago, I was reminded how one of those concert companion books I grew up with as a child included Saint-Saëns in a chapter called “French Composers of the Charm School.”

Saint-Saëns, prodigy
Unlike many composers, especially those who exemplify the rule of the "suffering artist," Camille Saint-Saëns had it easy: a prodigy who began composing at the age of 3 (?!), he could play all of Beethoven's piano sonatas from memory when he was 10. Hector Berlioz heard a symphony Saint-Saëns composed when he was 17, and wrote, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

In 1886, he produced his two best-known works, the witty (and mostly irreverent) Carnival of the Animals and the grandest of French symphonies, his Third, the famous “Organ” Symphony which he dedicated to the memory of his friend, Franz Liszt, who had just died.

The Bassoon Sonata is one of three wind sonatas composed in his final year. It is amazing to hear it, once you realize it was written in 1921 and recall how, at the first concert performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a year after its premiere, he famously stalked out of the hall shortly after the music began, complaining about the composer's misuse of the bassoon in its famous opening solo.

When Saint-Saëns was young, he was considered a progressive, championing the more radical styles of Liszt and Berlioz. Born eight years after Beethoven's death, his early career ran parallel with the mature Chopin and Mendelssohn. He was considered “the most German of all French composers” mostly because he often wrote with a sense of counterpoint – writing independent lines that worked melodically as well as harmonically rather than in the standard melody-plus-accompaniment approach – which was considered an academic German technique. When they called him “The French Beethoven,” it was not always meant as a compliment.

En route to California, 1915
By the end of his career, he was regarded as uselessly old-fashioned, especially by Debussy and Ravel. Even though he may have been the earliest-born pianist to make a recording of his playing and the first major composer to write for the film (in 1908), he fought against the influences of new music either by Debussy or Richard Strauss. He (like many of his contemporaries) considered Stravinsky “mad.” Hearing the polytonal music of Darius Milhaud, he said “fortunately, there are still lunatic asylums in France.”

We often hear about people reaching their old age turning to the past. But if you check with those who remain vitally involved with the present and thinking about their future, what keeps them going is keeping busy, getting involved in some project or other, perhaps volunteering to keep active or doing something they've always enjoyed, that gives them a sense of purpose. Certainly, a composer as successful and productive as Saint-Saëns could have ridden out retirement on a vast collection of well-deserved laurels.

But instead, at 85, Saint-Saëns was planning a series of sonatas for wind instruments. He'd already completed one for oboe and another one for clarinet when, in May, 1921, he began this one for bassoon. Finishing it in June, he'd planned on writing three more, though we don't know exactly what they might've become.

Throughout his life, he was also a fine pianist. He'd already given his "farewell concert" in 1913, but World War I brought him back to perform numerous concerts to raise money for various war-related charities and to help build morale in those very dark times. On November 5th, 1921, less than a month after turning 86, Saint-Saëns gave a recital at Paris' famed Institute for a large invited audience. According to a French musicologist writing a tribute to him in 1922, his playing was as vivid and precise as ever, and that his personal bearing gave no hint of the heart attack that would suddenly end his life a little over a month later.

Saint-Saëns at his best is usually regarded today as a composer of great facility while the music of his last decade is generally overlooked if not dismissed. That, however, is only in the context of what was being written around him. If an old dog cannot be expected to learn new tricks, why should we begrudge a composer in his 80s for waxing nostalgic over the Good Old Days?

Rossini and Sibelius are two famous composers who chose to stop writing at the peak of their careers because the latest trends were becoming so foreign to them, spending their final decades in silence. We often wonder “what if...?”

Saint-Saëns at least kept on going, right to the very end.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dvořák's Not-Quite-the-Last-Word on the String Quartet

“This week’s dose of great music offers Dvořák’s grand and poetic String Quartet in G Major Op. 106 in a memorable performance by the Escher String Quartet, former BBC New Generation Artists and winners of the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

This performance was recorded on November 2nd, 2016, the second half of a program that featured Mozart's next-to-last string quartet and Bartók's 2nd with the Escher Quartet in their first appearance in Harrisburg. They would return in 2018 for another program that would include Bartók's 3rd Quartet and Alexander Zemlinksy's 4th along with Dvořák's last quartet, the Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op.105. Curiously, both of these Dvořák quartets were completed in December, 1895 – and therein lies a tale.

Antonín Dvořák began sketching this A-flat Major quartet while still living and teaching at the National Conservatory in New York City, leaving town in the midst of the spring term in '95 when the school's money ran out and it couldn't meet his paycheck. After his return to Prague, in the midst of working on that one (something he was uncharacteristically having problems with), he wrote a whole new and entirely different string quartet, and it's that one which became the String Quartet the Escher Quartet performed on this program, the Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106.

(In case you missed that, Quartet No. 13 is Op.106 and Quartet No. 14 is Op.105. Hence, the tale – but more on that later.)

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)
All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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It's in the usual four movements: the first one is in sonata form working basically with two main themes which Dvořák breaks up into more succinct motivic elements during the course of the movement. The development section is one of the finest examples of Dvořák’s compositional skills, with its complex evolution, mutual combination and transformation of individual motivic ideas ranging through some (even for the 1890s) daring harmonic encounters, all carried off with a totally unself-conscious spontaneity.

The slow movement alternates two segments in different tempos, one in the minor mode, the other in the major, even though the thematic material in both is essentially the same. This provides a sense of contrast on the surface but a sense of unity beneath the surface you might not be aware of.

The third movement, a traditional dance-like scherzo with a contrasting middle section or “trio,” may be the close of Dvořák’s “American” period – most of the piece had been sketched in America but not written out in its more extended form until he'd returned home. With the basic character of the movement, its rhythmical treatment and the “pentatonic nuances” often associated with folk music in its second subject, you can hear reflections of the scherzo from the composer’s “New World” Symphony, premiered in New York City in May of 1894.

Compared to the earlier movements, the finale fits a rondo-like pattern where a theme recurs in between contrasting episodes. He uses various mood changes which you can hear in the first few bars, before the initial restless atmosphere gives way to a bright and lively melody. As he often did, Dvořák brings back themes from previous movements, an approach usually referred to as “cyclical,” though Beethoven had done it and Bruckner continued to do until he left his last symphony incomplete at his death in 1896. But it's a good way to tie some loose ends together at the end of a piece, creating another sense of unity over the whole work.

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So, here's the tale.

Antonín Dvořák in 1895
In April of 1895, Dvořák returned to Prague following his stay in the United States, where he'd been teaching since 1892, aside from visits home to Prague or a summer holiday spent in Spillville, Iowa. But when philanthropist Jeanette Thurber's money ran out and her pet project, the National Conservatory, could no longer guarantee Dvořák his “then-staggering” annual salary of $15,000, the composer, long homesick for his native Bohemia, quickly packed his bags and left – bags which included sketches for two nearly completed works he'd been working on at the time, the Cello Concerto (Op. 104) and what became this last string quartet, No. 14 in A-flat Major (Op.105).

It wasn't until he was comfortably settled into his summer home outside of Prague that he began filling out whatever sketches existed for the new quartet. But it was proving to be a problem, for some reason – hardly an issue of self-confidence, considering the Symphony in E Minor, officially called “From the New World,” his Op.95, completed in May of 1893, which was then followed by a series of works originating during the family's summer holiday among the community of Czech immigrants who now called Spillville, Iowa, home: the Op. 96 String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, the famous and ubiquitous “American” Quartet written in June, 1893, the E-flat Major String Quintet, Op.97 (sometimes called the “American” Quintet) written mostly in July, 1893; the Suite in A Major (originally for piano and later orchestrated), Op. 98 (sometimes called the “American” Suite); and the G Major Sonatina for Violin & Piano, Op.100 (sometimes called the “American” Sonatina – get the feeling people aren't very creative about coming up with nicknames for Dvořák's American works?) completed in the late-fall of 1893.

Aside from some revisions of earlier works he also wrote some new shorter pieces like the ten Psalm settings for voice and piano and the seven Humoresques for piano (including the ubiquitous No. 7 with its occasional bluesy note, something you all know whether or not you know it could be called the “American” Humoresque). There were also two earlier “occasional” works meant to celebrate his stay in America (The Te Deum of 1892 to celebrate his arrival, and a patriotic cantata called The American Flag written immediately before the “New World” but which wasn't performed until after he'd departed these shores) which were published out-of-sequence.

Otherwise, that was it until he began the Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op.104 (considered to be The Cello Concerto) in November, 1894, which he completed in February, 1895, shortly before things fell apart at the National Conservatory (fortunately, it is not called the “American” Concerto). After he returned home, he then added a new ending by June.

Dvořák at his country home in Vysoká
As if he needed an excuse to “take a break,” happy to be done with the issues he'd faced in New York, homesickness aside, and ready to get to work on this new string quartet he'd already sketched, he moved his family out to his summer home in Vysoká in the countryside outside Prague – then hit a snag.

He wrote to a friend, “I am basking in God’s nature and I am contentedly idle, I am not doing anything, which will probably surprise you, but it’s true, it really is, I’m just lazing around and I haven’t touched my pen.”

Though he wasn't exactly slaving away over the piano all summer long, it didn't mean the little gray cells weren't firing away, consciously or not.

Apparently Dvořák got some ideas that didn't fit into his original plans. These new ideas, then, became part of a whole new quartet, the one in G Major which he began working on in November and quickly finished, dating the last measure December 9th, 1895. This became his Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106.

Perhaps that helped him solve whatever problems he'd had with the earlier quartet, because he now resumed work on that one and by the end of the month, about three weeks later, he'd put the finishing touches on what would now become his last major piece of chamber music, the String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op.105.

Then, for some reason, when he sent them off to the publishers, they numbered them correctly according to the dates they were completed but gave the last one the earlier opus number. Go figure...

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Dvořák was 54 when he completed these last two quartets of his. After that, he wrote primarily orchestral tone poems and operas, leaving the “abstract” world of chamber music, symphonies and concertos behind for the story-telling world of symphonic poems and operas. Three of these tone poems, composed in quick succession, even got their first orchestral performances (basically open rehearsals) four months ahead of the A-flat Quartet. And one of the four operas was Rusalka, written in 1900, a Slavic version of “The Little Mermaid” story, with its famous “Song to the Moon.”

After Rusalka's success, he completed one more opera, based on the old medieval legend of Armida (already used by Handel, Lully, Vivaldi, Gluck, Salieri, Haydn, and Rossini, among others), finishing it in August, 1903. It would be his last completed work.

Often, we don't think of composers (or any artists, for that matter) as normal human beings, only in terms of the art they've left for us to enjoy.

Did you know that, since the age of 9, Antonín Dvořák was fascinated by trains and as an adult could recite the train schedules of Prague's railway stations from memory? I'm not sure what that says about his symphonies or string quartets, but is it something you see the man who created the “New World” Symphony doing, spending enjoyable hours sitting in a train station watching the trains arrive and pull out?

This life-long fascination with trainspotting reached its peak during his stay in America, probably one of the few things he enjoyed about life in New York City. Dvořák loved to ride the overhead railway and often stood watching passing trains from a nearby embankment.

During his final years, he'd visit Prague’s railway stations on an almost daily basis. In April, 1904, the 62-year-old composer, despite not feeling well, made a determined effort to visit the main station in Prague so he could enjoy watching the trains but it taxed his already failing health. A few days later, he died of the flu.

Dvořák left behind sketches for several unfinished or even otherwise unbegun works, pieces he'd been thinking about or simple scraps of ideas wondering what he could do with them in the future, including a couple of possible oratorios and at least three more potential operas. But no more chamber music.

Dick Strawser

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Music from the End of an Era: Scriabin & Rachmaninoff, Together Again

“This week’s dose of great music features Central Pennsylvania native, pianist Peter Orth, who also happens to be the first artist Market Square Concerts ever presented almost four decades ago. This recital from 2015 includes Scriabin’s fanciful 24 Preludes and Rachmaninoff’s monumental Piano Sonata No. 1 followed by a couple of charming encores.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts

As we navigate through challenging times – looking ahead to having 2020 in our hindsight – it's perhaps good for us to reflect on music that was written by composers who lived through challenging times themselves, whether it's the history going on around them or the issues and anxieties that they faced in their private, non-musical lives.

Peter Orth
In 1981, Peter Orth gave the very first recital in a new concert series founded by Lucy Miller Murray being given at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and for want of a name, they decided to call it Market Square Concerts.

Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini spoke about the tenderness and fervor of Orth's playing, describing it as “one long arc of inspiration.” In The New York Sun, Fred Kirshnit commented that “the experience seemed like one continuous essay in profundity... a commanding presence... for sheer excitement, he is difficult to surpass.”

Orth has come back several times since that opening recital, most recently to open our 34th Season on October 10th, 2015, at Market Square Presbyterian Church with an all-Russian program of romantic masters – actually, a program consisting of two giants of the Russian piano world: Alexander Scriabin and his friend, fellow student, and champion Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The program begins with the 24 Preludes, Op. 11, by Alexander Scriabin, ending at 35:03; followed by Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28, from 35:13 to 1:15:20.

The two encores are by Camille Saint-Saëns, his delightful "Caprice on Airs from the Ballet from Gluck's opera Alceste" from 1:16:35 to 1:20:54; and the Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 3 by Franz Schubert from 1:21:54 to 1:28:06.

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When he was 10, Alexander Scriabin began to study with a well-known piano teacher in Moscow, Nikolai Zverev, who also taught at the Moscow Conservatory.

When he was 12, Sergei Rachmaninoff left St. Petersburg to study with Zverev in Moscow as well, upon the advice of his mother's cousin Alexander Siloti, a pianist who had studied with the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, but at the time was in Weimar, Germany, studying with Franz Liszt.

Not that Zverev is “Ground Zero” for Peter Orth's program, but he is certainly a common denominator. Zverev himself, growing up in an aristocratic family, began his career as a civil servant which bored him and so he continued to study the piano and make it something of a career, even though he was never well-known as a performer. He took on students by audition, took no money from them, and they all lived in his house where their lessons as well as their practicing went according to strict schedules (you did not quit practicing until your three hours were up, or else). Rachmaninoff said he learned Brahms' immense set of “24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel” in three days.

Zverev had studied with Adolf von Henselt, a German pianist who had settled in St. Petersburg in 1838 where he became Imperial Court Pianist. After studying with Johann Nepomuck Hummel (who in turn, to follow the begats, had studied with Mozart), Henselt was recognized as a specialist in the music of Chopin. Franz Liszt thought enough of his legato playing technique that he told his students to “learn the secrets of Henselt's hands,” adding later, “I could have had velvet paws like Henselt if I wanted to.”

Henselt is basically the founder of what became known as the “Russian School of Piano Playing,” and even though he had ceased to play in public after the late-1840s – supposedly a victim of extreme stage-fright – his sound was a major influence on the young Rachmaninoff.

Professor Zverev & his Students
In this photograph from the late-1880s, Nikolai Zverev sits in the center of several of his students. In the front row, first on the left in the cadet uniform, is Alexander Scriabin; the tall guy standing behind his teacher, second from the right in the back row, is Sergei Rachmaninoff.

At the time, neither student had serious thoughts of becoming anything other than a pianist, yet there was a guest at one of Zverev's weekly Sunday open-houses who was also a major influence on Rachmaninoff. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was, of course, one of the great names of Russian music and in the 1880s one of the major figures in Moscow (most of the Nationalists of the Mighty Handful or Russian Five lived in St. Petersburg). And so when, like any would-be concert pianist who was expected to write his own music, Rachmaninoff's early efforts won supportive praise from Tchaikovsky, he began to take his creative side more seriously.

In the late-1880s, Scriabin was already composing numerous short pieces under the influence of Chopin – preludes, etudes primarily but also mazurkas, waltzes, and impromptus, all titles found in Chopin's output. The 4th Prelude of the set Op. 11 was composed in 1888 when he was 16. The rest of them would be added later, most of them in 1896, 24 in all, one in each major and minor key – just like the set of 24 Preludes that Chopin wrote between 1835 and 1839.

Scriabin, 1892
For Scriabin, continuing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied piano with Vasily Safonov, theory and composition with Anton Arensky and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev (these last two, major names in the generation after Tchaikovsky), it was something different that made him take composition seriously. Arenksy considered him a “scatterbrain” (consequently, Scriabin did not complete his composition degree) but when challenged by an even better pianist, Josef Lhevinne (who graduated at the top of their class, ahead of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin), intense practicing to improve his technique resulted in Scriabin injuring his right hand – the doctors said he would never be able to play again.

So, like Robert Schumann before him, Scriabin decided he had better work more seriously on his composing and completed his first large-scale work, a piano sonata he said was “a cry against God, against Fate” with its devastating funeral march of a finale.

He also composed a few short pieces specifically for the left hand and worked assiduously at improving his left-hand technique, much in evidence in his later music, often the bane of many a pianist trying to master his style. Eventually, he regained use of his right hand and gave a debut recital in 1894, including some of his own works. The publisher Belyayev, an advocate for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov among others, heard this program and offered to publish Scriabin's music, taking him on a concert tour of Russia and Western Europe.

Because of Scriabin's slight frame and fragile health, more than one critic in Paris was reminded of Chopin physically, not just musically. Another critic wrote he had “an exquisite nature equally great as composer and pianist, an enlightened philosopher, all nerve and holy flame.”

By 1895, Scriabin completed a set of 12 Etudes, Op. 8, and the following year, the last thirteen preludes to make up a set of twenty-four which became his Op. 11. These were not written in “key order” the way they are published (the way Chopin organized his own Preludes, Op. 28). Spanning eight years' time, they range in mood, tempo and technical difficulty to create a great variety.

Here are two of these preludes – No. 13 in G-flat Major (composed in Moscow, 1896) performed by Scriabin himself from a Welte piano-roll recorded in 1910; and No. 8 in F-sharp Minor (composed in Paris, 1896) performed by Rachmaninoff recorded in 1929.

Rachmaninoff, meanwhile, graduated from the Conservatory in 1892, winning the “great gold medal” in composition for his opera, Aleko which was deemed such a success, the Bolshoi Opera agreed to produce it with Fyodor Chaliapin.

At 19, he was now a “free artist.”

On September 26th that year, he played a prelude of his own, a little something called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” (perhaps you've heard of it?). Its popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

Rachmaninoff at Ivanovka, 1897
By the time Scriabin was putting the finishing touches on his Op. 11 Preludes in 1896, Rachmaninoff had been working on his first symphony over the past two years. Premiered in 1897, its reception – “If there were a conservatory in Hell,” Cesar Cui's review leading the attack – must be one of the most painful debuts in the history of music, as far as any composer who would go on to be regarded eventually as a great composer.

How bad was it? Well, Rachmaninoff needed to undergo psychoanalysis to regain his confidence so that by 1900 he was finally composing again – and not just any piece, but his Second Piano Concerto, perhaps one of the most beloved piano concertos out there, one so full of gorgeous tunes and incredible writing, it's hard to imagine three years earlier, its composer was ready to give up.

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Since Scriabin had already written the piece we're going to hear on this program, it's unnecessary for this post to go into detail about music he wrote later. While some listeners unfamiliar with his history – and what an unusual history it is – might be put off by the reputation his later music would earn, there is a mystical, spiritual quality that is only hinted at in this music composed before he was in his mid-20s. That he died at the age of 43 is another one of those tragedies, considering the direction his music was headed in could easily have changed the course of 20th Century music as much as Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok were to do.

But all that – and the revolutions that overthrew the world that nurtured both composers – was in the future.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto began making a name for him in The West where, curiously, Tchaikovsky's music had paved the way as “what Russian music should sound like,” “an art in tonal purples and blacks,” an impression also helped by the reputation of great Russian novelists of the late-19th Century, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It appeared, now, that young Rachmaninoff would follow in these same tragic footsteps.

As revolution began to fester in Russia – 1905 was an especially bad year for strikes and riots (not to mention the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War) – Rachmaninoff tried to avoid politics yet, as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow where everyone from the orchestra, the choir, the ballet dancers to the stage-hands were embroiled in the hot topics of the day concerning social and political reform, he could not be unaffected by it. Several theaters were closed for fear of bombs and someone shouting “down with the monarchy” in the midst of a performance of Glinka's classic opera, A Life for the Tsar was enough to turn everything “into a battlefield with hats, coats, umbrellas and galoshes flying through the air.”

Rachmaninoff, 1910
Unhappy with the situation at work, its distractions on his time to compose, and concerned for the safety of his new family, Rachmaninoff decided to leave Russia temporarily in 1906 and, like Tchaikovsky before him when the going got personally rough, went to Italy. Considering the impact leaving Russia behind in 1917 would later have on him, how did this separation from his homeland affect him?

Despite his physical appearance and stoic expression, Rachmaninoff was a mask in many ways (Stravinsky would later describe him as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl"). He made a rare confession to a friend: “I am a most ordinary and uninteresting man” - “there is no critic in the world who is more doubtful about me than myself” - “if ever I had faith in myself, that was a long time ago, in my youth.” In a letter from 1912 he wrote, “I am afraid of everything – mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls in the chimney, when I hear raindrops on the window pain; I am afraid of the darkness...”

Suddenly, in Italy he was faced with decisions about what to do when an offer for an American concert tour arrived. He wrote, you “could not possibly understand what tortures I live through when I realize that this question has to be answered by me and me alone. The trouble is that I am just incapable of making any decision by myself. My hands tremble!”

Instead, he decided to go to Dresden and stayed there for the next three winters, going back to Russia to spend the summers at his family's beloved country estate, Ivanovka.

Scriabin, 1903
Scriabin, too, had left Russia for a variety of reasons in 1903, after resigning his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and because his interest in religious and philosophical mysticism drove him to seek new lands and ideas while he was writing his Third Symphony, The Divine Poem. He took his family to Switzerland but there he decided to leave his wife and four children and go to Paris with his mistress, Tatiana Schlözer. In 1906, Scriabin went to America for a concert tour where The Divine Poem was performed in New York by his old teacher, Safonov. But with the news of Scriabin's treatment of his wife and the arrival of Tatiana not long after, there was a scandal about his “traveling with a woman who was not his wife!” Warned in the middle of the night that “serious unpleasantness” was imminent, Scriabin and Tatiana fled New York on a steamer for Paris the next day though there was never any indication the Department of Immigration was seriously going to arrest them for “moral turpitude.”

Scriabin & Tatiana, Brussels 1909
Back in Paris with only 30 francs left in his pocket, Scriabin set about writing The Poem of Ecstasy and played it for Diaghilev and the visiting Rimsky-Korsakov who felt the “unhealthy eroticism” meant Scriabin was “half out of his mind already.”

In 1909, then, he decided to return to Moscow where he found himself and his music at the center of controversy with “unrestrained agitation and enthusiasm.” He was being hailed as a leader of the avant-garde – curiously, Rachmaninoff was now being regarded as an old-fashioned conservative after Moscow, once a traditionalist cultural back-water compared to the cosmopolitan Window on Europe of St. Petersburg, had become the center for everything new.

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So here is Rachmaninoff in Dresden finding intellectual stimulation as well as sufficient isolation to compose – as he wrote to a friend, “We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal” – and it was here he composed his 2nd Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (inspired by a painting of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin he saw during a side-trip to Paris in 1907), an opera he eventually abandoned, the 3rd Piano Concerto which he would premiere in New York City in 1909 – and his 1st Piano Sonata, the one on Peter Orth's program with Market Square Concerts.

Keep in mind the context of the time – separation from Russia with its teetering on the brink of political and social chaos following the unrest of 1905, uncertainty of the future, and his own dark fears. Though there is no published program behind the music of this piano sonata, it began as sketches for a setting of Faust, Goethe's drama about the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for earthly success and happiness. (How could that not resonate with an artist like Rachmaninoff?) Like Liszt's “Faust Symphony,” the work was intended to be three movements, one for each of the main characters – Faust himself in the first movement, Gretchen in the slow movement, and Mephistopheles the Devil in the finale. However, shortly after he began writing the sonata, he abandoned the program though it would be difficult for listeners to ignore the natures of each movement's character in the final work.

Composing the sonata was not an easy task: he had doubts about using the form (though you might think writing a symphony at the same time, essentially a “sonata for orchestra,” would be more formidable); he even had doubts about the length. By the time he went to Paris in May of 1907 – he agreed to play the concerts organized there by Diaghilev (who hated his music) only because he needed the money – he had finished just the 2nd movement of the sonata. After the Paris concert, he returned briefly to Ivanovka, stopping in Moscow to play through a rough draft of the sonata for friends who did not particularly care for it. One of them, however, Konstantin Igumnov, said he would be interested in playing it.

Rachmaninoff completed the sonata in April, 1908 – all 45 minutes of it – and Igumnov premiered it in Moscow that October where it was not a success. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov had just died in June and suddenly all eyes were on Rachmaninoff as the “Next Great Hope” for Russian Music. It was a little more of a burden than Rachmaninoff or his music needed at the time and the sonata in particular, found “dry” and “repetitive,” failed to please. Even though Rachmaninoff cut 110 measures from the score, shortening it to a more manageable 35 minutes or so, the work has never caught on and is still one of his less-heard large-scale works.

If you've heard any of Rachmaninoff's music, you're probably aware of his fixation with the Dies irae motive from the ancient chant for the Catholic Mass for the Dead's “Day of Wrath.” Not only does he use it to chilling effect outright in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where it seems to have no thematic relevance, as well as numerous other works where its appearance brings with it a chill of the memento mori, an ever-present reminder of death, it's also a major feature of The Isle of the Dead where it makes perfect programmatic sense. This sonata, written around the same time as that tone poem, also employs the Dies Irae motive but only in outline, suggesting it more than using it as a theme. In fact, the finale of the sonata has no significant “thematic profile” as such, even with its reminiscences of the first movement, but is a furious toccata permeated with this very dark yet simple fragment from the 13th Century laden with centuries of anxiety and dread.

In this version (with original Gregorian chant notation) you need only listen to the first ten seconds:

Even though Rachmaninoff didn't stay in town for the premiere, he eventually returned to his estate at Ivanovka where in late-September, 1909, he completed the Third Piano Concerto, performing it for the first time himself in New York City a month later, part of the American tour he finally decided to accept – because, he told friends, he needed money to buy a new car.

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While we'll never know what music lost with the death of Alexander Scriabin one hundred years ago, it is quite possible, given the evolution of his musical style, he might have become a leading voice in the development of 20th Century Music, especially atonal music, whether or not he would have pursued a path similar to Schoenberg's. But in 1909 when he returned to Moscow and when Rachmaninoff, his old school friend, also returned to Moscow the following year and became conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Concerts, the rivalry between New Music and the Old Romanticism was inevitable, largely due to the press and the former bassist-turned-conductor Sergei Koussevitsky who championed the new style with his own rival orchestra. Rachmaninoff, who tried to remain aloof from the hoped-for fray, however performed Scriabin's music – his earlier music, I would imagine. Following Scriabin's death in 1915, Rachmaninoff gave a concert tour through Russia where he played only music by Scriabin despite requests for him to play some of his own works.

Then came the Revolutions – first, the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsar to form a provisional government with democratic reforms which was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November, 1917. With that, the country that Rachmaninoff and Scriabin had grown up in disappeared and with it the culture that had nourished them and their art. Many of his compatriots, especially those among the landed gentry, fled to Paris or Berlin, eventually London or America. Hurriedly arranging a quick concert appearance in Stockholm, Rachmaninoff took his family by train to the Finnish border and left with very little of his worldly belongings, never to return.

But that is a chapter for another program.

Dick Strawser

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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 previous posts:

From Quaranatine to Cautious Optimism: Five Play Mozart (Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor)

Music for a Time We're Wondering When 'Normal' Will Return (Ernő Dohnányi's 2nd Piano Quintet)

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 with Andrei Ioniţă; Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin with Kristóf Baráti)

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

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 (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák