Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Israeli Chamber Project: Meet Ravel and Schoenberg

The Israeli Chamber Project, 1st Rehearsal for Nov. 2022 American Tour
First Stop: Thursday, November 3rd, 2022, 7:30pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

The rest of the Israeli Chamber Project's program, “Saint-Saëns Meets Stravinsky” (read more about that in my earlier post) consists of two other composers, Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg.

Certainly, Ravel had an association with the older French master and a friendship with the younger emigrée upstart from Russia. On another hand, Schoenberg, a native of Vienna who spent much of his early career in Berlin, may seem (as usual) the Odd-Man-Out here, had little association with the composer of “The Swan.” He and Stravinsky, however, had throughout their careers a stylistic rivalry despite the fact, later on, they were neighbors in, of all places, Hollywood.

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[Note: By way of disclaimer, these posts are generally intended to provide historical – or as I like to think of it as “biographical” – background to the music you'll be hearing on MSC programs. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time working on the first post to complete this one well enough in advance of the concert. However, where program notes, briefer by nature, are intended to give you the basics before you hear the music, these posts take the place of “pre-concert talks” which usually run a half-hour or so, and are meant to give you more in-depth insights to the music, usually in some historical context. As usual, if you don't have a chance to read this beforehand, it's always something you can come back to after the concert, and listen to the video links to refresh your ear.]

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This program consists of five works by four composers from two countries, all written between 1905 and 1918. Ravel's “Introduction & Allegro” which closes the first half of the concert, following Saint-Saëns' Fantasy for Violin & Harp and Stravinsky's Suite from L'Histoire du soldat, is actually the “oldest” work chronologically, predating both the Saint-Saëns and Schoenberg's “Chamber Symphony” that follows it on the second half.

Without going into the history of the harp (which goes back to 3300BC, give or take), Ravel's work came about through a commission from the Erard Company, makers of pianos and harps since the late-18th Century, and was, initially, a tit-for-tat response to the rival Pleyel Company's commission of Claude Debussy to write a work – his Danses sacrée et profane – in 1904 to showcase their new “chromatic harp.” Erard wanted to promote their new line of “double-action pedal harps” (imagine Debussy and Ravel, two of the leading modernists in France at the time locked in a competitive ad campaign!)

For some chronological context, here, Saint-Saëns composed his Fantasy for Violin & Harp in 1907, but he'd already composed a fantasy for solo harp in 1893, written as an “examination piece” for the Conservatoire de Paris (which meant that every harp student competing for a prize that year would also be judged on how well they played this new work). Later, he would compose an additional work for the harp, a Morceau de concert (or “Concert Piece”) in 1918 that was a brief concerto-like work for harp and orchestra. But curious – no? – that neither Pleyel nor Erard chose the 70-something Grand Maître to present its new models, but rather two young upstarts, Debussy who was 42 and following the success of his opera, Pelleas et Melisande two years earlier, and Ravel who, just turned 30, was still a student at the Conservatoire.

The creative process for Ravel, student or not, was slow and painstaking. But this commission was finished, for him, at “break-neck speed.” The impetus was not so much the deadline (if there was one) but the fact he was going on a holiday with friends and wanted to get this thing off his plate. As he wrote a friend, he spent “eight days of relentless work and three sleepless nights enabled me to finish it, for better or worse. Right now, I am relaxing on a marvelous trip.”

This may account, between the speed and his apparent lack of artistic conviction, for the observation several writers have made about the Introduction & Allegro being a step backwards from the advance in his style from the String Quartet of 1902 (a masterpiece regardless of its having been written by a student) and the Sonatine, written along with the suite of piano pieces, Miroirs, between 1903 and 1905. Perhaps this had to do with the lack of time to focus on any challenging stylistic details as much as it had the nature of the commission, with Debussy's example as a model rather than something to be out-done, or of the harp itself.

Whatever the limitations, conscious or otherwise, Ravel placed on its inception, the work has become one of the staples of the harpist's repertoire. Here is a performance by the Israeli Chamber Project with harpist Sivan Magen from 2010:

Like his own teacher, Fauré, Ravel was concerned his pupils find their own individual voices and not be overly (or perhaps overtly) influenced by established masters. For instance, he warned one it was impossible to learn from studying Debussy's music, not because of any antipathy for his elder colleague's music but because “only Debussy could have written it and made it sound like only Debussy can sound.” When an American fan, George Gershwin, a newly minted composer of Classical Music with his Rhapsody in Blue. asked to study with him, Ravel declined on the basis it would get in the way of his already natural talent and turn him into a second-rate Ravel.

One of the things Ravel told his students: “Complexe mais pas compliqué.” Complex, but not complicated. It may sound contradictory, but perhaps the reason he took so long before he completed a piece was because it is easy to write something complex, but difficult to keep it from sounded complicated.

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Let's come back to Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin which concludes the program. It would make sense, two works by one composer, to consider them attacca but in this case, given the nature of the programming, let's follow the chronological lead of stylistic development in these pieces from the early years of the previous century. Keep in mind the “newest” piece on this program, the Stravinsky, still often thought of as “contemporary music,” is 104 years old.

Arnold Schoenberg, supposedly when asked if he was Arnold Schoenberg, said “Well, somebody has to be...” With Hallowe'en now past, there are few composers in the repertoire whose presence on a program may frighten your average concert-goer. And while much of the music of his maturity is often a challenge to understand.

Going back to Ravel's “complexe mais pas compliqué,” this is often a criticism leveled at Schoenberg, that he was complex but didn't succeed in sounding “not complicated.”

Perhaps the problem is with the performers who do not understand the music well enough to play it so it doesn't sound complicated?

One of those moments when I knew a student of mine was on the right track (it is nothing I can attribute to my doubtless brilliant teaching) was at a piano recital by a visiting virtuoso, a pianist with a brilliant career (and so shall remain nameless). I was sitting in front of her, a singer who was, like many sophomores, struggling with the sordid details of harmony, as our pianist opened the program with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Three bars into it, she'd leaned over to a friend sitting next to her and whispered with projection worthy of a mezzo, “This is going to be awful...” Perhaps it was because the pianist was bored with playing this belovéd warhorse again or he was bored to be at this small New England college, stuck between concerts in Boston and New York, or whatever – certainly a proficient pianist given the performance but just “not very compelling”. And my student was right: that whole first movement brought to mind a young girl trotted out to play her latest piece for some visiting aunts.

And that is the way I often hear much of Schoenberg's music played, whether through lack of conviction or of sympathy or merely because, beyond the music they're more familiar with, they don't understand what it is that makes this music tick!

"It is brain music," critics complain. It's the result of a “system for composing with twelve notes” – call it serial or think of it as “atonal” – that turns the “compositional process” into the equivalent of a cross-word puzzle (that very word, process...). But, I'm sorry to say, the Tonality we're familiar with from the days of Vivaldi and Bach to Mozart and Beethoven to Wagner (and after that it gets a little fuzzy...) is also a “system” with its own rules and expectations: chords, built a particular way, move in specific ways and while you might argue about things like “parallel fifths,” many of these “rules” are there for a reason, “to create a consistency of sound.” The idea of digressing from a tonic key – D Major, say – leads one to expect, according to the age-old tradition, it should return to that tonic key, resolving the “drama” (real or implied) of its digression and the resolution of the tension that creates.

But too many performers have been unable to apply those same underlying constructs – the skeleton of a musical style rather than the surface language that makes it recognizable as Mozart or Brahms – to composers like Schoenberg. Yes, of course, this “system” allowed a lot of composers without talent the opportunity to produce a lot of bad music, much in the same way those thousands of forgotten composers from the 18th and 19th Centuries did with that system called “Tonality.” A lot of composers who could follow the rules didn't always create compelling art, little more than craftsmen following a blueprint to make a basic chair.

This “craftsman” idea was something frequently thrown at Saint-Saëns – I think I belabored that idea in my earlier post – and yet maybe we don't find anything wrong with much of the music he “crafted.” Yes, some of it may not be as good as Beethoven or Wagner, by comparison, and he may have been derided as the composer of the (in)famous “Wedding Cake Waltz” but by the same token, not everything Beethoven wrote was a masterpiece, either, and similar complaints have been leveled at his Wellington's Victory or his equally frivolous Rage over a Lost Penny, not what you'd expect from the composer of the 9th Symphony.

So, allow Exhibit A in “The Case Against Schoenberg,” this performance of his Chamber Symphony in E Major, Op. 9 by the Israeli Chamber Project:

Written in 1906, this is a work originally for 15 instruments, a rather unusual if unbalanced combination of 10 winds with 5 string-players. Schoenberg's former student and devoted disciple Anton Webern made two arrangements of the piece for more practical considerations, one for the same ensemble needed for Pierrot Lunaire (probably intended to facilitate they're being performed on the same concerts) and another for a standard piano quintet. In this video from 2012, the Israeli Chamber Project performs a conflation of the two, substituting a second violin for the flute; they'll be performing the arrangement with flute on this tour.

The main point to listen for, however, is not so much how different it sounds on the "surface" from the music you might be more familiar with – say, the first of the Brahms serenades which was originally a nonet for strings and winds – but how it may have similar underpinnings with a typical “Romantic” sense of general phrase structure and harmony, not to mention the use of “unity and variety” with the basic material, and especially the often dramatic role played by contrast and the building-up and releasing of tension.

Historically, Schoenberg didn't “invent” the idea of 12-Tone Music or “serialism” (a term he disliked) – this in itself is another book-length feature – until the 1920s. His most famous work, the settings of poems for speaker and chamber ensemble, Pierrot Lunaire, is not yet serial but it is atonal – that is, lacking a sense of traditional tonality achieved in a traditional, harmonic way – and he only started working with atonality in the last two movements of his 2nd String Quartet in 1908. That was still two years in the future from this Chamber Symphony. Though its concept of “E Major” may be a bit loose – despite the standard key signatures, the plethora of accidentals makes you wonder “why...?” – it is still rooted, at heart, to the same rules (let's call them, by this post-Wagnerian era, “tendencies”) that led Beethoven to stretch beyond his teacher Haydn, or, for that matter, for Ravel to push beyond Fauré and in the generation before him, Saint-Saëns. 

Given Schoenberg's eventual directions through this period, it would be interesting to pursue a “Stravinsky Meets Schoenberg” program: aside from the fact their rivalry endured much of their lives, they ended up living not far from each other in Hollywood during the 1940s, and that eventually Stravinsky who, as he'd done with The Rite of Spring before, had taken the Neo-Classicism of L'Histoire du Soldat about as far as it could go (with Neo-Bach in “Dumbarton Oaks” and Neo-Tchaikovsky in The Fairy's Kiss and Neo-Handel in The Rake's Progress) before he discovered that maybe there's something to this serialism of Schoenberg's after all, and his last works embrace yet another approach to how one can organize these twelve pitches of a chromatic scale – and yet still manage to sound like Stravinsky.

But, as I said, that's for another book...

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Back to Couperin – or, rather, Ravel and the long shadow cast by a great name from France's glorious past.

First of all, for non-French speakers (like me), the Tombeau of the title is not a “tomb” in the English sense but more a kind of memorial tribute (beyond a simple tombstone). (Someone once confused it with Tomber which means “to fall” and somehow came up with “The Fall of Couperin”!) And it's a memorial piece on a different level, with each movement dedicated to a different friend killed during the course of World War I (in one case, two brothers killed by the same shell). It is not, thinking of that, a somber piece, nor did Ravel attempt to create musical portraits either of his grief or of the friends themselves: the music is decidedly unmournful and when asked about this, he said “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Ravel, at the front
Ravel tried enlisting once the war against Germany began in 1914 but he was too short and slight – which he thought would make him ideal for the new-fangled Air Force – but he was also pushing 40 and had a slight heart ailment. He volunteered as a truck driver for an artillery regiment and sometimes made night-time drives to deliver munitions while under intense German bombardment. In addition to insomnia and other war-related effects on his health, he underwent a bowel operation following an attack of dysentery in 1916 and dealt with frostbite in his toes the following winter.

His mother died in 1917 which only added to his sense of despair, being in the midst of the fighting, dealing with friends who were dying around him, not to mention his own health, but also the fear over the fate of his country and its culture at the hands of the invading Germans.

In that sense, though the music may sound light-hearted, the idea of paying tribute to France's musical past in the name of François Couperin was a way of expressing his “pride of nation.” He created his own suite of dances in the manner of the early-18th Century Couperin, a string of abstract dance movements typical of the standard Baroque instrumental suites. As the war progressed, he would write one, then another, and then eventually by 1917, complete the set.

In 1919, Ravel would then orchestrate all but two of the original piano pieces. It has since been arranged by various people for various combinations. While there isn't a video of the one the Israeli Chamber Project will perform – made by Yuval Shapiro, a member of the Israel Philharmonic's trumpet section – here's a performance of the complete piano original with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with score:

There are six movements: 

a prelude, in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot who had arranged Ravel's Mother Goose Suite from a piano duet to a piano solo; 
a fugue, in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi to whose mother Ravel had dedicated L'heure espagnole
a forlane, in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a painter from Ravel's nearby home town; 
a rigaudon, in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914; 
a minuet, in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a soldier at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized; 
and to conclude, a toccata, in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave, killed shortly after hostilities began in August, 1914, a musicologist and the husband of pianist Marguerite Long who gave Le Tombeau its premiere in April of 1919.

In addition to the textures – the overall sound but especially the textures here are very different from what he'd composed nine years earlier – you'll find little nods to Baroque style in the treatment of the hands as if reminiscent of the harpsichord, and in the occasional “ornaments” or appogiaturas in the melody paying an homage of its own to the numerous types of ornamentation used by French composers from the Baroque. We often categorize Ravel, along with Debussy, as “Impressionists” after the style of painting in France at the end of the 19th Century, but that was only a limited influence (certainly one can find it in the Introduction & Allegro) but if anything, Le Tombeau de Couperin is unabashedly Neo-“Classical” – and yet how different it sounds from the neo-classicism Stravinsky was evoking in his own piece written a year later, L'Histoire du soldat.

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It would amount to a scandal not to mention the three scandals associated with our three Modernists on this program. I'd already described the wild premiere of The Rite of Spring, but Ravel's Introduction & Allegro was composed the same year he was involved a scandal of his own.

Already an established talent, Ravel was still studying with Fauré at the Conservatoire and had applied for the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1900 and was eliminated after the first round. He tried again the next year and got 2nd Prize. For the next two years, he won nothing (he was accused of writing works so academic they were judged to be “parodies” and that Ravel must have been making fun of them), and in 1905 he was again eliminated in the first round. Considering he had already written his String Quartet, it seems illogical to argue he was not a “good composer” so it must have been the conservative attitudes of the judges no matter how successful the young composer may have been. 

At any rate, given that and the fact Ravel was now 30, even his detractors (including Eduard Lalo) thought this treatment was unfair and unjustifiable. Somehow this ended up in the Press and the furor escalated when it was discovered all those selected for the final round were students of one senior professor who was on the jury and, needless to say, his insistence this was merely a coincidence, did not sit well with anyone. Apparently this became a national scandal and eventually the director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign and Gabriel Fauré, perhaps the most eminent name on the faculty, was appointed by the government to carry out a “radical reorganization” of the Conservatoire. (Not that it seemed to matter, but Fauré was also Ravel's composition teacher.)

While not quite the same as all the screaming and fisticuffs witnessed at the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony has its own scandal to account for. Now, you'd assume Schoenberg was not inexperienced when it came to negative reviews and audience disapproval, but just two months before The Rite of Spring's premiere, a concert singular enough to warrant being called the “Skandalkonzert” ended up in an out-and-out brawl!

The program, with the orchestra conducted by Schoenberg, began with Webern's Op. 6 Orchestral Pieces, followed by four Zemlinsky songs, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, and then two of the five Altenberg Lieder by Alban Berg, setting poems of a poet prominent in Viennese modernism. (You can hear the second of the two songs performed at this concert here, with no less than Renee Fleming and Claudio Abbado.) Apparently, that's when rumblings of discontent with the earlier music finally boiled over.

Whatever some people thought of the music, it quickly escalated as Schoenberg's followers and fans of modernism retaliated, opponents yelling back and forth, throwing things, destroying furniture, “disturbing the performance” (indeed!) and so on. A composer of operettas who was in attendance testified at the trial – “at the trial”!the assault of one of the concert's promoters on a concertgoer resulted in a slap (another source says “punch”) so loud it was “the most harmonious sound of the evening.”

Skandalkonzert! (in Vienna's Die Zeit a few days after the March 31st, 1913 concert)

  And people say Classical Music is dull...

Dick Strawser

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Israeli Chamber Project: Meet Saint-Saëns and Stravinsky

Saint-Saëns (c.1900) & Stravinsky (1920) Back-to-Back (or not seeing eye-to-eye)

: The Israeli Chamber Project 

What: “Stravinsky Meets Saint-Saëns” (as two other giants of the Early 20th Century look on: Ravel and Schoenberg): Camille Saint-Saëns' “Fantasy for Violin & Harp;” the piano trio arrangement Igor Stravinsky made of his L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale); Ravel's Introduction & Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, Flute & Clarinet, plus an arrangement of his Tombeau de Couperin; and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 in an arrangement for an even smaller chamber combination by his pupil Anton Webern.

When & Where: Thursday, November 3rd, 2022, at 7:30 at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, the first performance in their American Tour (from here to Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City, Kingston (Ontario), and Detroit)

The Israeli Chamber Project (Photo by Yael Ilan)

(This post is about the two composers of their program's title, “Stravinsky Meets Saint-Saëns.” The works by Ravel and Schoenberg will be the subject of my second post.)

In Thursday's concert with the Israeli Chamber Project, there are five works by four composers written between 1905 and 1918, a span of only 13 years, first heard when the lush Romantic style of a by-gone age was being replaced by something new and, to those unwilling to give up the comfortable familiarity of the past, different. And surprisingly, among those composers' names, the one we might assume to be the “oldest” piece on the program is the third in order of composition, but by a composer who'd been born only eight years after the death of Beethoven.

Camille Saint-Saëns presumably wrote his first piece at the age of 3, gave small private recitals when he was 5 and made his debut playing a Mozart Concerto five years later (famously offering any of Beethoven's piano sonatas as an encore, played from memory). He became one of the more acclaimed composers of his day, even if his fame and popularity did not always endure into his old age. Many of his colleagues regarded him as “more proficient than inspired,” a prolific composer with many great works but not necessarily enough to make him a great composer (there's a difference). He died at the age of 86, not long after completing a series of sonatas for solo wind instruments and had recently given a piano recital, his playing “as vivid and precise as ever.”

I'll get to Saint-Saëns' reputation after you've had a chance to hear the work on this week's concert.

The Fantasy for Violin and Harp, Op.124, was written in 1907 when he was 72 years old, two years after Ravel composed his “Introduction & Allegro” which concludes the first half of the program, and six years before the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

He was on holiday along the Italian Riviera when he was approached by two sisters, harpist Clara Eissler and her older sister, violinist Marianne, who asked him if he'd write a piece for them. So he did.

It's not meant to be “great music” but it also doesn't descend to the dismissible level of “salon music” with a collection of pretty tunes strung together with simple textures and charming effects. Clearly, judging from the demands on the performers' skills, they were not amateurs playing in the hotel dining room (though they might have been since even good musicians need to make a living somehow). It's not something for violin and piano where the harp is substituting for the “piano accompaniment” (which happens often enough), but a work for two instruments treated equally. And since it's a “fantasy” with its free-flowing implications, it's not meant to be as “serious” as a sonata with a set pattern of movements, even though there are segments that sound like they could be. Contrasts abound, not the least of which is the final dance, a kind of Baroque-style fandango over a repeating pattern in the bass, which, rather than building to a climax, ends on a note of undisturbed pleasantness.

Here are violinist Itamar Zorman and harpist Sivan Magen – members of the Israeli Chamber Project who'll be performing this work on Thursday night – from a 2008 concert in Tel Aviv with Camille Saint-Saëns' Fantasie for Violin & Harp, Op.124:

It's interesting to note the following year, the risk-averse Saint-Saëns, a conservative in an age rapidly developing in new directions with the end of a comfortable old century, wrote music for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, one of the first films to feature an independent film score by a major composer. Old dog he may have been, but he was still capable of learning some new tricks.

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There's a famous anecdote that Hector Berlioz, then better known as a writer about music than as a composer, had said of Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” This specifically pertained to his failure in 1864 to gain the coveted Prix de Rome a second time (one could point out that neither of those who'd won those years is remembered today except on lists of winners of the Prix de Rome). However, Saint-Saëns, in his old age, recalled this comment being made about him when he was 18 and it was Gounod referring to one of his early symphonies. (For that matter, Massenet had been the subject of the joke when Auber told Berlioz in 1863, “He'll go far, the young rascal, when he's had less experience.”)

One of the great honors for a French artist would be his election to the Institut de France (consider it a “hall of fame for smart people”). He failed to gain admittance the first time, being beaten out by Massenet, but was elected three years later. While he had championed “contemporary music” when he was young teacher – then, Liszt and Wagner, understandably, but even Schumann in those earlier years – he had a dimmer view of the New Music of his old age. He succeeded in blocking Debussy from the Institut in 1915: “We must at all costs bar the door of the Institut against a man capable of such atrocities,” referring specifically to his recent suite for two pianos, En blanc et noirThis was a time when World War I was well underway – and Debussy was already ill with cancer.

Perhaps Saint-Saëns' most famous reaction to Modern Music happened in 1913 at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's (in)famous ballet, The Rite of Spring, when, shortly after the work began, he got up and stomped out of the auditorium. Of course, easily recognized as the Grand Old Man of French Music (and a leader of the Conservative Aesthetic), everybody at the performance would have gotten the message.

However, Stravinsky remembered it differently. After all, he'd been sitting in the audience at the start of the performance and said later that Saint-Saëns was not at the ballet's premiere but at the first concert performance of the orchestral score, not the ballet. While people often excuse the riot associated with the disastrous premiere as having been inspired more by Nijinsky's avant-garde choreography than Stravinsky's music, this doesn't excuse Saint-Saëns: afterward, without the potential distraction of the dancers, Saint-Saëns was convinced Stravinsky was insane.

In 1918, responding to Darius Milhaud's neo-classical orchestral suite, Protée, Saint-Saëns said, “fortunately, there are still lunatic asylums in France.”

While this did little to endear The Grand Old Man to the young Turks of French music, he was still highly acclaimed as both composer and pianist among the general public, and frequently toured Europe and Northern Africa (which he loved: he would die there while wintering in Algiers). In 1906 and 1909, he successfully toured the United States, returning in 1915 (pushing 80) for San Francisco's “Panama-Pacific Exposition.” For this, he composed a well-received but quickly forgotten extravaganza for large orchestra combined with John Philip Sousa's band and a 117-rank pipe organ called Hail, California!

Saint-Saëns however will be forever remembered by music-lovers for beautiful melodies like “The Swan,” or the grander moments of his Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” Symphony, or delightful concert pieces like the Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and of course, at this time of year, his Danse macabre, among numerous other tried-and-true war-horses. And it was perhaps that tramp of the war-horses heard behind them – like Brahms and the footsteps of a giant like Beethoven – that led them to evaluate him as “a consummate master of composition,” with a profound knowledge “of the secrets and resources of the art” but who never really rose above the level of a fine craftsman.

To be honest, though he began as a “modernist” in his early days, he was never one to “keep up with the times” as many other composers did during their careers, especially given Saint-Saëns started composing when he was 3 and wrote his last works shortly before he died at 86! For all his being derided as a conservative by his critics, Saint-Saëns wrote in his memoirs:

“Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotions, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.”

As Grove's Dictionary notes, following this quote, “it was perhaps his aesthetic rather than his music which most influenced his pupil, Gabriel Fauré, and later, Ravel.”

In that sense, Maurice Ravel (represented by two works later on this program) could make these two contradictory comments about Saint-Saëns around the same time:

When Francis Poulenc was an 18-year-old would-be composer looking for a teacher (this would've been 1917) and a pianist-friend had recommended he talk to Ravel (working on his Tombeau de Couperin around the time), Ravel thought the young man needed to learn the craft of composition, the ins-and-outs of what makes harmony work, for instance, or how to employ the old rules of counterpoint to your own style – in fact, Ravel's own teacher, Gabriel Fauré, had said much the same thing to him at the start of his studies – but Poulenc was dumbfounded when Ravel suggested he should study the music of Camille Saint-Saëns.

Now, from what I've found on-line, already suspect (and even a lot of the anecdotes in otherwise reliable biographies can be, as well: history is such a fickle creature...), I'm not sure he didn't mean to “examine his music, study his scores, look at how he handles his harmony, his counterpoint” and so on, rather than “go and ask to study with the man” which I don't think would've seriously happened, anyway. But the regard was there, whether he actually called Saint-Saëns a genius or not. It is important for young composers to learn craft: what they do with that craft is what makes them composers.

But Ravel is also supposed to have said, in response to some new piece of Saint-Saëns' just premiered, “If he'd been making shell-cases during the war, it might have been better for music.”

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The curtain goes up on The Rite of Spring

Imagine you've just created your third ballet and suddenly found yourself famous for having created one of the most startling works in the world of Classical Music, credited with the unlocking the floodgates to the New Music of the 20th Century. 

It's Paris, May 29th, 1913, and your ballet is called Le Sacre du printemps or, as it's usually translated into English, The Rite of Spring (the original Russian title is more literally Sacred Spring). It caused one of the great riots in Classical Music, if you can imagine that. Boos and catcalls that made it difficult to hear the music eventually crescendoed, as the composer described it, into “a terrible uproar” that was so loud, the dancers could no longer hear the orchestra or the beleaguered choreographer shouting out the numbers to help them keep in time with the complex rhythms and dance patterns. (It's interesting to note the New York Times, reporting on it several days later, headlined the review “Parisians hiss new ballet” [indeed!], that the house manager “has to turn up lights... to stop hostile demonstrations as dance goes on”... but deemed the work “a failure”.)

I've already mentioned the famous legend of Camille Saint-Saëns, 78 at the time, stomping up the aisle shortly after the music started (see above) which no doubt gave everybody the go-ahead to express their own opinions.

Now, most ballet audiences were there to be entertained, especially with beautiful young dancers in diaphanous costumes dancing gracefully to pleasant music that told a story, usually romantic and most likely sad if not tragic. The Rite of Spring was none of these things. (Well, tragic, maybe, if you were the Chosen One...)

Books have been written about the importance of this single piece of music, its “liberation of rhythm” and changing the focus away from the beautiful melodies of the Romantic Age and those complex harmonies that had evolved through Beethoven to Wagner; not to mention about its premiere – including one by our own Dr. Truman Bullard. I was going to include a lot more background about this musical episode pitting the Old World of Saint-Saëns against the New World of Stravinsky, but in the interest of not bogging the reader down at this point, I'll get on to the Stravinsky piece that's actually on the program! 

So, if you were Stravinsky and you've taken this new musical style of yours about as far as it can go where do you go from here?

Though a non-musical factor, let's consider the environment he lived in: Paris was a place where someone could manage to pull off a Rite of Spring, but now the World itself was in chaos: World War I had begun shortly after The Rite was premiered and in 1917, Stravinsky's native Russia ceased to exist. There were personal losses and he found himself in financial difficulties. With everything else, he found himself a composer without a country. Eventually, he spent the war years mostly in Switzerland (he had written much of Le sacre there while on holiday).  

Economically at least, this was not the time to be writing lavish works for large orchestras and theaters. Instead, he wrote a number of songs, small chamber works, and clearly started redirecting the focus of his musical language. 

After the vast scores of the Late 19th Century, a new, more “slimmed-down” approach to music began to focus more on leaner textures, clearer structures with a simpler harmonic language of a previous age with an increase of interest in “ancient music” like the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn and the baroque works of the early18th Century. Despite the reliance of a number of influences from the Baroque, this particular style of music is known as “Neo-Classical.” But that refers to the classical concepts of its texture and clarity of form rather than its stylistic “surface language.”

Aspects of music, incidentally, championed by the likes of Camille Saint-Saëns

And that is what we hear in this new work Igor Stravinsky began in 1917, a work intended for a small ensemble that could be taken around and performed in smaller venues, not the great opera houses and concert halls of the world's major cities. It was, in any number of ways, more economical.

L'Histoire du soldat or “The Soldier's Tale” is a theatrical work meant to be played, spoken, and danced. The story is based on a Russian folk-tale , a Faustian parable adapted by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz, writing in French, where basically Boy (in this case a young soldier on leave) plays fiddle, Boy loses fiddle (to the Devil in return for untold wealth), Boy gets fiddle back (in a card game with said Devil), then plays an ailing Princess back to health (a series of dances including a tango and some rag-time); Boy marries Princess, Devil attacks Princess, Boy subdues Devil with his fiddle (in the Devil's Dance), but then is cursed that if he ever crosses beyond the border of the Princess' realm, Boy will lose everything – which, of course, he does. And so, the Devil wins after all. 

The instrumental ensemble, unlike the vast orchestra of Le sacre, consists of only seven players: violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, cornet (or trumpet) and trombone – in other words, balanced pairs of upper and lower register strings, winds, and brass – and an array of percussion instruments played by one musician – a snare drum, two side drums (large & small) without snares, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle. There are three actors taking the roles of the Narrator, the Soldier and the Devil; the role of the Princess is played by a dancer (additional dancers are optional).

But that's the original piece. You can watch a full, staged production of it here (in English) or follow the score in this full performance (with spoken text in French) where you can see how many of these rhythmic cells overlap between what you hear and what is written.

Like many operas or sets of incidental music, composers compiled collections of highlights into a suite, and that's exactly what Stravinsky did with this version for piano, violin, and clarinet. Not the whole piece, just some of the best bits, and instead of being a real piano part, the pianist substitutes for many of the missing instruments, even the percussionist.

It seems the financial backing for this project – think of it as L'Histoire, LLC – came from Swiss financier Werner Reinhart who was a major philanthropist, supporting several composers, painters, and poets in those years around and after the war; he was also an amateur clarinetist. After bankrolling Stravinsky's premiere, he gave additional money to back the tour of subsequent performances, and out of gratitude Stravinsky arranged this suite with the clarinet as a nod to Reinhart.

Here's the Suite – which consists of the opening “Soldier's March,” an introduction to the Soldier's fiddle, “Un petit concert” after the Soldier defeats the Devil and wins back his fiddle, then the set of three dances (Tango, Valse, and Rag) in which the Princess is cured of her curious malady, and, to conclude, “The Devil's Dance” in which the Soldier once again defeats the Devil.

The Ducasse Trio performs the Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat, “The Soldier's Tale,” in this performance recorded live in Manchester UK in 2016:

There are many fingerprints of this new “Neo-Classical” Style in Stravinsky's music, compared to what we'd heard a few years earlier in The Rite of Spring. While the bass (or in this case, the pianist's left hand) plays a constant “left-right/left-right” beat one could easily march to, everything above it is in the constantly fluctuating meters that were a hallmark of The Rite, a bane to many foot-tappers' existence. Instead of the rich layers of sound in Petrushka or Le sacre, what we hear here is more often something melodic (not necessarily a tune) superimposed over a simple, often repetitive accompaniment (not unlike an old-fashioned Mozartean Alberti Bass, so simplistic even a child could play it).

Stravinsky also has started to borrow material from the past. From Petrushka with its folk-song quotations, this quickly evolved into folk-like motives or themes in Le sacre with its original but derivative ideas. There are chorale tunes in L'Histoire meant to signify religious piety to remind us of Martin Luther or Bach, and of course those three dances evoke a sultry Parisian night-life. Interestingly, Stravinsky never heard ragtime live – he only saw it in printed sheet music and admitted his rag is more like a portrait of ragtime, much the way Chopin's waltzes are “portraits of the waltz” rather than waltzes intended for actual dancing.

It's interesting to look back on what Saint-Saëns thought was important in music – clarity of texture, harmony and form – things he imparted to his students and who, like Fauré, imparted to theirs (most especially Ravel). While Stravinsky “experimented” with Old Music after The Rite of Spring, a style that would be perfected by French composers like Milhaud and later Poulenc in Les six, or with Respighi in Italy in the 1920s that would become the “Neo-Classical” style (what critics called “The Grave-Robber School of Music”), Saint-Saëns had already been doing that: listen to the film score he wrote in 1908 for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise or movements of earlier works like the 1863 Suite, evoking the 16th Century dance suites of Rameau and Lully, though more rigidly and with less imagination than Debussy or Ravel would do in their own style at the turn of the century.

So, the Stravinsky that metaphorically met Saint-Saëns at The Riot of Spring in 1913 was not the same Stravinsky you're hearing in The Soldier's Tale four years later. In these age-old aesthetic skirmishes between Conservative and Contemporary, perhaps, like the Devil in the story, Saint-Saëns won after all.

– Dick Strawser 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Opening Night for the New Season: Music for String Quartet and Flute

Who: The Balourdet String Quartet and flutist Adam Sadberry
What: Samuel Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11 (with the original version of his Adagio for Strings), selections from the Duke Ellington songbook, an evocation of Winter Spirits by Katherine Hoover for solo flute, and a set of "Theme & Variations" by Amy Beach
When & Where: Wednesday night, 7:30pm, at Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg
The Balourdet Quartet at rest
The Balourdet Quartet, now based in Boston and
currently in residence at the New England Conservatory’s Professional String Quartet Program, was formed in 2018 at Houston's Rice University under the tutelage of, among others, James Dunham, former violist of the legendary Cleveland Quartet and is currently working with Cleveland Quartet founder, cellist Paul Katz at the New England Conservatory. They've received the Grand Prize at the 2021 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition and placed in several other major competitions including, earlier this month, receiving a Bronze Medal at the prestigious Banff International Competition. (Incidentally, their website explains “the quartet takes its name from Antoine Balourdet, chef extraordinaire at the Hotel St. Bernard and beloved member of the Taos School of Music community.”)

Earlier in the pandemic, their October 2020 virtual concert at New England Conservatory included Beethoven's F Major String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 1. Here's the final movement, Allegro molto.

Adam Sadberry, not at rest
Flutist and educator Adam Sadberry, who joins the Quartet for the second half of the program, will begin teaching at the University of Michigan's School of Music next spring. An Eastman School of Music graduate, he has played as the principal (or acting-principal) flutist in the St. Louis & Memphis Orchestras among others. A winner of Concert Artists Guild’s 2021 Victor Elmaleh Competition, he is also paving a distinctive career with his citizenry, creativity, and vibrancy both on and off stage.

Even though we're barely getting used to the sudden appearance of Autumn this past week, here Adam Sadberry performs one of the works he'll play on Market Square Concerts' program, Katherine Hoover's “Winter Spirits.” 


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Samuel Barber, the night of his Quartet's world premiere
Imagine what it must have been like for a young man like Samuel Barber who grew up in West Chester, PA, listening to his Aunt Louise's singing – she happened to be the great contralto Louise Homer, a star, as much as a contralto can be a star, at none other than the Metropolitan Opera in the early decades of the 20th Century – who went to Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at the age of 14, became a triple major in composition, piano and voice, receiving recognition for his “Overture to The School for Scandal,” his first work to be performed by a major orchestra in 1933 when he was 23 years old. He won some prizes and travel scholarships, went to Vienna and Rome where he composed and studied, and wrote three other highly acclaimed works: the “Music for a Scene from Shelley” (when he was 23), his 1st Symphony (he was 25), and the String Quartet (begun when he was 24, but not ready for a premiere until he was 26).

When he was 26, he met the great conductor Arturo Toscanini in Italy, showed him some of his music, and gained his enthusiastic support. It was Toscanini's idea he should transcribe the slow movement of this string quartet (which he hadn't finished yet) for string orchestra and publish it as a separate piece. Toscanini, who played little American music, not only championed Barber's symphony and his 1937 “First Essay for Orchestra,” he turned the Adagio into a work that would go on to become Barber's most popular and most frequently performed piece.

With a start like that, what kind of future could this young man have in store? Heady times, indeed!

Intended for the Curtis String Quartet's international tour in 1936, Barber dedicated the work to that same aunt who'd been such an early inspiration, Louise Homer and her husband Sidney.

Here's a recording by the Diotima Quartet with the complete score:

As a composer who regarded Barber as one of his favorite composers (I “ran into him” twice in New York – the first time, in Patelson's, that incredible music store near Carnegie Hall, when I turned around in this narrow aisle and there he was; I did the usual fan-gush before I realized I had stepped on his foot...), I've always felt this finale was a let-down, even a “cop-out,” the result of deadline pressures but also the challenge of finding something that can stand up to a slow movement like that! Since Toscanini wisely suggested turning the Adagio into a piece for string orchestra, perhaps it would've been better for Barber to replace it in the quartet with something more mortal? Anything coming after it had a lot to live up to. As did Barber himself.

Through the magic of You Tube, I've found a 1938 recording by the Curtis Quartet of the Op. 11 Quartet Barber wrote for them – which includes the second version of the finale, added in 1937, months after the “provisional” premiere in December of 1936. There was another revision before the work was officially published (though I can't find a specific date for that). In 1943 he “again revised” the finale and republished his Op.11 in the version we hear today.

But listening to this “original” finale might explain the young composer's frustration: this is a recording made in 1938 – with all the sound-issues that implies – but I can't help thinking what Barber, in the center of this photograph with his arms folded, must have felt at the time (where was this taken, in Rome at the Coliseum?).

I'd never heard this version of the finale before. Everything I'd read about it before said Barber “would later revise the finale,” but I hadn't been aware what he really did was no revision: he scrapped the original movement and replaced it with the “reflection” of the opening which, after two substantial movements, is also only two minutes long, giving the impression this monumental slow movement rose up out of the first movement which then, to get from the Adagio's B-flat Minor tonality to the first movement's B Minor, harks back to the opening to round it out. It always struck me as lopsided. Was he forced into this by a retreating intensity of creativity (every composer's worst nightmare) and a deadline that proved more pressure than he needed?

When I'd read Barber was pressed for time and, after completing the Adagio, couldn't finish the entire quartet before the Curtis Quartet's tourwriting in September, 1936, to the quartet's cellist, "I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout! Now for a Finale" – I think I understand why, listening now to this “original” finale: anything after that Adagio would be a let-down, and the pressure on the young composer – he was, after all, 26 by then – must have been enormous. Not that I or any of the other critics who may have pointed this out (as many more would do with the Violin Concerto's finale) would call Barber “a weak composer”! Anybody who could write that incredible Adagio is certainly a very good composer – many composers I'd known or met would no doubt give various parts of their collective anatomy to have written something not only that good but also that successful – but not even Beethoven could turn everything he wrote into a masterpiece. 

Perhaps, as a former child prodigy still capable of writing easily and receiving confidence-boosting admiration into his mid-20s, Barber had reached that point dreaded by so many brilliant and acclaimed young composers that would turn the habitual effortlessness of his creativity into something unfamiliar self-doubting hard work when the elation of the "Nothing-Can-Stop-Me-Now" syndrome turns into something that could. 

Curiously, facing the aftermath of one work's success, he was commissioned to write a second string quartet in 1947, but wrote only 17 pages of sketches for the slow movement, before he abandoned it completely. 

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Duke Ellington, c.1930
Edward Kennedy Ellington – better known as “Duke” Ellington (the childhood nickname was the result of friends seeing his offhand manners and dapper dress and assuming he should have a title; even without the name, he certainly would've become American musical royalty) – was the grandson of former slaves and at the age of 14 was sneaking into Washington DC pool halls where he became fascinated by the piano players. A year later, working as a soda jerk, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” which, for variety and to cover up the fact it was his only composition, he also played as a waltz, a tango, or a fox-trot. Before studying to become a commercial artist, a high school music teacher gave him free lessons in harmony and he dropped out of art school, then he became a sign-painter by day and played music by night.

Like George Gershwin who learned his craft plugging songs for Tin Pan Alley, Ellington, once he'd turned himself into a jazz band leader in the 1920s, became a master at the 3-minute miniature for 78rpm recordings. Like Gershwin who wrote his break-through Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 and later became increasingly interested in writing “long-form concert works” as a mix of both the classical and jazz worlds, Ellington didn't really get into “extended works” until his Black, Brown & Beige of 1943. It would be the first of several such works he would create, but unfortunately they were never as well received as his shorter jazz works. But since this post-dates the three famous “tunes” included in this suite, we'll save that for some other time.

As it turns out, Ellington was not a composer to sit down and compose something from scratch from beginning to end. In the case of 1930's “Mood Indigo,” the basic tune came from his clarinetist who'd learned it as “Mexican Blues” from his clarinet teacher in New Orleans, so in the “creative sense,” Ellington was more of an arranger here. “I'm Beginning to See the Light,” from 1944 also credits trumpeter Harry James and saxophonist Johnny Hodges for their creative input. One of the Duke's trombonists claimed he created for “the hook” in “Sophisticated Lady” in 1932 for which Ellington paid him $15 but never gave him credit. 


Paul Chihara, a composer in his own right, then took these (and other) Ellington hits and arranged them for string quartet in 2008.

Pointing out the various social issues surrounding “women composers” in general with Katherine Hoover and Amy Beach [see below] and mentioning Ellington as the grandson of slaves – I could spend a lot of space on the social aspects of segregation and the jazz music scene during Ellington's career, as well – Chihara, a Japanese-American born in Seattle in 1938, spent three years of his childhood in a World War II internment camp in Idaho. In 1996, he would use some of these memories to compose two works based on that experience.

When I was a graduate student in the early-'70s, I remember being fascinated by several of Chihara's “Tree” pieces like “Driftwood” for string quartet and “Forest Music” for orchestra, plus “Grass” for double bass and orchestra. He was also a prolific composer of film music (one of his composition students, incidentally, was James Horner, who wrote filmscores you might've heard of for Titanic and Avatar). Earning a doctorate at Cornell, Chihara also studied in Paris, like so many American composers, with Nadia Boulanger and also with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood.

Gunther Schuller, a teacher and highly respected composer of fairly gnarly “contemporary” music as well as a jazz musician and historian, said of Ellington, he “composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.”

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Katherine Hoover in the 1970s (photo: Jane Hamborsky)
Symphony-goers in Harrisburg might recall, in January, 1987, hearing the world premiere of Eleni: A Greek Tragedy by West Virginia-born composer, Katherine Hoover – especially a particularly attention-grabbing moment when, in the midst of this intensely emotional work, an alto voice rose out of the woodwind section to sing a heart-piercing lament. I had an opportunity to interview her for the Green Room Pre-Concert Talk as the Orchestra's assistant conductor then, prior to the premiere (at least I didn't step on her foot). This was part of a season in which all seven concerts featured a “work by a woman composer.” As the old ad said, “You've come a long way,” because these days “women composers” are simply called “composers.”

That “way” was a long and dispiriting process. She first heard Mozart's music when she was 3 and could read music before she could read words. Ms. Hoover started taking flute lessons at the age of 8 – they discovered she had “perfect pitch,” not always a sign of talent, and not always a gift – but her parents discouraged her from pursuing a musical career. Eventually she started an academic degree at the University of Rochester before being accepted into its Eastman School of Music as a flute major and graduating in 1959 with a BS in Music Theory and a Performers Certificate in Flute. She'd also signed up for composition lessons, but, as she told us here in 1987 and said again in an interview in 1996, her composition classes left a bad impression: “There were no women involved with composition at all. [I got] rather discouraged – being the only woman in my classes, not being paid attention to and so forth." Later studies at Yale were one thing but lessons in the early-1960s with Philadelphia-based flutist William Kincaid, she said, taught her more about music than she'd learned from any other composer. In fact, she didn't publish anything until 1972, a set of three carols for Christmas for women's chorus and flute.

John Corigliano, one of America's leading composers around the turn of the 21st Century – would one ever refer to him as a “man composer”? – wrote "Katherine Hoover is an extraordinary composer. She has a wide and fascinating vocabulary which she uses with enormous skill. Her music is fresh and individual. It is dazzlingly crafted and will reach an audience as it provides interest to the professional musician. I do not know why her works are not yet being played by the major institutions of this country, but I am sure that she will attain the status she deserves in time. She is just too good not to be recognized, and I predict that her time will come soon.”

Maria Buchfink: Kachinas
The music of the Hopi tribe of the American Southwest inspired Kokopeli for solo flute which became one of her most performed works. Native American music also influenced a series of other works for solo flute, like 1997's “Winter Spirits” which Adam Sadberry performs for Market Square Concerts. About it, the composer writes: “There is a picture by the marvelous artist Maria Buchfink [see left] of a Native American flute player; from his flute rises a cloud of kachinas and totem spirits. This piece has also risen from his notes, and it is indeed influenced by Native American music. The idea of the flute invoking beneficial spirits, be they kachinas or any others, is a very natural one. Such spirits are an accepted and valued part of life in most of the world, and the flute has been used to honor and invite their presence for countless ages.”

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Like Katherine Hoover's Native American-inspired flute solo, “Winter Spirits,” Amy Beach's set of variations uses her own song, ‘An Indian Lullaby,’ for a theme followed by six variations. It was written in 1916 – making it, incidentally, the oldest piece on the program when... well, let's get to that later. How did a woman in the United States of that era get to the point this work was published as her Op. 80?

A child prodigy – perhaps the term “infant prodigy” would be more appropriate here – Amy Cheney could sing forty songs accurately by age one, improvise countermelodies a year later, and by 3 had taught herself to read. She composed three waltzes for piano when she was 4 (take that, Mozart), though, according to a 1998 biography, her mother “attempted to prevent the child from playing the family piano herself, believing that to indulge the child's wishes in this respect would damage parental authority.” As a result, she didn't begin actual piano lessons until the ripe old age of 6 and shortly began giving public recitals of works by Handel, Beethoven, and Chopin, along with a few of her own pieces. Her parents declined offers from agents who proposed arranging concert tours for her.

All this had happened while growing up in New Hampshire. Moving to Boston in 1875, it was suggested Amy, now pushing 8, enroll in a European conservatory, there being no American school where she could study (it was standard in those days, budding American composers going to Germany for their musical training, but it was in the fall of 1875 John Knowles Paine was appointed the first professor of music at Harvard, turning his “fluffy” electives of music appreciation (without credit) into offerings of theory and composition classes as well as, eventually, private instrumental lessons leading toward a music degree, the first music department in an American university, but I digress...). Again, the family declined and found her local teachers including, by the time she was 14, for harmony and counterpoint, the closest she ever got to formal instruction in composition. Otherwise she was self-taught, collecting any book she could find relating to harmony, composition, and orchestration (with no suitable work available in English, she translated Berlioz' treatise).

Then came her debut as a piano soloist with the Boston Symphony in October, 1883, when the 16-year-old girl performed the 3rd Piano Concerto of Ignaz Moscheles (now largely forgotten, he was one of the leading virtuosos of the 19th Century and a teacher of Mendelssohn's) – and played it to a generally enthusiastic audience. She also was the soloist in the Boston Symphony's final concert of the 1884-'85 Season.

Then came her marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston surgeon 24 years her senior: she agreed "to live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts. She agreed never to teach piano,” to limit her public performances to two recitals a year, and to focus on composition rather than performing (though, like most 19th Century virtuosos, whether Moscheles or Paganini, she considered herself a performer who composed her own music). Because it was unseemly for a married woman to have a male tutor, she must continue to teach herself. And she became the composer known as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.


Amy Beach in 1908
Given the debates over women's rights and questions of personal identity in marriage that still rage today, the image of her I had received as a student in the 1970s from professors or writers about music, whenever her name surfaced (which was rare), was that she had been “forced” to give up performing and having her compositions performed in public which, it turns out, was not accurate. (Even a1995 New York Times review of her opera Cabildo, performed at Lincoln Center, began by saying she had “given up her career in favor of Victorian Marriage.”)

Looking back in 1942, she described married life as a happy one (officially, she put it “I was happy and he was content”). But she was also active as a composer: look at some of her works and their premieres. Her Mass in E-flat, written in 1892, was performed by Boston's Handel & Haydn Society. Her Gaelic Symphony, a New Englander's response to Dvořák's “New World,” was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896 to great success. She became famous, later if not then, as “the first American woman to have a symphony premiered by a major orchestra” (which begs the question, “were there other American woman who had symphonies premiered by minor orchestras?”). A prominent Boston composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, wrote to her of his enthusiasm for her symphony, adding that "I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us [his colleagues in the 2nd New England School of Composers], and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you [like it] or not – one of the boys." That same year, she was the pianist for the premiere of her Violin Sonata with the orchestra's concertmaster, having already played the Schumann Piano Quintet with him and other members of the orchestra. In 1900, she again appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor.

When her husband died in 1910 – and her mother seven months later – Mrs. Beach went to Europe to rest but noticed the “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach” confused the Germans so she re-styled her name as Amy Beach. And shortly, she resumed her career as a performer, including standard recital repertoire as well as her own pieces, receiving considerable success for her songs (though many German critics found them “kitschy”) and the Violin Sonata. Again, the image I had received in the 1970s, that “as soon as her husband died, she was back to performing and composing,” was simply not true, though she did a good deal more of it simply because, now, it didn't have the restrictions of her husband's social expectations. And curiously, once she returned to the United States and was being asked if she, Amy Beach, was the daughter of Dr. H.H.A. Beach, she changed her name back to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and remained so until her death in 1944 at the age of 77.

Her reputation has seen a similar shift. While acclaimed, success was not unanimous (but then one could say the same of Beethoven). She published over 300 works including a vast amount of four-part anthems for St. Bartholemew's Episcopal Church in New York. Her publisher complained to her (when, I'd be curious) her “choral pieces had practically no sale.” One of them, however, found its way into the library of a church in Lewisburg, PA, where a college classmate of mine from Susquehanna University had pulled it out for a read-through when I was in the choir. I'm sorry to say there was a great deal of snickering from the choristers and, try as we might, we put it aside as “impossible to sing with a straight face.” I really have no recollection of why exactly beyond it's cloying chromaticism, but as a result my first reaction to Mrs. Beach's name was one of “amateur.”

But at the time, I'd heard little if any of her “other” music, and the same could be said of the average American concert-goer: who, then, had heard her symphony or the piano quintet? True, much of the shorter piano pieces, mostly with picturesque, often cloying titles (typical of the time), fell into that generic turn-of-the-century category of “sentimental salon music,” suitable for amateur performance by the young ladies of genteel households. But the same could be said of Beethoven if all you were judging him by was, say, Für Elise... pretty? Yes, but great music...?

Amy Beach's 10 Commandments (1915)
She mentored several young women who wanted to study composition over the second part of her life, and gave advice to young composers in general, even, in 1915, writing down what she called her "Ten Commandments for Young Composers." (Sorry, the only legible image I could find of the text, once you open it, cut off her head...) The advice would not be lost on composers today, learning one's craft from the past and, I might add, how composers since 1915 evolved from it.

As for her Flute Quintet, a set of six variations on a theme, it was written in 1916, shortly after she returned from Europe as World War I was starting (she had delayed her return trip until the last minute and ended up having a trunkful of manuscripts, all works she'd composed during her years of traveling and performing, confiscated at the Belgian border – did they think they were secret a code and she was a German spy? She did express pro-German opinions but, she later admitted, it was for the Culture of Beethoven and Goethe rather than the militaristic Empire of the Kaiser – and it took her 15 years to get them back!). Visiting an aunt in San Francisco, she was commissioned to write something for the equivalent of a “Pan-American Fair” and supplied them with this 20-minute work. Described by critics looking to compare her style to music people might know found references to Debussy and Ravel's quartets (which, written in 1893 and 1905, were, technically, still “contemporary” music) – before, she'd been compared to Brahms and later to Rachmaninoff – even to the point the flute's entrance, after the Theme, was straight out of Debussy's 1894 “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun.” 

Around the same time, she'd begun work on her string quartet which she didn't publish until 1929, reworking it during a stay in Rome. She took three themes from a book on Alaskan Inuit music and integrated them into a fairly spare texture lacking traditional tonal elements and non-standard scales. It would certainly bear little resemblance to anything she'd written before. 

The worst thing that could happen to a composer came in the 1920s when she was told her music was now considered “old-fashioned.” But then, the same thing could be said of Bach or Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Samuel Barber; as well as Rossini and Sibelius who, as a result, stopped composing.

But Amy Beach? 

She persisted... and continued to compose right up until her death in 1944. 

P.S. - As we begin the season with her 1916 "Theme & Variations," Market Square Concerts will end the season on April 29th with "Stuart & Friends" and another work by Amy Beach, her Piano Quintet of 1907, along with the Viola Sonata of Rebecca Clarke and Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio. 

Dick Strawser