Sunday, January 8, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 1: The Music of Arriaga & Revueltas

The Dalí Quartet (photo credit, Ryan Brandenberg)

: The Dalí Quartet
What: Arriaga's 3rd String Quartet, Revueltas' 2nd String Quartet, Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet," and Ginastera's 2nd String Quartet.
When: Tuesday, January 10th, 2023, at 7:30pm
Where: Whitaker Center on Market Street in Downtown Harrisburg

= = = = = = =

The first half of the award-winning, Philadelphia-based Dalí Quartet's program consists of works by a Spanish and a Mexican composer; the second half, of works by two Argentinians. Silvestre Revueltas is considered one of the most important Mexican composers of the 20th Century (and born on the very last day of the 19th); Alberto Ginastera has long been recognized as Argentina's greatest composer while Astor Piazzolla is easily the most popular one.

Curiously, their program opens with a work from the Days of Beethoven (1823), then progresses chronologically through the 20th Century with Revueltas' 2nd quartet (1931) and, after intermission, two works from the 1950s, Piazzolla's “Tango Ballet” (1956) and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet, written two years later. So, for once, I can take you through the entire program in both Program and Chronological Order and, for that matter, move from Spain to the New World, going from Mexico south to Argentina.

The Dalí Quartet takes its name from the Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí, born in Catalonia on the northeast coast of Spain, near the French border. The first composer on this program was born almost a hundred years earlier on the northwest coast of Spain, near the French border.

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga is not a name well-known to American audiences, or, if he is known, it's probably for having been one of the most short-lived composers to be recognized in a flock of short-lived composers like Mozart (who died at 35) and Schubert (31). A contemporary of Beethoven, Arriaga has been dubbed “The Spanish Mozart” for more, however, than being short-lived: born on the day Mozart would've turned 50 (imagine!), he was also something of a child-prodigy himself. Mozart may have written his first works when he was 6; Arriaga's earliest surviving work – an octet for an odd combination of string quartet, bass, trumpet, guitar and piano with the child-like title, Nada y mucho (“Nothing & Much”) – was written when he was 11, by comparison not so impressive on the Scale of Prodigiousness, but still, given there are three string quartets, at least one complete opera (with fragments of at least five other works that might've been projected if not completed operas), a symphony of almost 30 minutes' duration, and several shorter choral works and chamber pieces, there's enough to realize Arriaga could've become a composer to take note of had he not died ten days before his 20th birthday! Imagine, if you will, listening to this work of a teenager and wondering what Arriaga might have achieved had he lived to be 35, much less 70...

There are clips of some excerpts from the Dalí Quartet's performances available on-line – a gorgeous moment from the slow movement, and from the finale – but for reasons of completeness, I chose this recording by no less than the Guarneri Quartet, one of the few iconic quartets of an earlier generation to take this music seriously. It's in the traditional four movements and follows a standard Classical scheme with the “slow movement” a more leisurely pastorale.

 = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

If the scherzo and finale bring to mind Mendelssohn, remember Arriaga would not have known the German's earliest quartets which were still four years in the future. And while there may be hints of Mozart and Haydn as well as Early-Beethoven, each of whom could have been influential in Arriaga's development, let's consider the fact, since 1821, the young Spaniard was studying at the Paris Conservatoire with a composer considered one of the greatest and most influential in Europe who was not named Beethoven, Luigi Cherubini – who, incidentally, was also a major influence on the young Mendelssohn in Berlin.

In 1823, when Cherubini heard a “Stabat mater” he thought exceptional, he asked simply, “Who wrote this?” and when told it was Arriaga's, said to the boy, so the story goes, “Amazing – you are music itself!” No small endorsement from the most influential composer in Paris!

His three string quartets were all written in that same year of 1823 when he was 17. It would be difficult to dismiss these works as “juvenalia” and though they lack the finesse of such great names as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven (compare them, then, to works Haydn or Beethoven may have written at that age – excepting the likes of Mozart who wrote his dramatic “Little” G Minor Symphony when he was 17; and Mendelssohn, who wrote his Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the same age only a few years later), there is still a pretty astonishing level of accomplishment in these works. And the Symphony, though not on the level of Beethoven (who was?), is certainly as good if not better (or at least more promising) than many of those Contemporaries of Beethoven nobody plays any more.

Yes, for 1823, you might think this sounds “very classical” compared to what Beethoven was writing at the same time – the year of the Missa solemnis, a year before his 9th Symphony, the first of his “Late Quartets” to follow in 1825. But if you know what most of Beethoven's contemporaries were writing like, Arriaga's not so far off the Main Stream.

Given how I like to place composers in the context of their times, remember Arriaga was born in 1803 in Spain – technically, in the Basque region of northwestern Spain – months before the invasion by Napoleonic troops and the onset of near-continuous warfare until the French were driven out after the Battle of Vittoria (celebrated in Beethoven's “Wellington's Victory”) in 1814. A year later, post-Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena. In 1821, Arriaga's father was able to send his son to study in Paris, months after Napoleon's death, when Louis XVIII restored the dynasty interrupted by the French Revolution in 1789. In 1823, the year of Cherubini's resounding endorsement and the production of Arriaga's three quartets, the French army again invaded and occupied Spain in an attempt to restore a pro-French king who'd been ousted by rebellious liberals.

A further side note: whatever influence this may have had on Arriaga's own character, much less his music – he was, after all, like the Italian-born Cherubini, a foreigner in Paris in the aftermath of a generation of Napoleonic wars – there were more direct impacts of the era on composers like Beethoven who lived through two French occupations of Vienna, and Haydn who died in the midst of the second one; of Schubert who, as a boy, saw a French bomb barely miss his school, exploding in the neighboring yard; and of Wagner, five months old when the Battle of Leipzig, the deadliest battle in history before World War I, raged around his home and his father died in the ensuing typhoid epidemic a month later.

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

Revueltas in 1930
Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was born on the last day of the last year of the 19th Century – in other words, on the 20th Century's New Year's Eve. In the early-1930s, he composed four quartets in quick succession along with other “musical postcards”. The 2nd, subtitled “Magueyes,” was dedicated to Aurora Maguira, but more of her association with the music later.

These quartets are, compared to standard string quartets, brief works, only about ten minutes each. The 2nd Quartet, in three movements, opens with an Allegro giocoso followed not by a slow movement but a Molto vivace – both consist of alternating contrasting sections, fast and slow, the vivace almost like a variation of the opening – before ending with a brief Allegro molto sostenuto, “very sustained” but more in the sense of “not staccato” like the first two movements. There are a handful of recognizable gestures treated motivically throughout, tying it together.

Here is a recording with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano (with score) of Silvestre Rivueltas' String Quartet No. 2, “Magueyes”:

= = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Sometimes, when a composer writes a piece, he dedicates it to someone for some reason, sometimes as a thank you for their support or commission (Beethoven dedicated three of his Late Quartets to a Russian prince who commissioned them; the Op. 131, to a general who helped secure a military commission for Beethoven's wayward nephew who'd recently attempted suicide), and sometimes for personal reasons. In Revueltas' case, the dedicatee of this quartet, Aurora Maguira, had been in a 4-year relationship with Revueltas and they'd broken up the year before the wrote this quartet.

While that may be enough to inspire “programmatic thoughts behind the music,” the subtitle “Magueyes” might be confusing, referring to the agave or Century Plant (in the plural) which flowers only once, then dies.

It is also the source of pulque, a fermented drink long produced in Mexico. For some reason, this reference has been interpreted as the composer's cultural attitude toward the Middle Classes' preference for imported European music (over their own home-grown music) or a reference to Revueltas' own rather prickly political philosophies as applied to the development of a nationalist voice in his music (or facing down the historical baggage of the European genre of the quartet).

Not that it might be understood by non-Mexican audiences, Revueltas quoted a folk-song in the opening movement with the lyrics: “I pray heaven dry up the magueys / because these agaves are the cause of my misfortune; / I am very drunk and nothing gives me satisfaction, / because the woman I loved so much does not love me.” (Enough said...)

Apparently, Revueltas was not long without consolation: in 1931, he composed an orchestral work, Ventanas (“Windows”) unofficially dedicated to Ángela Acevedo, whom he married the following year.

It's interesting to note that five of Revueltas' siblings also became acclaimed artists: two as painters, one as an actress and dancer, and another as a writer. His two daughters, in turn, achieved professional success as a dancer and teacher, the other as an essayist; while a nephew is well-known in Mexico as a violinist, journalist, and conductor.

While mentioning the role international politics played in the world of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, however little if any influence it had on his music, Silvestre Revueltas' story is a bit more to-the-point. Growing up in the Mexican state of Durango, his world was deeply affected by the political unrest of what's generally called “The Mexican Revolution” which began in 1910, centered largely around Durango, and which eventually produced such memorable historical figures (whose names, if not their histories, are well known outside Mexico) like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (whose first name was not “Viva”). In 1913, insurrectionists seized Durango and burnt many of the city's businesses.

In 1911, a young violin student named Silvestre Revueltas gave his first public recital. In 1917, the year the establishment of a new federal Constitution should have ended the conflict – a complicated business with considerable outside involvement, particularly from the United States – teenager Revueltas decided to leave Mexico and attend a music school in San Antonio, Texas; then, in 1919, the Chicago College of Music, after which he returned to Mexico to become involved in working with composer Carlos Chavez giving concerts to promote Mexican music, first as a violinist in the orchestra, then as a composer and conductor. It is from this period he began to combine elements of traditional Classical Music techniques with what he was hearing and learning from the folk and popular music of Mexico.

While an eventual fall-out with Chavez proved inevitable, Revueltas also began writing film-music in the 1930s. In 1935, in “Let's Go with Pancho Villa,” Revueltas not only composed the filmscore but also had a cameo as the piano-player in a saloon. When a gunfight erupted in the bar, Revueltas, while playing “La cucaracha” (a song which, incidentally, started becoming popular in 1910 during the Revolution), held up a sign that read, “Please don't shoot the pianist.”

Then, following his political inclinations, he went to Spain in 1937 to take part in the Spanish Civil War, another complicated business with considerable outside involvement, in this case from the German and Italian fascists. He returned to Mexico following Franco's victory in 1939.

The following year, now living in poverty and plagued by alcoholism, Revueltas died from complications of pneumonia the same day his ballet, El renacuajo paseador (originally completed in 1936 and which, apparently, translates to “The Walking Tadpole”), was premiered. He was 40 years old and would have no idea, given the few works he'd completed, his name would eventually be remembered as one of Mexico's most important composers!

His most famous piece, Sensemayá, originally written for chamber orchestra in 1937 but reworked for large orchestra the following year (apparently while he was in Spain), was inspired by a Cuban poet's description of “the ritual killing of a snake.” Here is the 2012 Ukrainian Premiere performed by the Odessa Philharmonic conducted by Hobart Earle (the music begins at 2:14, but the conductor's initial remarks might prove helpful to first-time listeners).

I'm not sure how a Mexican piece fits into their program, “An Evening in Caracas,” but, speaking of politics and the role of warfare on the shaping of a composer's life and music, let's think for a moment about the impact current events, playing out during the on-going Russian invasion, may have on future Ukrainian artists... 

– Dick Strawser

= = = = = = =

You can read the second post for this concert's program, featuring music by Argentinian composers Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, here (which will be posted, I hope, soon).

No comments:

Post a Comment