Monday, July 17, 2023

Summermusic #3: Escher Brings Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert to Town

This Wednesday evening marks the third and last concert of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2023, a performance by the Escher Quartet, returning to Temple Ohev Sholom on Front Street below Seneca Street. The program includes a quartet Haydn wrote in 1793, the 4th Quartet Bela Bartók wrote in 1928, and one of two quartets Franz Schubert wrote in March of 1824, the one known as the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. The concert begins at 7:30 and tickets will be available at the door.

The Escher Quartet (outstanding in their field)

The six quartets Franz Josef Haydn published in 1793 – two sets of three: Op. 71 and Op.74 – are often collectively referred to as the “Apponyi” Quartets for the same reason Beethoven's Op.59 Quartets are the “Razumovsky” Quartets: Haydn dedicated them to a cousin of his patron, Prince Nicholas Esterházy, named Count Anton Georg Apponyi, a member of an old and powerful aristocratic Hungarian family. A collector of paintings and an avid musical amateur, known as “an excellent violinist,” he would later become a founding member and then president of the famous Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, the legendary Society of the Friends of Music, in Vienna. There are some references that in 1795 he suggested Haydn's young student Beethoven ought to try his hand at a quartet.

Haydn in London, 1791
When Haydn first arrived in London on New Year's Day, 1791 – finally: English impresarios had been trying to “catch” him since 1782! – he found himself immensely popular with the music-going public. Even that was something new: before, basically working in isolation for Prince Esterházy between his Hungarian estates and the imperial capital, Haydn was used to writing music for his patron's audiences and while his fame had spread well beyond the walls of Vienna's aristocracy, the fact people in as far away as London could consider him all the rage was astounding to him. Since 1774, concerts where tickets were sold to the general public had become popular in London; since 1782, there was hardly a concert that didn't include a work by Haydn.

Mozart died while Haydn was in London for his first stay. Then, after he received a comparatively cool reception in Vienna on his return, Haydn decided to accept an invitation for a second tour in 1794. This time, during the summer of 1793, he wrote six new quartets specifically for a projected series of London concerts and Count Apponyi was willing to pay 100 ducats (whatever that might be worth in today's dollars) for the dedication, the 18th Century's equivalent of “naming rights.” In previous cases, such patronage involved “performing rights,” a period of ownership that would preclude other music-loving aristocrats (and wealthy merchants, too, like Johann Tost, who'd once been a violinist in Esterházy's orchestra) from being able to have them played at their musicales.

So, with little fanfare, then, Haydn ended up creating the first string quartets written for the paying public, not a wealthy patron. Whatever sense of freedom this may have given Haydn, these quartets exhibited a subtly new approach: biographer Rosemary Hughes wrote, “It is as if Haydn were pushing open a door through which Beethoven was to pass.” Seven years later, Beethoven would present his own set of six quartets, his Op.18. And more than just a new century had begun.

The quartet on the Escher's program, the D Major Quartet, Op.71 No. 2, opens with a brief, four-measure slow introduction setting up the main Allegro. Rather than being a simple melody-with-accompaniment, the accompaniment begins to branch out with a more defined independence with the occasional slip onto an unexpected chord or a switch to the darker minor mode (Haydn was always good for something unexpected, but here they're more subtle: we, used to Beethoven and Bartók, might not even notice them, today). The frequent use of the octave leaps throughout the Allegro might bring to mind the “motivic saturation” of Beethoven's 1st Quartet's opening movement.

The slow movement, one of Haydn's great Adagios, unfolds like a seamless meditation. Presumably in sonata form, Haydn again creates the unexpected by smoothing over the usual formal signposts until, really, while the structure is there, it needn't be so obvious. The third movement, more earthy than elegant as expected, is certainly well on its way to becoming the scherzo Beethoven will later be given credit for. And then its middle section, the standard trio, certainly a contrast, seems to lack a theme at all. (By the way, notice the octave leaps, filled in here, as if left over from the first movement.)

The last movement begins as a gentle Allegretto in the manner of a folk-like dance – not an all-out Hungarian dance, in honor of Count Apponyi – a simple tune that would be out of place in a first movement but fine in a light-hearted finale. It becomes increasingly more active, more dramatic, then breaks out into a sprint for the finish, a brilliant conclusion. An old joke about programming a concert to end with a flourish to spark the applause: “play it faster and louder! Even though Haydn has only four instruments here, he's already managed to figure out how to get a hearty response from enthusiastic fans.

Performed by the Maxwell Quartet from the UK.

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Bela Bartók in 1927

It's not unusual for a string quartet to program three different quartets from three different historical periods: Classical 18th Century, Romantic 19th Century, and “Modern” 20th Century (what will we call 21st Century works in the grander scheme of things?). In this case, following them chronologically, we have Haydn from 1793; Schubert, 31 years later but a whole world away, in 1824; and Bartók over a century later in 1928 on the verge of a world depression and halfway between one World War and the next.

To many listeners, Bartók still strikes us as “contemporary” despite the 95-year age difference. At his best, he is not exactly easy listening (then, neither is Schubert's Death & the Maiden Quartet by 1820s standards, much less Beethoven's Late Quartets of the same decade). As often happens, people put off by the unfamiliar tend to focus on what's different; if we listen to Bartók and think about what's similar to what Beethoven and maybe even Haydn were doing, it might be easier to become more comfortable with his musical language.

Bartók initially grew out of the “enforced” status quo of the Vienna of Brahms and Richard Strauss. Hungary was long part of the Austrian Empire even if, since the mid-19th Century, it officially became the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and Bartók was adamantly Hungarian as a hot-headed youth. His first major work, written in 1903, was a vast tone poem after Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, inspired by Laszlo Kossuth, the leader of Hungary's 1848 Revolution. He depicted the Austrians with a satirical parody of their national anthem; the crushing defeat of the Hungarians became a funeral march with echoes of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Needless to say, a success in Budapest, it didn't go over too well in Vienna.

If hearing (and meeting) Strauss in Budapest in 1902 was a life-changing event, so was the simple moment in time when, walking through a hotel on vacation, he overheard a nanny, originally (like him) from the Transylvanian region that was then part of Hungary, singing a lullaby that was an authentic Hungarian folk-song, the first real folk-song he'd heard. Up until then, “Hungarian folk music” meant the dance-band music of the gypsies. Brahms would haunt Viennese taverns to hear the gypsies play just as many Americans would hang out at New York speak-easies to listen to jazz. Those tunes Liszt, a Hungarian-born cosmopolitan who lived in Germany, in Paris, in Rome, would quote in his famous Hungarian Rhapsodies were actually the equivalent of “urban pop” music, not the Hungarian folk at all. This was about to change.

With his friend, fellow student Zoltan Kodály, Bartók began a study of this authentic folk music and started quoting them directly into short piano pieces like transcriptions, or using them in his 1st String Quartet completed in 1909. His love of folk music took him on many trips around the Balkans, eventually even to Turkey and North Africa. He (quite literally) wrote the book on Serbo-Croatian folksongs as a result of this life-long research, or at least Part One of it: it was completed posthumously and published in 1951 by his colleague, Albert Lord, at Columbia University where Bartók had been a research fellow after settling in New York at the start of World War II.

This folk music he heard and recorded was not performed by trained musicians but by the people he met in the villages and across the countryside of Hungary. With its particular sense of accent, rhythms, and vocal contours, this music had begun to permeate Bartók's music early in his career and soon he'd gone from quoting actual songs to creating original melodies “in their style.” By the 1920s, he began calling this “imaginary folksong.”

A series of his “mature works” began in the mid-1920s with the 3rd and 4th String Quartets in 1927-1928. To us, they may sound nothing like folk-music, but many of the rhythmic turns, the gestures, the melodic shapes and their narrow spans are all part of this “primitive” style rather than the niceties of a Schubert song or a Beethoven symphony.

Thinking in terms of “motives” rather than tunes, and “gestures” rather than melodic phrases, listen to how many of these take on specific characteristics as the work unfolds, particularly through the opening movement. Complete with supporting sustained chords like a drone, there's an all-out “melody” for the cello in the middle movement, a highly ornamented slow-moving line (in many folk musics, intonation is not based on the Western tempered scale: perhaps Bartók's use of these tight half-step intervals and fluctuating ornaments reflect what more timid American ears might consider “singing out of tune” or using microtonal inflections?)

Unlike the 3rd Quartet which is basically a single condensed movement, the 4th and 5th Quartets are five movement “arch forms,” with two shorter movements on either side of a central movement (the keystone of the arch), then the two outer movements often connected by common motives or rhythms. In the 4th, the keystone is this “night music” with sustained, almost static chords underneath a winding, undulating cello melody, full of surprising shimmers that bring to mind that once, as a student, Bartók was fascinated with his discovery of Debussy's impressionism.

Keeping with the idea of the arch, the 2nd Movement and the 4th reflect one another's hurried, almost frantic mood and their folk-like motives, even if the sound is markedly different. In the 2nd, it's muted almost like a will-o-the-whisp that suddenly erupts in terror, its icy glissandos like spirits in the air. (This movement is clearly inspired by the misterioso from Alban Berg's Lyric Suite of 1926 which Bartók heard in 1927, the year before he composed his 4th Quartet.)

It is not difficult to imagine some of the sounds Bartók asks for from his string players are not something that will sound effective when played “nicely,” especially the pizzicato or plucked passages in the wild 4th Movement, especially the “snap pizz” which rebounds off the fingerboard and became such a trait of his it is still called “the Bartók Pizz.” Not to mention some of the glassy – eerie – sounds in the other movements created by playing near the bridge of the instrument. And sometimes the transition from one “sound” to another can be so startling, some might wonder if they're listening to stringed instruments at all.

Here's a recording by the Keller Quartet with the score: even if you can't read music, you can see the shapes of the different lines moving sometimes together, sometimes in contrary motion, sometimes a repeated pounding accompaniment under a short repeated gesture in the upper parts (or vice versa). It's a different world, Bartók's, and even if you don't understand the language, like listening to a story teller who knows how to use his voice to create an effect where words might fail, you'll still get what's happening.

(A footnote: I remember listening to a rocking new recording of Bartók's 4th Quartet with members of the faculty string quartet where I was teaching back in the 1970s, and after this last movement, the first violinist turned to me and said very matter-of-factly, "So I imagine to a Hungarian that would be real down-home music.") 

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Schubert in 1825; watercolor by a friend
Because Schubert used a theme from one of his songs as the subject for a set of variations in the slow movement of his D Minor String Quartet, the whole quartet is known as “The Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Two things need to be pointed out: the quotation affects only the second movement; while the drama of this quartet, already in the dark key of D Minor (it would later become Brahms' famous “tragic key”), may be powerful and striking – imagine what it would've sounded like to a Vienna used to the classical niceties of Haydn and, more or less, Beethoven who, by 1824, had not yet begun his series of Late Quartets! – but that doesn't mean the entire quartet is “death obsessed” or the result of a focus on dying, given a famous letter I'll get to after the video. We are suspended between the last gasps of the Classical Age – if you listen to what everybody other than Beethoven was writing at the time – and the beginning of the Romantic Age which had already appeared in poems and paintings for decades (the first “true” Romantic opera, Weber's Der Freischütz, premiered in 1821).

1st page of the original MS of Schubert's Quartet, "Death & the Maiden"
I'll get to the story “behind” the quartet after we hear the Escher Quartet perform it in these two videos. Before it even begins, you'll notice it's about 40 minutes long, about twice as long as Haydn's quartet which opens the program. It's in four movements, starting with a dramatic “sonata-form” movement (as was traditional in the Classical Era) – its opening motive may strike you as something similar to the “fate motive” that opens Beethoven's 5th Symphony first heard in 1808 – followed by a slow movement, a set of variations (again, Classical Standard-Operating-Procedure) in which he uses his 1817 song, “Death and the Maiden.” The third movement would normally have been a minuet or (with Beethoven) a scherzo (Italian for joke), but is more brutal than dance-like, even with its graceful middle section. Like many of Schubert's finales, this one is propelled by a repetitive rhythm, creating a powerful momentum before going all out toward its final cadence. This is a far cry from music meant to be pleasant and delightful, part of an evening's after-dinner entertainment. And a long way from music making with amateurs. Schubert was obviously determined to be on his way to becoming a “serious” composer!

If you're not familiar with the song itself, it's interesting to compare the “quartet version” (beginning at 11:37 in the first video) to the original, the song D.531 composed in February, 1817 (Schubert had just turned 20). While he skips the opening vocal lines, the plea of the young maiden faced with the impending arrival of Death, he's not using the “melody” as we might think it, such as it is, what the singer's singing, Death's reply to comfort the young girl: it's the piano accompaniment, with its simple harmonies.

“Give me your hand,” Death sings, “you beautiful and tender form! / I am a friend, and come not to punish. / Be of good cheer! I am not fierce, / Softly shall you sleep in my arms!”

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“It sometimes seems to me as if I did not belong to this world at all.”

It's a famous Schubert quote. Lucy Miller Murray opens her wonderful set of program notes about this quartet with it, and while I've found mentions of it in several on-line essays, I can find no direct reference to when it was written or to whom it was written (in a letter or in his diary?).

Kupelweiser's 1818 watercolor of himself (on a "dandy horse") and Schubert with a kaleidescope
To his friend Leopold Kupelweiser, then visiting Rome, Schubert wrote on March 31st, 1824, “Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”

This is usually (and frequently) quoted as proof Schubert was depressed, an easy word to banter around in hindsight from a time when many people use the word as a synonym for “sad.” Certainly, after the horrible year he'd had before this, he should be allowed to feel a bit down, to understate it: after all, in 1823, he was ill much of the year – the first symptoms of syphilis (which would eventually cause his death five years later) had just appeared; he had been hospitalized in May – and he was, as usual, having money problems, especially after a disastrous deal with the publisher Diabelli. Plus his latest attempt at an opera was another failure (did you know he started over 20 operas, finished only 11 of them, none of them staged in his lifetime? Who wouldn't find that depressing...). He wrote Fierrabras (to a horrible libretto by Kupelweiser's brother) between the end of May and the start of October, 1823, but due to the failure of a new opera by Weber and the unstoppable rage for All Things Rossini, plans to stage his new work were shelved, then canceled. Not only had he spent four months writing it, he never even got paid for his commission! At the end of December, his incidental music for a “magic play” called Rosamunda, Princess of Cyprus was another unmitigated disaster, again mostly because of the ridiculousness of the play. Small wonder he put operas aside (for a while) to concentrate instead on instrumental works.

What is often overlooked, in that depressing quote from his letter to Kupelweiser, is that he continues talking about just that thing, how he was now finished two string quartets, an octet, “and I want to write another quartet; in fact that is how I want to work my way toward composing a grand symphony.” Hardly the words of a young man thinking his life was no longer worth living!

He had taken a fragment of music from that Rosamunda play and used it as the 2nd Movement for the first of these two string quartets, the one in A Minor listed in Otto Deustch's catalogue as D.804. It was even performed in public by no less than Ignaz Shuppanzigh's quartet (associated with Beethoven's quartets and formerly court violinist for Count Razumovsky), on March 14th, 1824; and even more importantly, published that fall. (Remember, his letter to Kupelweiser was dated March 31st...)

He almost immediately began another quartet, this one in D Minor, D.810, and while we're not sure when it was finished – the second half of the quartet's original manuscript is still missing – it was performed in private on February 1st, 1826. Did it take that long to complete, or did he put it aside, as he had a habit of doing? The “Unfinished” Symphony suffered a similar fate: stumped for a 3rd and 4th movement to stand up to the first two, he left it as it was, incomplete (perhaps, incompletable); and friends who'd been given the score didn't know what to do with it because, after all, it wasn't finished... so they just stored it in a box in their closet until 1860.

There are some twenty or so string quartets, complete or incomplete, in Schubert's output but most of these were “household quartets” (usually dismissed as juvenalia) written for his family's musicales when he was living at home: his brother Ferdinand was a respectable violinist, brother Ignaz not so much, and their father “played the cello,” so by default Franz, an adequate violinist, played the viola (then often looked upon as the “third violin,” where people who couldn't cut second violin parts were sent).

But by late-1820, Schubert – now 23 years old – began to write more “serious” quartets. While there exists 41 measures of a slow movement, all we have of this first new work is known as the Quartettsatz, D.703, and it's from here we can talk about Schubert's Mature Quartets but alas, he completed only three of these: the Rosamunda, the D Minor known as Death and the Maiden, and the last one in G Major D.887 of 1826, the three he mentioned in Kupelweiser's letter.

Yes, Schubert died in 1828 at the age of 31, but keep in mind he also wrote, counting the individual little piano pieces grouped together in some of his dance collections, some 1500 compositions – the Deutsch catalogue numbers his last completed work, the song The Shepherd on the Rock, as D.965.

Imagine, as you listen to the concert, this string quartet is the music of a man recently turned 27 who had his whole life ahead of him. Then, insert the latest edition of the game, “What if...?”, here.

Dick Strawser

Monday, July 10, 2023

Summermusic #2: Nicholas Canellakis & Michael Brown Explore Composers and Their Identities

Nicholas Canellakis and Michael Brown return to Harrisburg for the second of this month's three Summermusic programs with Market Square Concerts, Wednesday night at 7:30 at Market Square Presbyterian Church. The program includes two sonatas and several “smaller” works that cover national identities ranging from Norway and Argentina to the United States and Bulgaria, beginning with a sonata Claude Debussy composed at the start of World War I affirming his pride in being “un musicien Français” and includes along the way arrangements by Nickolas Canellakis of music by two pianist/composers, Clara Schumann and George Gershwin; plus the “Prelude & Dance” pianist/composer Michael Brown composed in 2017.

The blogger in me sees this as a program all about “identity.”

Rather than follow program order, let's begin with the little-known Cello Sonata by Edvard Grieg. We mostly think of Grieg as a composer of “charming” miniatures, ranging from his beloved Peer Gynt Suite (mostly the first one) to various Norwegian Dances, picturesque images of country life. And while it's true he didn't write a lot of “large-scale multi-movement works” that were what proved most 19th Century composers' worth on the concert stages of Europe, he did write a famous and often-played Piano Concerto when he was in his mid-20s – its premiere in Leipzig put both him and Norway on the musical map – and while the Piano Sonata is both charming and overlooked (he wrote it when he was 22), there are three violin sonatas of which the third, written in 1886, sometimes shows up on American programs. And there is the A Minor Cello Sonata, completed three years earlier when he had turned 40. There were also to be three string quartets, but the first was lost and the third was incomplete when he died in 1907. Of the one that made it to the publisher in 1878, Grieg wrote to a friend it was “not intended to bring trivialities to market,” a sarcastic comment on what he knew was the bread-and-butter of his fame: the miniatures he was best known for already, incidental music to plays like Ibsen's Peer Gynt (a work he loathed while composing it), even though most of his collections of Norwegian dances were still in the future and the first concert suite of four pieces from Peer Gynt wasn't published until ten years later, soon making him internationally recognized as the most popular (and therefore, in the public's eyes, the greatest) Norwegian composer ever...

In the midst of this, he composed his Cello Sonata. His brother John (named after their Norwegian-born grandfather and their Scottish great-great-grandfather) was three years older and an amateur cellist. Whether that was the reason Edvard wrote the sonata or not, he did dedicate it to him. Grieg was the pianist in its premiere performance in Dresden (the cellist was Freidrich Grützmacher, one of the leading German cellists of the day) and he played it again in his last public appearance in 1906 with a then rising star named Pablo Casals. (Considering Grieg had already made some 78rpm gramophone recordings playing some of his dances in 1903, imagine if this 1906 performance could've been recorded as well!)

It's in three movements with a lyrical slow movement between two large and rather dramatic outer movements, the first an all-out “Sonata Form” – for which sonatas were called Sonatas (it also usually appears as the first movements of other large-scale multi-movement works from String Quartets to Symphonies and Concertos) – and the last based on a rather simplistic folksy tune that immediately says “Norwegian!” just as Dvořák's dance-like tunes (even in his New World Symphony) underscored his Bohemian origins.

The lyrical contrasting second theme of this opening movement sounds like a new movement, an embedded slower romantic miniature of its own, but it really is one of Grieg's most frequent tricks, creating contrast by merely taking the first theme (as he does in most of his miniature dances) and playing it with only slight differences but in the completely opposite tempo. Even though the tempo doesn't literally change, he marks it tranquillo and doubles the note-values so it sounds or at least feels slower, compared to the tempestuous opening (marked agitato). But complete with a development section and a recapitulation, it's still a genuine Sonata-Form movement, not a string of miniatures strung together to give the impression of length. It's actually a more organic structure than most people would've given Grieg credit for.

Curiously, the slow movement uses Grieg's own “Homage March” from his 1874 incidental music for a play based on the 12th Century Norwegian king, Sigurd Jorsalfar (some sites translate it as a Wedding March). In its original context, the theme was to be played by four cellos. Whatever associations it had for the Grieg Brothers – perhaps they would've played it together at Family Musicales? – there is no known outward program behind the music, just an abstract work with a dramatic first movement, a lyrical slow movement, and a lively finale, not dissimilar from the formula Beethoven or Brahms would've used. But no one could listen to this music and think it was by a German composer!

Here's a performance with cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Viacheslav Poprugin:

If you're interested in following the score, you can view this You-Tube Video with Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk.

Incidentally, anyone thinking this shows the influence of Johannes Brahms, keep in mind his 2nd Cello Sonata was written three years later, in 1886.

We don't get many descriptive accounts of a composer except from musicologists and maybe letters of friends. Here's an interesting observation of one composer by another from a day when three of the greatest names in late-19th Century Classical Music met for the first time at the home of a mutual friend when they all happened to be in Leipzig: it was New Year's Day, 1888, and, during a rehearsal of a new piano trio by Johannes Brahms, Tchaikovsky looked up and wondered who this was:

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Grieg in 1888 (sans beard)
...there walked into the room a very short, middle-aged man, with a most frail complexion, very uneven shoulders, tufts of flaxen hair combed back over his forehead, and a very thin, almost boyish, beard and moustache. The features of this man's face, whose appearance for some reason immediately awoke my sympathy, do not present anything particularly striking, since one could call them neither beautiful nor irregular. But on the other hand he has exceptionally attractive, not too large blue eyes, which have an irresistibly enchanting quality about them and remind one of the glance of an innocent, charming child.

I was overjoyed when it turned out, as we were introduced to one another, that this person, whose appearance had inexplicably elicited my sympathy from the very start, was a musician whose deeply felt melodies had won my heart long ago. This was Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer, who for some fifteen years now [has been] generally very highly esteemed and renowned. I think I am not mistaken if I say that to the same extent as Brahms, perhaps undeservedly and unfairly, is unpopular with Russian musicians and the Russian public, Grieg managed to win the hearts of Russians once and for all. In his music, which is suffused with an enchanting melancholy and reflects the beauty of the Norwegian landscape—sometimes majestically broad and grandiose, sometimes drab, modest, and forlorn, but always indescribably captivating for the soul of a northerner—there is something close and familiar to us, something which immediately finds an ardent and sympathetic echo in our hearts.

It may well be that Grieg does possess far less mastery than Brahms, that the tone of his music is less elevated, his aims and aspirations not so ambitious—and one thing that is certain is that he does not seem to have any pretensions to depth whatsoever—but on the other hand he is closer to us, he is more understandable and congenial, precisely because he is profoundly human. When listening to Grieg, we sense instinctively that this music was written by someone who was driven by an irresistible impulse to pour out in sounds the surge of emotions and moods swelling up in his profoundly poetic nature, which is not in thrall to any theory, principle, or banner that others might nail to their mast as a result of these or those fortuitous circumstances, but which obeys, rather, the vital force of sincere artistic feeling.

As for perfection of form, strictness and faultless logic in the elaboration of his themes (which, by the way, are always fresh, new, and stamped with the characteristic traits of Germano-Scandinavian nationality), let us not insist on looking for these in the famous Norwegian's music. But to make up for that, what charm it has, what spontaneity and richness of musical invention! How much warmth and passion there is in his singable phrases, how much spouting vitality in his harmony, how much originality and enchanting peculiarity in his witty, poignant modulations and in his rhythm, which, like everything else about his music, is always interesting, novel, and distinctive! If in addition to all these rare qualities we also take into account his utter simplicity, which is free from any affectation and pretensions to come across as fantastically profound and new (in contrast to many contemporary composers, including Russian ones, who suffer from an unhealthy striving to open up new paths, even though they do not have the slightest vocation or innate gift for such a task), then it is not surprising why everyone loves Grieg, why he is popular everywhere and his name appears continually on concert programmes not just in Germany and Scandinavia, but also in Paris, London, Moscow, and wherever you care to name. Foreigners who visit Bergen in Norway consider it a pleasant duty to take a look, even if only from afar, at the charming haven surrounded by rocks on the sea-coast where Grieg retires to work and where indeed he spends most of his life.” – from Tchaikovsky's Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad in 1888.

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Claude Debussy was another composer not usually associated with the classical rigors of especially German things like fugues and sonatas. After his String Quartet of 1893 (he was 31), he wrote no more chamber music after that, aside from the rather curious incidents of the two Rhapsodies, one for saxophone and piano begun in 1901 but not completed until 1911, and the second, called the First Rhapsody for clarinet and piano in 1910. At least until 1914 when, after Debussy mentioned feeling inspired by a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' Septet (with trumpet), his publisher suggested he write a series of chamber works inspired by 18th Century French composers like Couperin and Rameau. (Keep in mind, Ravel was working on a piano suite with a similar frame which became his Tombeau de Couperin, begun at the same time but not completed until 1918.) And so, as World War I began, Debussy mapped out a project for Six Sonatas for Various Instruments and identified himself on the manuscript's title page as “Claude Debussy, musicien Français.”

The first would be a Cello Sonata followed by one for Flute, Viola, and Harp, and then a Violin Sonata. The second would be balanced by one for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, and the next for clarinet, trumpet, bassoon, and piano. The last one would essentially be for chamber orchestra, combining all the instruments of the previous five sonatas along with a double bass.

Alas, the Violin Sonata, written in 1917, was to be Debussy's last completed work. Cancer ended his life in March, 1918, during the German bombardment of Paris. He was 55.

– (with cellist Maurice Gendron and composer Jean Françaix at the piano, recorded in 1964.)

Working on his opera, Pelleas et Melisande, Debussy was exasperated by someone who asked him to write a piece he could perform in two months, complaining to a friend how it often took him that long to decide between this chord or that chord. By comparison, he wrote the cello sonata, brief as it is, in a few weeks in July, 1915, while vacationing in a seaside town in Normandy.

Though it takes barely 11-12 minutes to perform, its three movements are a neo-classic compression of a much more substantial structure, something a listener, hearing it for the first time after being familiar with lush, expansive works like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer and Pelleas et Melisande might find surprising and certainly unexpected. But Debussy was now in his early-50s and ripe for the kind of “Third Period” style-change you can definitely hear in the Etudes for piano also written in 1915 (compared to some of the impressionist imagery of many of the Preludes written only a few years earlier). Here, the imagery suggested by picturesque titles is replaced by technical concerns for the pianist studying the skills necessary to play “thirds” or “octaves,” “repeated notes” or “composite arpeggios.” While the quirkiness of the Cello Sonata's frequent changes of tempo might suggest a caricature not unlike the Preludes' Général Lavine – eccentric (a cakewalk) and “The Interrupted Serenade,” another cellist heard in the new sonata a portrait of Pierrot, the classic clown of the Commedia del'Arte, complete with a serenade to the moon and, when the moon remained unresponsive, Pierrot consoling himself with a “song of liberty” (?!?) – even suggesting Debussy call it Pierrot Angry at the Moon. Debussy confirmed in a letter to his publisher how the cellist had visited him and seemed to have misunderstood both him and his music. (Sacré blue...!)

Rather than following the standard Germanic Sonata-form outline – a statement of two contrasting themes, development, and recapitulation – Debussy chose to find inspiration in the 18th Century “sonatas” of François Couperin, keeping in mind “sonata,” after all, originally meant in 17th Century Italian “to sound” as in playing an instrument, compared to “cantata” which meant “to sing.” In his own way, this was how Debussy chose to confirm himself as a French Musician.

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Which brings us to the third piece on the program, a Rhapsody for Cello and Piano which composer Alberto Ginastera called “Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21,” composed in 1950.

While a “pampeana” isn't a form like a sonata or rondo or even a rhapsody, this particular work isn't really rhapsodic in the way it's structured, not as loose as "rhapsody" would imply. The cello plays occasional cadenza-like, sometimes solo, sometimes accompanied by chords as a bard might punctuate the introduction to his poem on the lyre, which then break into intense rhythmic dances, typical of the foot-stomping folk dances of Argentina's gauchos which formed such a part of Ginastera's musical language even before he wrote his 1941 ballet Estancia with its famous “Malambo” (arguably Ginastera's Greatest Hit). But the middle section is a mysterious incantation over slowly pulsating chords that eventually returns to the first dance before building to a climactic conclusion. So really it's no different than a standard A-B-A form (fast-slow-fast with a contrasting middle section) most European composers had been using for centuries.

  (cellist Gabriel Martins and pianist Valeria Resjan recorded in 2018) If you wish to follow the score, check out this performance.

By now, you've probably figured out “Pampeana” is not a form or even the name of a dance but evocative of a famous region of Argentina comparable to the United States' “Old West” with gauchos instead of cowboys. Welcome to the Pampas!

You'd assume, if there's a “Pampeana No. 2,” there must be a “Pampeana No. 1.” It's for violin and piano, written in 1947. In between, he composed his String Quartet No. 1 which he considered a kind of watershed piece on his way to a new creative style that combined his original folk-influenced style he now called “objective nationalism” with what he was experiencing in standard European classical music, now that he was receiving international recognition, a style he called “subjective nationalism.” This became a Classical Style but with a musical accent that could only be Latin American, not European, and specifically Argentine. It was essentially what Grieg had done, marrying German romanticism and standard forms with his natural Norwegian accent and which Bela Bartók had done starting in 1907 with his 1st String Quartet, initially quoting authentic Hungarian folk songs (not the Gypsy songs which most people then considered folk music – it's more “urban pop,” by today's terms), before deciding to create his own melodies based on the characteristics of folk song in works like his 4th Quartet – which the Escher Quartet will play in the third and final Summermusic concert next Wednesday night at Temple Ohev Shalom, by the way – something he called “imaginary folk music.”

In a sense, given the popularity in the 19th Century of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies which were actually based on Gypsy tunes, this is essentially Ginastera's entry to create a viable but diverse sound to identify his own nationality.

Curiously, this path was not quite the one chosen by a young composer who'd studied with Ginastera in 1941. This student had aspirations to become a serious creator of classical European-style concert music who wanted to write symphonies but instead ended up turning Argentine pop-music into an unmistakable language of his own: and that's how Astor Piazzolla conquered the world.

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With this theme of national identity and the influence of folk music around the world, let's jump ahead to the last work on the program, even though Don Ellis grew up in Minneapolis where his father was a minister and his mother the church organist, pretty far removed from the complex rhythms of the Balkans. It's not Ellis' concern to reinforce his own ethnic heritage as it was for Grieg, Dvořák, Bartók or Ginastera: as a jazz musician, he took an interest in ethnomusicology, studying Indian classical music which had, in the mid-'60s, become so trendy with the Beatles' introduction of Ravi Shankar to American rock-n-roll lovers. Ellis had already become acquainted with East European folk music, particularly Greece and the Balkans, after playing at a jazz festival in Poland in 1962, and while he enjoyed a cross-over success with conductors like Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ellis started using complex meters like 5/4, 7/8, and 9/4, uncommon in jazz – think of the success Dave Brubeck had with his “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo á la Turk” back in 1959 – before he branched out into more complex rhythms like 19/8 and 27/16. Then, in his 1971 album “Tears of Joy,” he introduced his brain-defying "Bulgarian Bulge", based on a Bulgarian folk tune in 33/16 time!

While some us may have trouble subdividing 5/4 into (2+3) – think Tchaikovsky's odd 2nd movement “waltz” in his 6th Symphony – musician Todor Tsachev, who played with Ellis' Bulgarian-born pianist, Milcho Leviev, mentions in the video's comments, “As Bulgarian I'm hearing a mix of three authentic Bulgarian folklore dances - Buchimish (15/16 - 2+2+2+2+3+2+2), Daichovo (9/16 - 2+2+2+3) and Grancharsko (9/16 – 2+3+2+2).” Add them all together and you get (15+9+9) or 33/16 (or, if you want to double the 16th notes to become 8th notes, 33/8). And then you just subdivide them accordingly – easy! – counting a rapid-fire


Or, as I will do, you can just sit back and enjoy Nick and Michael doing the counting for you.

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Officially, Clara Schumann was Clara Wieck when she composed her Piano Concerto. She was 16 by the time she finished it with a little help on the orchestration from one of her father's students, a young man named Robert Schumann you might've heard of. She was being groomed to become one of the greatest pianists of the day and that much did come true; the fact that she also composed was part and parcel of being a typical concert virtuoso in the Age of Romanticism when performers were expected to write their own music. Perhaps the main reason Clara Wieck-Schumann didn't become a recognized composer as well had more to do with her eight children whom she had to raise on her own after her husband attempted to commit suicide and eventually died in an asylum. However, all that is well into her future: listen to this beautiful slow movement and try not to think of the “what if,” here.

The 2nd movement is essentially an extended duet for the soloist and the principal cellist. (The finale begins at 11:30.)

If the style reminds you of Chopin, he wrote his concertos in 1829 and 1830 but this was essentially the “style of the day,” influenced by Bellini's bel canto operatic style which several other once well-known but now forgotten virtuosos of the day would've also been inspired by and whose music Clara would've been well acquainted with. And yes, Johannes Brahms also wrote a piano concerto whose slow movement has a prominent cello solo accompanied by the piano soloist. It had never occurred to me before that perhaps Brahms did that as an homage to his friend Clara Schumann in 1880 or so (she was by then in her early-60s) (yes, they were friends – okay, well, how close were they? – none of your business...).

Speaking of identity, as I mentioned with Alberto Ginastera's student Astor Piazzolla in the post for last Friday's concert, George Gershwin would fit into the category of “cross-over artist” who became one of the most celebrated American composers after starting as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley before becoming a musical sensation both here and in Europe with concert works like the Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, and American in Paris. He was a friend of Ravel and a tennis partner of Arnold Schoenberg's. 

Gershwin was planning on writing 24 preludes – just like Chopin – one in each key, and each infused with a different dance style akin to that favorite American cliché, the Great Melting Pot. As it turned out, he published only three, alas – there were a few others but they ended up on the cutting room floor: the first in B-flat, inspired by the rhythms of a Brazilian dance with a lot of flat-7th chords typical of jazz but not, at the time, of good old-fashioned classical music; the Prelude in C-sharp Minor was “a blues lullaby”; and the lively Prelude in E-flat Minor he described as “Spanish.”

Imagine if – the ever-present “what if...?” – Gershwin had written and published 21 more preludes?!

While we'll hear Nick Canellakis' own arrangement of them Wednesday night, here's a piano-roll recording made by Gershwin himself in 1928.

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While I've spoken a lot about influences on some of the composers you've been listening to over the years, my first introduction to Michael Brown was as a teenager on NPR's “From the Top,” playing some piano pieces by a composer whose reputation as a gnarly theorist of serial music in the late-20th Century made his music seem even more formidable. But when I heard Michael play three of Perle's “Celebratory Inventions,” I couldn't imagine why anyone would think this was “difficult to listen to” until I realized that any other performances I've heard of Perle's music were played by very good musicians who still were so busy trying to play the right notes at the right time, they forgot that when you connect these notes they're supposed to make music and not sound like a New York Times crossword puzzle. Here was a kid playing them with the lightness of touch and complete lack of fear that made them sound as innocent and delightful as Mendelssohn. Here he is, a couple years later in 2009, playing all Six Celebratory Inventions by George Perle at a Cleveland recital.

Now a composer on his own standing, he's received frequent commissions, and has played his Piano Concerto with several orchestras across the United States and in Poland. In 2014, he wrote this “Prelude & Dance” for friend and colleague Nicholas Canellakis, then revised in 2017 which they'll be playing on Wednesday's concert. Here's their performance from a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert in late-2017:

The question of identity, here, may be one of the tag, “composer/performer,” something, as I said about Clara Schumann, that was standard in the 19th Century, but rare today. How do you have a busy performing career and still find time to compose? (What of those who also have teaching schedules to contend with, as well? For that matter, what about women who combine any or all of that with the role of being a wife and mother today? But that's a topic for another 25,000-word post...) It is not a question of choosing “either/or,” but somehow finding a way of maintaining “both.”

Dick Strawser 


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Summermusic 2023 Begins with Jason Vieaux, Julien Labro, a Guitar, and a Bandoneón

Jason Vieaux & Julien Labro [photo credit: Ken Blaze]

Now that the 4th of July Holiday is past and the year 2023 is half past, July 7th is not only the 163rd birthday of composer Gustav Mahler and the international celebration of World Chocolate Day, it is also the first of three concerts for Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2023, this Friday at St. Michael Lutheran Church at 118 State Street starting at 7:30 with a varied program by Grammy-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro playing the bandoneón.

(Subsequent concerts will be held on Wednesday July 12th at Market Square Presbyterian Church with cellist Nickolas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown and the following Wednesday July 19th at Temple Ohev Sholom at Front & Seneca Streets with the Escher Quartet. See below.)

This first concert's program includes several works by Astor Piazzolla including his complete Histoire du Tango on the installment plan, plus his “Escualo” and “Libertango” as arranged by Julien Labro.

Given it's summertime and we're hearing more about shark-attacks in the news as we head to the beaches for holiday getaways, here is a tango by Piazzolla inspired by a fishing trip off the coast of Uruguay when he caught a shark known locally as escualo. Written in 1978 for the violinist in his Quintet, Piazzolla supposedly put the music on the violinist's stand and said, “Let’s see if you can play this!” Here it is, played by both Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro.

(incidentally, in this performance, Julien Labro is playing a button-keyboard accordion - see below)

“Libertango” is a portmanteau title from Libertad (the Spanish word for “liberty”) and tango. It was written in 1974, and symbolizes the break from the traditional tango of Argentina Piazzolla had grown up with into what he now called “nuevo tango” or “new tango.” This performance features the composer playing the bandoneón with his Quintet in Barcelona in 1985.

Which would logically bring us to Piazzolla's capsulized history of the tango with four stops on the time-line between 1930 and the “Present Day” when he composed it in the mid-1980s:

Here are Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro playing “Nightclub 1960” & “Concert d'Aujourd'hui,” the last two movements from Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango (after 9:15, if you can stick around, they offer an encore with “Everybody wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears). This was recorded in 2012.

What more does one need to say about the piece that can't be said by quoting the composer's own program notes, here used in the liner notes of a 2009 recording of the original version for flute and guitar, as culled from the wilds of Wikipedia:

Bordello, 1900: The tango originated in Buenos Aires in 1882. It was first played on the guitar and flute. Arrangements then came to include the piano, and later, the concertina. This music is full of grace and liveliness. It paints a picture of the good natured chatter of the French, Italian, and Spanish women who peopled those bordellos as they teased the policemen, thieves, sailors, and riffraff who came to see them. This is a high-spirited tango.
Cafe, 1930: This is another age of the tango. People stopped dancing it as they did in 1900, preferring instead simply to listen to it. It became more musical, and more romantic. This tango has undergone total transformation: the movements are slower, with new and often melancholy harmonies. Tango orchestras come to consist of two violins, two concertinas, a piano, and a bass. The tango is sometimes sung as well.
Night Club, 1960: This is a time of rapidly expanding international exchange, and the tango evolves again as Brazil and Argentina come together in Buenos Aires. The bossa nova and the new tango are moving to the same beat. Audiences rush to the night clubs to listen earnestly to the new tango. This marks a revolution and a profound alteration in some of the original tango forms.
Modern-Day Concert: Certain concepts in tango music become intertwined with modern music. Bartok, Stravinsky, and other composers reminisce to the tune of tango music. This [is] today’s tango, and the tango of the future as well.

Julien Labro, in addition to arranging some of the works on the program, offers two of his own compositions: a movement from “Canvas,” a Double Concerto for Bandoneón and Guitar, premiered in 2019, plus a song called “Janzie.” And he can give you much more insight into his own music at the performance.

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While Johann Sebastian Bach will not be at the performance to introduce transcriptions of two of his works, neither of which really need any introduction (one of then, after all, is the famous “Sheep May Safely Graze”), there are also two songs by American jazz musician Pat Metheny whose “Dream Box Tour” is taking them across Denmark and France as we speak before they arrive in York PA in mid-September. So I'll leave you with this video from a live concert by the Pat Metheny Group performing “Antonia,” posted in 2008.

Well, okay – one more. Since we think, these days, that Bach's “Sheep May Safely Graze” is one of those Old Chestnuts everybody knows and loves, we assume people have always known and loved it, even in Bach's own day, but that's not always the case. The Cantata, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” may be one of his most popular and frequently performed cantatas today, but he wrote it for a specific church service in Leipzig in November of 1731, the 27th Sunday after Trinity. The prescribed readings for the day included Jesus' “Parable of the Ten Virgins,” so the chorale he used as a basis for his cantata du jour was a (then) well-known setting by Phillip Nikolai written in 1599.

This “27th Sunday after Trinity” is a church date that occurs only in those years when Easter falls early. While it occurred only once more during Bach's tenure in Leipzig, in 1742, that 1731 performance was the only time Bach's cantata was ever performed in his lifetime! However, Bach later took the now familiar central movement of the cantata, the one we know as “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and arranged it for organ as the first of six chorale preludes published in the late-1740s. The catalogue number assigned to that is BWV.645 (the complete cantata, however, is BWV.140). Here is the original setting from the Cantata. That beautiful, ornate, lilting melody in the violins actually turns out to be an “accompaniment” to Nikolai's chorale tune itself, sung eventually by the tenors.

(This is the Netherlands Bach Society; the movement ends at 19:37.)

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All well and good, but that doesn't answer a question many American music-lovers may ask when seeing information about this concert: “what is a bandoneón?” Many might assume it's an accordion but technically it's another member of the family of instruments that also includes the more familiar accordion. And no, not all squeeze-boxes are alike...

Astor Piazzolla playing a bandoneón

Someone not Astor Piazzolla playing an accordion

Few Americans would have a problem picking a guitar out of an Instrumental Line-Up, due to its being one of those popular “social instruments” that long ago replaced the piano when every home – well, many homes – had some form of a piano in their parlor (a grand piano, an upright piano, a smaller spinet piano, going way back to a harpsichord or even, in the waaaay old days, something called a clavichord which was basically a table-top instrument. But the guitar is also a member of a much larger family that includes, among others, the banjo, the ukulele, the Spanish vihuela, the Renaissance lute (let's not forget the gittern) or that two-storey thing called a theorbo Paul Morton played at one of last year's Summermusic programs that looked like a giraffe-sized version of a lute. They're all related to what we call “the classical guitar” but which are not in themselves “guitars.”

The same with the bandoneón and the accordion. Essentially, they're both examples of a bellows-driven free-reed aerophone producing its sound as air flows past a reed set in an interior frame. While there were accordions being made in Russia in 1830, where it became a folk-music feature, apparently the instrument was invented in Berlin in 1822 or before. The fact an earlier similar instrument has been found (Wikipedia, alas, does not say where), there's always the argument the idea for the accordion evolved serendipitously if not simultaneously in different locations.

That's also true of the concertina, a precursor of both the accordion and the bandoneón. An earlier version was invented by Charles Wheatstone in England in 1829 (he also invented the stereoscope, was involved in the development of telegraphy and what later became “encryption technology”), five years before it was also invented in Germany by luthier Carl Friedrich Uhling.

We think of the bandoneón as Argentinian, particularly through its association with Astor Piazzolla and his music, but it was invented in Germany by a man named Heinrich Band who died in 1860, hence – like Adolphe Sax inventing the saxophone – it was named after its creator, becoming the bandoneón. By 1870, German immigrants had taken this instrument with them to Argentina where it became so popular, German manufacturers eventually were sending 30,000 bandoneóns to Argentina in 1930 alone. It quickly became involved in what was then a new dance craze called the Tango (which in turn originated in the earlier dance called the milonga, which someone once described as “an excited habañera,” itself an off-shot of the Spanish version of a traditional European contradanse. (As often happens in music, everything is relative, if not exactly related.) Once Piazzolla brought the Argentine tango to the world, suddenly people started realizing “that cute little accordion” he was playing brought with it a world of its own.

The bandoneón's buttons
Another primary difference is, the accordion is played with a piano-like keyboard though some have a button mechanism first seen around 1854 not patented until 1897. If you watch the videos above and pay attention to how the performer's fingers are flying over these buttons on the bandoneón, keep this in mind, for those of you who have trouble (as one of my professors used to say) “playing 'Jesus Loves Me' in whole notes” – most of those little buttons will produce two different pitches! And it all depends on whether the bellows are being squeezed in or out. Looking at the button-chart above, you might notice, unlike a piano keyboard, there is no set pattern to the placement of keys and their pitches. You'll also notice the left-hand array play bass notes, those on the right play higher-pitched notes (the superscript numbers refers to a specific octave relative to Middle C, for instance).

Okay, many of these buttons will produce two different pitches: when “opening” the bellows (pulling out), you'll get, say, a G in an upper octave, but when “closing” the bellows (pushing in), that same key will produce an A-flat a half-step above; but two keys away, you'll get a higher-octave G “in” but a G-flat a half-step below “out”! And yet another key might produce a C “out” and an F a fourth above “in” while the key next to it produces a D-flat “out” but an A-flat a fourth below “in”...! As a pianist, I have to admit my brain hurts just looking at this illustration...

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Stay tuned for two more Summermusic 2023 programs. Next week, on Wednesday, July 12th, at Market Square Presbyterian Church, cellist Nickolas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown return to Market Square Concerts with a program including works by Debussy, Grieg, Clara Schumann, and Alberto Ginastera with some of their own compositions and arrangements. The follow Wednesday, July 19th, the Escher Quartet returns to Temple Ohev Sholom with Haydn's Quartet Op. 71 No. 2, Bartók's 4th Quartet and Schubert's Death & the Maiden Quartet. Both concerts begin at 7:30 and tickets will be available at the door. Single tickets are $35, seniors $30, with college students $5; and K-12 students can get free admission when an accompanying adult buys a $10 ticket.

Dick Strawser