Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Galvin Cello Quartet: Four Cellists and Ten Composers

Who: The Galvin Cello Quartet 
What: Works from Mozart and Vivaldi to Gershwin and Piazzolla with the premiere of a new work by Zev Malina
When: Wednesday, February 21st, 2024, at 7:30
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg

The Galvin Cello Quartet – consisting of cellists Luiz Fernando Venturelli (left), Sihao He, Sydney Lee, and Haddon Kay (right) – “met as students at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music in the studio of acclaimed pedagogue Hans Jørgen Jensen. Named after the Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall at Bienen, the Galvin Cello Quartet began during the height of the pandemic. Its story is a testament to the power of teamwork and exceeds all expectations of traditional chamber music.

“Some of the greatest joys as a musician are the friendship and camaraderie strengthened through collaborative music-making. As part of a tight-knit cello studio at Bienen, the four friends wanted to channel their collective passion for music instilled in them by Jensen. But with pandemic restrictions in place, the school running virtually, and Venturelli back home in Brazil, performing as a string quartet was not possible. Despite these challenges, the four cellists, each with their own personality and charisma and eager to explore the colors and timbres of the cello together, decided to enter the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. With the deadline quickly approaching, Venturelli's return to the States came sooner than anticipated, and all quarantine guidelines and safety measures were taken. The following twelve days were filled with preparation, rehearsals, and one final recording session of all the required repertoire before the quartet exploded onto the scene.

“The pandemic may have dampened and muted many concert stages, hopes, and livelihoods for artists and musicians, but music has limitless possibilities to heal and restore. Since its illustrious debut, the quartet has continued to play together and prepare new repertoire for upcoming concerts. With their untamable desire to create, change, and ultimately bring joy through music, He, Lee, Kay, and Venturelli are more excited than ever to explore and expand the possibilities of a cello quartet. Through its music, the Galvin Cello Quartet hopes to celebrate and convey the values of friendship, creativity, and resilience in an ever-changing world.”

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One thing I've always stressed is how “music is not always logical” and that applies to the theory that organizes these twelve pitches we have into various combinations of different chords and scales composers use to create the music we play or listen to as well as more obvious things like terminology. If the Galvin Cello Quartet is an ensemble of four cellos, why is Schubert's Cello Quintet for a string quartet with an additional cello rather than for five cellos? 

On a more practical side, you might also wonder how much music out there is originally written for four cellos?

Looking at the printed program, you'll notice seven of the ten works for Wednesday's concert are listed as arrangements – and since Gershwin's Preludes are not originally for Cello Quartet, make that eight. That leaves two works: the Prayer by Luigi Forino, and “Time and Timelessness” by Zev Malina. One was written by a cello teacher in Rome in the early-20th Century, possibly for four of his students. The other began as a request from four friends who happened to be cellists and schoolmates of the composer and was completed in timely fashion just this past December for the Galvin's appearance with Market Square Concerts.

When I was in graduate school many (many) years ago (and a wanna-be cello-player), many of my cellist-friends would have impromptu “cello parties” to sight-read Bach Chorales or some of the Preludes & Fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (wild, I know...). So I imagine similar social if verifiably nerdy behavior from the 1970s might not be very different from the early-1900s or the present day, musicians being musicians.

Because the cello has an upper range that extends well into the upper territory of the violin, and its lower strings supply a bass register not available to the violin – only a cellist would therefore point out how this makes the cello a superior instrument – an ensemble of cellos offers an even wider variety of sonorities, especially considering if one cello can play two sustained notes on two strings, four cellos can sustain eight-note chords. Not to mention playing chords on all four strings could result in 16-note chords! This creates a wealth of textures comparable to a choir or a whole string section. Adding to that certain effects like pizzicato (plucking the strings) or those ethereal high-register harmonics can produce a whole canvas of sounds with a variety of shades and colors. 

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Luigi Forino, a name not likely to be familiar or even recognizable unless you're also a cellist, was a cello teacher at Rome's famed Conservatory of St. Cecilia (named after the Patron Saint of Music) and while he wrote a great deal of music in his day – as a teacher, much of it intended for his students – the only piece I can find on-line is this “Prayer” (Op.27/3).

Les prières, mélodies réligieuses pour 4 vcelles. [published by] Offenbach, André” is listed (in French) in a German “monthly bulletin” for 1909 which, since it included other works by Brahms & Handel, is more a list of recently published sheet music now available to the public rather than announcing a newly composed work. Exactly when it was written is apparently uncertain – best guess would be between 1905 and 1909, then.

Since the title is in the plural, the assumption is this is a set of prayers, not a movement out of a suite called “Prayer.” The score of No. 3 is subtitled San Francesco parla alle tortola with an epigram: “O sirrochie mie, tortole semplici innocenti e caste.... Fioretti-XXII.” This is from “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a collection of stories about St. Francis and his early followers compiled early in the 14th Century. The relevant text in an on-line translation would be “O my sisters, simple, innocent, and chaste turtle-doves, why do you let yourselves be taken? Now I desire to save you from death and to make nests for you, so ye may bring forth fruit and multiply, according to the commandments of our Creator.”

Here's a performance recorded by the Galvin Cello Quartet in 2021:

(You can also follow the score in this video.

No. 3 is also dedicated to Francisco P. Roget. While I can't find anything about him specifically, he could be a friend or colleague of the composer or perhaps one of his cello students, maybe a member of the quartet he'd written for (if he wrote for a specific quartet). Are there four prayers, each one dedicated to a different cellist? Or perhaps Sig. Roget's a member of the Franciscan Order, or someone who simply likes doves? Or just a friend named Francis? (The logic of composers can sometimes defy the usual perception of logic.) Were they a pre-existing group, this cello quartet – were they migliori amici violoncellisti (best-friend cellists) or some random conglomeration put together by their teacher?

It might be just as fanciful to hear the soft fluttering of wings in some of the accompanimental figures of Forino's meditation on St. Francis, or “coos” in those isolated pairs of notes that decorate the melody, but whatever the mood, certainly the serenity and simplicity of St. Francis “talking to the turtle-doves” permeates the entire piece, even with its dramatic climax before the opening music's return.

Luigi Forino (1868-1936)
So who was Luigi Forino? His father Ferdinando was a cellist well known in Rome who played in the orchestra at the Teatro Apollo, Rome's largest “lyric theater” where Verdi's Trovatore had been premiered in 1853 (among many other famous works) and in addition to the usual fantasies and paraphrases on famous operatic tunes, he also composed two cello concertos and “numerous” cello sonatas. (It's important also to keep in mind Italy's claim to musical fame in the 19th Century was almost exclusively operatic: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini (among many others) never wrote a body of instrumental works. So if Sig. Forino was not an operatic composer but "only" a composer of instrumental works, this would make him, in the eyes of the Italian public, a composer not likely to gain much recognition.)

Luigi, born in 1868, became Principal Cellist of the Teatro Apollo in 1882 when he was around 14, after his father left to pursue a career in chamber music – he became a member of a piano quintet with pianist/composer Giovanni Sgambatti whose 2nd Piano Quintet had received a rare airing at “Music at Gretna” around 2007, as I recall.

In 1890, Luigi and his younger brother, 14-year-old pianist Ettore (who'd studied with Sgambatti, himself a student of Liszt's), went to Buenos Aires when Luigi was named Director of the National Conservatory of Argentina. However, Luigi soon returned to Italy in 1894, eventually becoming a teacher at Rome's Conservatory of St. Cecilia (which Sgambatti had founded in 1870). Like his father, Luigi also composed a cello concerto as well as several sonatas, etudes and “methods” for the cello, plus a one-act opera, Bacchus in 1898 and a cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Afternoon in the Roman Countryside, in 1913. By comparison, Respighi, who would break the mold as a famous, largely instrumental Italian Composer in the 20th Century, wrote the first of his Roman Trilogy, The Fountains of Rome, in 1916; also, incidentally, Respighi had become a professor of composition at St. Cecilia in 1913. Small world, no?

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If you were thinking “who's Luigi Forino?”, imagine a concert-goer in, say, California who might be looking at this program and wondering “who's Zev Malina?”

Zev Malina in 2021
Regular concert-goers in Harrisburg, however, have watched and listened to Zev Malina as he grew up and, now soon to be 22, his official biography is already impressive: he's “already established himself as an up-and-coming American composer. He has received several prestigious awards, including the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 2020, the National Young Composers’ Challenge in 2017 and 2018 (orchestral division,) and first prize in the 12th Fidelio Piano Composition Competition. Zev’s music has been performed by the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, the Orlando Philharmonic, The Florida Orchestra, Market Square Concerts, as well as at readings by the performing ensembles at the Brevard Music Center Summer Festival and the Interlochen Center for the Arts. He is currently a junior in the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, where he studies composition with Karim Al-Zand.”

Over the years, I've heard many young composers who, understandably, did not yet have an understanding of what makes music “tick” – for that matter, many older composers, too – but from the very beginning, Zev Malina possessed that innate sense which works so effortlessly, so “just right,” you sit back and say “this kid knows what he's doing!” I've thought that when I heard his setting of a children's book, “Blueberries for Sal” as part of a Bar Mitzvah project, and I continue to look forward to each new piece to see how that understanding continues to express itself – no pressure, mind you – as he explores what makes him “tick” and he finds his mature voice (Time and Timelessness, indeed...).

Here's what the composer wrote about his newest piece:

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When I first entered the Shepherd School of Music, my freshman class featured (among others) no wind players and four cellists. Within the semester, my compositional peer Jaylin Vinson had written a piece for them, and they officially became the Cello Besties—they have an Instagram and everything; it’s very cute. I was naturally thrilled when they asked if I would write a piece for them, and I soon set to work on what would become Time and Timelessness.

The title “Time and Timelessness,” though snagged from an impressively nonsensical sentence my dad once used in a college essay, represents the central drama of my piece quite well: across the five sections of this single movement, there is a recurring tension between rhythmically metered, “timed” music, and freer, almost improvisatory, “timeless” music. In the first section, a lyrical, chant-like theme is presented amidst a fuzzy aura of sound, before the second section barges in with grotesque, almost mechanical rhythmic drive. As unmetered flourishes start sneaking back into the texture, the rhythmic intensity dissolves into the third section, in which recurring loose, improvisatory moments are interrupted by each of the cellists. These moments and their interruptions get more agitated as one cello screeches the chant-like theme over a tumultuous mire of upward surges from the other three cellos, finally reaching a fever pitch in the very high registers of the instrument. The energy dies down, but only briefly, as the highly rhythmic music of the second section returns with a vengeance. After a few timid interruptions, the chant-like theme returns in fully harmonized glory, expanded to embrace the previously violent musical material of the second and fourth sections. Time and Timelessness demonstrates some of my most personally ambitious and experimental writing, and I am honored to have it performed by the Galvin Quartet. Thank you for listening!

– Zev Malina 

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Since "Time and Timelessness" has yet to be performed, if you're curious what music Zev Malina was writing a few years ago, here's the composer playing his "Schemin', a tribute to Zez Confrey" performed with Market Square Concerts in April, 2021, at Whitaker Center:

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The Mozart Family c.1780: Nannerl, Wolfgang, mother Anna Maria (d.1778), father Leopold

My next composer – he opens the program, officially – is well-known enough to need “no introduction” (not that that's going to stop me). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of those wonders that defies explanation, how, after hearing his sister's piano lesson, he then went over to the keyboard and began “picking out thirds” (not single notes but intervals) when he was 3 years old, pleased with the sounds he was making; how, a year later, his father Leopold (a stage-father if ever there was one) would play simple minuets for him and the boy would play them back “flawlessly.” Maria Anna (“Nannerl” as everyone called her) also recalled how, at 5, her brother would make up little pieces he would play for the family and which their father would write down.

The Divertimento in D Major, K.136, was the first of a set of three composed early in 1772 shortly before or just after his 16th birthday. If you're not familiar with those “K Numbers,” they refer to Köchel's catalogue of Mozart's works, listed in chronological order (as far as one could know at the time), so at 16 Mozart had already composed apparently 135 other works. He and his father had just come back from another job-hunting trip to Italy – Leopold was determined to find a decent job for his talented son as court composer somewhere other than Salzburg which he felt was a “go-nowhere” position – and while he had a commission for a large-scale opera for Milan in late-December, he dashed off a set of three string quartets meant for after-dinner music at some Salzburg aristocrat's house. Officially, Mozart's job at the court of Salzburg's Prince-Archbishop (whom he despised and vice-versa) was “concertmaster” for the court orchestra and supplying something for “easy listening” for one of his court noblemen was considered “duties-as-assigned.” 

It's difficult to listen to this music and think it was the result of an assignment for a gig – something practical, and something probably no one was really going to be listening to except for the sheer pleasure of having “nice music” going on in the background.

Whatever Mozart thought of these pieces – certainly not as demanding of his concentration and creativity as the opera would be – they certainly sound effortless and, by extension to us in the Present Day, flawless; so perfectly, classically balanced, imaginative without resorting to a collection of clichéd formulas, they strike us as the work of a mature creativity.

Usually, “divertimento,” along with numerous other synonyms like “serenade” or “notturno” or “cassation,” was something applied to “lighter music” unlike a string quartet which, as it would eventually develop, was considered more “serious” music. They could be composed for any possible combination, usually small in number, but in this case, Mozart wrote them for four stringed instruments, probably replacing the cello of the quartet with a double bass (typical for the genre).

While it's more likely to be performed by a string orchestra – for some reason, it's also known as “Salzburg Symphony No. 1” – here's Quatour Ebèn recorded in 2012 (please ignore the rude late-comer photobombing the foreground...):

What's in a name? Whatever Mozart called them, the title “Divertimento” was written on the manuscript in someone else's handwriting – apparently not his father's, either; perhaps a cataloguer at the court music library? Whatever the story behind it, enjoy it: that's what it's meant for.

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2024 is one of those rare years we actually get to celebrate Gioacchino Rossini's birthday on the date he was born: February 29th, 1792. He may not have been the prodigy Mozart, Schubert, or Mendelssohn were (those six string sonatas of his, written when he was 12, notwithstanding), but his first opera was performed when he was 18. When his most famous opera, The Barber of Seville, was first produced (a failure, by the way), he was 24. In all, he composed 39 operas, many of them successes but also many of them failures. It was a very tough market and the competition was, as far as the music world is concerned, rather "cut-throat."  

After what became his last opera, William Tell (a huge success for a huge opera) in 1829, it's quite possible he might've decided, after writing almost four hours of music, he'd had enough. The physical effort was one thing, not to mention the nastiness of the opera world's business and politics, or his dissatisfaction with new trends in “contemporary” music, but there was also one of the biggest fears any successful artist has to deal with: “What's next?”

Whatever the reasons were, Rossini chose to “retire” from composing. He could certainly afford to, but he was only 37 years old: surely, he'd want to continue composing something? His career lasted 19 years; after he “retired,” he survived another almost 40 years. 

A man who enjoyed the Good Life, Rossini joked his doctor had advised him to give up either “Wine, Women, or Song” and so he decided “Song” was the one he could most easily do without. There was certainly more to it than that: musicologists (if no one else) still argue about the “why?” behind his retirement and it's just as possible his health was as much at the root of it, given all the effort he'd spent on his career so far. He was being treated for the after-effects of the 19th Century's primary medical scourge, in Rossini's case gonorrhea, and the ensuing arthritis and possible “manic depression” (now called Bipolar II) he suffered from may have had as much of an impact on his desire not to “put himself through all that again.”

Despite announcing his retirement – some say he had planned William Tell would be his last opera while he was writing it – he still continued to compose, just not the vast canvases grand operas required: there was a series of miniatures grouped together as Soirées musicales over the next five years, plus he began his Stabat Mater in 1831 though it took him ten years to finish, a luxury he wouldn't've had writing a new opera for a production deadline. After a stay in Italy, he returned to Paris in 1844 and it was rumored he was setting to work on a new opera, this one about Joan of Arc (not true: or at least, nothing came of it); a pastiche based on earlier works not yet heard in Paris turned into a “new” opera about Robert (the) Bruce (see the heroic pattern here, following William Tell's success?) which, whatever Rossini's involvement in it was (very little, creatively), it was a quickly dismissed, old-fashioned failure.

Rossini in 1850
After spending years in Bologna and then Florence (where he was ultimately buried), Rossini returned to Paris in 1855 as much because he needed the best medical help possible (friends “feared for his sanity”) as because he enjoyed Paris' “Good Life.” He could throw lavish parties for such guests as Franz Liszt, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Anton Rubinstein and other musical luminaries whenever they passed through Paris. Rossini even met Richard Wagner at one of his parties in 1860 when the newly exiled German firebrand was in town to oversee that disastrous production of Tannhäuser, speaking of “contemporary musical trends.”

Billing himself as a “fourth-class pianist,” Rossini accompanied Sarasate and Joachim at some of these Musical Saturdays, one of the hottest tickets in a city awhirl with social events. For these, he composed over 150 miniatures, mostly songs and piano pieces but some instrumental pieces as well, later collected into a series of nine volumes, only four of which Rossini called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of [my] Old Age): too good to pass up, eventually they were all given that title.

Many of the pieces bore self-deprecating titles, others nonsensical ones (“Pretentious Prelude” and “Inoffensive Prelude,” for example, look forward to Erik Satie's “True Flabby Preludes (for a dog)” or the “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”) so once Rossini's “sins” were edited for publication after his death (his widow sold the entire collection almost immediately after his death in 1868) many of them were given “more appropriate” titles.

Curiously, one of them, “Une larme” (A Tear), written in 1858 (making it one of the earliest of these “Sins” which he'd begun the year before) was published as a piece for cello and piano, but an earlier manuscript with the same title surfaced several years later, written pour basse: did he mean the “double bass” or the way a cello was often referred to in the 18th Century in a string quartet for two violins, “alto et basse”? Badly written for the then-modern bass, was it perhaps something he wrote for one party, then revised for a cellist at a later party? After all, Rossini was no stranger to recycling his own music (the “Barber of Seville” Overture had already been used for two operas before!). Regardless, the published version is subtitled “Theme and Variations for Violoncello and Piano,” – violoncello technically means “little bass” – the different variations giving it an almost operatic variety of emotions, an aria-without-words, if you will. Was Rossini, now 66, shedding a tear for the Glory Days of his Youth? If anything, the finale is far from wistful.

Here is the cello-and-piano version accompanied by the composer's manuscript:

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David Popper
If you're a cellist (or related to one), you'd be familiar with a lot of David Popper's music. As a teacher, he wrote a great many etudes and “methods” (pieces for young students to develop their technique and style), but as a performer he wrote four concertos, numerous works usually called “salon pieces” – short works like his famous “Elfentanze” and various dances. There are 81 opus numbers in his catalogue plus a ton of transcriptions and arrangements published without opus numbers.

Born in Prague and growing up in a Jewish family, he spent most of his career in Vienna as a member of the Hofoper (now the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) and was briefly the cellist of the famed Helmesberger Quartet. Leaving both to pursue a solo career in 1873, giving recitals across Europe with his pianist-wife, Popper eventually settled in Budapest in 1886 after Liszt recommended him for a teaching post at the conservatory there (now the Franz Liszt Academy) where he remained until he retired, dying near Vienna in 1913. Though born in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire, and because he spent a large part of his career at the Budapest Conservatory, he's sometimes identified as a Hungarian composer though Mahler, also Jewish and born in Bohemia and who also spent a good part of his early career in Budapest, is not considered a Hungarian composer. But such are the vagaries of the political boundaries and ethnic cultures of 19th Century Europe...

One of Popper's more popular pieces is the Polonaise de concert, the first of two, written in 1877 and published the following year as his Op.14.

(Whether you're a cellist or not, if you want to hear more of Popper's music, here's a collection of 20 short pieces, not, alas, including the Polonaise Op.14, recorded in 1969 by the great Hungarian cellist Janos Starker who studied with a student of Popper's.)

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Debussy in 1908

A better known name is Claude Debussy, generally described as an Impressionist however vague (if not inaccurate) that might be. Clearly, Debussy was a musician so tuned in to the visual arts many of his compositions bear descriptive titles, many of which (yes) could be called “impressionistic.”

His studio was full of photographs and postcards of art both great and merely appealing, whether these were direct musical influences or not. Marcel Proust described similar habits among several of his characters – Charles Swann, for instance, describing a woman he's seen in terms of a particular famous painting – in In Search of Lost Time, the massive novel he was working on during Debussy's final years. It would be amusing (if pointless) to imagine, scanning through a list of Debussy's works and seeing descriptive titles like “Claire de lune (Moonlight)” or “Footsteps in the snow,” what Debussy's Pinterest account might've been like if he'd had access to social media.

Between late-1909 and early-1910, Debussy composed a set of 12 preludes for solo piano (a few years later, he would publish a second volume of 12 more), each one given a specific, painterly title (rather than being Prelude No. 8 in G-flat Major). But in the case of La fille aux cheveux de lin (usually translated as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”), completed mid-January of 1910, the image comes not from a painting (I remember a teacher telling me it was “like listening to the Mona Lisa”) but from a poem by Leconte de Lisle who, in one of his “Scottish Songs” (as he called this 1854 collection) describes a young girl, the object of some typically forlorn lover, sitting among flowers in bloom with her “golden” hair “when love in the summer sun sang with the lark.” As a young man in the early-1880s, Debussy set this poem as a song dedicated to his then girlfriend, but the only thing in common with the 1910 Prelude is its title.

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The program also includes two major figures in the history of the Argentine Tango: Astor Piazzolla and his idol, the great tango singer Carlos Gardel.

Gardel was born Charles Gardès in Toulouse, France, in 1890. His father, already married, abandoned the family. The mother, posing as a widow, arrived in Buenos Aires with her 2-year-old son and set up life there as a laundress. While there would be some controversy over his birthplace – Toulouse or Buenos Aires or a town in Uruguay – his boyhood nickname was “El francesito” or “Frenchie.”

Eventually, Gardel, having taken the Spanish form of his French name, began singing in the bars and at private parties, and in 1917, when he was 27, had his first major success with his first recording which became a big hit throughout Latin America. The following year, Gardel's father resurfaced in Argentina and offered to marry Gardels' mother and legitimize their son. Instead, Gardel told her she didn't need this man in her life and neither did he: “I do not even wish to see him.”

Meanwhile, in Mar del Plata, Argentina's “second city,” Astor Piazzolla was born to first-generation Italian immigrants and four years later, after the family moved to Greenwich Village, then a tough neighborhood of New York City, he grew up listening to recordings of Carlos Gardel. Piazzolla's father spotted a bandoneón – an accordion-like instrument used in Argentina's tango-bands – in a pawn shop and gave it to his son when he was 8.

The tango, by then, had become the National Dance of Argentina and is still the musical face of Argentina among the wider world. Begun in the 1880s out of a combination of African slave roots and other immigrant cultures from Spain and Cuba in the port district of Buenos Aires, primarily, as well as Uruguay, across the river. Looked down upon by upper-class society, its working-class origins eventually evolved into sensual dances that became a craze not only in Argentina but also, by 1912, in Paris and a year later in New York City and (I'm trying to imagine this) Finland.

Gardel was soon finding fame and fortune in Paris where he sold 70,000 records in his first three months there, and later made several films both there and in America in the mid-1930s showcasing his singing and movie-star looks.

Piazzolla at 14 (l.) & Gardel (r.) in the 1935 film, El día que me quieras (The Day That You Love Me)

In 1932, Piazzolla composed his first tango and began studying music with a student of Rachmaninoff's who taught him to play Bach on his bandoneón. Two years later, he met Carlos Gardel who was so impressed by the boy, now 14 years old, he offered him a cameo appearance in one of his films and asked if he would join his band on their upcoming tour. Gardel had just composed what would eventually become one of his best-known songs, Por una cabeza (a Spanish horse-racing term the equivalent of winning “by a nose” or, in this case, literally “by a head”). Unfortunately – at the time but fortunately for the future of the tango – Piazzolla's father forbid his son to accept, saying he was too young: maybe later?

That tour took Gardel and his band to Medellin, Colombia, where, on June 24, 1935, his plane collided with a transport plane, killing him, his lyricist Alfredo la Pera, several members of his band and some friends and business associates traveling with the tour. (Speaking of what if...?)

Here is the Galvin Cello Quartet playing Gardel's Por una cabeza in a 2022 performance at Northwestern University's Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall:

Piazzolla, returning to Argentina, began playing in various tango bands and in 1941 met the pianist Artur Rubinstein on one of his tours who suggested he study classical music, given his love of Bach, and examine the works of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Ravel. He would listen to orchestra rehearsals at the Teatro Colón in the morning, then play in the tango-clubs at night, while studying with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. By 1954, he entered a competition with a new orchestral work whose premiere had been marred by a fist-fight after some in the audience felt a bandoneón (much less the two Piazzolla had scored it for) did not belong in a symphony orchestra! Regardless, he won a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, one of the greatest music teachers of the 20th Century who counted among her students a variety of Americans ranging from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter to Philip Glass.

Piazzolla's story, then, takes another turn: dissatisfied with his style, lacking what he felt was an original voice, Piazzolla, still playing in Paris' tango-clubs by night, reluctantly played some of his tangos for Boulanger who pointed out this was “the real Piazzolla.” And so he basically decided, rather than writing orchestral music inspired by Stravinsky and Bartók, he should concentrate on integrating his knowledge of “what makes music tick” into what he knew best – the tango.

Piazzolla in 1971
It's not that his creation of a new style, obviously called Nuevo Tango, was universally accepted among tango-fans: many were upset by his abandoning the traditional world of Gardel's tangos, keeping in mind we are now twenty years after Gardel's death. His “formula” to explain the New Tango was the sum of “tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse” – the tango originated, after all, in the bordellos of working-class Buenos Aires. In the 1960s, he composed a series of “Angel Pieces” which were used in a play about “an angel who tries to heal the broken spirits of humans in a house in Buenos Aires, only to die in a knife fight.”

La Muerte del Ángel is a rare example of bringing a fugue to a knife-fight. Different sources may indicate it was composed in 1959 but later added to incidental music for a 1962 play “Tango of the Angel,” before he turned it into a suite for his tango quintet. The story behind “The Death of the Angel” describes the knife-fight in which the Angel is killed, complete with stabbing chords. But yes, it begins as a three-voice fugue just as the classically-trained Piazzolla, championed as a young man by Alberto Ginastera and studying composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, having discovered Bach from the hands of a student of Rachmaninoff's, would have understood this centuries-old symbol of intellectualized music transplanted onto the tango's whorehouse roots.

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Another famous composer on the program is George Gershwin whose roots are planted firmly in the popular music of New York City's Tin Pan Alley. Showing early talent when his parents bought a piano so his older brother Ira could take piano lessons (he did not want to but the instrument fascinated 10-year-old George). He would drop out of school at 15 to become a “song-plugger” in a music shop on that legendary block of W.28th Street featuring several well-known music stores where he made $15 a week. In 1916, he sold his first song which earned the 17-year-old 50 cents.

In 1919, Al Jolson asked to sing his latest song, “Swanee,” in one of his shows, and all kinds of people began to take notice. One of those was the band-leader Paul Whiteman who was planning a concert of “cross-over” music mixing classical and jazz. Having forgotten he'd agreed to it, Gershwin composed the piece – it was supposed to be a concerto for piano and orchestra – at white-heat: Ferde Grofé was brought in to orchestrate it (writing for instruments something Gershwin had never studied) and many of the original score's pages had markings penciled in for Whiteman: “wait for nod,” for instance, before starting the next orchestral section. Why? Because Gerswhin hadn't had time to write down the whole piano part, whether he was improvising it (“on the spot”) or recalling what he'd meant to write down. And so, suddenly, Gershwin found himself with a whole new career after February 12th, 1924, with his Rhapsody in Blue.

Gershwin in 1926
Two years later, he began thinking about a set of 24 Preludes – like Bach or Chopin or Debussy – which he intended to call The Melting Pot. Rather than abstract or picturesque names (as Debussy had done – see above), each of Gershwin's preludes were to be inspired by a dance from a different immigrant culture. But he soon whittled it down from 24 to 7 for public performance, then eliminated 1 of those (it would later become “A Short Story” for violin and piano) and, by the time it came to the publisher, two more ended up on the cutting room floor, including one that was too close to the Concerto in F he'd premiered the year before. So now there were 3...

The first was inspired by a dance from northeastern Brazil. Gershwin himself called the second one “a sort of blues lullaby.” He called the third one “Spanish” without further explanation.

We can only imagine what we've lost when Gershwin abandoned the other 21 preludes he'd planned (or realized he wouldn't have time to compose), but a greater loss is wondering what we might have had had he not died of a brain tumor at the age of 38.

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Vivaldi, c.1723
Certainly, neither the composer nor the music needs any help from me for you to enjoy his Four Seasons. Antonio Vivaldi, a.k.a. “The Red Priest” (powdered wigs aside, it was because of his unusual red hair rather than for his political leanings), was in fact a priest who also served as a music teacher and composer-in-residence for one of the largest church-run orphanages in Venice. Technically, the Ospedale della Pietà was a home for orphans and abandoned children, and only one of several in the city, and one famous for its music school and its all-girl performing organizations (typically, the boys learned a trade; the girls were given music lessons). Also technically, though an ordained priest by the age of 25, Vivaldi suffered from what we would call asthma which made it difficult for him to perform mass. An excellent violinist, he was instead appointed to the staff of the Ospedale as a music instructor and he soon began composing concertos, cantatas and other works for his students.

Each year, the renewal of his contract was put to a vote by the Ospedale's board and in 1709 it was 7-to-6 against him, so he was fired. After a time as a free-lance musician in the city, Vivaldi was called back to the Ospedale by a unanimous vote in 1711.

While we mostly think of him as a composer of concertos, he also wrote large-scale choral works and even operas (his first attempt dating from 1715). His style was considered too “new” for the more conservative members of the Church, so despite his popular success (never a big plus among the religious orders) he remained in almost constant trouble. 20 years later, Vivaldi referred to his “94 operas” in a letter, though we know of only 50 he composed. After a stint as a court composer in Mantua and then Milan – was he on leave from the Ospedale or had he been fired again? – he moved to Rome in 1722 when he was invited to play before Pope Benedict XIII who then had him reinstated in Venice (yeah, probably fired...). That year, he produced four new operas. But he also published a collection of a dozen violin concertos he called Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione or “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.” Whatever you may know about the rest of them, the first four are known collectively as “The Four Seasons.”

Since we think of him as a composer writing for orphan girls in his music classes, it might come as a surprise that these were written between 1718 and 1721 when he was at the court in Mantua as a composer and performer. So it's safe to assume they were composed for his own performance. And it would be safe to say they also helped spread Vivaldi's reputation far beyond the canals of Venice: as early as 1726, Bach used a theme from the “Spring” Concerto for an aria in his cantata, Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende? (Who knows how near to me my end?), BWV.27, and, in subsequent decades, French composers turned them into motets, a series of flute concertos, and another for hurdy-gurdy (!). In modern times, they've also survived transformation by rock bands and trance music. There's even a “shred guitar” version of the finale of “Summer” (also used by a Russian “thrash metal” band). Retitled "For Seasons," it was even recomposed using algorithms to portray climate change between 1725 and 2019 (a particularly crucial challenge to modern-day Venice).

But Vivaldi, whether he knew it or not, was breaking ground when this music was published some 300 years ago with corresponding sonnets, each movement corresponding to something described in the poems. This alone was “new,” not just the idea of describing a winter scene or even chirping birds in springtime. Known as “program music,” even when Beethoven began his Pastoral Symphony in 1806, this was still considered “new and unusual.” Thunderstorms and birds are one thing, but to imitate barking dogs, stamping feet, buzzing gnats? I'm sure the good board members of the Ospedale were duly horrified...

I'm going to go “old-fashioned” here and use videos by the Netherlands Bach Society, recorded in 2016 with violinist Shunske Sato, playing “period instruments” in a “historically-informed style,” whether it's the way Bach might have heard it or not. If you're interested in arrangements for koto ensemble, a thrash-metal band, or sundry electronics, you're perfectly welcome to dive into the Googleverse on your own!

The program concludes with just two of Vivaldi's Four Seasons: we'll begin with WINTER. Whatever the weather may be the night of the concert (remember the groundhog predicted an early spring!), certainly the two snow storms from last week will bring much of this music to life for you. 

Allegro non molto - To tremble from cold in the icy snow,
In the harsh breath of a horrid wind;
To run, stamping one's feet every moment,
Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold
Largo - Before the fire to pass peaceful,
Contented days while the rain outside pours down.
Allegro - We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors...
this is winter, which nonetheless
brings its own delights. 

While Spring may be just around the corner, the Galvin Cello Quartet's program concludes with SUMMER:

Allegro non molto - Under a hard season, fired up by the sun
Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine
We hear the cuckoo's voice;
then sweet songs of the turtledove and finch are heard.
Soft breezes stir the air, but threatening
the North Wind sweeps them suddenly aside.
The shepherd trembles,
fearing violent storms and his fate.
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte - The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs his tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.
Presto - Alas, his fears were justified
The Heavens thunder and roar and with hail
Cut the head off the wheat and damages the grain. 

- Dick Strawser  

Friday, January 12, 2024

Start the New Year with Piano Duets: Varshavski & Shapiro return to Harrisburg

With the Old Year now (if not finally) behind us and the unknown quantity of a New Year ahead, Market Square Concerts presents the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo in a return to Whitaker Center for its first concert of 2024 on Sunday at 4:00. The program includes works by Schubert and four composers writing from the start of a new century, between 1901 and 1911; or, if you want to think of it, as an Austrian, a German, a Russian, a Spaniard and a Frenchman (not necessarily walking into a bar). (You can read about their previous appearance in 2017, here.)

The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo

Stanislava Varshavski was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, made her orchestral debut at the age of eight, and continued her studies in Jerusalem.
Diana Shapiro, born in Moscow, Russia, emigrated to Israel and met Varshavski at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. In 1998, their teacher suggested they form a piano duo and they soon garnered the top prize at a piano duet competition in Poland. Moving to Boston in 2005 and eventually earning doctorate degrees, they now pursue busy careers as teachers and performers around the world. 

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It always amuses me how, when you attend a piano recital, more of the audience is seated on the left side of the auditorium. I'm told this is “so I can see the keyboard” when in fact you still can't see the keyboard or the pianist's hands well enough anyway. One of the things about the Piano Duet, however, is how each pianist works out “their turf” on the keyboard: does the “primo pianist” (playing the upper register and therefore most of the melody) play all the notes above Middle-C and the “secondo pianist” (playing the lower register and therefore primarily the harmony) play only notes below Middle-C? And who controls the pedal? Or turns pages?

So let me begin with the last work on the program, Maurice Ravel's “Spanish Rhapsody,” which, in this video, will give you the optimum seat if you really want to watch the keyboard and the pianists' hands: suspended directly above them!

So you see, it's not just working out the notes you play: you also need to sort out when and where you're playing them so you don't collide with your partner (assuming you want to remain partners for long). It's as much a ballet as it is a piano recital!

Of the composers on the program, Schubert, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Manuel de Falla are all well-known names; Reger may be a relatively well-known name but it's unlikely his music is as familiar as the other four (I'll get to that later). It's also interesting to note that, while Schubert is always a good place to begin, his Rondo, written in 1828, is the only one outside the perimeter of the other works on the program: Reger's Burlesques were written in 1901, by a composer clearly “Late-Romantic” and much influenced by Bach's counterpoint and German harmonies and textures that might remind you of Richard Strauss; Ravel's evocation of Spain dates from 1907; Stravinsky's evocation of a Russian fair complete with puppets, Petrushka, was written in 1911; and Manuel de Falla's evocation of his native Spain, the opera La vida breve, was completed in Madrid in 1905 but not staged until the very eve of World War I which would soon change Europe forever.

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There is little I can add about Schubert's music and his short life you might not already be aware of from reading previous posts. For the Rondo in A Major (No. 951 in the Otto Deutsch Catalogue), there's not much “historical background” about it beyond a few facts: it was written in the last year of his life (to be exact, about five months before his death); and it was written at the request of his publisher Arataria who specialized in the “domestic music market.”

On the surface it would seem an uncomplicated piece intended for the amateur players of Vienna, written for one of the most common forms of “home entertainment” in the days when families and friends would gather after dinner and sit around the piano (most middle-class homes would have a piano in the parlor) to make their own music or, if you're not up to being a performing, just sitting back and listening. It was not a concert, but it was private music-making at whatever level available, and it was one of the backbones of the publishing business, certainly in Vienna, and often a mainstay of many a composer's much-needed income.

In the summer of 1818, the 21-year-old Schubert had been hired as a music teacher by an Esterházy count (a poorer relative of the Esterházy prince of Haydn Fame) for the sole purpose of preparing his two daughters for their role in entertaining their husbands and their friends. There are numerous accounts of musical evenings where Schubert and one or another of the daughters would play piano duets for the family, and he was also expected to compose new pieces for them to play, as well, including another facet of such domestic musicianship, the “part song,” vocal trios, quartets, or small choirs where various members of the audience would gather 'round the piano and each take a “part.” It's not immaterial that a few years later Schubert would fall in love with the Countess Caroline and dedicate his most acclaimed piano duet to her in April, 1828, the Fantasy in F Minor.

A "Schubertiad" at Josef Spaun's as painted by his friend Moritz von Schwind (Countess Caroline Esterházy's portrait hangs in the center of the wall) 

Of course, there's a difference between the level of artistic achievement of these performances and what we would call professional artists which, for the most part, did not exist outside the largest cities and aristocratic courts (and the household of Count Esterházy was more like that of an upper-middle-class merchant rather than his magnificent cousin). That does not mean the level of the music written for them is “amateurish.” And it is only more recently the word “amateur” has taken on a more pejorative meaning: in German, at Schubert's time, a frequent synonym for amateur was “Liebhaber” (one who “has love” for something) as opposed to one who has been professionally trained, “Kenner” (literally, “knower”).

And there is certainly nothing “amateurish” about the Rondo that Franz Schubert apparently tossed off during the late-Spring of 1828 for his publisher. Of course, anyone can turn Mozart's “Facile” Sonata with its child-like simplicity into childishness or, getting beyond the notes, turn it into something worth listening to.

Here are two great pianists (certainly of the highest “Kenner” status) turning what could in other hands become something verging on the trite (and, in Schubert's hands, there is nothing “trite” about his music!).

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One thing that always fascinates me, since composers rarely work in a vacuum, “where did this piece come from?” Not in the sense of “where does creativity come from,” but what was going on in the composer's life around the time it was composed, what came before and what came after he wrote it?

According to the Deutsch Catalogue, No.951 was composed in June, 1828. No.950 is the large-scale Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major which Schubert also began writing in June and finished the following month. Also worth mentioning is perhaps his greatest work in the piano duet genre, the Fantasy in F Minor (D.940) which he completed in April of 1828. (While there's been much controversy over the timing of the “Great C Major” Symphony (D.944), Deutsch states it was begun in March of 1828.) Not coincidentally, some of the works he wrote in the months following the Rondo are the String Quintet in C Major (D.956), begun in August, the collection of songs known as the Schwanengesang (D.957), and the last three piano sonatas (D.958, D.959, and D.960) completed on September 26th, 1828, each one a masterpiece.

As Lucy Miller Murray points out in her program notes, “to explain Schubert is to explain a miracle.”

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Stravinksy & Nijinsky, 1911
If you need to find out more about Stravinsky's second great ballet – his whole and rather long career was built on the foundation of the three ballets he wrote between 1910 and 1913: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring – here's a link to take you to a post I'd written back in the day for a 2016 performance by the Harrisburg Symphony (at least the video-links for the live ballet performances still work). Here, I'm primarily interested in how such a large orchestral piece (a full-length ballet) works as a piece for a single piano, however many hands may be involved.

Varshavski and Shapiro perform their own arrangement of the complete ballet. As a sample of a live performance, here's the famous “Russian Dance” from the first scene, recorded in 2014:

And here's a YouTube “audio” of their recording on CD (sorry, no video) of the final scene at a typical Russian Shrovetide Fair, complete with a few folk-songs thrown in for local color:

But there was a previous step in this transformative process going back to the premiere performance. Whether it was done by the composer (who probably didn't have the time) or a house arranger with the ballet company's staff, the dancers needed something to rehearse with since they could hardly have the full orchestra sitting around (think of the expense!) and there were no recordings of the piece to play over the sound system (for that matter, were there recordings much less “sound systems” in 1910?). So a utilitarian transcription was made for piano duet so choreographer and dancers could work with rehearsal pianists to sort out the details before the full orchestra was brought in.

Then, in 1921, Stravinsky himself made an arrangement – not, he pointed out, a transcription – of “Three Movements from Petrushka” for solo piano for Arthur Rubinstein. I include the last few minutes with Sean Chen, 3rd place finalist in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, just to give you an idea of the “process” a composer might take in transforming his own music from one medium to another. And in this case, the results are hardly “amateur”...

People often use “transcription” and “arrangement” interchangeably. A literal transcription, transferring all the notes from one medium into another, is often not possible, certainly in the case of “reducing” a full orchestra down to a single piano (and with just two hands). Making it a feasible piano piece is one thing; making it a reasonable impersonation of an orchestral piece is something else. The end result would depend on the purpose of the “exercise”: is it to recreate a full and listenable work, or is it intended to provide enough of a utilitarian framework so Petrushka's dancers can get used to how they fit into the whole?

So, if one is arranging something for a performance, not just a “study opportunity,” you can make certain concessions to transfer the original version into what works for the new one. In this case, it has to work pianistically while still giving the listener the impression of the orchestral texture and color – and Petrushka is nothing if not brilliant textures and colors! It's up to the pianist to figure out how to bring out, say, a brass line here and make it sound different from the strings behind it there. But it won't work if it doesn't, somehow, fit “under the hands.”

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Ravel in 1907
An excellent example of this would be the work of Maurice Ravel, not just a composer of brilliant and colorful music, but also a brilliant orchestrator turning piano pieces – oftentimes his own – into equally brilliant orchestral works, many of which sound so naturally written for orchestra, you forget they're “transcriptions” (or is it “arrangements”?). A case in point would be his Rapsodie espagnole, the “Spanish Rhapsody” that the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo conclude their program (a video of their performance is included at the start of this post).

Usually, a composer like Ravel would take a piano piece and transform it into an orchestral work – as he did with Mussorgsky's piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel's version is so famous, one of my fellow college professors once asked me, as we listened to a piano recital with Mussorgsky's original, if this was Mussorgsky's transcription of Ravel's orchestral work!) – or take an already existing orchestral piece like his La Valse and immediately turn it into not one but two piano pieces, a version for solo piano and another for two pianos.

In this case, the Chicken-and-the-Egg is more vague: he wrote his orchestral Rapsodie espagnole in 1907-1908, but he based it on a Habañera for two pianos he wrote in 1895 but which he never published (he did, however, lend the manuscript to Debussy who then used the tune in one of his works, Estampes, of 1903, in the Soirée dans Grenade section). Ravel decided to resurrect it for a new work in 1907.

Whether he began the Rhapsody and then decided to use “that earlier, forgotten Habañera,” (maybe he just found it in an old box...?) or whether he heard Debussy's pilfering of his old tune and thought it could be the genesis of a new work of his own, his Rhapsody's final page dated “1.Feb. 1908.” But by this time, he also added three more movements for two pianos to the original Habañera: how many different ways might this have come about: compose all four movements for two pianos, then orchestrate them; write a new orchestral movement and do the “piano transcription” before moving on to the next; compose the whole Rhapsody for orchestra, and then reduce the remaining movements for piano? Basically, there's a possibility the chicken and the egg arrived simultaneously.

It's apparent he finished the piano version before completing the orchestral work, but how long before? Does it really matter? In short, “no.”

Ravel, like many composers, worked things out at the piano. People assume composers who write a piano “score” before finishing an orchestral work are writing a piano piece when in fact – as a composer, I'm well aware how I work and how many other composers might think as well – they are merely writing what pitches and rhythms and other details they want onto two staves rather than writing directly into a full orchestral score: for one, it helps keep things in perspective. It may not be a practical piece to perform on a piano and it might be easier if we'd think of it as a “short score.” But then, as a pianist, Ravel could certainly go back and “clean it up” to turn it into a piano piece.

There's a famous photograph of Ravel playing a “four-hand piano” duet with the dancer/ choreographer Nijinsky, looking over the rehearsal version for Daphnis & Chloe (the ballet was premiered in 1912). He also wrote a suite for piano duet, Ma mère l'Oye (“Mother Goose”) for the children, aged 6 and 7, of some friends in 1910, then orchestrating it the following year.

“Home entertainment” or not, I remember spending many a pleasant evening playing both Mother Goose and Debussy's Petite Suite with a good friend even though we frequently ran into difficulties over who controlled the pedal...

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Rapsodie espganole was one of Ravel's first major orchestral works, completed in 1908 when he was 32. It was also one of his earliest Spanish-inspired works, immediately following his opera, L'Heure espagnole. He would go on to write many more such works, the most famous being his Bolero in 1928. Curiously, there is a hypnotic motive – that descending four-note scalar line that permeates the Rapsodie – that seems to foreshadow the maddeningly hypnotic melody repeated ad infinitem (and beyond) of the Bolero.

It's clear this Spanish influence is natural to Ravel: his mother was of Basque heritage and he was, after all, born in southern France about 11 miles from the Spanish border. While there's an old saying that's too cool to die, how the best Spanish music was written by Frenchmen (one could add Debussy's Iberia to the list) – and let's not forget Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnole (even if it outdoes fellow-Russian Mikhail Glinka's Jota aragonesa by several miles) – it's interesting to read how a real Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, reacted to Ravel's Rapsodie:

“The Rapsodie surprised me with its Spanish character. In perfect agreement with my own intentions (and quite opposed to those of Rimsky-Korsakov in his Capriccio), this hispanism was not achieved by simply copying popular music but much more (with the exception of the jota Feria [in the last movement]) by the free use of the rhythms, modal melodies, and the ornaments of our popular composition, which did not alter the author's own manner.”

Later, Falla would recall from his early days in Paris, how Ravel told him he had not even visited Spain when he composed the Rapsodie but had learned everything he knew about the language, the music, and the general culture from listening to his mother speak and sing folk songs which he adored. What he imagined and turned into his music was “an idealized Spain” experienced vicariously through his mother.

Falla in Madrid (1906)
A year younger than Ravel, Falla himself was born in southernmost Spain in the city of Cádiz, but only learned about the folk music of his native Andalusia when he went to Madrid to study (around 1899-1900, when he also added the patrician particle de to his name). By 1907, shortly after completing his opera, La Vida breve, he moved to Paris where he was befriended by Ravel, Debussy, and, later, Stravinsky who introduced him to the ballet impressario, Serge Diaghilev. With the war, Falla would return to Madrid where he would complete his ballets, El amor brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat, later produced by Diaghilev with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso.

La vida breve (“The Brief Life”) is a gypsy love-story turned tragic. Little performed today, the opera is best known through two dances performed at the soon-to-be interrupted wedding festivities. Curiously, the opera has almost as much “incidental music” as it has vocal, and these two Spanish Dances have been published separately and arranged for numerous combinations, including for piano duet by the Varshavski-Shapiro duo.

Here, just to pique your curiosity, is an orchestral performance by Jesús López-Cobos with Lucero Tena in a 2005 benefit concert held in Madrid in 2005:

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Listen, first, to the Six “Burlesques” Max Reger wrote at the start of the 20th Century before reading the text (or instead of reading the text, whichever works for you). In lieu of a live performance you can watch, this is a recording by the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo from their CD.

The term “burlesque” implies something light-hearted, “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects” (with or without the connotations of those bawdy American dance-halls of the early-20th Century). The root is the Italian word burla, or joke. The last of the six pieces is a send-up of an old Viennese popular song, Ach! du lieber Augustin, by the way.

Listening to these, first, may not prepare you for an account of Reger's reputation as a serious composer of overly serious music usually avoided by those who don't know it.

In 1973, American critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote an article for the New York Times, “Nobody wants to play Max Reger,” in which he quoted Arnold Schoenberg writing to his friend and teacher Alexander Zemlinsky in 1922: “Reger...must in my view be done often; 1, because he has written a lot; 2, because he is already dead and people are still not clear about him. (I consider him a genius.)”

Max Reger in 1905
Of those German composers coming of age around 1900, apart from Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hugo Wolf, however, many German composers of this period have long been largely overlooked. Max Reger is only one of these, along with Hans Pfitzner, Ferruccio Busoni, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Franz Schmidt, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. A concert pianist and organist as well as composer, teacher, and conductor (George Szell was one of his students), Reger wrote primarily keyboard pieces (his organ works are a mainstay of the organists' repertoire), chamber music, songs and choral works. Only after these Burlesques did he begin composing works with orchestra. His most “popular” piece is an orchestral set of Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Mozart (1914) but still, he never composed a symphony (though there is a 50-minute-long Sinfonietta) nor an opera, despite his earliest musical influence.

Taken to Bayreuth by his uncle to see Wagner's Meistersinger and Parsifal in 1888, the 15-year-old Reger was so impressed, he began composing his first piece, an Overture for full orchestra with a score of 120 pages! He then studied theory and composition as well as continuing his piano and organ lessons, writing mostly songs, choruses as well as keyboard works and chamber music. After an illness apparently brought on by his military service forced him to return to live with his parents in 1898, he wrote his first work for chorus and orchestra. The following year, Reger, a Catholic, courted Elsa von Berken, a divorced Protestant, who at first rejected him, but in 1902, the year after he moved to Munich, they were married – and the Catholic church excommunicated him for marrying a divorced Protestant.

The Six Burlesques (Op. 58), composed for piano duet in 1901 were one of some eighteen works written that year, including two string quartets, the start of his 2nd Piano Quintet, and numerous songs and short choral works, plus several organ pieces including his 2nd Organ Sonata. The Burlesques were written between mid-May and mid-June; then in September, he moved to Munich to broaden his experience and, essentially leaving his childhood home and its artistic limitations behind, he began writing the works that would establish himself as a leading composer.

In 1907, he earned conducting and teaching positions in Leipzig and, in 1911, at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen where several of Brahms' later works (including his 3rd and 4th Symphonies) had been premiered in the 1880s. Because of illness, Reger resigned most of his positions at the start of World War I in 1914, and died of a heart attack on one of his weekly trips to Leipzig to teach his regular masterclass. They found a motet he was proofing for publication on the nightstand: the text “reflects how short-lived and transient are both the human existence and the splendor of the world, in contrast to one who is eternal. The last line states 'we' are in his hands.” Reger was 43.

Telling you Reger's reputation as a “difficult composer” has kept people from discovering his music is not exactly fair. But a review like this, of a choral work written only a couple of years after these Burlesques, might explain why many people are reluctant to explore his works:

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“It is not enough to call Reger’s Opus 71, the ink still wet on its pages, the strangest and weirdest thing that has ever resounded in notes. With its dauntless accumulation of huge masses of sound, its unbridled and randomly modulating counterpoint, its strange harmonies leaping over every commonly accepted connecting link and progression, its audacious agglomeration of ugly sounds rarely interrupted by melodic flow, and its difficulties for every participant, far exceeding anything known to date, it may well reach the outermost limit of musical expression altogether, just as it sometimes seems to be an absurd game played with musical forms by a master whose command of his craft borders on genius.”

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On the other hand, one of my favorite replies of a maligned composer to a critic involves Reger's reply to a particularly nasty review of the premiere of his 1907 Sinfonietta:

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“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!”

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And, bathroom humor aside, that seems a fitting place to end.

– Dick Strawser