Sunday, May 17, 2009

Meeting Composers: Jeremy Gill with the HSO

On Thursday, during a rehearsal break, I had a chance to talk with Jeremy Gill about his Symphony No. 1 which the Harrisburg Symphony is premiering this weekend, along with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Odin Rathnam playing Beethoven's Romance in F and Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." As luck would have it, I was told the rehearsal schedule would be ‘Tchaik / Gill’ and so I tried fitting the errands I needed to do before the rehearsal rather than after since there wasn’t going to be time before the Concertante performance that evening (I was doing the pre-concert talk, too). Naturally, I arrived at the Forum just in time to hear just a few measures of Gill’s symphony before Stuart said “Okay, we’ll take a break and then do the Tchaikovsky.” It was odd having the Fate fanfare blasting at us as we sat in the Lobby trying to talk: it was as if Tchaikovsky warning Jeremy “don’t answer that question!”

When you see something called “No. 1,” you wonder about “No. 2” – is there one already or in the works, perhaps?

His first symphony, he said, was his doctoral piece, part of two-part presentation for his degree from the University of Pennsylvania where he’d studied with George Crumb and George Rochberg (the symphony is dedicated to Rochberg). There is a second one brewing but so far only in his head – given the fact it took 10 years to get the first one performed, he’s probably not going to take the time to write the second without a guaranteed performance and a commission to support it. That’s not meant to sound “commercial” – it’s actually how most professional composers work today. Gone are the days when a composer could write something and someone would immediately play it. When they did, it was either a court composer, a composer with a powerful patron or one of the major composers in the repertoire today. If you consider Stuart Malina gets scores in the mail from four, five or six composers a week and you figure how many works will get performed in a season or two, the odds are there are lots of composers out there not getting performed. Jeremy said, after sending his symphony out into the world looking for a performance, he got many responses saying “nice piece” but no one saying “let’s do it.” Most often, there wasn’t even a response: for the conductors, it’s just too much to keep up with.

At the pre-concert talk, Gill also mentioned some research someone had done about the number of symphonies that had been written between Mozart’s and Haydn’s final works in the 1790s to Beethoven’s 9th in 1825 – we know, perhaps, a handful of these, maybe 25 or so in all. While some recording companies resurrect a number of works by the “Also-Rans” of this era, it still doesn’t increase the number we actually know. Consider, then, that there is proof out there that composers wrote some 10,000 symphonies in those 30-35 years and you begin to see what the odds are.

Anyway, Gill (born in Harrisburg and growing up in the mid-state) began working on his doctoral symphony while he was working with the Harrisburg Symphony as conductor Richard Westerfield’s assistant. Sitting in on the rehearsals, he often talked to the conductor and musicians about balance issues and technical problems, examining scores as to why something that was hard to play was in fact hard when something else worked well that seemed like it should have been hard. So it’s entirely appropriate this orchestra should, ultimately, give his work its world premiere.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard it before. As part of the doctoral process, it was sight-read by the Curtis Orchestra and then re-played after a chance to make some observations and corrections, all part of the learning process of being a composer-in-rehearsal. It was recorded. But it was not “performed.” That is, no one outside the orchestra or the small audience there to observe it actually heard the music.

A few years later, a friend who conducted a youth orchestra offered Gill the chance to bring his work out to read through it with the students – a good learning experience for them, working on a new piece with the composer on the podium. Again, this was not a performance heard by the public.

There had been orchestral works before – an overture written in 1995 about 11 minutes long which David Efron (of the Eastman School of Music where Jeremy had done his undergraduate degree) conducted with the Chautauqua Symphony. There had been two concertos – one for viola (also about 11 minutes) with a chamber orchestra and a cello concerto written toward the end of his studies at Eastman which he also heard in a reading session.

In 1997, he wrote a work for the Hershey Symphony as a tribute to a home-town mentor, Earl Caton, long-time teacher, tuba player (also in the Harrisburg and Hershey Symphonies years ago), and conductor of the New Cumberland Town Band. Jeremy, who played the oboe, got his first “orchestra gig” with the Hershey Symphony through Earl Caton, playing saxophone in Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”

So by the time he began work on his symphony, he’d already had a few orchestral works under his belt. Still, he spent about 13-14 months working on a 19-20 minute piece, taking a lot of time to rework the opening while forging ahead with the overall idea and getting later sections down on paper. But the opening continued to frustrate him. Rather than stopping to work that out, he kept going, then came back and realized if he cut out about 40 measures of music from the opening, it might work. It was not easy – it never is – to do this kind of surgical editing, when you consider how long it took to write seven minutes of music, just to throw it away.

The symphony developed along one of two lines the 20th Century Symphony followed, taking after Sibelius who felt the symphony was an abstract, more architectural logical structure, as opposed to Mahler’s viewpoint that, as he’d said in his own famous conversation with Sibelius about The Symphony, that “a symphony should be universal, it should embrace everything.”

Part of Gill’s doctoral project was an analytical paper about Sibelius 7th Symphony, one of the great (and few) one-movement symphonies in the repertoire. He examined Sibelius’ process, looking at the germs or cells of musical ideas and how they expanded to create a logical structure over the span of 20 minutes, managing to give the sense that all four movements of a traditional symphony were contained within its still basically single movement structure.

There are several ways to do this: Schumann blurred the divisions between the four movements of what became his 4th Symphony by running them one into the next without the usual break in between (if nothing else, at least answering the question of whether to clap between movements when there’s no space to clap). That doesn’t really connect them, despite the motivic flow of certain ideas shared between movements (Beethoven had already done this in his 5th). Whether it’s obvious to the listener or not, there are usually some musical connections between movements of a symphony from Beethoven's time onward, though it’s often not something so overt as a Theme, something more subtle that makes all of these movements, however many there might be – 4 is standard – part of a whole rather than a collection of movements slapped together to make a symphony.

Samuel Barber also wrote a “Symphony in One Movement” – also his first: he later withdrew his second – in which the regular succession of movements is clearly delineated but the seams between them blended a little more to make it one continuous sweep.

But Gill found more inspiration in Witold Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony and his own teacher George Rochberg’s 2nd.

Pointing at various parts of the score, he told me he could make a road-map of what sections were inspired by (or “cribbed from”) other composers: on the second page was a passage for the strings that came out of the last movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, since he wanted to create the long lines and textures of Mahler’s string sonority. Here was a tempo indication directly quoted from Sibelius’ 7th; there a string passage recreating texture from Debussy’s La Mer. And so on.

Gill begins his symphony with two bell-like sonorities, ushering in a slow introduction – or what seems like a slow introduction - that eventually moves into a scherzo-like section (or movement or, more accurately, part of a movement) but then what sounds like it’s going to be the scherzo’s “trio” or middle-section becomes a new episode so that one has the feeling of multiple movements – or at least their moods – as one section morphs into the next. The “real” slow movement is less independent – a horn solo over an expansion of motives heard earlier – as the music sweeps on to the first of two explosive climaxes.

He is working more with long-scale motion and energy levels rather than the traditional key-scheme of a traditional symphonic structure. There are several motives, one of which mostly recurs only at the same pitch-level, never transposing off to another “key” which helps give the sound a “centricity” intended or not. He was surprised to hear someone describing it as a tonal work since he was not consciously using either the tonal system or the serial (usually atonal) system.

After hearing the work in its dress rehearsal and then at the performance Saturday night, I would say that even though the work includes many chords that would be considered dissonant, they create tensions (in their own way) that resolve (in their own way) to a more traditional consonant triad. Because it uses major and minor chords, his sound might appear to be tonal even though that implies more organization behind how those chords relate to each other: even the final chord (not a traditional triad) is less a resolution than a vague cessation of tension, a perfectly logical-sounding conclusion. And since this is something most listeners would associate with traditional tonality rather than unfamiliar atonality or serialism (or as one friend thought I was saying, “surrealism”) often coming across as all tension and no release, this music therefore must be “tonal.”

At the very end, neatly wrapping it up, are the initial two bell-like sounds before the final chord. Not so neatly, however, is a short duet in the clarinets restating a motive from those initial 40 measures that ended up on the cutting room floor. Though there was no logic to its being there, it made perfect sense to include it. I’m not sure, on two hearings, that it’s all that out-of-place: it seemed to me to be drawn from an earlier motive heard in the basses at one point but certainly didn’t stick out in a what “where the heck did that come from” sense.

Of course, there are things we learn in school and things we learn after school. A composer progressing from the age of 24 to his current age of 34, Gill hasn’t consciously followed any paths in one direction beyond the typical composer’s reaction of, having written one piece, deciding to do another one differently. One takes along things one learns in writing and hearing a piece and makes a conscious decision to avoid things that didn’t work or finds ways of improving it so, in the future, they will.

His first symphony may be a more “romantic” symphony than the one that’s germinating in his mind now, waiting for the commission to make it possible. His orchestral work “Novas” which the Harrisburg Symphony premiered under Stuart Malina in 2003 was a more texture-driven piece, more abstract. But he feels going from the symphony to Novas to several other long-form pieces to this symphony-in-waiting is all part of a natural progression, each piece generating itself.

This pending 2nd symphony would follow the “other” symphonic path, his 1st having already followed Sibelius.’ It would be more Mahler-like, embracing a variety of things including dance music and the voice, not necessarily choral but vocal soloists, something overtly dramatic – bringing to mind the apogee of Mahler’s universal symphonic approach in his 8th, the Symphony “of a Thousand.” It would have “huge amounts of variety” that would also, undoubtedly, take longer to unfold. But without a commission, it might take even longer to reach an audience.

After the first rehearsal on Thursday, I watched as composer Jeremy Gill was congratulated by, among others, the orchestra’s 2nd oboist, Tom Rowe (whom I’d hired for the orchestra back in the mid-80s), who had been Jeremy’s oboe teacher when he was still in school. It’s a connection like that that makes a performance like this special.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4: Up-Close & Personal (Part 2)

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony plays Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony at the Forum - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. An hour before each performance, Stuart Malina will present a pre-concert talk with composer Jeremy Gill whose Symphony No. 1 is also on the program.

(This photograph of Tchaikovsky was taken in the last year of his life, January 1893: he was 52 at the time.)

There’s an old joke that Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies: #4, #5 and #6.

Most people don’t pay much attention to #1 (“Winter Dreams”), #2 (though Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony played the “Little Russian” Symphony a few seasons ago: you can hear his pod-cast here) and #3 (“Polish” despite the fact it has a German dance in it, too); it’s probably just as well everyone ignores #7 since he didn’t finish it (he’d begun it right before he started the “Pathetique” then thinking it not very symphonic, started turning it into his 3rd Piano Concerto but died before he officially gave up on this version of it as well).

In the earlier post, I wrote about some things you might not normally read in your standard program notes, different aspects of the composer and his music, particularly some of the cultural contradictions of being a Russian composer in the 2nd half of the 19th Century. Like any generalization, it has its problems but it also gives you some insights into the man as a composer (photographed, right, in 1877, around the time he began work on the 4th Symphony).

But what about Tchaikovsky the Man? As most people who knew him would admit, it was obvious he was a very emotional man quick to respond to external impulses, often violently. There is no better example than those events that occurred around the time of his marriage: now in his late-30s and still unmarried, there were rumors about his homosexuality and in order to stifle them, a coincidence presented itself as a solution.

Most of the details come from Tchaikovsky’s letters to Nadezhda von Meck (see photo, left), a wealthy widow who adored Tchaikovsky’s music and wanted to offer him something of an allowance that would free him from having to teach to earn money, allowing him to concentrate all his time on composing. The only stipulation was that they must agree to never meet in person, only to write to each other in a voluminous correspondence that began in December of 1876 and lasted for 14 years.

The “other” woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was a former student, one he did not remember meeting when she was 16 and he was 25. But apparently she had had a crush on him: she signed up to take classes with him and two years after she left the school, in late March of 1877, Antonina Miliukhovna wrote him a letter, telling him of her love for him. His response was not intended to give her hope – he admitted the feeling could not be mutual – but after a series of further letters, he agreed to meet her. As he wrote to Mme. von Meck, “It seems to me as if the power of fate had drawn me to that girl.” In hindsight, he felt he was misleading the girl (she was 28 at the time, “no longer young” and past the age most women would normally have married) but by then it had gone too far. If he “turned his back on her… [he] should cause her real unhappiness and drive her to a tragic end.”

In May, just weeks after her first letter, Tchaikovsky began work on a new opera, based on one of the most famous works by a Russian author, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onyegin by Alexander Pushkin. It tells the story of a world-weary bachelor (Onyegin) and a young girl (Tatiana) who falls in love with him. She writes him a love-letter (the famous letter scene that ends the 1st Act of the opera) which Onyegin returns to her, rejecting her because she is too young and innocent for him. Years later, an even more world-weary Onyegin rediscovers the now mature Tatiana (married to an old aristocrat in Petersburg) and falls in love with her. They meet. She now rejects him.

The parallel here is obvious. Of course, he knew Pushkin’s story long before he began turning it into an opera. Did he choose the story now because of the parallel similarity in his life or did it only dawn on him a few weeks later when he first met her that she was “his Tatiana” and he might prove to be a cad like Onyegin? Before the month is out, he agreed to marry her.

The wedding takes place in Moscow on July 6th. (This photograph of the couple was taken at that time.) After a week’s honeymoon in Petersburg, they move into an apartment in Moscow and a few weeks later, the composer – alone – leaves for his sister’s estate, Kamenka, in Ukraine where he spends 6 weeks composing. The day after he returns to Moscow, he has a “panic attack” and eleven days later he attempts suicide by wading into the river at night, hoping to catch pneumonia. With his brothers’ help, he arranges an end to the marriage – they do not divorce but they agree to separate and never see each other again. Tchaikovsky is taken off to Switzerland so he can recuperate from a stress-induced coma which left him unconscious for 48 hours, and Nadezhda von Meck offers him the annual allowance that will give him financial independence.

In January, 1878, Tchaikovsky finishes two works: his opera Eugene Onyegin, and the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.

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

It is tempting to think of both these works – two of his greatest – in the context of these events. But whether it is a matter of “Art Imitating Life” or “Life Imitating Art” is difficult to say.

It’s obvious, considering the timing, he chose to marry Antonina because he saw her as the innocent Tatiana and himself as Onyegin. It’s also no coincidence that none of Tchaikovsky’s earlier operas succeeded – for whatever reasons – like Eugene Onyegin because he clearly loved Tatiana (her Letter Scene is one of the finest moments in Russian opera) whether he loved Antonina or not. It was only when he realized that he could put Tatiana away when he was done composing but Antonina was a real person. Whatever she was like as a person, she was not Tatiana and clearly not the woman for Tchaikovsky. He writes to Mme. von Meck about his wife’s family – clearly dysfunctional in modern terms, how the mother abuses her late husband’s memory in front of her children, some of whom she admits to hating and how the sibling rivalries are like sisters having daggers drawn for each other – that is unlike his own loving family experience. While this marriage might mask his homosexuality (which in Russia then was a crime punishable by arrest and deportation to Siberia), it was not going to “cure” him: the question I’ve never seen asked was “would Tchaikovsky have been happy living with a male partner?” Probably not.

- - - - - - -

A side-note for those wondering whatever happened to Mrs. Tchaikovsky. The next three years were marred by letters and occasional meetings. At one point, she even moved into an apartment on the floor above the composer's. Tchaikovsky arranged an allowance for her through his publisher on the condition that she, essentially, leave him alone.

Between 1881 and 1884, she had three children by unknown fathers, each child given up and soon dying in an orphanage – the first died before her first birthday; a son born six months later lived to be almost 8; a daughter died at 2.

Considering the amount of correspondence he left behind, there is only one surviving letter written to his wife, dating from 1890.

Divorce in Russia was allowable only on grounds of infidelity which would have meant, initially, Antonina would have to perjure herself (von Meck even offered her 10,000 rubles to do so). Tchaikovsky, marrying her to mask his homosexuality, now feared even more what may have been revealed in a divorce trial. Even after her first child in 1881, he chose not to pursue a divorce in the courts. He wrote to von Meck that Antonina was not to blame in the failure of their marriage but later, in his letters to his brothers, he referred to his wife as “The Reptile.”

She wrote her memoirs the year after Tchaikovsky died and even though she may come off very naive and superficial, she was also very coherent, unlike ones expectation after the image we have from Tchaikovsky’s correspondence (though her own letters were full of wild accusations especially about a conspiracy on the part of his brothers to quiet her).

Three years after Tchaikovsky’s death, Antoninia was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Petersburg for four years but was readmitted the following year, staying there until her death in February 1917, two weeks before the Tsar was forced to abdicate and eight months before the Bolshevik Revolution brought an end to Imperial Russia.

Considering all this and that she spent most of the last 20 years of her life in mental institutions, one wonders what her life might have been like if, like Tatiana’s, Tchaikovsky had played the cad instead and rejected her as Onyegin had done?

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

The one thing that puts a bit of a crimp in our willingness to see the 4th Symphony as his reaction to the nightmare of his marriage is the chronology.

The famous letter in which he describes the program of “our symphony” was written in February 1878, a week after its premiere. Of course, he had written to her about it long before it was finished, but the program – the explanation of the Fate Motive heard in the brass throughout the work as a “Sword of Damocles that hangs perpetually over our heads” – is all “after the fact.” Is that what was in his mind when he wrote it or something he used to explain it in hindsight?

But he writes on May 1st, 1877 – before his fateful meeting with his future wife – “At the present moment I am absorbed in the symphony I began during the winter. I should like to dedicate it to you because I believe you would find in it an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.” The fact he is working on this now is the reason he gives for turning down her very generous commission for a new work for violin and piano. “Just now any other work would be a burden – work, I mean, that would demand a certain mood and change of thought. Added to this, I am in a very nervous, worried and irritable state, highly unfavorable to composition, and even my symphony suffers in consequence.”

Following the wedding, the honeymoon and a week’s visit to his mother-in-law’s, Tchaikovsky writes to von Meck he is going on to his sister’s country estate so he can work on the symphony: “I leave in an hour’s time. A few days longer and I swear I should have gone mad.” A week later, he informs von Meck he is beginning to feel better, not quite returned to normal but annoyed that he is “absolutely incapable of taking up my work. Yet it would be the finest remedy for my morbid state of mind. I must hope that the hunger for work will return before long.”

Nine days later, he writes:

“I am much better… I must struggle against my feeling of estrangement from my wife and try to keep all her good qualities in view. For undoubtedly she has good qualities. I have so far improved that I have taken in hand the orchestration of your symphony. One of my brothers, whose judgment I value, is very pleased with such parts of it as I’ve played to him. I hope you will be equally pleased. That is the chief thing.”

The next day, he continues, after lamenting how difficult it is for him to work when around other people:

“Our symphony progresses. The first movement will give me a great deal of trouble as regards orchestration. It is very long and complicated; at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple and it will be pleasant and easy to orchestrate them. The Scherzo will have quite a new orchestral effect, from which I expect great things. At first only the string orchestra is heard, always pizzicato. In the trio the wood-winds play by themselves and at the end of the scherzo all three groups of instruments join in a short phrase. I think this effect will be interesting.”

After returning to Moscow and his new wife and their new apartment, he writes “My wife has done all she possibly could to please me. It is really a comfortable and pretty home. All is clean, new and artistic.”

“The orchestration of the first movement of our symphony is quite finished. Now I shall give myself a few days to grow used to my new life. In any case the symphony will not be ready before the end of the winter.”

Twelve days later, he suffered a “nervous breakdown,” attempting suicide and fleeing to Petersburg where his brother Anatol (who had attended the wedding in July) could barely recognize him.

At the end of this first movement, then, consider what it might have been like inside Tchaikovsky’s head – having spent six months working on this music and dealing with the unraveling details of his life during that same time: which influenced which, Art or Life?

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

With a living composer like Jeremy Gill, a conductor or a listener in the audience could ask the composer something about this or that aspect of the piece he’s written.

Tchaikovsky died 116 years ago but in his correspondence with Mme. von Meck, he gives us some insights into his creative process: shortly after completing the 4th Symphony, he tells her,

“I write my sketches on the first piece of paper that comes to hand, sometimes a scrap of writing paper, and I write in very abbreviated form. The melody never appears in my head without its attendant harmony. In general, these two musical elements together with the rhythm cannot be conceived separately: every melodic idea carries its own inevitable harmony and rhythm. If the harmonies are very complicated, one must indicate the part-writing in the sketch….” (And the same with its orchestration.)

The next day he wrote again, illuminating some of this:

“What has been written with passion must now be looked upon critically, corrected, extended and, most important of all, condensed to fit the requirements of the form. One must sometimes go against the grain in this, be merciless and destroy things that were written with love and inspiration. Although I cannot complain of poor inventive powers or imagination, I have always suffered from lack of skill in the management of form. Only persistent labor has at last permitted me to achieve a form that in some degree corresponds to the content. In the past I was careless, I did not realize the extreme importance of this critical examination of the preliminary sketch. For this reason the succeeding episodes were loosely held together and seams were always visible. That was a serious defect and it was years before I began to correct it, yet my compositions will never be good examples of form because I can only correct what is wrong with my musical nature – I cannot change it intrinsically.”

In the months following the premiere, he wrote to her,

“You ask how I work regarding the orchestration. I never compose in the abstract – never does the musical idea come to me except with suitable exterior form. So I find the musical thought simultaneously with the orchestration. When I wrote the scherzo of the [4th] Symphony, I imagined it just as you heard it. It is impossible if not performed pizzicato. If played with the bow it would lose everything. It would be a soul without a body and all its charm would disappear.”

Later, he writes,

“As regards the Russian element in general in my music (i.e. the instances of melody and harmony originating in folk-song), I grew up in the backwoods, saturating myself from earliest childhood with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristic traits of Russian folk-song, so that I passionately love every manifestation of the Russian spirit. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.”

To us, this insistence would seem pointless: isn’t he Russian because he was born in Russia, because he is ethnically Russian? But he was often under attack from the Russian Nationalists who heard Germanic symphonies with Russian-like themes, some of them identifiable as specific folk-songs.

After she had asked him about the 4th Symphony, especially if he sticks to established forms, he responded,

“Yes and no. In certain compositions such as a symphony, the form is taken for granted and I keep to it – but only as to the large outline and proper sequence of movements. The details can be manipulated as freely as one chooses, according to the natural development of the musical idea. For instance the first movement of our symphony is handled very freely.” He then describes how the key of the second theme is handled differently and how in the recapitulation, it doesn’t appear as it should in its entirety, only in part. “The finale,” he concludes this passage, “also deviates from conventional form.”

One of the obvious symptoms of this dichotomy between his European Cosmopolitan Training and his innate Russianness can be heard in the last movement of this 4th Symphony, a different kind of deviation from convention.

The second theme is an authentic folk-song, generally entitled “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” which he writes in 4/4 like this:

Not being Russian and not having heard this tune in any other way than Tchaikovsky’s, I was surprised when I first heard a recording of a little known work – at least in this country – by Mily Balakirev, the founder of the Russian Five who also worked hard to recruit Tchaikovsky into their circle (even giving him ideas for very non-Russian works like the Romeo & Juliet Overture in such detail all he needed to do was to supply his own themes) and the Manfred Symphony). It’s his 2nd Overture on Russian Themes and is sometimes called, simply, “Russia.” Written 15 years before Tchaikovsky’s symphony, Balakirev uses the same folk-song – “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” – but in a way that is actually closer to the original song:

Note the difference. Balakirev’s is notated in 2/4 with three measures to each phrase with a slight variation on the ‘repetition.’ Tchaikovsky writes it in 4/4 but places two beats of silence after each phrase (repeated exactly). Why?

The original folk-song moves in 3-bar phrases. German Classical Music moves in multiples of 2 and so Tchaikovsky forces this phrase into four-square units. He could, if he wanted to, write three-bar phrases or write it with a 3/2 meter or something to accomodate the tune. But he didn't.

Perhaps it’s not a major point or even a fault (unless you know and prefer the original – is there any law saying that Tchaikovsky had to maintain the original structure of the song? There’s no copyright infringement, here), but it compares one approach to the other: between Balakirev who was not bound by European Conventions no matter how often he used them in this or other works, and Tchaikovsky who, consciously or not, was something of a synthesis between the Russian Nationalist with a deep love of his heritage and the European Cosmopolitan intent on making Russian music understandable outside the realm of his own culture.

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

One further quote, from a letter to Mme. von Meck after she had told him about her emotional, ecstatic response to his music, almost as if she was drunk on it.

“There is one thing in your letter with which I cannot agree in the least – your view on music. I particularly dislike the way in which you compare music with a form of intoxication. I think this is quite wrong. A man has recourse to wine in order to stupefy himself and produce an illusion of well-being and happiness. But this dream costs him very dear! The reaction is generally terrible. But in any case wine can only bring a momentary oblivion of all our troubles – no more. Has music a similar effect? Music is no illusion but rather a revelation. Its triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find in no other sphere; and the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement to life. Music enlightens and delights us. It is extremely difficult to analyse and define the process of musical enjoyment but it has nothing in common with intoxication… But when all is said and done, this is only a matter of words. If we both look upon the enjoyment of music from opposite points of view, at least one thing is certain: our love of it is equally strong, and that is sufficient for me. I am glad you apply the word ‘divine’ to the art to which I have dedicated my life.”

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony: Up Close & Personal (Part 1)

This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - is called "Fate & Fantasy" and includes the world premiere of a symphony by Harrisburg-born composer Jeremy Gill; two works for violin & orchestra with concertmaster Odin Rathnam joining the orchestra as the soloist for Beethoven's Romance in F and Sarasate's Fantasy on Themes from Bizet's Carmen; and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.

Neither Tchaikovsky nor his 4th Symphony really need much in the way of “explanation” for a concert-goer to be able to enjoy the music. In these “Up-Close & Personal” posts, I’m usually looking for something behind the music, something that was going on in the composer’s life at the time the music was written or maybe about the times it was written in, whether that impact is direct or seemingly indirect. You can always argue that a work of art stands independently of any of the extraneous and technical details involved in its creation, but you can also argue that a work of art is something you can come to time and time again and each time discover something new, something that may make you listen to it in a different way or appreciate it from a slightly different angle, that the more you know about it the more you can appreciate it.

If you’re not familiar with the events of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he wrote this symphony – his disastrous marriage and the voluminous correspondence with the rather mysterious Nadezhda von Meck – you can read about that in the program notes, here. There are some other ideas I’d like to look at, this time.

Tchaikovsky is a Russian composer which, to an American listener, may seem obvious but actually implies a number of often conflicting ideas. It also implies a debate similar to that around Aaron Copland and the “American Sound” – how much of what we identify as the “Russian Sound” is really what we think of as being Tchaikovsky’s sound? What is it that makes Russian music sound Russian? When I asked a famous Soviet-era sociologist this question back in the ‘70s, she thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know – perhaps the long cold winters?”

Culturally, putting it into a glib nutshell, there are at least two Russias. As a political nation, it has been on the edge of Europe and never really a part of the general European culture. As a geographical entity, it straddles both Europe and Asia and much of its ethnic and social back-history is more Asiatic than European. While there are people who had always lived in the area we think of as Russia, much of its history was crystallized first by Scandinavian migrants who set up ancient kingdoms and converted to Christianity, then by Asians ranging from the Tatars and Mongols who conquered them. A long ingrained xenophobia aside, the lack of trade routes to connect them with Western Europe and the lack of a viable marketplace for European goods created little need for contact between these cultures until the 18th Century when one of these rulers – known to us as Peter the Great but not considered “Great” by the Russians themselves – forcibly turned his backward empire toward the West, imposing on them European attitudes and customs after conquering a miserable stretch of swampland where he built a grand city that, within a few generations, created a seemingly artificial world of wealthy aristocrats living in a mirror image of the royal courts of France and Germany while the greater percentage of Russians lived in a peasant culture of extreme poverty. There was little else, then, in between.

A century after Peter the Great built his new imperial capital St. Petersburg, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. At that time, few if any aristocrats spoke Russian. The language of the court was French, the literature and theater they enjoyed was in French. Much of the architecture of Peter the Great’s brand new city was the result of Italian architects trying to encompass something that looked Russian combined with something they were familiar with. Much of the music the aristocrats listened to was written and performed by Italian-born musicians who began teaching Russian-born musicians how to write and play in a European style. Even in Tchaikovsky’s youth a generation after 1812, there were still no Russian music schools: everybody was an amateur who studied privately with musicians imported either from France or Italy.

The “first” Russian composer (or at least the first one to be recognized as one), Mikhail Glinka, generally referred to as the “father” of Russian music, learned the rudiments of music and composition by way of correspondence with a theory teacher in Berlin, not by studying with a composer first-hand or by attending a school. Another important composer with a national awareness, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, learned not directly from Glinka but essentially by borrowing his notes.

In the mid-19th Century, the Russian musician Anton Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists of his day, usually placing 2nd to Franz Liszt, but as a composer he was too German for the Russians and too Russian for the Germans. He was too much of a Futurist for the Conservatives and, for the Futurists like Liszt and Wagner, too conservative. As a Jew who’d converted as a child to the Russian Orthodox church, he was also regarded as a Christian by Jews and as a Jew by Christians, therefore, as he put it, “neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.”

In 1862, Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai opened the first music school in Russia – first in St. Petersburg and then another in Moscow – making a point that courses would be taught in Russian, not in French (one grand lady retorted “Music in Russian? That’s a novel idea!”).

Tchaikovsky, who had discovered classical music as a child through a music-box reproduction of some Mozart pieces, wanted to become a musician but lacking any chance of good training ended up going into law. After becoming a law clerk, he decided it was too boring and he joined Rubinstein’s newly opened conservatory as one of its first students. He did well enough upon graduation, grounded in solid European-style training but without much practical experience, he was immediately set up as a teacher in the new Moscow school.

This was all happening around the same time young composers gathering around Mily Balakirev began formulating ideas about creating an authentic Russian musical style. They became known as “The Russian Five” or “The Mighty Handful” and their attitude about what Russian music should be was directly opposed to Rubinstein’s.

In Western music there are often extreme opposites among contemporaries – Brahms’ Classicism (building on the past) versus Wagner’s Romanticism (looking into the future) or the Serialism-vs-Tonality argument of much of the 20th Century. In Russia, this became a musico-political argument between those following European (and by then, mostly German) ideals against those looking for a more authentic Russian identity – Cosmopolitans vs. Nationalists. This aesthetic argument was going on in all aspects of Russian life, not just the Arts.

It’s curious that what we think of today as the Age of Russian Music encompasses basically two generations: the prominent composers in Western minds are Tchaikovsky & a few of the “Russian 5” followed by the next generation of Rachmaninoff & Skryabin (or Scriabin as he’s usually spelled in the West). In 1917, even the notion of “Russia” came to an end with the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union. After 70 years of Communism, Russian music is not the only thing still trying to reestablish its identity.

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

Basically, we’re told Glinka’s solution to this question of Russian-ness had been to turn to “the music of the people” for inspiration. His setting in 1848 of two folk dances in the orchestral rhapsody Kamarinskaya (which is usually mispronounced Kamarinskáya but which I was told should be pronounced Kamarínskaya though several sources say it’s Kamárinskaya…) was considered “the acorn from which the mighty oak of Russian music grew” by no less than Tchaikovsky.

But it wasn’t just a matter of listening to Russian folk songs and transcribing them. They realized Russian folk-songs did not organize themselves the same way German ones did: uneven metric patterns with uneven phrase structures could move freely between tonal centers so, to us, it might sound like it’s in E-flat Major but the phrase cadences in C Minor.

What Glinka and many of his followers also did was to create something that would sound noticeably different from European music, giving it an exotic quality which could then be perceived as non-Western and therefore Russian. Glinka used the tonally ambiguous whole-tone scale to create a magical fairy-tale world half-a-century before Claude Debussy used it in France to create an “impressionistic” counter-balance to German harmonic rigidity. Rimsky-Korsakov, in addition to using melodic inflections reflecting that Central Asian exoticism of Russia’s oriental heritage which we hear in Scheherezade, created a synthetic scale rarely found in folk music but which became the norm for that folk-like sound we Westerners are now so used to.

Many ethnomusicologists might refer to this not as folk-lore but as “fake-lore.” Stravinsky would later use it in The Firebird, his first fairy-tale ballet but also later in Les Noces, a ritualized setting of a Russian folk wedding even though he says he never actually saw nor heard one. However much actual folk-lore is behind his third great ballet, the Rite of Spring could not exist musically without these artificial solutions.

Tchaikovsky often used folk songs in his music – whether it’s the beautiful Andante Cantabile, the Kamarinskaya-like finale of his 2nd Symphony or his use of “The Little Birch Tree” found in the last movement of the 4th Symphony. His colleagues in the Mighty Handful considered this as mere decoration: it didn’t get to the heart of the matter, or rather to the soul of the matter. Quoting folk songs was, in a sense, lip-service unless the essence of the folk idiom permeated his music.

But Tchaikovsky used them within Germanic forms like the symphony and the concerto. Part of the Mighty Handful’s problem, though, was not just to create a melodic and harmonic dialect that sounded Russian: they needed to come up with a way of using them in a larger, structural context – what we call “form” – beyond rhapsodies and symphonic poems, because they were unable to overcome one of the innate limitations of folk music.

Folk songs are usually self-contained and don’t provide much in the way of expansion, what classical musicians call “development.” No better example would be the bizarre appearance of a Russian folk-song “Slava!” in Beethoven’s E Minor String Quartet dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky. As Glinka showed in Kamarinskaya, there were many amazing and wonderful ways you could treat these tunes he found, but basically all he did was repeat the tune over and over, each time in a different orchestral color, maybe with different accompaniment or a change in the harmony (many of these tunes could be quite chameleon-like in ways you could harmonize them). But to get more mileage out of them? Not likely. Beethoven takes his round peg of a Russian folk song and pounds it into the four-square hole of Germanic structure.

Without spending another 3,000 words on it, let’s just say that Tchaikovsky as a Russian was full of the dichotomies of his era: he idolized Mozart but had no concept of Mozartean form; he wrote Germanic symphonies and concertos but tried to make them sound Russian by using native Russian melodies (but unlike the Handful, not Russian harmonies); he tried to come to terms with classical structure (the left-brain aspect of music) while living in the hyper-emotional world of romantic sensuousness (the right-brain aspect of music). His symphonies – at least the three famous ones – heave under the weight of these intense emotions while his ballets reflected the dazzling aristocratic fairy-tale world of the imperial court that still defines what we consider “classical dance.” American audiences familiar with his Violin Concerto may find no great contrast between the Mozart-like clarity of the first movement’s opening and the wild Cossack dance of its finale (is it any different from Brahms ending his violin concerto with a wild Hungarian dance?).

Even one of his own students, Sergei Taneyev (whose music is virtually unknown in the West) accused him of writing a symphony full of ballet music. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what he meant by that – is he equating ballet music with drivel or is it just that this is music incapable of further development that could easily be danced to? One of the complaints about Tchaikovsky’s ballets was that the music was often more symphonic – more developed – than the usual string of pleasant dance tunes audiences (and dancers) expected.

Taneyev refers specifically to the middle of the 2nd Movement, the trio of the 3rd and to a “little march” in the finale where his “inner eye sees involuntarily our prima ballerina… and spoils [his] pleasure in the many beauties of the work.” Perhaps he means these spots relax the emotional impact of the European-style development for something more accessible?

Here’s what Tchaikovsky said about how he saw his own problems as a composer:

“All my life I have been much troubled by my inability to grasp and manipulate form in music. I fought hard against this defect and can say with pride that I achieved some progress, but I shall end my days without ever having written anything that is perfect in form. What I write has always a mountain of padding: an experienced eye can detect the thread in my seams and I can do nothing about it.”

The symphonies that Tchaikovsky’s European contemporaries were writing – with the exception of Brahms who was regarded as old-fashioned by most followers of contemporary music then – were not like the symphonies of Haydn or Beethoven. Even Beethoven’s 6th and 9th Symphonies are not typical of what a symphony was considered to be, then. Symphonies were abstract architectural forms and composers approached them in a technical sense much the way a poet might write a sonnet: while the form allowed you some flexibility, there was still a “default definition” that had to be adhered to. If you started a sonnet that turned itself into a limerick with added syllables per line and perhaps no coherent rhyme scheme, was it any longer a sonnet? Did that make it bad? Should it be called, perhaps, something else?

With the composers writing after Beethoven – beginning with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique written three years after Beethoven’s death – this technical ideal of something easily defined and strictly adhered to (more or less) was swept up in the Age of Romanticism with its emotional response from the senses rather than from the rational, Classical mind – the irrational right-brain taking precedence after the 18th Century’s emphasis of logical left-brain issues.

In this sense, music began moving from the abstract – music as form – to the subjective with its idea of telling a story through music. Berlioz’ “Episode from the Life of an Artist” (his Symphonie fantastique) went deeper into the senses than Beethoven’s 6th Symphony with its “Pleasant Impressions Upon Arriving in the Countryside.” Rather than write symphonies, now, composers began to focus more on “symphonic poems,” an aesthetic concept attributed to Franz Liszt. Ironically, because the concept of “sonata form” was inherently dramatic in terms of its tonal scheme, the contrasting nature of its themes made it attractive to musical characterizations of a story’s cast list or plot synopsis. By reflecting the nature of a personality or the mood of a scene or its setting, composers found they could superimpose their subjective interpretations of music onto the basic premise of sonata form (used in the standard first movement of a symphony). And so now, instead of individual one-movement symphonic poems, composers could write several movements that might serve to augment the initial “story.” This became known as “program music” – music that tells or implies a story.

Tchaikovsky hated “program symphonies” – he complained as much in his letters – yet he wrote three symphonies that he admitted had specific programs even though he never divulged their details, especially in the last one. After writing several one-movement symphonic poems based on Shakespearean plays, he composed a vast four movement work based on Byron’s “Manfred” which he even called “a Symphony in four movements” but which was never numbered as his Symphony No. 5, reminding us that musical terms and definitions may be fairly vague and subjective but sometimes they can be too specific as well.

Perhaps one reason the last three symphonies have succeeded in the popular canon and “Manfred” has not has more to do with the subjective reaction to the music in each work rather than how he handled its form. By Beethoven’s standards, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are structurally speaking not very good symphonies. By text-book analysis, it’s possible “Manfred” (written in 1885) might be a better example of a Symphony but its music is inferior to those symphonic works he composed before and after it (the 4th in 1877, the actual 5th in 1888). For some, it would be a right-brained response to say “this is great music” where a left-brained response might say “this is not great music.” It is, however, a no-brainer to say “this is music that has proven popular through the ages.” Does that make it great? Does it matter?

- - - - -

You can read Part 2 of the post about Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony here.

- Dr. Dick

illustration at top: Photograph of Tchaikovsky taken in 1877, the year he composed his Symphony No. 4.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Youth Symphony's Spring Concert

Tuesday, April 28th, had been a busy day for the Harrisburg Youth Symphony Orchestra (usually abbreviated HYSO): they had a concert that morning at the Susquehanna Township Middle School, then a chance to sit in on a program with “Stuart & Friends” at Whitaker Center (you can read my earlier post about that here) plus two more school concerts that afternoon – at Upper Dauphin’s Middle & Elementary Schools in Elizabethville – before giving their own full “Spring Concert” that evening at the Forum.

So with all that going on during the day – when most professional musicians would want to “rest up” for that evening’s concert – I was surprised at the amount of energy they STILL had by 9:00 that night as they were hurrying out of the back stage area to meet their friends and parents. Of course, they’re teen-agers and bottling that energy has been something their parents and grandparents have been coveting for years, but I’m also speaking in terms of how well they played.

Despite some rough patches at the opening of the “Marriage of Figaro” Overture that opened the concert – it’s a very tricky opening with those soft, scurrying 16th notes everybody plays in unison, not the sort of thing you want to warm up on – but the overall impact of the whole program set in very quickly: they played with confidence and enthusiasm but most importantly with a sense of involvement that made me think classical music’s future is in pretty good hands. Looking around the orchestra, I saw faces of concentration and smiles of joy that, whether or not this is what they want to be doing “when they grow up,” this is what they wanted to be doing right now.

The first four players of the 1st Violin Section all stood up to play the first movement of a concerto Antonio Vivaldi had written for the children of the Venice orphanage where he was the teacher and conductor. So it’s very possible the original performers were the same age – or younger – than these. They each had their chance in the “spotlight” with equally challenging music to play. They also worked as a balanced group of four in front of the rest of the orchestra – along with the principal players of the viola, cello and bass sections who filled out a mini-orchestra within the whole group – but again it was that joy of playing the music that sold it to the audience.

A lot of the music relied on the orchestra’s string players but with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Folk Song Suite” and the ballet music from Gounod’s opera “Faust,” several of the woodwind players had a chance to shine as well.

Most youth orchestras program pieces written for or adapted to players of certain limited skills – not surprising, considering the educational intent and the available talent pool – but this concert consisted of “adult” music taken from the standard professional repertoire.

Like the last movement of Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, a tuneful folksy tour-de-force that sounds easier to play than it really is. It has lots of exposed work for individual players or sections – like the principal trumpet, flute and clarinet players and the whole horn and cello sections. I remember playing this symphony (as a cello-player) when I was in college with a community orchestra made up of amateur and professional musicians plus some students, and we would’ve been happy if our performance had sounded half as good as this one.

The brass section had their chance to shine during the last work on the program, a full-orchestra work-out of great tunes from John Williams’ film scores concocted not for a student orchestra but for a Kennedy Center award ceremony. All of my thoughts about their enthusiasm and joy and involvement – plus an extra does of sheer fun – were now multiplied by realizing this is the fourth concert these kids had played that day!

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

The Harrisburg Youth Symphony is made up of 82 musicians from 20 different schools. 23 of those are seniors who are graduating this year.

Where do you find replacements for that many seniors for next year’s orchestra? I saw Marie Weber who conducts the Harrisburg Junior Youth Orchestra (I knew her from our days in the adult orchestra over 25 years ago) and she very calmly said “you just move people up from the junior orchestra” where they’ve been working very hard on building up their own musical training and experiences.

Of those graduating seniors, conductor Ron Schafer pointed out violinist Rachel Denlinger has been the orchestra’s concertmaster for four consecutive years, something of a record. This is a very key seat in the orchestra’s configuration and the last person, he said, who’d managed that was Carl Iba who has been a member of the Harrisburg Symphony for most of the past 30 years, teaching students who have themselves played in the Youth Symphony.

There is also an annual scholarship, offered in memory of Matthew Skubecz, a student in the orchestra who had died 10 years ago. This year’s winner is violinist Jingwei Li who had been one of the four soloists in the Vivaldi concerto.

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

As the school year is gearing up towards graduation ceremonies and summer vacations, the Harrisburg Youth Symphony has one more free concert – a pops program – at the Strawberry Square Atrium this Saturday afternoon beginning at 12 noon. The Harrisburg Junior Youth Symphony will be holding its spring concert the next day, Sunday May 17th, at Lower Dauphin High School auditorium.

Who’s in the audience for these concerts? Mostly the parents and families of the musicians on the stage. They get a chance to hear what their child has been working on individually at home and find out how it fits into the “team structure” of the full orchestra.

I estimated there were probably 250-275 people in the Forum for the concert on April 28th, which would average about 3 people per student. I’m not sure the phenomenon of “symphony mom” will ever catch on quite like the “soccer mom” has – and that’s a good thing since the world is already full of “stage moms” (and dads) as it is – but it’s great that students in the arts have this family support behind them. Everywhere I turned there were people with video cameras and cell phones focused on the Forum Stage. As they were filing on-stage before the concert started, one proud father in front of me stood up and started wildly waving his arms to let his daughter know they were there (and the man sitting next to him said “well, I bet she’s thoroughly embarrassed now”).

But after all the enthusiastic applause from the moms and dads, the brothers and sisters and grandparents who had come to hear them play, there should’ve been another round of applause for the families in the audience for supporting their young musicians, driving them back and forth to lessons and rehearsals and putting up with the not very easy task of listening to them practicing every day. Without their love and support, it’s pretty obvious a lot of these students might not have been on that stage that night. And it was nice to see parents as enthusiastic about what their children were doing and as proud of their accomplishments as if it had been a winning football team.

- Dr. Dick