Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – which Philippe Quint will be performing with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend (you can read Ellen Hughes' interview with him in her column at the Patriot-News) – is one of the great violin concertos and certainly one of the most popular in the repertoire. Usually, Beethoven’s and Brahms’ concertos would battle it out for 1st or 2nd place, followed by Mendelssohn’s and Tchaikovsky’s in 3rd or 4th place.

Curiously, each of these composers wrote only one violin concerto though Beethoven published five piano concertos; Brahms and Mendelssohn, both two; and Tchaikovsky officially three, though most people are surprised to find there’s a 2nd and 3rd piano concerto.

Here is the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter talking about the Mendelssohn Concerto, recorded before her 2009 performance with the New York Philharmonic.
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While Mendelssohn solved the problem of applauding after the 1st movement by sustaining a bassoon note which then immediately starts the 2nd movement without a break, and a transition leads from the slow movement into the finale, it makes for some awkward editing between clips, here, but I wanted you to hear different artists, this time, playing the different movements.

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1st Movement… with Erick Friedman and a very-young-looking Seiji Ozawa conducting the London Symphony in this 1966 RCA recording
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2nd Movement… with Julia Fischer and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Ivan Fischer in Paris, 2010

I also like this performance with Itzhak Perlman and David Zinman conducting the New York Philharmonic in a “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcast in 1982 but it can’t be embedded, so check out this link
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3rd Movement… Stefan Jackiw with the 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra

And if you don’t care for the soloist’s facial expressions and “Body English,” check out Jascha Heifetz, performing in 1939 with the California Junior Symphony, from the Oscar-nominated film, “They Shall Have Music.”
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Thinking about those other violin concertos, I thought it might be interesting to point out that, when Mendelssohn was composing his E Minor Concerto for his childhood friend, Ferdinand David (whom he’d invited to Leipzig to become the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra), there weren’t many “great” violin concertos around to act as models.

Mendelssohn's Concerto was given its world premiere in 1845.

Brahms wrote his violin concerto in 1878 and Joachim gave it its world premiere in Vienna on New Year's Day, 1879. Tchaikovsky was also writing his concerto in 1878, though it wasn't premiered until 1881 and then also in Vienna.

Max Bruch's 1st Concerto, another very popular work, was written in 1866. Wieniawski's two concertos were premiered in 1853 and 1862.

However, three of Henri Vieuxtemps' five concertos were written between 1836 and 1844. Paganini wrote his five concertos between 1811 and 1830, but I don't know often they were performed by other violinists: besides, their extreme-bravura style was completely foreign to Mendelssohn's tastes.

One of the most prominent violinists of his day, Ludwig Spohr, something of a stylistic ancestor of Mendelssohn's (following more the path of Mozart than Beethoven, more classical than romantic in a Biedermeier age), published 15 violin concertos between 1806 and 1846, of which No. 8, the Gesangszene (Concerto in the Style of an Operatic Aria), was quite popular in its day.

And, yes, Beethoven wrote his Violin Concerto in 1806 but it quickly sank into oblivion, rarely if ever performed (for whatever reason) until Mendelssohn conducted a performance in London with Joseph Joachim who, at the time, was a month shy of his 13th birthday. This was in 1844. It was only then that other violinists began playing this masterpiece and it officially entered the repertoire.

Mendelssohn told David that he wanted to write him a concerto in 1838 – he already had an opening in E Minor that he couldn’t get out of his head – but it took him about 6 years before he was able to finish it. In the process, he worked carefully with David about technical aspects of the soloist’s part, but other commitments and tours and Mendelssohn’s own self-doubts kept him from working on it. He completed the concerto in September, 1844, but even up until the premiere the following March (which he was unable to conduct due to illness), he kept tinkering with details.

Consider Mendelssohn had started work on his “Italian” Symphony shortly after an inspiring trip to Italy in 1830 (he was 21), but he never published it during his lifetime, always going back to rewrite it, tinker with a detail here, rewriting the 1st two movements and then considering rewriting the last two, as well. Even by the time he died in 1847, he still had not been ready to finalize it, though he performed it frequently and it was always a success!

By the way, you can read more about Mendelssohn, his life and times at “Mendelssohn’s World,” part of an educational outreach project with Odin Rathnam and his West Branch Music Festival from 2009. This focused primarily on the Octet which Mendelssohn composed when he was 16, and a few other works for a performance at Harrisburg High School. Here, for instance is a condensed biography of the composer, and a post about the Mendelssohn houses in Berlin.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mozart's 'Jupiter' - Beautiful. Complex. Amazing.

This weekend the Harrisburg Symphony’s concert will conclude with one of the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, the “Jupiter” Symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (you can read more about the reality behind the music in this earlier post).

 Usually, when I post video clips, I try to find reasonably good performances, preferably live concerts (rather than recordings presented with pretty but often unrelated visual images superimposed on the music).

This time, I offer you two versions.

The first one, complete in a single clip, with Zubin Mehta conducting an uncredited Russian orchestra recorded for Russian TV (no explanation in what I can find for the larger-than-life photo of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – perhaps it was a concert given as a memorial tribute following his death in 2007?).
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The second is with Matthias Bammert and the London Classical Players which includes the complete score for each movement, for those of you who enjoy following along with the printed music (even if you can’t read music, sometimes it’s just amazing to “see” what music looks like, the ‘script’ which musicians turn into the sounds you listen to).
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1st Mvmt
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2nd Mvmt (the slow movement)
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3rd Mvmt (the Minuet & Trio)
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4th Mvmt (the Finale)
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I’d ask you, especially those of you who are musicians or music students, to pay particular attention to the last minute of the last movement, beginning at 10:50. It is one of the most amazing passages in classical music.

Up till then, we’ve heard an overflowing abundance of themes – actually, theme-like ideas built out of small recognizable motives. It might be easier to think of them as gestures. There’s the long sustained whole notes that is the main “theme” of this movement

which you can hear recurring throughout the movement. It’s often called a “cross motive” because the notes rise and then fall back, creating, in a symbolic sense, the shape of a cross. Consequently, it was often found in liturgical music, as Mozart (and other composers) had used it before.

The next “gesture” occurs at 0:17, starting in the 2nd measure, a tag at the end of the 1st theme’s first phrase. Then, at 0:32, Mozart begins a four-voice fugue based on that 1st theme: note the accompaniment underneath the whole notes at 0:36.

At 0:49, starting in the 1st violins (four lines up from the bottom), there’s a rising scale – 6th measure of this frame – in the violins, underneath the whole-note motive. This is then repeated, each time starting on a lower pitch (a sequence).

Then, at 0:56, the violins and flutes repeat the “gesture” heard at 0:17 above, the theme’s closing tag, a descending, basically scale-like passage. Notice how the lower strings are a measure behind the violins.

This brings us to the official 2nd Theme at 1:06 – contrastingly gentle – now modulated to the expected key of G major – in the 1st Violins (m.5 of this frame). But also notice the little chuckling downward leaps in the oboe in the 7th measure followed by the rising scalar gesture in the bassoons in the next measure which lies underneath the flute version of that descending “closing tag” gesture from the 1st Theme.

Notice also, how that little rising figure at 1:17 plays “tag” between the flute and bassoons.

This leads up to a more emphatic version of the 2nd theme at 1:23 (7th measure). From here, the opening of the 2nd Theme spills over with the descending scale-like passage from the 1st Theme’s tag.

At 1:43 (1st measure), the 2nd theme’s closing gesture wraps up the Exposition of this Sonata Form’s first section. This leads to the 1st Theme’s tag (2:00, 7th measure) but notice now how the basses maintain the descending pattern but this is answered by the violins’ ascending version.

Then, Mozart marks for this opening section to be repeated so you have a chance to let it all sink in on a second hearing.

Now the “Development” begins – with different fragments of the themes appearing juxtaposed and contrasting with each other. The harmonic tension here is much stronger than what we’ve heard before, and the sense of tonal stability (what key we’re in) is very unsettled until we reach 5:41 (8th measure).

This begins the “Recapitulation” where the themes return, resolving all the fragmented tension, back in the original key of C Major.

But, by 5:50, instead of continuing as it had in the Exposition, Mozart takes a hold of that cross-motive and expands it, moving it away from C Major. The drama isn’t over yet! Then at 6:05 (9th measure), that rising scale gesture comes back and everything seems to be back to normal, the theme’s concluding tag following along as expected (6:14, 7th measure).

At 6:22, the 2nd Theme returns as expected, but now it’s in the original key of C Major (as it should be, according to text-book sonata form), complete with the woodwind chuckles based on other fragmentary gestures as before. As it continues, at 6:34 to 6:41, listen how these fragments start piling up, spilling all over each other. At 6:59 (4th measure), the expected conclusion of the 2nd Theme should round out the Recapitulation.

(Mozart marks the Development & Recapitulation to be repeated also, but this is often not observed. The bad edit here is perhaps because the recording did not take the repeat…)

At 8:39, once again, the Recapitulation begins and continues as above.

Now, at 10:37, we move into the “Coda,” or “tail-piece” of the sonata form movement. Notice how it begins with whole notes but not the same as they are in the 1st Theme: here (at 10:41, 7th measure), it’s an inversion of the main motive: instead of a step up, it’s a step down; instead of a third up, it’s a fourth down; instead of a step down, now it’s a step up.

Then begins one of the most amazing passages in all of classical music.

I say this in all seriousness because, as a composer who took counterpoint classes, I know how difficult this is – not just for me, but apparently for any other composer. What you’re going to experience in the next TWENTY-FOUR SECONDS – that’s all it takes – is an example of “Quintuple Invertible Counterpoint” which means there are five independent lines (melodic, motivic gestures in this case) which can serve as melody, as bass-line and as accompaniment in any position of those five lines.

What does that mean?

Think 4 lines with Soprano, Alto, Tenor & Bass in a choir, only here there are 5 of them. Harmonically, each line has to be a functional bass. Melodically, each line has to be independently differentiated so you can recognize it. Linearly, each line has to work with every other line simultaneously so as not to create theoretical errors like “parallel fifths and octaves” which are the 18th Century's equivalent of a hair in your soup.

If you’ve even taken 1 semester of harmony in school, you’ll know how hard it is to write TWO lines and not have parallel fifths! Well, this isn’t really five times as hard, it’s more like five times exponentially, or at least that what it seems like.

This is the only example in all of classical music of “Quintuple Invertible Counterpoint.” Not Brahms, not Beethoven, not even Bach, the master of all contrapuntal skills, ever wrote Quintuple Invertible Counterpoint. I’m not even sure there are any Quartuple invertible counterpoint out there and very few examples of Triple Invertible Counterpoint.

That’s why this little passage, which can go by in a flash, is so amazing.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that it sounds so absolutely natural, like falling off a log, without calling attention to itself and so can be completely overlooked by anybody who’s listening to it.

Quintuple Invertible Counterpoint from Mozart's "Jupiter," color-coded

Each fragment, each of these five lines, comes around in each of the five positions, from top to bottom. The easiest one to follow is, of course, the whole note Cross Motive and it’s unfortunate that many conductors get to this and let it blast out in such a triumphant conclusion you can’t even hear the other voices, much less what they’re doing.

It begins at 10:52 (up-beat to the 3rd measure) with the dramatic version of the 2nd Theme (the blue highlight, above) in the violas while the cellos, basses, horns and bassoons play the main theme’s Cross Motive (pink) in whole notes.

As these move on to other voices, the lower strings play the rising scale-line sequence (green) to which is added the little “oboe chuckle,” a wide-spaced downward leaping gesture (grayish purple) first heard around 1:06. This is usually associated with the upward scale pattern but it also appears independently.

At 11:03, in the cellos (2nd line from the bottom) in the 2nd-5th measures, is the tag-theme from the end of the 1st Theme (yellow) with its dotted rhythm followed by descending scale-like pattern.

It all wraps up at 11:16 as it resolves into straightforward harmony to firmly establish a simpler texture for the final chords in C Major at 11:44 with a triumphant celebration every bit as joyous and vidtorious as the ending of Beethoven’s 5th.

Obviously, Mozart didn't start composing this movement and then say "Let me try to cram all these different themes together into this cool contrapuntal mash-up at the end." It could never work that way. He must have started with a few motives, worked out the details, sketched this passage then distributed the motives through the different parts of this sonata-form movement, using it here and there as it fit in with the rest of it.

Still, the technical wizardry is astounding.

Beethoven’s 5th (which the orchestra played last month) is a very human drama with a very human victory at its conclusion. Mozart’s “Jupiter,” especially considering what was going on in his life at the time he composed it, is by comparison more like something divine if no less universal. All the more incredible for being so easily accessible and yet at the same time being one of the most complex examples of fugal writing ever written!

Perhaps that’s why it deserves to be called the “Jupiter” Symphony.

- Dick Strawser

Mozart's Jupiter: The Reality Behind the Art

This weekend - Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00 at the Forum - the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, will perform one of the great symphonies of the classical repertoire, the final symphony Mozart composed. It has always been called "The Jupiter" Symphony but that lofty title - more applicable to the Roman god than the vast planet named after him - might seem a contradiction to the time of Mozart's life when it was composed.

(You can check out two different performances of the complete symphony on this post.)

If Gustav Holst’s Jupiter (in his orchestral suite, The Planets) was “The Bringer of Jollity,” Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ could be the Expression of Exuberance. The finale by itself is one of the most joyous musical encounters a concert-goer could experience.

When Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who brought Haydn to London, first called this symphony “The Jupiter” not long after Mozart died, he was thinking more of the lofty quality both of its classical construction as well as its spirit – but mostly because one half-minute-long passage just before the ending is so incredibly complex and yet so thoroughly natural sounding, only a genius could have pulled it off. (You can take a tour through the "Jupiter" Symphony's last movement as part of this earlier post.)

a page from the original manuscript of the 'Jupiter' Symphony

Salomon may have had something to do with the genesis of this symphony. Born in Bonn and a violinist and composer pursuing a career in London, he had branched out into the “presenter” business in an age when public concerts were still a fairly new idea. In the late-1780s, he appeared in Vienna with the intent of taking Mozart off to London for a series of concerts with performances of his piano concertos, symphonies, operas and chamber music. Unfortunately, at the time, Mozart was bogged down with work and unwilling to leave his wife Constanze (who was frequently in ill health) and the children behind. So instead, Salomon asked Haydn.

The idea was that Mozart, who was in his early-30s, would be around to ask for some later time when his schedule could be better planned. Certainly, the income he would’ve received from this venture would have been immensely helpful, considering Mozart’s constant financial issues during these years of his life.

This was not the first time a trip to London had been considered. Friends of his invited him to give concerts there in 1787 but nothing came of it. I can find no specific date attached to Salomon’s invitation to Mozart but the London Impresario made several trips to Vienna before Haydn accepted his offer.

Haydn, meanwhile was in his late-50s and though “middle-aged” by today’s standards, he was essentially looking at his eventual retirement. In fact, this London burst was to cap his symphonic career and inspire the last phase of his creative life which produced two great oratorios influenced by the works of George Frederic Handel, who was unknown in Vienna at the time but a mainstay of England’s choral life.

Haydn’s first season proved so successful, he was invited to return for a second season a few years later – and as a result, we have a dozen symphonies known collectively as “The London Symphonies.”

When Haydn left for London in December, 1790, Mozart told his friend tearfully he was afraid this was the last time they would see each other. The assumption was Haydn, given his age, might not survive the long trip across Europe.

Unfortunately, a year later while Haydn was still in England, Mozart died at the age of 35.

Imagine – in that eternally wistful game of “What If…?” – if Mozart had gone to London that first time instead and written a dozen symphonies, perhaps another opera or two and a few more concertos for the English audiences?

After Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781 with dreams of conquering the musical world as a pianist and opera composer, he wrote few symphonies. Most of the earlier symphonies he’d composed were expansions of the old three-part opera overture, not the lofty forms we think of following the ones by Beethoven or Brahms we hear so frequently today. In fact, most of Haydn’s symphonies are more than what the general Viennese public would’ve been interested in: too intellectual and, perhaps, a problem for people interested in entertainment who had what we might call “short attention spans.” Haydn wrote many symphonies only because his patron, Prince Esterhazy, enjoyed them and liked showing off his court composer for his guests. If Haydn had been a free-lancer in Vienna like Mozart was, he probably would’ve written symphonies only for foreign tours or visiting dignitaries.

We don’t know why Mozart wrote his last three symphonies, each one a masterpiece and collectively the finest symphonies (if not the greatest works) he ever composed.

In the summer of 1788, during what seemed like a creative lull from his other commissions, Mozart sat down and wrote these three symphonies with no apparent immediate chance of their being performed. In fact, only one of them was performed in his lifetime – the G Minor, No. 40 – and it’s very likely no one heard the “Jupiter” until after Mozart died in 1791.

Consider this: he finished the E-flat Symphony (No. 39) on June 26th, the G Minor Symphony (No. 40) on July 25th and the C Major Symphony (No. 41, the “Jupiter”) on August 10th, sixteen days later!

Could this incredible masterpiece have been written in only 16 days or was he working on it while writing the other two, that they all came out more or less simultaneously during a two-month period?

Consider also what else he was writing that same summer:

Piano Trio in E, K.542 (completed June 22, 1788)
Symphony in E-flat, K.543 (June 26)
March in D, K.544
Piano Sonata in C, K.545 (a popular piece for students, famously known as the “Facile”)
Adagio & Fugue in C Minor for String Quartet, K.546
Violin Sonata in F, K.547
Piano Trio in C, K.548 (July 14)
Canzonetta for 2 Sopranos & Bass, K.549
Symphony in G Minor, K.550 (July 25)
Symphony in C Major, K.551 (August 10, later dubbed the “Jupiter”)
Divertimento in E-flat for String Trio, K.563 (September 27)

It must have caused Mozart considerable anguish to have to turn down a lucrative opportunity like a season of London concerts. In the fall of 1790, another London agent (“closely associated with the Prince of Wales”) offered Mozart 2,400 florins to present concerts and new works in London – ironically, he would have been there at the same time Haydn was!

According to what Maynard Solomon reports in his biography, Mozart’s income in 1786, the year of The Marriage of Figaro and a successful series of benefit concerts (known as “academies”), was between 2,604 and 3,704 florins. The following year, when Don Giovanni was premiered in Prague, he earned at least 3,321 florins.

But in 1788, after Don Giovanni flopped in Vienna, he earned only 1,385 florins with the possibility of at least another 675 florins (a total of 2,060).

Clearly, if Salomon could offer him anything close to what Mozart was offered two years later, it would’ve been more than his complete annual income!

Reading his biography, it seems Mozart spent his whole life trying to find a reasonable court position, his father Leopold starting to take him around as a child of 6 hoping to impress some aristocrat to take notice of the boy. Knowing what we know of Mozart’s music now, it seems incredible that no one would have offered him a job when most of those composers who had those jobs – like his father or, more importantly, like Salieri – are today considered non-entities and rarely appear on concert programs and then, probably, only in some Mozart-oriented context.

In 1788, then, the Emperor offered him what we would consider a pittance to compose nothing more than dance music – not symphonies, not concertos, not operas, not string quartets, but strings of delightful dances for the winter season balls.

Letter to Puchberg, June 27, 1788
Thinking of budgets and life-style changes in today’s economy, Mozart, never very good at handling money (his father had always done that for him and, truth be told, kept the profits from all those childhood tours for himself), was forced to economize. Enjoying a lifestyle conducive to aristocratic Vienna, Mozart had considerable difficulties living within his means and he began writing a series of letters which make pitiful reading, especially to Michael Puchberg (whom he probably met at the masonic lodge), begging for loans. Starting in the summer of 1788, Puchberg loaned him 1,450 florins over the next three years, 1,000 of which were still outstanding when Mozart died.

In December, 1787, the Mozarts moved into a more economical apartment. Their fourth child, a daughter, Theresia, was born a few days after Christmas. But in June of 1788, a month after Don Giovanni failed to attract much attention in its Viennese premiere, Theresia died 12 days after they’d moved to a cheaper neighborhood in the suburb of Alsergrund (now part of central Vienna) which, curiously, is where Schubert would be born in 1797 and where Beethoven would die in 1827.

So, if we add the reality of Mozart’s Life to the list of works he composed that summer:

May 7: Don Giovanni opens in Vienna (though it plays for 15 performances, it is basically a flop)
June 17: Mozart moves to a cheaper apartment in the Alsergrund suburb
June 17: Mozart writes a letter to Puchberg asking for a loan of 1- or 2,000 florins (Puchberg sends him 200 florins, barely enough to cover the back-rent)
June 26: Mozart completes the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K.543
June 27: Mozart writes another, more insistent letter to Puchberg (see photograph, above), asking for a more substantial sum on a longer-term loan
June 29: daughter Theresia dies at the age of 6 months
Early July: Mozart visits a pawnbroker
July 25: Mozart completes the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550
Late July: last of this summer’s series of letters to Puchberg – at least, no others have survived 
Aug 10: Mozart complete the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K.551, the “Jupiter”

It seems Mozart was planning a series of concerts that fall at a Viennese casino – there being no actual concert halls open to the public as we think of concert venues today – and perhaps these three symphonies were intended for them. He even sent Puchberg two tickets for the series. The concerts brought in 450 florins but the symphonies, so far as we can tell, were not performed there. Some sources indicate the concerts themselves did not take place (or were not successful) for lack of interest – in other words, poor ticket sales.

It is important to realize that, considering the few opportunities concert artists had to earn money from performing in public then, after this summer of 1788 Mozart presented no more public concerts of his own music in Vienna and wrote no more symphonies or piano concertos until the last piano concerto was premiered in 1791 at another musician’s benefit concert.

If only he had gone to London with Salomon…

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Listening to Beethoven's 5th

When we recorded a podcast for the Beethoven 5th Concert, Stuart Malina mentioned a thought-provoking quote from conductor Robert Shaw which should be an inspiration to all performers dealing with works that are well-known or unknown and to all listeners who, tired of hearing the same things all the time, might complain about “not another Beethoven 5th!”

Basically, every time you perform a piece, someone is hearing it for the first time and someone is hearing it for the last time.

We think of Beethoven – especially the composer of this 5th Symphony – as a titan striding across the ages, a universal hero, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived.

In Beethoven’s day, however, it wasn’t quite the same thing.

Maynard Solomon, in the 1998 edition of his biography, lists several composers whose music was more frequently performed (and arguably therefore more popular) in concerts in Vienna in 1806 when he completed his 5th Symphony:

“Mozart, Haydn, Paer, Cherubini, Mayer, Righini and several other fashionable composers.”

I’ve actually heard a bit of Fernando Paer (from his opera, Leonora, the same story Beethoven used for his only opera, Fidelio). Simon Mayer (or Mayr) wrote not 9 but 57 symphonies, not 1 but almost 70 operas.

Vincenzo Righini, I had to look up: I knew him as a footnote because he wrote a setting of the Don Giovanni legend ten years before Mozart did. A prominent composer, he replaced Salieri as court composer in Vienna in 1787 before moving on to Berlin. (There is an asteroid named “9427 Righini” discovered in 1996, but I tend to doubt it’s named after the composer.)

It makes you wonder, considering the endurance of Paer, Mayer and Righini, who some of the “other fashionable composers” were. It also makes you wonder about the fleetingness of fame and the fine line between posterity and oblivion.

But we also have to think about concert-life in Vienna then and what we know of concert-life now.

Public concerts were still a fairly new and not very common occurrence. Most of the performances we read about in Beethoven’s biography were what we’d call “private performances” or “house concerts,” a concert held by, say, Count Rasumovsky, the Imperial Ambassador from the Russian Empire, with his in-house string quartet who would play Beethoven’s latest string quartets (say, those known as “The Rasumovsky Quartets”) for his guests. Or perhaps Prince Lobkowitz, another aristocratic fan and patron of Beethoven’s who might hire an orchestra to perform before his friends and invited guests.

Public concerts were called “Academies” – the origin of the name of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields which first gathered to rehearse at that famous church – and were usually special events or benefit concerts for famous artists. These were expensive ventures and needed the backing of various organizations to mount them: in 1807, Beethoven’s music was heard in three such concerts given by other artists.

Yet Beethoven was a popular composer, it would seem: Beethoven’s early biographer Thayer wrote that, in 1808, “it was Beethoven’s popularity that must insure success to the grand concerts for the public charities; it was his name that was known to be more attractive to the Vienna public than any other, save that of the venerable Haydn” (who, though no longer composing, still lived in Vienna a revered icon – he died the following year).

Orchestra concerts were generally handled through aristocratic circles. The piano recital as we know it did not exist outside the salons of the wealthy.

And if public concerts and the opera houses tended to cater to “fashionable composers” like Mayer and Reghini, they were also in the business of selling tickets, not promoting new music, whether we think it’s great or not.

It was the aristocrats – the social elite – who would be most inclined to “like” Beethoven’s fan page on Gesichtsbuch, had there been such a thing as social networking in those days.

Whether it was the novelty of it, the idea of being “up” with the latest trends or a genuine interest in the new music of the day, the aristocracy seemed to be the so-called elite group of “life-long classical music aficionados” even though they might not actually “understand” it. Even if they didn’t, at least they supported it. In a time when posterity was not a generally understood concept, they did a lot for today’s life-long classical music aficionados – without them, it’s quite possible Beethoven’s music would not have survived.

Conjecture, of course – but then posterity has not been kind to his “more popular” contemporaries, composers like Paer, Mayer and Righini who continued creating newer works in a circular commercial world: popular acclamation, better box office, begat more new works.

Without getting completely into the history of concerts, Beethoven only gave two of these public “academies” during his career. The second one was that famous marathon in December, 1808, which saw the premieres of the 5th & 6th Symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto, the newly-published concert aria, “Ah, Perfido!”, selections from the C Major Mass and, since he’d already engaged the choir, added the Choral Fantasy as a hot-off-the-press bonus just for the occasion. This concert was four hours long, there was a problem with the heat, the audience (and you can imagine, the players) were exhausted and it was prepared with only one rehearsal! At one point in the Choral Fantasy, they had to stop and start over again. Apparently, there were no critical reviews from this concert.

A second performance of the 5th Symphony a year and a half later was reviewed for the leading German-language periodical, the Leipzig-based Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (General Musical Journal) by E.T.A. Hoffman,

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“Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.”
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Also in 1810, in a separate article, Hoffman wrote about Beethoven’s new symphony,

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“How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord — indeed, even in the moments that follow it — he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound…”
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On the other hand, an anonymous French critic – Slonimsky’s wonderful Lexicon of Musical Invective does not mention the work in question – wrote in 1810,

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“Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque” [in the original sense of the word used to describe a misshapen pearl, rather than the period of Bach and Handel], “takes at time the majestic flight of an eagle and then creeps in rocky pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.”
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In 1843 – 35 years after the 5th’s premiere and 16 years after Beethoven’s death – Alexander Ulybyshev, a Russian writer about music published this passage in his “New Biography of Mozart,” writing about that transition from the Scherzo to the blaze of C Major that triumphantly opens the finale:

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“There is a strange melody which combined with a stranger harmony of a double pedal point in the bass on G and C, produces a sort of odious meowing and discords to shatter the least sensitive ear.”
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Fourteen years later, Ulybyshev wrote this in a critical essay about Beethoven, about the same passage:

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“Here you have a fragment of 44 measures where Beethoven deemed it necessary to suspend the habeas corpus of music by stripping it of all that might resemble melody, harmony and any sort of rhythm… Is it music, yes or no? If I am answered in the affirmative, I would say this does not belong to the art which I am in the habit of considering as music.”
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Outside Vienna, the number of performances of Beethoven’s music grew slowly. In the Austrian city of Graz, what was probably his 2nd Symphony was performed in 1805 at one of their Liebhaber Concerts (technically, liebhaber is the German equivalent of amateur, one who “has love” for something, as opposed to kenner, one who “has knowledge” or technical understanding of something). Four years later, the listeners of Graz had a chance to hear two more symphonies, the “Eroica” and the recently premiered “Pastorale.”

While his music – especially his Septet Op.21 (admittedly Beethoven’s first big “hit”)but also his piano concertos and the 1st Symphony – were entering the standard repertoire across Germany. England, however, seemed quite taken with his music: the first two symphonies were already played by 1803, and by two years later, ten performances of major works of his were played in London.

On the other hand, between 1802 and 1807, none of his pieces were performed in Paris. As he wrote to a friend, “The French find my music beyond their powers of performance.” If the 1st Symphony had been performed once by 1811, there were very few performances of anything until the late-1820s.

And yet the first performance of a Beethoven symphony in the United States took place in (surprisingly) Lexington, Kentucky on Nov.17, 1817, led by the Bohemian-born composer/conductor/violinist Anton Philip Heinrich who walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to take up a post as a theatrical director there, only to discover the job had been cancelled for lack of funds and so decided, rather than walking back, he would take a riverboat down the Ohio and try his luck elsewhere. We’re not sure if this was the 1st or the 5th Symphony, but when Heinrich, now settled in New York City, chaired the committee that founded what became the New York Philharmonic in 1842, the very first concert they performed included Beethoven’s 5th. 

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A famous passage in the novel, Howards End by Englishman E.M. Forster, published in 1910, describes the reaction of the Schlegel family – including the two leading female characters, sisters Margaret and Helen, their music-loving younger brother and their aunt – to a concert where the orchestra is performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

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It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come-- of course, not so as to disturb the others--or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is echt Deutsch; or like Fraulein Mosebach's young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen's Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap….

“For the Andante had begun--very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen's mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Queen's Hall, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight struck. "How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!" thought Helen. Here Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more, and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said "Heigho," and the Andante came to an end. Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and pracht volleying from the German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
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E.M. Forster, Howards End, excerpt from Chapter 5 

-- Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Student Tickets: Hearing Beethoven's 5th Live

Do you know someone who’s never heard a live performance of Beethoven’s 5th before? They’ve probably heard it, maybe not even known they’ve heard it (or parts of it).

In fact, if you watched the Super Bowl or saw the polar bears’ commercial for Coca-Cola, yes, you’ve heard Beethoven’s 5th – or bits of it – and probably even weren’t aware of it (it wasn’t the famous opening bit, so…).

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What better way to introduce young listeners to great classical music-making than by taking them to hear Beethoven’s 5th this weekend at the Forum – Saturday evening between 8-10pm, or Sunday afternoon between 3-5pm.

Since this weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony is part of the symphony’s “Education Week,” it’s a good time to point out that students and children can receive a 50% discount off any single ticket prices.

“Student Rush” tickets at $5.00 are also available on a limited basis a half hour before each Masterworks and Capital Blue Cross Pops performance with the presentation of a valid student ID.

While student tickets are not available on-line, you can get them at the door or in advance by calling the symphony office at (717) 545-5527.

While people of certain ages may remember “seeing” Beethoven’s 5th as part of the Disney Animated Film, “Fantasia 2000”
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…or as a backdrop to an argument on that old TV classic from the ‘50s with Sid Ceasar and Nanette Fabray (recorded on live TV in one take)
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…or one of my all-time favorites, Peter Schickele’s “New Horizons in Music Appreciation” which approaches the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th broadcast as if it were a baseball game (“a beautiful night for a concert, not a cloud in the ceiling…” – next time you’re in the Forum, look up)
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But have you heard the entire symphony performed live by an orchestra in a concert hall?

Here’s a video of the entire symphony in a performance with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic conducted by Heinrich Schiff.
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You can read more about the Bartok Divertimento and the Schumann Concert Piece for 4 Horns on the program at earlier posts. - Dick Strawser

Robert Schumann & the Nest of Hornists

Back in the days when I worked in radio, I introduced the soloist for a Mozart Horn Concerto as a hornist which my co-host for that evening’s fundraising questioned – he’d never heard that word before. All I remember saying was “There are nests of them in every orchestra.”

Solo concertos for the horn are rare enough but I know of no other piece that allows the whole nest of hornists in an orchestra to step out into the solo spotlight.

This weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – the Four Hornists of the Harrisburg Symphony, Sara Cyrus, Leise Ballou, Geoffrey Pilkington (the new guy) and William Hughes (I can just hear them all buzzing their mouthpieces as they warm up backstage) get a chance to perform as a “group soloist” in a very unusual work by Robert Schumann.

Since it’s demanding enough to be “like” a concerto but maybe different enough from an actual concerto, despite the collective demands on the performers in the soloist’s spotlight, Schumann called it a Konzertstück or “Concert Piece” instead, an amorphous-sounding title which he’d used before for works that did include a soloist with the orchestra but which weren’t of the scope of an all-out concerto even though it’s in three movements. Some people say it’s because all three movements blend together without the traditional “between-the-movements” break where everybody wonders should they applaud or not. But then, Mendelssohn did that with his Violin Concerto and Schumann later did it with his 4th Symphony, all played without pause, and they’re still considered no less a concerto or a symphony because of it.

There are not many performances of the Schumann Concert Piece for 4 Horns available, but this one is one of the best from a live concert performance. James Judd conducts the Galicia Symphony Orchestra with guest hornist Radovan Vlatkovic joining three members of the orchestra, José Vicente Castelló, Miguel Angel Garza and Manuel Moya. - - - - - - - -
1st Movement - - - - - - - -
2nd Movement - - - - - - - -
3rd Movement - - - - - - - -

And I’m not even sure why Robert Schumann wrote it in the first place: there was no commission or request that initiated it and I don’t think he was close friends with a bunch of horn-players that he wrote it specifically for them. True, his last gig was music director for the city of Düsseldorf but he didn’t apply for that post until eight months after he completed it. At the time he wrote it – sketching it between February 18th-20th, 1849, and completing the orchestration by March 11th – he was living in Dresden where Wagner was the conductor of the Royal Saxon Opera which had a fine orchestra with, no doubt, fine hornists. But it was an unlikely performance outlet for Schumann, politically on the outs not only with Wagner (he had recently finished Lohengrin) but with the whole arts scene in Dresden which had very little sympathy for his music.

Perhaps the answer lies in a trip to Leipzig, four hours away. It wasn’t until July, 1849, four months after he’d finished the Konzertstück, that he started putting feelers out for a job there, thinking the directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus would be open (his friend Mendelssohn had died suddenly almost two years earlier) which turned out not to be the case.

In November, then, he applied for the job in Düsseldorf – resident conductor and music director of the town’s orchestra and choral society – a post a friend of his was just leaving. Schumann had little enthusiasm for the town or its cultural life (Mendelssohn had been very disparaging about it after he'd conducted there). Schumann was also perturbed by the fact there was a “lunatic asylum” there, the result of a deep-seated fear of things relating to insanity that afflicted him since his childhood. He put off accepting the offer they made him until April, 1850, mostly on the hopes that the Dresden Opera might take him on as “second conductor,” since Wagner had recently fled the city, labeled a traitor for his albeit minor part in Dresden’s May ’49 insurrection. Schumann hoped a previously postponed premiere of his new opera Genoveva in Leipzig might help clinch the deal.

Unfortunately, Leipzig chose to postpone the opera again – bringing in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete was deemed better box-office – this time until June. Other concerts he and his wife, Clara, performed at that time met with mixed reviews. Clara gave the premiere of a new concert-piece for piano and orchestra, the Introduction and Allegro appassionato in G Major on Valentine’s Day and it met with little success. However, another concert eleven days later – with the composer conducting the new opera’s overture and the Konzertstück for 4 Horns – met with “general enthusiasm.”

After other concerts around Germany, the Schumanns returned to Dresden disheartened by the lack of job options and on April 1st, he sent the good folks of Düsseldorf a letter accepting their post though he was still hoping he might find a better job closer to Dresden.

This job-move proved to be a turning point in Schumann’s life. Though Dresden had been frustrating (it’s not clear why they even settled there in 1844 in the first place, a stuffy, old-fashioned court city without the vibrant musical life Leipzig offered), it was at least a productive time for Schumann. In a period of five months, he wrote these works:

Advent Song (for chorus & orchestra) – sketched Nov. 25th-30th, 1848; finished score Dec. 19th
Bilder aus Osten (Pictures from the East) based on Rückert poems inspired by Arabic poetry (for two pianos) – Dec. 26th  
Waldscenen Forest Scenes, Op. 82 (piano solo) – Dec. 29th-Jan. 6th, 1849
Touching up final score of the opera, Genoveva – Jan.
Phantasiestücke Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 (originally for clarinet & piano) – Feb. 11th-12th
Adagio and Allegro for horn & piano, Op. 70 – Feb. 14-17
Konzertstück for Four Horns & Orchestra, Op. 86 – sketched Feb 18th-20th; orchestration completed by Mar. 11th
Several Romances and Ballades for women’s choir (including Op. 67 & 73) – Mar. 6th-16th
Two additional sets of Romances for women’s choir (Op. 69 & 91) – Mar. 17th-22nd
The Spanisches Liederbuch, Spanish Songbook, Op. 74 (solo songs, duets and quartets) – Mar. 8th-24th
Revisions to the Piano Trios in D Minor & F Major in preparation for publication – completed Apr. 9th
Five Pieces in Folk Style for Cello & Piano – Apr. 13th-15th
Began work on the Liederalbum für die Jugend, Song Album for the Young, Op. 79 – Apr. 21st

This was interrupted by the May Uprising, the Dresden Revolution which was part of a series of popular anti-monarchical revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848 and 1849 (think a European version of last year’s “Arab Spring”).

Wagner was a political rabble-rouser, writing numerous pamphlets in support of overthrowing his boss, the Saxon monarch (or naively insisting he should become the “first among Republicans”), and presumably seeing action during the street fighting. Schumann, though like-minded politically, was not a fighter. In fact, when the provisional government of the revolution called on every able-bodied man to fight for the cause, Clara Schumann helped hide her husband when the militia appeared at their door: they escaped through the backdoor into the garden with only one of their children, leaving town by train and then on foot to a friend’s at a safe distance from Dresden. That evening, Schumann composed the Frühlingslied (Spring Song) from the collection of Songs for the Young, Op. 79, No. 18! (Talk about a composer being able to compartmentalize reality from creativity!)

Meanwhile, Clara and two other women left at 3am to return to Dresden and fetch the rest of the children in the middle of an all-night battle. Incidentally, Clara was pregnant at the time, giving birth to a son two months later!!

Three days after the revolution was crushed (and Wagner fled town with a charge of treason on his head), Schumann completed the Songs for the Young, Op. 79.

In addition to this – despite a brief period of depression around his 39th birthday in June – Schumann also composed a number of songs to poems of Goethe (in preparation for the impending centennial celebration) including Kennst du das Land and Mignon’s other songs from Wilhelm Meister as well as the Requiem for Mignon. In July, he began setting several scenes from Faust which he completed the following month.

Even though his wife Clara was a busy concertizing pianist and regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the day, Robert’s writing time ruled the roost: Clara could only practice when Robert was not composing which meant she had no time in the morning or afternoon. His routine included going out at 6pm to for a walk and stopping at the tavern to have a beer with friends before returning home at 8pm for dinner. That’s when Clara could practice.

One of her students would help her then with the children. That year, there were four children (another one had recently died in infancy), another was born two months after that May '49 revolt, with two more born in Düsseldorf (she was pregnant with her eighth child when her husband attempted suicide in 1853). There were two or three servants whom she oversaw so at least she didn’t have to cook the dinner and vacuum the rugs, too…

Obviously, this was a very busy time for Robert, writing fast and furiously as he often did – and not surprisingly there would come a time (as happened in the past with his manic bursts of compositional concentration) when everything would crash. But over the next three years, now unhappily situated in Düsseldorf after all, while the number of works may have decreased in quantity, many view these later works as a “diminution of his creative powers.”

Considering he wrote the Cello Concerto in A Minor, a very dark work but also one of the first cello concertos by a major 19th Century composer to remain in the repertoire, in two weeks and then immediately began the “Rhenish” Symphony which he completed five weeks later, this is hardly a time where everything turned out to be disappointments.

But then these final years of Robert Schumann become a whole different, very new and extremely sad chapter in his life (not just his own attempted suicide and eventual death a few years later in one of those “lunatic asylums” he so feared), compared to the years in Dresden that culminated in this burst of works that included in the flow this delightful but curious work for four horns and orchestra.

One could almost forget, listening back on all this music he composed, what was waiting around the corner…

- Dick Strawser

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The photo is an uncredited photograph, taken on-stage at the Forum following a recent concert, that accompanied a mention of this weekend's concert in the Harrisburg Patriot-News' on-line edition.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bartók's Divertimento: Behind the Scenes

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs the Divertimento for Strings by Béla Bartók (along with Schumann's Concert Piece for four horns and Beethoven's 5th Symphony). Stuart Malina conducts the concert, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. You can hear the podcast Stuart and I recorded on Tuesday, talking about the program here - click on the link that says 'Podcast.' On this earlier post, you can watch video clips of the complete works on the program.

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(Me interviewing Peter Bartok via Skype at Gretna Music)
About a year ago, I had the amazing experience of interviewing Béla Bartók’s son, Peter Bartók, for a performance of all six Bartók String Quartets at Gretna Music’s winter series at Elizabethtown College, made possible by the wonders of Skype. I read Peter’s memoir called “My Father” and talked with him about what it was like growing up with a composer like Béla Bartók.

Even though he had started studying with piano with him as a boy (the series of Mikrokosmos began as teaching-pieces for his lessons), Peter never became a proficient musician, though he is a highly acclaimed recording engineers who has been busy with his father’s musical legacy in both recordings and publications.

Most of what we talked about was, therefore, not technical and, since Peter had been born three years after the 3rd String Quartet was composed, not necessarily related to specific works on the program. We talked about Bartók as the man rather than the composer but much of that informs the creative spirit and proved amazingly insightful, especially for an audience who could hear first-hand about a composer they only knew as a composer directly from his son!

It amused me, as someone who has spent too much of his life working in radio broadcasting, that Bartók mistrusted recordings and hated such new-fangled technology as the radio and the phonograph (and also an irony that his son would then grow up to become a recording engineer). Bartók hated the noisy distractions of his neighbors (especially their radios and phonographs) which often distracted him from the limited amount of time he had to compose.

It amused me, thinking of the composer with such a serious-looking face, that they raised rabbits and chickens in their backyard. One summer, while Peter was away visiting his aunt in the countryside, Bartók mentioned his pet rabbits had produced a litter which required him to build them a bigger hutch. Enjoying the outdoors, they would have picnics in the back-yard accompanied by a hen who they had grown too attached to, they were unable to kill her for food.

Once, after listening to a rehearsal at home of his father’s new Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and knowing how the work was not well received at its premiere, young Peter was 13 or so and asked his father, considering their constant concerns about money, why his dad didn’t write “more like Mozart.” Thinking back on it, Peter said his response was measured but not offended, explaining about things like integrity and hearing one’s own voice.

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One of the first things most people point out about Bartók is that he was greatly influenced by Hungarian folk music. This is true, but it wasn’t always so: his awareness of actual folksong happened when he was in his mid-20s and already recognized as a pianist and composer.

Béla Bartók was born on the edge of the wide Hungarian plain in a small town which is now on the Romanian side of the modern Hungarian border. This plain stretches from Vienna to the Carpathian Mountains (literally, the “Rocky Mountains”) of central Romania, the historical area known as Transylvania (for you vampire fans, there is more to Transylvania than a 15th Century ruler nicknamed Vlad Dracul, “Vlad the Devil” and later “the Impaler” who spawned a whole host of folk legends and literary tales from Bram Stoker to the Twilight Series).

This area of Eastern Europe (the very northern fringe of the Balkans) was a mixture (if not melting pot) of cultures. Bartok’s father, a teacher and director at a local agriculture school, was descended from a family of the lower Hungarian nobility; his mother, was ethnically German-Serbian but spoke fluent Hungarian and, after her husband’s death when their son was seven years old, raised him as Hungarian first. In order to raise her children, Bartók’s mother moved to a town in what is now on the Ukrainian side of the Hungarian border and then to the major city of Pozsony which the Austrians called Pressburg and the Slovakians called Bratislava (it is currently in Slovakia). Bartók gave his first recital there when he was 11 and subsequently the family moved to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where he became a student. There, he met another student named Zoltán Kodály.

Keep in mind at the time, Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire which had only given in to local nationalism in 1867 to become Austria-Hungary with a dual crown and a separate Hungarian government in Budapest.

Most of the official business of the land was conducted in German but Bartók was adamant about never speaking German at home. His first orchestral composition, much inspired by Richard Strauss’ recent (and very German) tone-poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), written when he was 22, celebrated the national hero Kossuth and featured a minor-key parody of the Austrian national anthem to represent their army’s approach to what became the decisive Hungarian defeat during the Revolution of 1848, a touch which guaranteed it would probably not be performed in Vienna. The lengthy and uneven work ends with the sense this revolution wasn’t over, yet. Its Budapest premiere caused a sensation and essentially put the young Bartók on the map (at least, the Hungarian one).

Not long after writing Kossuth, he heard a peasant girl singing a folk-song to some children in her care. For Bartók, this was an ear-opening experience.

Most of what the world knew at that time as Hungarian “folk music” was actually the popular musical style of the Gypsies who were not ethnically Hungarian (though, because of their location, presumed to be). This was the “gypsy” style popularized in the dances of Johannes Brahms and the rhapsodies of Franz Liszt.

But what Bartók heard that afternoon was so different, so haunting and so completely mesmerizing, it was like it opened some distant door into his own personal identity.

A couple of years later, Kodály came back from a trip to Paris, bringing with him music of an “avant-garde” composer unknown in Eastern Europe at the time, Claude Debussy, who’s approach to tonality and the whole-tone scales seemed the perfect antidote to the old-fashioned major/minor scales of German academic tradition. The whole-tone scale, built on nothing but whole-step intervals, unlike the mixture of whole-steps and half-steps of typical classical music, lacked the central pivot of the dominant to tonic motion of traditional tonality. In fact, it was loaded with tritones which where harmonically ambiguous and generally frowned upon by theory teachers (called since medieval times, “the devil in music”).

This discovery opened up whole new possibilities for alternative scales, especially since Hungarian folk music was built on nothing comparable to either Beethoven’s major/minor scales or Debussy’s whole-tone scale. To an audience used to consonant harmonies of Mozart and Schubert with the usual dissonances that resolved in certain excepted ways even in the hands of Brahms or Wagner, Bartók’s “Hungarian Style” still sounds unexpected and, sometimes, uncomfortable.

Technically, Bartók never abandoned the sense of tonality – the fact the music was rooted around a certain central pitch. But once his mature music began exploring the folk music he and Kodály collected across Eastern Europe, his harmony and the notes in between the polarities of his concept of tonality never reflected the old-fashioned status quo.

When a musically conservative friend once complained to me about some of the “dissonant” sounds in Bartók’s chords, asking “why would he do that,” I answered, considering the piece in question was inspired tooth and nail by Hungarian folk dances, perhaps it had something to do with trying to best approximate the sounds and scales of the original folk music which don’t fit easily into the tuning of a modern piano. The jangling sonorities of Hungarian (or Gypsy) cimbaloms is more the result of the way the instrument is tuned and the fact it can, unlike the piano, be tuned in different ways. Singers and string players often used “microtones” or intervals smaller than the half-tones we’re used to not because they’re playing out-of-tune but because that’s the way it sounds.

Much of Bartok’s music from the 1st String Quartet (1908) through his last works written in exile here in the United States, were inspired either directly or indirectly by this folk music, sometimes real and sometimes, as he described it, “imaginary,” by which he meant music that he had composed himself but indistinguishable from the characteristics of authentic folk music.

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Another thing Peter Bartók mentioned about his father was his love of mountains and how, whenever they had the chance, they would vacation in mountainous places. His father loved nature, whether it was his sister’s farm (frogs from the nearby pond found their way into the piano suite Out of Doors, attested to by both sons and much to the surprise of pianists who’ve performed it for years) or these walks in the mountains.

When Bartók was a young and barely promising musician, he fell in love with a young violinist named Stefi Geyer (you can read more about her in this post from my Market Square Concerts blog about his 1st String Quartet) whose family disapproved of the match. He had written a violin concerto for her and, after the break-up, described his next work – this 1st string quartet – as music for his own funeral (ah, young love!).

Fast-forward to the mid-1930s when he was now in his early-50s and his family visited Switzerland: Bartók stopped by to visit Stefi Geyer, then living in Zurich. She was listening to some jazz recordings by Benny Goodman when he arrived and, knowing how he disliked recordings, went to turn the phonograph off. Bartók asked her not to and then continued listening for a while, expressing his admiration for Goodman’s playing.

Within a year or so, Bartók received a request from his friend, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, to compose what eventually became the trio for clarinet, violin and piano called “Contrasts” in 1938. He was also working on one of his most substantial works, the great Violin Concerto which later became “#2” when that earlier, unpublished one, written for Stefi Geyer, surfaced.

But then Bartók hit a snag, his always delicate creativity side-tracked by the growing political tensions in Hungary and in Europe at large in 1938, leading up to World War II: Austria had already been annexed by Hitler’s Germany in March, 1938. Hungary was probably not far behind.

The Swiss Village of Saaren in Summer
Paul Sacher, a famous conductor and advocate for new music, invited Bartók back to Switzerland to stay at his chalet in Saanen, high in the Alps not far from Bern. Part of the deal was, while there, Bartók would compose a new piece for Sacher.

Perhaps the lighter nature of this new piece resulted from the respite from the turmoils of Budapest and the tranquility of the Swiss countryside or the comfortable surrounding and generous commission – when Sacher died in 1999 at the age of 93, he was reputed to be the richest man in Europe, not because of his musical accomplishments, considerable as they were, but because he married the heiress of a major Swiss pharmaceutical company.

The resulting work was the three-movement “Divertimento for Strings” which includes many influences from Bartók’s “imaginary” folk music – the rhythms and melodies of his now distant Hungary, here among the wondrously inspiring mountains of Switzerland Bartók so admired.

But also coloring the work – particularly in the middle movement – was the knowledge that war was inevitable and that soon Bartók would have to leave Hungary. Since Switzerland was also preparing for possible invasion from Hitler’s Germany, perhaps he would need a safer place: London, perhaps?

He was also working on a new string quartet – it ultimately became No. 6, his last – a much different and, on the whole, more world-based work than the more accessible Divertimento. While writing it on this vacation in the Alps, he learned that his beloved mother was dying and the family soon returned to Budapest where he finished the now dolorous string quartet and vowed not to leave Hungary until after his mother’s passing.

Eventually, Bartók and his wife Ditta and their son Peter left for New York City, but that is an entirely different chapter, another story but one of great sadness and considerable loss. His health was not good and he was eventually diagnosed with a form of leukemia, dealing with war-time privations, lack of income from his European performances and general indifference from American audiences, something his new Concerto for Orchestra seemed destined to change. Unfortunately, his health did not permit it.

Peter, who by now was serving in the American Navy as an electrical engineer and stationed in Panama, wrote about his return home, visiting his parents in a small cabin at Saranac Lake where his father was working at the kitchen table (for lack of space), writing the Viola Concerto until Ditta would leave the room – then, he would pick up the sketches of the viola concerto (which he said was almost ready) to show Peter the 3rd Piano Concerto he was close to completing as a birthday surprise for Ditta.

Unfortunately, he was forced to go back to the hospital, leaving the last several measures of the Piano Concerto unorchestrated and the sketches of the Viola Concerto in such a state, future editors weren’t even sure where the piece started and if it ended.

He died a few days later at the age of 64, his funeral attended by only ten people.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Beethoven's 5th: The Podcast

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs one of the greatest and most popular symphonies of all times – Beethoven’s 5th, as most people call it (rather than the more formal “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67” by Ludwig van Beethoven). Because he described the opening of the symphony as “Fate Knocks at the Door,” this weekend’s concert is entitled “The Fateful Fifth.” It also includes Robert Schumann’s “Concert Piece for Four Horns” and Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings – this Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm.

Stuart Malina and I had a chance to chat about the program earlier today, and you can listen to it at Stuart’s website, here (click on the link that says “PODCAST”). For reasons known only to my computer, I can’t get a link to work for the sound file or to have the file just automatically open and start playing, so hopefully you won’t have any problems with it.

While there are many performances of Beethoven's 5th available on YouTube (some good, some not so much), here's a performance of the complete symphony in one clip in a performance by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra conducted by Heinrich Schiff:
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There are not many performances of the Schumann Concert Piece for 4 Horns available, but this one is one of the best from a live concert performance. James Judd conducts the Galicia Symphony Orchestra with guest hornist Radovan Vlatkovic joining three members of the orchestra, José Vicente Castelló, Miguel Angel Garza and Manuel Moya. - - - - - - - -
1st Movement - - - - - - - -
2nd Movement - - - - - - - -
3rd Movement - - - - - - - -

Bartok's Divertimento for Strings was written for the full string section of an orchestra. Here is a performance by I Solisti di Zagreb, a chamber ensemble. Keep in mind the idea of a light-hearted "diversion" combined with the spicy harmony of Bartok's love of Hungarian folk-dances and -rhythms and the fact it was written in the grim months before the start of World War II. - - - - - - - -
1st Movement - - - - - - - -
2nd Movement - - - - - - - -
3rd Movement - - - - - - - -
- Dick Strawser