Monday, May 20, 2013

Stuart & Friends 2013: Bloch, Mozart & Arthur Foote

Chamber Music is something I like to describe as “music made by friends for friends.”

This year’s edition of “Stuart & Friends” combines conductor Stuart Malina with principal string players of the Harrisburg Symphony – violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Julius Wirth and cellist Fiona Thompson – for works by Ernest Bloch, Mozart and Arthur Foote.

The program is Tuesday evening, May 21st, at the Rose Lehrman Center at the Harrisburg Area Community College, beginning at 7:30.

Ernest Bloch, born in Geneva, Switzerland, became an American citizen in 1924 and his being given the first prize in a competition for American composers three years later turned out to be a controversial decision. His best-known work is the Hebraic Rhapsody Schelomo, a meditation on the biblical figure of King Solomon for cello and orchestra, written in 1916 in the midst of World War I. While writing this work, Bloch first came to the United States and finished the piece in New York City. It was premiered in Carnegie Hall the following year with the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Hans Kindler, as the soloist.

After he was appointed director of the newly formed Cleveland Institute of Music, Bloch wrote another work inspired by his Jewish heritage, the Three Sketches for Cello & Piano known as “From Jewish Life” which he dedicated to Kindler. It is part of a series of works generally referred to as his “Jewish Cycle” which included Baal Shem for Violin & Piano (with its famous movement, Nigun), the Méditation Hébraïque for Cello & Piano (both also composed in Cleveland).

Here is a performance by Wassili & Nicolai Gerassimez. It’s in three movements – Prayer, Supplication and Jewish Song.

Critic Erik Levi suggests it is important to remember that "Bloch's Jewishness derived from an inner impulse, not through a conscious absorption of Hebraic folk elements." The composer himself said, "it is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies... I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music."

This question of “cultural identity” – especially considering Switzerland had no outward identity of its own, being part-German, part-French, and part-Italian – is something that has informed a lot of soul-searching among American artists as well. When Antonin Dvořák advised his students in New York City in the early-1890s to look to their folk music to find their “American Voice,” the question was “what is American folk music?” It may have worked for the nationalists in Europe who, after centuries of “high art” with their music, painting and literature, by the mid-19th Century became conscious of their ethnic heritage, particularly in countries that weren’t German, French or Italian.

When you listen to many of the composers writing in America during the 19th Century, it’s hard to hear anything we would consider “American.” Being a nation of immigrants, much of this cultural identity came with them from the Old Country. Amy Beach, writing a symphony two years after Dvořák wrote his “New World” Symphony, found her inspiration not in American folk songs but in those of her own Scots-Irish heritage, giving it the nickname, the Gaelic Symphony.

For Arthur Foote, it was enough for him that he was the first composer born in America to be fully trained in America. When he graduated from Harvard in 1874, he was among the first class of students that didn’t have to go to Europe to get advanced training in composition.

Yet his music, to us, still sounds a great deal like Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvořák, not surprising since Brahms, especially, was the most imitated composer with most American and English composers at the end of the 19th Century.

His Piano Quintet in A Minor was composed in 1897, the year Brahms died. For anyone not familiar with Foote’s name, he predates most of the more innovative composers who would later eclipse his fame – composers like the Yale graduate Charles Ives or, ironically, Aaron Copland who, dissatisfied by his studies with one of Dvořák’s students, chose to go to Europe anyway and became the first of a long string of American students working with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the years following World War I.

Here is a recording of Foote’s Piano Quintet with pianist Mary Louise Boehm, violinists Kees Kooper and Alvin Rogers, violist Richard Maximoff, and cellist Fred Sherry, a recording currently available on the Albany label but which I’d owned years ago on the Vox label. It’s in four movements which was posted on YouTube in three clips:

1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt

3rd & 4th Mvmts

You can read more about Foote and his Quintet in this post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

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

Mozart probably never thought much about “cultural identity” which was more of a 19th Century Romantic issue. He was, culturally speaking, German who grew up in Salzburg, one of hundreds of city-states in German-speaking Europe, that was allied with what we now think of as Austria in what was at the center of some vague political identity known as the Holy Roman Empire (neither Holy nor Roman) which, after centuries of existence, would collapse a generation later under the weight of Napoleon’s political force. Mozart wrote operas in Italian because that was the language of aristocratic culture; German operas were more for the popular appeal.

Here is the ensemble known as the Faure Piano Quartet performing Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, K.493:
1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt

3rd Mvmt

Between October, 1785, and April, 1786, Mozart focused on his newest opera, Le Nozze de Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) based on a French play that already showed the cracks in the ancient regime of the aristocracy. Though the Austrian Emperor enjoyed Mozart’s music and saw the need to reform the aristocracy before his nation, too, would go the way of France – its Revolution which would begin only three years later – the noblemen of Vienna found little sympathy with Mozart’s opera or his music.

The fact it was not a financial success proved a problem for Mozart who had just turned 30 and was realizing the economic situation was getting a little tight.

A few weeks after Figaro’s premiere, Mozart composed his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493, for the publisher Hoffmeister. It’s not certain exactly why he wrote this piece: the previous year, Hoffmeister had approached him for three piano quartets – then, a new and unfamiliar instrumental combination – and the first one Mozart submitted, the G Minor Quartet, K.478, proved to be so challenging and difficult for amateur musicians to play, Hoffmeister released Mozart from the agreement.

This G Minor Quartet was one of the reasons Mozart was generally considered a composer of “difficult music.” Not just difficult to play, but difficult to listen to – the way many people in the 20th Century (and still today) react to, say, Schoenberg or Elliott Carter. We may think of it as one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, but we forget that in Mozart’s day, the primary market for his music was not the concert hall (which, technically, did not yet exist) but amateurs playing in their homes not for large audiences but for a handful of friends and family. This music was far too dramatic and challenging for such a situation and Hoffmeister saw no point in publishing something that would make no money.

Given the failure of this work – completed shortly before he began composing Figaro – it’s unclear why Mozart would write another one except perhaps to prove to Hoffmeister he could write something that would have more popular appeal.

While neither of them proved very popular with Viennese public, the reception in other parts of Germany was a little different: here's a critic writing in 1787.

= = = = =
The cry soon made itself heard. ‘Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such and such a Princess or Countess possess and plays it!’ and this excited curiosity and led to the rash resolve to produce this original composition at grand and noisy concerts and to make a parade with it… Many another piece keeps some countenance even when indifferently performed; but this product of Mozart’s can in truth hardly bear listening to when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands and is negligently played. – Now this what happened innumerable times last winter… What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed with the highest degree of accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room when the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear and in the presence of only two or three attentive people?
= = = = =

The only surprising thing – at least to us – might be “if Mozart was aiming at an amateur audience, why did he overestimate them and risk losing this income?” Naturally, we would (these days) assume everything Mozart touched, regardless of its target demographic (to use modern attitudes), would have been a work of the highest art. But is this really music for amateurs?

This Quartet was only the first of a string of new works Mozart produced following the unsatisfactory success of Figaro which he admitted to writing for the need of making money, including the String Quartet in D, K.499, written specifically (again) for Hoffmeister the publisher, written that August. But at the same time, he composed the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K.498, the famous “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he tossed off for a musical evening with some of his closest friends without any thought to financial success or posterity.

In the meantime, he began planning a tour of Germany and England for the Lenten Season in 1787 for the purpose of increasing his income. For various reasons, this fell through, replaced then by a trip to Prague which he felt could prove monetarily lucrative. By December 6th, he’d completed a new symphony for them known today, logically, as the “Prague” Symphony, K.504. Later that year, he would write a new opera for them, following his success there: Don Giovanni.

Maynard Solomon points out in his biography of Mozart that

= = = = =
“For three or four years, Mozart had tasted the freedom of being his own master, of being a concert promoter who reaped the profits of successful ventures. Now, once again, he was at the mercy of the concert promoters and theater managements who controlled the avenues through which music reached audiences in Vienna. Once again, he was compelled to rely for his living primarily on fees from producers, publishers and patrons. Although he did not yet know it, Mozart’s [happy] impresario period had come to a close.” [Maynard Solomon, Mozart, HarperCollins New York 1995, p.304]
= = = = =

Listening to it as it unfolds so effortlessly and flawlessly, one could hardly imagine the reality just beyond the doorstep.

- Dick Strawser

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