Monday, February 3, 2014

February & a World Premiere: Steve Rudolph's "The Gift"

If Winter is getting to you, then this weekend's Masterworks Concert is for you – with one of the great concertos of all time (not just THE Cello Concerto) with cellist Zuill Bailey, a Beethoven symphony (his 4th) and the world premiere of a new work written by Harrisburg's own jazz legend, Steve Rudolph – a commission from the Symphony to celebrate Maestro Stuart Malina's 50th Birthday.

(You can read Ellen Hughes' article for Harrisburg's Patriot-News, here.)

Actually, it would be more accurate to describe Steve as “Harrisburg's own musical legend” since he is more than a jazz pianist, how he is best known and not just in our area. (Here he is with his trio playing one of his compositions, “Oscar Steps Out.”)

In 2011, the Harrisburg Symphony played his “jazz-tinged” Remembrance for a special concert commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

And when news of this 50th Birthday commission was made public, I may not have been the only one thinking of something for piano and orchestra that could stand beside George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, bringing to mind another composer better known as a jazz pianist when his most famous work was premiered in 1924.

This work, the composer specifies, is not a jazz work but a “classical” work. A symphonic work entitled “The Gift.”

And everybody at the Forum this weekend will be hearing it for the very first time – imagine how many people have heard Beethoven's 4th since it was first played compared to what it must have been like to be among the first listeners in 1804?

One thing about having a living, breathing composer on hand is he can tell us something about it in his own words, not some program annotator, theorist or blogger (like me) imagining what the composer was thinking when he wrote it.

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When I was asked by the Board of the Harrisburg Symphony to write a piece in honor of the 50th birthday of my friend, master musician Stuart Malina, the main thought that went through my mind was “How can I aptly pay tribute to this talented man?” Stuart is an artist of diversified interests who exudes positive energy, humor, and conveys a genuine love of music. He is devoted to his faith, his beautiful family, and his work with the Harrisburg Symphony.

I hope that this composition will portray the complexity, wit, and spirituality that Stuart shares with all of us. We are fortunate to have him in our midst and value his priceless contributions to our artistic community.

The Gift is a work based on themes that were derived from the spelling of Stuart's name and his family's names, Marty, Sara and Zev. This practice has been used for generations by composers who have hidden names of their benefactors, families and even lovers in their musical works. By writing the diatonic or chromatic scales under the alphabet we get patterns of notes to utilize as melodic themes or harmonic progressions.

(below - the top line represents the alphabet; the second line the standard musical scale, white-keys only, starting on A; the third line is the chromatic scale, all white- and black-keys, also starting on A.)

The challenge for the composer is to take these themes and their variations and mold them with rhythmic and harmonic ideas into a complete musical soundscape.

The short opening movement of The Gift, entitled Fanfare, features the brass section introducing the themes you will hear in the second, third, and fourth movements.

The second movement, Humoresque, opens with the bassoons stating the Chromatic Stuart theme that evolves into an amusing showcase for the woodwinds and full orchestra.

Movement three, Romance, is a slow waltz that was derived from a combination of Stuart's and Marty's diatonic and chromatic themes.

Movement four, Finale, is an orchestra fantasy that ends with cascading brass and strings.

It was an honor and a privilege to be chosen to compose a work for Maestro Malina and also to have it performed by the esteemed Harrisburg Symphony. This commission was a gift for me as well.

I hope you enjoy the music.

Steve Rudolph
(from the recent issue of the Harrisburg Symphony magazine, Fanfare.)
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This idea of creating melodic material out of someone's name, as Mr. Rudolph says, is not a new idea. Generations aside, Robert Schumann did it in a lot of his piano music – spelling out his girlfriend's hometown in the ABEGG Variations or turning his wife Clara's name into a theme in several pieces – and Alban Berg, of the so-called 2nd Viennese School and a student of Arnold Schoenberg's, turned his secret lover's initials (HB) intertwined with his own (AB) throughout his Lyric Suite which gives the work a whole different meaning even if no one else knew about it until the “secret score” came to light decades after it was written.

Perhaps the most famous example is Johann Sebastian Bach who turned his own name into a frequent musical motive that became part of the fabric of so many pieces – and Dmitri Shostakovich who created a musical signature out of his initials as DSCH.

Wait – S and H?

Obviously, when a letter corresponds to a pitch in a musical scale, that makes sense, but there is more than one way to spell a scale, so to speak.

The traditional way had been the old solfege syllables, do re mi fa sol la ti do – more than just the inspiration behind a song in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Sound of Music.

While these pitches correspond to the C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C of the C Major scale, they can also serve the purpose of spelling out names syllable-by-syllable.

Though these syllables were already in use by the time Guido d'Arezzo came up with his handy sight-reading guide sometime in the early-11th Century, the first recorded use of turning someone's name into a musical idea would be a Mass written by Josquin des Prez between the 1480s and 1504, dedicated to his patron, Duke Hercules of Ferarra.

Here, the duke's name is spelled out by corresponding the vowels from each syllable in the name to the vowels of the traditional solfege syllables. This motive was called a sogetto cavato or “carved subject,” the motive literally “carved” out of the vowels (or letters) of a name – a kind of musical cryptogram.

Other composers have simply taken what musical pitches might exist within a name and used those, minus the other, inconvenient letters.

But letters like R, M, L or T could be turned into the pitches D (for “re”), E (for “mi”), A (for “la”) or B (for “ti”).

Elliott Carter wrote a violin solo for Robert Mann, founding violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, in which his initials R.M. figure prominently in the short work – but as the pitches D (re) – E (mi).

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

It is unlikely the listener would be aware of this or would even need to know it exists to appreciate the music – but the meaning hidden behind the motive adds to our understanding of the work.

In German – getting back to Bach – the musical scale uses “B” for our note B-flat and “H” for our note B-natural. So B-A-C-H becomes B-flat – A – C – B-natural.

Shostakovich, despite being a Russian, used the German scale to create his signature idea, DSCH – which is really his initials, not D-S but in German where the SH-sound is spelled SCH and the pitch E-flat is spelled “S.”

So he identifies himself in his 10th Symphony and other often autobiographical works like the 8th String Quartet with the musical phrase D – E-flat – C – B-natural.

These are not themes or melodies as we think of them but musical fragments that can generate musical lines or appear by themselves in the background - or at significant points in the musical fabric: a cadence, the climax of a phrase, emphasized through repetitions or dynamics or instrumental colors.

In the second of Brahms' string sextets, Johannes Brahms is coming to terms with the recent break-up of a relationship with Agathe von Siebold. At one point, he spells out her name as part of the melody, leaving out the inconvenient T as “A-G-A-H-E” (where H=B-natural). In the background, crossing between the upper and lower lines, he writes the pitches A-D-E – the German word for “farewell.” The message is clear. As Brahms later wrote to a friend, “by this work I have freed myself of my last love.”

So, for instance, a three-note motive on the pitches B – E-flat – C could spell out HSO – the H and S from the German for B-natural and E-flat, and the O as the vowel in “do” or C.

And while it may seem “academic” to do this, great artists have done it in the past and written music that sounds far from “academic.” That, of course, is the trick, isn't it? – no matter what style of music you write in or system of “theory” you use as your stylistic language.

What Rudolph uses to create his motives might seem arbitrary to some but again, it's a way of creating continuity and, above all, consistency within the material, those building blocks that become the music you're listening to.

More importantly, for a first-time listener, is the composer's outlines of each section or movement of the piece, how specific references are presented in the overall sound, their moods and associations.

For the more experienced listener or for subsequent hearings, then you can sink your ears into the “carved subjects” that refer to the dedicatee.

It helps make this gift more personable: it's not just the name on the title page – Stuart's identity is embedded in the very DNA of the music itself!

Dick Strawser

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