Thursday, October 13, 2016

Halloween Classics - Baba Yaga in music

NOTE: This article features music tracks auto-generated by YouTube which might not be viewable outside of the U.S.A.

Anybody can make up monsters, but the ones that stick in the culture, folklore in the past and now most commonly in specific media, usually strike a chord deep within the human consciousness.  If people learned anything from pop psychology in the 70's it was that folklore persists because of psychological and emotional parallels between folklore and human needs and anxieties - "Little Red Riding Hood" can be interpreted as a warning for girls to stay away from predatory men, to quote a famous extrapolation by the likes Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, the parent text to most theories of this sort, and Angela Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" from her collection The Bloody Chamber.  The latter was adapted into a rapturously insane film by Neil Jordan (co-writing the screenplay alongside Carter herself), a good sign that there's a great deal of appeal in this most haunting version of the story.  In some ways these connections we create with fiction and (supposed) fact are obvious if one is able to slip into the mindset of those who can't speak directly of what lies beneath the surface of life.  However, some folk tales are so vivid, so creative and so off-the-wall that they defy easy explanation, owing more to pure art than subconscious messages, and that's where Baba Yaga sprints in on giant chicken legs.

Arguably the most famous of all Slavic folk characters, Baba Yaga, and her hut, stand tall as crowning achievements of weird storytelling.  Depicted by herself or as one of three identically-named sisters, Baba Yaga has many characteristics of a classic witch - she's an old woman with an iron will and magical powers, powers which she often uses to evil and destructive ends.  However, the tools she uses to wield those powers are unique - a mortar and pestle used to fly around, and a hut that stands on huge chicken legs - and her tales often let her help those in need.  Her first known appearance on record even noted her uniqueness in the Slavic pantheon, equating many of the other gods to the Roman pantheon but recognizing her singular existence in the culture.  Another interesting ability is the occasional skill of sniffing out the "Russianness" of people who visit her, much like the scent of the blood of an Englishman if you ask me.  Her domain is the depths of the forest, and if I had to paint her in symbolic terms I'd burrow into that woodsy connection pretty deep.  Forests have long been sources of conflicting experience for humankind, teeming with life and potential food and safety but forbidding in their density and lurking dangers; Baba Yaga's personality, alternately helpful and wrathful, fits with this pretty snugly.  The good news is that you don't have to take just my word for it, as there are a ton of adaptations and portraits of the Grand Crone to choose from, a heap of which we're talking about today.

Late Romantic and early modern Russian composers were many things, firstly excellent, but also way into capturing the Russian identity in their music, both abstractly and programmatically.  The latter method brought a heck of a lot of identity into musical form, from the landscape (such as Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia) and climate (such as Tchaikovsky's The Seasons) to stories both literary (such as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin's play) and folkloric.  Folkloric adaptations, especially fantastical ones, were quite popular in la Belle Époque all over Europe, spurred by increasing urbanizing and distance from peasant innocence, but many Russian composers of the day made them their specialty.  Rimsky-Korsakov's most famous pieces are in this vein, such as his "orientalist" pieces like Sheherazade, and his acolyte Anatoly Lyadov crafted The Enchanted Lake, one of his most celebrated pieces, in this vein.  And wouldn't you know it, both of these guys tipped their hats to ol' Babby Yags.

Lyadov's other most celebrated orchestral miniature is his sinister scherzo Baba Yaga, op. 56, as good a model for 19th century witchy writing you'll see outside of Berlioz.  Actually, not so far outside, as many of the tricks employed show up in that witch's sabbath at the end of Symphonie Fantastique, such as a jerkily jaunty compound meter, loud full-orchestra stings and chromatic skittering.  There's also a lot of Wagner in the language, such as the dated, yet classic, use of chromatic downward planing ripped right out of the ride of the Valkyries.  Dating from 1905, Lyadov's piece is a bit, I dunno, passe (?) for the time, its tricks a little played out and familiar.  As much as I appreciate Lyadov's piano music not everything he wrote was indispensable, though this is an easy and welcomed addition to any Halloween concert.

There are similar techniques at play in a considerably older piece yet in some ways more memorable piece, written in 1862 by one of the lost-and-found fathers of Russian classical music, Alexander Dargomyzhsky.  Dargomyzhsky is almost totally unknown to mainstream Classical music fans, never achieving much success in his home country or abroad during his lifetime, but his opera The Stone Guest was highly regarded by the Mighty Handful and was considered the gap between the work of Glinka, the earliest Russian composer of international note and one who set the stage for all those who came after, and the Handful themselves.  None of his pieces have entered the standard repertoire since his death but I certainly hadn't heard of Baba Yaga, Fantasy-Scherzo before researching for this article, and chances are I'd have gone my whole life without hearing it.  The latter half of the piece is definitely witchy enough, starting off on another jabbing bassoon solo, but the mood before it is much more staid, even tragic, and the use of more conventional minor and major chords rather than a smorgasbord of diminished schmears lends the piece an air of dignity unseen in many horror-themed works.  Biographical info on Dargomyzhsky in English is scanty, at least over the internet, but part of me would like to think that he took the inherent ambiguity of Baba Yaga's appearances in folklore to heart.  It's hard not to be fascinated by a villain with more human qualities than not, and of all the Baba Yaga settings it's the one that seems the most like a portrait of a person rather than a Satanic imp.

Originally I was going to discuss Rimsky-Korsakov's 1880 Fairy Tale, op. 29 here as another Baba Yaga setting, having been brought to it as per IMSLP's subtitle for it on the work's page there.  Upon listening to it, though, it seemed a lot less sinister than I was expecting.  Then I took a look at the description of the recording I had found and saw that it was based on Pushkin's prologue to his poem "Ruslan and Ludmila", based on a corresponding folktale.  "Ruslan and Ludmila" is a wild and fantastic tale of similar vintage and flavor as Baba Yaga, and also features her signature hut on chicken legs, and it was this connective tissue, as well as Pushkin's other allusive indications, that inspired the Fairy Tale, or Skazka.  The skazka, translated alternately as "fairy tale", "folk tale" and just "tale", became a quite popular miniature piano form among Russian composers in the decades following this one; Nikolay Medtner wrote so many of them he was practically hip-deep in them by the end of his life.  Whereas the piano skazki were short, dramatic works similar in feel to the ballade or legend, Rimsky-Korsakov's use of the title is of course more literal and much more extensive.  Clocking in at three times Lyadov's Baba Yaga, the piece eschews curtain raising in favor of creating a diffuse atmosphere of magic and mystery, maintaining the fine sense of thematic architecture shared by Sheherazade and others but removing the need to trundle the audience along on storytelling rails.  There's a lot to like here, especially the orchestration; Rimsky-Korsakov was the great creative master of his scene in that regard, and not only are his ideas masterful they are also brilliantly balanced and paced, never blowing out the speakers and perfectly matching the sense of wonder and unease he was trying to create.  It's not exactly Halloween, per se, but it is fantasy and went over well with audiences at the time, though I can see why it's not one of his more popular works - 15 minutes is kind of long for what feels more like an interlude rather than a main piece.  Still, I'm glad I got to hear it and the relationship it has with Baba Yaga is quite intriguing.

However, there's one piece that you're all waiting for, one that will define Baba Yaga for all time.  You know, that one that was written by a Mighty guy and later orchestrated by a master Impressionist and was inspired by a painting of a clock?  Yeah, that one.

This one is now and forever the most famous Baba Yaga piece out there.  "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" is the 9th movement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano suite based on paintings by artist and architect Viktor Hartmann created during his travels.  The Baba Yaga painting used as a reference for this movement wasn't of Ms. Yaga herself but rather was of a clock modeled after her hut:

That's a pretty boss clock and this is a pretty boss piece.  While the other pieces might have depicted the hut standing or stalking, this one has it running at full speed, or Babs Yags flying in her mortar depending on who you ask.  Mussorgsky had a knack for depicting energy and savagery in his music and here the language is at once terrifying and cathartic, each percussive slam matched with a surprisingly satisfying harmonic shift or fresh motive.  Pictures was highly regarded by the Impressionists among Mussorgsky's other works for its progressive language, and some people argued that Mussorgsky's unique voice was due more to a lack of formal education than creative will.  Whether that's true or not is not for me to make the final call on, but what I can make the final call on is its balderdashedness in terms of modern relevance or intrinsic value.  I've performed this piece before and as exciting and fulfilling as it is to perform the whole work this one is probably the most entertaining from the musician's point of view, and in a normal article this would be the rousing closer.  And it is - if you don't like piano music.

It could be argued that there was no ballet company more singularly important to musical and theatrical history than the Ballet Russes under the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a company that mounted the revolutionary first productions of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and Stravinsky's Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.  Even though it's impossible to objectively prove it, no other company has been more talked about and lauded, from the mindblowing choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky to the sheer number of bleeding edge composers whose music was mounted.  Another seminal name is brought up in more academic circles and isn't nearly as famous as Nijinsky's, the set designer Alexandre Benois, and any time we can talk about Benois is a good time.  Educated in Paris, the Russian Benois returned to Moscow and founded the periodical World of Art which did much to promote Aestheticism and art nouveau in Russia.  He moved back to Paris in 1905 and spent most of his time as a set designer, principally with the Ballet Russes, and his designs for their productions of Les Sylphides, Giselle and Petrushka are all considered masterpieces in the field, the last one of which has been revived multiple times to great success.  He also served as the curator of the Hermitage Museum in the first decade following the October Revolution where he did much to preserve Russian art history.  Before all that revolution and ballet stuff, however, he produced one of his most beloved works, The Alphabet in Pictures, a picture book of the Russian alphabet for children.  Each letter is assigned with a colorful subject, many having a specifically Russian cultural reference, and the results are simply stunning.  Original copies of it fetch up to $10,000 in auctions and I can't say that I disagree.  In 1910, Nikolay Tcherepnin, the first in one of the most successful compositional dynasties in Russian music, composed a piano suite based on 14 of the 36 represented letters (the alphabet was reduced to 33 in 1918), and a recent recording by David Witten brought it to my light as well as the world's - and wouldn't you guess who flew in with a mortar and pestle.

It's debatable whether or not this is more experimental than Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga (though the fact that Mussorgsky's piece was written decades earlier most likely answers that question immediately) but it can be said that Tcherepnin's Baba Yaga is easily the funniest.  The tinkling arpeggios plopping on augmented chords is more akin to the improvisatory caprice of Debussy's "Le poisson d'or" from his second book of Images, and the cute ppp ending chord is equally spritely.  However, most of the piece is a black gallop, that offset bass pattern bumpity-bumping chromatically contracting and expanding chords in the right hand.  The tunes might not be as iconic as Mussorgsky's but Tcherepnin more than makes up for that with his expert piano writing, as detailed and subtle as anything of his day, and believe me that there was a heck of a lot of competition.  And why can't there be room for a funny-scary Baba Yaga?  The set came from a kid's picture book and the tone is properly accessible throughout the suite, so a witch that's a bit humorous is exactly the kind of thing kids love at Halloween.  It'd make a fine encore as well, totaling a mere 1'20'' for a witchy bolt off stage*.  It can't really be the encore for this article, though, as I've spent the most amount of time talking about it of all the pieces and even included the sheet music for the benefit of busy work scrolling - perhaps I'm trying to tell you that there's a certain Russian composer that we'll be talking about next week, one whose name rhymes with "pickle-eye"...**


*Somebody needs to get on a Baba Yaga hut costume right pronto.

**Hey, more costume ideas!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Special Cursive Preview - Ben Weber's Romance in a Cynical Age

I'm pleased as punch to remind the world that Cursive, my modern chamber group specializing in performing the kind of unknown modern music that gets featured on this blog, has a new program, Imagist Alchemy, coming up this Thursday, October 6, at 7:30 pm at Kenyon Hall, West Seattle's greatest old-timey theater.  The program will feature works for different combinations of voice, flute, viola and cello by mid-century American composers inspired by the Imagist poetry movement of the first half of the 20th century.  The composers include the likes of David Diamond, Adolph Weiss, Paul Pisk and Ben Weber, and Re-Composing is finally going to put the spotlight on these forgotten (some more than others) composers in the days leading up to Imagist Alchemy's big show.  Our Cursive previews are ending today with one of the most appropriate composers for this blog since its inception, Ben Weber (1916-1979).

Hailing from St. Louis, Weber accomplished the curious feat of establishing a position of success and acclaim for himself during the American classical boom years of the 1940's and '50's while not experiencing any of the public adoration that contemporaries like Bernstein, Piston and Schuman got.  Weber was largely self-taught, and while that can sometimes reap popular benefit (such as with the popularly eccentric Paul Creston) his inspiration came from more dodecaphonic climbs.  Weber was one of the first composer to write 12-tone music in America, breaking that new ground with Wallingford Riegger in the late '30's, but rather than adopt the Second Viennese School's attitudes and ascetic aesthetics Weber decided to use dodecaphonic music in a more Romantic Way.  For example, take his ravishing Violin Concerto:

This certainly isn't tonality but it sure ain't Webern, either.  Ben Weber understood how serialism could be used as a tool first rather than a philosophy, as merely a way to keep the composer honest in his atonal dealings and to avoid too cozy familiarities.  And there are cozy familiarities here, too, but primarily in tone and passion.  There's an enormous sweep to this piece, with thick, resonant chords and classically successful orchestration, and the violin part is one of the great Tall Dark Strangers of the rep.  I'm of the mind that trained musicians can "sing" through anything as long as the composer writes likes they want them to, and this is expressed gorgeously by this performance by violinist Oliver Colbentson with the Nurmberger Symphoniker under the direction of Werner Heider, another composer who might drift to these blogly shores.  I'm always impressed with composers who can accentuate tension and release atonally and Weber is one of the best I've seen from America at that.  A more placid example of his language is his brief pedagogical piano piece New Adventure, played here by some guy*:

This little number was published by Theodore Presser as part of the Masters of Our Day series in the '50's, edited by Isadore Freed and Lazare Saminsky (two more guys who are bound to appear on these blogs).  While his piano works, such as this one, are largely as neglected as anything else he's written, one piece has become his best candidate for longevity: the Fantasia (Variaitons), op. 25.  Written for the great William Masselos, the Fantasia is arguably his most representative statement for the instrument, showcasing not only his prowess with dodecaphonic composition but also his sense of melody and emotional power.  It was recorded brilliantly by Stephen Hough in the late '90's for an album that also featured Copland's Piano Variations, Corigliano's Etude Fantasy and Tsontakis's Ghost Variations (a hell of a program, to be sure).  That CD also marked the last time a Weber piece was commercially recorded, and searching on YouTube reveals that it might be the last time it was performed for posterity, either.  The good news is that a number of excellent pianists have taken a crack at it, such as Christopher Czaja Sager in this 1972 performance:

That recording is a bit scratchy but it's all there - confident, exciting piano writing, wild yet refined variation and a glorious clash of tonal memories and atonal virtuosity.  If it was the only Weber piece to get played again in the future I wouldn't be too sore about it, and thankfully it's still in print through Sheet Music Plus - oh, wait.  More tangible good news is that many of his pieces remain in print, including dozens through the ever-essential ACA (such as his one ballet, The Pool of Darkness, another piece that begs to be performed by Cursive), and all the published ones can be got through Interlibrary Loan and copied.  It's through libraries that I got his Four Songs for voice and cello, a work featured on Imagist Alchemy.  Combining the poetry of Ezra Pound, a man at the forefront of Imagism and who famously cheerleaded for classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, with ancient Latin and Sanskrit poetry, including one by Emperor Hadrian himself.  The concert isn't coming a moment too soon, either, as this year, one that is three quarters over already, is the Centenary of Weber's birth, though sadly I haven't heard of any other groups taking charge and performing some of his many worthy compositions.  The last time there was an all-Weber program was likely this retrospective concert on the 20th anniversary of his death, one that featured his works for the combination of flute, cello and celesta, one so cool I wish I'd thought of it first.  That concert featured tribute works by Milton Babbitt, Ned Rorem (who performed the piece himself) and Lou Harrison, and all around sounded like a lovely time.  Hopefully Cursive's performance Thursday night will add a little notch more to Weber's performance pole, and there's always more room for a lyric serialist in the future.


*I should have "Some Guy" as a title on my business cards.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Special Cursive Preview - Adolph Weiss, an Expressionist from Baltimore

While the American Dream can mean a lot of things, it's a sad fact that 90% of achieving it is being born in America - though that doesn't always serve one well.  Case in point, Adolph Weiss, a man who followed his heart and honed his craft, only to see himself never rise above the B-minus list of American composers.

Today's Cursive preview, spotlighting composers featured on Cursive's new program Imagist Alchemy (Thursday, October 6, 2016 at 7:30 at Kenyon Hall, Seattle), focuses on one of the first Americans to study with Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, Adolph Weiss (1891-1971).  Born in Baltimore a few years before Walter Piston and nearly a decade before Aaron Copland, Weiss inherited his compositional ambitions from his father, who was himself a student of one of Classical music's most accomplished eccentrics, Ferruccio Busoni.  He worked with Schoenberg in the 1920's at the Academy of Fine Arts, eventually settling in New York and flying right out of the gate on a modernist rocket bike.  While most of America wasn't used to music more modern than this, Weiss was composing this:

The Chamber Symphony is a choice genre that gained vogue among a select few composers of the first half of the 20th century and then again in the latter half, which is to say that it didn't really gain vogue but some fabulous people worked in the form, including Schoenberg, George Enescu, Franz Schreker and John Adams.  There's far more to unpack than we have time for here but I'll try to shake out a short version.  This is one of the firmest statements of Expressionism I've heard from an American composer (though at this point still working in Vienna), full of breakneck mood shifts and bursts of mad abandon.  Imitative counterpoint and organic development is the name of the game, though I'd class this as a far cry from Beethoven in that regard.  The woodwinds-heavy texture,  lets instruments get caught in strange loops and zoom around in nutty logic.  This is helped here by a wonderful performance that infuriatingly goes uncredited, even though someone in the comments section has already asked who the performers are, and there's no commercial recording of this piece I know of.  The spirit of expressionism is perfectly captured around 6 minutes in, where icy, spasming flutes accompany a rapturous cello solo - the passionate and the insane, together at last.  It's a brilliant and dense 16 minutes and I can't believe that I have no idea who's performing it here.

One work of his that did get a commercial recording is his Theme and Variations for orchestra, written nearly a decade after the Chamber Symphony and sounding quite a bit more like another American Expressionist, Carl Ruggles.  The statement of the theme is a crowded subway of deeply buzzing chords, hiding the theme itself in the upper lines and creating an impression of spotlights progressively shining up the lengths of skyscrapers.  The pacing is more erratic here, eschewing the blinding arpeggiation of the Chamber Symphony in favor of oblique dramatic statements, and while I can't say that I enjoy it as much as the Chamber Symphony its architecture is certainly compelling and it's a bold and dangerous creature of its time, riding the wave of High American Modernism to the very top before it fell back in the populist wave of the late Depression.

Weiss was among a highly select number of bassoonist composers, and at 16 was even in the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York, joining the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler the following year.  It's perhaps because of this woodwind-centered background he contributed some highly substantial works to the woodwind repertoire, including this major Trio for clarinet, viola and cello in 1948, a work simply begging to be performed by Cursive.  If the Theme and Variations was too dense and stately for your tastes the Trio gets back to Weiss's roots with a lot of mysterious, liquid interplay between the three voices and an off-kilter, sometimes jaunty sensibility.  It's chamber music at its most intimate, suitable for the living rooms of the excellently demented.  It's in the description of the video for the second movement of this piece, by the way, that I found the best information on Weiss's method in the web, in the form of program notes by possible future Re-Composing subject Lester Trimble:

Adolph Weiss has been referred to as "Schoenberg's first official American student in Germany." He did indeed spend an important period of study with Arnold Schoenberg at the Berlin Academy, which led over the years to an easy camaraderie with the 12-tone system and with serial technique in general -- in short, with the "numerology" of advanced music -- to the extent that his compositions are created first in purely numerical form. They are written in columns of figures on the pages of a simple, loose-leaf notebook. [No Excel in 1948 . . .] Then, when the words have been completed in every detail, they are transcribed upon score paper in conventional notation. It is a startling experience to observe the composer at the piano, playing a new, untranscribed composition from an enigmatic page of small dots, lines and numbers.

This does not mean, as one would assume, that Weiss is straightjacketed by any "logic of numbers." On the contrary, he finds freedom and endless stimulation toward new musical ideas in a tone row, and, as his attitude toward composition is unusually fun-loving and spontaneous, his musical fantasy remains unfettered. Somehow, in his career as a composer, he has acquired an uncanny facility with numbers. He can work in them more conveniently than in conventional notation, and, concomitantly, finds his thiking dis-encumbered from traditional habits of five-line staff writing. The music, however, is "heard" before it is written; numbers and notes are simply the graphics of sound, and Weiss employs them as such.

The Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Cello is formed in two movements, marked respectively Andante and Allegro Molto. Both movements are characterized by a high degree of compositional complexity, with intervallic leaps accounting for much of the melodic movement. The Allegro Molto is, in character, a Scherzo. It remains in 2/4 meter throughout, with cross-accents and fast imitative interplay imparting an almost breathless quality to the music. Occasional disguised references are made to thematic material of the opening movement, while several of the rhythmic motifs have a distinctly retrospective flavor. Here, as in the Andante, the linear approach predominates.

Never in my life would I have guessed such a bizarre method from music that sounds so, well, not written with numbers first and notes at the very end.  For example, one piece of his to get commercially recorded that hasn't made its way to YouTube is his "Scherzoso Jazzoso" American Life, available to listen here in the form of a 30 second snippet.  As jazzy as it undeniably is Weiss still obeys his Expressionistic sense of phrasing and eruptive gestures.  A piece that has no recording whatsoever, especially not a commercial one, is the work that Cursive is performing this Thursday night, the 1930 Sonata for Flute and Viola.  While I don't want to spoil too much you can expect a lot of bewitching modalities, imitative counterpoint, virtuosity and occasional rude shrieking.  And what better way is there to use the flute/viola combo than rude shrieking?

Well, maybe that was the problem, as Weiss's obvious talent and passion never materialized in much public exposure.  The serious lack of commercial recordings is sad but understandable, as the American market never fully supported music like this, even in the heady years between the Wars.  Weiss kept on keeping on until his death in 1971 and with a little elbow grease and access to Interlibrary Loan services we might be able to unearth more forgotten gems by America's first Second Vienneser.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Special Cursive Preview - David Diamond's Vocalises

I'm pleased as punch to announce that Cursive, my modern chamber group specializing in performing the kind of unknown modern music that gets featured on this blog, has a new program, Imagist Alchemy, coming up this Thursday, October 6, at 7:30 pm at Kenyon Hall, West Seattle's greatest old-timey theater.  The program will feature works for different combinations of voice, flute, viola and cello by mid-century American composers inspired by the Imagist poetry movement of the first half of the 20th century.  The composers include the likes of David Diamond, Adolph Weiss, Paul Pisk and Ben Weber, and Re-Composing is finally going to put the spotlight on these forgotten (some more than others) composers in the days leading up to Imagist Alchemy's big show.  I can't say I'll be able to cover all of them but there's still plenty to talk about, starting with a warm return to one of the former biggest stars in American music, David Diamond.

I previously covered Diamond's haunting piano miniature The Tomb of Melville, and hopefully I made a case for it being one of the most beguilingly lovely piano pieces in American music.  It's absence from modern recitals, or recitals in general, is only partially understandable by its limbo state of out-of-printdom, as Diamond used to be as big a name as Schuman, Harris and Piston.  Best known for his string orchestra piece Rounds, Diamond's signature works show off one of the most skilled and assured voices in the big American national style of the '40's and '50's - modal block chords, expert counterpoint and lots of 'Merican 'tude.  That doesn't mean that all of his works sound the same of course, and for maximum Diamond variety one should turn to his later works ('60's and forward) and his earliest works from the '30's, such as his ballet TOM.  These early years are what we're examining today with one of his first works, soon to be featured by Cursive in Imagist Alchemy: Vocalises for voice and viola.

Voice and viola works are elusive and alluring beasts, possessing a warmth and darkness because of the instrumentation but never getting performed.  This piece is a trio of vocalises, so the voice sings on an open syllable, allowing itself to weave through the viola's copious double stops with a snake-like silkiness.  Diamond was only 20 when he wrote this, meaning that he was under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger, American music's favorite French auntie, and it's very easy to see the Old World influence in this piece.  It's not just Francophonic, either, but vaguely Renaissance, the lilting melodies and stark chord progressions highly reminiscent of an Old Master landscape.  One could also point to Christina's World, one of the most famous paintings in the whole world, and I'd like to think that Old World and New World landscapes aren't mutually exclusive.  The version we're playing is slightly modified to accommodate a flute, but don't let that deter you, as flute and viola are a fascinating combo in themselves and the musicians are much boss.  Here's a splendid recording of the original that really brings out the bucolic solitude of the piece, and here's to wishing all my readers a happy time checking their schedules to see if they can make the concert.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Short-Shrifted - A Paean to a Frightening Hungarian

There's usually little risk in unearthing rare music, the worst being disappointment or a racist pop song or two.  In classical music this is largely due to music being a mostly abstract medium and the standard of what music is publishable and worthy of repeat performance high enough to disallow most repulsive lyrics and subject matter, though not so high as to prevent something as wickedly brilliant as Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin from premiering.  Speaking of Bartók, today's Short-Shrifted subject is not only Hungarian but was one of the first defenders of Bartók's music, as well as the work of Kodaly, in the 1900s, ensuring him a place in the history of Hungarian Modernism even if he did nothing else.  We of course wouldn't be talking about him if he was merely a critic, but talking about what we're here for is a double-edged sword.  You see, on one hand we have a lovely violin work on our hands that begs for the internet to uncover more compositions by its author, but on the other hand, the author's other works, and unsettling biography, make searching potentially risky in the realm of psychological damage.

Géza Csáth (1887-1919) was quite a piece of work in both positive and negative ways, starting out on the positive end with a prodigal talent in various fields.  A violinist from childhood, Csáth (the pseudonym of József Brenner) began writing music criticism when he was 14 and wrote the aforementioned support for Bartók and Kodaly in college.  He went into medicine and worked initially in a psychiatric hospital, his experiences informing his novel Diary of a Mentally Ill Woman and leading to his lifelong obsession, a gradually crippling morphine addiction.  During the 1910's he wrote a number of stories under the influence, collected as Tales Which End Unhappy, one of my new favorite titles, and translated in the above book and the Penguin Books collection Opium and Other Stories as part of Philip Roth's excellent Writers from an Unbound Europe series in the '70s.  These stories were highly transgressive and disturbing, probing into the psychology of addiction, sadism and outright evil, perhaps most famously in "Little Emma", a story wherein children enact public executions.  All of this would be one thing if Csáth was as articulate and civil as other transgressive writers like Chuck Palahniuk, but his morphine addiction only worsened as he lost jobs and credibility and eventually was committed to a psychiatric hospital.  He escaped to his home, eventually fatally shooting his wife with a revolver (!), taking poison (!!) and slitting his wrists (!!!).  This, however, didn't succeed in killing him, and he eventually finished the job by taking poison while running from the police (!!!!).  To quote his diary, "In combating myself I can report only one bloody defeat after another."

Heck of a story, though not as ridiculous as the case of Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial strangler who wrote in jail and became a critical darling, his fame prompting an early release and subsequent defense in the face of more stranglings, as if writers were incapable of such acts.  You might be wondering why I'm talking about such horrible people in the first place, and the answer is simple: there's always room for the Death of the Author.  Opera companies around the world don't keep performing Wagner's Ring cycle because he was a megalomaniacal anti-semite, they perform them because they're monumental achievements in the art form and hugely important to music history.  The more you delve into the nitty gritty of artists' biographies the more unpleasantness you uncover, such as Gertrude Stein's support of Fascism and William Burroughs' accidental killing of his wife during an ill-conceived party trick, so why dwell on these things?  Their work is why we keep their names alive in the first place and focusing on that above all else is what keeps their work relevant.  Case in point, Géza Csáth's Paean for violin and piano.

(part included for good measure)

Published c. 1910, around the time Csáth started taking morphine, the Paean (confusingly translated into French as Pean, which is a kind of ermine-type texture used in royal crests, instead of the correct French spelling Péan) appears to be the only published piece of music by Csáth, at least the only one to surface in our time, making him a member of the Sui Generis club of composers with only one published work.  In stark contrast to his prose (and probably for our psychological benefit) the Paean, subtitled a Pastorale on the cover page, is a gentle summer's breeze of a piece, packing a lot of grace and depth into its mere 2'30'' runtime.  While not exactly Modernist the work is somewhat Impressionistic with its extended-tonality chords and modal arpeggiation, or at least very late Romantic in its style.  It's somewhat melancholic for a paean, which is typically a song of exultant religious reverence, such as a hallelujah, leaving the listener to ponder where Csáth's reverence truly lies.  It makes up for its dreamy, moderate tempo with great expressive intensity, especially in the fff con passione near the end.  And who doesn't like a piece that ends with a major-7th chord?  While Csáth's language here certainly isn't ripping off his Modernist admirees there are tinges of the same Hungarian nationalist language that Kodaly would perfect in his most famous works, such as the half-diminished cascade in the con passione measure.  It's all so lovely that I have no choice but to want to see more of his music, but considering Csáth's later life his manuscripts might not be accessible or usable.  The best thing we can do now is to perform this modestly immodest gem at every conceivable opportunity and prove that there is light at the end of a dark and terrifying tunnel.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

SPECIAL CURSIVE PREVIEW: Short-Shrifted - Happy Birthday, Erwin Schulhoff!

One of my favorite pieces to talk about when people say they've seen everything is "In Futurum", which looks like this:

I chattered about it in a Forgotten Leaves article some time ago but it deserves all the reposts it can get.  Everything here is a joke, from the tempo marking of "timely-timeless", the clashing meters and clefs, the fact that there aren't any actual notes, those dang faces...pure genius.  This is at the Dada extreme of the work of Erwin Schulhoff, one of the greatest composers to get his music banned and his person killed by a tyrannical government.  Czech by birth, Schulhoff started at the Prague conservatory under the tutelage of Dvořák when he was only 10 years old, fast becoming a rising star and studying with the likes of Debussy and Reger.  After serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first World War he moved to Germany and would move back and forth from there and Prague throughout his career, securing plenty of prestigious premieres in the '20s.  Schulhoff was an astoundingly diverse composer, his works ranging from Neoclassicism to Dadaism to Jazz-influenced works, among the first of their kind and arguably the best overall of the first half of the 20th century.  Of course, we can't have anything nice for too long, and once the '30s rolled around he found himself in the crosshairs of the Nazi party for his Jewish heritage and Communist sympathies; by 1939 already in trouble with the Czech government for his political leanings, he was forced to perform under a pseudonym when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.  He applied for citizenship in the Soviet Union but was arrested trying to leave the country and was shipped to the Wülzburg concentration camp.  He died in 1942 from tuberculosis, and his works remained suppressed in Nazi-controlled countries, only to be rediscovered in the 60's at the start of the long-term effort to resurrect the music of Jewish composers suppressed, forced into exile or murdered by the Third Reich.  Of all those reborn artists Schulhoff has had the best success among modern audiences, who have responded well to his clever, skillfully wrought and entertaining works, and multiple record labels have recorded scads of his pieces, including some Hot Music -

- a stunning Duo for Violin and Cello, one of the best works in the genre -

- and his Piano Sonata no. 3, one of my favorite sonatas of the first half of the 20th century.

All of these pieces warrant whole articles of discussion but only one Schulhoff work made its way into the inaugural concerts of my chamber group Cursive.  Judging by the piles of performances on YouTube, Schulhoff's Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1927 could be his greatest posthumous success and I can't exactly blame the public and performers for the People's Candidate.  I kind of don't want to talk about it too much because, you know, the market of our performances of the thing will weaken and all that, but there's a good chance that bits and pieces won't overwhet anybody's appetite.  There's a particularly lovely bit that's brief enough to leave the rest of the piece hanging but whetful enough to warrant special attention, the slow movement, the "Aria":

I've been meaning to do a long writeup on what's going on in the piano at the beginning, that off-centered undulation that taps into the depth of dreaming.  There's also something to be said for how the right hand slides gradually down through keys, a trick pioneered by Chopin in his E-minor Prelude and emulated enough times to fill a book.  My favorite bit, through rehearsals and the previous concert, was that moment in the left hand (thankfully repeated later) is the low C major triad followed by a D-sharp minor triad in a higher register, snuffing out profundity in order to leave us wanting more.  But the whole thing is lovely, too:

The whole sonata as well as seven other pieces, and maybe a surprise or two, are available for you to hear this Thursday night at 8:00 at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  Click here for deets and keep a little space in your day for the 122nd birthday of Czechoslovakia's favorite son, or at least my favorite son on this special day.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Short-Shrifted - William Baines

In English culture one composer stands for dying young, personally and as a symbol of his generation, more than any other, George Butterworth (1885-1916).  One of the most sensitive and melancholic of the Pastoralists, Butterworth published a handful of song cycles and orchestral pieces before going off to the front of WWI, eventually dying in the Battle of the Somme, his body lost to the war.  His cycle A Shropshire Lad from poems by A.E. Housman, as well as its orchestral epilogue, the Rhapsody, have become musical symbols of the U.K.s "lost" generation of young men lost to the Great War, and his early death at 31 might have given his music some artificial support after his time, though judging by its quality it would have been well-remembered regardless of its author's tragic passing.  Another young death in British composition that has made much less of an impact on its country's psyche is that of William Baines (1899-1922), dead at the much more tender age of 23 from tuberculosis and in many ways a more daring and individual composer than most of his English contemporaries.

My introduction to Baines came from the inclusion of his piece Tides, as much of a posthumous breakout hit as he'll ever get, in the 2002 Rarities of Piano Music festival, an annual nine-day festival of piano rarities at Schloss vor Husum in Germany that has featured some favorite pianists of mine and this blog, such as Marc-André Hamelin and Kolja Lessing.  The Danish record label Danacord has put out 17 CDs of highlights from the festival and Tides made the cut, performed by Jean Dubé, alongside works by Szymanowski, Reger and Ignaz Friedman.  British Impressionism, or rather the Impressionist side of Pastoralism, what I call the post-Elgar British composers such as Vaughan Williams and his ilk, never equaled the evocative dreamscapes of the French Impressionists in the large scale but some individuals tried to go for the gold, such as Frank Bridge in many of his miniatures and the early work of John Ireland, and Baines's music (most of which can be seen in score form here) is the most non-Pastoralist Impressionist work I've seen come from England in its near-total avoidance of British folk influence and commitment to the ambiguous moods of his French predecessors.  Tides has become one of his most popular works because of its near-surrealism, a far cry from the likes of Butterworth, chockablock with juxtaposed scales, Scriabin-esque chord structures, bursts of virtuosity and deep foreboding.  I've always had a soft spot for pieces that treat the sea in a sense of danger (such as Irwin Heilner's creepy song The Tide Rises) and Tides expertly captures the mood of standing on the shore of a vast ocean in the dead of night.  The second movement, "Goodnight to Flamboro", is almost Ivesian in its placement of popular-style music in a pantonal landscape, and why the first movement alone has caught on more than the whole thing baffles me.  I am grateful for anything of his to catch one regardless of which part of it, as nowadays much of his music is available and the many amateur performances of his piano pieces has made him a minor favorite in the New Digital Repertoire, a movement that I'm doing everything I can to further and one that hasn't gotten nearly enough discussion in the mainstream.  This amateur fanbase has produced such a variety of Baines recordings that I can show you this one, a selection from his warmly etched Four Sketches, without breaking any copyright laws:

The Sketches are some of his earliest pieces, written when he was 19 and 20 and showing considerable maturity and thoughtfulness for formative works, a time most composers prefer to forget after they've achieved Tenure Grant Academy status or whatever it is composers get these days.  These years were strangely lucky ones for Baines as he was pulled into the British army in 1918, only to be relieved of his duties because of septic poisoning, obviously the most attractive illness for the Classical music set.  He would continue composing and performing through the aftermath of his sepsis, a disease he never really recovered from, and only a few years later succumbed to the aforementioned TB, the fatal illness of choice by those who want to die wanly and sexily.  While I can't exactly point to any of his pieces as evidence or reflection of his atrocious health (always the most tasteful treatment of another's illness) most of his works are imbued with an arresting sense of loss and distant nostalgia, a very English brand of saudade or dor.  One of the best pieces of his for expressing this is his Twilight Pieces, the first piece, "A Fragment" capturing the quality of fading sunlight in heavy summer air:

The second piece, "Quietude" also takes great pains to never let the chords naturally resolve, a Pastoralist answer to Wagner delaying the tonic until after the fourth or fifteenth hour.  There are a few tricks here that I've never seen in another piece of this time, such as this chord:

Or this little grace note, part of "Quietude"'s moment of physical outburst:

On a more swift, non dolorous note of delivery, here's "The Naiad" from the Three Concert Studies:

I always like those chord progressions where a simple form is chosen and the permutations are either flying farther out from the center or collapsing inwards, as the first half of that main left hand ostinato shows.  Baines also understands that an audience used to more conventional chords will accept any foreign dissonance as long as it moves by quickly enough and has a superficial logic, either with itself or with other harmonies in the phrase.  There were a ton of fairy-folk-inspired pieces by British composers around this time and this is one of the most magical and exciting, rewarding those who can afford the crispest piano to perform it on.  In case you're wondering, no, Baines never finished a full piano sonata, though not for a lack of trying.  Aside from an early, uncharacteristic Symphony that wasn't performed until 1991 (link here, though beware of amateur hour performance) Baines never wrote a "big piece", something that often ends up "cursing" composers after their deaths in the eyes of overly discriminating musicologists with their eyes peeled for analyzable, symphony-length works ripe for dissertationing.  For an example, imagine if Federico Mompou had never written Musica Callada and how much critical attention he would have gotten then.  This attitude was high-order phooey then and is even higher-order phooey now that there's a huge market for classical music outside of the strict confines of concert halls and academic studies.  For my money Baines well earned his place in the canon of British music and his works are gifts that keep on giving intellectual and emotional rewards, and his gradual resurrection through the internet can only be a good thing - an attitude I wish more performers would adopt, if only for the sake of works like these 7 Preludes.  Goodnight, Flamboro and otherwise.