Thursday, January 30, 2014

Daniel Ruyneman's Hieroglyphic Daydreams

Sheesh!  Lowlands Month is almost over and I've got a scant handful of hours left with only two articles up!  To ratchet things up, let's talk about the two guys I really wanted to get in this blog, starting with Debussy's Dutch worshiper, Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963).  He was a founding member (along with Sem Dresden, Bernard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer, and the subject of this month's last article) of the Dutch Society for the Development of Modern Creative Music in the 1920's, the real birth of modern Dutch music and a treasure trove of adventurousness.  While Ruyneman had one of the most varied oeuvres of this crew his music has eluded wide exposure, and considering people were willing to go out of their way to play a piece with as wacky of an instrumentation as Hieroglyphs, that's an odd fact indeed.

Arguably Ruyneman's most well-known piece, Hieroglyphs (1918) is a richly atmospheric piece that elicits the same question from anybody who hears it - what the heck are cupbells?  Cupbells (or cup-bells) are a mallet percussion instrument Ruyneman invented consisting of 25 copper bells that span two octaves.  The only recording I've heard uses a vibraphone, and I'm not sure any cup-bells survive today, but that doesn't take away from Hieroglyphs's kaleidoscopic majesty.  Unfolding quite slowly, Ruyneman uses the glacial tempo to slice the beats into wildly varied rhythmic subtleties, creating sparkling aquatic textures like these:

(Click for larger view)

The instrumentation is quite unique, favoring decaying, undulating metal over girthy strings 'n' winds.  Ancient Egypt has been a fascination of Europe's for a long time, but this is one of the only ones that entirely sidesteps cultural ignorance, largely by not referencing "Egyptian" music at all.  Hieroglyphs is a study of exoticism itself, as Egyptian hieroglyphs were untranslatable for centuries before the Rosetta stone was discovered, and staring at an indecipherable text does elicit at wonderful aesthetic experience, a sensation captured here exquisitely.  And if you can't read music, the piece looks pretty dang cool - look at all the dots and lines!  Here's the recording to help unravel the mystery.

The most adventurous pieces of his I've seen are unfortunately not available on YouTube, such as the crazy Kleine Sonate for piano (published by Universal-Edition in their usual excellent engraving) and the Sonata for Chamber Choir (a quirky, lyric-less exercise in choral coloration).  However, I can at least use this blog once again to republish pieces that need the help.  Another early work of Ruynemans is the Pathematologien for piano, a unique work in its time for its focus on psychological states - only Lord Berners's Fragments Psychologiques comes to mind as a contemporary.  The three pathematologies (pathology, specifically psycho-pathology) are "Hallucination", "The Voice of the Past" and "Impression", not the most scientific of terms but evocative nonetheless.  As YouTube has only offered me the first one in recording let's throw that one up on the board.

These lush miniatures show the influence of Debussy more than anything else I've seen of Ruyneman's, with plenty of whole-tone and modal stuff floating around.  For a hallucination it's a pretty languorous one, like falling asleep in a sweltering greenhouse, and the other movements are similarly calm.  Pathematologien is a piece that baffles me as to its absence from Public Domain sheet music sites like IMSLP, as it was most certainly published before 1923 (though it oddly lacks a copyright date).  Ruyneman's piano writing is deft enough to be able to balance all those open octaves, often a bad sign in piano music but well-handled here (and the other movements are more sparing in their textures).  That calm doesn't forbid the occasional fortissimo, of course.  This recording, while not labeled, is most likely by Pietro Van Doesburg from his Repertoire De Stijl CD, a collection of piano works from the Dada era, and he captures the hallucination's arc with passion and patience (though those first chords are the theme song for the "Componist van de Week" show).

Like many composers who came of age in Impressionism and Expressionism (that Kleine Sonate I mentioned earlier), Ruyneman eventually settled into Neo-Classicism.  This period bore his other most well-known work, the Sonatina for piano.  The ornate experimentation of his earlier work has given way to the sparest of textures.  There are no more than two pitches being heard at any given time for the majority of the piece, using piano-lesson-friendly leaps and implied pedaling to eke out harmonies.  There were an awful lot of adventurous sonatinas in the 20th century, so many I may devote an article to that genre's evolution through modernism, but Ruyneman's Sonatina sticks to simplicity and relative ease of performance.  That isn't to say it's the easiest piece in the world, but Ronald Brautigam makes it sound like a piece of cake in his recording.

Perhaps Ruyneman's biggest downfall was his lack of a consistent identity.  I don't mean that composers should only write in the way that makes them easiest to recognize, and I find it delightful when people write outside their box.  However, the general public is drawn back to an artist with the guarantee that what they liked in piece A will be present in piece B.  Ruyneman cut such a wide swath in terms of technique and mood that one is never sure what to hear in his next piece, which can both discourage and reward exploration.  I prefer to pitch these cases as being easy to approach from all angles - if you don't like one piece, the next one will be quite different.  Whatever the style, Ruyneman's works were all inventive and of high quality, and the kinds of pieces he attempted alone should be enough for you to take a sip.  Next time, the grand finale to Lowlands Month - Willem Pijper.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Visual Lowlands Music - Bernard Zweers's Symphony no. 3, "To My Fatherland"

In my Bernard Wagenaar article I said that I'd limit myself to 20th century Lowlands composers, and lo and behold I've caught myself doing a late-19th-century showcaser, but I'll allow it for a Visual Music entry.  Bernard Zweers (1854-1924) is credited for creating a uniquely Dutch compositional voice in a time when Dutch composition was so far from the limelight it was growing icicles, and his Symphony no. 3, "To My Fatherland" is his most famous work, despite its infrequent exposure.  The low number of performances is due to its length at over an hour and the enormous orchestra it requires (including a four-piece saxhorn section!).  I'll leave you to find it on YouTube, mostly to avoid linking to an hour-long work in a brief article, and also to not distract from the cover of the Noske edition, which is the best use of the Franz Stuck font since an actual Franz Stuck painting.

It's sad to note that Noske lost quite a bit of money on the score due to poor sales, because this is some choice fin-de-siècle design.  The center square is a perfect marriage of modernist geometric design and late-19th-century botanical stenciling, a shockingly common detail in covers from this time and quite welcome despite its overexposure.  The gold-green color scheme is unexpected and quite glowing despite its age, as if the leaves are set in a bed of gold and the dots are pods.  The surrounding bands of dots are quite interesting for the time, more reminiscent of 60's futurism than Belle Époque.  They infer a third dimension that the centerpiece lacks, and their combination with the border lines gives the impression of peering through the walls of a 19th-century greenhouse, tastefully organized with spare order.  Shame about the library sticker, though I'm sure whatever plants Zweers is growing in there can break out and overtake it if properly watered.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lowlands Month Inauguration - Bernard Wagenaar's Ciacona for Piano

I've decided to make this January a theme month at Re-Composing, not because of any important dates coming up but rather as a challenge.  My subject will be 20th century Dutch and Belgian composers, a rich musical world that the rest of the world has largely ignored for stupid and/or depressing reasons.  Much like England, the Netherlands and Belgium were largely AWOL during the Classical and Romantic periods, only to come back onto the international scene with more personal musical languages for a more nationalistic age.  England's musical renaissance was far more successful abroad, and to this day only a scant handful of Dutch and Belgian composers past the Baroque era are still performed.  First at the plate is one who is particularly interesting to myself (and no one else, apparently) - Bernard Wagenaar (1892-1971).

I hate to have to make this article a de facto one-off; it's just that there's only one good piece of Wagenaar's on YouTube - and I made the recording.  Everybody else featured this month will get more lush recording coverage, don't worry.  Wagenaar came of musical age during one of the most fertile periods of Dutch music, the 1910's, but moved to the U.S. in 1920, gaining middling success and eventually devoured by the industry with no standard rep to his name.  It's a common story among expatriate composers, such as Ernst Toch, Karol Rathaus and Arthur Lourié, as only the strongest names among European émigrés, such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud, kept their heads above the waters of commercialism and academia.  Wagenaar wasn't a force of personality, and all his music was urbane even in maximum power, so he bit the dust as Another One, though a few of his works were commercially recorded, such as his fourth Symphony.  In spite of his legacy his oeuvre is an intriguing plenty, spanning a wide variety of instrumentations and publishers and all bespeaking an assured and coolly inventive talent.  Take the opening to his Sinfonietta (1930), for instance:

Written for Concertgebouw conductor Willem Mengelberg and published by the seminal Cos Cob Press, the Sinfonietta is a masterpiece of economy, atmosphere and determination.  Wagenaar had put all his chips on the Neo-Classical square, favoring lean textures and quirky tonality, and you couldn't find a more evocatively lean texture to start if you tried - swirling high string loops and bouncing harp and piano, effectively combining an elliptical chromatic scale and a whole-tone soup.  The orchestra is stripped down, yet colorful - one each of the standard winds, four-piece percussion section, harp, piano and modest strings.  These forces are built for maximum timbral variety and clarity, allowing Wagenaar to craft fascinating textures from relatively little:

His harmonies are unpredictable but comprehensible, resembling impressionism-approved chords but coming from odd directions.  He also keeps things from getting too heavy, allowing his melodies to soar.  It's a fascinating little gem in dire need of a revival - I'm not sure it even received a performance by its dedicatee, much less anybody else.  A couple other nice works of his have come my way, such as String Quartet no. 3 (published by SPAM!) and the sparkling Four Vignettes for harp, which opens with pinging modal harmonics:

One piece in particular has gained my admiration, as it is the only one I can play by myself.  Published in Edward B. Marks in 1942, the Ciacona for piano is Wagenaar's most extensive work for the instrument as a soloist aside from his unpublished Piano Sonata from 1928 (which I'll get at any cost, including asking Columbia nicely for a copy of its copy).  As Marks never reprinted the piece (and no longer exists), I've taken the liberty of reprinting it here:

A ciacona (chaconne in English) is a set of continuous variations over a repeating series of chords (or series of bass notes like in a passacaglia, depending on who you ask), and Wagenaar's resurrection of this Baroque form is well in keeping with his Neo-Classical sensibilities.  You probably know Pachelbel's vomitous entry in the genre, though it's misleadingly called a Kanon, and I'll save you a headache by not linking to it.  Wagenaar uses stepwise chromatic motion to create a real beaut of a chaconne series, simultaneously rich and acidic.  The variations build slowly (literally) but steadily, using mounting complexity and difficulty to play around with split thirds, quintal chainsrubato ornaments and all the reasons the piano is the most popular instrument in the world.  If the chaconne chords start out less than pretty they become downright gorgeous in the last page, 'cause DANG! those major seconds sound great down in the piano's basement.  It all leads up to one of the biggest Wagenaar endings I've yet heard, a crash of major seconds and low D's, a great conclusion for my favorite chaconne ever.  Much like the Sinfonietta, the Ciacona is in dire need of revival and reprinting, and it's not even particularly difficult when compared to the kind of super-virtuoso fluff being paraded around on piano recital stages.  The recording below is one I made back at BU, so I apologize if the practice room piano is out of tune - bad tuning won't do those chords any justice.  Happy Lowlands Month, and here's a charge to any performers out there to dig up Wagenaar's stuff and get as cracking as you can.  There's plenty more Lowlands music coming, and it'll all be delicious.