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.


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