Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wassenaer's Concerti Armonici, the Most Beautiful Shame in Music

Believe it or not, there was a time before intellectual copyright law, and misattribution used to be a big problem, not the least in classical music.  The most famous case is most likely the trumpet voluntary Prince of Denmark's March, often just called Trumpet Voluntary, which was long attributed to Henry Purcell but was in fact written by his younger contemporary Jeremiah Clarke - the confusion arose from a late-19th-century organ arrangement.  More salacious are cases where an unknown composer simply published their work under another composer's name, and no composer was more of a victim of this than Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.  After his death at 26 (ouch!), dozens of works were either published under the name Pergolesi or incorrectly stuffed into his oeuvre by unwitting scholars, and so prevalent was this issue that most of the pieces Stravinsky used for his ballet Pulcinella under the presumption that they were all Pergolesian were written by other composers, including the man we're talking about today.  

The "Tarantella" movement of the Pulcinella Suite was based on the final movement of the fifth Concerto Armonico in B-flat major, part of a series of six Concerti Armonici for strings and continuo by an author who was initially anonymous upon their publication in 1740.  The idea was put forth that they were written by the violinist Carlo Ricciotti, but the Polish composer Franciszek Lessel asserted that they were written by Pergolesi, a misconception that lasted until 1980.  That year, a book was published by musicologist Albert Dunning that proved that the Concerti were written by a Dutch nobleman by the name of Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, which admittedly doesn't roll of the tongue like Pergolesi, but the discovery was made by the author when he visited the castle Wassenaer grew up in and found a manuscript of the Concerti, written in Ricciotti's hand, with a revealing foreword.  As it turns out, Wassenaer requested that his name be left off the pieces upon publication, a decision whose explanation is both frustrating and, oddly enough, tacitly inspiring, but before we talk about the whys I must assert evidence that the Concerti Armonici are the best pieces of music anybody ever tried to take their name off of.

Cast in a four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast church sonata format and following the Roman-Neopolitan concerto practice of using four different violin parts, the Concerti are masterpieces of their time.  Wassenaer must have studied deeply and worked very hard on these works, as they show an extraordinary gift for contrapuntal and harmonic richness.  It's hardly not worth talking about them as their high quality is self-evident, some moments almost shocking in their beauty.  Wassenaer had a special taste for deep pedal points and layering motives, weaving cells together in rapturous euphony like flocks of birds over immense canyons.  If it seems my adjectives are a bit over-the-top I'd argue that the music sparks grand emotions, a truth that turns odd once you know why Wassenaer wanted to remain uncredited for their composition.

Wassenaer's foreword with the manuscript mentioned that Ricciotti, the first violinist for the Concerti's first private performances, insisted that the pieces be published, and that only with the insistence of their ultimate dedicatee Count Willem Bentinck did they come to print, and only under the condition that Wassenaer's name be stricken from the record out of his own shame at their existence.  One source I read claimed that Wassenaer felt that it was unbecoming of a nobleman to have to "peddle his wears", so to speak, but Wassenaer's own words in the foreword are more revealing:

"Some of them are tolerable, some middling, others wretched. Had they not been published, I would perhaps have corrected the mistakes in them, but other business has left me no leisure to amuse myself with them, and I would have caused their editor offence."

That's just insane.  Never before have I heard such damning words attached to an artist's own work in contrast to such high quality, not even in famous cases of regretful authors like Thomas Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49.  I suppose there have been more extreme cases, such as Franz Kafka's wish that all his unpublished works be burned after his death, but I can see no reason for these pieces to be deemed so unsuitable as to be orphaned.  It's not like the authorship of Primary Colors where the content of the piece is scandalous and dangerous to its source.  It's not even like Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the incredible early Renaissance allegorical novel written by a Franciscan priest, because at least there's a tradition of the clergy shunning their own contributions to art out of humility to God.  Sure, Gerard Manley Hopkins destroyed all his early poems when he joined the clergy but he at least got back to work after that whole humility thing blew over.  In fact, if there's any other work this case reminds me of it's - and bare with me - American History X.

For those who don't know, American History X is a really dang good movie starring Edward Norton as a Neo-Nazi who goes to jail for curb stomping a black man and turns away from racism in jail, only to get out and do his damndest to keep his little brother Edward Furlong from going down the same path.  Well-directed by Tony Kaye, Kaye claimed that Norton took the movie away from him and edited it in a way to put in as many shots of himself as possible, but was denied the right to release the movie under a pseudonym (which would have been "Humpty Dumpty", by the way) after doing interviews blasting the studio's decision to release the mucked-with version.  Upon its release, Roger Ebert called it the best movie anybody ever tried to take their name off of, and without better evidence I'd be inclined to agree.  That being said, Kaye did have legitimate concerns that the movie was no longer his, and apparently the workprint version and the final film do feel completely different (though I've never seen it), which is more reason to be fearful than Wassenaer's.  Seriously, did you hear these things?

I'm making my official vote for the Concerti Armonici being the best pieces of classical music anybody tried to publish anonymously, and I get the feeling that I'm not the only one, as once the pieces were reprinted with proper attribution a number of recordings popped up, including the ones featured here by the excellent Canadian string orchestra I Musici de Montréal under the direction of Yuli Turovsky.  These performances milk every exquisite harmony and timbre out of the scores and have the power to renew one's faith in the bridge music between the Baroque and Classical eras - after snatching this CD from the clearance rack I certainly realized it'd been far too long since I'd taken a dip in Enlightenment waters.  The Concerti Armonici would be stunning no matter who wrote them but thanks to Dunning's discovery the classical community has finally gotten around to honoring the name of an unknown master, and if that's not a happy ending I don't know what is - except for the last movements of the Concerti.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fulvio Caldini's Memories of the Flood

I'll freely admit that I'm no expert on contemporary Italian classical music.  Sure, I know and love post-WWII guys like Luigi Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio and Giacinto Scelsi, and featured a piece by Niccolò Castiglioni on Forgotten Leaves, but that's hardly a comprehensive knowledge and would make me look like a poser if I ever attended university over there.  That doesn't mean that I won't promote lesser-known Italians like I own the place, which brings us to Fulvio Caldini, a composer I discovered via Keith Johnson's sheet music shop in Seattle, the stock of which can be viewed here.

Caldini is best known for his pieces for the recorder as a soloist and ensemblist, an instrument I've long held disdain for due to its deceptive difficulty and tendency to create grating wolf tones (at least whenever I try playing it).  Caldini is a spiritual disciple of Steve Reich, and as such most of his more current music, including the many recorder works of his to get recorded, are dyed-in-the-wool minimalism that reflect a heavy Reichian influence.  They also show how excellent it can be when people can actually play the recorder, such as in the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet in their recording of his Clockwork Game, op. 72/a:

That slap-tongue effect is really something, adding a rich percussive texture that immediately sets the piece apart.  There's also a slight flanging, possibly unintentional but totally welcome.  In the spirit of the genre he allows harmonies to unfold naturally, and the rhythms gently transition from duple to triple meters and back again.  The texture becomes more pointillistic as the piece reaches the middle but the true center sees longer notes than ever before, accompanied by seething dissonances.  Once the 8-minute mark rolls we get both high slap notes and moments of actual silence, and the low strings of repeated notes eventually return, though in a different key.  It's a fine act of hypnotism at the very least and the performance here is excellent.

The Sonatina in Quartetto, op. 65f, features a long solo on the sopranino recorder or garklein (I think; I don't have the album liner notes) that dances across a disjointed chaconne in the first movement.  This instrument is one of the more treacherous I know and the performer here is pretty stunning; I'd think those li'l beasts require insane breath control.  The second movement is more flowing and pastoral, akin to a late Medieval partsong and exploiting the recorder's Earthy resonance.  The third brings back the sopranino for another off-kilter dance, but this time there's less staccato chirps and more melismatic lines supported by quasi-organ chord bursts.  In all three movements Caldini's harmonic palette is ebullient and bubbly, making for a sonatina both condensed and somewhat light in tone, especially in the last movement.  Did you know that you can get both these tracks as well as many other recorder ensemble pieces by Caldini on this excellent-looking CD?  Lovely stuff.

On a less Reichian note, Caldini created this piece of musique concrète only a few years ago, Sulle scogliere di marmo, op. 132.  The title translates to "On the Marble Cliffs", and I have a feeling it's in reference to Ernst Junger's novel of the same name.  Published in 1939, the novel is mostly remembered for having predicted the outbreak of WWII with its depiction of a Utopian rural society infiltrated and corrupted by an insidious, pseudo-fascist regime.  I read that book some years ago, and while I didn't think it was all that great and largely read like bad fan fiction of the War, it did have some very striking imagery and I can see other people liking it far more than myself.  I can't be sure that Caldini had that book in mind when writing this, the first movement of which begins as a study of bells and gongs smeared across a wide, processed canvas.  By minute two crashing waves and screeching wails have entered the scene, as well as low thunder-tube notes akin to the music that accompanies the scene in Star Trek: the Motion Picture where the Klingon ships get destroyed by V-GER's energy field.  Caldini's own energy field soon takes over and is wholly terrifying, layered break drums emerging from a hundred writhing snakes.  The waves subside and single pitches needle into our foreheads.  Movement two aims to illustrate the sensation of dropping a 70's moog into a river.  The high pitches insinuate themselves into our frontal lobes and the break drums/gamelan bells return.  Then Caldini tosses a rock in and we flash back to 'Nam.  Movement three slows down to allow for an apparent alien invasion as many of the electronic layers are classic sci-fi stuff, but as before water and helicopters take precedence.  It's here that I realize what Marmo is - a psychological tale of the arrival of war and an atmosphere piece that works best as a stream-of-consciousness narrative of someone hiding from war machines in the wild, and the Junger reference makes much more sense after a full listen.  In purely musical terms, the best reference I can muster for this piece is Xenakis's concrète masterpiece Hibiki Hana Ma, but Marmo's sound tapestry is wild and mysterious enough to evoke whatever you feel like.  Any way you look at it the piece is a striking and expertly crafted addition to the musique concrète rep and shows Caldini as a master of atmospherics.

All of these pieces allude to wide spaces and internal worlds, and this fascination is much older than his Reichian work - it has been present since his career was in its infancy, which brings us to the works I wanted to talk about the most.  At Keith Johnson's shop I found two sonatas, which we won't be discussing, as well as three large-format one-sheets written back when his opus numbers were single digits and immediately grabbed my attention for their elusive beauty and elegant engraving.  I recorded all three of them for my Soundcloud (making my performances the recording premiere of these pieces) and scanned them as to make them as easy as possible to enjoy and perform by others.  And first on the docket is a micro-suite inspired by Old Scratch himself, just in time to miss Halloween by a little while.

"Iblis" is the name for the Devil in the Qu'ran, and Caldini totally avoids filling his portrait of the Lord of Lies with lots of fire and brimstone.  Each of the movements of the suite are played attaca and are not immediately perceptible as distinct pieces, relying on the prowess of the performer to make them notable.  Starting out only with three intervals - minor second, minor third, major third - each movement expands the sound palette to create mounting foreboding, all within the context of static-yet-expansive drama.  Caldini ladles on fermati and dynamic quaking, his harmonies caught in a limbo between tonality and atonality but can't help but be dark.  A particularly curious detail are he quasi campanella fourths and fifths in the Liberissimo statico movement, marked with both staccato markings and fermati; as there's no standard approach for this on the piano I used half-pedalling to make the notes decay unpredictably.  The piece reaches a climax in the middle of page 2 at Libero, where rolled tenth chords sound subterranean gongs and a minor ninth roll marks a grand fall to a low E, leading into a soft variation on the opening figure and a final abyssal D-flat.  There's been a lot of great classical music written about the Devil but the Iblis Suite, op. 3a is one of the most subconsciously compelling and makes for a singularly entrancing performing experience.  Let's hope I didn't botch it too much.

Translating into "Memory of the Flood", Memoria del Diluvio, op. 5 is a bigger step towards minimalism but avoids the modal noodling that is post-minimalism's hallmark sound.  In fact, in all these early pieces Caldini's harmonies are unlike anything else being written at the time, neither tonal or dodecaphonic, maintaining strong lyric sensibility without appearing old-fashioned or sentimental.  Once again using limited intervallic variety as stepping stones, Memoria pulls the dragshoot on drama and sits on the sustaining pedal, allowing single notes to shimmer in the deep.  The left hand ambles along broad triads to create enormous resonance, allowing familiar harmonies to emerge organically and clash with one another.  When the pedal is finally changed nearly a minute has elapsed and the effect is like a huge heartbeat.  Caldini maintains this reduced writing for many minutes, all the way until the middle of the third staff of page 2 where two perfect fifths offset by a minor second and a few octaves sounds like an Earthy bell.  Some people will think of John Cage's In a Landscape as a possible inspiration, and while I'd buy Caldini being a fan of the work what this piece really reminds me of is the piano suites Charles Koechlin wrote in 1910's, such as his famous hour-long cycle Les heures persanes, op. 65 and more appropriately Paysages et marines, op. 63:

Those resounding open intervals are key to Koechlin's unique brand of Impressionism and Paysages was my biggest reference point for performing this work, and even if my work here only succeeds in making Paysages et marines more popular than that's okay, too.  Memoria del Diluvio doesn't need help from Koechlin, though, and hopefully it'll come in to its own with repeated performances.

The Etruscan civilization became distinct around 800 BC and fell around 500 BC, and has sustained a fascination in the Italian soul due to its unique language and deep roots in the land; the region of Tuscany is named after the culture.  I've seen at least two Italian horror movies that use Etruscan mystery to spice up mundane zombie stories, and that's got to count for something.  In Caldini's case Etrusci (is that what you'd say?) is used much like Satie used ancient Greek gymnopedes, backdrops for delicate evocations of an unknown past.  The action is marked by contrasting beat divisions, simultaneously more sustained and faster moving than the textures of Memoria and alluding to a recalled restlessness.  Melodies snake eliptically and the hands dovetail each other's phrases.  The second "incantation" features a rarity in contemporary music, a repeated section, and he gives the number of repeats over to the choice of the performer; I've only repeated it once as to not overstay my welcome.  As in Memoria Caldini uses larger note values at slow tempi to give the illusion of flying over large space, and in the third incantation those values are nearly doubled, resulting in the one string of quarter notes moving by very quickly.  This practice might not be so much new as a throwback to Medieval and Renaissance music that used whole and half notes how we tend to use quarter and eighth notes today.  Not as obviously euphonious as Memoria, the Incantesimi occupy a harmonic world of their own and might be the most elusive of these works, and as always performance takes serious concentration and restraint, things which might not excite the Transcendental Etude crowd but is well-served by this haunting music.  Much like the GymnopediesIn a Landscape and Paysages et marines, these three dark-eyed beauties by Fulvio Caldini need special advocation and a mature touch/ in order to survive, and thankfully they can all be acquired very cheaply at Sheet Music Plus, but I've tried to make it as easy as possible for you to take a crack at them yourselves.  Caldini aims to ripple deep waters in the psyche and casts a richly layered stone to do so, and the waves will keep going long into my future.