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.


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