(Non)Sense and Sensibility

(Non)Sense and Sensibility

August 19 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Classical music is hardly serious all the time. Indeed, the combination of heartfelt and humorous emotions is vital to music’s expressive power. It may have been more challenging to write wit into sacred situations during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but certainly by the Baroque outright comic gestures were an important tool in the composer’s toolbox. As the classical and romantic traditions developed—the one with quite clear formal expectations, the other more spontaneous but often tied into quite heady poetic concepts—additional avenues for upholding or deflating those conventions became the source for music that could be both sensible and nonsensical.

Anyone who has studied music theory can appreciate the game afoot in Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke) written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Though never explicitly revealed by its composer, the Joke’s intent seems obvious: to have a laugh at the excesses and errors of other composers; to include the kind of rule-breaking that a novice would make; to experiment with harmony and counterpoint for no other reason than that one can. The opening hardly betrays anything amiss, as it bounces along in typical galant fashion—if perhaps a touch too bouncy. The pattering tonic-dominant chord progressions grow excessive. Sudden, unnecessary key changes and a jumble of melodic tidbits poke fun at composers who could not restrain themselves from adding the proverbial kitchen sink. More is not always better, of course, and this is just the opening movement!
The Minuet draws laughter for the painfully out-of-tune horns; natural, valveless horns are notoriously difficult to play. Moreover, touches of fugue seem out of place in this most gracious of dances. The third movement steps forward like a violin concerto, full of lovely solo writing and expressive gestures. One problem is that the cadences closing each phrase keep being diverted into new key areas, producing a restless quest for coordination between soloist and ensemble. Having already written five accomplished violin concertos in his youth, Mozart could now handle a jab at himself. The culmination comes in the farcical, pseudo-Bachian cadenza; if you enjoy the penultimate pizzicato plunk, then you’re in on Mozart’s humor.
The fourth and final movement draws various jokes together into a grand culmination of everything one should not do. For instance, horn tremolos are not a good idea; measures of rhythmically hypnotic patter make an excellent soporific. What makes The Musical Joke come off, today, is our adoration of Mozart’s brilliant style as well as the patently hyperbolic gestures (the same devices that serve P.D.Q. Bach, for example). Some jokes are intended for connoisseurs, such as parallel voice leading or unresolved leading tones. But if anyone is still in doubt about Mozart’s comic intent, he clobbers them over the head at the end with three final chords that we might nickname Larry, Mo, and Curly.

Many creative artists have maintained other professions while pursuing their craft. Two of the most significant are Franz Kafka and Charles Ives (1874-1954), both of whom sold insurance. Kafka’s office work, which he generally loathed, inspired the bureaucratic machinery that haunts his best stories. For Ives, the regularity and financial success of his insurance ventures were not a hindrance to composition, though health issues meant that he wrote very little after age 40. Though not fully appreciated until many years later, Ives’ pieces are among the most radical written by an American composer. Experimental tendencies began as a child, bringing together Yankee ingenuity from his Connecticut upbringing alongside his father’s role as a military bandleader. Music permeated the household, and Charles took positions as an organist while still in his teens; hymns and folksongs ran through his brain beside bits and pieces of band music, classical repertoire, and the latest avant-garde imports from Europe.
Tonight we hear a small sample of Ives’ diverse output, including five of his 100+ songs for voice and piano. A mere ten seconds of the ultra-dissonant “Majority” (1921) suffice to cement his reputation as a maverick. Built largely on chord clusters, the song constructs an edifice of sound against which “the masses” seem to labor. The following song, “1 2 3,” could hardly offer greater contrast. Whereas “Majority” is a mini-manifesto lasting over seven minutes, “1 2 3” contains just one sentence and passes in less than 30 seconds! “Charlie Rutledge” is even more raucous. In this mock-Cowboy song, Ives spins outs a boisterous ballad of woe—pathetically culminating in piano chords that imitate poor Charlie’s death beneath a fallen horse. From this tongue-in-cheek memorial, we move to the sober shores of Walden Pond. In “Thoreau” Ives combines narration and song with atmospheric piano textures to honor a spiritual hero; he described Ives as “a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony’.” Finally, “The Circus Band” concludes the set in classic Ives fashion. Here are the echoes of brass bands and galloping ponies, suddenly interrupted by a search for the missing Lady in Pink. Based on the musical treatment, this lady must know both Rachmaninoff and Sousa, and the comic text merges brilliantly with the composer’s musical pastiche.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) lived through a tumultuous time in European, and more particularly French, history. He was still a teenager when Paris hosted the famed Exhibition of 1889, and his upper-class education brought him into contact with leading elements of intellectual and artistic culture from around the globe. France still maintained its colonial interests, and the music of Ravel’s early years—like that of his contemporaries—exudes a fascination with exoticism, foreign adventures, and the mysteries of unexplored lands. It goes without saying, perhaps, that what we witness in the songs and poetry is a white European’s glimpse of the “other.”
Ravel composed three Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) in 1925 and 1926. They were never intended to form a unified cycle. Rather, they use music to set in relief several poems by Evariste de Parny, the aristocratic author who died a century earlier. Ravel fully absorbed the rich tradition of French art song (or chanson) as developed primarily by Fauré, and the natural charm of these songs is easy to hear. Moreover, the addition of flute and cello offers a notable advance on the traditional piano accompaniment, one that Ravel—a master orchestrator—is eager to explore. Indeed, the opening of “Nahandove” unfolds in just voice and cello before the piano arrives to inject more animation. The flute then appears, at the peak of the intensity, with short motivic figures, creating a modest parade of characters that seem hardly to speak the same language. Motivic connections gradually emerge between the parts, such that the instruments become vital support for the voice’s tender expressivity.
“Aoua!” explodes out of the preceding calmness. This is music of brusque gestures, of operatic power and modernist punch. Yet the mood changes just as quickly as it began, proceeding into an ominous undulation of open fifths in the piano and a static vocal line. Out of this malaise, the music builds considerable momentum that finally breaks through in a recurrence of the opening gestures. The final song, “Il est doux,” explores more novel sonic effects: solo flute in a meandering pentatonic line supported by ethereal cello harmonics. Ravel’s motivation for the sound comes out in the text’s opening line: “It’s lovely to lie down in the heat under a shady tree, waiting for the evening wind to bring coolness.”

Tonight we are pleased to present another world premiere by composer-in-residence Zachary Wadsworth. Staunton Music Festival commissioned Wadsworth to create Nonsensations for woodwind quintet. The work was written in summer 2021. Wadsworth sends the following thoughts:

Whenever we experience something that is, truly, nonsense, we experience a kind of disorientation that can be extremely powerful — revolting, dizzying, or even humorous. These reactions to nonsense are the “Nonsensations” of my title, and I’ve written three short pieces for five wind instruments to explore the phenomenon. Being surrounded by nonsense can create a feeling of ever-increasing anxiety that is mimicked in the scientific phenomenon of the Shepard tone, which is an acoustic illusion created by overlapping rising tones. In the first movement, “Shepard Tones,” this phenomenon is presented relentlessly. Another reaction to true nonsense can be to try to find meaning in something that is meaningless. I explore this in the next movement, “Ghost Melody,” where a melody becomes audible in unmoving chords — almost like seeing a barely-recognizable object embedded deep in a block of ice. Once we finally hear the melody, the oboe sings a duet with the specter. Finally, another reaction to nonsense can be to lose interest. This is the premise of the last movement, “Sidetracked Waltz,” in which a waltz keeps losing focus and wandering into disorder.

Erik Satie (1866-1925) may be most well-known today for his lovely Gymnopédies and other haunting pieces for solo piano. But he was notorious for his sense of humor, which ranged from glib witticisms to quite acerbic and bold jabs at musical conventions. Most often it was the past that inspired Satie’s creativity, and the Sonatine bureaucratique is no exception. Composed in 1917 for solo piano and narrator, the Sonatine remains his only full-length parody of an existing piece by another composer. In this case, the popular Sonatina in C, Op. 36 No. 1, by Muzio Clementi comes under fire. It is subjected to thematic variations, diversions into wide-ranging keys, and most obviously—and insultingly for fans of Clementi—made into a soundtrack for Satie’s own inane script.
The narrator relates a day in the life of one incredibly vapid businessman: happy in love, happy at work, musing over a promotion, and listening to snatches of music wafting up from the Parisian streets below. Before long, it is time for our (anti)hero to head home, this caricature of a man having done a caricature of a day’s work. Satie’s score is lithe and engaging, a textbook demonstration of how composers explored a neoclassical aesthetic. Departures from Clementi’s original are sometimes subtle, sometimes quite obvious, and Satie is keen to push the boundaries of the classical style’s sunny disposition.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote over 100 symphonies. It would almost be inevitable that some means of distinguishing among them all would be invented. Like some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (“The Tempest,” for instance, or “Appassionata”), many of Haydn’s symphonies bear literary or imaginative subtitles, such as “Farewell,” “The Clock,” and “The Hen.” Rarely was Haydn himself involved or aware of such designations being applied. Instead, they were coined by publishers or critics responding to some distinguishing feature in the music. Usually the noteworthy feature appears in the opening movement, though the “Surprise” Symphony shows that was not always the case.
While serving Austria’s Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, Haydn was required to compose ensemble music on a regular basis. In 1764 he created this Symphony in E-flat, his twenty-second in the genre and subsequently nicknamed “Der Philosoph”: The Philosopher. The designation first appeared around 1790. It seems to respond to the dialogic interaction between French horn and English horn (cor anglais) in the first movement. Perhaps more significant was Haydn’s decision to include English horn in the first place, rather than the more traditional oboe. Symphony No. 22 stands as his only symphony to use the instrument. Certainly the work’s opening Adagio, with its plodding bassline, can suggest contemplation, and the question-answer design between the horns could indicate philosophic debate. But to read in further seems unnecessary, for this is clearly not program music in any sense. The later movements (Presto, Minuet & Trio, and Presto finale) retain no audible connection with the philosophic spirit. If the designation serves to draw attention to the work, that is probably the most one can hope for. And it does merit greater exposure, for the sheer length of the opening movement, the use of English horn, and the lively second movement and finale are all quite inspired—just not necessarily inspired by a vision of Socrates, Descartes, or John Locke.

© Jason Stell, 2021