Children's Corner

Children's Corner

August 14 at 4:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Children, childhood, and youth – these have always been ripe topics for creative inspiration. Beyond mere nostalgia for one’s past, we all marvel at the ways children can interact with their worlds: all-consuming interest at one moment, but able to drop one subject and move on without seeming to falter; innocence and wonder coupled with vulnerability and, sometimes, complete dependence on their elders; only the merest whispers of self-consciousness, and the sense that everything that matters is in the present. How many of us would love to dwell less on the past and fret not at all over the future?

Today’s program takes the child as its motivating force. We hear works about children, works written for children to enjoy, and even works written by a child genius (Mozart). Some of these pieces carry extra-musical narratives or programs with them; others simply reference elements of childhood, play, or fantasy. Some are wonderfully light-hearted and will bring out the child in us all. One work in particular, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, provides an important counterforce: grief. Many of us are parents and grandparents, and some of us have tragically suffered through the loss of our children. Mahler did, though his poignant songs were written several years prior to that episode. Had he tried to compose such works “when I really lost my daughter,” said Mahler, “I could not have written these songs anymore.” Before hearing Mahler’s powerful symphonic work, we present a diverse selection of smaller pieces.

Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) set of piano works called Children’s Corner provides both the title of today’s concert and its starting point. Though these pieces require fairly advanced ability, Debussy intended them for budding young musicians. They also celebrate the birth of his daughter Claude-Emma, born in October 1905. Debussy wrote the six pieces over the next 24 months and dedicated the set to his dear Chou-Chou (Emma’s nickname) in 1908. Familiar movements, all given English designations, include “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” and “Serenade for the Doll”. The title of the opening movement, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” references a long tradition of pedagogical works that purport to bring students ever closer to Mount Parnassus, home of the muses in Greek mythology. It is built entirely on arpeggios, taking a light-hearted jab at works like Czerny’s keyboard exercises.

In a similarly pedagogical vein, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) composed 44 Violin Duos more for instruction than for performance. Bartók composed the works on commission in 1931. He had already written collections of piano miniatures (Mikrokosmos) that attempt to infuse instructional music with sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic techniques. All of the violin duos draw inspiration from folk music of Eastern Europe; gathering and transcribing such music was another of Bartók’s passions. Duo #37 (Prelude and Canon) opens with a falling 4th interval, which becomes the motivic heart of the entire piece. The opening portion is lyrical and introspective, whereas the latter parts of the piece show far greater energy and rhythmic dissonance. Duo #41, simply titled “Scherzo”, maintains its athletic mood from start to finish through more advanced violin techniques, including quadruple stops and alternating between bowed and pizzicato notes.

Listeners are probably aware that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was an active composer from a very early age. Certainly he had ample assistance from his father, Leopold, himself a composer of note in addition to being the family’s impresario. So it is fairly likely that Leopold had a hand in helping young Wolfgang complete the more substantial early works, including several operas and symphonies. But with a piano solo like the Rondino in D Major, K.15d, we need not envision the child needing any help. The simple ABA structure, reliance on tonic harmony, and pure melody plus accompaniment texture are fundamental building blocks of so many compositions. It is one of 43 short piano works contained in a collection Mozart penned during his London tour of 1764-1765.

Composer Chen Yi subtitled her Two Chinese Bagatelles as being “Piano Solo for Children.” That designation does not refer to children as performers of these works, which are subtly intricate and demanding. Both are inspired by traditional Chinese opera and use simple melodies in combination with diverse rhythmic patterns. The first work, “Yu Diao,” refers to the northern operatic style of Henan province, considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Chen writes in a gestural manner, frequently returning to key pitches (such as D) and inserting bits of pentatonic collections. It won first prize in 1984 in the Beijing Children’s Piano Competition. She wrote the second Bagatelle, “Small Chinese Gong,” in 1993 to honor her own childhood piano teacher. Notated in ⅞ meter, its ostinato (repeated) bass theme and advanced chromaticism may call echoes of Stravinsky to mind.

In addition to all other demands upon his time, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) also was an important teacher to numerous pupils within and near his family orbit. As such, he was always in need of small-scale works with which to demonstrate fundamental principles of composition and performance. Several collections exist that gather together these pedagogical works, including two from the early 1720s. Bach had recently remarried following his first wife’s death, and the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach includes dozens of pieces mostly by Bach himself and many written out by his new wife. Another important collection from the early 1720s, the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann, contains music Bach used to teach his young sons from the first marriage, particularly Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. The delightful Prelude in C, BWV 924, shows the patterned harmonic progression and general shape that would become central to more expansive preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) worked at a fever pitch, writing quickly and tending to work simultaneously on bunches of related compositions. All of his early music is for solo piano. That phase lasted from 1829, when Papillons was created, through 1839. In 1838 he produced Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15. This collection originally contained thirty movements that Schumann pared down to thirteen for publication. Initially called “Easy Pieces”, these are not technically “easy” even if their short durations and transparent textures make them seem like mere trifles, mere child’s play. All movements received descriptive titles that Schumann suggested were “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation.” Many commentaries have remarked that Schumann’s piano works from the 1830s explore a fundamental expressive dichotomy, and Kinderszenen is no exception. Schumann himself claimed his works represented a dialectic between two personas that he named Florestan (representing the active, impassioned, virtuosic side of life) and Eusebius (symbolizing the passive, reflective, poetic). Piece no. 7, the justly famous “Träumerei” or “Dreaming,” embodies the most Eusebius-like spirit of the entire collection. Schumann turns markedly to F major for this simple song form. The theme features a rising 4th interval, colorful harmony, and subtle inner-voice counterpoint that enriches the tender lyricism.

Of all composers, none so deeply and personally expresses oppositions of life and death, of loving and losing, as Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Though he did not die young like Mozart or Schubert, or end his days in an asylum like Schumann, Mahler lived under the constant shadow of man’s mortality. From the deaths of his parents and sister in a single year (1889), a brother’s suicide, and the loss of his eldest daughter, Mahler’s hypochondriacal strain fed a growing anxiety. 1907 was the pivotal year. Just months after burying his daughter, Mahler was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. Yet he continued to conduct and compose, completing a Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde in 1909.

In the haunting Kindertotenlieder, every moment of joy is touched by foreboding of sadness as voice and orchestra alternate between emotional extremes. All of the texts were penned by a single poet, Friedrich Rückert. More than 100 of his poems have been set by nearly every major name in German music from Schubert to Berg. Placed beside Goethe and Heine in the poetic pantheon, Rückert taught Oriental languages at the University of Berlin. Fascination with Eastern thought and locales tends to infiltrate most of his better poems, and these features were especially significant to Mahler.

The first song opens with a plaintive orchestral introduction that hands seamlessly off to the solo voice. The mood is stark, the melodic line filled with semitones that create successive sighing gestures, all tied to the opening conceit: the sun will still rise, oblivious to the great tragedy that has occurred. Mahler calls upon the oboe throughout these passages, while the horn’s nostalgic tones become most notable as a response to each vocal phrase. A more lively section, led by strings, intensifies the mood briefly, only to revert to the opening gravity. Up to the very last notes Mahler continues playing with the colors of D minor and major, and we can be forgiven for hoping the voice’s final F natural might ascend a semitone higher to end with a hopeful D major cadence. This, however, is not to be.

In the second song, the striking tonal changes help create the suggestion of reverie, as the protagonist slips into dwelling over the past. Rückert, it should be noted, wrote these texts in 1833 in the immediate aftermath of losing two children to scarlet fever. Sadly, he wrote well over 400 songs at this time – all on the same theme. Each time the mood tries to brighten, the commandments of harsh fate (Schicksal) arrive to close the shades. In this second song, listeners will note Mahler’s stylistic affinity with Wagner in each passage.

Through the following song, “Wenn dein Mütterlein,” the poet continues to dwell within his deepest griefs, referencing how he cannot even make eye contact with his wife. Instead his glance drifts lower, down to the height where he was accustomed to seeing his departed children enter his room. Sinking melodic gestures mimic this spatial topic, but even more they reinforce the funereal atmosphere that covers Kindertotenlieder overall. In only eight measures, the voice descends from its peak (high F) to low G. A new quality arrives in the fourth song, partly determined by the text (centering on fond memories of the children going out for a hike) and the use of E-flat and G-flat keys. Of course, all optimism for a positive resolution is fantasy, and Mahler appropriately merges major and minor as musical echo of the duality between reality and dream.

The set concludes with a tempestuous outpouring of anger directed at those who should have been more protective. Hindsight is always 20/20, as the saying goes, so the poet’s ardent, self-serving message (“I would never have let them go out in this weather”) loses its vitriolic tone to become just one more stage in his grief. Minutes later, all musical cues point to his reaching acceptance. Now, “in this weather,” the lost children “rest as if in their mother’s house.” Mahler scores later passages with reduced strings, occasional high harmonics from winds, harp and celesta. His anger has quickly abated, replaced with tender feelings. Perhaps more subtly, Mahler has brought the tonal structure back round to D major, a key that (based on similar passages in other works) seems to have held spiritually affirmative connotations.

Though he is justly regarded as one of the leading lights of Renaissance music, we know very little about the early life of Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585). He was likely a youth chorister, perhaps in Dover and with the mobile Royal Chapel, which accompanied the king and his family on their journeys. Reliable information stems from later in his life, by which time Tallis had become composer and organist to Henry VIII and his successors. Like all public figures of the era, Tallis needed to deal with the religious factionalism that divided English households. For a few years, under the Anglican rule of young Edward VI, he could explore non-traditional usage of the vernacular for vocal works. With the ascension of Mary, Queen of Scots, conservative Catholic rule held sway, and Tallis reverted to Latin. Nevertheless, none of these changing winds would unsettle his commanding and mature musical style – although the restored Protestantism of Elizabeth meant that less elaborate musical techniques were generally favored for devotion.

The mass Puer natus est nobis may have been written around Christmas 1554 for Mary, who believed she was pregnant with a male heir. While the pregnancy proved false, the musical fruits of Tallis’s labor have become a significant part of English sacred vocal music from that day onward. The Gloria demonstrates the sonic richness that Renaissance composers could draw from expanded choral textures. In this case Tallis opts for seven voices (SSATTBB), each moving independently and creating a vast array of overlapping entrances. Apart from the occasional cadence, marking the end of a text section, the music unfolds continuously and individual words frequently are lost within the sonic wash. Tallis avoids the density that plagues some other contemporaneous works. Nevertheless, the swirling motion of countless short motives across the full texture creates a hypnotic effect that, if done properly, approaches something akin to spiritual ecstasy.

We mentioned Mozart earlier, in reference to his brief Rondino dating from time spent in London. England was one stop for the Mozart family, including father, mother, sister Nannerl and Wolfgang, on their version of the European Grand Tour. They started in 1763 with visits to Munich and Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris before landing in London. After a year spent in the English capital, the family moved on to The Netherlands. Both children became gravely ill in the fall of 1765 while in The Hague. Wolfgang continued to compose actively during this illness and managed to produce a symphonic pastiche of popular tunes. Galimathias Musicum contains 17 separate movements, nearly all drawing upon familiar melodies. The first performance took place in The Hague in March 1766.

Galimathias opens with a short, rousing introduction for the full ensemble. It ends with a half cadence, yielding a sense of incompleteness. The following Andante in D Minor retreats to a small texture of strings and continuo. Already one can appreciate the youngster’s easy facility with composition and instrumentation. The rhythms are smooth, the harmonies occasionally tinged by chromatics, and the contrasts of emotional mood nicely paced. Subsequent movements catalog a host of musical “topics” or styles all pasted together in haphazard fashion: fanfare (#3, #11), pastoral musette with droning hurdy-gurdy sound (#4), the hunt (#5, #9), chorale (#8), and so on. Overall, most movements are in triple meter, which helps to explain the lilting charm that hovers over so much of this work. Still, Mozart’s irreverent humor comes through on nearly every page. Galimathias Musicum seeks no grand statements. It shows a brilliant prodigy, in full command of nearly every musical style and technique, occasionally thumbing his nose at those very conventions. We must not forget that Mozart was a nine-year-old boy at the time he wrote it – a genius, yes, but still a child.

© Jason Stell, 2022