Love and Repercussions

Love and Repercussions

August 18 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Oh, the things we do for love! What might seem right at the moment does not always work out well in the long run. Like ripples in a pond, our actions have repercussions that we cannot always anticipate. Tonight’s program takes that sentiment to heart but goes further, using the wordplay of “percussion” to bring together a diverse collection of music for love-struck romantics and literally struck instruments: timpani, bongos, cymbals, gongs, and everything else percussionists can hit!

While the larger choral works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), particularly his German Requiem and Alto Rhapsody, have continued to receive ample attention and performance, his music for voice still lingers largely on the margins. This is despite the fact that he wrote dozens of lieder, many duets, quartets, and assorted choral works with instrumental accompaniment. In the last-mentioned category we find the Four Songs, Op. 17 (1860), scored for female chorus, two horns, and harp. These songs emerged at a transitional moment for Brahms. Throughout the 1850s he had developed a deeply emotional attachment to Clara Schumann, the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. Adding to the complexity, Brahms also became engaged to another woman (though that marriage never took place). Perhaps in response to navigating such affaires de cœur, Brahms formed an all-female chorus that clearly inspired new music, including the Op. 17 songs.
The first of the Four Songs reveals the continued influence of Robert Schumann, whose Introduction and Allegro Appassionato is clearly referenced. Brahms’s harp arpeggios replace Schumann’s rippling piano, but the tender main themes given to solo horn are identical in both works (listen for the sol-do-re-sol pattern). In Brahms’s song the text motivates both a general mood and specific instrumentation: “The full sound of harps ring out, swelling one with love and yearning.” Every bit of sentimentalism is pulled forth in writing of beauty and chromatic pathos. The second song is a graceful Andante inspired by a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 4) as rendered into German by August Schlegel. Brahms settles on a simple style, not excessively chromatic, and a homophonic vocal scoring that remains ever faithful to the heart-on-sleeve pathos. [Song 3 is omitted in tonight’s performance.] The set closes with Gesang aus Fingal, based on a poem by the legendary Gaelic bard Ossian (though probably penned by the very real James MacPherson). Tight vocal harmony in C minor plays out against static chords, and the steady rhythm conveys a palpable gravitas. One notable change occurs with a turn to A-flat major, as the singers lament the lost youth and the painful isolation of the hills. As happens in much of Brahms’s best music, he maintains a simplicity that draws all attention to text and pure harmony.

Percussionist, educator, and composer Casey Cangelosi is commonly hosted world-wide by educational institutions, music festivals, and educational seminars. Casey has been a visiting guest artist in Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, Croatia, Sweden, Taiwan, and widely across the U.S. at events including the The Midwest Clinic and PASIC Showcase Concerts. Casey is a regularly commissioned composer called the “Paganini of Percussion” and “The voice of a new generation”. Casey holds music degrees from Rice University, The Boston Conservatory, and Utah State University. Big Hair Air Guitar is scored for two hi-hats (think of them as horizontally mounted cymbals) and accompanying audio track.

The farthest we go back this evening is to the start of the 17th century, when the full flowering of Italian vocal composition had secured a central place in European music. One of the most popular forms was the madrigal, traditionally a texted, contrapuntal work for four to six voices. The madrigal’s origins derive from older vocal forms, but the degree of expressivity and chromatic experimentation, its popular strain, and the quality of its poetry set it apart. Among its many practitioners—and arguably its most dynamic and adventurous voice—was Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), Prince of Venosa. Any introductory tour of the madrigal stops to pay homage at Gesualdo’s door, for both his music and his life vivify the best and worst of boundless passion.
In his music, Gesualdo made significant contributions to elevate text above all other concerns. Taking Monteverdi’s innovations to their logical extreme, he dissected poetry for its affective heart, and then created radically new levels of dissonance and harmonic devices that could capture the power of deeply-felt emotions. “Dolcissima ma vita” appears in Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals, published in 1611. Its central message, to love or perish, motivates highly pungent chromatic writing, audible from the very first phrases. Certain passages of the text lurk amid dense counterpoint or virtuosic vocal runs, but Gesualdo always reverts to a simpler texture at key moments, such as the descending chromatics at “morire.” From the same set of madrigals, “Felicissimo sonno” similarly uses music to express the pain of unrequited love. The setting wonderfully alternates between vivacious gestures, full of optimism, and others given over to despair.
At his worst, Gesualdo was jealous and cruel, even morose, and he dabbled in mystical adoration of relics and occult objects. He killed his first wife and her lover when discovering them in flagrante, but he was acquitted—such were the times and such was his standing among the local aristocracy. As Alex Ross noted in his 2011 New Yorker article, “If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.” Gesualdo’s hyperbolic musical style accords with a life spent dancing upon the razor’s edge between passion and obsession.

In 2016 Staunton Music Festival commissioned composer-in-residence Eric Guinivan to create a new work for percussion ensemble, taking inspiration from some aspect of Beethoven’s legacy. Guinivan opted for the canons, those curious acorns that have now helped inspire a new tree of percussive majesty. But as Guinivan notes, a more cosmic conception is also celebrated:

Celestial Canons is a musical depiction of the fourth day of the biblical creation story, during which the sun, moon, and stars are created. The textures, moods, and narrative shape of the work are directly inspired by this astronomical imagery, and the instrumentation of the ensemble is constructed to allow for a wide variety of high and low timbres and color combinations. As the title might suggest, the piece is constructed from an intricately-woven tapestry of canonic melodies that rotate among the three members of the ensemble.
Movement 1, “Sun,” begins with just a flickering of metallic light and gradually flares into a burst of radiant energy. Movement 2, “Moon,” is more introspective and reflective, drawing upon lower, colder, and darker sounds. Movement 3, “Stars,” begins with light, pointed, and sparkling rhythms that gradually evolve towards a tumultuous, thundering conclusion intended to be evocative of the creation of a massive and rapidly expanding cosmos. The piece draws upon an immense diversity of percussion instruments. The three players involved perform upon 6 Triangles, 9 Singing Bowls, 12 Drums, 3 Tam-tams, 3 Timpani, Chimes, 4 Noah Bells, 2 Bell Trees, 2 Log Drums, and Chimes.

Over the past decade, SMF audiences have enjoyed a generous sampling of music by George Crumb (b. 1929). Crumb’s unique voice gathers disparate strands together, from nature and mysticism (Voice of the Whale) to war and chaos (Black Angels for electric string quartet). In recent decades he has worked steadily on a series called The American Songbook, a massive collection of folksongs that includes the two works heard this evening. In all of these songs, Crumb creates a powerful new sonic background for familiar melodies. “The Mountaineer’s Sad Song” unfolds as a dark, melancholic homage to the hills of West Virginia, with the voice intoning powerfully through a haze of percussion effects. The folk tune retains its distinctive shape and tonality despite the rather unnerving support, including sizzle cymbals, chromatic riffs on the vibraphone, and temple gongs. “House of the Rising Sun” appears in Volume 5 of The American Songbook. Familiar to many listeners as the signature ballad recorded by The Animals in 1964, the tune is actually much older and had been transcribed among Appalachian communities during the 1930s. Crumb keys into the song’s blues element. He opts for a very slow tempo, occasional chromatic surprises, and support from Caribbean steel drums and bongos. Throughout The American Songbook, Crumb’s achievement is to breathe new life into music that has become intensely familiar, to merge together something beloved and comforting with the disruptive forces that haunted the 20th century.

Born in Germany, trained in Italy, and eventually settled in London, George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was a pioneer in creating operas in English. A generation earlier, Italian opera had taken London by storm, but in the 1730s that mania was fading. Deftly, Handel borrowed from his experiences writing biblical oratorios (essentially non-staged operas) to fashion a new genre of dramatic music in English. His first success came with Hercules (1744). The tension in the opera centers on Queen Dejanira, wife of Hercules, and her suspicion that he has been unfaithful with the newly-captured Princess Iole. In one source (Sophocles’ Women of Trachis), Dejanira’s suspicion is merited. But Handel’s librettist followed Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Dejanira’s accusations are unfounded. The outcome in both traditions is the death and apotheosis of Hercules, who perishes frightfully when he puts on a robe sent by Dejanira. The garment, intended to magically restore his marital allegiance, devours his flesh and poisons his soul.
Hercules opens with a familiar dotted-rhythm “French overture” topic, though here the short-long pattern merges something regal with a more buoyant cheeriness. The following fugal section features a brilliant subject for imitation, presented in the violins and answered by oboes. It is worth noting that opera overtures in this era, indeed throughout the 18th century, were not moments for careful audience attention. Rather they served a purpose in bringing people back to their seats, beginning to still the chatter, and setting up what would follow in the opening scenes.
Like all good dramas, Hercules maintains several plot lines simultaneously. Alongside Iole’s mourning, we hear about the growing love for her felt by young Hyllus. Above all else, we get a window into the mind of Dejanira through her on-stage interactions with Hercules. In “Resign thy club,” she mocks and chides her husband for giving up heroic adventures in favor of love and languishing. Dejanira’s jealousy is speaking here, leading her to deem the once-great, once-faithful king to be all washed up: ready for retirement beside his captured nymph. Handel sets her comic barbs with detached articulation and fluttering rhythms. The noodling melody culminates in a depiction of Hercules at the spinning wheel, his newest “labor” now that sword and shield lie in storage. The aria’s contrasting middle section begins in a martial, tempestuous vein as Dejanira recalls her husband’s glorious past, but the mood quickly dissolves into a chromatic adagio. Here the thunder of Mars yields to “Venus and her whining boy” (i.e., Cupid) just as Hercules seems to have chosen making love over making war. The entire critique is so stinging that we would hardly fault Hercules for launching out on twelve more labors just to reassert his manliness!
Despite his protestations, Dejanira’s jealousy continues into “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise.” This music did not appear in the original production (it was recycled a few years later for Theodora), but has been since restored in modern performances. Handel ratchets up the intensity considerably from the previous mood, as Dejanira delivers a powerful and dolorous plea in G minor. As if foreshadowing her eventual spiral into madness, the vocal line skips constantly across the full register, and accompanying two-note sighs reinforce her emotional fragility. We may be quite far from the end of the opera, but already it has become painfully clear that Handel’s sympathies—despite the work’s title—are with the troubled queen.

© Jason Stell, 2021