Masters and Students
August 15 at 3:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
The master-apprentice tradition remains alive in relatively few areas of the modern world. Today organized education, at an institution of “higher learning,” largely serves to prepare young people to enter the work force. This is not to deny that on-the-job training and periods of internship are vital to success in one’s field. But in the past, nearly every vocation brought the budding student under the watchful eyes of an experienced master. In music, both composition and performance, this was often the only path forward. Today’s program links together diverse works by means of two master-student chains. The first connects the venerable North German organist Dietrich Buxtehude to Johann Sebastian Bach, his son Johann Christian Bach, and finally to Mozart.
The second chain is more of a web surrounding composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). Boulanger grew up in a musical household (her father Ernest was a composer and pianist), and she mastered the rudiments of theory well enough to be admitted to the Paris Conservatory by age nine. Despite studying with Gabriel Fauré and showing a brilliant command of then-current stylistic trends, Boulanger gradually moved away from composition; successive failures to win the coveted Prix de Rome may have convinced her that she lacked sufficient talent. In addition, small teaching jobs provided some needed income as the household’s finances soured after Ernest’s death in 1900. For nearly 70 years Boulanger maintained a private studio in Paris, during which dozens of aspiring composers made a pilgrimage to her door. She also taught at the new Fontainebleau Conservatory (opened in 1921) and eventually at Juilliard, Peabody, and London’s Royal College of Music. From Piazzolla and Copland to Philip Glass and Burt Bacharach, Boulanger’s direct influence on musicians of the 20th century remains unequaled.
Following early posts in his native Denmark, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) became organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where he remained for the last 40 years of his life. Even as the economic fortunes of this North German trading center dwindled, Lübeck still enjoyed a rich musical life. Buxtehude’s stature drew musicians from all over; it was to meet and hear Buxtehude that the young Johann Sebastian Bach made his famous pilgrimage from Arnstadt—over 250 miles on foot, so the story goes. Apart from some sacred vocal music, Buxtehude is best known today for his many organ compositions exploring the “fantastic style,” as in the Prelude in G minor, BuxWV 149. The piece opens with a passacaglia section (repeated melodic pattern in the bass, decorative passagework above) whose theme spills over into the ensuing four-voice fugue. Buxtehude truncates the fugue with a chromatic transition and proceeds into a vigorous Allegro and another fugue—again drawing upon the same thematic shape that has guided the entire work. Such unified structures, in addition to his characteristically demanding pedal parts, exemplify why Bach, Handel, and others undertook long journeys to hear Buxtehude perform in person.
Buxtehude was clearly a mentor for young Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), though the two only directly connected (as far as we know) on that one occasion in late 1705. During that famous Christmas season visit, Bach would have heard Buxethude perform on the organ as well as examples of the latter’s sacred cantatas presented during services. Soon after returning home, Bach composed “Aus der Tiefen,” one of his earliest cantatas. The text draws upon Psalm 130, and Bach chose the lower male voices (tenor and bass) to deliver the work’s leading message: “Out of the depths I call to you, oh Lord.” The five movements are framed by choruses, both in G minor, and a chorus also forms the symbolic middle movement. Of special interest are the second and fourth movements, during which the solo voice (bass and tenor, respectively) are balanced by the female voices intoning the chorale tune in sustained notes. Contrasting registers and rhythms constantly pull us back and forth between the “all-too-human” depths of the bass and the meditative serenity of the soprano line. Bach closes the cantata with a brilliant chorus, freely contrapuntal and moving between Allegro and Adagio tempos. The latter provides an affecting deliberation on the theme that otherwise would have passed too quickly in a more vigorous tempo.
American composer Elliot Carter (1908-2012) spent much of his earliest years living in Europe. Given an eclectic education by virtue of his social milieu and at Harvard, Carter developed a passion for the latest modernist trends. Upon graduation in 1932, and feeling his knowledge of compositional technique was still too rudimentary, Carter returned to Europe to study with Nadia Boulanger for three years. Throughout those formative years he moved in a neoclassical direction, though after World War II he recaptured his interest in avant-garde experimentalism. A modest chamber work, Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux aptly demonstrates Carter’s eclectic, highly intellectual approach to music. The work was commissioned by Southwest German Radio for the celebration of Pierre Boulez’s 60th birthday. As Carter notes, the title, translated as “rough breathing/smooth breathing,” refers to the pronunciation of classical Greek words. With esprit rude (rough breathing) the initial vowel is to be preceded by a sounded H; with esprit doux (smooth breathing) the initial vowel is not to be voiced. Both instruments perform moments of “rough” and “smooth” breathing, and the opening pointillist gestures touch on pitches that reference Boulez’s name. Most audible are the frequent alternations between fragmented, athletic rhythmic patterns and sustained notes. As the lines also cross in register and seem to move in almost complete isolation (even conflict) with one another, coordination in performance is a matter of incredible significance.
In addition to creating hundreds of works in the burgeoning classical style, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)—Sebastian’s eighteenth child and youngest son—is highly regarded for his influence on both Haydn and Mozart. Around the time his father died in 1750, Christian Bach moved to Italy and worked for over a decade, primarily in religious posts, in Bologna and Milan. Like Handel, this German studying in Italy sought his fortunes in England, where demand for Italian operas prompted a permanent move. In London, Bach met the precocious Mozart in the midst of the latter’s Wunderkind European tour in 1764. Bach recognized that the eight-year-old boy had more than prodigious performing skills and offered to teach composition to young Mozart over the next six months.
Today Christian Bach is seen as a primary player in developing the clear, effervescent “galant” style (in contrast to his elder brother, C.P.E. Bach, who continued to work in more contrapuntal paths). The galant style sounds almost effortless: a texture based on melody plus accompaniment and largely governed by a simple three-part form of statement, development, and recapitulation. This style had an immediate appeal to amateurs and a growing market for domestic music-making. Listening to Bach’s Sonata in G, Op. 17 No. 4 (1777), one can immediately hear what drew Mozart’s adoration. Gone are the dense counterpoint of Sebastian Bach; gone, too, are the curious chromatic experiments of C.P.E. Bach. Though only including two movements, there is still much to take from this ten-minute work. Even the Presto finale shows thematic linkage to the first movement, a feature that might have given Mozart (to say nothing of Haydn) something to ponder.
The Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) spent much of his youth living in New York and was exposed to world-class performances of both jazz and classical music, which inspired lessons at first on piano. He soon turned his focus to the bandoneon, the distinctive instrument of tango orchestras he knew from his childhood. With support from the Argentine government, Piazzolla earned a chance to study abroad with Boulanger at the Fontainebleau Conservatory. Piazzolla was no mere youth seeking new experiences; he was now 33 years old, married with children, and artistically exhausted with what he felt could be achieved in tango. Boulanger introduced greater sophistication and contrapuntal depth to his style, but she wisely advised Piazzolla to stay true to his roots.
During the first year in Paris in 1954, Piazzolla composed a heartfelt bandoneon melody in honor of his father, nicknamed “Nonino”, who was home in Argentina caring for Piazzolla’s two young children. Five years later Nonino died in an accident, and news of his passing reached Piazzolla while on tour in Puerto Rico. Within hours he composed Adiós Nonino as a tribute to his father, utilizing the melody he had previously composed and adding further accompaniment. Today’s arrangement by J. P. Jofre opens with the main theme, whose nostalgic beauty has become a symbol to Argentines around the globe of their absent homeland. The music grows animated, proceeding to more fraught, percussive and strident gestures that yield to a tender reprisal of the melody played in counterpoint between viola and cello. True to Piazzolla’s own spirit, Jofre continues a lively interplay between lyricism and tension throughout.
For over seventy years, Quincy Jones (b. 1933) has enjoyed one of the most acclaimed careers in music. The producer behind Michael Jackson’s wildly successful Thriller and We Are the World, Jones had previously worked as an arranger for Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, and others. Jones also continued to perform as a trumpeter (he was part of Elvis’ band during several TV appearances), which led to opportunities for world tours during the 1950s. While in France, he began to exert greater influence in European distribution of American records and took on higher and higher management positions with the Mercury label. At the same time, he sought out instruction with both Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger. In 1965 he composed and arranged the complete score for a noir-thriller, Mirage, featuring Gregory Peck and Diane Baker. The main theme’s original treatment offers a soft, bossa nova allure in deference to the musical style then sweeping the globe. In today’s world premiere arrangement, Zachary Wadsworth tries to retain the theme’s varied qualities. “I have always loved Quincy Jones’ score for Mirage,” Wadsworth writes. “Its main theme is particularly dynamic, first crashing out of the gates with dramatic fortissimo attacks, then becoming briefly mysterious, and finally melting into an elegant big-band swing. I’ve aimed to preserve these dramatic changes of mood even in this arrangement for small ensemble.”
A threnody is defined as a “wailing ode” or “lament”. The term originates in ancient Greek culture. Numerous threnodies have been written in more recent music history, but few are given that particular designation; Krystof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima may come to mind, or perhaps the two threnodies in Liszt’s Années de Pelerinage. Aaron Copland (1900-1990) chose the title, bringing along its antique and dolorous allure, for two musical memorials. The first of these is a brief work for flute and string trio dedicated to Igor Stravinsky, written a few months after the passing of the legendary Russian composer. Copland and Stravinsky had been friends for many years. They had known each other through Boulanger, who promoted Stravinsky’s work in Europe and who taught Copland in the early 1920s. Copland’s Threnody I was originally part of a larger project sponsored by Boosey and Hawkes, Stravinsky’s longtime publisher, which was soliciting tributes from sixteen living masters. Threnody I employs simple canonic imitation in the strings, above which a free solo melody in the flute wends its way. The opening in low strings provides a dark timbre, and the choice of instruments (particularly flute) connects both to the ancient Greek genre referenced in the title as well as examples of Stravinsky’s own neoclassical ethos, for which the 1947 ballet Orpheus provides a ready touchstone.
Nadia Boulanger herself turned to composition in two different periods: the first, during her youth while at the Paris Conservatory; the second, after 1920, following the death of her immensely talented sister Lili. The earlier works clearly show the influence of her milieu, particularly the crystalline textures of Faure and Debussy’s songs. “Cantique” (1909) maintains that tradition, using block chords that mutate slightly to introduce subtle chromatic shades of dark and light. Élégie (1906) also relies on a play between diatonic (i.e., within the key) and chromatic pitches, though Boulanger finds more to develop within the poetry of Albert Samain, creating a more robust and satisfying song. Our set closes with La mer (1910), touching on one of the era’s most familiar topical allusions. The melody is held aloft by undulating waves of arpeggios that are clearly programmatic. Boulanger strikes a more operatic tone than in her other songs. Striking key changes and vocal leaps to the highest register in the center are framed by the pacific sounds of F-sharp major, which returns with calmer assurances in Verlaine’s text. These songs clearly do not break boundaries, but their treatment of poetry is elegant and their tonal colors enchanting.
As mentioned earlier, an incredibly important master-student relationship developed briefly between Johann Christian Bach and a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) in London in 1764. Working under Bach’s guidance, Mozart developed a greater comfort adapting sonata form to the concerto. As Mozart would similarly learn about string quartets from Haydn, here he modeled three piano concertos (Op. 107 Nos. 1-3) on several of Bach’s keyboard sonatas. After a break of several years, during which he relocated as a “free artist” to Vienna, Mozart returned to the piano concerto genre in 1782. With three new concertos (Nos. 11-13) we begin the stunning succession of fifteen works that form the core of the classical concerto repertoire. About these 1782 concertos, written for his own performance at specific events, Mozart famously pointed out their primary appeal: entertainment.
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why....
In order to enhance their appeal and encourage domestic consumption—he was, after all, now forced to earn his living without a patron’s steady support—Mozart made arrangements of all three for piano and string quartet (or quintet). The Concerto in A, K. 414, is arguably the finest of the set. Mozart opens with exquisite ease: a singing violin theme, clear harmonic support from the other players, and the lightest touch of counterpoint. Each theme is gracious without being inane. At the same time, on full display is Mozart’s pearlescent piano writing, a kind of shimmering passagework that he likely improvised at the premiere.
The Andante in D minor, particularly in today’s chamber scoring, reminds us how gifted Mozart was as a string quartet composer. While the first theme suggests a sacred hymn topic, the second theme offers a tender operatic aria. The central section moves easily into related minor-mode keys (E minor and B minor) before a satisfying reprise and solo cadenza close the movement. K. 414 finishes with a delightful Rondeau filled with more sparkling keyboard writing and a developed sense of conversation between piano and strings. This is helped by the main theme’s structure, which can easily be parsed into smaller motives and passed from piano to strings and vice versa. Perhaps this interplay is one of those passages “from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction” while the rest of us are captivated by the charming scales and overall optimistic tone. In whatever camp you place yourself, this Concerto’s charms are hard to resist.
© Jason Stell, 2021