Musica Transatlantica

Musica Transatlantica

August 13 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Today (at least when not constrained by pandemic concerns) we can travel the world in a matter of hours, flying from New York to Moscow, from Paris to Rio, as business or pleasure dictate. A hundred years ago, such travel was incredibly arduous and undertaken by only the extremely wealthy or the extremely destitute. Three centuries before that, well, trans-Atlantic journeys were the domain of intrepid explorers. In the past 400 years culture has caught a ride on ships of commerce, and tonight’s program celebrates composers and works that have crisscrossed “the Pond.” The earliest composer represented, Victoria, never made the journey from Spain to the New World, but his music did. All the others performed this evening did make the personal journey, sometimes in quite spectacular fashion.

Consider the case of the Austrian “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss II (1825-1899). Among the most famous musicians of his generation, Strauss was the featured guest at a massive World Peace Festival organized in Boston in 1872 to commemorate the end of Franco/Prussian hostilities. Strauss was not an avid traveler, but the immense fee ($500,000 by today’s figures) could not be refused. During his brief stay in America, he received mobbed receptions wherever he went and famously conducted 1,000 musicians in the Blue Danube Waltz for an audience of 100,000.
Strauss’s Emperor Waltz seems to have gotten its name from the martial character of the opening section. That’s slightly ironic, of course, for the work’s Introduction is not a waltz at all; it’s not even in triple meter. Overall the Emperor Waltz is not one dance but many: an Introduction and Coda framing four unique waltzes. The mood at first is one of hushed anticipation which builds quite quickly to a full-bodied, “imperial” march. This theme eventually dissolves to quiet once again, transitioning into a sinewy chromatic line taken straight out of the world of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, albeit with a bit of tongue-in-cheek seriousness. How wonderfully simple is the lyricism of Waltz No. 1 after all the bluster of the preceding march and transition. Waltz No. 2 begins with a striking key change, almost as if Strauss has closed one door in the palace but opened another onto a whole new scene. The B material is more extroverted, and staccato articulation suggests the snap-like precision of soldiers on parade. The character of Waltz No. 3 stems from its combination of very long and short rhythms, as well as the striking contrast of A and B materials. Strauss composes a clever linking passage leading seamlessly into Waltz No. 4. The coda partly serves the purposes of tonal contrast and balance, but more importantly it provides a final, faded memory of the elegant Waltz No. 1 before the rush of Viennese society carries the work to its grandiose finish.

The name of composer Anna Clyne will be new to most listeners this evening. Yet by the time she turned 40 last year, she had already achieved a lifetime of accolades. Clyne is one of the most successful young British composers, having been featured by the world’s leading conductors for the past decade and receiving multiple Grammy nominations. Her work for chamber ensemble and pre-recorded narration, A Wonderful Day, was premiered in March 2013 at New York’s Merkin Hall by the Bang On a Can All-Stars. As the composer herself notes, the work’s inspiration came from a memorable, random encounter in the Windy City:

On a chilly autumn evening, I was walking down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. In front of me, an elderly man was slowly strolling; his walking-cane tapping on the concrete with each step. He was singing with a raw, slow voice which had an immediate sense of both joy and struggle. I scurried up, asked if he’d mind me recording him . . . and we continued to walk southward as he sang. Then he stopped and we chatted a little. I asked him his name and whether he’d mind me setting his voice to music. Willie Barbee’s face lit up with the idea. A Wonderful Day sets Willie’s voice—spoken and sung—with the instruments [providing] a gentle bed of sound. My editing of the original recordings is minimal so as to preserve the directness of Willie’s voice and the surrounding sounds of traffic, people chatting and the tapping of his cane.

Edgard Varèse’s (1883-1965) influence on 20th century music was formidable, particularly with people like Boulez, Messiaen, and even Frank Zappa. His early years involved extensive moving around: born in Paris, raised with relatives in Burgundy, then settled in Turin. From early training in science, Varèse turned toward music in his teenage years. However, he struggled for some time to articulate a nagging feeling that music transcended the aural dimension. It was during a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that Varèse experienced a breakthrough: a sensation that music could be literally spatial, a series of “sound objects, floating in space.” Such philosophical concepts inspired grandiose, often unfinished large-scale projects. He had more success with short works, including the iconic Density 21.5 (1936). By the time of its creation, Varèse had been living in the United States for 20 years and had become a fixture among the avant-garde in and around New York.
Commissioned by French flautist Georges Barrère, the work’s title refers to the material used to make Barrère’s newly acquired platinum flute (the density of platinum being 21.5 g/cc). Density 21.5 holds a revered place in the body of modern works for solo flute. Varèse’s use of extended techniques forever changed how the flute could be used. Interestingly, the “shoulders” upon which he seems to have stood were those of Claude Debussy, whose Syrinx offered both direct motivic ideas and general harmonic flavor (tritones, whole tone scales) that helped inspire Varèse’s flights of imagination.

The life of Tomás Luis de Victoria (ca. 1548-1611) was largely governed by the Catholic church. An ordained priest, he also served in several musical posts and interacted with the leading Catholic composers of the time, including Palestrina in Rome. Both men would become voices of the Counter-Reformation movement in music, pioneering a streamlined form of vocal counterpoint that restored primacy to the text. While he never traveled across the Atlantic, his sacred works accompanied Spanish immigrants to the New World.
Victoria’s setting of the Christmas plainchant O Magnum Mysterium is arguably among his finest compositions. The four part texture (SATB) unfolds with great reverence both for the sacred message being celebrated as well as the clarity of polyphonic technique. Points of imitation are subtle, growing from soprano down to the bass in turn. Note, for instance, how the opening duet for soprano and alto reaches a full cadence just after the tenor has begun, so seamlessly does the music progress. Despite such overlaps, Victoria carefully reunites all voices periodically, and his phrase lengths are noticeably shorter and more regular than the turgid contrapuntal experiments played out in the 14th and 15th centuries. The radiant section at “O beata Virgine” introduces increased rhythmic activity that tumbles over into the concluding Alleluia.

Among European composers who visited America, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is perhaps the most well-known. The events of his time in the United States from 1892 to 1895 are rehearsed in every program note about the popular “New World” Symphony or “American” String Quartet. While in America, Dvořák took particular interest in folk music traditions, including African-American spirituals. He had explored similar native idioms years earlier in his native Bohemia, under the auspices of support from the Umělecká beseda or National Arts Club. As a young man Dvořák composed numerous love songs with titles like “When Your Sweet Glances Fall on Me” and “Oh, Lovely Golden Rose.” Some two decades later he resurrected these plaintive songs to create a series of quartet arrangements. The results are undeniably pleasing, for Dvořák had clearly mastered the string quartet genre in interim. But even more significantly, they show how he never lost touch with sheer melodic beauty even when creating works in instrumental genres.

The transatlantic theme of tonight’s program is probably best captured in the overture to An American in Paris, composed in 1928 by George Gershwin (1898-1937). Gershwin grew up in Brooklyn as the second son of Jewish/Ukrainian immigranta. Beyond rudimentary music instruction as a young boy, his first taste of live music-making came in his late teens when he took work as a “song plugger” around Broadway. This quickly spilled over into creating original songs and full-length shows and a more serious interest in learning composition. At the time, ambitious American composers sought guidance from prominent Europeans. Gershwin was no exception, and he spent a short time in Paris in the mid-1920s petitioning Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger to take him on. (For more about Boulanger and her influence on a generation of composers, see the notes for Sunday’s Masters and Students concert). Both declined, for they recognized that severe classical instruction would impede Gershwin’s already mature command of American song and jazz. Indeed, he had already composed the popular and musically-assured Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and put pen to paper for An American in Paris while he himself was living out that description.
While An American in Paris did not please critics initially, audiences warmed to its signature combination of endearing melody and jazzy, dance-based rhythms. The acclaimed film version starring Gene Kelly certainly did not hurt its long-term popularity. In structure, the overture follows generic conventions: its primary role is to introduce all the major themes/songs of the larger work. At nearly 20 minutes in length, it makes a wonderful vehicle in its own right. Particularly to be noted is Gershwin’s orchestration, which makes perfect use of various percussion sounds (including taxi horn, wood block, and xylophone) to paint the hustle and bustle of the French capital. “My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” About tonight’s world premiere arrangement, composer Zachary Wadsworth notes:

One of many things the pandemic has prevented is the ability to travel. And while I was making this chamber version of An American in Paris, I thought of it as a kind of “staycation”—how can I keep the energy and vivid color of Gershwin’s original, while making things smaller, more local, and more possible? How can we visit Paris armed with just a few instruments and a lot of imagination?

Beyond all musical aspects, sheer theatricality figures largely in works by Maurizio Kagel (1931-2008). Born in Argentina to Russian parents who had fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Kagel spent the majority of his life in Germany. He taught for many years at the famous Darmstadt Summer Institute alongside people like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other voices of the avant-garde. He did compose works in traditional genres, but his absurdist works have become his trademark. Kagel’s style, so evocatively expressed in Rrrrrrr..., embraces the confrontational polemics of Dadaism, openly questioning the role of art in modern society. It features various percussion duos, each headed by a title starting with the letter “R”—hence the overall title. The sound effects Kagel creates range from fairly conventional, such as the snare drum duet in “Rim Shots” and the “Rigaudon” (referencing a 17th-century French dance), all the way to more atmospheric, as in the “Railroad Drama” that opens the collection. Through it all, Kagel is encouraging audiences to listen attentively, and the extreme theatricality strives to redefine music as sonic performance art.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) is remembered today for only a handful of compositions, as well as numerous significant firsts that she achieved by virtue of her incredible talent and hard work. She was born in New England into a musical household but quickly surpassed anything her parents could have imagined, becoming a piano prodigy and beginning composition by age 10. Eventually, as an artist of high acclaim, she traveled to Europe to perform solo piano and chamber music. Beach’s “Evening Hymn” is the second of Two Sacred Songs, Op. 125, published in 1934. The lyrics were penned by Adelaide Procter, an English writer who championed philanthropic causes and helped articulate repressed feelings widely felt by women in the Victorian Era. “Evening Hymn” opens with a hushed, chordal introduction and bare intervals (open 5ths) that lend a touch of elemental simplicity. Unexpected inflections draw our attention to quick mood changes. Beach is eager to engage in a bit of word painting, as when a poignant chromatic gesture expresses “dark’ning”; more obviously, the words “from on high” are set with a dramatic octave leap to high F. In general, her musical style falls within the soundworld of composers like Stanford and Parry, but Beach’s deft handling of thick harmonies and chromaticism reveal her deep exposure to the entire post-Romantic musical palette.

With the rising tide of interest in tango, the name of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) spread across the musical world like a storm. Born in Argentina to an Italian immigrant family, Piazzolla actually grew up in New York City. He learned to play the bandoneon (a concertina, similar to an accordion) on the streets and progressed rapidly enough to catch the attention of a prominent bandleader, who invited 13-year-old Astor to go on tour. His father refused—ironically and tragically the smartest decision he ever made, for the entire band died in a plane crash while on tour. Astor would go on to become one of the most renowned bandoneon players of all time, frequently playing his own works in concert and writing tango-inspired music that forever changed the genre. Piazzolla began lessons in formal, European classical music. But taking sage advice from Nadia Boulanger, he accepted tango as his true voice. Piazzolla combined tango with jazz and classical idioms to elevate the rather seedy world of tango to a place among high art.
The collection titled Four Seasons of Buenos Aires was composed in the 1960s, though Piazzolla had made Argentina’s capital his permanent home as early as 1938. “Winter” opens with poignant low strings, though it quickly moves to a flashy piano cadenza. The piano gets a larger role to play in this movement, producing a largely percussive quality, and there are both more sections and more obvious contrasts than “Spring.” But for all the drama, the movement ends on a note of quiet familiarity. Piazzolla builds the final section on the age-old harmonic sequence that Pachelbel immortalized in his Canon in D. Piazzolla structures “Spring” as a traditional ABA form. The A material is vigorous and incisive, its syncopations and flamboyant gestures translating into a passionate intensity. More subtly, the main theme is almost classical in its arch-like contour (rising for two measures, then falling for two). Bringing these impulses together is the regular, predictable rhythm of the tango. In the dolorous B section, both violin and cello take turns as soloist before imperceptibly coming back into rhythm for the return of section A.

© Jason Stell, 2021