Time Lost and Found

Time Lost and Found

August 14 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Mankind’s fascination with time is elemental. It is also one of the most recurrent and profound sources of inspiration for art, including music. Music, one often hears it said, is the temporal art par excellence. As W. H. Auden stated, “Music is the best means we have of digesting time.” At the risk of sidestepping this massive and profound topic, let me bring the tone a little more down to earth. For at root, music is just sound organized in time. And apart from the final work on the program, tonight’s concert celebrates quite basic connections between music and time: time passing, times of day and night, a particular time of year, etc. We start with the mechanical aspect: devices we have invented to measure the passage of moments.

Ensemble performance involves a delicate balance in regard to time and timing. Certainly there must be a shared feeling for the basic pulse in order to stay coordinated, yet an entire performance can fail if the beat becomes rigid and inflexible. The metronome, developed simultaneously by several inventors, would provide a consistent audible and visual cue about the tempo. Not everyone welcomed giving this task over to a machine, but the metronome is still often praised for its value in a practice setting. It was patented by Johann Maelzel (1772-1838), who lived and worked in Vienna during the years that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1828) was active. The two men were on familiar terms for many years. Those terms ranged from good—as when they gave joint concerts featuring Beethoven’s symphonies and Maelzel’s various musical machines—to the bad—as in 1814 when Beethoven described Maelzel as a “rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation.” A few years prior, in 1812, Beethoven composed a light-hearted canon to celebrate Maelzel’s invention. The joke, ultimately, may be on Maelzel and his metronome. Despite any personal animus, Beethoven was an early adopter of metronome markings in place of traditional, albeit vague tempo indications such as Allegro, Andante, or Moderato.

Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas remain one of the greatest treasuries in music. These sonatas span his earliest to his latest published music, providing an unparalleled window into his artistic development. Several of the most famous carry descriptive epithets, usually applied by market-savvy publishers: “Pathétique,” “Appassionata,” The Tempest.” Tonight we hear the popular “Moonlight” Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, so-called because the rippling arpeggios of the opening movement suggested moonlight on water to German critic Ludwig Rellstab, writing in 1832.
Beyond its title, the work is remarkable for the hypnotic rhythm and slow tempo of its first movement. This Adagio was such a hit in Beethoven’s own day that he was heard to comment, “Surely I’ve written better things.” Because classical era sonatas typically open with a fast movement, Beethoven’s departure helps explain the work’s official designation: Sonata quasi una fantasia. Moreover, the first movement is not in sonata form per se (which should feature contrasting themes in a three-part model of exposition, development, and recapitulation). Rather, it unfolds like a through-composed song without words. And for sheer sonic effect, Beethoven’s indication to perform the whole Adagio without dampers creates an ethereal halo of chords waxing and waning; that effect is better realized on a period fortepiano, whose natural sustain is far shorter than a modern grand piano.
Following the Adagio, the Allegretto in D-flat major steps out into a very different world. Here, all is graceful and buoyant. The C-sharp/D-flat tonal connection ensures the transition will not feel too abrupt. The Allegretto’s spirit feels gentle and at times coy, pausing after broken phrases that then receive short, pat replies. Bristling with demonic energy, the Finale seems to be lit with an inner spark that continues unabated across both first and second themes. The former explodes as rising arpeggios over tremolo left hand. That thunderous accompaniment persists into the second theme, which is more vocal in tone. Later, Beethoven ramps up the rhetorical impact through a substantial coda including a cadenza of diminished-7ths, cascades of arpeggios, and a rising chromatic scale. By now the Sonata’s initial reverie clearly has been swept aside by the maelstrom.

Since his first appearance in Staunton ten summers ago, Zachary Wadsworth has emerged as one of the most creative, vital, and distinctive composers of his generation. His works have appeared to acclaim from The Met and Carnegie Hall to Westminster Abbey and countless halls in between. This evening we are honored to present the world premiere of Wadsworth’s Breaths Per Minute. The composer sends the following thoughts:

One of the most ominous sounds of the COVID-19 pandemic was the “whoosh-click-click” of ventilators, which marked time and breath like metronomes in hospitals around the world as they pushed oxygen into patients’ lungs. I thought about their sound a lot while I waited to hear the news about a friend, Antoine Hodge, a brilliant baritone, who went on a ventilator on January 13, 2021. These machines marked the time, and his breaths, for more than a month until he died on February 22. He was 38.

Ventilators display a patient’s respiratory rate in “breaths per minute.” This piece, for two percussionists and two violinists, is a kind of vigil, marking time in breaths that are punctuated by silence. Each breath keeps the melody (taken from Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz) moving forward. There is tenderness, there is waiting, there is urgent action, and there is pain. Finally, at the end, we hear the distant sounds of vivid life through a cell phone speaker, as so many did, lying in their beds, wishing to return to that world that had been taken from them too soon.

Composer Matthew Burtner, director of the University of Virginia’s computer music center, is a recognized pioneer in the realm of ecoacoustics, in which natural sounds and processes help develop a unique musical syntax for each piece. Burtner’s interest in this field ties into his Alaskan heritage and his awareness of cultural differences in the ways people experience their surroundings. He adds:

For people and animals in the north, the sound of snow can tell them the year, month, day and time of day. It can tell about the present and past weather conditions. It can tell them where they are and where other things are in relation to them. It can tell about the contours of the landscape, the plants and the wildlife in the area. It can even tell about the history and the status of those animals and plants, and the condition of oneself in the environment. A well-trained listener can tell all this just from the sound of snow.

Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier (2014) is scored for percussion and electronics. It was commissioned by Brandon Bell with support from the Presser Music Award. Burtner created the audio track from on-site recordings of Alaska’s Root Glacier. The unique, visceral presence of glaciers is disappearing across the planet because we live in a time of rapid ice melt. In its way, Sonic Physiography tries to stop global warming by freezing time, suspending the listener within the melting ice; it includes an optional video projection of image transformations from within Root Glacier. The piece was released on Burtner’s 2019 album, Glacier Music.

A native of San Juan, Argentina, Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion (JP Jofre) is an award-winning bandoneon player and composer. He has been repeatedly highlighted by The New York Times and praised as one of today’s leading artists by Great Performers at Lincoln Center. His music has been recorded by Grammy winner Paquito D’ Rivera, the Orpheus Orchestra and Kathryn Stott, among others. Jofre is a recipient of the National Prize of the Arts grant in Argentina and has taken his form of contemporary tango to important festivals around the world, including Celebrity Series of Boston and Umbria Jazz Festival. As soloist he has appeared with the San Antonio Symphony, San Diego Symphony and Argentina’s National Symphony Orchestra. Jofre has also given lectures at Google Talks, TEDtalks and The Juilliard School.
Jofre composed Primavera in 2009. It opens with a vigorous solo melody, soon joined by bandoneon and the remaining performers, as the music builds to an early climax. Careful listeners will note the subtle use of particular harmonic sequences that call to mind The Four Seasons concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. But this is no pandering to Baroque fashion. Rhythm alone becomes a motivating force for a whirlwind four minutes that seem to carry all the players along with abandon and joy.

There are some compositions whose origins threaten to overshadow the merits of the actual music. And though the Quartet for the End of Time is a remarkable work considered in itself, there is no denying that the situation in which Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) found himself when writing the work could hardly have been more dramatic. Messiaen had recently enlisted to fight in the French army when he was captured by German soldiers near Nancy in spring 1940. The ensuing journey to Stalag 8A east of Dresden was arduous, though he did forge friendships with several other musicians heading for the same camp. Among these were a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist. He began to write short pieces for them to practice together and quickly settled on a plan for a large, multi-movement composition.
Directly inspired by the instruments available to him (the captors eventually provided a piano), Messiaen also drew upon his personal spirituality, his abiding Catholic mysticism. As he put it, the Quartet’s “musical language is essentially immaterial, spiritual and Catholic. Modes which achieve a kind of tonal ubiquity, melodically and harmonically, here draw the listener towards the eternity in space or the infinite. Special rhythms . . . contribute powerfully in dismissing the temporal.” For Messiaen, music was specially poised to investigate the nature of time. And the title of the Quartet refers less to individual death or the end of captivity, which might have been foremost in many prisoners’ minds. Rather, it points to a more universal cessation of time and the experience of temporal actions. That exploration explains many of Messiaen’s complicated rhythmic theories developed throughout the work.
One could say many things about the individual movements, for the music is both poetic and vivid. But it is a credit to Messiaen that what he intended to express—and we know from his own words what he intended—remains audible throughout. In a preface to the score Messiaen commented on each of the movements, citing periodically from Book 10 of Revelations:

1. Liturgy of crystal. Between three and four o’clock in the morning, the awakening of the birds: a blackbird or a solo nightingale improvises, surrounded by efflorescent sound, by a halo of trills lost high in the trees…

2. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of Time. The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and violoncello.

3. Abyss of the birds. Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

4. Interlude. Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.
5. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, infinitely slow, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle… “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

6. Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets. Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece in the series. The four instruments in unison take on the aspect of gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse were followed by various catastrophes, the trumpet of the seventh angel announced the consummation of the mystery of God). Use of added [rhythmic] values, rhythms augmented or diminished… Music of stone, of formidable, sonorous granite…

7. A mingling of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time. Certain passages from the second movement recur here. The powerful angel appears, above all the rainbow that covers him… In my dreams I hear and see a catalogue of chords and melodies, familiar colors and forms… The swords of fire, these outpourings of blue-orange lava, these turbulent stars…

8. Praise to the Immortality of Jesus. Expansive solo violin, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second encomium? It addresses more specifically the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh... Its slow ascent toward the most extreme point of tension is the ascension of man toward his God, of the child of God toward his Father, of the being made divine toward Paradise.

The eight movements are evocative and highly diverse. Only in half are all four instruments used together (movements 1, 2, 6, and 7); the third is a solo for clarinet. Some of the material even pre-dated Messiaen’s imprisonment, but the finished form was highly dependent on the performers he had around him. He carefully walked his players through some of the work’s most difficult rhythmic portions. In particular, the sixth movement unfolds with all instruments in exact unison—possibly the most difficult task to pull off in chamber music. The first performance, given in the prison itself, left a deep and abiding impression on the 5,000 peasants, laborers, intellectuals, career soldiers, medics, and priests who heard it. It must have seemed a brief oasis of cultural enlightenment in the wasteland of the German stalag.

© Jason Stell, 2021