Water Music

Water Music

August 13 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was probably as close as one could be to a “celebrity” composer in 18th-century Germany. His creative output was truly staggering, with over 3,000 works to his name, spanning an incredible range from cantatas to oratorios, operas, concertos, chamber pieces, keyboard music, and more. Much of this musical legacy originated from the period after Telemann was installed in Hamburg in 1721 as Kantor at the Johanneum Lateinschule. He also served as musical director of the five (!) principal churches in the city.

Early in his Hamburg tenure, Telemann had the opportunity to score an instrumental suite for the centenary of the Hamburg Admiralty College, a force most easily described as the Hamburg port police. Performed in the customs house by the harbor, Telemann’s Wassermusik suite, subtitled “Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth,” brought its listeners even closer to the water, evoking its subject in colorful vicissitudes. The overture depicts the harbor as utterly placid one moment, then alive with rushing currents and splashing waves in the next. As men familiar with life on and around the water, Telemann’s audience would hardly have been able to listen to such music without appreciating his ability to evoke this mercurial element so effortlessly with woodwinds and strings.

Likely the most well-known Finnish composer of the 19th and 20th centuries – and even the 21st – Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) left behind a legacy of music that remains popular on the concert stage and recordings to this day. By the time of his death in 1957, the man had completed a body of work that included multiple symphonies and various orchestral works, pieces for chamber ensemble, piano, and solo voice, as well as numerous accompanied and unaccompanied choral pieces. What a privilege then, to have an insight into where all this creativity began: his earliest preserved piece, Vattendroppar (‘Water Drops’) reaches us from around 1881, when Sibelius was fifteen years old.

A duet for violin and cello in E minor, played entirely pizzicato (a technique in which strings are played via plucking, without a bow), this charming piece has the air of a project the young Jean might have taken on during a rainy afternoon. It even seems likely the budding violinist might have played it with his brother, Christian, who was learning to play the cello at the time. Here we do not hear the far more sophisticated textures or forms which the composer would deftly handle in his adult years, but we catch glimpses of the playful economy of expression which would later characterize some of the man’s later oeuvre.

The 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most well-known early composers for her extensive corpus of sacred vocal works, as well as for her written contributions to religious and scientific literature. Impressively, she was also the first western European composer known to have personally overseen hand-written copying of all her musical manuscripts, completed entirely by fellow nuns.
All of Hildegard’s extant music is monophonic, meaning that, while her songs are often performed by a group of singers, all of these voices sing the same melodic line in unison – no harmonies here. The resulting texture is both stunningly sparse and serenely meditative, effects that are compounded by the straight tone (aka singing sans vibrato) with which singers today perform her music. O bonifaci remembers Saint Boniface, the 8th-century English monk known as the Apostle of Germany. This antiphon would have been performed on the saint’s feast day, June 5th. O viridissima virga, one of Hildegard’s many songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary, leans entirely on vivid, natural imagery to portray the conception and birth of Jesus as an event brimming with life and abundance.

Although somewhat like a symphony both in its broader form and thematic unity, La Mer really defies such a simple categorization, which should come as little surprise. Its composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was notoriously critical toward contemporaries who tried to improve or expand upon the traditional, multi-movement symphony as Beethoven had left it. Debussy avoids convention, for instance, in his choice to neglect the sonata form (Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation) used in more traditional symphonies. The absence of sonata form does not leave the work without structure. However, it does lend an impression of ambiguity and amorphousness, which one might argue is better suited to depicting this dynamic body of water.

Debussy begins his poetic evocation “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea” with a hushed, gradually rising passage signaling the slow arrival of the sun over the horizon. He soon introduces scattered themes. But rather than treat this material to the typical development of sonata form, Debussy subjects it to cyclical repetition – material that once surfaces on the waves later on comes back to the surface. Tonality throughout the piece is ambiguous, and one would be hard-pressed to trace the trajectory from one discrete tonal area to another within the movement. All of this is not to say, however, that the piece is directionless; time still passes on the sea as the sun rises, and it becomes clear by the end that the goal in sight has been the arrival of noon, announced by a grand fanfare which concludes on the first clear major triad (D-flat) to be heard in the entire piece.

The middle movement, “Play of the Waves,” operates like a kind of symphonic scherzo. It is animated throughout, carrying an abundance of ideas and providing a suitable contrast to the more stately outer movements. One aspect, however, remains consistent: Debussy’s use of rhythmic and textural variety to mimic the impressions of water’s turbulent nature. In the final movement of La Mer, chromatic progressions and use of lower registers show a more mysterious aspect to the sea. Within moments, we hear the signature theme bursting forth in swelling gestures, playing around with major and minor versions of the same chord – a tactic copied by dozens of subsequent film composers.

The version performed today was created by British composer Sally Beamish. Beamish has enjoyed commissions from dozens of prestigious music ensembles and has been featured at concerts at BBC Proms. In addition to her compositional career, Beamish is also a professional violist. This combination makes her an ideal person to glimpse behind the symphonic veil and come to terms with the subtle details contained in La Mer. Not all of the color in Debussy’s original score can come through in this piano trio version, of course. But what it lacks in opulence, it more than makes up for in the intimacy unique to chamber music.

© Jason Stell and Emily Masincup, 2022