Friday, December 26, 2014

Anguish and Triumph

In the crowded field of Beethoven biographies, any addition to this body of literature must be outstanding in order to merit our attention. Composer and historian Jan Swafford’s, Beethoven - Anguish and Triumph, a mammoth new biography of the composer, warrants the effort of our careful study and thought. Casual readers should stay away from this thick volume, but those with a desire to deepen their understanding of this iconic figure would find their efforts amply rewarded.

Written in the spirit of Thayer’s voluminous Life of Beethoven, Swafford succeeded in giving us as complete a portrait of the composer as history allows us, separating the facts from the myths and legends that had been building up during the composer’s life and, especially, after his death.

Born into a Europe still reeling from the spirit and atmosphere of the Sturm und Drang movement, one that created the period that came to be called Romantic. Swafford stresses quite emphatically that Beethoven, from the earliest days, was a pianist rather than a harpsichordist. Beethoven himself gave conflicting reports of whether he heard Mozart play. If he did, he had only one comment about Mozart’s playing, “He had a fine but choppy way of playing – no legato”, which is interesting (if true) considering, Mozart’s own admonition that his music should be played “like oil”.

When he was almost twenty-two, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, the musical capital of Europe then as now, to study under the great Haydn. Emperor Franz II, conservative and fearful of change, had made Vienna a virtual police state. The police, however, could find no grounds to censor instrumental music, and music thus became the one thing in which the nobility and the aristocrats show their good taste. From the beginning, there was no love-loss between Beethoven and the Viennese. Yet, Vienna was to be the home for him for his professional, a place where he was to find fame and, to a lesser extent, fortune. Throughout his life, he would think of Bonn as his true home.

Swafford details Beethoven’s relationship with his many admirers and patrons, friends, colleagues, and love interests, many whose names are known to us only because of their association with certain works of Beethoven. Beethoven’s life was his work, his composition, and Swafford’s narration certainly centers around the evolution of Beethoven as composer. The author gives us quite detailed analysis of certain landmark works, the Missa Solemnis and the Symphony No. 9 each receiving its own chapters.

What makes intriguing reading is the author’s discussion of the psychology behind discussion of the structural, motivic (crucial in understanding Beethoven’s work), harmonic, and key-relationship of many compositions, as well as the importance and meaning of certain keys in Beethoven’s works. In the appendix, there is a section titled “Beethoven’s Musical Forms”, with explanations of the technical names mentioned in the text. All this makes for fascinating but certainly not casual reading.

According to Swafford, Beethoven also had a very complex relationship with Joseph Haydn. Many biographers had stated that Beethoven began studies with Haydn, but that the two had a falling out with each other. We can all see and hear the unmistakable influence Haydn’s music had on the younger composer. Beethoven’s formal lessons with Haydn only lasted until 1793, but “there would be contacts and consulting between them in the coming years, and now and then they appeared in concerts together.” Never was there a formal break between the two. Haydn had been patient and generous with Beethoven, and Beethoven was circumspect enough not to openly insult the foremost composer of Europe. Haydn even took Beethoven to Esterházy Palace to introduce this young talent to his former employer. When Haydn heard the premiere of the 24-year old Beethoven’s fiery C Minor Trio, he “had to sense that he was the past and this youth was the future.”

Beethoven was often jealous of Haydn’s great success and the adulation he receives. Haydn’s anthem, God Protect Franz the Kaiser, was so successful that it became the unofficial Austrian national anthem. The fact that “Haydn and not Beethoven had written such an anthem would burn in him until his own last years.” Beethoven admired and was influenced by Haydn’s The Creation, but it wasn’t until Haydn’s death in 1809 that Beethoven, knowing that he “was the only peer of Haydn alive,” begins to speak with unreserved admiration of Haydn.

No biography of Beethoven would be complete without a discussion of the possible identity of the “immortal beloved.” Swafford did not suggest any one woman to be the chosen one, but gives us the evidence available. Like a medieval knight with his idea of courtly love, Beethoven idolizes certain women in his life, mostly young and beautiful piano students from a much higher social class than a freelance composer and pianist. All but one of these attempts would end in rejection and bitterness (on his part), either by the lady herself or by her family.

In some ways, Beethoven’s relationship with women is similar to his dealings with those around him – friends, patrons, and family, especially his problematic nephew Karl, the one person who gave him no end of grief in his later years. Swafford discusses Beethoven’s solipsism, his complete inability to deal with the world beyond music, often with disastrous consequences. I feel that perhaps Leonore, the heroine of his opera Fidelio, represents an idea of his ideal woman – utterly loyal, and willing to risk even her own life to rescue her husband from the clutches of evil. What woman can measure up to that?

It is an amazing fact that in spite of all his difficulties, Beethoven attained success quite early on and maintained his popularity with the fickle Viennese. With the writings of E. T. A. Hoffman, early music theorist Adolph Bernhard Marx, and Franz Grillparzer, Beethoven becomes, after his death, a towering figure, a Romantic demigod, and a myth, one that persists to this day.

In his wonderfully readable book, Jan Swafford has successfully given us a picture of the man behind the myth, certainly the man behind the music. As with most great men, Beethoven was neither angel nor demon, but a man who had given us some of the most moving, passionate, and soul-stirring music of any time.

At the end of the book, I realized that even in this crowded field of Beethoven biographies, we must make room on our shelves for this one magnificent volume.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Five

Nationalism, a sense of pride in one’s heritage, art, music, and literature, has been the impetus for not only political movements, such as the unification of Italy and Germany, but the inspiration for many of our greatest artistic works. Of course, the spirit of nationalism has, in various times in history, been used as excuses for some of the most grievous crimes against humanity.

In music, nationalistic movements in one form or another, came to a fore in the middle to late 19th century, in many cases as a reaction to the dominance of Austro-Germanic composers. Composers such as Dvorak, took the rules and forms laid down by “foreign” composers, to create music that has a uniquely Czech voice and identity. There were also composers who rejected, or tried hard to reject, any influence of established forms and styles, who tried to create works of art unique to their cultural heritage, free from any foreign influence.

Music historian Stephen Walsh’s new book, Musorgsky and His Circle, A Russian Musical Adventure, is part social history, part musicology, and part biography. Namely, he chronicles the development of Russian art music from Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomïzhsky, to the focus of his book, the work of the circle of composers known in the West as The Five, and ends with a discussion of its influence on subsequent Russian and Soviet composers. Within Walsh’s book, there are also detailed discussion and analysis of the works of these composers. It is an ambitious undertaking, and the result is a book that is not meant for casual reading, but detailed study.

The term, commonly known as the Five, is also referred to as the Mighty Little Heap (moguchaya kuchka), is a group of composers that include Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Musorgsky, the most important figure in the group, according to the author. The circle could be extended to include Vladimir Stasov, a lawyer-critic who served as inspiration and advisor for the composers and chronicler of Russian art and music, and Alexander Serov, a some-time composer, but one of the most feared music critic in St. Petersburg.

Walsh takes his reader through the relationships between these composers, how their friendships and alliances were formed, and broken. These composers, none of which had formal training in composition, played their works for each other, supported each other’s creative endeavours, and provided each other with ideas for creative projects. On the other hand, they were also marked by violent disagreements, professional jealousy and envy, and sometimes betrayal, and would vehemently reject any work or composer whose works or associations do not fit within their musical and aesthetic ideas. In many ways, César Cui, perhaps the least talented and most small-minded of the group, could be scathing in his critique of works of friends or enemies. By the 1870’s, when members of the circle were all involved with their own projects, the identity of the group had already begun to blur.

Battle lines were most clearly drawn between the Five, and pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein. By the mid 19th century, Rubinstein, who came from a family of converted Jews, was already famous throughout Western Europe as a touring virtuoso. In 1855, Rubinstein published in a Viennese music journal an article, “The Composers of Russia”, that was widely read in St. Petersburg. The article was a genuine attempt by Rubinstein to introduce European music lovers to the musical scene in Russia. The composers of the Five, however, objected to Rubinstein’s statement that he finds in Russian folk song, in spite of its distinctiveness, “a persistent lugubriousness and melancholy that infect every aspect of its melody and rhythm.” To use such material for an entire opera, says Rubinstein, would be “scarcely endurable, especially for foreign audiences”. To Glinka, composer of the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, as well as to the composers of the Five, it was a declaration of war. The Five was also stung by Rubinstein’s statement that anyone who “writes a single romance, however primitive and inept… can call himself a composer”, even though Rubinstein never specifically named any one person.

The response of the Five, as well as critic Vladimir Stasov, also reflects the latent anti-Semitism of Russian society at the time. Echoing Wagner’s infamous Judaism in Music, Stasov states that Jews (even a converted one like Rubinstein), while acquainted with European languages and culture, are not capable of anything but “a superficial understanding of their inner workings.” What Rubinstein refers to as amateurism, Stasov adds, is actually a “natural Russian distaste for the stultifying effects of Western academicism.” Verbal battles were fought between Rubinstein’s Russian Musical Society (RMS) and the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Free Music School (FMS), an organization that reflects the philosophy of the Five.

Although battle lines were drawn between the two parties, things were not quite so clear-cut. Rubinstein’s RMS, generously, one might add, regularly presented works of the Five, as well as musical works of Western European composers. When Rubinstein resigned as director of the conservatory and as conductor of the RMS, the board of the society was in favour of appointing Balakirev to conduct the concerts in the coming season. It was only when Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna (patroness of Rubinstein and the RMS) vetoed their choice that Balakirev had to share the podium with Hector Berlioz. In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to be the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Some members of the Five considered this a betrayal. Musorgsky writes, “Artistic truth can’t tolerate predetermined forms” as a jibe to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “defection” to academia.

Such is the background against which composers of the Five were operating. Walsh covers a lot of ground in his book, detailing the chronology of each composer’s major compositional efforts, large and small – Cui’s many efforts at writing operas, Musorgsky’s chronology of writing Night on Bald Mountain, and the many revisions of Boris Godunov, as well as his efforts at Khovanshchina, and Borodin’s efforts at Prince Igor, to name just a few examples. The discussions always center around Musorgsky, perhaps because of the five composers, he was “the most inclined to ignore the normal rules and procedures of textbook composition” and the most original. 

Other than the relative handful of compositions that has become part of our musical canon – Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and Prince Igor, Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures from an Exhibition, Balakirev’s finger-breaking Islamey, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Sheherazade, and Russian Easter Festival Overture (all written late in the composer’s life) – audiences outside of Russia, except perhaps the most ardent Russophile, would most likely be unfamiliar with many of the composers’ other works.

Were composers of the Five “geniuses”? Perhaps not, not in the sense of Schubert or Mozart or Beethoven, in whose music one finds a sense of inevitability, both in their conception and progression. This group of five men, as much as they loved music, really treated music as, forgive the use of the word, hobby. They would begin a work with great enthusiasm, but would then leave it for days or months or years, because of their other professional or personal commitments, or because they simply lost interest in the project.

While it is all too easy to dismiss the other efforts of the Five as mere dabbling by amateurs, we should be reminded that the history of Russian and Soviet music would be very different without their pioneering efforts. In the penultimate chapter of the book – Heirs and Rebels – Walsh discusses the legacy and influences of the group. According to the author, we can find in works of composers as diverse as Debussy, Janáček, Stravinsky (a private pupil of Rimsky’s), and Shostakovich, influences of composers of the Five.

After the work on Russian music history by Richard Taruskin (acknowledged by the author throughout his volume), Stephen Walsh has done a real service here, and has done a balanced, fair-minded, English language study of this watershed period in Russian music history. As Walsh points out, some of the studies of the Five carried out during the Soviet era were subjected to interpretation that suits the socialist reality of the time. Even with the detailed musical analysis that filled many pages (fascinating reading in their own right), I do find this book quite an engrossing read, and had learnt much from it. The cultural milieu of Russia at the time, vignettes of the lives of the five composers, their interactions with each other at various stages in their lives, and their struggling to write music in spite of their “day jobs” and other commitments, make the volume a very interesting one to read. I am certainly grateful to Walsh for filling in gaps in my knowledge of this fascinating period in European art music.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First Encounter

First encounters are often sweet. My first encounter this afternoon with Paul Lewis and the Vertavo String Quartet was delicious. I had heard a great deal about pianist Paul Lewis, since he had previously graced our stages on many occasions, but this was my first experience hearing him. Lewis appeared in Vancouver today in a programme of chamber music with the young Vertavo String Quartet, formed in Norway in 1984. There is a special connection between Paul Lewis and the quartet, as he is married to cellist Bjørg Lewis of the ensemble.

The programme began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, in the composer’s own arrangement for string quartet and piano. Originally scored for orchestra, with the usual complement of strings, with two oboes and two horns, Mozart probably arranged the work for a smaller performing force to make the score more marketable. Composers, from Mozart to Chopin to Debussy, often rescore their works for smaller ensembles to make performances of their works easier in terms of “manpower” required.

Even with the placement of the piano behind the quartet, the music still points to the piano as a solo instrument, rather than part of the sound picture in a piano quintet. Lewis’s playing of Mozart is dainty or pretty, but rather virile, bold, and colourful, without being heavy-handed. The Vertavo provided a beautiful ensemble support for the soloist, and produced a performance that started the concert in a sunny mood.

The quartet alone then gave us an incredible performance of Bela Bartok’s late masterpiece, the String Quartet no. 6. Written in four movements, each movement begins with a short slow section marked mesto (sad). The pervading sadness that permeates the music is a reflection of the composer’s mood at the time, with the death of his mother, his own failing health, and the outbreak of World War II. In the first movement, Berit Cardas’s magnificent and deeply felt playing of the mournful solo opening particularly moved me. As much as I enjoyed hearing the quartet as a whole, Cardas’s was the sound that remained in my ears long after the performance was over. In the second movement, Bjørg Lewis’s playing of the solo that opens the movement was also memorable. From the first note to last, the performance and ensemble were flawless. The playing of the third movement, the violent, almost savage Burletta, was simply stunning. The music of the fourth movement is beautiful, elegiac and reflective, and the quartet delivered all those qualities in their performance. At the end, the music simply dies away, like the last soft breath of a dying man.

The mood of the concert turned sunny again after the interval, with a delightful performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, B. 155.  In the Mozart concerto that opened the concert, the audience’s attention was always directed toward the soloist. In the Dvorak, the piano sound is melted into and became part of the ensemble’s welter of sound. Paul and Bjørg Lewis played the opening of the first movement, one of the composer’s most enchanting melodies, simply exquisitely.  When first violinist Øyvor Volle took up the same melody, her sound matched the beauty of Lewis’s cello solo. I thought that Paul Lewis played the main theme of the second movement a little too aggressively, thus robbing it a little of its melancholic charm. That really is my only minor quibble of the entire performance. The musicians delivered the scherzo movement, marked furiant, with vigour, but also with a Mendelssohnian lightness that was quite infectious. The performance of the final movement was one of unrelenting energy, like a molto perpetuo, but retaining the lightness that the music also calls for.

I was grateful finally to have heard Paul Lewis in Vancouver, and encountering the Vertavo String Quartet. Mr. Lewis will be performing again later on this season, and I am very much looking forward to that. But I also hope that there will be many more opportunities for Vancouver to hear the Vertavo Quartet on our stages.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choral Music from the High Renaissance

I attended the October 17th performance of the Vancouver Chamber Choir with great anticipation. The concert was billed as “High Renaissance – The Golden Age of Choral Music”, with music by, among others, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, some of my favourite composers from the period.

The concert opened with Byrd’s Sing joyfully to God, an anthem for the publically sanctioned Anglican Church, and a setting of Ave verum corpus, written for services in the composer’s own Catholic faith. The twenty-five voices of the Vancouver Chamber Choir were joined in this work by FOCUS! Singers, made up of students from music schools throughout the lower mainland.

William Byrd’s compositional genius was so great that his Anglican masters (mostly) turned a blind eye to his refusal to give up the Catholic faith. Because the work was written for clandestine Catholic worship, I would venture a guess that Ave verum corpus was written for small performing forces, perhaps even one singer per voice part. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear both works, diametrically opposite in atmosphere and feeling, performed with great musicality by a full complement of voices.

Appropriately, the programme continued with Palestrina’s setting of Stabat Mater dolorosa, a poetic depiction of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, as well as an intercessory prayer to the Holy Mother and Jesus Christ. Palestrina’s compositional style was influenced by the precepts of the Council of Trent, which stated that sacred music should be reverential, simple, and that the words sung should always be clearly audible. There is, as stated in the programme notes, a “simple nobility of musical language” in the work, which the choir (without the aid of FOCUS! Singers) sang with great feeling and musicality. Throughout the concert, conductor John Washburn did a wonderful job of blending the voices of the choir, made up of professional singers, soloists in the own right, into a beautiful vocal ensemble.

The first half of the concert ended with Thomas Tallis’ setting of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Like Byrd, Tallis was an avowed Roman Catholic that prospered in Anglican England. Tallis’s music was more complex, contrapuntally as well as harmonically, than that of Byrd and Palestrina. I could not help wonder about Tallis’s mindset when setting words like

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people…
Judah has gone into exile, after affliction and harsh labor…
Her foes have become her master…
Her children have gone into exile.

Did he write this music, using “safe” biblical verses, as a veiled protest to the persecution of Catholics in England? Again, the choir acquitted itself admirably, and sang beautifully this extensive and heartfelt work.

The choir continued its programme in the second half with Claudio Monteverdi’s poignant setting of Lagrime d’Amante al Sepolcro dell’ Amata, inspired (as the excellent notes tell us) by the death of a beautiful and talented singer who was a student of his. Although the notes refer to this work as a Baroque madrigal, I felt that it was musically and stylistically closer to the Renaissance works that were sung in the first half. It is no accident that Monteverdi is the father of Italian opera, for the work here is musically varied and intensely dramatic. Once again, the choir rose to the challenges of Monteverdi’s difficult. There was, in the louder passages of the work, shrillness, perhaps an edge, in the sound of the sopranos that marred this otherwise immaculate performance.

The choir returned to the religious atmosphere with the last two works of the concert. Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus, with its brief text taken from the Credo of the Catholic Mass (“He was crucified also for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried”), is an amazingly intense, stark and beautiful work, with beautiful dissonances and very sensitive text setting. For me this brief work was a discovery and the highlight of the evening.

The programme ended with Tomás de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni, words spoken by the Virgin Mary in response to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. I had not even heard of the names of these last two composers, and was very grateful for the discovery. The composer obviously felt drawn to the words of the Magnificat, since he wrote no less than 18 musical settings to it. Other than the one soprano voice that unfortunately stood out from the sound of the choir, the concert ended on a joyful note with this lovely performance.

In this Fall season, with Winter just around the corner, we can be thankful that we can draw inspiration from such life-affirming words and music.