Anniversary Concert Notes

NVMTA 60th Anniversary ConcertOn December 1, 2010 NVMTA marked its 60th Anniversary, as well as MTNA’s Year of Collaborative Music, with a concert by NVMTA members. Nancy Genovese, Susan Hayes, Eric Himy, Ruth Locker, Louise McClelland Urban, Narciso Solero and Richard Wilmer shared their talents in a program of chamber music and solo piano. The program, planned and introduced by Program Chair Robert Kelley, also celebrated the bicentennial and centennial anniversaries of composers Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber and Frederic Chopin. Dr. Ronit Seter provided the following program notes which provided historic context for the repertoire.

“Hats Off, Gentlemen, a Genius!” the Music of Schumann, Barber, and Chopin

Our holiday concert this morning – celebrating sixty years for NVMTA through performances of our members – is programmed by Robert Kelley to focus on centennial and bicentennial composers. We commemorate two hundred years for Schumann and Chopin, and one hundred years for the birth of Samuel Barber. More than just marking centennials, this is a celebration of romantic music, the music that makes us captive audience. Romantic music also marks art music, in general, with a questionable uniqueness: book readers or art lovers are often interested in recently published books and contemporary art exhibitions; but concert hall audiences prefer romantic music over baroque, even classical, and we all know what is the fate of most contemporary music in concert halls. In that sense, we all still live in the long-and-never-ending 19th century.

Compared to other romantic composers, Schumann and Chopin followed Schubert, and thus belonged to those who essentially wrote Lieder – art songs – no matter what instruments they used in their various compositions. Unlike the conservative composers Mendelssohn and Brahms, who composed “classical-romantic” music on the one hand, and Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, who focused on the “modern-romantic” music especially in their tone poems – Schumann and Chopin produced treasures of “poetic-romantic” music, mostly short masterpieces, Lieder or instrumental. Why do we emphasize the Lieder?

“Romanticism, like a centrifuge, had spun music to the edges, in several ways” – says Paul Griffiths in his Concise History of Western Music (CHWM, p. 187). One of these ways was the tendency to cherish short forms, balancing the hour-long (or longer) romantic symphonies, symphonic poems and concerti. Most of these short forms – fantasies, impromptus, musical moments, nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes, or simply pieces used short ABA forms, like some Lieder, and focused on a moving melody and accompaniment. “Individualism was part of the Romantic ethos, the individualism of self-expression and of self-determination in choosing a particular musical world” (Griffiths, CHWM, p. 178-179).

In my brief comments this morning, I would like to focus on Chopin, with a few introductory comments on Schumann and Barber. Several of the most concise statements on Schuman were not written by romantic music experts, like Charles Rosen in his insightful The Romantic Generation – but rather by our old friend Donald Jay Grout, in his 1973 edition of A History of Western Music (this is the second edition, not the recent eighth edition by Palisca and Burkholder):

With Schumann we are in the full restless tide of romanticism. …Although his melodic lines are warm and expressive, Schumann’s Lieder lack the spontaneous charm of Schubert’s; the accompaniments, however, are of unusual interest. Indeed, many of Schumann’s Lieder are really duets for voice and piano. The musical phrase may be divided between the two… the piano may, as it were, comment or reflect on what the voice has sung… The preluding piano phrases, the interludes, and especially the sometimes quite extended postludes (as in the Dichterliebe cycle) often seem to sum up in concentrated and poignant form the essence of an entire song (Grout, HWM, p. 551).

These observations are, of course, common knowledge today, but it is good to rethink of Grout’s words while listening to the seven Lieder that we shall hear now. And they are especially true regarding Schumann’s Fantasy pieces for clarinet and piano (op. 73) – indeed, duets for clarinet and piano – which Nancy Genovese (clarinet) and Amy Rothstein (piano) will now perform. Following Schumann’s Fantasy, Richard Wilmer (baritone) and Ruth Locker (piano) will perform four Schumann Lieder; and Louise McClellan (mezzo soprano) and Ruth Locker will play another set of three Schumann Lieder.

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It is not hard to explain the inclusion of Samuel Barber’s Canzone for Flute and Piano (op. 38a) in such a concert. First, this year is his centennial (he was born in 1910), and second and more importantly, Barber – a twentieth-century composer – wrote post-Romantic music. And that style was both his blessing and his curse. As a musicologist looking for materials for our event, I first seek the best sources available. The initial result is disconcerting. I find out that the most cited and read history of Western music today, that by Richard Taruskin – The Oxford History of Western Music (OHWM, in 6 volumes, published in 2005) – does not mention Barber even once. I then peruse the classic book, Twentieth-Century Music by Robert Morgan (1991), and all he could say about Barber was that he wrote “ambitious symphonic works in an essentially traditional style, addressed in a broad voice toward a large and varied public” (p. 286). In other words, Morgan, a distinguished Yale University professor, thinks that Barber is a populist, so there is no need to spend precious space, in a book on contemporary music, on a composer who composed as if there were no Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Penderecki, or Ligeti during his life time. Barber’s works are for the general public, not for us, musicians. OK, you may say, enough with these rather old and distinguished elitists? Let us take a look at a recent, critically acclaimed book, The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, music writer for  the New Yorker: “While so many of his generation favored lean textures and brief motifs, Barber produced long melodic lines and rich orchestral textures, leaving audiences with the feeling that they had consumed high-protein meal” (p. 311).

But looking closely at reception, the picture is more complicated. Barber, adored by performers and audiences alike, was a conservative composer – and he was consistent about it, despite the so-called “tyranny of the avant-garde.” He cared less about originality and more about writing in his conservative style; you may tag him as outdated, passé, anachronistic, but you may not rob him from the quality or the exquisite finesse of his craft.

Barber’s Canzone for flute and piano was written in 1959. Nothing could be farther from the Canzone than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, written just about the same time. The Canzone is a beautiful composition, easily reminding us French expressionism with a touch of Alban Berg’s harmonies. You can clearly follow the themes, and especially the dialogue between the flute and the piano. Moreover, it is a Canzone, or a kind of song without words, with melodies swirling in our heads upon hearing them. It is about beauty, about yearning, about the transient character of good moments in life; it is about everything that has been missing from contemporary music, especially in the 1960s.

Far from a “high protein meal,” we will hear now Susan Hayes (flute) and Narciso Solero (piano) perform Barber’s delicate Canzone.

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“Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” exclaimed Eusebius on Wednesday morning, 7 December 1831, in the dignified pages of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. With these words the twenty-one-year-old Schumann…welcomed the twenty-one-year-old piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin into the ranks of published composers and introduced him to German music lovers… (Taruskin, OHWM, vol.3 p. 343).

This appreciation was not necessarily mutual. While Schumann adored Chopin, Chopin did not always appreciate most of his contemporaries. Chopin’s favorite composers were Bach and Mozart. In a letter to Delphine Potocka, Chopin wrote: “Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars… Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit… I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man” (Crofton and Fraser, A Dictionary of Musical Quotations, p. 30).

An individualist romantic composer, Chopin did not follow either Bach or Mozart in their choices of genres or orchestrations: Chopin felt close to his piano – and consequently “wrote no music that did not involve the piano, and very little that was not in the form of short solo piece” (Griffiths, CHWM, p. 179). The piano was his kingdom, and his own virtuosity enabled him to create masterpieces out of trivial forms like the Mazurkas, which we will hear this morning.

The Mazurka is a dance from the Mazur area in his native Poland, and Chopin brought a taste of home to Paris, where he wrote fifty one Mazurkas throughout his life, from opus 6 to op. 68, fast and happy ones in major scales, in allegro or vivace, as well as slow and melancholic ones; but he never stopped writing Mazurkas. Chopin’s very last work, written in 1848-49, the year of his death, was a Mazurka, Opus posthumous 67 no. 2 in g minor. This morning, we will hear two Mazurkas.

Chopin wrote just one word as a tempo direction for his b minor Mazurka No. 25, Op. 33 (no. 4). It is one of the slow Mazurkas, but we do not see any “adagio,” “largo,” or “lento.” Rather, he wrote just mesto – sad in Italian. A surprisingly chromatic, thematically tricky piece, it is uncharacteristic of many other Mazurkas: listen, for example, to the hidden solo for the left hand, in pianissimo towards the end.

It seems as if Oscar Wilde (in his The Critic as Artist, 1891) wrote about this Mazurka when he noted: “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own” (Musical Quotations, p. 30).

In contrast, the well-known Mazurka No. 23 (Op. 33 No, 2) begins simple and repetitive, but the B section is harmonically complicated: beginning in D major, vivace, Chopin reaches the secondary dominant to Bb major on his way to Db major, and returns to D major through an enharmonic modulation into F# minor and A major. Such a harmonic journey in one Mazurka!

Personally, I appreciate Chopin’s etudes even more, as some of the most magnificent etudes ever written – in fact, some of the most insightful short masterpieces ever written. From Czerny and Clementi to Liszt and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos (which are kind of etudes, too) – it seems that no set of etudes is like Chopin’s in the intricacy of their poetry in music. Op. 25 No 1, for instance, is simply a Lied without words. If it were not a concert hall here – if we were listening to it at home, played by ourselves or one of our students – one might be tempted to sing it along. Compared to Op. 25 No 1, any Mazurka sounds caged in its ¾ time signature, with the heavy accents on the second and third beats. In this etude, the choral melody seems to float effortlessly, with only delicate, almost intangible accents, over the waves of the accompaniment.

Most memorable are Schumann’s words on Chopin’s virtuoso playing and this etude in particular; he granted its common title, Aeolian Harp:

Let one imagine that an Aeolian harp had all the scales and that an artist’s hand had mingled them together in all kinds of fantastic decorations, but in such a way that you could always hear a deeper fundamental tone and a softly singing melody – there you have something of a picture of his playing (Musical Quotations, p. 30).

It is tempting to conclude my words on Chopin as the Polish exile in Paris and on nationalism and heroism in the Revolutionary Etude, Op. 10 No. 12. We all know the stories of the proud Pole composer; suffice is to say, as Richard Taruskin does, that “Chopin… pulled off the extraordinary feat of telling a national story using only universal ingredients” (Taruskin, OHWM, vol. 3, p. 376). I will add instead one brief analytic comment, made by Heinrich Schenker: if we hear – and perform – the first 8 measures as a giant dominant upbeat, then the harmonic analysis makes much more sense, beginning on the tonic at measure 9.

And if we wish to end with a sad, mesto, tone, as in the Mazurka we shall hear now, Chopin “died surrounded by fellow Poles… but he was buried in Paris like a grand seigneur after a funeral attended by three thousand mourners, at which Mozart’s Requiem was performed” (Taruskin, OHWM, vol. 3, p. 376). Let us welcome Eric Himy (piano), to play two Mazurkas and four etudes by Chopin.

© Dr. Ronit Seter, 2010