wallen: are you worried about the rising costs of funerals?
Born in Belize, Errollyn Wallen (1958- ) moved to London, England, with her parents and siblings at the age of two. When her parents moved to New York, the children were raised by an aunt and uncle living in England. Growing up, she took lessons in dance, and her uncle sparked her interest in music through piano lessons.
Following graduation from boarding school, Wallen spent about two years (1976-78) training at the Dance Theater of Harlem (New York), but then returned to England, now thoroughly dedicated to music composition and performance. Studying in London at Goldsmiths and then at King’s College London, she earned a Master’s Degree from Kings College, Cambridge in 1983. Wallen now lives and composes in a lighthouse on the coast of Scotland.
In her career as a composer, Wallen has received numerous commissions and honors. A few top honors were Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2007 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2020. She is one of the top 20 most performed living composers of classical music in the world. A very versatile and productive composer, Wallen has written nine chamber operas and a variety of other vocal music, a large and varied repertoire of chamber music, and numerous orchestral works, notably her most recent: Concerto Grosso, premiered in 2022 by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, John Butt, conducting.
Philip Headlam conducted the premiere recording of Are You Worried . . . on Avie Records. For that CD he also wrote the following insightful description of this song cycle:
turína: las musas de andalucia, op. 93
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville. His early studies were there and in Madrid. Following his predecessors, Isaac Albèniz and Manuel de Falla, Turína moved to Paris in 1905, where he studied with d’Indy. He became a friend of Debussy and Ravel. While in France, Turina, Albéniz, and Falla resolved to become nationalist composers writing in a Spanish style. After the outbreak of WW I in 1914, Turina returned to Madrid. His early career there included conducting for the Ballets Russes and at the Teatro Real.
In the early months of 1929, Turina visited Havana, Cuba, where he gave a series of lectures at the Hispanic Institute of Culture. Two years later he was made Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory. During the 1920s and ’30s, Turina frequently spent time in Catalonia and Barcelona, where he absorbed the Catalán culture and composed music that paid tribute to it.
Turina was most prolific in the field of chamber music, which led to performances at the piano with the likes of Pablo Casals. Several of his chamber works are based on some model or idea. Las Muses de Andalucia is an example. Combining the idea of the nine Ancient Greek Muses with musical idioms from his native Andalucia, Turina was able to create a work containing a panoply of musical colors, musical effects, and unique forms.
Las Muses de Andalucia was composed for one soprano voice, piano, and string quartet. Each movement was composed for a different instrumental combination or solo. This variety of musical colors and textures produces varied effects. The nine movements are:
faure: la bonne chanson
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) came from a family of minor aristocrats and educators in the South of France. As a child, he showed musical talent early, and his parents sent him to study in Paris. Initially, he studied church music. However, in 1861, he began to study the piano with Camille Saint-Saëns. This very popular composer introduced young Gabriel to the music of contemporary composers, which made a deep impression on him and his compositional style.
Throughout his early professional life, Fauré’s main source of income was as a church organist. At the same time, his recognition as a composer grew steadily, and in 1896 he was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1905 he became its Director. However, his fame arrived late, and in concert life, he is still underrated. Historians consider him the greatest French composer between Berlioz and Debussy and one of the greatest song composers in history.
Proof of that claim can be found in his famous song cycle, La Bonne Chanson, (“The Good Song”). For this work, Fauré chose poems by Paul Verlaine, who had in mind his wife, to whom he was deeply devoted. Fauré composed most of La Bonne Chanson during the summers of 1892 and 1893, times when he was having a serious romantic affair with his vacation neighbor, singer Emma Bardac (later, Claude Debussy’s second wife). She would sing songs for the composer as he finished them. The song cycle was finally completed in February 1894. When published, La Bonne Chanson’s dedication was (naturally) to Emma Bardac.
Biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux has commented:
“Fauré’s passion for Emma Bardac not only disrupted the even, bourgeois tenor of his life but, unusually for him, had the effect of completely reorienting his compositional activity. . . . He cast off from the moorings of what was reasonable, what “sounded well,” and at a stroke achieved the sovereign liberty that marks the great creative artist.”
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.
Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing: Suite for String Quartet, Op. 11 (composer’s adaptation)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is well known to classic movie buffs as the composer of scores to such adventure films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. However, Korngold at one time held an honored position in European opera and concert music that originated in his youth. This Wunderkind composed his first major work, the pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), at the age of 11 and went on to write a series of successful operas, culminating in Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), completed when he was only 23.
The Austrian-born Korngold got involved in Hollywood film scoring in 1934, when Max Reinhardt arranged with Warner Brothers to make a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold adapted the music of Mendelssohn for this project but then went on to compose a string of 18 original film scores — most of them “swashbucklers.” These melodramatic adventures were not far removed from the Viennese operatic stage from which Korngold had come, and his late- Romantic, Wagner/Strauss style fit them perfectly.
Back in 1919-20, Korngold had composed orchestral incidental music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was premiered the following year. While composing music for the play, he was also adapting some of it as a suite for orchestra, which he also adapted for violin and piano and for string quartet. Here are the movements:
- The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber. Through music, we hear the variety of thoughts running through the bride’s mind on the eve of her wedding – some sweet and lyrical, some jumbled and fearful, but ending quietly and at peace.
- March of the Watch (Dogbert and Verges). Very much in the style of Prokofiev, the music is a comic march, with the pretense of bravery and loyal duty. But frequently, the Watch soldiers trip over themselves or each other.
- Masquerade (Hornpipe). Comic and energetic comes a sailor’s dance. Both players are kept busy with their parts, which project jollity and a humorous, playful Punch-and-Judy ending to the suite.
Kreisler: String Quartet in A Minor
The world knew Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) first as a virtuoso violinist and then as a composer. He was an incredible child prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. There he won the gold medal in violin and went on to the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated at the age of 12 with another gold medal. Soon, for unexplained reasons, Kreisler gave up the violin for a time while he pursued further education and military service. In 1896, he chose a musical career, quickly regained his technique (he never needed to practice much), and embarked on a triumphant career that took him through Europe, England, and the United States. During and after World War I, Kreisler spent time in France and the United States (his wife’s homeland), finally settling there in 1939 and becoming a citizen in 1943. He continued concertizing and broadcasting until 1950. Kreisler’s bowing technique, tone color, and vibrato style influenced almost every concert violinist of the 20th century.
As a composer, Kreisler achieved some notoriety when he revealed that several compositions from his concert repertoire that he had passed off as authentic “olden” works were actually from his own pen. However, he also composed many contemporary pieces for violin and piano that epitomized the colorful recital fare of his day.
Kreisler also dabbled in chamber music. He composed his one string quartet in 1919, dedicating it to his wife. Each of the four movements is titled. The first, Fantasia, is just that: a quilt of different themes and moods in a form that is free except for the ending, which is a literal reprise of the introductory measures.
The second movement, Scherzo, is a playful, puckish piece that owes much to Mendelssohn. The slower, more sentimental, central section, however, is a showcase for individual instruments, as well as a resting point before a reprise of the main section.
Introduction and Romance is the title of the next movement. The well-proportioned introduction makes an emotional contrast with the main torso of the music. Led by the soloistic first violin, this music is at turns cheerful and passionate. Perhaps the high point is the ending, an adventurous progression of harmonies in the upper instruments over some charming pizzicato work by the cello.
Finale: Retrospection completes Kreisler’s quartet. Following a brief introduction, its main thematic group unfolds as a lively, witty march that evokes Brahms’s “barrel house” style. An atmospheric contrasting section (still in march rhythms) lends momentary seriousness before a partial reprise of main themes. Surprisingly, Kreisler concludes with an encapsulation of music from the opening of the quartet, lending a long moment of nostalgia to its soft, sweet ending.
Price, String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor
Florence Price (née Smith) (1887-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony).
She hailed from near Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.
To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting.
In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with Black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.
The musical style of Price’s instrumental concert works is key-oriented, a holdover from the Romantic 19th century. Other 20th-century composers who took this approach included Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Her frequent key changes and passages of thick, continuous counterpoint are reminiscent of the late-romantic César Franck.
Around a short, repeated musical idea (ostinato) in the second violin, the opening movement unfolds as a lyrical strand of attractive melody. The movement introduces a second theme group more serious-sounding than the first, but it soon comes to a soft conclusion. Ever more lyrical, the third theme group joins the quartet together. Its vocal-inspired melodies now come mostly from the First Violin. Other members of the quartet play brief commentaries, but the First Violin consistently shepherds the ensemble back together. Now come passages where the instruments’ melodies differ and compete, yet regularly they blend together. A euphonious, forthright statement by the First Violin and Viola reflect aspects of Price’s cultural background in Gospel and folk music. The music now becomes competitive among the performers as they drive to the end of the movement.
Andante cantabile marks the second movement. Beginning in a minor key, it is lyrical in Price’s best way, yet there is an overreaching mood of tragedy and sadness. Phrases are traded or shared among quartet members. A new section of music brings a more confident mood. Soft, comforting music follows, as a fragmentary song pours out, drawing the movement to a quiet conclusion.
A significant dance impulse informs the third movement — yet it is a polite, courteous dance, well measured, crisp, and in a moderate tempo. The music becomes “bluesy” at times, yet it never loses its proud façade. The second section is another story. We might call it “showy.” We hear passing references to past musical phrases, but no solid development —just “swing,” which finally winds down to a polite ending.
Quick triple rhythms open the finale, tripping and skipping along. Momentum is the main idea now, as new ideas come and go. At about the halfway point some brief solo interchanges among the quartet lead us to a short pause and a recapitulation of the tripping-skipping music of the finale’s original music. At last, a brief slower passage introduces the finale’s “finale” and a cheerful, energetic ending to Price’s String Quartet in A Minor.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.
Still: Mother and Child from Suite for Violin and Piano
William Grant Still (1895-1978) could be called the Dean of Black American Composers. There is no doubt he was prolific, with close to 200 works in several areas. They include five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, numerous chamber and other instrumental works, and a variety of vocal and choral music. In his career of over 50 years, he composed music for both the concert hall and for various commercial projects in the media. He was the first Black person to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South. He pioneered the application of Black American musical idioms in serious concert music, and he was the first to have a symphony and an opera performed by major American musical organizations. And these accomplishments only scratch the surface.
Still had the remarkable ability to look at a visual work of art and internally hear music in it. This was the case with his Suite for Violin and Piano composed in 1943. Still has adapted/transcribed his work for several different solo instruments and ensembles. About the suite, Still remarked: “When I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano, I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admire and resolve to try to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.” The three movements are:
- “African Dancer”: Richmond Barthe’s sculpture;
- “Mother and Child”: Sargent Johnson’s portrait; and
- “Gamin’ ”: Augusta Savage’s painting
In the opening segment of “Mother and Child” the accompanied violin presents a long chain of phrases, all starting with the same caressing four-note figure. We hear these at various pitch levels, and each phrase presents the four-note idea multiple times, yet each generating a phrase different in some ways from the previous ones. Together they present a sort of musical sketch. Gradually, the phrases grow longer and in a higher range than at first. At the same time the piano’s chords become more prominent until they are on an equal footing with the violin. By now, their music has become a free rhapsody with frequent appearances of the four-note pattern amidst the constant, flowing violin melody. Unobtrusively, the music returns to its original moderate range. However, now the piano is gaining an equal footing with the violin. Together, they spin out a free melody that builds to the violin’s unaccompanied cadenza. This grows emotionally to the point where the piano re-enters. Now we hear the duo in a free rhapsody. Gradually subsiding emotionally and flowing into a slightly lower range, the violin again takes up the four-note idea, and weaves it into a new, quieter, more intimate mid-range rhapsody. In that calm mood, “Mother and Child” arrives at its peaceful ending.
Bartok: Contrasts, Sz.111
Possibly the best known feature of the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is its relationship to Hungarian folk music. The connection goes back to Bartók’s earliest years as a professional musician — the first decade of the 20th century. He and his colleague Zoltán Kodály conclusively disproved Franz Liszt’s faulty theory that Gypsy music was the true music of Hungary.
Eventually, Bartók’s personal style of composition entirely absorbed the essence of Hungarian folk music; many of his themes were actually synthesized folk melodies. Several themes such as these can be found in Contrasts, commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman at the suggestion of Hungarian violinist Jozsef Szigeti. Composed in 1938, the work provides the only appearance of a woodwind instrument in the chamber music of Bartók.
Originally, there were to be only two movements, the lively “Verbunkos” (Recruiting Dance) and “Sebes” (Fast). After the premiere in 1939, the slow interlude, “Pihenő” (Relaxation) was inserted in between. In finished form, Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók recorded the Contrasts in 1940 (and ultimately transferred to CD).
The style of this work is characterized by both Hungarian and Bulgarian dance rhythms found chiefly in the fast movements. In the second movement, an unusual sonority called a “tritone” is used extensively. For this feature, the violinist must retune his instrument or employ another violin tuned in tritones.
The writing emphasizes the clarinet and violin. Although the piano seldom competes with these, it intensifies the atmosphere in a way that places it beyond mere accompaniment.
Biographer/analyst Halsey Stevens offers these words to illuminate the instrumental functions in Bartók’s Contrasts:
They share the duties and the rewards of the composition quite evenly. The statement of themes is alternated between them, in the manipulation of them, now one, now the other, is given the spotlight. The clarinet has a cadenza in the Verbunkos, the violin one in the Sebes. Around them the piano provides the frame which intensifies the landscape without calling attention to itself. . . . The piano remains an instrument of percussion, the clarinet a blown air-column, the violin a set of bowed and plucked strings with a resonator; and it is only by a deft manipulation of relative weight that the illusion of ensemble is reached.
Between the slow dance and the fast one that constitute the outer movements, the relaxation of the Pihenő has been felicitously compared to the concentric circles which spread out from the point at which a pebble is dropped into the water. The languid phrases of the violin and clarinet, opposing each other mirrorwise, are marked by faint ripples in the piano. Presently the undulation is intensified and then subsides, while the piano follows . . . .
Beethoven: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 38
For Ravel, it was Bolero; for Rachmaninoff, it was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor; and for Beethoven, it was the Septet in E-flat Major. Each of these composers had one composition that became so immensely popular as to obscure works that the composer considered more important. Eventually, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) grew so sick of hearing his Septet that, in the words of his student Carl Czerny, he could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received. Beethoven began work on the Septet in 1799, and it premiered on April 2, 1800 along with his First Symphony. Its success was immediate and long-lasting.
The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass, but Beethoven later arranged it for a clarinet-violin-piano trio (Op. 38). Dozens of other different arrangements also soon appeared. Together, these generated what musicologist Paul Nettl described as one thousand performances.
The six-movement Trio follows the tradition of the Classical divertimento, a blend of suite and sonata cycle. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn in this work is obvious from the opening Adagio that leads to a sonata-allegro main movement. Here, Beethoven shows us he is his own man by presenting an unusual eleven-measure main theme. The work’s reputation for beauty rests mainly on the Adagio cantabile movement. There is an unresolved controversy whether Beethoven borrowed the Rhenish folk song, Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer for his main theme. As a song, it first appeared in print in 1838, and it is possible that, like some tunes by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s melody was original and so well-known as to become part of the urban folk repertoire. For the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Major, written in 1792 and later published as Op. 49, no. 2. The Trio section, however, is entirely new.
The fourth movement, variations on an Andante theme, gives us different color combinations (some surprising) within the group. Most characteristic of Beethoven are the minor-mode Variation IV and the coda, which takes some unexpected turns. A fast Scherzo movement balances the previous minuet. Its waltz-like Trio briefly spotlights the cello.
In the sixth movement, Beethoven follows the funeral-march opening with a bustling, Haydnesque finale. One unusual feature is the piano cadenza (written out) that precedes the recapitulation. The coda, likewise, emphasizes the piano for a shimmering ending guaranteed to bring down the house.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021/2022
All rights reserved
Carlos Gardel, the mythical tango singer, was young, handsome, and at the pinnacle of his popularity when the plane that was carrying him to a concert crashed and he died, in 1935. But for all the people who are seated today at the sidewalks in Buenos Aires and listening to Gardel’s songs in their radios, that accident is irrelevant, because, they will tell you, “Today Gardel is singing better than yesterday, and tomorrow he’ll sing better than today”.
In one of his perennial hits, “My Beloved Buenos Aires”, Gardel sings: “The day I’ll see you again/My beloved Buenos Aires,/Oblivion will end,/There will be no more pain.” Omaramor is a fantasy on “My Beloved Buenos Aires”: the cello walks, melancholy at times and rough at others, over the harmonic progression of the song, as if the chords were the streets of the city. In the midst of this wandering the melody of the immortal song is unveiled.
Omaramor is dedicated to Saville Ryan, “whose fire transforms the world.”
Piazzolla: Four, for Tango
The work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) has been aptly summarized as breaking with the traditional form of the Tango in the same ways Ravel did with the Viennese Waltz and Gershwin with the Blues. The “traditional form of the Tango” is a dance-song of Argentina developed before the 20th century out of such antecedents as the Cuban Habanera, which has a similar rhythm. Sudden, almost violent movements characterize this dance, performed by couples in a tight embrace. Similarly, the music contains sudden contrasts in rhythm and dynamics. Sentimentalized by American films, the “real” tango often contains song texts of an intensely emotional tone — sensual and bittersweet.
In many ways, Piazzolla was like an Argentine combination of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Learning first the bandoneón (button accordion), Piazzolla became interested in elevating his native Argentine music to the level of European art music. He studied piano with Sergei Rachmaninoff and composition with Nadia Boulanger, only to be shunned in Argentina for attempting to revolutionize the national dance. Eventually, the Argentines understood and respected his music.
At some point, Piazzolla promised to compose a work exclusively for the Kronos Quartet, which materialized in 1988 as Four, for Tango. This four-minute piece offers many of the “special” effects that have made the Kronos Quartet famous: various slides, varieties of pizzicato, percussive effects using the back of the bow to tap the instrument’s body, etc. In brief episodes, we hear a fragmented tango melody and intrinsic rhythmic accompaniment. In fact, we could say that rhythm dominates Four for Tango.
Schwertsik: Adieu Satie, Op. 86
Kurt Schwertsik (1935- ), after conventional musical training, found his voice as a composer. After studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (at the time called The Academy of Music), he was at first attracted to Serialism (atonal music without reference to any key). At first he studied with avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen at Cologne and Darmstadt around 1960, but then rejected Serialism in favor of a personal brand of tonal music. He has continued in that vein to the present time, and has met with success in doing so. Many of his works have been brought out in print by prominent publishers. He has also garnered several awards and prizes, notably the Silver Medal for Service to the City of Vienna (2006).
The title, Adieu Satie, refers to the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), whose 3 Gymnopédies for piano were well known to other French composers, notably Claude Debussy (who orchestrated one of them). Schwertsik’s tribute, Adieu Satie, is scored for string quartet and bandoneon (button accordion). The composer’s own program note for the work begins with the movement titles —
2.Darius en vacances [Darius on vacation]
3.Le Coq et l’Arlequin [The Cock and The Weather-Cock]
4.Gymnopédie [title concocted by composer Eric Satie]
5.Clownerie acrobatique [Acrobatic Clown Trick]
— and continues poetically:
You monastic clown,
who wished to banish the bourgeois from art
and disturb the hushed solemn whisperings of lofty art-lovers
with music hall, cabaret and the circus.
who refused to distinguish high from low art
good taste from bad
simple from incomprehensible ideas.
You patron saint,
of a modern ideal, which is my homeland
where I always wished to be: Utopia.
You navigator of time,
salvage the soul of modernity destroyed by Fascism
in your own chariot vanishing into eternity.
Translated by Richard Stokes © 2003
D’Rivera: Wapango (String Quartet Version)
A native Cuban, Paquito D’Rivera (1948- ) grew up in Havana. His father, a saxophonist, was his first teacher, who taught him to play the saxophone. He also took Paquito to Havana nightclubs to hear top-notch musicians, both Cuban and American, and to events featuring bands and symphony orchestras. In 1960, Paquito began studies at the Havana Conservatory, where he learned to play the clarinet as well as continuing formal music classes and saxophone lessons.
With pianist classmate Chucho Valdés, Paquito formed the jazz-pop band Irakere in 1973, which played a fusion of jazz, rock, classical, and Cuban music. The group went on to win a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Latin Recording for their album, Irakere. By that time, the band was well established, touring frequently, and Paquito had a wife and children.
However, the Communist Cuban government during this time had become oppressive, placing constraints on his music in the 1960s-1970s, labeling it “imperialist” and officially discouraging citizens from listening to it. A meeting with Che Guevara gave Paquito impetus to defect from Cuba, and in early 1980 he did so, gaining asylum in the U.S. Embassy, promising (successfully) to bring his close family out of Cuba.
Since 1980, Paquito’s career has blossomed. With his various ensembles, he has performed in many of the world’s most prestigious venues; he has been granted numerous national awards; he has recorded prolifically; and he has received more than a dozen Grammys.
Latin American musical styles have continued to be at the forefront of his compositional interests, and he has branched out in several international directions. For example, his 5-minute piece, Wapango, has its basis in a native Mexican dance, the huapango. Robert Stevenson, expert on the music of Mexico writes,
The huapango, a dance indigenous to the hot country between Tampico and Veracruz, capriciously alternates rhythms between 3/4 in one measure and 6/8 in the next. The rapid gait of the beats and the alternation of accents produces an extremely agitated and nervous dance. The word huapango has been variously derived. . . . Whatever derivation be accepted, the dance itself is mestizo [“mixed” Spanish and indigenous], not [purely] Indian.
D’Rivera’s Wapango freely employs these shifting accents. However, the main focus of the music at first is its flowing melody. This is varied in different ways and passed to and fro between the instruments, developed slightly here and there between phrases from the main melody. We often hear a free alternation between “sung” melody and dance impulse. In the end, the dance wins out.
Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations
Astor Piazzolla and his various “combos” had, by 1980, established the Argentine Tango as both a sensual dance and a platform for serious composition. Before the 1980s, Piazzolla had been rather a “folk” musician in his compositions and playing style. However, during the 1980s, he learned as much as he could about Classical and Modern Music. Thus, during that decade he developed new aspects and features in his own compositions. Now he employed more dissonance and special effects (especially for bowed string instruments), and new energy infused his works. He also was influenced by (and performed with) famous Classical and Jazz musicians, for example, the Kronos Quartet and Lalo Schifrin.
Eventually, the Argentines had understood and respected his newer music. He went on to compose national operas and music for Argentine films as well as presenting significant concerts in Buenos Aires and on the international scene. Piazzolla also contributed music to the Marlon Brando film, Last Tango in Paris.
Five Tango Sensations had been “distilled” around 1983 from an earlier suite for one of Piazzolla’s groups. He first performed Sensations with a string quartet in Munich. In 1988, Piazzolla returned to New York to play Five Tango Sensations with the Kronos Quartet in a Central Park concert. Soon afterward he made an Elektra-Nonesuch recording of the work with them. It turned out to be the last recording in his life. Partly for that reason, the Five Tango Sensations CD became a phenomenal “hit,” remaining at the top of the Classical Music chart for more than a year.
“Asleep.” The bandoneon, both unaccompanied and accompanied by the strings, leads the music. (This passage is also repeated at the beginning of movements 2, 3, and 5.) This is mainly a three-note figure, heard in repetition and at various pitch levels. The bandoneon spins out this repetitious phrasing into longer ideas, freely improvising flourishes while the first violin plays counterpoint to them.
“Loving.” The strings now come to the fore as equal partners with the bandoneon, especially the high solo by the first violin. The strings’ trembling harmonies illustrate the movement’s title audibly.
“Anxiety.” Now we hear definite a definite quick dance impulse. Again quick, the music begins as a lively, agitated free fugue for the whole ensemble led by the bandoneon. Then, this surrenders to a quick repetitive rhythm (led by the bandoneon). Strings now play a more important role, drawing the music into a march just before the wind-up.
“Despertar.” A soft solo line from the bandoneon draws us into an intimate movement reminiscent of old romantic movie music. A four-note motive dominates here in a melody soon heard as a violin solo soon joined by the bandoneon. The music subtly becomes ominous, then passionate, then softly intimate. We have now come full circle to the four-note idea that built the first movement. Now, however, individual instruments hang brief comments on the sustained ending chord to close this movement.
“Fear.” Piazzolla begins this finale with the music that opened “Asleep,” the first movement. After the strings join in, the music grows in subtly new ways, awakening to new developments in quasi-improvisatory ways. Here is a musical commentary on the first movement, enhanced by knocking sounds from the bandoneon. “Trembling” strings softly accompany. And the work ends in a quiet, ghostly atmosphere.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
All rights reserved
Barber: Cello sonata, op. 6
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) spent the years 1924-1932 as one of the first students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. He worked in voice (a baritone), piano, and composition. Barber showed early potential as a composer, and the works of his student years — the Serenade, Dover Beach, the Violin and Cello Sonatas, and the Overture to The School for Scandal — are not at all apprentice pieces. They are the youthful flowering of a prodigious, creative talent that have become part of the standard repertoire.
The Cello Sonata was, in fact, the last music Barber wrote under the tutelage of his Curtis teacher, Rosario Scalero. He began the sonata while in Europe during the summer of 1932. Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti (fellow student at Curtis) had hiked and boated from Innsbruck to Menotti’s family villa high above Lake Lugano. There, without a piano, Barber composed the sonata’s entire first movement and the Presto section of the second. When Barber returned to school in the fall, he completed the sonata under Scalero with technical help from Orlando Cole. Cole was the cellist who then premiered the sonata in December 1932 with Barber at the piano.
The influence of Brahms on Barber’s sonata is unmistakable in the first movement. After the relentless march of the first theme group, comes a very Brahmsian second theme. Barber’s development section, however, is his own brand of rhapsody. The compacted and re-arranged recapitulation shows Barber’s incipient sense of elegant yet expressive form.
The slow movement and scherzo are folded into one movement, a technique already perfected by Beethoven and Brahms. Barber’s song-like Adagio is a reflective introduction to the Presto middle section, a high-spirited study in perpetual motion. The returning Adagio is now elongated and more expressive, building to a dynamic climax before receding into a quiet close.
Barber marks the final movement Allegro appassionato, and with good reason. Instead of an opening theme, the composer gives us an impassioned outcry. By contrast, the following cello-piano dialogue is at turns introspective and witty. The passion returns with some fresh perspectives, leading again to secondary material stated in new ways and to a Brahmsian-heroic ending.
perkinson: Lamentations (Black/Folk song suite)
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), unlike his Black-British namesake, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was never fashionable among the upper classes nor highly paid for virtuoso performances. Perkinson struggled most his life in one way or another. Yet he overcame many problems, notably racial bias. He is now considered to be among the finest Black American composers of the 20th century: alongside names such as Florence Price and William Grant Still. Perkinson received a musical education carrying some distinction from New York’s High School of Music and Art, New York University, and the Manhattan School of Music (Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees).
His professional life was always diverse, and sometimes surprisingly so. As a jazz pianist, he toured with drummer Max Roach. He composed the ballet For Bird [Charlie Parker], With Love for Alvin Ailey, then became Ailey’s Music Director. His film score credits included music for From Montgomery to Memphis (Martin Luther King Documentary) and four films for Sidney Poitier. In the field of education, he taught at Brooklyn College and Chicago’s Columbia
College, where he was Director of the Center for Black Music Research and headed The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. In the field of traditional Classical Music, in 1965, Perkinson co-founded New York’s Symphony of the New World.
About his personal concert-music style, Dr. Johann Buis (Wheaton College, Illinois) writes, “Perkinson was more forward-looking than better-known African-American counterparts like Florence Price and William Grant Still. His music falls into a kind of ‘in-between category,’ with a constant tension between the pull of atonality and a sophisticated, never faddish use of jazz idioms.” Lamentations (Black/Folk Song Suite) for cello solo is a near-perfect embodiment of Buis’s description of Perkinson’s very personal style.
The composer does not elaborate on the “Black/Folk Song” reference in the suite’s title. A repeated jazzy pattern (an ostinato) informs Fuging Tune. Flashes of melody seep through, but the ostinato becomes the substance, and it dominates the movement’s ending.
By contrast, Song Form is a long string of hazily tonal melodic phrases. Strongly lyrical in their way, these melodies become a sort of psychological portrait of the composer’s often-difficult life.
Calvary Ostinato, entirely pizzicato (plucked), uses a short repeated pattern (the ostinato) to form the backbone of touching (sometimes tortured) melodic phrases. Occasional strummed chord patterns lend a charming variety to the other textures. The movement ends as it began, with a soft utterance of the ostinato.
The Perpetual Motion in the final movement (bearing that title) is a series of single repeated notes (or pairs of notes). From that platform, a procession of short phrases develops, becoming gradually more intense. This climaxes in an exploration of the cello’s high range and Perkinson’s grand, concluding fireworks.
Brahms: Cello sonata in F Major, Op. 99
In the summer of 1886, Brahms’s new-found lodgings at Lake Thun, Switzerland were a delight to him. That year, he was very productive, especially in the chamber domain. Among his completed music was his Second Cello Sonata, a work written with a particular performer in mind: Robert Hausmann, the cellist with Joachim’s string quartet. (For Hausmann and Joachim, Brahms would write his Double Concerto the following year.)
It had been nearly 20 years since Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had composed his First Cello Sonata. The new sonata, besides being a completely mature work, is also fresh in other respects. Brahms exploits a higher general range in the cello than previously, and he shows a deeper understanding of the instrument’s natural character, which, in the words of Martin Cooper, “ranges from gruff surliness to a manly ardor and an almost feminine lyrical tenderness.”
A unique tremolo texture dominates much of the first movement, beginning in the piano in a thunderously low range. The cello picks up the idea in the development section, making it shadowy and remote. Biographer Karl Geiringer refers to this movement’s character as “ardent pathos.”
For the Adagio, Brahms moves the tonality up a half-step to the remote key of F-sharp major. We might consider this a more “moonlit” key, where the composer can spread out his heartfelt nocturne. A highly emotional middle section again shifts key.
The agitated Scherzo reminds us of Brahms’s stormy youthful style, growing as it does from a quiet opening. The Trio turns to the major mode in the proud demeanor of classical elegance.
As in his expansive Second Piano Concerto, Brahms places a brief, light, and charming fourth movement rondo finale in his Second Cello Sonata. The cheerful mood is broken only by a reference to the slow movement before Brahms finishes in high spirits.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021