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