Friday, January 27, 2012

A Novel about Mozart's Mother

Since today is Mozart's 256th Birthday, I was thinking about a novel I'd read back during the 250th Anniversary's Mozart Year. It's by Pittsburgh-based author Liane Ellison Norman, published by Smoke & Mirrors Press, and it's called Stitches in Air (a novel about Mozart’s Mother), released on September 1st, 2001. Whether it may not have received much notice due to other events associated with that cataclysmic month or it is merely the fate of many very fine books published by small independent presses which lack the mechanism for wider distribution and promotion, I hadn’t heard anything about it until six years ago while I was googling for information during all the hype surrounding attempts to authenticate Mozart’s skull. I highly recommend it to you and hope you'll be intrigued enough to want to read it yourself, then pass the word on to other friends who might be interested in “a very good read” whether they’re ‘into’ classical music or not.

Mozart at 6
If you’re familiar with Mozart’s story – composing by the age of 5, dragged across Europe as a performing prodigy and dandled on the knees of queens and empresses, then deemed a failure because he was unable to land a job as a court musician and died in poverty at the age of 35 – you’re only familiar with a small part of it, much of it based on all the myth-making that has occurred over the years. There is the context of his era – the second half of the 18th Century, known generically as “The Age of Enlightenment” – that is also often understood incompletely: it is difficult to “let go” of a lot of the legends we’ve all grown up with, but it is also easy to condemn the past because it holds views foreign to our own.

Central to Mozart’s up-bringing but curiously absent from most accounts of it is his mother, Anna Maria Pertl. Granted, you can read biographical accounts of great people without ever finding out much about their mothers but that could be the result of male bias from the historians as likely as it might be from those who decided what historical information was important to keep or discard. As Ms. Norman writes in her afterword, “Enlightenment thinkers, though they endorsed the Rights of Man, were aware that someone had to darn Man’s socks and cook his dinner, tasks they thought women were Endowed by their Creator with the unalienable obligation to perform.” People who grew up aware of the advances made in our own times regarding women’s role in society may not be aware how deep some of these prejudices run: it is this habit of millennia, perhaps, that we can still see struggling reluctantly (often violently) with change as we in the West attempt to “enlighten” the Muslim world regarding the Rights of Women.

Mozart's Mother: Anna Maria Pertl
In most biographies of Mozart, his mother’s story is quickly told. What we know of her life before she married Leopold Mozart barely fills a single page. We know when Anna Maria Pertl was born, we know a little something about her father and considerably less about her mother except that she was married twice and both times to musicians. We know she was four years old when her father died, that the Archbishop of Salzburg’s men confiscated their property for payment of his debts and that she, her older sister (who shortly afterwards died) and their mother lived in poverty. Then she met and married Leopold Mozart, a match that was not approved by his mother because he could do better marrying someone with money and status if he wanted to move up in the world. From there, the details of her life are also quickly told: once married, she bore seven children in eight years, five of them dying in infancy. Beyond this, factual information is scant until she accompanies her son on that fateful trip to Paris when her husband, the usual impresario, was unable to go: she became ill and died there at the age of 57.

To read the letters and other accounts about Mozart’s childhood, you would think Leopold Mozart, a violinist and composer employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg, had created his children parthenogenically, springing from his own musical talent fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. What role Anna Mozart may have had in their up-bringing beyond mending their clothes, cooking their meals and keeping the home spotless we do not know. Leopold required his letters to be preserved because they were a documentation of his travels with his prodigiously talented son and were ways of disseminating the rave reviews and honors being showered upon young Wolfgang to their friends and, most especially, to the court in Salzburg. Anna’s responses were never kept: they were entirely personal and probably only about household and domestic details that would be of no importance. But there are two tantalizing tidbits that surface in these letters, and they generated the seed that eventually helped Ms. Norman flesh out the human figure that is the central focus of her novel.

Anna Mozart must have been able to read music. There would have been no reason for this if she were not musically trained. Leopold sends home instructions for her to go through the manuscripts, looking specifically for two pieces, identifying them by certain musical details – “with the violin and double bass staccato (you will know the one I mean).” Earlier in a letter written home from Italy to both Anna and Nannerl, there was a brief query about the women having three concerts, with Wolfgang adding, “I hope that I shall soon hear those Pertl chamber symphonies.” While we know Nannerl also composed (though none of her music exists under her own name), the fact these were called “Pertl chamber symphonies” must mean they were written by Anna Pertl Mozart. The only other possibility, and very remote at that, might be they had been composed by Anna’s father though there was never any indication he was a composer. But if he had been, it would have been okay: for a woman to compose was to risk social censorship and possibly even be accused of witchcraft.

This is a dichotomy where the Age of Reason nearly comes undone for some of us almost three centuries later: for all the philosophizing about logic and “enlightenment” in general, there was still a woman tried for witchcraft in Germany three years before Anna’s death. In the novel, Ms. Norman mentions several such trials and executions, only one of which is fictional. While this thread is mentioned several times in the course of the story – that if a woman engages in musical composition, she will be neglecting her responsibilities as a wife and mother or that her womb will dry up: at one point, Anna even wonders if her dreams of being a composer herself were responsible for the death of her first three children – I’ll quote from one conversation between Anna and her son, not yet 22 years old, as they take off on the adventure that would lead them, eventually, to Paris:

--- --- ---
I wish Nannerl had come,” he said. “Mama, just the other day I heard the new Court Composer, Fischietti, say in that heavy way of his, that ‘the weaker sex have not, not in the least, the general intellect capable of grasping the intricacies of musical composition.’ I have heard Papa say something very like that. But Nannerl composes wonderfully.” Anna smiled at him. “Often,” she said, “it seems to me that when many people think something is the case, they cannot see what is under their very noses. Of course Nannerl can compose. It is foolishness to say otherwise, but what is foolish is often taken for wisdom.”
--- --- ---

Nowhere in what history survives about Anna Pertl and Leopold Mozart is there any explanation how they met or why he married her. It defies logic, really, to find an ambitious musician employed at court who wants to succeed to the post of Chief Court Composer who would risk his social standing by marrying a woman from a penniless and socially inferior family. Ms. Norman’s fictional filling in of this important aspect of the story is as plausible as any: sent to the convent to inquire after a composition that had been forwarded to the Archbishop’s chapel from there by the nun’s choir director, he is dismayed to discover the “AP” on the manuscript is a young woman living at the convent, Anna Pertl.

Though he recognizes the talent in the piece, he also recognizes that the Archbishop’s attitude towards women composers – and by extension anyone who wanted to advance in the court hierarchy there – would not permit her work to be performed there under her own name. But Leopold performs a trio of hers, passing it off as his own in order for it to be heard and appreciated on its own merits, which is regarded as the best thing he’d written so far! He feels that Anna indeed has “a genius” in her music, but after they marry and she begins the arduous process of giving birth to and raising children – and the pain of burying five of them – there is no longer any time for composing. The one work she does manage to compose – the “Pertl Chamber Symphony” mentioned above – is written when she is left alone at home while Leopold takes Wolfgang and Nannerl off on their first tour. She shows it to a colleague of Leopold’s she can trust who pronounces it very good, but instead of showing it to anyone else, she places it at the bottom of a trunk. When the family comes home, they are full of tales of their trip: no one thinks to ask Anna what she did the whole time they were gone. It is years later when she and Nannerl discuss this, much to her daughter’s surprise, and they agree to perform the work at a house-concert – anonymously, of course.

But the fact Nannerl has inherited this talent is also a central focus of the story: at one point, the young girl decides she too must sublimate her own talent to the betterment of her brother’s. The results of this and its affect on her personality are only observed by Anna who longs to help her break out of these restrictions – symbolized by Nannerl’s dressing herself in the latest fashions with ever-tighter corsets and more outlandish hair-dos – and even though she occasionally raises these concerns to the husband who once considered she had genius, it only becomes a major contention between them. Nannerl’s case is hopeless: Wolfgang is the family’s only hope.

We know that Leopold lied about his son’s age and probably wrote some of Wolfgang’s earliest compositions himself (or at least wrote them down ‘correctly’ from what the boy may have improvised: they exist only in the father’s handwriting). This ability to fudge the truth was all part of the public relations spin to amaze the world and find a court position for his son. Actually, what he was doing was trying to find a court position for himself – who would logically hire a 10-year-old boy? Yet these slightly twisted facts became the basis of the whole Mozart Legend.

Another recurring character trait is Leopold’s miserliness, clearly evident in the real-life letters. After her first three children died in a little over a year, Leopold later wrote to Nannerl how he had sent Anna to a famous spa. We know nothing of her state of mind before, during or after this visit: the only other thing Leopold mentions is the expense he incurred by sending her there.

Anna observes, in that sense that all mothers can sense, what her husband cannot see: the similarity of Leopold's treatment of his son and the way he himself was treated by his mother, parallels that would increase in the years after Anna’s death. She sees Leopold’s hatred for his mother as a result of these contentions and realizes this could result in the estrangement of his son and a great deal of family pain. But Leopold would not hear any of it and Anna was too afraid to take it further, given the power the husband traditionally had over the wife. This tension flares up in the final chapters when the otherwise docile and usually house-bound Anna volunteers to go with her son on a job-hunting tour when Leopold cannot go himself.

Without his father’s immediate control, she hopes Wolfgang will learn the necessary self-reliance to function on his own and to find a job independent of his father, to break away. And yet when he ends up in some hare-brained scheme Anna sees leading to disaster (as Leopold would’ve predicted), she writes to her husband about it, bringing down the wrath of Leopold in scathing (and historically accurate) letters. She is torn by her desire to protect her son and by her deceit at trying to go against her husband’s instructions, creating a sense of conflict that seems entirely realistic and, judging from what was still in the future, perfectly plausible.
Nannerl, Wolfgang, Anna (by way of portrait) & Leopold Mozart

An advantage over watching Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus or Milos Forman’s film based on it where one has no idea what is fact and what is theatrical license (Schaffer does not claim to have written a documentary: unfortunately too many people have viewed it as one), Ms. Norman includes an afterword describing what events are real and which are entirely fictional – Anna’s going to the convent, for example – explaining why she invented them or what factual material she used as a basis for its creation. She has quoted from letters but nowhere does it sound like a musicologist quoting letters, tying them into her dialogue as comfortably as if she’d written both herself.

There are small details of character that make Anna a full-blooded person – for instance, the scene where several of her women friends, after helping an old woman in her final days, discover this poor embittered widow had hidden a fortune in coins in her kitchen: what would they do with if this had been their money? One would buy new clothes, another (whom Anna considers house-proud) new furniture, another would travel. Nannerl would give it to her father to help advance her brother’s career. Anna, trying to think what she would do, considered her middle-aged eye-sight and thought maybe she’d get a pair of spectacles. Of course, spectacles cost hardly anything, she is told, so eventually she gets a pair which, during a long conversation with her husband, Leopold fails to notice until she points them out. And then of course, he complains about the expense.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michael Brown at Market Square Concerts: A Review of sorts

Normally, I don’t review concerts but I’ll make an exception for Michael Brown’s performance last night with Market Square Concerts’ January recital at Whitaker Center.

First of all, I was looking forward to the program because of the program – and by that I mean the repertoire: one of my favorite and usually under-heard Beethoven Sonatas, the “Pastoral”; an early work by Chopin that is also rarely heard in concert; and a Schubert sonata that is also rarely heard live, the D Major Sonata, D.850. Admittedly, in my former life as a piano player (making the distinction between that and pianist on purpose), I worked on both of these sonatas, so I could claim an additional level of familiarity with them beyond that of a listener.

Secondly, I do not care for the acoustics of the performance space (and this is my opinion, not necessarily that of any arts organization in town I may be associated with). There have been several performances there where the grand piano sounds uneven, awkward, unmusical, whether it’s the acoustics, the instrument or the way it was has been tuned and voiced - or the way it was played.

After some bad weather that, fortunately, left time for streets to be cleared of what snow we did get – people freaking out about 5” of snow the way we used to react to a foot – I was looking forward to a performance by a young pianist who’s just won some serious awards and competitions and is all of 22 years old. Stereotypes are hard to kill – exuberant youth and technical precision, usually the hallmark of the competitive mind-set, often lack mature reflection and soulfulness of interpretation.

And over the years, I have heard a number of technically proficient young pianists arriving on the circuit who can play, even dazzle, quite well. But I tend not to remember their names. Judging from the frequency with which many of them descend below the level of their agents’ expectations, perhaps I’m not the only one with this problem.

It’s not that a name like Michael Brown will be easier to remember, though it certainly helps. What I will remember is hearing a pianist with such a sense of color who can play with such a beautifully controlled soft dynamic level that can tame that beast of a grand piano in a hall generally unforgiving to anything close to a nice sound and blend.

But most of all, I’ll remember a pianist who found such incredible – if quiet and unassuming – joy in the music he offered to share with us.

The "Pastoral" is a more understated work than we normally associate with Beethoven – it’s not famous like the “Moonlight” written just before it; it’s not dramatic like the “Tempest” written right after it; it’s not virtuosic like the “Appassionata” or the “Waldstein” and it doesn’t present the puzzles to solve like the Late Sonatas.

The Schubert is a similarly gentle, laid-back work, the product of a summer holiday spent doing nothing at a health spa while a friend of his recuperated from an attack of gout. Beyond the last three sonatas, all written in the span of a month shortly before his death, Schubert’s sonatas are under-represented in the concert hall. This one has an inordinately long slow movement and a main theme in the finale that can sound just plain silly.

And I could imagine people feeling slighted not to have a thunderous war-horse on the program. If it’s not familiar, fast and loud, how are people to appreciate how someone can play?

If I ever wanted to applaud between movements, it would have been after the slow movement of the Schubert if only to acknowledge the control, the scope and focus of his playing, the beauty of his sound, and his ability to make sense – not to mention magic – out of something that always struck me as diffuse, saccharine and never-ending. Though not technically challenging, this movement seemed the hardest to play and the reason I’d given up on it: too much work for the return. But not in this case.

To call his performance a revelation might be overstepping things but it was clear this is an imaginative interpreter who can get beneath the surface, proving that “playing music” is more than just transferring what’s on the printed page into audible sounds.

By the last movement, with its simple folk-like tune, I could imagine Schubert sitting in someone’s living room, so wrapped up in his own playing that he forgets other people are listening, and I’m drawn into his sheer joy of taking something so child-like – and so different from being childish as it usually sounds with its clock-like toyish charm – and showing it off without any trace of self-consciousness, coming back to it with a sense of wonder after each luminous digression.

In most performances, I would be thinking of “cartoon music” viewed by an adult trying desperately to reconnect with forgotten childhood. If you have ever seen the light in a child’s face while watching some favorite cartoon, untainted by adult experience and there for the sheer joy of it, that was what I heard in this music last night and Schubert’s simplicity suddenly became sublime.

There is a personal element to Brown’s playing that manages to draw you in until you forget you’re in a large auditorium listening to a public recital. It’s not because – as critics complained of Chopin – he draws a “small sound” from the piano (that is not how you play “soft”) but because his quiet playing is so well controlled and deep that it reaches to the balcony as if you’re in a much smaller room. This is what actors call projection and how a whisper can be made dramatic.

This is something lost in a world of amplification where performers play to the gallery, a world where special effects make the movie and a high point on TV is another car crash and explosion.

Many people think of “Romantic Music” as big moments, high emotions, fast fingers and mad dashes of excitement. They tend to forget the softer moments, the magic and pure delight in sound for the sake of sound, the soul that transcends reality to go from the heart to the heart.

Perhaps that’s why these sonatas are not performed as often – because they’re just so difficult to play well.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Franz Schubert's Summer Holiday: 1825

Schubert in 1825
This weekend, pianist Michael Brown performs a little-known piano sonata by Franz Schubert on his program with Market Square Concerts - Saturday 8pm, Whitaker Center - along with the "Pastoral" Sonata by Beethoven and an early work by Chopin.

You can listen to both the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas here, take a "walking tour" of Beethoven's sonata here, and read about Schubert's changing attitudes toward Beethoven's music here.

This post presents more detail about the busy summer during which Schubert composed that sonata and another work he may have been writing simultaneously.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Franz Schubert, one of the few great composers from Vienna who could actually call this great Imperial capital his hometown, very rarely ever left Vienna. He was not a concertizing performer or conductor frequently on tour nor did he have the financial means to enjoy traveling for its own sake. He grew up as the son of a poor elementary school teacher and was trained to follow in that profession (which he did, briefly). He was unable to get an opera successfully produced – the most likely way to assured recognition in Vienna at the time – and the only time he ever gave a concert in Vienna that could have produced anything close to public recognition turned out to conflict with a concert by visiting violinist Nicolo Paganini, then all the rage. While the recital hall was full of his friends and people who knew his songs, the room was decidedly lacking in critics who were all covering the Paganini concert.

Schubert had one champion, a well-known if not by then over-the-hill opera singer named Michael Vogl who performed many of Schubert’s many songs (often with the composer at the piano) in the homes of friends and arts patrons in and around Vienna. He introduced Schubert’s music to a wider audience not through concerts as we know them but in informal musicales or musical evenings in private homes – events that, among Schubert’s friends, became known as “Schubertiads.” In this famous drawing by one of Schubert's close friends, the composer is at the piano while Vogl, looking rapturously upwards, sits in the foreground next to him.
A Schubertiad in 1826
Vogl was a towering figure both physically and personally. Given Schubert’s short stature and meek nature, this famous caricature attributed to Schubert’s close friend, Franz von Schober, is probably more accurate than an official portrait might have been. The caption reads “Vogl and Schubert go out for battle and victory.”
Vogl & Schubert, c.1825

Most of the times Schubert was away from Vienna, he was employed as a summer holiday music-staff-of-one for Count Esterhazy (poorer relations of the princes who earlier had employed Haydn) and his job description included giving the two daughters music lessons and being a live-in entertainment center. While there, he wrote a great deal of piano duet music written for various combinations of Esterhazys to perform as well as part songs when the family and their guests would gather ‘round the parlor piano after dinner to sing and entertain themselves.

One of these summers was in 1824 when Schubert was 27 years old. Earlier that year, he had completed the great Octet in F and the “Rosamunda” String Quartet (A Minor, D.804) before beginning the next quartet, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D Minor, D.810) which he didn’t actually finish until January of 1826. In June, 1824, he wrote a Sonata in C for Piano Duet at Zseliz, the Esterhazy summer estate, plus six other collections of dances for piano duet. Back in Vienna, the next work in Otto Deutsch’s catalogue (which supplies those D. numbers appended to most of Schubert’s works) is the sonata he composed for that hybrid instrument which never caught on, the Arpeggione. There are also several wonderful songs – less well-known but exquisite, like “Nacht und Träume” and “Die junge Nonne” – that could’ve been written around this same time.

In the spring of 1825, Schubert set three texts from Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake,” the third of which became one of his greatest hits (even in his lifetime). Originally called “Ellen’s Third Song,” we know it as the “Ave Maria.”

In April, Schubert began a sonata in C Major for solo piano but never finished it. The next month, he wrote a new sonata in A Minor which was published within a year with a dedication to the Archduke Rudolf (now a Cardinal of the Catholic Church) who had been a friend, student and, most significantly for the future, patron of Beethoven’s. One wonders what Schubert’s future might have been if the Archduke had shown a similar financial interest in young Schubert.

Keep in mind, in May of 1825, Beethoven – then 54 years old – was working on his String Quartet, Op.130.

That month, Vogl intended to take Schubert on a “tour” of Upper Austria (we would think of it as the area west of Vienna, toward Salzburg).

Before they left, Schubert gathered up some of his songs setting texts by the greatest German poet alive, Goethe, and sent them to him. They arrived on June 16th, the same day Goethe received some new piano quartets by his young protégé, the 16-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn received a lengthy letter full of praise. Schubert’s manuscripts were returned without comment.

The travelers arrived in Steyr on May 20th and, aside from a side-trip to Linz and a day-trip to the monastery of St. Florian (future employer of Anton Bruckner, organist), they spent two weeks there before leaving for Gmunden where they spent six weeks.

In these various locations, they stayed at hotels or with friends of Vogl’s. Schubert performed his own music and accompanied Vogl in his songs. A week later, Schubert described his life there, writing home to a close friend, “living there was so pleasant and free-and-easy. At Councillor von Schiller’s [a local aristocrat he referred to as ‘the monarch’ of the whole region] we had much music, among other things some of my new songs, from Walter Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake,’ of which especially the ‘Hymn to the Virgin Mary’ [the Ave Maria] appealed to everyone.” To his parents, he described Gmunden where “the landscape is truly heavenly and [it] deeply moved and benefited me, as did its inhabitants.”

Returning to Linz and Steyr for perhaps three weeks, total – where Schubert found the summer heat oppressive – their next stop was Salzburg for a few days and then the spa at Gastein (Bad Gastein, officially) where they stayed between August 14th and September 4th.

Salzburg, the heavy rain aside, was a disappointment. No longer the city that was considered a vital metropolis, even though Mozart despised it, the government had been secularized (no doubt, Mozart would’ve approved of losing the Prince-Archbishop or at least the one who’d employed him) and, after losing a localized war, ceded to Bavaria between 1809 and 1816. It was now part of the province of Upper Austria where the center of government and economy was Linz. Schubert saw signs of neglect and poverty everywhere, four- and five-storey buildings once filled with families now largely empty.

A valley near Bad Gastein
On their first day, Vogl and Schubert performed for some local aristocrats (Schubert snidely referred to this as an audition) and, on that success, asked to perform the next night at an important social soiree. On the third day, the sun came out and they left for Gastein where, aside from the elation of such a sunny day, he felt “imprisoned” by “the incredibly high rocky walls… and fearful depths below” of a narrow pass where, in 1809, there had been a fierce battle between Bavarian and Tyrolese soldiers.

Vogl, meanwhile, was dealing with an attack of gout and a stay at a spa was probably as much for his benefit as it was to meet a poet-friend of his who was staying there, Johann Ladislaus Pyrker, who, since 1820, had been the Archbishop of Venice. Another guest at that time was Konstanze von Nissen, better known for being Mozart’s widow.

Bad Gastein, Austria
While there, Schubert set two of Pyrker’s poems – Das Heimweh (Homesickness) D.851 and Die Allmacht (The Almighty or Omnipotence) D.852.The plan was to go with Pyrker back to Venice but things changed when Pyrker decided to leave before Vogl’s cure was completed.

Whether he ever met – or even saw – the Widow Mozart is not recorded.

Vogl, imperious as ever – he was, after all, covering all the expenses and whatever we may think of Schubert’s genius, Vogl was doing him a favor by allowing him to accompany his performances as well as travels, meeting possibly influential people – decided at the last minute not to return to Salzburg but to go back to Gmunden and then there, after barely a week, announced they would leave the next day for Steyr.

By this time, Vogl’s attitude was getting on Schubert’s nerves and, no doubt, vice-versa. It would be the beginning of their unfortunate falling-out. Though Vogl would continue to perform some of Schubert’s songs, fewer were now written for him. Vogl took certain liberties with his performances, too, that irritated the composer and as Schubert began looking for other singers to sing his songs, Vogl looked for other accompanists.

Rather than arriving as planned in late-October, Schubert returned to Vienna around October 5th, happy to be back among his party-loving friends. Little was composed during the following months until, at the end of the following January, he completed (or finished revising and copying) the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet which was given its first performance at a music-lover’s home on February 1st.

So, in the midst of this holiday, Schubert composed the D Major Piano Sonata on this program sometime in mid-to-late August while staying at Gastein, waiting for Vogl to get over his latest attack of gout.

However, there’s something else from this summer that isn’t mentioned with any clarity. Apparently, Schubert was also working on a new symphony but said very little about it, in fact nothing one could go on to identify it. Friends wrote back to him, commenting about his new symphony, hoping it might be ready for a performance that winter.

But since the score has never been found, it has been considered “missing” and, since both the “Unfinished” and “Great” C Major Symphonies surfaced only years later, a place was held when later editors were finally publishing Schubert’s works years after his death. His Symphony No. 7 was thus a nonexistent work, this missing symphony of 1825, long known as the “Gastein” or the “Gmunden-Gastein” Symphony.

Ever since Schubert had finished his 6th Symphony – also in C Major – he had been trying to expand the structure of his large-scale works. The two extant movements of the B Minor Symphony (one of several “unfinished” symphonies in his catalogue) were already as long as his earlier complete symphonies. When the “Great” C Major surfaced (sometimes considered “great” in comparison to the earlier “little” 6th Symphony; more accurately a translation of “Grosses Symphonie” which really, in those days, only meant a grander-sized orchestra that included trombones), musicians were scrambling to find this “Gmunden-Gastein” Symphony. Joseph Joachim went so far as to orchestrate the Grand Duo Sonata in C Major written the previous summer convinced it was a piano-draft for an orchestral work and, being on a grand scale, seemed appropriate to become a like-wise grand symphony.

It is now assumed – judging from the watermarks on the paper Schubert used for the “Great” C Major dating it earlier than 1828 when it was thought to be one of his last works – he either composed or at least sketched out much of the Great C Major on this same vacation during the weeks he wrote the Piano Sonata D.850.

Imagine puttering around a spa-hotel (shades of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain) with nothing to do, so you write a sonata and a symphony – especially a symphony like that and then you don’t tell anyone about it!

Yes, the symphony's manuscript is dated 1828, not 1825. It’s probably not a mistake. After all, he had not finished the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet in 1824: he completed it (or revised it or copied the score) and dated it January, 1826.

It’s rare for Schubert to put a work aside and actually come back to it. His catalogue is full of half-finished songs, symphonies, even operas, and for whatever reasons he just stopped writing them. But he did come back and finish this string quartet. Maybe he thought enough of this new symphony to, eventually, do the same?

Anyway, something to ponder while listening to this sonata – what was he doing when he wrote this piece? What else was he working on at the same time? Who knows…

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Haiti's Earthquake, Two Years Later

Today is the 2nd Anniversary of the Earthquake in Haiti.

In several posts from those dark days, (you can follow the thread, here) I wrote about trying to find a friend and former student of mine from UConn, Jeanne Pocius, who was teaching in a music school associated with the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.

She was there, that day, getting ready for a rehearsal when it struck, the school and the auditorium they were in collapsing around her. As she described it in her account of the quake, “Shaken, Not Stirred: A survivor’s account of the January 12, 2010, Earthquake in Haiti,” 

= = = = = = =

As I stood to pass out papers in the jazz band rehearsal on Tuesday, January 12th, I placed my ZN5 camera/phone next to my calendar on the piano’s music stand.

Suddenly, I heard a low rumble, like an ominous timpani roll.

“Oh, no,” I thought, “they damaged a supporting column in the new construction in the elementary school and it’s coming down.”

That thought lasted all of two or three seconds before the floor began to buckand heave like the surface of the ocean in a hurricane, and I knew we were having an earthquake….

“Run,” I shouted, then had no time for anything else but trying (unsuccessfully) to stay on my feet as the stage tilted sharply, first toward the stage right side of the building, then back toward the back wall of the stage.

I spun in a clock-wise circle and fell to my knees, and, alone with God, curled into a fetal position on my left side.

“Okay, Lord,” I said, “if this is it, if You’re taking me home, I’m okay with that. Thy will be done!”

I felt strangely calm, even as chunks of concrete ceilinger were falling on and all around me and the air was filled with choking dust.

People were screaming and shouting “Jesus” over and over.

The piano, at which I had been sitting moments before, was hit by a massive block of concrete which fell just where I had been sitting….

The large panels of lights in the ceiling fell down, with upside-down U-shaped sections between them providing the safe havens that preserved our lives on the stage in the front part of the audience.

The official reports first said that this first earthquake arrived at 4:53pm and lasted for 17 seconds, then that was revised to 31 and finally 43 seconds.

But for those of us who survived being inside of buildings that collapsed on and around us, time as we knew it was suspended and the quake seemed to last forever.

All concepts of space and time disappear when solid ground becomes like jello and bucks like an angry stallion!

- Jeanne G. Pocius: Shaken, not Stirred (Outskirts Press Inc, Denver CO) p.41-42
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That is not the end of it. She continues describing finding and helping the children who were her students there, locating friends and hearing news about students and friends and colleagues who had disappeared or were known to be dead, what it was like to be operating and maintaining emergency make-shift medical triage for the wounded from the surrounding community, often being mistaken by a doctor, using tampons and panty-shields to dress wounds, helping save children and trying to help some who could not be saved.

It is, overall, heart-rending to read her account, what she experienced and what she saw around her. But there is a sense of triumph, having overcome one of the most horrible experiences one might imagine, and slowly beginning to rebuild.

Jeanne (red shirt, right) and a pile of salvaged instruments
 It is too easy for us, here, so many miles away, to forget about that afternoon, what it was like those days and weeks and months – and now years – after the catastrophe. Two years have passed and our concerns are onto other stories.

Jeanne continues to bring music and joy to the children of Haiti. She is, no doubt, the bravest person I know and I would gather, judging from her posts on Facebook, one of the happiest despite (or, in a sense many of us could not understand, because of) her experiences.

As we take a few minutes to remember this event, here is a message from the Episcopal Archbishop of the Diocese of Haiti, the Rt. Rev. Jean Zaché Duracin, who, Jeanne says in her post today, “humbly lived on the soccer field at College Ste Pierre with all the rest of us after the quake!”
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Haiti Anniversary Reflection from The Episcopal Church on Vimeo.
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-- Dick Strawser

Brahms at 50: His 3rd Symphony

Johannes Brahms at 50
This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in one of his favorite works, the Symphony No. 3 by Johannes Brahms (actually, whatever Brahms symphony he's conducting at the time is his favorite: there are only four but how can you pick just one?). Also on the program, pianist Di Wu plays the ever-popular Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg and the concert begins with En Saga by Jean Sibelius. It's called "Enchanting Escape" and you can join us for this musical get-away Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum (Truman Bullard offers a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance).

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In May of 1883, Johannes Brahms invited a close friend of his to a “little small sad festival” to be attended by only four people. This was the way Brahms intended to celebrate his 50th birthday.

That summer, he wrote his Third Symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony will play this weekend under the direction of Stuart Malina, a self-avowed lover of Brahms’ music.

Here, Sir Colin Davis conducts the Dresden State Orchestra on their Japanese Tour in 2009 (recorded in Suntory Hall).
1st Movement part 1

1st Movement part 2

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement
(notice the conductor mouths the words “too loud” to the orchestra even before the music begins! Brahms marks it ‘sotto voce’ and it needs to be whispered, almost inaudible.)

When he was 20, Johannes Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann and there was much prophesying about future greatness, most of which seemed to backfire. For one thing, if he was the heir to Beethoven, where was all this great music? Even though Robert had described his piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and Clara had told him, to succeed, he would need to compose symphonies, the symphony he began sketching shortly after Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine – an attempted suicide – in 1854 did not become what we know as his first symphony which was completed in 1876, 22 years later. 

But he took his time, dealing with negative criticism and taunts from other contemporary composers like Liszt and Wagner. Brahms didn’t want to engage in the typical “on-the-job training” so many young composers have, producing immature works that will be forgotten and only incur further heckling from the crowd demanding proof he was, in fact, Beethoven’s musical heir.

Once that hurdle had been (finally) surpassed – Brahms was then 43 years old – he composed his 2nd Symphony in one summer the following year. The 3rd Symphony came along six summers later. It too was largely composed over one summer.

Brahms had become primarily a “summer composer,” going away to holiday spots (or spas, to be more exact) like Bad Ischl. The summer after his 50th birthday, he went to Wiesbaden, a spa-town on the Rhine (See a modern-day panorama of the city, below, taken from a mountain outside of town, looking toward the barely visible Rhine. Ignore the cell-phone tower on the left…)

A Modern View of Wiesbaden

His choice of location was not accidental.

Brahms had been born in the German city of Hamburg, a great port city on the Elbe River. When he visited the Schumanns, they lived in Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine where Schumann had been the city’s “music director” and where he composed his 3rd Symphony, known as the “Rhenish.” It was the river he would shortly try to drown himself in.

The Rhine is also where Richard Wagner begins and ends his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung.

And Wagner, whom Brahms respected to a certain degree despite their rivalry, had just died in February, a few months before Brahms’ 50th birthday.

But the main reason Brahms chose Wiesbaden for his summer composing sojourn was one of its residents, a 26-year-old alto named Hermine Spiess (in some sources, her name is spelled Spies).

Brahms first heard her sing at a friend’s home that January and whatever their relationship was, Brahms found himself writing several songs inspired by that beautiful alto voice.

The first of his songs he’d heard her sing was the delightful, folkish “Vergebliches Ständchen” (which he’d heard her sing, that first meeting: a young man begs his sweetheart to let him in to say good night to her, but she laughs and shuts the window in his face – as Brahms joked after hearing Hermine sing it, “I’m sure she’d let him in!”) 

Many of the songs he wrote for her, rather than being the traditional love-songs you might expect, were, despite his flirtations, about unrequited love, rejection or the anxiety of growing older (think “mid-life crisis” 1880s-style). 

Hermine Spiess in 1887
Her family lived in Wiesbaden. Brahms jokingly called Hermine his “Rhinemaiden” (after the seductive young water nymphs who initiate Wagner’s “Ring”) and also, after Shakespeare’s queen in “The Winter’s Tale,” as “Hermione-ohne-O” – Harmione without the O.

How much of Hermine is in the Third Symphony remains to be seen. Brahms’ non-vocal music was always abstract but there were often specific associations he might have had in mind when composing it, regardless of what it might mean as a “program,” the dreaded “what-the-music-is-about” question. 

Certainly, lots of Brahms’ music makes covert references to Clara Schumann right down to his quoting or paraphrasing what Schumann himself called his “Clara Motive.” And then there’s his Farewell to Agathe von Siebold in his 2nd String Sextet, her name spelled out in musical pitches.

If there is anything referring to Hermione-ohne-O in the symphony he composed that summer, Brahms never hinted at it.

A more likely inspiration was his proximity to the River Rhine which might put a man officially in Middle Age reminiscing about the events of 30 years earlier and first met the Schumanns in a town on the Rhine. From the studio he rented on the hillside overlooking Wiesbaden, he could see the Rhine in the not great distance: did that bring to mind musical associations?

The opening theme of Brahms’ new symphony bears a strong resemblance to a passage from Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the very river that Brahms could see from his summer home.

It has the same kind of “swing” Schumann’s first movement theme has but later, Schumann varies his theme – check here to hear Schumann’s “Rhenish,” at 6:44 into the clip. (In the example above, I’ve transposed it from Schumann’s original pitches, starting on G, to Brahms’ theme, starting on F.) Interestingly, the theme is not really something you can build on: in Schumann’s case, it “closes” the harmonic motion and so Brahms has to open it up to make it a suitable theme he can build on. But perhaps, consciously or not, that is the inception point for Brahms’ inspiration: the proximity of the Rhine and the memory of Schumann’s musical tribute to it.

Whatever Brahms may have thought was behind his new symphony, what secret meanings there might be inside the music, he was completely silent about it. But others saw in it specific references: Hans Richter, who would conduct the premiere, after referring to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony as his Pastoral, called this one “Brahms’ Eroica” after Beethoven’s 3rd. Clara Schumann heard “the mysterious charms of woods and forests [in the first movement]… worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine.” Joseph Joachim, for whom he’d composed his Violin Concerto a few years earlier, said the finale brought to mind the Greek myth of Hero and Leander: “I cannot help imagining the bold, brave swimmer, his breast borne up by the waves and by the mighty passion before his eyes, heartily, heroically swimming on, to the end, to the end, in spite of the elements which storm around him.” 

Certainly, there’s drama in the symphony – as naturally there would be, given the nature of the form – but is Brahms’ 3rd really his equivalent of Beethoven’s 3rd? The unexpected mood of the finale in the dark key of F Minor rather than some joyously affirmation in F Major, might lead you to think of dramatic struggles, but rather than a tragic ending or a final heroic resolution (as he ended his 1st Symphony), Brahms lets the clouds part and, in a very un-Brahmsian texture (but reminiscent of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs”) brings back the opening movement’s first theme – perhaps his Rhine Motive – as a beautiful benediction. Perhaps, like Wagner’s “Ring,” it all begins and ends with the Rhine?

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched had someone called it “Brahms’ Rhenish”?

Opening Page of Brahms' original manuscript of his Symphony No. 3

Another famous association concerns its opening “gesture,” a musical motive that permeates the symphony.

Schumann had suggested he, Brahms and another of Schumann’s friends, Albert Dietrich, write a violin sonata by committee to honor violinist Joseph Joachim. They were to be given to him anonymously, he would play through them and then try to guess who wrote which movement. Brahms supplied the scherzo, usually known as the “Sonatensatz” (unimaginatively translated as “Concerto Movement”).

Collectively, this is known as the “F.A.E.” Sonata because Joachim’s life-motto, he said, was “Frei aber einsam” – Free but lonely.

Brahms, the perpetual bachelor – he had said he would attempt neither writing an opera nor marriage – joked that his motto was “F.A.F.” – Frei aber froh. Free but happy!

In that sense, the opening motive of the symphony he wrote at 50 starts off with a rising gesture, F–A-flat–F (see red bracket in the example).

The Opening of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (without the inner voices)

Though our attention is commanded by the Schumann-quoted melody in the violins, in the basses and trombone, you hear the F–A-flat–F motive. A few measures later, it’s in the horns in the inner voices, transposed to C–E-flat–C and again in the trumpets. In the next measure, it’s in the lower strings and horns, this time as B-flat–D-flat–B-flat. After what sounds like a transition to a new theme a few more measures later, it reappears in the lower voices as A–C–A, what seems to be A Minor but it accompanies the F Major resolution before the violins restate the opening chords again, back into the F–A-flat–F pattern. So in the first 23 measures, you’ve heard that “Frei aber Froh” motive seven times, making a full-circle from F back to F!

What’s surprising about this – aside from the fact the motto should abbreviate to F–A–F, not F–A-flat–F – if the symphony’s in F Major (with an A-natural), why is this generating motive in F Minor (with an A-flat)?

It gives his harmony a pungent non-traditional sound: instead of a standard basic chord progression at the opening, he immediately swings from an F Major chord to a diminished seventh that should resolve to a C major chord but instead swings back to F Major before swinging off, once again, to an F Minor chord to a totally unexpected D-flat Major Chord before turning into that diminished seventh chord again but this time resolving as it should to the expected C Major chord which is also the dominant of the symphony’s tonic key, F Major.

Okay, I know that’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, but if you wanted to know why this sounds different from, say, the opening of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony (speaking unexpected harmonic twists), that’s why. 

It also helps explain why the last movement is in F Minor rather than the expected F Major. And then, at the very end, after all this dark drama, the heavens open up and we hear this tremulous string texture – very unlike Brahms but bringing to mind, perhaps, Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” – with the opening Rhenish theme in a benedictory F Major, leading not as you’d expect to an ultimately triumphant conclusion (like the 1st) or a joyous celebration (like the 2nd) but a peaceful resolution.

While it was one of possibly only two major successes Brahms ever had at a premiere – the public reaction to his German Requiem was the other one – and has gone on to become an audience favorite. Not quite a year after that world premiere in Vienna, it received its American premiere in New York – at a “Novelty Concert” – and a month later was performed in Boston where several hundred people walked out of the concert in protest of this “new music.”

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Oh, and what ever happened to Hermione-ohne-O?

In December of 1884, a year after the symphony’s premiere, Brahms was honored with an all-Brahms concert in the town of Oldenburg. He stayed with his friend Albert Dietrich (the third part of the F.A.E. Sonata’s committee) and brought with him seven guests including Hermine Spiess. Afterward, Hermine wrote to Dietrich’s daughter,

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“What I value most particularly is to have now enjoyed Brahms as a man. How charming he was with us when we were making and guessing riddles. What delightful hours we spent! …Of course, now I only play Brahms the livelong day.”

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As Jan Swafford notes in his excellent and wonderfully readable biography of Brahms,

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“She had met him more than a year before and spent much of the previous summer [when he was composing the 3rd Symphony] in Wiesbaden in his company. If Brahms had undertaken to court Hermine, and in his fashion he probably had, his approach was remarkably oblique. There is every reason to assume, anyway, as with other “respectable” women, that he flirted full-tilt and kept his hands to himself.”
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The following summer, Klaus Groth, a poet (then 66), sent both Brahms and Hermine a poem, “Come soon!” He and Brahms had a running joke about vying for Hermine’s attention, and so Brahms immediately sat down and composed a song to Groth’s poem and sent it to Hermine. That summer, he was working on the last two movements of his 4th Symphony.

The next summer, he composed one of his most ingratiating songs, “Wie Melodienzieht es mir,” as a musical portrait of “the effervescent Hermine” and sent it to her. She sang it frequently. By now, she was an acclaimed Brahms interpreter, especially of his Alto Rhapsody. 

Brahms wrote to another friend that summer, “I’m now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid so I have to doubly watch myself.”

While he was waiting for Hermine to arrive for a visit that summer, he was working on the 2nd Violin Sonata. That November, he made arrangements for Hermine to make her Viennese debut as her accompanist, singing his songs. Friends pointed out that, his enthusiasm aside, Hermine was not developing as a singer. At that point, one could say their relationship, whatever it might have been or become, had crested.

Meeting again in 1888, Hermine met Brahms at a train stop in Basel and was shocked how gray he had become, though she still saw the youthfulness in his “beautiful blue young-man’s eyes and the fresh, dear features.” (He was 55…)

By now, Brahms comments to friends about any possible marriage is like a paraphrase of Groucho Marx about any country club that would accept him: Brahms would despise “a girl for taking me as a husband.” Before, it had been that he was too poor; now it was that he was too old. (He was, by the way, 56.)

Four years later, Hermine Spiess married a lawyer and retired from her career. A year after the wedding, she died in childbirth, a day after her 36th birthday.

By now, Brahms had passed whatever mid-life crisis may have affected his 3rd Symphony. Disappointed in the failure of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto (even with his friends), he destroyed a second violin concerto, a second double concerto and at least one more symphony.

- Dick Strawser