Monday, September 22, 2008

The Times of Their Lives: Concertante with Mozart, Britten & Brahms

Concertante opened their new season with a concert at the Rose Lehrman Center at the Harrisburg Area Community College Wildwood Campus Saturday night. The program opened with the Oboe Quartet by Mozart, then followed with another staple of the oboist’s repertoire but not one that well known, the Phantasy Quartet by Benjamin Britten. After intermission, we heard a rousing rendition of Brahms’ 2nd String Quintet, the G Major Op. 111.

Opening concerts are a bit like a home-coming, if not for the musicians playing them, then for the musicians and the audience gathering together for a whole new season. An oboist from Israel, Dudu Carmel, was to join them for the Mozart and Britten but unfortunately it was discovered too late he had not applied in time for his visa and so he was unable to join them. I’m not sure if “scrambling” was the word, but when you’re trying to find a “sub” a couple of weeks before the concert, hoping you don’t have to change the repertoire – fortunately the Mozart and the Britten are likely to be in any free-lance oboist’s play-book – it doesn’t make life easier getting things organized for the very first concert.

Fortunately, they found Robert Ingliss. In addition to playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and being the Acting Principal Oboist for the New Jersey Symphony, he also plays in the New York-based ensemble An die Musik (where I’d first heard Gerard Reuter back in the ‘70s and have more recently heard him with the Fry Street Quartet at Market Square Concerts’ Summermusics (in fact, at one of those concerts, playing the Britten Phantasy Quartet). He teaches at Columbia University among other universities in New York City and vicinity. He recently gave the world premiere of a new work by Charles Wuorinen at Carnegie Hall and has also premiered works by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and a French composer whose Violin Concerto I’ve found fascinating, Michel Dalbavie.

Two examples of the expression attributed to Henry James, “There are not enough people to go around in the world” –

(1) Ingliss is also a member of the Cygnus Ensemble which has a Harrisburg connection in its guitarist, William Anderson, whose parents, Dotty & Bill, are very active in the local arts scene.

(2) Ingliss attended the University of Connecticut, his last year at UConn being my first year there as a teacher of theory and composition (I mean, how many oboists in the country could be named Robert Ingliss, right? I had to ask...).

The Mozart Oboe Quartet – always too short – is always a delight to hear. The outer movements are some of Mozart’s most joyful, classical decorum (that powdered-wig stereotype we often associate with 18th Century music) held in abeyance for fifteen minutes you wish you could hang on to forever. The slow movement’s sorrowful aria gives way to what would, in the next generation, become emotional Romanticism. It’s the last movement that stays with me the longest, though, despite its brevity. This is music without a care in the world and it was clear the players were having a fun time playing it.

The quartet is really a mini-concerto for the oboist and it was great to hear Ingliss navigate its long lyrical lines as well as its more virtuosic flourishes. Only at the end of the slow movement was there a slight shadow: would his reed hold out for that last long sustained high note? Fortunately, yes.

Though the Britten is darker and the Mozart just sounds like a good concert opener, I’m not sure it would be better to have a chance to “warm up” on the Britten or get the hard work of the Mozart out of the way. Toss up.

Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” is more of an integrated ensemble for the four players. For a while, I was trying to remember if the oboist plays at all in the more lyrical middle section. Where the string trio was primarily an accompanist in the Mozart, Britten uses his instruments independently and gave each player separate lines and often independent layers which everybody handled to make a convincing whole of the piece.

It’s hard to believe that Brahms considered himself “written out” when he composed this glorious romp of a quintet at what he thought would be the end of his career. The biggest challenge, once you’ve got all those notes down, is to maintain the volume level he requires: it’s a very loud piece! And just as you think it can’t get any louder or faster, he turns the dial up another notch. Clara Schumann called the ending “magnificent confusion” but there was no confusion in Concertante’s handling of the entire piece, from the wall of sound the cellist has to cut through at the opening, to the melting adagio, to the autumnal intermezzo before the mad dash of the gypsy band in the finale.

The opening is a famous example of stubborn composer versus practical musician: violinist Joseph Joachim told Brahms it would take three cellists to be heard against the other players all sawing away on these sixteenth notes that look clearly like they should be “behind” the theme, not covering it. But Brahms stuck to his guns and joked that he would leave it to the performers to work out. Everyone is marked to play at the same dynamic level – forte – though it struck me (literally as well as figuratively) more like fortissimo which leaves not much room to expand by the time they reach the fortissimo at the very end. Perhaps it’s a trick of the acoustic in the hall, what might sound okay to the players on the stage coming across louder to the audience. Perhaps they should’ve cut back a tad on the opening and not have to work so hard for the first 25 measures, that’s one thing, but if Brahms was honest about his inspiration for the piece – a friend said it reminded him of a night at the Prater, Vienna’s famous amusement park and Brahms told him he’d guessed right – maybe his intent was trying to depict overhearing someone talking in the hubbub of a crowd out on the town?

As for the title of this post, whether the members of Concertante had “the times of their lives” or not, I can’t say – they certainly had a good time – but for this program, my pre-concert talk – attended by about 20 people which I thought was pretty good, considering we didn’t have a lot of publicity about the talk beforehand – was entitled from the viewpoint of the composers, “The Times of Their Lives.”

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Britten had been playing the piano since the time he could walk and improvising almost immediately, trying to write things down before he even learned the rudiments of notation, becoming more sophisticated by the time he was 9. He often played the piano to his mother's singing and attended rehearsals of the choirs she sang in – she had a fine mezzo voice that one friend of the composer’s later described as being surprisingly close to the tone color of tenor Peter Pears’ voice (Pears would later become Britten’s life-partner). He also studied viola with a family friend who played in a string quartet in a nearby town.

At 11, he heard his first live orchestra concert which included “The Sea” by Frank Bridge which, in Britten’s own words, “knocked me sideways.” In the year before he turned 14 and started studying with Bridge, the boy composed two overtures, five Poemes, the Suite fantastique for piano and orchestra, a Symphony in D Minor for an orchestra that included eight horns (according to David Matthews’ 2003 biography, apparently Britten wrote 117 pages of full score in five weeks during school term plus two of the Poemes), and a large scale symphonic poem, Chaos and Cosmos!

A fan of the music of Beethoven and Brahms, much of which he could play from memory, he also discovered Ravel’s String Quartet. On his 16th Birthday, his parents gave him a score of Beethoven’s Fidelio and he referred to this as a “red-letter day in my life.” It was at that time, also, he discovered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, hearing a radio concert that included Pierrot Lunaire and shortly afterward he composed a piece for him and his friends to play that was atonal in several places. He went to London to be interviewed for the Royal College of Music a few months later, and the panel (which included the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) thought it wasn’t ‘decent’ for a schoolboy to be writing such music. Still, they offered him a scholarship. He chose a score for Pierrot Lunaire as one of his prizes at school graduation and then wrote what Matthews calls the “ne plus ultra of his modernist pieces,” which Britten, leaving it untitled, referred to as a “not-too-nice piece for viola solo.”

During his first year at the Royal College of Music, Britten wrote a String Quartet in D Major (which he revised and published near the end of his life) – there had been several smaller quartets and quartet-movements before – and a Sinfonietta which would become his Opus 1. His Op. 2 was the “Phantasy Quartet” for Oboe and Strings which, at least in part, sounds more like the mature Britten, not that there weren’t recognizable fingerprints in many of these earlier works. Though his fondness for Beethoven was waning – Brahms, soon, became “solid & dull” – it seems Mozart was becoming more of an influence, at least in the sense of his linear clarity and sense of formal control. Britten tired of the “turbulent” music he had been writing, full of “gestures” and this shift of style was obvious in these recent works.

There was a fellow named William Wilson Cobbett who championed the idea of composers writing “Phantasies” – distinguished from the more traditional “Fantasies,” however one distinguished them in pronunciation – because he felt it harkened back to the glorious days of Elizabethan England and free-form works written then for what were called “consorts of viols.” Vaughan Williams had written one – either commissioned by or at least requested by Cobbett – in 1912. Britten wrote two Phantasies when he was 18, the first one a quintet for strings alone which won him the annual “Cobbett Prize,” one assumes for works with the word “Phantasy” in the title. Adding an oboe would not be “hoyle” according to Elizabethan standards as that would be called a “broken consort” (a mixed ensemble of strings and winds): it was performed at the school – badly, according to the composer, though he expected worse – but did not win a prize. It was also publically performed on a concert series founded by an all-women’s quartet and the composer Elizabeth Lutyens to showcase the latest English composers (rather than the staid “pastoralists” like Vaughan Williams).

Interestingly, I found reference to a 1975 publication by psychologist Melanie Klein which described Phantasy as a state-of-mind of an infant stemming “from genetic needs, drives and instincts. They appear in symbolic form in dreams, play and neuroses. They are constructed from internal and external reality, modified by feelings, and emotions, and then projected into both real and imaginary objects. Phantasies are the means by which infants make sense of the external world and hence relate to it through projection and introjection.” This is somehow different from the adult Fantasy which is more of a day-dream, an imagined un-reality in which we may try to imagine a future reality.

Usually in music, a “fantasy” means merely something that is free-formed and perhaps dreamy in nature (Mozart’s almost nightmarish Fantasy in C Minor, K.475) , or built on impressions of someone else’s music (as in a “Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s Carmen”) more loosely than, say, a set of variations.

Britten’s Phantasy, regardless of its psychological or historical implications, is the first piece he wrote with a processional and recessional, figuratively if not literally. The opening section is a rather shadowy march that begins quietly with the cello, then adding the other parts in layers, each with different material. At the end, this process is reversed until the cello repeats its little march-like rhythm, alternating on two notes, each time shortened until it evaporates. This section sounds the most like “mature” Britten, full of ideas and sonorities that would become hallmarks heard in his most familiar works. He would use this processional / recessional in works like the Church Parables of the 1960s, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings (where the solo horn opens with a kind of fanfare that, at the end, is then played off-stage) and most famously in The Ceremony of Carols.

The middle part is something Britten did not return to, stylistically. It is more lyrical and harmonically more Beethoven-ish compared to the sparer March. Whatever his reasons were for not pursuing this style – just one of many a young composer might explore – I have no idea, but it struck me listening to this Saturday night (and I’ve heard the Phantasy live three times in the past two years or so, now) how much it reminded me of Michael Tippett, fellow British composer who, after Walton, would become regarded internationally as the major English composers of their generation. Tippett, I knew, grappled with Beethoven’s influence directly (as in his 3rd Symphony, quoting whole passages from Beethoven’s 9th) or indirectly (in all of his five string quartets) so it was interesting, the next day, to listen to Tippett’s 1st String Quartet (the earliest work of his I know) which he began about two years after Britten wrote this Phantasy: it’s not likely Britten could have influenced him because it’s unlikely Tippett would have heard much of his music. His recollections confused a concert in 1934 where he saw Britten for the first time when a work of his was on the program, with a concert a year later that was the premiere of his own 1st Quartet. Even though Tippett left the Royal College four years before Britten arrived but continued studying privately with one of its major teachers for the next few years, it’s more likely this aural similarity in styles stems from their admiration of Beethoven rather than an imitation of each other: these same fingerprints can be heard in music Britten wrote years earlier before their paths could have possibly crossed. Perhaps it was just something in the air at the time...

Anyway, the year after writing the Phantasy Quartet (when this photograph was taken), Britten won a travel scholarship from the RCM which he wanted to apply to going to Vienna so he could study with Alban Berg. It’s interesting that, having put Beethoven and Brahms behind him, he should find himself more attuned to the emotional music of Berg rather than the more intellectualized, classically-lined style of Schoenberg – he had heard Schoenberg conduct his Variations for Orchestra and found them lacking, mentioning in his diary that he’d met Schoenberg then but said nothing more about it, one way or another. He found Pierrot fascinating (perhaps it’s that dream-like state the work concocts, Phantasy or Fantasy) but “could not make head or tail of” the nightmarish world of Erwartung.

Now, serialism, still relatively new, was frowned upon in England where the attitude even to someone as “contemporary” as Mahler was extremely negative. (Keep in mind, England meant Elgar to the wider world: composers like Holst and Vaughan Williams were still very insular products – Richard Strauss, perhaps reacting to this lack of international acclaim for British composers, had referred to England as “the country without music”...) Britten’s hopes to study with the composer of Wozzeck foundered on the school’s concern that Berg would not be “a good influence.” His parents interpreted this not as musical influence but as a moral influence – after all, this is the man who wrote Wozzeck: what would they have thought of Lulu? – and so the plan was dropped.

Ironically, not long afterward, Britten and his mother, traveling on the Continent, went to Vienna which Britten loved, but unfortunately Berg was out of town then and they never met. Not much later, on Christmas Eve, 1935, Berg died unexpectedly at the age of 50 (from blood-poisoning following an insect-bite). Four months later, Britten went to a contemporary music festival in Spain to hear the premiere of Berg’s last completed work, his Violin Concerto, which he found to be “shattering.”

The possibilities in this influence – had Britten actually gone to Vienna to study with Berg – are just another of those great “What If?”s – how different would Britten’s style have become? What kind of works would he have written if he had not composed the ones he did, or how different would they have sounded?

A few years ago, I was at a “composers’ workshop” performance at Susquehanna University where a work of mine (as Class of ‘71) was being performed along with a work by a more recent graduate, David T. Little, a very fine composer. The students on the program were asking us questions like “When did you find your own voice?” I said, then in my mid-50s, I was still looking for it, having not composed for 16 years and facing my piece on the program written in 1979. David, then in his early-20s, said he hadn’t found what he thought might be his voice yet, either. We both agreed that it’s not something a young composer should be worried about: a student’s job is to write lots and lots of music, explore lots and lots of whatever catches his or her fancy (or perhaps “phancy”) and let the voice, consciously or unconsciously discarding these bits or absorbing those bits, eventually present itself over time.

That is what Britten was doing around the time he wrote his Op. 2 – some of it he kept, and some of it he rejected; influences came and went but he learned a little something from each of them and absorbed them into what we then recognize as Benjamin Britten.

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By the time Mozart wrote his Oboe Quartet, he was 25 and had been composing for about 19 years. While many of his earliest works would show the influence of his contemporaries (except for J.C. Bach, mostly unknown to us, today), he very early found a voice that not only defines Mozart for us today but the whole Classical Era (roughly 1750-1800). Mozart turned 25 in Munich where he’d been “on leave” from his post with the Archbishop of Salzburg. His primary job in Munich was to compose and produce the opera Idomeneo which, however successful it became, was not enough to land him the court composer’s position he was hoping for.

Around that time, he wrote the oboe quartet for the orchestra’s principal oboist, Friedrich Ramm, but finding himself with no reason to stay longer in Munich, he was forced to obey the Archbishop’s summons to join his court in Vienna. He arrived in the Imperial capital on March 16th and immediately began complaining about what he could be doing there if it weren’t for his meager responsibilities with the Archbishop. Now, he couldn’t just quit because it was a more feudal set-up than that: he had to have the Archbishop’s written release – otherwise, if he just ‘ran away,’ the Archbishop could send the police after him: he quite literally “owned” Mozart as a servant. But the Archbishop saw no reason to release Mozart. Months of negotiations led to nothing until finally, apparently in exasperation, the Archbishop’s chamberlain (not the Archbishop himself) gave Mozart “the boot” – also quite literally, giving him a swift kick in the butt on his way out the door.

Mozart was now free and on his own: he would pursue a livelihood as a pianist and teacher - and composer, the first major free-lance musician in an age when most successful musicians were either employed or wanted to be employed by some aristocrat. A month later, he received the libretto for an opera to be written for the Emperor’s court, The Abduction from the Seraglio, the one the Emperor thought had “too many notes.”

(By the way, this whole concept of employment vs free-lancing is an interesting topic: Beethoven, in Vienna during the decades following Mozart’s death, was also a free-lancer but survived on considerable financial support from various aristocrats, not the least of which was the Emperor’s younger brother. The distinction was, he was not “in servitude” to them. Today, we might call this patronage “underwriting.”)

But who knew that Mozart would only have ten more years to live? If the Oboe Quartet is K.370 and the Requiem left unfinished at his death about 7 weeks before his 36th Birthday is K.626, that means he wrote about 255 more works after the Oboe Quartet, among them most of his piano concertos, his greatest operas, the best of his chamber music and the last six symphonies. If he had written another 255 works in the next ten years, what else might we be listening to today?

Speaking of “What if?”, Haydn, who was 24 years older than Mozart, had gone off to London when he was almost 60: the assumption was, as he felt, he could die in England and never see his friend Mozart again. Who would have expected Haydn would return to Vienna to find Mozart had died at the age of 35? If Mozart had even outlived Haydn by one more year, he would’ve been only 54, but would have heard Beethoven’s first six symphonies and all of his concertos.

If he had lived to be as old as Haydn, dying instead in his mid-70s five years after Beethoven died, what might Mozart’s reaction have been to hearing Beethoven’s Late Quartets or his 9th Symphony... or for that matter, Schubert’s C Major String Quintet (if it had been played in public then) or, perhaps, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique which was composed in 1830? If Mozart died at the same age as Haydn, he would have died the same year Brahms was born.

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If Brahms had died before his 36th birthday, he would not have completed his 1st Symphony or written any of the string quartets. That means he would have died a year after the German Requiem and a year before the Liebeslieder Waltzes.

Blessed with a few more years than Mozart, Brahms wrote his 2nd String Quintet when he was 57, the age Beethoven had been when he died. Brahms, he figured, had his whole life behind him, it seemed. It had taken him some 20-25 years to finish a first symphony but only a year or two to write each of his next two. The 1st did not have an easy success, especially in pleasure loving Vienna (too dramatic, too intellectual). When the 2nd Symphony, a more immediate success in Vienna, was first performed in Leipzig, it was criticized for being too “pretty” which might have been okay for Vienna, the critics wrote, but the good Germans of Leipzig preferred something with a little more to chew on than just pleasant tunes.

While his 3rd Symphony had been well received everywhere, he knew the new symphony he’d finished when he was 52 was going to be a challenge, maybe even a disaster. It was even too cerebral for his intellectual friends, the Herzogenbergs. Having passed 50, Brahms was now concerned perhaps he was “written out.” The reaction to his 4th Symphony was cool at best, even cooler for his next orchestral work, the Double Concerto (which, incidentally, the Harrisburg Symphony will play on its first concert of the new season, October 4th & 5th, with Kurt Nikkanen and Daniel Gaisford). So it was with some trepidation he began his summer holiday in 1890: he decided that perhaps this would be his last work – he would retire from composing.

He had found it difficult to get anything started in those years after the Double Concerto. Jan Swafford, in his biography of Brahms, says that Brahms had sketched TWO symphonies, one of which was apparently advanced enough to be played as a piano duet for his friends – the standard Brahmsian try-out. TWO symphonies – imagine what it might be like to have SIX symphonies, not four, by Johannes Brahms? But he was a very strict composer who never let anything go he wasn’t sure of: he said one of the most important things a composer could own was a wastebasket.

Brahms was a summer composer and he preferred to write in vacation spots away from the distractions of Vienna. In 1890, at Bad Ischl, he “tormented” himself by trying to write chamber music and a symphony. He came back to Vienna with the G Major String Quintet, Op. 111. Before he left Ischl, he wrote to his publisher and said he had thrown reams of paper into the river – usually he consigned his sketches and rejected works to the flames – and mentioned this quintet would be the last work he would compose.

It’s difficult to listen to this music and think he felt himself “dried up.” When a friend thought the opening reminded him of the Prater, the great amusement park in Vienna and a favorite haunt of Brahms’, the composer replied “You guessed it! And the beautiful girls are there!”

It’s possible the opening cello theme (all but lost under all those sawing 16th notes in the violins and violas) was intended for the symphony that otherwise never took shape. How much of the other ideas were originally intended for the symphony, who would know, after Brahms destroyed all the sketches. But it’s still tantalizing to hear this joyous work and wonder what those two symphonies or the other pieces that never came to fruition might have been like?

Here is Brahms, looking back on his career - but fortunately, he met a clarinetist whose sound he found inspiring and so he came out of retirement the following year to write a trio, a quintet and eventually two sonatas for the clarinet. And, by the way, three more sets of piano pieces, some choruses, the Four Serious Songs and a set of chorale preludes for organ.

I’ll leave you with these images.

This famous photograph was taken the summer of 1894, the summer of those Clarinet Sonatas, with Brahms standing on a porch beside Johann Strauss Jr, the “Waltz King” (of whom Brahms was a big fan – in Strauss’ daughter’s autograph book, he wrote out the theme from “The Beautiful Blue Danube” and underneath it, “alas, not by Johannes Brahms”). Strauss is slim and elegant, his curly black hair and mustache very dashing beside the rumpled Brahms, short and overweight with his long gray hair and beard. Strauss was eight years older than Brahms.

But earlier that year, at his 61st birthday celebration, as Swafford describes it, he and his friends went to a restaurant at the Prater to hear the gypsy musicians play – many of his finales were inspired by the gypsy style, not just all the Hungarian Dances: most famously, there’s the G Minor Piano Quartet, the Violin Concerto and the Op. 111 Quintet. They in turn gave Brahms a rousing chorus of Hoch soll er leben (the German equivalent of Happy Birthday). Then after dinner, Brahms and his friends went off to the amusement park, ending before midnight “at the slide and the haunted house.”

Now there’s an image to ponder as you listen to the Quintet Op. 111 – not the autumnal Brahms we associate with his “late music,” but the Brahms who could wrap up his birthday party by going down a playground slide...

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