Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mayan Friday: Shop Like There's No Tomorrow

In my comic music-appreciation thriller, The Doomsday Symphony, the first chapter of the novel's Fourth Movement opens with a philosophic dialogue about the various viewpoints toward the End of Time. However, I'll start this post with the concluding segment of the same chapter which describes in more detail the Mayan Calendar and how it affects what too many people are calling the "Mayan Apocalypse."

The characters involved include Rogers Kent-Clarke, the mild-mannered assistant conductor turned villain who has attempted to steal Mahler's newest symphony, his so-called <i>Doomsday</i> Symphony, a mysterious figure called the Old Man of the Mines and a fellow named Schweinwerfer who was a fictional 19th-Century leader of an apocalyptic cult who is helping Kent-Clarke steal the symphony in the belief that it's performance on Dec. 21, 2012, will initiate the Mayan Protocol. If you want to understand more than that, I'm afraid you'll have to read the earlier 61 chapters...

(By the way, the calendar stone depicted in this cartoon and in my novel's cover photo is actually an Aztec calendar, a system copied from the earlier Mayan system, though its own attitudes about what happens when the calendar reaches the end of its cycle is no more specific - or apocalyptic - than the Mayans.)


*** ***** ******** ***** ***
Chapter 62 
*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Mayans didn’t view Time as a static flow, an unchanging absolute ticking away second by second from the past to the future, but as a cyclical out-pouring of energy that was breathed in and breathed out. Time to them was “relative,” considering the different celestial bodies’ movements they could measure, a fluidity inconceivable to Western science before Albert Einstein. Rather than simply mark the passing of time, their calendar reflected these cosmic cycles, keeping the body in balance with the universe through an energy they called k’ul connecting man to Earth below and Heaven above.

While initially lunar, the Julian Calendar (36 BC), inaccurate according to the solar year, was eventually corrected by the Gregorian Calendar (1582). The origins of the Mayan calendar dated back to the ancient Olmecs (c.1200 BC), based on a complex system of interrelated sub-calendars following both lunar and solar cycles whose separate measurements converge, reflecting larger spans of time.

Each calendar resembled a disc relating to other calendar-discs like a cosmic clock-work mechanism (not that they viewed Time as a machine), one reflecting the center of the galaxy, creating a spiritual calendar of 260 days, while another reflected a solar, secular year of 365 days (360 plus 5 leftovers), taking 52 years to complete a combined cyclic “rotation.”

These five left-over days of each Solar Year comprised an uncertain period marking the end of the old in preparation for the new. However, the end of each 52-year-cycle was a celebration marking a new cycle’s beginning.

According to the Mayans, there are five world ages. In the first, the gods created the earth, its mountains, trees and animals. After creating Man from clay, beginning the second age, they decided to destroy it. The third, recreating Man from wood, also failed and that world they also destroyed, failing to find substantive forms with mind and soul.

“True people,” created out of corn dough, marked the beginning of the fourth age, the union of spirit and soul with matter. The fifth age offers Man harmony and higher consciousness.

There is no sixth age.

The length of these cycles – calculated on the magic numbers 13 and 20 – is reflected in Mayan step-pyramids which, with these calendars, bring their physical and spiritual worlds into universal resonance with heaven, earth and man.

Approaching the end of each cycle, the world requires purification in order to rebuild. Transitions become dangerous, unstable: everything is out of balance.

Aligned with the center of the Milky Way, sunrise on the Winter Solstice, 2012, eclipses what Mayans called “The Womb of Stars,” a black hole they regarded as the home of their supreme god, Hunab K’u. This opens the great “Underworld Road” on which Mayan wizard-kings traveled to other dimensions, gaining sacred knowledge from energy pulsing through the galaxy.

Since the sun and the star cluster, the Pleiades, had already been in conjunction during a solar eclipse on May 20th, 2012, Mayans believed this literally “opens the door” for the return of the god, Kukulkan.

Recently, scientists have discovered the existence of gravity waves, “ripples in the time-space fabric,” possibly created by the collision of black holes. Passing through matter, they create vibrations which may trigger earthquakes and tsunamis on Earth.

Release of such energy will suffuse the earth, raising mankind to a higher level.

Or it could be powerful enough to destroy everything.

Kukulkan’s return – the Aztec’s Quetzalcoatl – will become a significant spiritual event in Mayan mythology, comparable to the Second Coming of the Messiah. Walking among the Mayan people, Kukulkan promised he would return in the “Final Days.” But this return will initiate the higher level of consciousness Man will then attain, Kukulkan having told them, “you will become as gods.”

Pacal, a legendary king living in the 7th Century, ruling for almost seventy years, brought to his people great wisdom and enlightenment. Following his descent into the Underworld, he was then transformed into the sky-god, Votán.


“Like the Norse god in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung?”

Incredulous, Rogers Kent-Clarke, staring into the semi-darkness, was fascinated by such conjunctions. It was another of those mental leaps that helped turn misconceptions into popular facts.

He and Schweinwerfer, carrying Xaq over his shoulder, had been trudging along behind the Old Man of the Mines, listening to his tales.

“Our current concept of consciousness began with the Greeks,” Schweinwerfer explained, “reaching full flowering during the Renaissance with the discovery of perspective. Following the Industrial Revolution and technology’s advance, the world has fallen into steep decline.”

“Society has become mechanized,” the Old Man picked up, “as art has become alienated by technology.” He noticed Schweinwerfer nodding his agreement. “Ever since, history has been nothing but chaotic manifestations of a crisis of Time.”

“And since the 19th Century,” Schweinwerfer added, “industrialists and financiers have replaced the aristocracy, instead creating a culture based on popularity and commercialism.”

“Does alienation via time and space lead to chaotic and degenerate cultures which, failing to control time, thus create nothing truly timeless?”

This raised questions about the validity of art sponsored by corporations seeking tax write-offs.

“The essence of anything was not in its content but how successfully it resonated: sensing a response was so important to perceiving it. Art perceived on a spiritual or sensual level regardless of technical comprehension can be more valuable than understanding it through detailed analytical study.”

“Comprehension is not imagining figures in the light but through making the darkness conscious.”

“If time is cyclical rather than linear, then matter, space, time and consciousness are interconnected: everything once observed separately becomes thoroughly related. This incredible Dance of Time,” Schweinwerfer said, “permeates every aspect of the Mayan world.”

“For instance,” the Old Man continued, glancing back, “how the Mayans built their step-pyramids: each ascending step reflects the gradual acceleration of Time. It starts with a broad base equaling a hablatun of 1.26 billion years’ duration, topped off with a uinal of twenty days. These proportions in space paralleled the calendars’ reflections of time, creating cycles within cycles.”

“Are we in the Fourth or Fifth Age? Will the cycles continue to continue,” he asked, “or is there no Sixth Age?”

The latter, of course, was Schweinwerfer’s preference, after generations of having advocated “Apocalypse Now!”

He could think of nothing more satisfying than turning over the last page of the calendar only to discover there was nothing there.

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

[In this earlier segment of the same chapter, I include quotations from a number of world religions (or belief systems, if you prefer) and their attitudes toward the End Times. This is presented as a traditional philosophical dialogue between mentor and grasshopper. My favorites ones are from Islam, actually, which also considers a sign of the End Times to be "when women singers and musical instruments become popular" and "when men will wear silk."]

“Behold, for I shall lift the veil and make known unto you that which shall be the end of the great indignation, that the end of Time shall be the vision, but none shall understand it.”

So what use is it, then, if none shall understand it, as you say? What mysteries can we comprehend if they are incomprehensible?

“God speaks in wondrous mysteries to which the wise receive the power of understanding. They interpret them so that others may understand.”

Considering how many claim wisdom, how many of them will interpret these mysteries differently?

“For I have received a vision, blessed of God who showed me a man, yet unlike any man I have ever seen.”

And what was so different about this man that only you could see him?

“His body was of beryl, his face of lightening; his eyes were lamps afire.”

And none who stood with you could see him?

“Not me, unworthy as I am, but one, a prophet, wiser than all others. He spoke of this, thus it was written. Thus have his words been transmitted through the ages henceforth, from generation unto generation.”

And how did this prophet of whom you speak describe when Time shall end? Is there some plan, some warning we should beware?

“He spoke in myriads of symbols that only those enlightened souls could rightly understand. The mystery is not yielded easily to common comprehension.”

And yet, you, it seems, have found a way to decipher these eternal mysteries?

“Yes. There is a God in Heaven that shall in time reveal these secrets, not to astrologers and priests of mighty kings, but to special anointed souls through dreams of what should come to pass hereafter.”

But why not me, who in all my days and dreams has never had such visions and revelations, except after eating spicy food?

“We know in part and prophesy in part. But when perfection has arrived, that which is in part shall be done away.”

Does the attainment of perfection necessarily imply the destruction of the world we know?

“After a thousand years, Satan shall be loosed from his prison to wreak havoc on the nations of the earth’s four corners.”

Are we talking Vikings around 1000 A.D. or Islamic terrorists in the year 2001?

“Gog and Magog join forces for a great battle till Heaven’s fire devours them.”

God wins but the Earth will become collateral damage?

“In an age when intolerable evil and chaos have been loosed upon the world, the Lord shall manifest himself as an avatar, establishing righteousness upon the Earth so people’s minds again become as pure as crystal.”

If the world becomes spiritually degraded and lives are shortened by violence and greed, does not evil’s extent vary from cycle to cycle?

“A cycle of four ages reflects the decline of civilization between periods of timelessness, regenerating the world’s existence in mind and spirit.”

Thus, time is an endless cycle and the pattern of the ages repeat indefinitely?

“Forgotten, the Buddha’s teachings will be replaced by violence, murder, greed and lust, before a new Buddha rediscovers the path to Nirvana.”

If this cycle results in lawlessness, will its destruction lead to another renewed creation?

“His wholesome teachings will disappear in 5,000 years when people no longer heed them.”

Buddha lived around 500 B.C. – we’re only half-way there?

“The final days will come when earthquakes cause the mountains to crash down, when Gog and Magog will be released, killing everything.”

Didn’t these prophets also tell us ‘when female singers and musical instruments become popular’?

“The rich will prosper; the poor, starve; great distances, traversed in brief time spans.”

Didn’t they also say ‘when men will wear silk’?

“The earth is more barren and a dark cloud makes the whole sky night.”

Is climate change a sign of the End?

“The earth shall be covered by vastly deep waters.”

Let us retire to Valhalla.

“Ever since the 19th Century when Thomas Malthus began warning us that greatly increasing populations would lead to widespread famine and catastrophes, fears of mass starvations and widening inequalities between the rich and poor have increased. Social revolution on a global scale and warfare over water-rights may be as inevitable as impending man-made disasters, nuclear war and climate change.”

Will acid rain, greenhouse gases and biological terrorism kill off all life on earth? Will famine lead to the destruction of mankind? Will society act together to benefit all or collapse into individuals intent on survival?

“Even now, computers and telescopes trained on the skies have detected the presence of several spacecraft big as cities heading towards Earth. It is expected they shall arrive in December, 2012, easily conquering our defenseless planet.”

Can our nuclear warheads not be converted in time to wage war in space? Surely, a weak defense would be better than none?

“Y2K, had it occurred, would have initiated a post-millennial, technology-free age for the survivors, after destroying our economy and initiating nuclear destruction. Advances in Artificial Intelligence may work to our disadvantage, creating superhumans seeking our destruction.”

But complacency and obedience should be programmed into the creation of all future robots. Surely, as Y2K didn’t happen, technology will save itself?

“After cyanogen was discovered in the tail of Halley’s Comet, mankind would die from poisonous gasses when Earth passed through it in 1910.”

Haven’t comets been harbingers of Earth’s destruction one way or another since ancient times?

“In the 1500s, Nostradamus wrote that in the 7th month of 1999, a ‘great king of terror will come from the sky.’ Perhaps he was only two years and two months off from September 11th, 2001.”

The fact there are many prophecies and predictions that have not come to pass must surely mean not every one will come true?

“As the dinosaurs were no doubt wiped out by Earth’s collision with an asteroid, another such collision would inevitably destroy all mankind.”

Wouldn’t one passing near enough wreak havoc on our weather patterns and gravitational axis?

“The Mayan Calendar comes to an abrupt halt in 2012, indicating alignment with a black hole that will initiate a profound change.”

Will this mark a deep spiritual transformation or the complete destruction of the universe?

“All this proves is that the world will end. We just don’t know when.”

How can one be prepared when it finally does?

= = = = = = =

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Elliott Carter: On his 104th Birthday Anniversary

Elliott Carter would have been 104 today.

And while it’s true Beethoven would be 242 coming up on the 16th, Elliott Carter would’ve actually been 104 today if he’d lived a few weeks longer: he died on November 5th, 2012, at the age of 103, just five weeks and a day before his birthday. 

Over the years, I have collected numerous scores and recording of Carter’s music and have often thought about getting a copy of David Schiff’s “The Music of Elliott Carter” which everybody points to as “the” book about Carter’s music. The price aside, the main reason I kept putting it off was the fact it was written around the time Carter was turning 70: it seemed a reasonable time for a retrospective, I guess, especially one written by a composer who had studied with him at the time. Who knew he would live another three decades? So I guess I’ve been waiting for an updated version that would include the 40 pieces he wrote between the ages of 90 and 100, and then “over 14 more” composed since he turned 100.

When a composer dies young, we wonder about the possibilities of what has been left unwritten. Yet even at 103, Elliott Carter was still composing and had plans for other new works. Given the productivity of this “Post-Late Period,” I wonder what else we might have had from him?

His last completed work is a set of 12 Short Epigrams for Piano, finished on August 13th, 2012.

While browsing on-line for other books, scores or recordings of Carter’s music, I found a used copy of David Schiff’s book available through Better World Books in Indiana (Mishawaka and Goshen) and it arrived yesterday: I felt like a kid opening a present on Christmas Eve, the book about Elliott Carter arriving on the day before his birthday – or now, officially, his birthday anniversary…

The book, mostly written around the time Carter was turning 70, begins with a brief survey of his life (till then) – including many anecdotes or observations not found in the traditional “and-then-I-wrote” biographical summary.

For instance, this has to go down in the annals of music appreciation anecdotes about unsupportive parents, along with Handel not being allowed contact with musical instruments as a child because his disapproving father didn’t want to distract him from his application to more practical studies in law (but the boy smuggled a small keyboard instrument, probably a clavidchord, into the house’s attic where he would go practice once others in the house had gone to sleep and thus taught himself how to play).

In Carter’s case, his father and grandfather had been lace importers in New York City and he was being groomed at an early age for the international trade, learning to speak French before he could read English. There was little interest in music in the family but Carter, as a student, discovered modern music and preferred it over the standard classics of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. As Schiff describes it, the “family’s yearly business trips to Europe allowed him to purchase new scores unavailable in New York” (we’re talking 1920s, here) “ – his favorite composers were Scriabin and Stravinsky.”

It is a well-known story that hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring made him want to become a composer – he heard the New York premiere and, in several live interviews given around his 100th birthday, often told the story one of the things he liked about it was it was strong enough to literally drive people out of the hall: if he could write music that was that powerful, he would be happy. In a sense, Carter’s music has maybe not driven people out of the hall in the droves that the Rite of Spring did, then, but he has never been an easy composer to “like,” for a vast majority of listeners.

But Carter’s parents were not keen on the idea of his becoming a composer.

“[W]hen he bought a piano roll of Stravinsky’s ballet [in the days before recordings were available], his parents sold their player piano, and familial warfare was declared.”

That is only the beginning, apparently.

Though he studied and performed new music with Clifton Furness, a teacher of his at the Horace Mann School which he attended between 1920-1926 (he was 11-17), it was his decision to study in Paris that finally brought down the big familial guns: his father immediately cut his annual allowance down to $500 a year. “The punishment involved sacrifice if not squalor – Carter says his teeth never recovered from those years of neglect. The family, whose fortunes do not seem to have suffered in the Depression, further reduced Carter’s allowance after his return to the States in 1935” (in his mid-20s).

This, however, is the ultimate parental non-supportive slap:

“Friends of the composer say that his parents never attended concerts of his music. His father died in 1955” (the year he completed his Variations for Orchestra, his first major work after the ground-breaking 1st String Quartet); “his mother died in 1970” (the year before his 3rd String Quartet, certainly one of his most complex pieces).

No doubt, holiday dinners with the Carters must have been very chilly.

One thing Schiff mentions in this opening chapter made me think:

= = = = = = =
“When a composer grows up in a cultured musical family he tends to be conservative. The family presents him with the classics of music, takes him to concerts, gives him the best of teachers, prepares him to enter the musical establishment. The young composer is rewarded for imitating the classics, an activity which is often confused with composition. When the family lacks musical culture, however, a young composer can develop without the prejudices of the past. Particularly in American society, where the past is apparently so unimportant and history scarcely seems to exist, it is far more natural for a young composer to be attracted to the latest thing. And if the latest thing offends the parents, so much the better.”
(The Music of Elliott Carter by David Schiff, 1st Edition, p.14)
= = = = = = =

That composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Wagner began their lives in artistically aware families (Wagner’s step-father was an actor and his early background is primarily theatrical), that didn’t stop them from going beyond the musical status quo later in their careers. Certainly, Mendelssohn, who grew up in the lap of luxury, by comparison to most famous composers, never really became a ground-breaking avant-garde composer, but I had always assumed Elliott Carter, the son of a wealthy businessman with a considerable financial fortune, had been a kind of modern-day Mendelssohn, in terms of family wealth and, perhaps, support.

Not so!

And rather shockingly not so! at that. It amazes me even more that a young boy could continue under such lack of support – in fact, downright “warfare” – from his parents. This goes a long way to explain why Carter was adamant about being his own composer and not caring whether people liked his music or not, as that famous quote I mentioned in a recent post, which refers to a rather epiphanic moment from the 1940s:

“As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

This is not the arrogant “Who Cares if You Listen?” attitude (the unfortunate title some copywriter gave a newspaper article by fellow composer Milton Babbitt) thrown at so many modern artists who appear to deny pleasure to the general audience (the same could be said of Beethoven and his late quartets). It is a more practical realization that, in order to write music that is true to the artist’s creative intent, it needs first to interest the artist.

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

As used books go, my ‘new’ copy of David Schiff’s book looked brand new: it was a library copy withdrawn from the Unger Memorial Library in Plainview, Texas, and judging from the looks of it had probably never been signed out.

It is a first edition, published in 1983 by Eulenburg Press, and basically ends with the “Night Fantasies” composed in 1980. An updated second edition came out in 1998 in time for his 90th birthday.

Some of my favorite works by Carter have been composed since that first edition: 

String Quartet No. 4 (1986)
Oboe Concerto (1986-1987)
Three Occasions for Orchestra (1986-1989)
Violin Concerto (1989)
Quintet for Piano & Winds (1991)
String Quartet No. 5 (1995)
Clarinet Concerto (1996)
Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-1996) (originally issued as three separate works as each movement was completed)
Piano Quintet (1997)
What Next? opera (1997)

These, then, are just some of the works he composed after his 90th birthday and therefore were probably not included in Schiff's second edition:

Two Diversions (for piano) (1999)
ASKO Concerto for 16 players (2000)
Retrouvailles (for piano) (2000)
Cello Concerto (2001)
Oboe Quartet (2001)
Boston Concerto (2002)
Dialogues for Piano & Orchestra (2003)
Mosaic (for Harp & Ensemble) (2004)
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2005-2006), especially Catenaires
Clarinet Quintet (2007) (I'd heard the world premiere of this)
Horn Concerto (2007)

And several recent works that I’ve not heard yet or been able to get recordings of:

Interventions (for Piano & Orchestra) (2007)
Flute Concerto (2008)
Nine by Five (Wind Quintet) (2009)
“What Are Years” for Soprano & Chamber Orchestra (2009)
“A Sunbeam’s Architecture” for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra (2010)
Two Controversies and a Conversation for Piano, Percussion & Chamber Ensemble (2010-2011)
Three Explorations for Bass-Baritone, Winds & Brass (2011)
String Trio (2011)
Double Trio (for Trumpet, Trombone, Percussion, Piano, Violin & Cello) (2011)
Instances (for Chamber Orchestra) (2012)
and of course, the last piece he completed,
12 Short Epigrams (for piano) (Aug. 13th, 2012)

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

As I get ready to reconnect with my composing side (even before I finish the novel, The Lost Chord), I am continuing to sketch out some ideas for a piano quintet which, I suspect, I will dedicate to Elliott Carter’s memory.

I only talked to the man once, as I’ve told the story before, standing on-line for tickets to an all-Carter concert with all three of his string quartets back when he was turning 70. He was very approachable and talked easily and with interest in who I was and when I said I had taught at the University of Connecticut, he said "Then you must know Charles Whittenberg [a composer who also taught there]. He's a very fine composer!" (when I told Charlie that, he was floating on air for a week).

Yet I never had the courage to go up and say hello (not that he would remember me) when I saw him at that concert when the Pacifica Quartet played all five of his string quartets. He was, at the time, two months shy of turning 100 and his assistant, Virgil Blackwell, had escorted Carter into the lobby and sat him down on a bench while he went to pick up the tickets.

There was an immediate hush from everybody around me and when I turned around, I was only a few yards from Elliott Carter, my favorite living composer, soon to be 100! And yet I couldn’t go up and say hello or congratulate him.

Nor could anyone else.

We all stood around in respectful but silent admiration, literally gazing upon him as he sat there, unaware of those around us, unconcerned about being the composer he was in our eyes.

And then Virgil came back, helped Carter up and led him into the hall. He could have been any frail old man coming out to hear a concert.

I feel sad that he is gone, even though he lived to be almost 104. I mean, how amazing is that? And that he wrote all this music since he’d turned 70? But I still wish there had been more time for more music – no 6th Quartet, apparently, alas – but after reading those paragraphs in Schiff’s book about Carter and his parents, what better revenge, if you wanted to think of it that way, to have lived that long and produced that much music, to be regarded as one of the most important living composers of your time?

Like Beethoven’s deafness or Schubert’s health, I wonder how different Carter’s music might have been if his parents had supported him? Perhaps he would be more popular, perhaps he would already have been forgotten.

It is what it is and we have what we have.

And I, for one, am glad at least of that much.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Classical Grammys - 2013 Nominees

It’s time for that annual event of pop music’s commercial recognition, the “Countdown to Music’s Biggest Night,” the Grammy Awards! This year’s nominees were announced tonight and waaaaay down at the bottom, you might notice there are even some nominations in the classical music categories! Since they won’t have been mentioned much on the one-hour TV special and probably won’t be given much notice in the press and on-line coverage, otherwise, here’s the list of Classical Nominees for the Grammy Awards which will be announced on Feb. 10th, 2013.

72. Best Orchestral Performance

Adams: Harmonielehre & Short Ride In A Fast Machine
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
[SFS Media]

Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Iván Fischer, conductor (Budapest Festival Orchestra)
[Channel Classics]

Music For A Time Of War
Carlos Kalmar, conductor (Oregon Symphony)
[PentaTone Classics]

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
Valery Gergiev, conductor (London Symphony Orchestra)
[LSO Live]

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5
Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra)

73. Best Opera Recording

Berg: Lulu
Michael Boder, conductor; Paul Groves, Ashley Holland, Julia Juon & Patricia Petibon; Johannes Müller, producer (Symphony Orchestra Of The Gran Teatre Del Liceu)
[Deutsche Grammophon]

Handel: Agrippina
René Jacobs, conductor; Marcos Fink, Sunhae Im, Bejun Mehta, Alexandrina Pendatchanska & Jennifer Rivera (Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin)
[Harmonia Mundi]

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Topi Lehtipuu, Miah Persson & Matthew Rose; Johannes Müller, producer (London Philharmonic Orchestra; Glyndebourne Chorus)
[Opus Arte]

Vivaldi: Teuzzone
Jordi Savall, conductor; Delphine Galou, Paolo Lopez, Roberta Mameli, Raffaella Milanesi & Furio Zanasi (Le Concert Des Nations)
[Naïve Classique]

Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen
James Levine & Fabio Luisi, conductors; Hans-Peter König, Jay Hunter Morris, Bryn Terfel & Deborah Voigt; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
[Deutsche Grammophon]

74. Best Choral Performance

Handel: Israel In Egypt
Julian Wachner, conductor (Trinity Baroque Orchestra; Trinity Choir Wall Street)
[Musica Omnia]

Life & Breath - Choral Works By René Clausen
Charles Bruffy, conductor (Matthew Gladden, Lindsey Lang, Rebecca Lloyd, Sarah Tannehill & Pamela Williamson; Kansas City Chorale)

Ligeti: Requiem; Apparitions; San Francisco Polyphony
Peter Eötvös, conductor (Barbara Hannigan & Susan Parry; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart & WDR Rundfunkchor Köln)

The Nightingale
Stephen Layton, conductor (Michala Petri; Danish National Vocal Ensemble)
[OUR Recordings]

Striggio: Mass For 40 & 60 Voices
Hervé Niquet, conductor (Le Concert Spirituel)

75. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

Modern Mandolin Quartet
[Sono Luminus]

Eighth Blackbird
[Cedille Records]

Mind Meld
[Sono Luminus]

Profanes et Sacrées
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
[BSO Classics]

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet
[Sono Luminus]

76. Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier
András Schiff
[ECM New Series]

The Complete Harpsichord Works Of Rameau
Jory Vinikour
[Sono Luminus]

Gál & Elgar: Cello Concertos
Claudio Cruz, conductor; Antonio Meneses (Northern Sinfonia)
[AVIE Records]

Holst: The Planets
Hansjörg Albrecht, organ
[Oehms Classics]

Kurtág & Ligeti: Music For Viola
Kim Kashkashian
[ECM New Series]

 77. Best Classical Vocal Solo

Debussy: Clair de Lune
Natalie Dessay (Henri Chalet; Philippe Cassard, Karine Deshayes & Catherine Michel; Le Jeune Coeur De Paris)
[Virgin Classics]

Homecoming - Kansas City Symphony Presents Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato (Michael Stern; Kansas City Symphony)
[Kansas City Symphony]

Paris Days, Berlin Nights
Ute Lemper (Stefan Malzew & Vogler Quartet)
[Steinway & Sons]

Renée Fleming (Alan Gilbert & Seiji Ozawa; Orchestre National De France & Orchestre Philharmonique De Radio France)
[Decca Records]

Sogno Barocco
Anne Sofie Von Otter (Leonardo García Alarcón; Sandrine Piau & Susanna Sundberg; Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea)
[Naïve Classique]

78. Best Classical Compendium

Partch: Bitter Music
Partch, ensemble; John Schneider, producer
[Bridge Records, Inc.]

Penderecki: Fonogrammi; Horn Concerto; Partita; The Awakening Of Jacob; Anaklasis
Antoni Wit, conductor; Aleksandra Nagórko & Andrzej Sasin, producers

Une Fête Baroque
Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor; Daniel Zalay, producer
[Virgin Classics]

79. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Hartke, Stephen: Meanwhile - Incidental Music To Imaginary Puppet Plays
Stephen Hartke, composer (Eighth Blackbird)
Track from: Meanwhile
[Cedille Records]

León, Tania: Inura For Voices, Strings & Percussion
Tania León, composer (Tania León, Son Sonora Voices, DanceBrazil Percussion & Son Sonora Ensemble)
Track from: In Motion
[Albany Records]

Praulins, Ugis: The Nightingale
Ugis Praulins, composer (Stephen Layton, Michala Petri & Danish National Vocal Ensemble)
Track from: The Nightingale
[OUR Recordings]

Rautavaara, Einojuhani: Cello Concerto No. 2 'Towards The Horizon'
Einojuhani Rautavaara, composer (Truls Mørk, John Storgårds & Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra)
Track from: Rautavaara: Modificata; Percussion Concerto 'Incantations'; Cello Concerto No. 2 'Towards The Horizon'

Stucky, Steven: August 4, 1964
Steven Stucky, composer; Gene Scheer, librettist (Jaap Van Zweden, Dallas Symphony Chorus & Orchestra)
[DSO Live]

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Congratulations to all the nominees! And break various legs in February!
- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience

The Doric Quartet concludes tonight’s performance with Market Square Concerts’ second program of the season – tonight at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom: you can read more about it here – with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, one of the great works in the chamber music (certainly in the string quartet) repertoire.

We – musicians or music-lovers – often talk about “Beethoven’s Late Quartets” as if they’re this huge monolithic entity, something lurking in the background of a pleasant photograph of a nice family picnic in a pretty park yet behind them loom the Alps, sometimes brilliant and exhilarating or at turns dark and foreboding.

People hold up these quartets as a group whenever they need an example of something that is both demanding of respect as well as unintelligible. They have become a metaphor for the inscrutable which, in time, has eventually (finally) become… well, scrutable – that through familiarity and perseverance, they can unlock secrets of the universe if only we let them.

Back in the 1960s, some less than friendly critic reviewed a complex and, clearly (to him) inscrutable quartet by Milton Babbitt with the phrase: “This must be what a Late Beethoven Quartet sounds like to a dog.”

During the mid-1970s, a composer friend of mine with a similarly complex style attended the new music festival at Tanglewood and sent me a post card of this photograph (see right) with that caption on the back.

The technical demands – both on the performers’ as well as the listeners’ side – are considerable, and if their length isn’t an issue today (since many of us are used to Mahler’s hour-long symphonies or sitting for a couple hours to watch a movie), it certainly was in Beethoven’s day and it made concentrating on the music all the more a challenge.

The Op.131 Quartet isn’t the longest of them but it might be the most intense. Written in a time when audiences were used to quartets (or symphonies) being about a half-hour long and divided into four movements, giving them a chance to relax in the slight pause between movements, the seven movements of Op.131 progress without a break which places additional demands on the players, both in terms of mental concentration and physical endurance, as well as on the listeners.

It may not be a good analogy but I think it gets the point across: you need to be “in shape” to run a race, whether it’s the 500 meter event or the 5000 meter one. I’ve heard some musicians describe these quartets as “running a marathon” (in one case, a triathlon) which implies certain non-musical concerns as “pacing yourself” or being able to keep yourself “in the zone” to avoid focusing on… well, things like pain or exhaustion which would slow you down.

Okay, that may be a bit much and the analogy falls apart the instant you visualize four sweaty musicians in shorts and headbands racing to the finish line and one of them is a little bit faster than the others (pity the poor cellist, carrying such a cumbersome instrument). It’s more of an eight-legged race where all four of them have to cross the line together as a unit, but let’s not go there… the image is too funny (but a good skit for the likes of Monty Python).

Okay, now I’ve completely destroyed the serious – ahem, and I do mean “serious” – reverence with which the intellectual music-lover approaches (often genuflecting) these five quartets Beethoven composed in the last years of his life. For music-lovers who prefer “America’s Got Talent” to “Masterpiece Mystery,” their approach to a Beethoven Late Quartet might be figuring out (a.) how one can sit still so long; (b.) what one is supposed to listen to during all this and (c.) do not think about needing to visit the rest-room.

Art-lovers who complain about the dumbing down of today’s culture might be surprised to discover that Beethoven had to deal with the same issues in his audience.

So, where did these works come from?

At the end of the previous post about the Schumann and Chausson quartets, I mentioned how Schubert had died at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38, how Schumann had tried to commit suicide when he was 44, how Chausson died in a biking accident at 44, and how Beethoven (who appears timeless as well as ageless in our imaginations) was 56 when he died, having completed the last of these five quartets only months earlier.

So I want to quote something from Elliott Carter, an American composer who died ten days ago, a little over a month shy of his 104th birthday – and, I might add, till then busily and seemingly constantly composing. 

In some interview during this long and illustrious career (but probably during the slew of interviews he granted as he approached 100), Carter said “As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

When I heard the Pacifica Quartet play all five Carter quartets back to back in one evening, the large auditorium wasn’t exactly packed but it was well-attended, given the event, and the crowd was very responsive and highly favorable. I recognized many of the people I used to see at new music concerts when I lived in New York City in the late-‘70s, now thirty years older (as was the composer who, already considered on the verge of retirement, had written two more quartets since then).

When the first of Beethoven’s Late Quartets were premiered in Vienna, they were met, on the one hand, by total confusion, yet were hailed by those who adored Beethoven and anything he wrote “uncritically” – what, today, we would call a niche audience.

Perhaps, someday, Elliott Carter’s quartets will lose the general bewilderment the average audience reacts with, just as Beethoven’s Late Quartets have finally attained this rarified status as unquestioned masterpieces.

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Did Beethoven have “a Carter Moment” when he realized the public didn’t care?

I think, if you look at their music, composers have always managed to compartmentalize their creativity. The symphony, for Beethoven, was a public work written for large audiences, and so therefore had a specific and direct stylistic approach, whether we’d say it catered to the popular taste or not (and since we can hardly name another composer who wrote a symphony that’s as much a part of the repertoire as any of Beethoven’s that was written between 1800 and 1825, it’s fairly easy to decide who won that race). The string quartet had only four players and was generally designed for small audiences in smaller locations – the public concert was not a long-standing tradition for orchestral music and the idea of public concerts for chamber music was something newly championed by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh in Vienna during the 1820s, around the time Beethoven began composing these Late Quartets. One of these first public concerts featured a Haydn Quartet and Beethoven’s ever-popular, youthful Septet: the place was so crowded “people had to stand in front of the doors.”

Mozart and Schubert could write delightful music for people to dance to in public or private and Beethoven could produce hundreds of arrangements of British folk songs for voice and piano trio for the amateur audience. These were not intended to be “masterpieces” at a time when composers didn’t dwell on “the future” but on the “here-and-now.” Beethoven wrote these songs for money, not out of any belief he was writing great music: a composer has bills to pay just like anybody else. You can’t spend all your time contemplating the cosmos and, along the way, hope to find enough money in the silver linings to cover this month’s rent.

And certainly, no great composer has turned out a more populist work than Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” intended to ride the public euphoria over the news that, apparently, Napoleon’s control of Europe was beginning to crack. In fact, Beethoven was anxious that the premiere not be delayed lest it become old news and the public response to his music was lessened by its being “so last month,” this in a time long before instant news but when the public already had the ability to forget important events (Hurricane Sandy, for instance) with the advent of the next big story (insert “latest sex scandal” here).

Not long after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies, Beethoven went into something of a “dry spell.” If he wasn’t concerned about having written himself out, his fans certainly were very concerned. He thought, perhaps, a change of scenery might do him good, leaving Vienna for Paris or London, though this may have been a ploy to bring in some much needed financial support (which it did, from patrons who did not want to lose their Beethoven). Between 1815 and 1818, though, he had enough other things on his mind – continued bouts of illness but more serious, this time (he was in his mid-40s, then) but also that nasty business with his newly widowed sister-in-law over the custody of his nephew – but it also reflected itself in his thinking about “new directions” in his musical style.

We often think of Beethoven as deaf, especially given the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. But he was not “stone deaf” at the age of 31: it progressed more or less gradually, sometimes better but mostly getting worse until he had to resort to notebooks for people to write down their end of the conversation. He began using these around 1815 – by the time he died, twelve years later, there were 400 such “conversation” books (considering as often as he moved, it amazes me that he kept all these).

While some critics dismissed the turn his Late Period Music was taking as the work of a man who could no longer hear, it certainly turned his “musical ear” inward but it’s not the only reason for this change of approach. Never having been deaf, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world of silence and not hear anything – especially the music you love – going on around you: of course you would start creating your own inner music, especially a composer. You wouldn’t be unable to write it down simply because you couldn’t hear yourself play it at the piano, though Beethoven (even when deaf) still worked out details at the piano as he composed. He was able to coach a quartet preparing the first of these late quartets despite being unable to hear them play: he followed the motion of their bows and watched their fingers! Beethoven, as you would expect, had learned how to adapt, painful as it might have been to do so: but he did survive.

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In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon points out the attitudes that were developing in the audiences of Beethoven’s day. Given the breakdown in communication with government censorship (which, if anything, increased after Napoleon’s defeat) and after all the constant warfare in the news, the times were very stressful and audiences tended to use the arts as a form of recreation until “serious art” was becoming increasingly marginalized. “Artist and audience rise to defend the sanctity of art at those moments when its social function has become endangered and its aesthetic and ethical purposes called into question” (p.415).

(If any of this sounds familiar, raise your hand.)

Aristocratic patronage was becoming a thing of the past (even in tough economic times, the nobility still had difficulties paying their own bills and several of Beethoven’s most prominent supporters were forced to renege on their pledges) and “enlightened attitudes toward the arts” were also eroding. In this sense, Beethoven’s new style – what we call his “Late Period” – seem to crystalize the avant-garde ideas of Vienna’s intellectual elite.

Beethoven was never not writing for an audience (unlike the war-cry waged against contemporary composers in the 1960s, dismissed as willful academics writing for each other, when an article by Milton Babbitt was entitled – by an unwitting copy-editor – “Who Cares If You Listen?”) . He was writing for a different audience – a more discerning audience. If, like Carter, he became aware the general public didn’t care, he knew there were some who did, whether he was writing for himself alone or not. What would catch their interest and generate their support would be, their shared interests and ideas aside, they would recognize the validity of a very sincere musical language that is not intended to pander to the common denominator. In this sense, both Beethoven and Carter are similar: by being uncompromising in their beliefs, they were creating music that, someday, like-minded people would take an interest in.

The only exception to this was Beethoven’s agreeing to replace the original finale of the Op.130 Quartet, the B-flat Quartet that was already long and demanded which ended in a long and even more demanding fugue which came to be known as the Great Fugue (the famous (or infamous) Grosse Fuge). Why did he agree to this? He adamantly refused to substitute a new finale but when the publisher was willing to publish it separately in both a quartet score and a four-hand piano arrangement (so the work would not only not be lost, it might even find some continued existence being played and studied in private homes – the usual intent of piano duets – which might ensure its being understood in the future). And, not to dismiss it too lightly, he would get more money for it.

Schuppanzigh wanted the first of the late quartets to be completed – Op.127 – to be premiered at one of his new-fangled public chamber music concerts. Now, these audiences were still not large, but more people would hear them than would normally experience chamber music in a prince’s home for his family and guests. There were eight different performances of Op.127 during the two months after its premiere and some 500 people attended these various concerts.

Schuppanzigh’s premiere in March, 1825, was a disaster which the violinist largely credited to the quartet’s inadequate rehearsal time. Beethoven, then, coached them on it before their second performance with greater (or rather, with any) success.

The next quartet to be performed was Op.132, first heard in a private gathering in September 1825, then twice in public concerts in November. Op.130 – with its Grosse Fuge finale – was first heard in March, 1826 and was “eagerly sought after” by two other quartets for their concerts.

In August of 1826, the new Op.131 Quartet was rehearsed at the home of publisher Matthias Artaria and Karl Holz, Beethoven’s friend and temporary amanuensis as well as the 2nd violinist in Schuppanzigh’s quartet, told the composer that Artaria “was enraptured, and the [opening] fugue, when he heard it for the third time, he found wholly intelligible.” Note that “for the third time”…

Holz also told Beethoven that Op.132 had already been played in Berlin but added, “they have no idea there how Beethoven should be played.”

Schuppanzigh, in the months following this, told Beethoven that another performance of Op.127 was applauded “with enthusiasm.” The new finale for Op.130, replacing the Fugue, was determined to be “altogether heavenly” by the musicians.

There were other performances – mostly private – during the next year, 1827, the year Beethoven died. There was also a famous and very private performance in November 1828 for an audience of one: the dying Franz Schubert who wanted to hear Op.131 and which his friend, this same Karl Holz, brought his friends over to play it for him (unfortunately, as enthusiastic as he was about it, Schubert suffered a relapse of his illness that made his friends “frightened for him”).

Given the timing of Beethoven’s own deteriorating health – a sad story in itself – neither Op.131 nor the last of the set, Op.135, were performed in concert during the brief remainder of his lifetime. Op.131 didn’t receive its first actual public performance until 1835 – and Solomon points out (p.417) that between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and 1850, these quartets were played in Viennese concerts only four times! Op.130 and Op.135 once each, Op.131 twice.

On the other hand, during their first decade, these quartets were performed in Berlin, Leipzig and Paris.

It does not mean they were universally successful. A critic in Leipzig found the Grosse Fuge “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” describing it as “a concert that only the Moroccans might enjoy.” (This, I expect, is the 1826 equivalent of dogs listening to Late Beethoven Quartets…)

Holz himself – as well as Beethoven’s friend and former amanuensis Anton Schindler – failed to appreciate Op.130 as a whole, yet Holz reported its first audience was “inspired, astonished or questioning.” Some found no fault with it only because they held the composer in such awe. (Are these like those people today who try to impress others with their intelligence by pointing out they like Elliott Carter’s music when in fact they have no idea what they’re listening to – or who read the latest ten-pound tome of a New York Best Seller but have never gotten past page 37.)

On the whole, most of the audiences would have preferred the early Septet if only because (a.) it was popular, (b.) it was easy to listen to and (c.) it reminded them of the good old days.

Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists of the day (with the possible exception of a fellow named Paganini) and also one of the more frequently performed composers of his day (making him, technically, more popular than Beethoven, in general), told the story in his Autobiography that his quartet had started to play one of Beethoven’s latest works (I do not remember if he identified the specific work) when it started to break down and Spohr realized “my accompanists clearly did not understand” what they were playing. So instead they substituted one of his own quartets which was met with considerable more success and a favorable response from their audience.

Part of the problem was that Spohr did not understand the role of the quartet in these works: gone were the days when it was a first violinist accompanied by three other string players, when he had all the tunes, the cello supplied the harmonic bass-line and the 2nd violinist and violist chugged away filling in the inner harmonies. Beethoven’s Late Quartets are all about the single organism, four people playing equally as one.

Not too many years ago, I attended the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto by the Philadelphia Orchestra and was blown away by it. The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in one of the worst performances I’d ever heard of it – sloppy even for a less talented regional orchestra much less a world-class organization like this! Aside from the amount of rehearsal time allotted to any given concert these days – the economy of the arts is another topic – it reminded me that when Beethoven is badly played, the critic blames the performers, but when a critic condemns a new work, something he’s never heard before, how does he know it is not being badly played? In this case, it would always be the composer’s fault.

So it has taken a long time for Beethoven’s Late Quartets to be publically accepted. I’ve often joked that we, as an audience, had to get through Wagner and Mahler and Schoenberg before we could look back at something composed now almost 200 years ago and say “oh, isn’t that incredible!”

It may take a while before the public “gets interested” in some new music initially dismissed as unlistenable, unintelligible and esoteric. But for those of us who climb the mountaintop, the view can be exhilarating.

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shostakovich & his Symphonies Before the War

With the Harrisburg Symphony playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 a few days after an over-heated Presidential election season finally came to an end , I thought it might be worth looking into the politics behind Shostakovich’s symphonic world, especially pertaining to the 5th and 6th.

(The symphony performs it tonight, Saturday Nov. 10th at 8pm and again tomorrow, Sunday Nov. 11th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Timothy Dixon offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 and the winner of this year’s Rising Star Concerto Competition, Julia Rosenbaum, a 16-year-old cellist playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.” You can read my preview post at the symphony blog, here.)

The 6th Symphony has always struck me as a bit odd: a very long, dark, deeply intense first movement that takes about 17-19 minutes to perform, followed by two extroverted movements that, together, total maybe 12-13 minutes. The proportions are one thing – my first thought was perhaps there wasn’t time to write a suitable finale to balance the first movement until, of course, you realize nothing can come after this finale. Actually, my very first thought, when I heard this for the first time on an afternoon radio broadcast back in the ‘70s, was that someone had gotten the wrong record cued up for the second half and we were hearing, I don’t know… movements from one of Shostakovich’s light-hearted populist ballets? But no, I later discovered, checking a different recording I found at the music library, that’s the way it was written. How… imbalanced? Out of proportion? Was he writing the first movement for something then decided he couldn’t go in the direction it was pointing and stepped back – probably to avoid criticism from Stalin’s government, perhaps? – or what?

Of course, Shostakovich was an especially private composer who rarely dropped hints about what was going on in his mind when he composed, no matter what enticements we might hear in the music. And what we might hear today might be very different from what a Soviet listener heard in 1939 – or what a Soviet bureaucrat might have heard, compared to a concert-going music lover (a.k.a. “intellectual”).

The 6th is very much wrapped up in the aftermath of the political hot water Shostakovich found himself in in 1936 after Stalin walked out of a performance of his already popular opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and an attack on the composer and his style appeared in Pravda, the Soviet Union’s principal Communist Party newspaper: “Muddle instead of Music,” it was called, and the upshot was that Shostakovich found his music suddenly being pulled off concert programs and commissions for new works were being canceled or started drying up.

He had already begun work on his 4th Symphony, a vast hour-long complex of three very dissonant movements, at turns bleak or violent. He completed it a few months after the article appeared in Pravda. It was in rehearsal later that year but as the process unfolded, the management of the orchestra prevailed on Shostakovich to withdraw the work and cancel the performance. No explanation was given and the decision was made to look entirely the composer’s own. He put the symphony aside and premiered it only in 1961, some 25 years later, but never adjusted the symphony’s number or revised it.

You can read more about the political and artist aspects of this period in Shostakovich’s life in an earlier post about his 5th (and also 10th) Symphonies

Politics being what it was, as Stalin tried to control the opposition (if not eliminate it), it seemed even artists were not immune from what became known as Stalin’s Terror – resulting in a series of purges which began the following year. During that time, many of Shostakovich’s artist friends and colleagues were rounded up and arrested. His brother-in-law, a physicist, was arrested in the middle of the night and sent off to exile with his wife without warning. Shostakovich’s mother-in-law was also arrested and exiled, also with no explanation.

A young man just beginning to make his mark on Soviet music, Dmitri Shostakovich, not yet 30 when the worst of all possible bad reviews had first appeared in print, had been befriended by the music-loving General Tukachevsky who was later arrested for his presumed role in a plot to assassinate Stalin. In the spring of 1937, Shostakovich was then called in and interrogated about his “relationship” with General Tukachevsky: these were musical evenings, dinner parties where Shostakovich was one of the guests, but the interrogator kept referring to these “meetings” and asking, for instance, who else attended (“only members of the family circle”), were any politicians present (“no, no politicians”), what they discussed (“music”), and, even though Shostakovich swore politics was not discussed in his presence, what had he heard about the plot to murder Comrade Stalin? Since he refused to answer any more questions, he was told by his interrogator to return on Monday (this, having taken place on Friday) with the warning that perhaps, with the weekend to think about it, he would recall every detail he had heard about Tukachevsky’s plot. Convinced he would be arrested, he made the necessary preparations with his family and returned to the KGB building only to be told he could go home: his interrogator, Comrade Zanchevsky, “wasn’t coming in, today, so there is no one to receive you.” Later, he discovered that his interrogator had himself been arrested.

That was how Dmitri Shostakovich avoided arrest. Not that it couldn’t come at some other time, but he came that close to it, already.

We in the United States tend not to be aware of such issues when it comes to our artists, if we are even conscious of them, so I mention this only as background to understanding something about the 5th Symphony he composed next and the 6th Symphony which followed it a year later.

Most concert-goers might be aware of the nature of the 5th Symphony and its subtitle, “A Soviet Artists Reply to Just Criticism” which, incidentally, did not originate with the composer but with a critic somewhere and Shostakovich, perhaps a little too shell-shocked still, could not figure out a way of gracefully declining the nickname.

Mravinsky & Shostakovich, 1930s
Suffice it to say, the 5th was a huge popular success and the young conductor Yevgenny Mravinsky who premiered it held the score over his head to the on-going cheers of the audience. These two links will take you to videos of the work recorded by Mravinsky first in 1973 with an unspecified orchestra (but I would assume the Leningrad Philharmonic) and again in 1983 with the Leningrad Philharmonic on tour in Minsk. There are, perhaps, better recordings and maybe even better (certainly different) performances available on YouTube – it’s a very popular work – but how often do you get to see the person who first brought it into the world?

The 5th premiered in December of 1937. He had begun work on it in mid-April, earlier that year. Now, look back a few paragraphs and read about that interrogation again: that took place in the spring of 1937.

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Following the success of the 5th Symphony and his rehabilitation as a Soviet Artist, Shostakovich announced he would soon be working on a “grandiose symphony dedicated to Lenin.” Reports indicated it would be a four-movement symphony with chorus (and soloists, in some mentions) setting poems by Mayakovsky and two non-Russian Soviet poets, one from Kazakstan and another from Dagestan.

In her substantial collection of first-hand reminiscences, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Elizabeth Wilson includes this statement from Isaak Glikman, a close personal friend of Shostakovich’s and a well-known Leningrad theater critic and historian. [My comments are italicized in brackets.]

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The Sixth Symphony was scheduled for the opening of the 1939 autumn season of the Leningrad Philharmonic. It was impatiently awaited.

Shostakovich & Sollertinsky, 1930s
Long before the premiere Dmitri Dmitriyevich [Shostakovich] showed the symphony to Ivan Sollertinsky and me [Sollertinsky was a close friend and, among other things, artistic director of the Philharmonic]. He played the finale through twice and, against his custom, praised it himself: ‘It’s the first time I ever wrote such a successful Finale.’ [This, after having recently completed the Fifth?!] ‘I think even the most fastidious critics won’t have anything to pick at.’ He said nothing about the first and second movements. But we spoke enthusiastically of the majestic beauty of the first movement, the Largo, the brilliance of the Scherzo and the overwhelming and intoxicating finale. I immediately fell in love with it , and, with little regard for the composer’s self-effacing modesty, I enthusiastically expounded, ‘If Mozart and Rossini had lived in the 20th Century and had collaborated in writing the finale of a symphony, it would have turned out like this…’

The premiere of the Sixth Symphony took place on November 5th, 1939, under Mravinsky’s baton and it enjoyed an enormous success. The finale was encored – a rare occurrence at a premiere of a symphonic work – but the enthralling atmosphere that pervaded the hall at the premiere of the Fifth Symphony was lacking. That particular concertr had been a unique event, even unrepeatable, you might say, had not Shostakovich gone on to write the Seventh, Eighth and Fourteenth Symphonies which all had a similar force of inspired revelation.

For very grave reasons, Dmitri Dmitriyevich was unable to attend the Moscow premiere of the Sixth Symphony. He asked me to go in his stead to attend the rehearsals and the concert and to write to him with my impressions. I did so, remaining in Moscow for quite a protracted tsay. I would write the letters in the evening and send them to Leningrad with somebody travelling by the night train, so that Dmitri Dmitriyevich already had them in his hands next morning.

Naturally, I hid from the composer the inevitable musicians’ talk. With rare exceptions, it drove me to despair. Some musicians held that the conceited young composer, having dared to break with the tradition of the symphonic cycle, had produced a formless piece in three movements. Others maliciously implied that Shostakovich had locked himself away in an ivory tower and no longer knew what was going on around him; the result was that the opening Largo was so dull and inert as to bring on a stupefied torpor. And a third group just laughed goodheartedly, saying that the finale was nothing than a depiction of a football match with its successes and reversals of fortune. This vulgar and trivialized opinion has unfortunately persisted and gained widespread credence.

[Reading this, I’m reminded of my own initial reactions to hearing the piece: perhaps the recordings I heard were “dull and inert” and, in the finale, vulgar enough to suggest a football match’s frenzy?]

Glikman in later years
However, all these discussions were swept aside at the premiere of this brilliant work, when it was played at the Grand Hall of the Conservatoire. But, strangely, when I returned to Leningrad, I could not rid myself of the memory of these conversations for a long time.

After the Sixth Symphony, which aroused so much censure, Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet in the summer of 1940 [only seven months later]; it was received with great acclaim by public and critics alike, and opinion was unanimous. Each performance by the wonderful Glazunov and Beethoven String Quartets with the composer at the piano were hailed as a great event in the musical life of Leningrad and Moscow.
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At Premiere of Piano Quintet, 1940
There follows an anecdote about the composer’s real reason for adding a piano to what was planned as his 2nd String Quartet: he figured the quartets couldn’t play it without him, so he would finally get to do some traveling again: “I’ll get a chance to see the world.” Glikman ends by saying “but from the expression on his face, it was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. We had this conversation in the summer of the year preceding the war” (1940).

Incidentally, if anyone wondered what happened to the Grand Symphony dedicated to Lenin, similar reports were made again pertaining to the up-coming Seventh Symphony, which, however, written during World War II and the horrific siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, turned out to be quite a different work. Then, once the Eighth Symphony, another of his War Symphonies, was premiered, there was talk of a grand symphony in honor of Stalin which, without explanation, turned out not to be the heroic celebration that would culminate the War Years in Music, but to be a rather slight, in fact a rather Haydn-esque work that left people (at least the bureaucrats) scratching their heads.

In my post about the 5th & 10th Symphonies, I refer to the view of Shostakovich serving as the national "Holy Fool" (in Russian, yurodivy) not the simple-minded "village idiot" we in America think of but in the classic Slavic sense of the Fool who is touched by and therefore nearer to God, often respected and, in a sense, feared by others. The most famous example of this would be the Simpleton in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov where the fool confronts the tsar and asks him to murder the children who stole his penny like Boris had murdered the Little Tsaryevich Dmitri, something that would have earned any courtier immediate execution. But in this dramatic scene (beginning at 4:00), instead Boris asks the Simpleton to pray for him. Unfortunately, the Fool replies, he cannot: the Virgin does not allow it. In the great Forest Scene which ought to be the opera's final scene, the Simpleton has the final word, lamenting the fate of the Russian people (in this clip, beginning around 5:40). In Western literature what wiser fool is there than King Lear's?

Perhaps Shostakovich thought the world had become completely unbalanced and that the "whacky" finale to this intense opening movement of his new symphony was like the dancing of the Holy Fool? There is more to think about this in his 10th Symphony, the first new symphony he composed after Stalin's death: his use of the D.SCH motive (Shostakovich's monogram translated into musical pitches) at the very end seems to celebrate Shostakovich's survival as much as the wild dance of a finale might celebrate Stalin's death.

But all this, as I mentioned, is really conjecture. We might say "since Shostakovich never admitted it in print," but then there were many examples of articles or letters signed by Shostakovich which had been written by party officials and which he signed merely to avoid political confrontation. Was he more cynic than simpleton? Semyon Volkov's largely discredited Testimony, claiming to be interviews with the composer shortly before he died and rather confessional in nature, might even be more fiction than anything resembling fact despite Volkov saying the composer signed the transcripts he had handed him, authenticating the material.

That, however, is another topic entirely and one that apparently will never be resolved.

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One more excerpt from Elizabeth Wilson’s collection, this one pertaining to that 5th Symphony premiere. It appears not all government bureaucrats were convinced it was a masterpiece as it had been acclaimed by the audience. These are from reminiscences by another director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki who, in 1948, would join in with the government in condemning Shostakovich for his “formalist” aesthetic in writing symphonic works after the German model.

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In other words [the Fifth Symphony] was accessible to professional listeners without making concessions to the pretensions of the general public – that same general public which so bombastically referred to itself as ‘the People’ (or took upon itself to speak in the name of ‘the People’)…

But there was another category of persons who had a particular allegiance to art – the bureaucratic stratum. They formulated the judgements of the authorities through writing official reports in which they tried to divine what the bosses’ opinions of the matter might be. And for God’s sake [interesting choice of expression, given the godless Communist society, here], should you get it wrong, it could cost you your position. Their anxiety to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ was motivated by the wish to ensure their own safety. They therefore assessed composition by the quantity of dissonances and their deviations from the standard ‘norms’ of folk and classical music…

[Given reports of the Fifth Symphony’s premiere,] this… provoked extreme displeasure in official circles, since it was seen as an explicit comment in regard to the criticism expressed on the pages of the Party press [regarding the dangers of “excessive success”]. Surely, the composer could not have ‘restructured’ his outlook and created a 100% Soviet symphony in such a short period of time? And what is more, no official opinion on the symphony had yet been formulated. So what did this mean – a demonstration?

Immediately, two high-up officials from the committee responsible for the arts, V. N. Surin and B.M. Yarustovsky, were sent to Leningrad. They were present at one of the next performances of the symphony. Their brief was to find out how it was that the concert organizers had managed to inspire such a loud and demonstrative success. Yarustovsky… having just personally witnessed Shostakovich’s unheard-of triumph, made a constant stream of snide remarks, shouting to make himself heard over the noise in the hall. “Just look, all the concert-goers have been hand-picked one by one. These are not normal concert-goers. The symphony’s success has been most scandalously fabricated,” and so on. In vain did I, as director of the Philharmonic, try to convince the rabid official that the public attending the concert had bought tickets at the box office in the normal manner. Yarustovsky, supported by the silent Surin, remained implacable….

[Eventually] the Leningrad District Party Committee… [arranged] a special performance of the symphony for the [bureaucrats]. In my capacity of director of the Philharmonic, I was called up by the local committee responsible for the arts to see a certain Rabinovich, a very decisive, butch lady [that’s an exact quote, by the way]. I can reproduce the following dialogue exactly, as it is imprinted on my memory word for word.
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However, in the interest of what passes for space, I must summarize: Chulaki’s suggested program included the overture and some arias from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla, Tchaikovsky’s Overture, “Francesca da Rimini” and then, after intermission, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Rabinovich, unfortunately, didn’t like it and suggested there too many “symphonies,” saying ‘We need something for the People – and besides, what’s this “Franchyoska”?’ When he explained it was a not-too-long fantasy overture, Comrade Rabinovich told him they could do “both symphonies” on the first half and then conclude with a performance by the Red Army Ensemble. Unfortunately, the latter were on tour and unavailable so she suggested the Moisseyev Dancers and their orchestra of folk instruments, first suggesting that, since they already had an orchestra on stage, why not use the Philharmonic instead of the folk orchestra of balalaikas and shepherd’s flutes? The question of room on stage for the dancers with an orchestra of 105 made no sense to her: “well, put your orchestra in the pit!”

Eventually, the concert was given: Tchaikovsky’s overture and the new 5th Symphony of Shostakovich were given on the very long first half and the Moisseyev Dancers filled the second half, dancing to their own orchestra after all.

To resume Chulaki’s reminiscence:

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Many years later, as fate would have it, Shostakovich and I were being treated at the same [medical] clinic. We recalled that mammoth concert put together for ‘the People’ by the official lady, Rabinovich. Shostakovich told me how he had been walking up and down in a state of agitation in the so-called ‘blue’ foyer outside the hall. There you could hear everything perfectly. Francesca da Rimini was coming to an end and his hour of agony was approaching. [He obviously had reason to be nervous: what if the bureaucrats decided his symphony was not an adequate response to their criticism?] Just as the clapping started, after the end of the so-called ‘Franchyoska,’ the writer X [so identified in Chulaki’s letter], the nicest and kindest of men, and one of the country’s most well-loved and -read writers, came running into the foyer. Throwing himself on Shostakovich’s neck with tears of gratitude in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘Mitya [the nickname for Dmitri], I always knew that you were able to write beautiful and melodic music!” Shostakovich was so touched by this show of friendship and loyalty that, as he told me laughingly, “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was [by] Tchaikovsky.”
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And these are the people who determined that Shostakovich was a bad composer who needed to be disciplined and nearly drove him to suicide…

- Dick Strawser

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Glikman's and Chulaki's reminiscences, quoted from letters, essays and interviews, are found in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Faber & Faber (London 1994), 2nd Edition, paperback, released in the United States by Princeton University Press in 2006 in time for the Shostakovich Centennial Year.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Elliott Carter, On His Passing

Elliott Carter died yesterday afternoon at the age of 103.

So I suppose it shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me when I decided, going to bed after the local 11:00 news (which of course would never mention such an item in all the election hoopla), to check my e-mail and find something there from the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, announcing his passing.

I haven’t felt this bereft over the death of a living composer since Benjamin Britten died on Dec. 6th, 1976. He had been ill for some time – he had heart surgery postponed so he could complete the opera Death in Venice – and his recovery was not very hopeful. But still, the news came as a shock mostly because, now, I knew there would never be another new work by a composer who had been my favorite living composer.

In the past 36 years since then, Elliott Carter has become my “favorite living composer.” It’s ironic that, with the Britten Centennial coming up a year from this month, Carter attended his Centennial Celebration and in fact had written several new works for the occasion. There was something of an expectation, having made it to 103, he would make it to 104. He was about five weeks shy of his next birthday.

I remember sitting in a friend’s apartment when I was a senior in college and the news on the radio announced the death of Igor Stravinsky. As a student, I was still unfamiliar with a lot of his more recent music beyond the three great ballets which began his career – ironically, the Centennial for the premiere of his most famous work, The Rite of Spring, is also next year. I had been disappointed in many of his neo-classical works in the 1930s and ‘40s, by comparison, and though I liked works like Threni and the “Huxley” Variations, I didn’t quite understand them or their significance in his catalogue of works. I can’t say I grieved after Stravinsky’s death – saddened by it, yes, but it was different. I was not yet 22, Stravinsky was 88 – it seemed such a ripe old, nearly unattainable age – and though I was conscious the man called “the world’s greatest living composer” was not the most popular living composer during his lifetime, certainly not for the works he composed in the last 50-some years of his life, I was aware his death meant a loss for a world that was so important to me.

The one thing that struck me was someone being interviewed – I don’t recall who – was asked in typical interview fashion, “So who do you think is now The World’s Greatest Composer?”

It made me think of a record collection of 12 LPs (if you remember them) which was called “The Music of the World’s Greatest Composers” and which ranged from Bach’s 1st Brandenburg Concerto (1720s) to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) which, even in the ‘60s when I was given this for Christmas, seemed to leave a considerable lapse with no representative music from anyone writing in the last fifty years.

Listening to the radio interview, I tried to think who that composer might be who would inherit Stravinsky’s crown. I didn’t know of that many “current” composers – after all, the way most of us discover music is through recordings, going to concerts, listening to broadcasts on the radio or television (at least in those years): the living composers I was most familiar with would have been Britten or Samuel Barber, I guess.

So I was surprised when the respected figure being interviewed said “I would have to guess it would probably be Elliott Carter.”

And I said, basically, “Who?”

As I’ve broadened my musical tastes after being able to broaden my musical experience as a more voracious listener, I came to understand why he thought Carter might be considered “The Greatest” though that didn’t necessarily mean “The Best” or, certainly, “The Most Popular.” All of these elements are fairly meaningless and impossible to define: the No. 1 Novel on most lists of Greatest Novels Ever Written (whoever determines these) has usually been James Joyce’s Ulysses though it would never qualify as one of the “Most Often Read Novels.”

But does that mean it can’t be a “Greatest” Novel? Sometimes, the more enduring art is that which is respected more than it is loved.

I can’t say I like every piece of music Carter ever wrote but as I became more familiar with it and heard many live performances – I’ve written a great deal, here, about some of these: the string quartets, the world premiere of his recent Clarinet Quintet, for example – I came to understand something behind the music that made it speak to me far deeper than many other composers’ works.

His 1st String Quartet was probably the first work of his I heard that I enjoyed and, after a few hearings, came to love. His concept of space and time – the independence of each instrumental line in terms of both content or character as well as perceived tempo – resonated with me a lot more than many other composers of the day, though stylistically, as I was looking around for my own voice, I would say Britten on the one hand and Messiaen and Penderecki (then still in his more avant-garde ‘70s mode) on other stylistic hands were more significant for my own sound.

But eventually, I found that more and more Carter’s music resonated with me much more deeply, especially after I had a chance to hear the then all-three Carter Quartets in 1979, meeting the composer in front of me at the line for tickets the day before the concert – he was then 70 and was considered to be close to retirement age for a composer. More recently, I’d heard the complete string quartets of Elliott Carter: he had, only a few weeks earlier, turned 99 and written two more. There was hope he might get around to composing a sixth before too much longer...

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Unfortunately, the poster at YouTube does not mention which recording he’s using, but if you don’t have time to listen to the whole quartet, listen to the opening few minutes of clip 1, and also the opening 20 seconds of clip 4 which reminds me of a tribute to an early mentor of his, Charles Ives, not to mention a brief “swing” section beginning at 1:31 (which reminds me that Carter, rather than listening to Beethoven, might more often be found hanging out in the jazz clubs in The Village) in addition to the ending, beginning around 5:10.

At the moment, I don’t have the time to write as much as I would like (or could), but whoever inherits the mantel of “World’s Greatest Living Composer” is a moot point, for me, not because by this time I’m now forty years younger than Mr. Carter was, such things are – like the invention of “The Three Bs” – more about marketing than music.

Ironically, I am finishing up a novel in which the villain (Tr’iTone) is trying to find the Fountain of Inspiration so he can become The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived. One of the characters is an American composer named Howard Zender (the name is a play on E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End with its famous epigram, “Only connect!”) who is clearly modeled after Elliott Carter (though he is only 90-something, here). In fact, in the original draft of The Lost Chord he was Elliott Carter and I even imitated many of his speech patterns, initially, having listened to numerous interviews of his over the last decade, but then decided it was, perhaps, too much an invasion of privacy to turn him into a novel’s character outright as it might be a misuse of intellectual property absorbing his ideas and his personal sound. (I’m still debating, given the Forster connection, about changing his name to Howard Zenn, especially amusing (to me) considering his music is anything but Zen-like.)

But now, I wish to go compose again, something I have not done for over a year – spending most of it working on this revision of The Lost Chord. In the past, his music inspired me to start composing again in 2000 after a long hiatus and I feel the resonance stirring again (speaking of that lost inner chord).

At the moment, I don’t know how it will surface but I am sure, once again, I will discover that the public, frankly, doesn’t care.

One thing Carter and his music have taught me: write for yourself. By sticking to his convictions and what mattered to him, he has written music that is above all sincere, not meant to appeal to any particular –ism in our very –ismatic society.

And no artist can do more than that.

- Dick Strawser