Yearly Archives: 2020

The Holy Trinity

Brief reflections on my three favorite contemporary* composers.
(*Contemporary in that their lifespans overlapped with my own.)

Alfred Schnittke: Chiaroscuro in Music

Find me another composer as adept at suffusing his canvas with darkness, laying on the thick impasto of a late Rothko. You’ll find plenty of angst and agony among the rest, but you’ll never find a musician working in such satisfying gradations of blackness as Alfred Schnittke.

Listen to how notes sustain, suffusing the air like smoke. This is a consistent element of Schnittke’s style, from the early days of the first string quartet right up to the austere works that he wrote after dying and coming back to life (not making that up!) Even his zaniest moments are like Pennywise peering out of a street gutter.

This reaches its apotheosis (as does his entire stylistic vocabulary: his melodicism, the crunch of his orchestration, his Beethoven-like motivic development) in the 8th symphony. I can think of no other music that so thoroughly captures the sound of the universe’s empty blackness.

Sondheim-Tunick: Pure Music and its Embodiment

Stephen Sondheim is the heir not only to the artistic legacy of Gerswhin, Arlen, and Rodgers, but he’s also a direct inheritor of the musical legacy of Maurice Ravel. His music is to Ravel’s as birds are to dinosaurs. 

Sondheim writes in short score, the purest articulation of the musical art. His music is not written to be played as such, and so it must be translated, either expanded (orchestrated) or condensed (for piano.) His main translator has been the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and because I’m an orchestral musician at heart, to me, “Sondheim” really means Sondheim + Tunick. 

And here’s the thing: Sondheim agrees. I’ll let him explain:

Can I love a Sondheim song when it’s stripped down to just piano and voice? Of course. After all, Sondheim is the kernel and Tunick is the husk. But honestly? I’ll never love it as much as when it’s enrobed in the voluptuous garbs of Jonathan Tunick. After all, Sondheim is the diamond and Tunick is the jeweler.

It’s worth noting that every Sondheim has been awarded the Tony for Best Score, he’s taken the opportunity to single out Jonathan Tunick as a collaborator (and often to bemoan the fact that there was no Tony awarded for Best Orchestrations.) Sondheim is a lover of orchestral music; it’s well known that he mainly listens to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel. Let’s just say, he gets it.

[Coda: When the Tonys finally did institute an award for Best Orchestrations in 1997 (!!!) Jonathan Tunick was the first awardee.]

Alberto Iglesias: The Master of the String Quartet

It’s not just me who calls Alberto Iglesias the master of the quartet — it’s Pedro Almodóvar himself!

How did he come by this mastery? I only recently learned the answer.

Pedro Almodóvar does not use temp scores for his editing, but he wants music. In fact, he wants the music that’s going to be in the film — or the closest possible approximation. So he asks Iglesias to create a sort of temp track of his own.

The thing is, neither of them likes midi. So, starting early in their collaboration, whenever Iglesias would write a piece of music intended for string orchestra, he would hire a string quartet to record a reduced version of the cue. Pedro would end up falling in love with the quartet version. Eventually, Iglesias got wise and started writing the pieces as quartets.

Thus the greatest exponent of the string quartet since Debussy came into being.

But man, just listen to what he can do when he has a full string orchestra at his disposal:

To quote Penélope Cruz:

On Rossini

I think Rossini would have made a great video game composer. Listen to his overtures. Everything is so modular. Any phrase could lead into another, and whenever he gets stuck, he just does one of those up-and-down scales in the first violins.

Plus, those crescendi really amp up the tension, and you could repeat them an infinite number of times without losing anything. The climaxes are inevitably disappointing, but who cares, you just go on to the next level.

His motives are attractive and simple, and he uses them to create a totally convincing “universe”. Like, for a game about a bunch of scheming 19th century housemaids. Finally a video game I could actually get into!

Ludwig: the 20-21 season that wasn’t

I’ll admit it: I’d planned a Beethoven celebration season for 2020-2021. Obviously OSSCS won’t be presenting anything like a normal concert season, and maybe that’s just as well: I may well have been saved from myself.

The idea of a Beethoven celebration is considered deeply unfashionable in many circles, the most basic of basic bitchdom. One of my former students wrote me an email saying she thought Beethoven celebrations were plainly immoral.

For everyone who’s not on twitter, here’s why: Beethoven already has a cemented position in music history. Every time we perform a Beethoven piece, we lose an opportunity to hear a living or marginalized composer. Beethoven’s music may be great (though there are those who dispute/problematize the very notion of “greatness”), but is that any reason to further entrench the dead white male-ness of the classical music industry when we could be striking out in bold new directions?

When I decided to take on the challenge of programming a Beethoven season, I did it with this in mind. My goal was to make a season that used Beethoven as a framework to explore these ideas and to juxtapose his art in unexpected ways with forgotten voices of the past and those of the present.

Anyway, none of it’s happening now, but just for posterity’s sake, here’s what I came up with. It’s a season of 5 mainstage choral-orchestral concerts, one orchestra-only, one mostly-choral, and 3 smaller chamber concerts.

Ludwig: OSSCS’s (Theoretical) 2020-2021 Season

Marathon

BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 6
BEETHOVEN  Ah! Perfido
BEETHOVEN  “Gloria” from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano Concerto No. 4
BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 5
BEETHOVEN  Sanctus from the Mass in C
BEETHOVEN  Piano fantasia, op. 77
BEETHOVEN  Choral Fantasy

More than just a (long) evening of music, this concert is a historical re-enactment of the December 22, 1808 gave in Vienna, “the most remarkable concert of his career.”

Passages

MARTINU  Memorial to Lidice
BEETHOVEN  Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II
MOZART  Requiem (Levin completion)

Martinu’s transcendent Memorial was composed to commemorate the Nazi destruction of the Czech village of Lidice (and it happens to quote Beethoven’s 5th symphony.) It’s followed by a total rarity, a cantata composed by the teenaged Beethoven in 1790 while he was still living in Bonn. Beethoven never heard this piece performed, but it displays his unmistakable voice from the first notes. The second half features Mozart’s Requiem, composed the year after Beethoven’s cantata.

Messiah

HANDEL Messiah

This is on the program really just because it’s an annual tradition, but it’s worth noting that Handel was Beethoven’s favorite composer.

The Fans

REICHA  Overture in D
ADAMS  Absolute Jest
BERLIOZ  Symphonie Fantastique

Anton Reicha was a close friend and admirer of Beethoven, and a musical revolutionary of a different sort; this overture is considered to be the first orchestral piece in a mixed meter (5/8). John Adams’ Absolute Jest is a super-charged piece for string quartet and orchestra, built entirely around motives by Beethoven. And of course, nobody worshipped Beethoven more than Berlioz.

Echoes

MAYER  String Quartet in E minor
BRAHMS  Geistliches Lied
BEETHOVEN  “Pathéthique” Sonata (mvmt 2)
ELGAR  Lux Aeterna
SHAW  Seven Joys

First we have an 1846 string quartet by Emilie Mayer, known in her time as “the female Beethoven.” Then Brahms’ stunning choral Geistliches Lied and the choral version of Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation, known as the “Lux Aeterna” (preceded by the movement of the “Pathéthique” upon which it was modeled.) The major work on the concert is Caroline Shaw’s Seven Joys  for choir and brass quintet, which explores spatial effects and resonances as it pays homage to the 9th symphony.

The Haters

DEBUSSY  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
CHOPIN  Piano Concerto No. 1
CAGE  4’33”
BRITTEN  Scenes from Peter Grimes

It seems only fair that, in a concert season devoted to Beethoven, his detractors should also have a voice. These four composers leveled some pretty sick burns at ol’ Ludwig, and they are each represented by the piece that made them famous (or infamous).

Master and Scholar

NEEFE  Piano Sonata No. 1 [mvmt 1]
ALBRECHTSBERGER  String Trio No. 2 [mvmt 1]
HAYDN  Il maestro e lo scolarevon
ARNIM  Songs and Duets
Archduke RUDOLF  Clarinet Trio in E-flat [mvmt 1]
BEETHOVEN  “Archduke” Trio

A concert featuring music students and their teachers. We all know that Beethoven “studied” with Haydn, but the two never really got along; Beethoven considered his greatest teacher to have been Christian Gottlob Neefe, a Bonn-based opera composer and organist. After moving to Vienna, Beethoven sought out Johann Albrechtsberger, a rigorous theoretician and counterpoint expert. Haydn’s divertimento for 2 pianists, Il maestro e lo scolare, is a delightful theme and variation setBeethoven didn’t care much for teaching himself, but he did give some tips to one of his unattainably noble girlfriends, Bettine von Arnim, and he gave formal lessons to his great benefactor Archduke Rudolf, who became the dedicatee of his monumental trio, op. 97.

Sonata Mulattica

BOULOGNE  Overture to L’amant anonyme
HAYDN  Symphony No. 62 in D
BEETHOVEN  “Kreuzer” Sonata
BRIDGETOWER  “Henry, a Ballad” (orch. White)

Beethoven’s life story intersects with the history of race in Europe in fascinating ways, not least of which is that he was frequently thought to have African ancestry himself. This concert features the work of two biracial composers who were active during Beethoven’s lifetime: the “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” aka Joseph Boulogne, a French violinist, fencer, and composer who knew and influenced Mozart; and George Bridgetower, a multi-national musician who grew up in the court at Esterhazy, where his father was a servant. Tutored by Haydn, Bridgetower went on to a stunning career as a virtuoso violinist, and was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. This concert will be interspersed with poetry from Rita Dove’s 2009 collection “Sonata Mulattica,” which tells the story of Bridgetower’s life.

Ode to Joy

SCHUBERT  “An die Freude” (orch. White)
MASON A Joyous Trilogy
BEETHOVEN  Symphony no. 9

This concert begins with Schubert’s setting of the “Ode” text that doesn’t take it quite so… seriously. Then a repeat performance of Quinn Mason’s A Joyous Trilogy, which was such a hit when we premiered it in February 2020. Followed by the very cornerstone of the choral-orchestral repertoire: Beethoven’s mighty 9th symphony.

A Taxonomy of Stylistic Developments

All composers develop their musical language over the course of their careers — it’s inevitable. Some composers’ outputs, it seems to me, can be rather neatly divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. With others, the situation is slipperier. 

This kind of thing is navel-gazing in its purest form, but since there’s nothing else to do right now…

Early-Middle-Late

Beethoven
Beethoven’s output is not only neatly divisible, but it established a paradigm: during the Early period, the composer masters the common style of the era, infusing it with their own particular genius (1st symphony, Pathétique); in the Middle period, the composer breaks out in bold new directions (the Eroica symphony, zum beispiel); in the late period, the composer condenses what they’ve learned into a more austere, introspective language, wrestling with the ghosts of their predecessors as they contemplate the end of their own life (the late quartets).

Verdi
The early stuff literally nobody listens to (aside from subscribers to the Sarasota Opera) — Giovanna d’arco, per esempio. Then there’s the essential three operas from the early 1850s, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and La Traviata, which sparked his middle period (lasting as long as, say, Aïda). Then the output becomes sparser, finally arriving at the late glories of Otello and Falstaff (with Don Carlo and Bocanegra pointing the way there).

Schoenberg
The early style, many are surprised to find, is Mahlerian and tonal (Gurrelieder, Pélleas, Verklärte Nacht). Gradually he pushes past tonality until we get the mid-period free atonality of Pierrot Lunaire and the Fünf Orchesterstücke. Round about 1925, he invents a new, more stringent set of compositional rules for himself, giving us the blockbuster Moses und Aron, the violin and piano concertos, Survivor from Warsaw, etc. 

Now that makes for three periods clearly enough, but they’re not of the Beethovenian paradigm wherein the Late style is a reckoning with the early style. But, Schoenberg did have a brief and sporadic dalliance with tonal music once again at the end of his life, so do with that what you will.

Stravinsky
Early: the “Russian” style — Firebird through Les Noces
Middle: the neoclassical pieces (Octet, Dumbarton Oaks, The Rake’s Progress)
Late: the dodecaphonic works (Agon, Septet)

Once again, Stravinsky breaks the mold in that the Late style isn’t a look back to earlier days.

Ligeti
The early style is primarily influenced by Bartók and Kodály (no surprise). Then he defects to the West and encounters Stockhausen, Berio, and Kagel, sparking the Middle period, his own very particular brand of modernism: Atmosphères, Lontano, Apparitions and the like. Then he takes a decade to compose Le grand macabre, which turns out to be both a capstone and a transitional piece. After that, there’s a clear condensation of his style (gone are the ginormous pages of micropolyphony) and we get my personal favorites: the Violin Concerto, the Hamburg Concerto, the Nonsense Madrigals, the Viola Sonata, and Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel.

Schnittke
Ma boyyyy. Probably the composer whose output most clearly hews to the Beethoven model. Early Schnittke is beholden to the Soviet modernists, particularly Shostakovich (who would always remain an influence, but whose influence on Schnittke is, I think, overrated). This includes the Symphony No. 0 (“Nagasaki”), and a few pieces of a more modernist bent such as the first string quartet and the first violin concerto. Then there’s the great polystylistic breakthrough in the early 70s: the first symphony and the first Concerto Grosso, most notably. Then in 1985, he dies for the first time, comes back to life, and thence embarks upon his late, STARK style. For us serious Schnittkephiles, this is the best stuff. The language still nods to his roots, but the polystylism has been dialed way down, and now exists as shadows. Pieces from this era include the late symphonies (especially no. 8), the 2nd cello concerto, Faust, and Peer Gynt.

Easley Blackwood
I know this won’t mean much to many people, but he was my teacher, so I know a lot about him. His early music from the 1950’s was very much in the style of Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Messiaen and even veered into higher modernism. Then he got involved into mathematical research surrounding various tuning systems, both historic ones and newfangled equal temperaments. This led to his studies of tonal music in tuning systems in octave divisions of 13-24 notes, after which he decided the one system he hadn’t engaged with was 12 notes. For the last 30-some-odd years, he’s written tonal music in the style of Franck and Saint-Saëns.

Other Neat Periodizations

Rossini
All the operas are Early Rossini, then yada yada yada, 25 years later we get Late Rossini! There is no Middle Rossini, since he was just chillin.

Robert Schumann
With Robert Schumann, his stylistic development is much more attached to genre, since he would devote entire years (or more) to, say, writing songs, or symphonies, or chamber pieces. There is, perhaps, an organic change of style over his career, but it’s harder (for me) to pick up on.

Brahms
The first and second piano sonatas are Early Brahms. Everything else is Late Brahms.

Janáček
All Janáček is Late Janáček.

A Less Distinctive Blurring

Tchaikovsky
So many experiments (third orchestral suite, Manfred), yet constantly on the verge of neoclassicism (fourth orchestral suite). Did his style ever actually change, or did he just get better at it?

Sibelius
His music definitely got colder and bonier as it went on, but when did it happen? It’s such a large output, and I’m no specialist. And if he had continued to compose during the last 30 years of his life, would there be a clearly-demarcated Late style? We’ll never know.

Debussy
His opus 1 string quartet sometimes gets assigned into an “early period” of its own, but I think there are many reminiscences of the quartet in Pélleas et Melisande, to the point where you’d have to group (at least) those two together. I guess you could argue that there’s an early period from the quartet through Pélleas, and then a middle period starting with La Mer, but just as much of Pélleas sounds like La Mer. There are the three late sonatas which are kind of doing their own thing, but the piano music and chansons suggest a continual working-through of similar ideas over the course of his career. It’s all very blurry.

Ravel
There’s clearly a development; you can’t say that Une barque sur l’océan sounds much like the G major piano concerto. You could maybe make a bipartite division into Early (impressionist / neoclassical) and Late (jazzy / neoclassical), but that doesn’t sit right somehow. It’s a slow development where you can see some interesting signposts along the way, but I think his style incorporates changes very conservatively and always excellently. The experiments are always successful, and he stays true to form.

Ended Pretty Much Where They Started

J. S. Bach
I mean, I actually have no idea, but it seems like it was all equally exquisite, experimental, and perfect all the way through?

Richard Strauss
With the exception of a mid-career genre change from tone poem to opera, and perhaps a slight mellowing of his musical language after Elektra, I don’t see much to suggest that he really changed styles.

Inconclusive

Schubert
People get all bent out of shape talking about Schubert’s “Late Style”. The guy was 31. Give him a break!

Mozart
See above. I’d say a case could be made that Mozart was moving into a distinctive Middle Period, but we’ll never know!

Lili Boulanger
The greatest tragedy in 20th century music. Even though she was developing rapidly, sadly, all Boulanger is Early Boulanger.

And as for me? 

As for me… I think I’m probably one of those smooth operators who experiment and gradually change, but that’s really for the musicologists to figure out. I hear they’ve got four more detectives working on the case down at the crime lab. All I really hope is that I never have a “late style” because honestly, I really don’t want to have to pretend to care about fugues.