Thursday, May 1, 2008

Listening Journal No. 4b

Partch’s Bewitched

Harry Partch (1901-1974) is an American composer and staunch supporter of microtonality. Partch grew up in Arizona and New Mexico and listened to songs in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Spanish, and some American Indian dialects. Displeased with early compositions and the equal-tempered tuning system, Partch burned all his early work and began his fascination with other tuning systems. In many ways, Partch’s dance-satire The Bewitched is a fusion of his exposure to various cultures, his instrumental creations, and his microtonal scales.
This particular recording was done by the University of Illinois Musical Ensemble with John Garvey conducting. The lead character is a witch and the rest of the company makes up the chorus. Partch was a strong advocate of using the instrumentalists as visual performers as well. Therefore, the whole cast and orchestra are placed on stage, and the instrumentalists have just as much effect on the drama, visually, as do the vocalists.
Partch’s works with the idea of corporeality throughout The Bewitched. He wanted music to be a total expression of bodily actions. He was after a fusion of dance, song, and speech. He explored the idea of ancient Greek monophony in correlation with music that closely imitated speech patterns and contours. In order to achieve this resemblance, Partch devised a microtonal scale based on specific ratios, an idea reminiscent of Pythagoras and his monochord proportions. The result was the creation of a perfectly-tuned forty-three note scale based on the 11th partial of the overtone series.
The piece blends many aspects of Greek, African, Chinese theater and opera together. Partch’s demonstrates his understanding of the Chinese art music tradition throughout many of his melodic lines in his orchestra, particularly in the strings. These lines utilize many glissandos and tend to avoid Western ideas like exact repetition and motific development, and to follow the continuous melody traditions of Chinese music. However, not all of Partch’s musical ideas are come from outside the Western tradition. There is what seems to be a direct quote from an American children’s song played by the clarinet in the seventh scene.
Partch uses an interesting combination of instruments for his orchestra. It features many of Partch’s unique instruments including the Chromelodeon, the Harmonic Canon, the Spoils of War, and the Marimba Eroica, as well as a few traditional instruments like flute, clarinet, viola, and the Japanese koto. Partch’s own creations were constructed for the sole purpose of playing within his microtonal language. The Chromelodeon, for example, contains all the pitches in Partch’s notorious forty-three note scale. But his choice in more standardized instruments is even more interesting. The viola and the koto, both stringed instruments, can easily adjust to play microtonal intervals. The flute and clarinet cannot quite achieve the theorically infinite number of pitches as their stringed counterparts, yet in the woodwind family, these two instruments have the best, and easiest, ability to manipulate pitches. By using these four instruments, in addition to his own creations, Partch allowed himself to create sustained pitches and add contour to longer notes that could not be achieved by his own percussive instruments without forgoing his microtonal language.
The vocal parts are settings of nonsense syllables, but how Partch treated his setting of them gives the implication of an actual text. The lines are set in his monophony-style of writing which gives the impression of spoken dialogue. Using nonsense syllables, allowed Partch’s audiences to focus on the fusion and interaction of bodily actions (like dance, mime and song) without the pressure of following a specific textual plot. The musicians and performers were also free to be, as Partch put it, “constituents of the moment.”
Partch’s views and uses of microtonality have paved the way for younger generations of composers including Ben Johnston and La Monte Young. He pioneered the creation of sounds and instruments outside of the ones in the standardized Western orchestra. His music, although not as well known as it should be, has changed much of the contemporary music scene of twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Bewitched is an excellent example of all of Partch’s ideas unifying within the context of a solitary piece, and for that reason alone it should be in the Canon. Here is one of the first examples of acoustic music pushing successfully against the blockade of the established twelve-tone system. Partch’s work deserves much more play within the repertoire, but he hindered that possibility greatly for himself. His instruments are uniquely his and are not mass-produced, so his music might never make the impact upon the musical society that it definitely could have done.

Listening Journal No. 4a

Ran’s Excursions

Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) is an Israeli-American composer, who currently holds the position of Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor of Music at the University of Chicago. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and studied composition at the Mannes College of Music in New York, where she taught by noted composers Nadia Reisenberg and Norman Dello Joio.
Ran’s Excursions is a three movement work scored for piano trio (piano, violin and violoncello). The movements lack formal titles and are, rather, characterized with descriptions of their desired temperament. The movements are to be played “Broad and Extremely Passionate,” “Very Lyrical, Gentle,” and “With Breadth and Passion.”
The first oddity of the piece is its lop-sidedness. The first two movements, combined, are about two minutes shy in duration than the whole of the third movement. But this lop-sidedness is not uncommon (especially in twentieth-century music). In Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the first and fifth movements are each about twice the length of the other three movements. Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, and others throughout the history of Western art music have a similar disproportion in the lengths of their movements. There could be an explanation of the duration of the third movement. There is an extensive violin cadenza (starting around 6’15” and lasting until 8’15”).
Ran uses a distinct, descending line that rhythmically accelerates forward in the violoncello as the opening material for both the first and the third movements. The line has a mathematical approach to its construction, taking on the shape of a parabolic curve expressed through music. But Ran’s approach to this melodic figure is different at each occurrence. At the opening of the first movement, the violoncello plays this line unaccompanied (with the exception of a few isolated chords in the piano). This idea then returns towards the end of the first movement, but contained in the piano with a soft sustained accompaniment in the strings. The opening third movement is similar to the first in that the violoncello once again plays the original melodic material. This time though, the piano is given a much more prominent role and the violin picks up on the material much sooner than it did in the first movement. The final obvious occurrence of this motive appears in the violoncello towards the end of the third movement, right after the violin cadenza. The violin and piano have such an imperative part during this repetition that the violoncello is unable to complete the motive before being over-powered by the other two instruments. Each time this motive is played, it remains in its original form, without transposition.
Much of Ran’s material for the outer movements comes from the opening motive. This is most clearly displayed in the opening few seconds of the third movement. Once the violoncello has landed on the lowest pitch of the line, the violin plays a similar passage in inversion. This inverted line is also presented in diminution. Ran’s facility to integrate her initial idea into so many facets of the work not only shows her understanding of her motives and motivic development, it allows for a greater continuity within the piece. These connections might not be initially made by the listener, but on some subconscious level an association is made that affirms that the piece is an unified whole.
While there are all of these repeated ideas within the piece, Ran’s abilities and creativity keep the recurrences sounding fresh and exciting. One additional reason for this freshness is attributed to her orchestration. The piece has extended solo, duet and full trio passages that utilize all seven possible combinations of the instruments. For example, the extended violin cadenza in the third movement and the prominence of the piano in the second movement are examples of her solo writing. Her orchestrational techniques are shown in the hand-offs of material from one instrument to another. They are seamless and allow for slight color shadings that give each new occurrence of Ran’s motifs a new and fresh quality.
Excursions is an great example of unifying a multi-movement piece for a standard ensemble. The piano trio repertoire is vast and much of this music is firmly set within the Canon. This ensemble and others, like the string quartet and the violin-piano duo, are often difficult groups for modern composers to write for and still make a memorable impression upon the listener, due to the substantial number of works already in existence. But Ran took on this difficulty and effectively succeeded. Despite all of the positives about this work, its hard to determine its place within (or outside of ) the Canon. This is due, primarily, to the fact that this piece is still new, and enough time has not passed since its conception and the present-day. Works in the Canon need to have a chance to age, and be assimilated into the musical world. Although an exceptional piece, in many regards, Ran’s Excursions is just too new, and is written for a musically-saturated ensemble. More time must pass before a truly accurate assessment of its Canonic place can be determined.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Listening Journal No. 3a

Walton’s Façade: An Entertainment

William Walton (1902-1983) was a British composer and conductor, who was mostly self-taught as a composer. His compositional training was mainly limited to the scores available to him at the local library, where he gravitated primarily to works by Stravinsky, Debussy and Sibelius. Walton befriended and moved in with Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith Sitwell (three important literary figures in England). It was through the Sitwells that Walton began to obtain fame as a composer. Edith Sitwell was a well-known English poet, who had an interest in the association between music and poetry.
Walton’s Façade was a collaboration with Edith Sitwell. The piece was Façade was originally a set of poems by Edith, that Walton then set for the very peculiar ensemble, similar to Schonberg‘s Pierrot Lunaire. Both pieces have a flute, clarinet, percussion and cello, yet instead of a violin and piano, Walton opted for trumpet and alto saxophone. The most notable difference comes in the use of the vocalist. Schonberg made use of a vocalist using Sprechstimme, and conversely, Walton decided to use two speakers (typically, the speaker parts are performed by one male and one female). Although, he does not use Sprechstimme, Walton achieved a wide variety of spoken vocal timbres based on rhythmic speed, simple inflections, and just by using two different speakers. The piece was performed behind a curtain with the speakers projecting through mega-phones, and it centered around the idea of having the speakers simulate the rhythms of the instrumental ensemble.
This piece has obvious influences of jazz music and none of the twenty-two movements are longer than four minutes (with the whole piece lasting just shy of 40 minutes). Each movement has its own very distinct character, reflecting greatly upon the text used. Walton, like Schönberg in Pierrot Lunaire, hardly used the full ensemble in any of the movements. By fragmenting the ensemble like this, Walton allowed himself potential for greater contrast between his movements (which greatly supplements the speakers’ timbre changes).
Because of these short, jazz-inspired, multi-character pieces, Walton was labeled an avant-garde composer at its premiere in 1923. But judging by his latter output, Walton does not seem to have become the extreme avant-garde composer he was originally thought to be. His Symphony No. 1, for example, is much less humorous and fanciful than Façade, yet there still are hints of his more playful side within it. For the most part, though, his Symphony is relatively conservative compared to Façade, which was written almost thirteen years earlier. Walton’s notoriety seems to have disappeared in between these two pieces, leaving a much more toned-down version of Walton’s original style.
Walton’s Façade seemed to be a piece strictly for entertainment purposes, in fact it is subtitled “An Entertainment.” This idea probably accounts to the playfulness of the piece and its constantly shifting timbres and styles. Edith Sitwell named some of her poems things like: Hornpipe, Tango, Tarantella, Country Dance, Polka, and Fox-Trot (all of which were very commonplace compositional forms and styles). By using these ideas, Walton could connect with the audience in a deeper and much more meaningful way in these short movements by exploring (and expanding upon) the forms and styles of these genres. The movements’ titles and Walton’s incorporation of their stylistic nature into the movements, the piece could help the audience understand Walton’s stylistic language and compositional process quickly.
To use a term I heard in lessons once, this piece seems to be an exercise in “short-attention span theater.” The only continuity between the movements seems to be instrumentation and author of the text. Any continuity of musical thought seems completely absent. The piece as a structural whole tends to work only because each movement is so short and has the same author. With the constantly shifting musical styles, textures and ideas, one tends to lose track of the piece as a whole and begins to look at the work more as twenty-two separate pieces that happen to be lumped together.
But all the previous observations are based on aural information only. Had I had a score present, connections between the movements would (or perhaps would not) become more apparent. Walton seems to have constructed twenty-two well developed pieces and put them together in a “song-cycle” of sorts. It fits the song cycle genre due to it is all poetry of Edith Sitwell and music by Walton. From an orchestrational viewpoint this piece has much to offer, in terms of how Walton achieved the variety of timbres within the piece. Seeing as a piece like this was being written during the same time as Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, it was quite a remarkable achievement in the forward-progression of composition. As far as its inclusion in the Canon is concerned, I believe that this piece offers an interesting look into the development of the song-cycle and its progression in the twentieth century. It is definitely on par with Pierrot Lunaire as a great example of a non-traditional song cycle and for that reason it should be included in the Canon.

Listening Journal No. 3

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was an Austrian composer, conductor and teacher, who tended to be associated within many prominent music circles. Through these networks, Zemlinsky met Arnold Schonberg and Gustav Mahler. These two composers promoted Zemlinsky’s music, and Mahler even conducted the premiere of Zemlinsky’s opera Es war einmal. Zemlinsky had a notable impact upon Schonberg’s pupil, Alban Berg, who dedicated his Lyric Suite to Zemlinsky. Berg also used quotes from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony in his tribute. Even though he had this impact upon the younger composer, Zemlinsky never used atonal or 12-tone techniques in his compositions. Zemlinsky’s relationship with Mahler bears a striking resemblance to that of Hans von Bulow and Richard Wagner. Zemlinsky and Bulow both fell in love with women who eventually left them for their idols. In 1900, Zemlinsky fell in love with Alma Schindler. Alma left Zemlinsky and married Mahler in 1902. Despite this heartbreak, Zemlinsky and Mahler still supported each other’s music.
Written in 1922, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony is a seven-movement work written for solo soprano, solo baritone and orchestra. The text is a German translation of poems by the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore. (The Bengalis are a community that lives in Bangladesh and India). Zemlinsky, when presenting it to his publisher, likened it to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Prior to the Lyric Symphony, Zemlinsky wrote three other symphonies, none of which incorporated voices.
Zemlinsky’s used his vocal soloists as soloists, never pairing them together. They both have their own individual movements, and the movements tend to alternate back and forth between the two singers. Zemlinsky carefully crafted the vocal lines to accentuate the natural inflections of the German language, to the point where (if I understood German better) the text is easily intelligible through the music.
Upon a first hearing of this piece, I was reminded of two diverse pieces: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérazade. The association between this work and the Sea Symphony seems fairly straight-forward. Both works have a very similar instrumentation (with one notable difference being Vaughan Williams’s inclusion of a choir). Both emphasize the vocal soloists using the orchestra mainly as an accompaniment and for dramatic effects. The borderline bombastic brass opening of the first movement in the Lyric Symphony seems to share many qualities with the opening of the Sea Symphony. Both utilized a dotted rhythm with a very secco, march-like quality in execution. Similar to the Sea Symphony, the Lyric Symphony seems to incorporate aspects of tonality without utilizing a completely functional tonal system. Given that the Lyric Symphony was written between 13 and 19 years after the Sea Symphony, it is possible that Zemlinsky heard Vaughan Williams’s piece and incorporated a similar sound into his work.
The second immediate connection that I made was to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérazade. The correlation here is a bit more obscure. I think the relationship I heard between the two is a shared focus on the orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestrating sounds, and examples of his focus on timbre are apparent throughout his works. It is also clear that Zemlinsky, in the Lyric Symphony, focused a lot of energy on his orchestration. The third movement clearly demonstrates Zemlinsky’s control over the orchestra, and his understanding of the instruments’ capabilities. One example of this facility is a well-crafted trade-off of the melody from the baritone soloist to a solo horn in F. This trade is made seamless by Zemlinsky’s scoring of the accompaniment in the string section, which is continually playing throughout this movement. By retaining a common accompaniment, Zemlinsky effectively transferred the melodic material between parts without disrupting the flow.
It is interesting that Zemlinsky compared this piece to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler’s work is quite similar in instrumentation (substituting a tenor for the baritone), and there are moments where Zemlinsky’s piece seems to resemble Mahler’s. Each piece broke the standardized four-movement symphonic form (Mahler had six; Zemlinsky seven). Both pieces had a deep, personal connection to their creators. Mahler had just lost his daughter and was diagnosed with a heart condition. The text of the Lyric Symphony tells of a love affair from origin to termination (which calls to mind Zemlinsky’s lost of Alma). But Zemlinsky did not garter much success, in his lifetime, with this piece. At this point, the German Expressionism, Neo-Classicism, the French movement of Les Six, and other composers (such as Hindemith) began to dominated the modern music scene. Zemlinsky’s late romantic style had all but faded from the modern composition arena.
It would be very interesting to compare, on a much deeper level, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérazade, and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony to find what Alban Berg found so influential within Zemlinsky’s work that inspired the Lyric Suite.
This work of Zemlinsky’s should be heard and played much more often, than it is presently. Although, in recent years, the Lyric Symphony has gained much more attention and has begun to receive many recordings and performances. It is Zemlinsky’s best known work and a great example of another composer pursuing the Late Romantic Tradition without entering the realm of atonality. But because of this refusal to look forward, as well as backwards, Zemlinsky was writing music in the 1930s and 1940s that people were no longer interested in hearing from modern composers. It should be included within the Canon, though, as the best representation of the composer who influenced many future composers and who worked in a fading traditional style during the outpouring of styles in the early twentieth century.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Listening Journal No. 2

Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka

Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872) had a similar effect upon Polish opera as his contemporary, Gioachino Rossini, did on Italian opera, even though there was never an established “Poland” during Moniuszko’s lifetime. His oeuvre contains eight completed operas, seven operettas, five masses, four ballets, and two string quartets. But he is generally remembered for three of his operas: Hrabina, Straszny Dwór, and Halka. Moniuszko worked mainly with Polish librettists including Wlodzimierz Wolski (Hrabina, Halka) and Jan Cheçinski (Straszny Dwór, Paria).
In his early years, Moniuszko often traveled to St. Petersburg where he befriended composers Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as, the conductor Hans von Bülow. Later in his life, Moniuszko journeyed to other European countries where he met Rossini, Bedrich Smetana, and Franz Liszt. All of these new acquaintances promoted Moniuszko’s music and a few of them even organized premieres outside of Poland.
Much of the success of Moniuszko’s works and the iconic image of him as the “Father of Polish National Opera” came posthumously. Parks, stamps, and currency still bear his name and image. Much of Moniuszko’s compositional output is considered to be firmly within the Polish Canon of Music, despite his almost total obscurity in the rest of Western Music.
Moniuszko’s Halka is one of his most popular works. It is the tragic tale of a young maid (Halka) who is in love with an aristocrat, Janusz. Janusz abandons Halka and her child to marry Zofia, the daughter of the Esquire. Meanwhile, Jontek, who is in love with Halka, is trying to win her over by convincing her that Janusz is a terrible person. Though despite their efforts, Janusz still marries Zofia and Halka does not fall in love with Jontek. Penniless and heart-broken, a distraught Halka laments over the death of her child and the loss of her love, Janusz. The opera ends with Halka throwing herself into a ravine and drowning at the bottom.
This recording features the Choeurs de la Radio-Télévision de Cracovie, and Stefania Woytowicz (Halka), Wieslaw Ochman (Janusz), and Andrzej Hiolski (Jontek) singing the parts of the lead characters. It was performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de la Radio Nationale Polonaise with conductor Jerzy Semkow. The orchestra comprised of strings, woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), brasses (horns, trumpets), percussion (timpani) and a few uncommon instruments like the harp and tambourine. With these forces, Moniuszko allowed himself a full palette of sounds to achieve the emotional range of his opera.
The first notable characteristic of this work is that it is sung in Polish. Following the sense of nationalism established in Romantic Era, Moniuszko chose the language of that the consumers of his music spoke instead of the Classical Era standard of using Italian. His patrons could understand and relate to the opera more so than if it was in a different language.
Yet, Moniuszko’s reputation in the rest of the Western World is greatly impaired, almost to the point of total obscurity, by the use of the Polish language. Throughout Europe, the common languages used in the popular operas, and other vocal works, of the era were generally written English, Italian, French and/or German. These languages were more widespread in Europe than, for example, Polish, Svenska, and Danish. Moniuszko greatly limited the number of possible consumers by choosing Polish as his language of choice.
Language aside, Moniuszko’s Halka has the colorful inclusion of the Polish musical tradition of Chopin, the orchestral emotional dynamic of Weber, and the melodic muse of a Rossini opera. But the music tastes and styles that prevailed in Poland at the time tended to border on conservative and almost to the point of uneducated. The music that the Polish populace was consuming, during this time, were works the responded to their needs. The transcendent music of Chopin was not what they were looking for, and so the Polish people found, in Moniuszko’s work, music that spoke directly to them.
The melodies that Moniuszko employed are reminiscent of the folk music of Poland. Moniuszko, much like Chopin, utilized dotted-eighth sixteenth note pattern throughout much of the opera. As opposed to Western European forms, the music has a strong emphasis on the second beat. Moniuszko explored Polish dance-forms and folk melodies throughout his operas. Act I even ends with a mazurka, but unlike those of Chopin, the intention of this mazurka was to be danced. Shortly after the prelude to Act III, there is another Polish dance, this time a góralskie. During these dances, Moniuszko utilized only the orchestral forces that not only gave the singers a break, but allowed for the cultural aspects to be that much more apparent. Moniuszko followed the musical forms of these dances exactly, and there is no use of rubato. Tempi are exact for the sole purpose of the performers on stage had to dance to these works.
Moniuszko’s opera is filled with these cultural references. He has dance-forms, like the mazurkas and polonaises, and other dances rooted in the folk traditions, like the kujawiak and krakowiak. The kujawiak being a dance in a triple-meter originating in the central region of Kujawy, that involves couples dancing in a circle. The krakowiak is a dance in a fast duple-meter full of syncopation whose steps resemble that of horses. It is a couples dance led by a male dancer/singer, who indicates the step patterns and sings the melody.
Similar to Weber, Moniuszko used the orchestra as a participant equal to the singers for dramatic effect. Moniuszko’s knowledge of the orchestra and his orchestration abilities are apparent throughout the whole of the opera. The overture opens with a line passing from the flute and clarinet, to the double reeds and then the low strings. The whole range of the orchestra is used while gradually shifting in orchestration. This idea of repeating an identical line while changing the instruments used is constantly throughout the opera. With this technique, Moniuszko allows for a slight crescendo as the line descends while retaining the audiences attention through the subtle timbral shifts.
But just clever orchestrational techniques are not the only thing Moniuszko had at his disposal. He used his orchestra almost as its own character. Unlike Rossini’s unbalanced roles of the singers versus the orchestra, Moniuszko’s idea is at the middle of the spectrum for opera writing with Rossini at one end and Wagner at the other. Moniuszko, like Weber, found an effective balance between the two groups that results in a highly dramatic result without losing the action and dialogue of the storyline.
The choir has a strong presence, becoming its own entity. Halka is not opera buffa, yet the choir acts in a similar fashion to the genre. It is there to create emphasis and provide commentary to the action of the lead roles. Moniuszko approached his choir much like he did his orchestra. He used the choir in various combinations throughout the work including having just the tenors and basses or the sopranos and altos. The choir would double the soloists’ lines or intersperse their own material within the soloists’ interaction.
With all of these advantages, one begins to wonder why works by Moniuszko, like Halka, are not placed within the Canon along with his contemporaries. The main reason for this was his lack of forward progress in terms of compositional innovation. Moniuszko was very conservative with his compositions during a time when composers stressed originality and imagination. This lack of “forward thinking” allowed Moniuszko to connect to his musically-uneducated audience in a way that Chopin could not. Moniuszko showed his great understanding and warmest regards for the Polish musical tradition throughout his opera. The inclusion of many dance-forms, folk melodies, and “Polish” rhythms all show his fluency within these genres. Yet, Moniuszko did not explore these genres beyond the established traditions. His mazurka in Act I is a textbook example of a mazurka with its triple-meter and emphasis on the second beats. It has the dotted-eighth sixteenth note figure that is common within mazurkas. Instead of expanding upon these set musical traditions and integrating them into his work, Moniuszko simply just placed them into his works. When his opera needed a dance, he composed a standard mazurka following all of the conventions of the time. Moniuszko just included Polish music in his works as oppose to fully integrating the Polish character into them.
Even with his limited innovations to the opera genre, Moniuszko became the icon of Polish opera. Halka was a work conceived entirely through the Polish culture. Moniuszko‘s librettist, Wlodzimierz Wolski, adapted the story from a work by Kazimierz Wójcicki, a famous Polish author. The use of a Polish story, with Polish dances, and a Polish text struck a deep chord with the Polish community. The music was written above their level of comprehension, it was written directly for them. Moniuszko was reaching out to the masses not the intellectual few, as Chopin was.
Like all operas, I prefer to watch one than listen to it. The visualization of the work as a whole has a far greater impact upon me than just listening to the opera. Monuiszko’s Halka is no exception. Although my comments tended to address the musical content of the opera, the perception of the work as a whole could have had an entirely different impact upon my opinions. A staged version could have just as easily had the same effect on me or I could have understood Moniuszko’s insistence on remaining within fairly standard forms. Regardless, this work has just as much right to be an established work within the Canon as many of Rossini’s operas do. Being Moniuszko’s crowning achievement in the way of establishing Polish nationalistic opera, Halka had (and still does have) an great impact upon those in Poland. If its only hindrance, in the way of being in the Canon, is due to the language it is in than Halka has no longer any reason not to be there along side the operas of Rossini and Weber.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Listening Journal No. 1 (con't.)

Known for many concerti for soloist and orchestra, it is curious that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a concerto for two instruments, particularly the two different instruments of flute and harp. Although his Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, K. 299 features two dissimilar instruments, it is (and was) not completely unheard of to write double concerti and to sometimes engage unusual combinations of soloists. Examples can be traced back to many of Vivaldi’s concerti and Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 up to the present era with Hindemith’s Concerto for Trumpet and Bassoon and Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe. Interestingly, apart from Bach’s Violin and Oboe Concerto, many double concerti are not considered within the “Canon of Western Musical History,” even though concertante works of the Baroque, that paired an even greater number of soloist forces against the orchestra, have carved a niche into the canon repertoire.
One idea as to the double concerto’s lack of inclusion into the Canon might stem from the notion that a concerto (as most people today understand it) is a time for one soloist to essentially show off their musical prowess; the idea of a “tag along” soloist, who shares the spotlight (or sometimes outshines), makes the double concerto an unacceptable alternative to solo concerti. Yet this one factor cannot completely explain why the double concerto as a genre is almost disregarded in favor of the typical solo concerto. For Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp there may be plenty of reasons why it is not often considered to be contained within the standard Canon. The first is that Mozart wrote two other works for solo flute and orchestra that are often favored over the double concerto.
Structurally, the double concerto follows the established concerto format of the Classical era, although each movement, oddly enough, contains a cadenza. Its three movements are marked as Allegro, Andantino, and Allegro, and when the soloists are playing the orchestra is removed. Many factors could have led Mozart to score in this manner. Due to the harp’s limited projecting ability, it is extremely difficult to hear the harp over a tutti orchestra whereas the flute has no problem in this regard. Another possible, and slightly more musical, idea is that the harp is agile and can insinuate an underlying harmonic backdrop where the flute can rest a melodic line on top of it. This would negate the need for full orchestral texture supporting the soloists.
This piece is typical of the Classical era, with its Mozaztian melodies and carefully crafted balances. Yet, almost every composition of Mozart’s falls into this category. The sheer volume of output and the shared similarities between most of his pieces tends to allow for a disregard of compositions that are, in their own respect, just as able to be contained within the Canon.
Yet, despite its Mozartian melodies and careful consideration for balance and symmetry, the concerto remains mainly in obscurity when compared to his other works. Another plausible explanation for this could be the lack of able harpists and the avoidance by composers of the harp in their orchestral compositions. The harp was going through major changes in production throughout the Classical era and into the early Romantic period, and since it was not a common instrument, obscurity is more likely. Mozart’s compositions earned him great fame within his life-time with countless performances. If this double concerto, due do its need of an uncommon instrument, was not performed often, it is possible that Mozart’s generation lost it among the throng of Mozart’s output leading future generations to disregard it as well.
This concerto, if to be argued to be contained within the “Canon,” would probably be placed there for one aspect: its use of an unusual (in that time) combination instrumental soloists. Nothing is truly remarkable about the material of the piece that would place it instantly within the “Canon” along with the other standard Mozart compositions. And apart from the flashy harp arpeggios, the piece does not seem to have the same allure as his other concerti do.
This particular concerto has all the Mozartian qualities present in all his concerti. The balance between the phrases and the overall form of the movements share much in common with most of Mozart’s other concerti, yet this concerto lacks much of the allure and polished “perfection” that they have.
The flute line is rather uninteresting in comparison with the intricate harp arpeggios, and since the soloist tend to play when the orchestra is not, this unexciting flute line is all the more apparent. The flute tends to remain within a small range and is lacking the elaborate scalar passages that the flute is capable of playing.
The themes that Mozart incorporated into this concerto lack the “catchiness” of the typical melodies he used in his concerti. There is nothing really memorable or remarkable about this concerto, except for the combination of soloists.
This concerto was commissioned and written for a friend of Mozart’s. It was also one of the few pieces written in Mozart’s more mature style where he did not receive compensation for his work. This lack of payment could explain the lack of any memorable qualities in this concerto. Due to this quite un-Mozartian characteristic, this concerto has become more of an oddity than a standard within the Canon.

Listening Journal No. 1

With its relatively large orchestral forces, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, “Die 4 Weltalter” (The 4 Ages of Man) is programmatic. Scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, harpsichord, timpani, and full string sections, the symphony was constructed in four movements and reflected back upon the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, and his Metamorphoses. Each movement of the symphony related to one of the four ages of man: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
In the first movement, Dittersdorf depicted the Golden Age. According to Ovid, this was a time characterized by justice, peace, and faithful devotion to the gods without force. In this movement, Dittersdorf created a stately march-like character capturing the characteristics of Ovid’s Golden Age. Marked “Larghetto,” the first movement begins with a noble theme announced by the strings and then by the tutti ensemble. Dittersdorf utilized what seems to resemble a sonata form, with a repeated exposition, for the basis of this movement. Curiously, in the middle “development” section, Dittersdorf only used the upper strings and bassoons saving the tutti ensemble for the recapitulation of the first theme at the end of the movement.
Ovid describes Man proceeding to the Silver Age following the Golden Age. During this time, Zeus, created the seasons and thus man discovered and cultivated the arts of agriculture and architecture. Given the nature of the programmatic facet of this movement, it is interesting that Dittersdorf once again opted for the sonata form with a repeated exposition. The use of the sonata form was characteristic of the Classical era and was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect form for compositional expression. The sonata form has inherent balance of sections and the developmental section allowed the composer to explore their compositional techniques. With the second age of man dealing with architecture, it makes sense that Dittersdorf constructed a second movement using one of the most commonplace formal designs upon which to lay his music.
The third movement is related to the Bronze Age. Ovid claimed that within the Bronze Age, warfare and impiety replaced the justice and peace of the Golden Age. Dittersdorf’s third movement is the first (and only movement) in this symphony that is in minor and in the style of a minuet. Dittersdorf made almost exclusive use of the dotted-eighth note followed by a sixteenth note figure throughout the entirety of this movement. The primary material is carried mainly in the strings and harpsichord while the winds interject a few long notes above the string texture.
Of all four movements, the fourth movement is the most unique in terms of style, orchestration, and depiction of the programmatic aspects of the work. Modeled after Ovid’s Iron Age, Dittersdorf captures the poet’s impious, war-like and materialistic in quite a different way than the other movements. The opening rhythmic accelerando followed by the only occurrence of the heralding trumpet motive introduces this rhythmically driven movement. The soft strings coupled with the forceful timpani attacks push to a powerful climax. Softer and not-so-rhythmically-driven material follow in the development almost alluding to the first movement character.
Taken at face value this piece seems like a typical Classical symphony with balance and symmetry controlling much of the compositional aspects of the piece. Yet while all of that is true, Dittersdorf, in 1783, was paving the road for programmatic composers, like Richard Strauss, Berlioz, and Debussy, nearly fifty years prior to Berlioz’s highly-programmatic Symphonie fantastique. While most Classical composers of the day were writing most absolute music, Dittersdorf was attempting to depict episodes or events within his music. He was, at least in his first six symphonies, already trying to break through the conventionalities of absolute music that were infamous by the composers in the Classical era.
That all being said, without prior knowledge of Ovid and his Metamorphoses, any attempt to understand the first symphony beyond face value is hindered greatly. Each movement has a particular character and without any prior knowledge, the listener would probably miss the subtle shifts from one movement to another.
In all honesty, the last movement and its relationship with the other three movements is the most intriguing, and without it, the piece would have lost all of its connection with its point of inspiration. The heralding trumpet and the fast, rhythmically driven material all allude to a march-like or battle-like atmosphere that Ovid assigned to this fourth age of man.
Interestingly enough, even though the primary source of inspiration was that of an ancient Roman poet, the same essential model could be juxtaposed upon the era(s) before and during Dittersdorf’s lifetime as well. Prior to the Enlightenment, religion was, basically, uncontested and adhered to by all: the Golden Age. Then the revolutions began, and the individual sought personal self-worth: the Silver Age. Revolutions continued and borders changed, yet the Church still had influence over the masses: the Bronze Age. When the debris cleared, borders became more fixed and moral codes for self replaced the morals codes established by the Church, and thus a focus on the “self” as oppose to the “group” began leading to greed and impiety: the Iron Age. Granted some of it is a stretch – Dittersdorf, like so many composers, was using an allegorical and ancient theme as a commentary on the situation of life in his time.
Dittersdorf’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, “Die 4 Weltalter” (The 4 Ages of Man) definitely has the potential to be placed in the “Canon of Western Musical History.” It has catchy themes and easily understandable forms. It has interesting orchestrational choices, for the time it was written. Yet the main reason this piece - and the other five symphonies under the subtitle “after Ovid‘s Metamorphoses” - is for Dittersdorf’s attempt at programmatic music in an era saturated in absolute music nearly fifty years before programmatic works became commonplace.