Toledo Blade Chamber Series
by Kalindi Bellach ©2019
Ravel's String Quartet / Contrasts / Dreams & Prayers
Ravel's String Quartet
Rossini – Duo for Cello and Bass
Horovitz – Concertino Classico
Menotti – Cantilena and Scherzo for Harp and String Quartet
Ravel – String Quartet
DUO FOR CELLO AND BASS
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was one of the best opera composers of his time, and was internationally famous in his mid-thirties. He had produced a stunning number of successful works, and was wealthy enough to retire by the time he was forty. Although he did continue to compose a little, it seems to have been mostly whenever the mood struck, and not with particular regularity. Rossini called these smaller, more whimsical pieces, his “sins of old age.” Author Josiah Fisk explains, “Rossini is famous for composing thirty-eight operas… in his first thirty-eight years, then living the next four decades without writing another…. Since his own day, Rossini’s description of his laziness in writing overtures is ironic, considering that several of the overtures he mentions are better known than the operas they introduce.”
As Rossini is so well known for his operas, his instrumental works are mostly disregarded. This is unfortunate, because his overtures and chamber music are also excellent. Rossini wrote his Duetto for cello and bass in 1824. Reportedly, the amateur cellist Sir David Salomons commissioned the work to perform with his brother, Philip Salomons, who studied double bass with the illustrious Domenico Dragonetti. Dragonetti apparently once performed alongside Beethoven! An alternate narrative suggests that Dragonetti, who also played cello, played that part while his student, Philip, performed on bass.
In his book titled “Rossini” of 1993, Richard Osborne outlines the origin of the Duetto: “Rossini’s appearance fee at an evening occasion was fifty guineas. One such occasion at the house of the banker David Salomons resulted in a commission of new music from... The Duetto for cello and double-bass written for Salomons and the great double bass virtuoso [Dragonetti]… a long-standing London resident and a man as keen on good food and high fees as Rossini himself. Rossini’s ear for the colours of the old three-string bass and his sense of its capacity for expressing a kind of grumbling good humour is as evident in the work’s finale as it was in his Sonata a Quattro of 1804. Another distinctive feature of the entire three movement work is Rossini’s success in distinguishing between the sombre colours, the black and several rich purples, of the two instruments in their various registers.”
Rossini’s Duetto is as important to musicians as it might be to its listeners. Annotator Kai Christiansen remarks, “Outstanding concert string duets are rare…. The string duet seems almost too spare and intimate for public performance, but such are its challenges: for the composer, supreme ingenuity of harmony and counterpoint, and for the performer, virtuosity, vulnerability and the duty of sensitive partnership…. With his duet, Rossini delivers a gem, even with the improbable choice of cello and bass.”
As Osborne mentions, the Duetto, despite its diminutive title, is really a sonata in three movements. Moreover, the two instruments are equally matched. This is somewhat unusual, especially in music from this time period.
The first movement is a quick Allegro, and allows both instruments to show off their ease and range of motion as they converse. Listen for the pizzicato (plucked strings) near the close of the movement as things wind down. The second movement, the more moderate Andante mosso, is basically an operatic aria sans voice performed by the cello over pizzicato bass accompaniment. The Allegro finale is in three sections, and the two instruments take turns in the dominant role.
In a letter to a friend in 1820, the composer Carl Maria von Weber wrote, “Who would not gladly listen to Rossini’s lively flights of fancy to the piquant titillation of his melodies? But who could be so blind as to attribute to him dramatic truth?”
The Duetto’s original score is in Rossini’s hand, and originally included both cello and bass parts in Dragonetti’s hand. Rossini inscribed the first page with: “Rossini/Al Suo Amico/Salomons/Londa li 20 luglio 1824,” it was then lost until it went up for auction at Sotheby’s in London, and was finally published in 1968.
Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926)
British composer and conductor Joseph Horovitz was originally from Austria, and immigrated to England in 1938 to avoid the War. His father, Béla Horovitz, was the co-founder of the well known Phaidon Press. As a young man, Horovitz attended Oxford where he studied modern languages, and later also took up composition classes with Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music, followed by lessons with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Horovitz conducted both ballet and orchestra, and spent a lot of time on tour. In 1956, he got married and named several of his later pieces after places he and his new wife went together.
Horovitz composed his Concertino Classico for two solo cornets and brass band in 1985, at least partly in homage to J. S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti at their centenary. He later rearranged it for two trumpets and piano.
CANTILENA E SCHERZO FOR HARP AND STRING QUARTET
Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)
Gian Carlo Menotti was born in Italy, but moved to the US in 1928 to attend the Curtis Institute of Music. He cited the composers Modeste Mussorgsky and Giacomo Puccini as his main influences, but was an inquisitive composer familiar with most of his contemporaries. He also incorporated numerous other inspirations and styles regardless of personal familiarity. For example, his Italian heritage is clear in the wonderful lyricism of his melodies, and certain aspects of his composition feel French. In terms of genre, a large amount of Menotti’s output is for the stage, the most famous of which is surely the television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).
Commentator Geoffrey Norris suggests that Menotti’s other works are also worth hearing, “His chamber works also contain beguiling music: not only are they expertly crafted but they also come straight from the heart…” Norris also notes, “Debussy and Ravel hover over the Cantilena e Scherzo [written in 1977], but the songs enshrine intensely personal feeling… Menotti composed at a time of despondency in his relationship with his great love, the American composer Samuel Barber.”
The Cantilena, a term meaning “song” or “lullaby,” is an example of Menotti’s excellent command of line and phrase. Norris claims the main roots of Menotti’s the Cantilena e Scherzo are Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, as well as Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane. Both of these works are very popular – and Menotti’s Cantilena holds up well.
STRING QUARTET IN F MAJOR
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Maurice Ravel composed his String Quartet in F Major while he was still a student of Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory over the winter of 1902-1903. It is a far more mature piece than his years might suggest, and weaves together various stylistic elements that have since been acknowledged as quintessentially his own. One of the primary sources of inspiration is Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, a wonderful example of musical Impressionism, and both quartets are characterized by careful attention to timbre. Part of this, for Debussy as much as for Ravel, is based on a love of the exotic, especially the culture of the Far East. Moreover, this fascination with elements of the ‘other’ and general exoticism was incredibly popular across Europe, and was not confined to the musical arts.
While Ravel and Debussy both avoided academia, they did not object to the structure of Classical forms; Ravel had a special fondness for Mozart’s music. Annotator Peter Laki writes, “[Ravel’s String Quartet] is clearly modeled on Debussy’s celebrated Quatuor from 1893, yet Ravel displays a sense of color and melody that is all his own. To both composers the string quartet as a medium suggested – in fact, demanded – adherence to classical tradition…. The defining moment of both works is precisely the tension that exists between the classical forms and a positively non-classical sensitivity that is manifest at every turn.” Composer and music theorist Sigrun Heinzelmann notes that Ravel also “sought inspiration both in past conventions and in the innovations of his contemporaries.”
Of the Quartet’s structure and relation to Debussy’s quartet, Ravel himself remarked, “If you have something to say, this something will never emerge more distinctly than in your unintended unfaithfulness to a model…. My string quartet… reflects a preoccupation with musical structure, imperfectly realized, no doubt, but which appears much clearer than in my previous compositions.”
Among his contemporaries, especially in Paris, there were few who appreciated Ravel’s music, and fewer who liked him as a person. However, his feelings about this did not bleed into this music. Violist Misha Amory writes, “[Ravel’s String Quartet is] elegant, glowing, and balances… not a rejection of past forms and traditions, but a positive celebration of them, even as it is suffused with Ravel’s own harmonic language and texture. As with Debussy there is much that is passionate, and moving, in this music; but ultimately it is its classicism… that stamps the quartet most strongly.”
Ravel presents the main theme immediately in the first movement, which is marked Allegro moderato – Très doux (gentle or soft). Here, it is tranquil and warm, rising in a soft arc before settling back down. A similar melody answers, but is held over a more lively accompanimental figure. Laki points out the “characteristic pianissimo rallentando (extremely soft and slow playing) at the end of the movement, similar to the analogous movement in Ravel’s Piano Trio of 1914,” and the fact that this is dissimilar to the end of the first movement of Debussy’s quartet, which features a “loud and fast coda.”
The second movement, Assez vif – Très rythmé (rhythmic), features two contrasting themes. One is entirely pizzicato or plucked and the other is more lyrical, marked “sing out.” Ravel sandwiches a lovely tiny slower section into the middle of this movement, where the quartet performs with mutes. Laki likens the sound of the pizzicato theme to a Javanese gamelan ensemble. However, Amory suggests that Ravel “borrowed” the flamboyant pizzicato idea from his mother’s Basque heritage and “Spanish flavoring.”
The Très lent (a marking indicating that the music is to be performed slowly or broadly) is incredibly beautiful, and also sometimes sudden. It rushes forward all at once, and then pauses. This movement features the viola and the cello, and the centering of these deeper voices in the texture softens the color.
In the Vif et agité – meaning “lively and restless or agitated” – Ravel uses quintuplets, an uneven metric pattern, to achieve the feeling of unbalanced movement. Laki suggests that the quintuplets might be inspired by Russian elements. This opening finally gives way to a more stable triple meter, and Ravel reprises the theme from the first movement. Amory describes the finale, “Whirling and athletic, the movement’s dynamism derives not only from its unstable… meter, but also from the clever trick of starting out in the wrong key – a technique also used by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann – which creates a feeling of being dropped right into the middle of the action…. The work concludes in an atmosphere of great joy, an invitation from this young composer to join him in celebrating his new discovery.”
Raven’s String Quartet in F Major is dedicated to “[his] dear master Gabriel Fauré,” and was premiered by the Heymann Quartet in 1904. When critics called for revisions, Debussy said to Ravel, “In the name of the gods of music, and in mine, do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet.”
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Szymanowski – Three Caprices of Paganini for Violin and Piano, Op. 40
Bartók – Contrasts
Dohnányi – Sextet
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók began showing musical promise at a very young age. His parents encouraged him, being musicians themselves, and his mother began teaching him to play the piano. Bartók was often sick as a child, but continued to gain confidence as a pianist, and produced his first compositions by the time he was ten years old. Eventually, Bartók enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest to study with István Thomán (piano) and János Koessler (composition).
His time at school in the city was both good and bad. He found his composition lessons boring and had difficulty finding it within him to write. On the other hand, being in the city and attending more performances (including new works by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Johannes Brahms) was very inspiring for him. Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra made a particular impression. Bartók graduated in 1903 with a bright future as a concert pianist and an offer to teach piano at the academy.
Quite by accident, Bartók heard a snippet of folk music from home, which inspired him to explore this more thoroughly. What Bartók was interested in was not the same as some other European composers (including Brahms and especially Franz Liszt), who wanted to use certain stylistic flairs, but were more interested in the general feel of the music than in the intricacies and specificities of authentic folk music. Brahms and Liszt (among others) also based their work on music performed by Roma or Gypsy groups rather than the people native to the region. Recording folk music accurately was as important to Bartók as learning about and translating it to the concert hall, and Bartók is now considered to be the father of ethnomusicology.
Bartók wrote Contrasts in 1938 in response to a request from his old school friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti. Szigeti wasn’t asking for himself, but for his friend, the legendary jazz clarinetist and “king of swing” Benny Goodman, who was apparently concerned that since Bartók hadn’t written for wind instruments before and had a reputation for being whimsical about accepting commissions, he would refuse. Bartók didn’t refuse the commission, but did refuse Goodman’s specific requests regarding the length, structure, and style of the piece; Goodman asked that it be fairly short so that it would fit onto a single recording.
Bartók finished a slightly longer version of the two-movement work that Goodman requested fairly quickly. This version was performed several months later in New York. However, Bartók didn’t like how the overall structure felt, saying that it felt unbalanced, and added a slower movement to sit between them. In his memoir, Szigeti includes the letter that Bartók sent to Goodman with the “extra” movement: “Salesmen usually deliver less than what is expected from them. But there are exceptions, though I know people are not likely to be pleased with the contractor’s largesse if he delivers a suit for an adult instead of the dress ordered for a two-year-old baby.” Goodman nevertheless accepted the full work, and he and Szigeti premiered it in 1940 with Bartók himself at the piano.
Annotator Jane Vial Jaffe describes the first movement as “a proper… dance… [it] struts and postures, and includes the typical kind of melodic ornamentation that reflects Bartók’s familiarity with the national style.” It is based on the traditional Hungarian verbunkos form, which is in turn derived from the military. Listen for the repeated “short-long” rhythm that is ubiquitous in Hungarian music.
The second movement, Piheno (“relaxation” or “resting”) is less playful, and draws on a style that Bartók called “night music,” which musicologist David Schneider characterizes as “an eerie dissonance… providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies.”
In the Sebes (“fast” or “rapid” dance), Bartók calls for scordatura, or alternate tuning of the stringed instrument. In this case, he drops the highest string and raises the lowest, and the opening chords of the finale seem to mimic Saint-Saëns’s famous Danse Macabre. Annotator Helen Fraser suggests that this is “an allusion to a village fiddler tuning (or rather, attempting to tune) his violin.”
The title describes the huge range of possibilities, textural, timbral, and tonal, available to each instrument, and Bartók is wonderfully inventive in bringing out as many as possible. However, he does also manage to build everything so that it seems naturally occurring and not included only because it contrasts. He also manages to weave in elements of jazz. Biographer Paul Griffiths remarks, “[Contrasts is made] of both the popular styles of the violin rhapsodies and the more esoteric manner of the [string] quartets.”
SEXTET IN C MAJOR FOR CLARINET, HORN, VIOLIN, VIOLA, CELLO, AND PIANO, OP. 37
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Like Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi was a fierce advocate for Hungarian music and culture, and also one of the most formidable pianists. He received early musical education from his father, which was focused on piano and music theory. Also like Bartók, he went to study at the music academy in Budapest, renamed the Franz Liszt Academy. He flourished, winning prizes for his works while at school and then going on to tours of Europe, the US and South America, and Russia.
When he returned to Europe, he took up a professorship at the Berlin Hochschule alongside his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. He stayed in Germany for a decade before returning to Hungary to run the academy. He continued to perform and compose. Annotator Dr. Richard Rodda adds, “In addition to his work as a performer and composer, Dohnányi made immense contributions to the musical life of his homeland. He encouraged and performed the works of younger composers [including Bartók]… reformed the Budapest Academy’s music curriculum, guided the development of… talented pupils… expanded the repertory of the nation’s performing groups, and served as a model in the music world through his strength of personality and the high standards of his musicianship.”
His total commitment to such an extensive array of accomplishments eventually caused some issues with Dohnányi’s health, and he had to slow down. He composed his Sextet in C Major in 1935, and it stands alone in his catalogue between 1933 and 1937. However, as annotator Eric Bromberger points out, “there is no sign of weakness in the Sextet…. In fact, its sound is quasi-orchestral…. and there are moments in this music when one can easily imagine it re-scored for full orchestra.”
The first movement, marked Allegro appassionato, is of large stature. It opens over rounded arpeggios in the cello that are quickly given context by the horn. Dohnányi manages to create cohesion between the instruments and still maintain clarity between their lines. The Intermezzo: Adagio begins with all sweetly pillowed chords over sweeping ascending gestures in the piano. Bromberger compares the slightly suspenseful quality of the phrasing to the later chamber music of Brahms. This opaque opening gives way to a more forceful section that is almost martial in character.
The third movement is marked Allegro con sentimento - Poco Adagio, Andante tranquillo. These character markings point to different sections within the movement, and basically indicate that they should be played lively with feeling, a little slow, and a bit more moderately and tranquil, in turn. The movement begins with a gentle solo from the clarinet before moving with the cello and piano into a faster tempo. This movement also references the horn call from the first movement, which some researchers speculate is also a nod to Brahms’s horn trio.
The third movement finishes on something of a cliffhanger, which is interrupted by the Allegro vivace, giocoso (joyful). Bromberger notes that this movement has been called a “jazz parody… and certainly its main idea has a perkiness that might… recall jazz.” It does also make sense that Dohnányi would be aware of the style since jazz was becoming increasingly popular across Europe.
An essay from The Chamber Music Journal includes a colorful quote describing the finale: “As one wag has written, the music sounds like an inebriated Viennese hotel band’s haphazard attempt to render Gershwin. Incredibly, right in the middle of the jazzy theme, a lopsided Viennese waltz is interjected, as if the musicians had suddenly become confused and lost their way, but continued nonetheless in a desperate attempt to save face. The coda is an extraordinary combination of the jazz elements, the waltz and the heroic opening theme.”
In 1944, years after composing the Sextet, Dohnányi emigrated from Hungary to escape WWII. He first moved to Austria, then on to Argentina, and finally to Florida in 1949. He spent the rest of his life teaching and composing at the Florida State University in Tallahassee.
SELECTED HUNGARIAN DANCES
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms, like much of Europe, was interested in music that featured the exotic. Annotator Thomas May writes, “The interest in ‘exotic’ musical pieces reveling in the local ethnic color of far flung regions of the vast… Empire is a long-running subplot in European music history.” In particular, Brahms was fascinated and inspired by Hungarian music, and was especially fond of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Despite his love of this kind of music, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances began basically as a hobby. He met and toured with the composer and violinist Eduard Reményi, who introduced him to the “Hungarian” style of playing. This style was modeled after the “Gypsy” or “Roma” bands, which weren’t necessarily Hungarian.
While he was writing and collecting material for his Hungarian Dances, Brahms often performed them for friends and at small parties throughout the 1850s and ‘60s. During this time, they lived as small pieces reminiscent of the folk idioms he’d learned from Reményi. Some of these idioms include the relatively simplistic melodies and wildly varied tempi and erratic rhythms. Some were based on or inspired by things he’d heard, but a few were is own melodies that he cast in the style of the others.
While Brahms may not have been wildly popular as a performer, he was still sought after and respected. His career was growing, and improved especially after his friends and mentors Robert and Clara Schumann took it upon themselves to publicize his excellence. Schumann famously wrote, “[Brahms] is a player of genius who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices.”
Most of Brahms’s persona seemed quite serious to his audiences, and fun was not really a part of it. However, the Hungarian Dances and works like them were fun for him. Jan Swafford, author of a wonderful biography of Brahms, writes, “[Brahms found in these pieces] a way to let go of his usual sobriety and escape into a music perfervid, exotically colored, elastic in rhythm, improvisational in style. Friends remembered his flashing eyes when Brahms played his dances, the rhythm… his hands all over the keyboard at once.”
In the late 1860s, Brahms finally started to write some of them out for piano four-hands, and decided to publish in 1869. Swafford points out that perhaps Brahms’s reason for holding off so long was that he wanted to keep the dances out of the hands of other performers and that he struggled with notating such fluid musical phrases in “cold black-and-white… notation.” He ran into trouble almost immediately when they were rejected for publication, but quickly found another publisher, Simrock, who published his first set that same year.
All together, there are twenty-one Hungarian Dances, which appeared in four sets. The first two sets were published in 1869, and the latter two in 1880. Brahms withheld opus numbers because he didn’t consider them fully original compositions. In fact, he labeled himself as the arranger. Annotator Thomas May notes that the dances numbered 11, 14, and 16, were truly Brahms’s own tunes in the style of Reményi’s Hungary.
Though the Hungarian Dances were originally published as piano works, Brahms later orchestrated some of them, and some others were also taken up by his friends and fellow-composers, including Antonín Dvořák, who wrote his own set of folk-inspired concert pieces in 1878, called the Slavonic Dances.
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Dreams & Prayers
Paganini – Sonata Concertata for Violin and Guitar
Piazzolla – L’histoire du tango for Flute and Marimba
Golijov – The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
SONATA CONCERTATA FOR VIOLIN AND GUITAR
Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840)
As a boy, Niccolo Paganini began his earliest musical training under his father’s tutelage, and then with the concertmaster of the local theatre orchestra. By the age of twelve he had already begun composing and given several recitals. A little later, he began studying with the renowned violinist and violist, Alessandro Rolla, who is attributed with instilling within Paganini a love for the viola. Rolla also used certain techniques before Paganini, who probably learned of them from his teacher.
Paganini is known primarily as a violinist and therefore a composer primarily of violin music. However, he also played guitar and viola, and composed over a hundred pieces for the former. Generally these were shorter, lighter pieces, meant for his friends to perform with him. It’s a fact that his guitar writing is not as dazzling as his works for violin, which represent his stage persona of gifted and mysterious virtuoso. Instead, his works for guitar show a more personal side of him as a musician.
Paganini’s Sonata Concertata is a gentle piece, in loosely structured sonata form. The opening movement, marked allegro, is suggestive of the Classical era and the works of Haydn. The second movement, Adagio, focuses more on the dialogue between the instruments, specifically on increasing the role of the guitar to equal that of the violin. The last final movement is a rondo, and presents the violin in an even more expressive role.
Paganini’s more relaxed attitude towards and fondness for the guitar is evident in this lovely piece, originally written in 1804.
L'HISTOIRE DU TANGO FOR FLUTE AND MARIMBA
Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Latin music as a genre is one of the most popular. “Latin” is also a broad term, encompassing many sub-genres and participating in and influencing countless others. The tango is one such sub-genre, and is almost always associated with the Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla, especially in a classical context. Piazzolla composed numerous tangos, and is essentially responsible for codifying many of the contemporary styles. He even created a new kind of tango, called “Nuevo tango,” which combines classical music with jazz.
Piazzolla once remarked that the classic or pre-war tango belonged, like art deco, in “the antique shop.” He was determined to update it, saying, “When water doesn’t run, it rottens. Tango that doesn’t run… rottens. I have a great respect for the old tango, the primitive tango. But I must do it in my own way.” In a conversation with the writer Alberto Speratti in 1968, Piazzolla explained that this new tango was “an essential continuum of growing sophistication in tango music, with [his] own ‘avant-garde’ an inevitable conclusion.”
Histoire du Tango is one of Piazzolla’s most famous contributions to the literature, and describes the history of the tango’s formal narrative. Originally written for flute and guitar, it has since been arranged for other instruments. Composed in 1985, Histoire du tango is in four movements, each representing an important time in the tango’s history. Piazzolla intended these as performance pieces, and as musical snapshots, and not for dancing.
Annotator Jane Vial Jaffe outlines, “The tango, which originated in late nineteenth-century Buenos Aires in brothels and urban courtyards, gained ballroom status… spreading to Paris and other European centers in the early twentieth century. Tangos traditionally featured not only couples dancing in tight embrace with almost violent leg motions, but also melodramatic poetry sung to the accompaniment of solo guitar; or a trio of flute, violin, and guitar (or bandoneon, a square, button-operated accordion); or larger ensembles of strings, bandoneon, and piano.” Piazzolla enjoyed adding various extended techniques to his tangos in order to heighten their expressiveness, such as glissandi, harmonics, playing on various parts of the instrument, and inventive use of percussion. He also maintained a certain melancholic quality even in the more animated sections.
The first movement is called Bordel 1900, and is quick and energetic in imitation of the style of the earliest tangos. Piazzolla wrote, “The tango originated in Buenos Aires in 1882…. This music is full of grace and liveliness. It paints a picture of the good-natured chatter of the French, Italian, and Spanish women who peopled those bordellos as they teased the policemen, thieves, sailors, and riffraff who came to see them. This is a high-spirited tango.”
Café 1930 is the second movement. By 1930, the tango has relaxed into a slower tempo, and here Piazzolla’s signature melancholy is on full display. The tango is no longer a musical form only meant for supporting dance. Piazzolla writes, “… people stopped dancing as they did in 1900, preferring instead simply to listen to it. It became more musical, and more romantic. This tango has undergone total transformation: the mvoements are slower, with new and often melancholy harmonies.”
Violinist Augustin Hadelich writes about the third movement, “People are now listening to tango orchestras, and violins are featured for the first time. By the time we reach Nightclub 1960, the tango has been enriched by the influence of bossa nova from Brazil. This is the passionate, rambunctious style of the tango that made Piazzolla world-famous.” Piazzolla explains, “This is a time of rapidly expanding international exchange, and the tango evolves again as Brazil and Argentina come together in Buenos Aires. [They]… are moving to the same beat. Audiences rush to the nightclubs to listen earnestly to the new tango. This marks a revolution and a profound alteration in some of the original tango forms.”
The last movement is Concert d’aujourd’hui. In this final movement, the tango is presented in the concert hall, and Piazzolla colors with elements and textures borrowed from Bartók and Stravinsky. Piazzolla describes the movement: “Certain concepts in tango music become intertwined with modern music… Bartók, Stravinsky, and other composers reminisce to the tune of tango music. This [is] today’s tango, and the tango of the future as well.”
Argentinian composer and guitarist Rodolfo Alchourron remarked, “[Piazzolla’s music covers] all the range of felling, merry, histrionic, sarcastic… dramatic, sentimental, romantic,” and ballet dancer Maximiliano Guerra calls is “celestial and angelic… sensual, seductive and down to earth…. It has everything. It is magic.” Composer and percussionist Gary Burton casts light on the enormity of Piazzolla’s contribution to the national music, explaining, “We can say that jazz is the national music of America, and samba and bossa nova [of] Brazil… Usually a national music remains fairly simple and doesn’t progress on to become highly sophisticated and developed, [but] this happened to jazz and it happened to tango. And in the case of tango Ástor was the principal figure that helped the transition.” Novelist Ernesto Sábato adds, “the music of Buenos Aires has to be described in terms of before or after Piazzolla.”
Histroire du tango was premiered by flutist Marc Grauwels and guitarist Guy Lokowski in March, 1985 at the Fifth International Guitar Festival in Liège.
THE DREAMS AND PRAYERS OF ISAAC THE BLIND
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)
Notes by Osvaldo Golijov:
Eight centuries ago Isaac The Blind, the great kabbalist rabbi of Provence, dictated a manuscript in which he asserted that all things and events in the universe are product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters: “Their root is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal.” His conviction still resonates today: don’t we have scientists who believe that the clue to our life and fate is hidden in other codes?
Isaac’s lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching a state of communion. Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, says “Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself. Debhequth (communion) is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation.” If communion is not the reason, how else would one explain the strange life that Isaac led, or the decades during which groups of four souls dissolve their individuality into single, higher organisms, called string quartets? How would one explain the chain of klezmer generations that, while blessing births, weddings, and burials, were trying to discover the melody that could be set free from itself and become only air, spirit, ruakh?
The movements of this work sound to me as if written in three of the different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our history. This somehow reflects the composition’s epic nature. I hear the prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Aramaic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; the third movement and postlude are in sacred Hebrew.
The prelude and the first movement simultaneously explore two prayers in different ways: The quartet plays the first part of the central prayer of the High Holidays, “We will observe the mighty holiness of this day...” while the clarinet dreams the motifs from “Our Father, Our King.” The second movement is based on “The Old Klezmer Band,” a traditional dance tune, which is surrounded here by contrasting manifestations of its own halo. The third movement was written before all the others. It is an instrumental version of K’vakarat, a work that I wrote a few years ago for Kronos [Quartet] and Cantor Misha Alexandrovich. The meaning of the word klezmer: instrument of song, becomes clear when one hears David Krakauer’s interpretation of the cantor’s line. This movement, together with the postlude, bring to conclusion the prayer left open in the first movement: “...Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny.”
But blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I had always the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in a performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind.’ That is why, I think, all legendary bards in cultures around the world, starting with Homer, are said to be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the secret of great string quartets, those who don’t need their eyes to communicate among them, with the music, or the audience. My hommage to all of them and Isaac of Provence is this work for blind musicians, so they can play it by heart. Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.
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