Thursday, February 19, 2009

Serenade & Night Flight: Britten & Dallapiccola

In one of the pithy essays from his masterpiece collection, Labyrinths, Jose Luis Borges writes of "Kafka and his Precursors." In typical Borgesian fashion, a connective thread is woven from Aristotle to Browning to Kierkegaard, with pit-stops along the way. Borges says that our connection to the present (ie: Kafka) directly informs our interpretation of the past (ie: Browning) rather than the chicken-and-egg assumption that the past affects how we interpret the present. Therefore, "every writer creates his own precursors" and therefore performs the Borgesian task of making connections across time and space in the labyrinthine world in which we find ourselves.

Last weekend I had the privilege of performing Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with the fabulous hornist, Joe Levinsky, and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, led by one of the country's outstanding conductor's, Elizabeth Schulze. The Maryland Symphony was founded over a quarter of a century ago by the British conductor and horn player, Barry Tuckwell. Fitting that Tuckwell was a champion of the Serenade, and is the soloist in one of the definitive recordings of the work, which also features its other creators: Britten himself is the conductor, and the tenor is his partner & collaborator, Peter Pears.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Music and Social Conscience--inspired by the conflation of January's historic Inauguration, concerts I was preparing to conduct and programs I was preparing to propose--and referenced Britten and his output. His life and music are themes to which I regularly return: besides being the greatest composer of the English language and one of the giants of 20th c. music, he was the source of my DMA dissertation, and the raison-d'etre behind much of my work in the UK, and is simply one of my favorite composers. I find Britten's music to be more relevant now than ever, and all of these signifiers inform the fact that the Virginia Chorale will be devoting a portion of each of our next five seasons to surveying Britten's choral works in our Britten Project, culminating in a centennial concert for his birthday in 2013, which just happens to be the name day of the Patron Saint of Music, St. Cecilia (Nov 22).

Anyway, Britten's Serenade is the quintessential example of this composer's gift for creating a song-cycle from a poetic anthology. Britten is unique among vocal composers in amassing a body of song-cycles both on individual poets (Rimbaud, Michelangelo, Donne, Hardy, Hölderlin, Pushkin, Blake, et al) and on original "librettos" of anthologized poets (three of his five orchestral song-cycles, Our Hunting Fathers, Serenade, and Nocturne, use this device of multi-voiced lyrics as their source).

One of the most dog-eared books in my own collection is "Britten's Poets: An anthology of the poems he set to music." It is nearly 400 pages of nothing but the poems themselves. One of the indices lists the poets Britten set, and it includes nearly 100 different poets in a half-dozen different languages. I should also add that Pears was Britten's literary equal, if not the more well-read of the two, and his assistance in choosing and ordering the poetic sequences has been under-appreciated.

Britten finished the Serenade, op. 31, in the spring of 1943, before he turned 30. It was his first major opus to be premiered following his and Pears' return to the UK from self-imposed, conscientious-objector exile in the US. His status as a C.O. affected his life on several levels (he had to appeal to the tribunal, and was granted his exempt status only after a second appearance; his friend and colleague, the composer Michael Tippett, served time when his application for C.O. status was rejected). It also deepened his lifelong commitment to pacifism & non-violence, and furthered the conviction that the creative artist contribute to society.

At the time, Britten was just beginning work on his first opera, Peter Grimes, whose success would establish his fame and further his reputation as the leading composer of his generation. Britten and Pears both identified with Grimes' themes of isolation, outcast, and exile--as artists, as conscientious objectors, and as homosexual men. These themes--also incarnate as innocence and experience, youth and age, virtue and corruption, individual and the people--would populate his operas and infuse his song cycles for the remaining three decades of his astounding career.

The Serenade is framed by a prologue and epilogue with the horn playing natural harmonics, recalling the (innocent?) days when the instrument was associated with hunting calls. In between, 6 poems (spanning several centuries of British verse) take up nocturnal themes from dusk and twilight to dreams, nightmares, and visions. Britten creates a distinct sound-world for each, informed by the poetry itself. The first setting, Charles Cotton's crepuscular evocation of the sunset, uses the poetic images of the shape-shifting twilight as material for a dialogue between the tenor and horn. The second song, "Nocturne" is a setting of Tennyson's Ireland-inspired lyric "The splendour falls on Castle walls" and features an infectious recurring exchange between the tenor and horn, evoking the echoes resounding from the majestic mountainous setting. Britten was a prodigy, a "natural," and this is nowhere more evident than in the architecturally balanced form of his major works. The central movements of the Serenade are linked by a shared motive, first heard in the horn in the "Elegy" (Blake's "The sick rose) and taken up by the tenor in the anonymous "Dirge." The Elegy features the most extended horn solo, and exploits the technical and expressive capabilities of the instrument (Britten praised the original dedicatee, Dennis Brain, as having the facility of a clarinettist). The Blake poem, ostensibly about the "invisible worm" that poisons the Rose from the inside out, is a metaphor for any kind of sickness (syphilis or cancer ) sin, and/or evil itself--whether the specter of fascism, totalitarianism, or the "benign" evil of conformity or repression. Interestingly, Britten uses a 12-tone row for the "invisible worm" in the horn melody. Never a disciple of Schoenberg's school, he did admire Alban Berg's more lyrical use of 12-tone techniques, and the grafting of the chromatic tone-row within tonal contexts. The Elegy's intensity is matched by the relentless toll of the Dirge, which assigns the tenor 8 consecutive verses of morality-play inspired verse in excruciating tessiturra. While Britten downplayed the importance of the Serenade in his letters ("nothing important, but quite pleasant, I'd like to think") participants on both sides of the stage are apt to take a different view from the central movements. The Dirge is relieved by the exquisite setting of Ben Jonson's paean to Diana, goddess of the moon, in the "Hymn." The horn takes off and the tenor hopes to keep up in this exemplary setting of Britten's mastery of yet another form, the scherzo. Following the "excellently bright" song to the moon, the horn exits to prepare for the offstage epilogue, and the tenor intones Keats haunting sonnet to sleep "O soft embalmer of the still midnight." Britten's mastery of vocal shading, string scoring, liquid harmonies and dramatic shape--encapsulated in a single movement--is nowhere on better display than here.

Immediately following the 2 memorable performances of the Britten (on 2/14 & 2/15), I headed up to NYC for a concert version of Luigi Dallapiccola's first opera, the one-act version of Antoine Saint-Exupery's (The Little Prince) novel, "Night Flight." Dallapiccola (1904-1975) is the greatest Italian composer of the 20th century, and one of the great voices of social conscience--"music of commitment" was his own term for his works. A victim of racial and political prejudice as a youth in the first world war, he was acutely sensitive to the precarious position of the individual in a totalitarian regime. His wife, Laura, was Jewish, and Mussolini's race laws forced the couple into hiding in the mid-30's, just as Dallapiccola was finding his voice.

Like Britten, he admired Berg and along with the Austrian composer, is the greatest exponent of lyrical melody within dodecaphony (12-tone, fully chromatic, atonal music, in a nut-shell). The opening theme of 'Volo di Notte' is a cantabile (singing) 12-tone row for a solo viola over a luminous series of B-major triads. The theme is associated with light and the stars, and returns near the end of the opera when the lost pilot is flying over the sea, ascending to the stars (and his imminent death).

The story is ostensibly about the "night flights" in South America and across the Atlantic to Europe just as WWII was clouding that continent. The pilot, Fabien, is lost as storms surround his flight, the operators on the ground are powerless to help, and the imperious commander, Riviere, is weighed down by his insistence on continuing the night flights, even as he loses one of his pilots. Like much great art, Volo di Notte works on several levels. Dallapiccola was impressed by the figure of Riviere--a man of great will power, vision, and strength, who is looking to the future, and balancing the responsibilities of the tasks (and lives) under his command. Riviere is also a complex and difficult character, who appears implacable in the face of his pilot's fate, is quick to put his subordinates in their places, eschews intimacy and love, and even the semblance of interpersonal relationships. I have the privilege of portraying the Radio-telegrapher who communicates the status of the strengthening storms (an obvious metaphor for 1937). Fascinatingly, in the Saint-Exupery novel, the storms are likened to a "worm in fruit...ripe to rottenness" --a Borgesian reference to Blake's elegy, and another (if unconscious) link between these two great 20th century composers.

About 2/3'rd of the way through the opera (the "vanishing point"--follow Borgesian trail to previous entry on Roberto Bolaño, inquiring readers) the Radio-telegrapher finally makes contact with Fabien, and from that point until the pilot's disappearance, the telegrapher assumes the voice and character of the pilot, in a music that is as violent as the storms and as transcendent as an outer-body experience of soaring to the stars. This great scene ends with Fabien's beatific vision of the stars, accompanied by the original theme (this time sung wordless by a soprano). Dallapiccola uses a wide range of declamatory techniques (again, indebted to Schoenberg and Berg, but wholly original) and calls for 4 different types of declamation: spoken text without pitch or specific rhythm, spoken text with assigned rhythmic values, a rhythmic declamation that is "as if without sound" and a Sprechstimme or Sprechgesang ("speak-singing") that is rhythmic and approximates pitch somewhere between speech and song. All of these techniques are used independently and in combination in this moving scene.

Dallapiccola would go on to write his two greatest works immediately following 'Volo di Notte.' Following Mussolini's tightening of the political reins, the composer realized "only by means of music would I be able to express my indignation" and wrote a set of choral pieces called "Canti di prigionia" (Songs of prisoners) and his greatest one-act opera, "Il Prigionero" (the Prisoner). Both involve specific characters and stories universalized by Dallapiccola's assimilation of dramatic form and musical technique. One of those techniques is to combine the cantabile-informed 12-tone rows with hints of gregorian chant (the Dies Irae--day of judgment), a technique that serves the dual purpose of grounding the music tonally & aurally, yet at a deeper level signifies the multi-layered, Borgesian aspect of art that transforms the particular into the universal. His music is difficult (and fitting for its subject matter), as relevant as ever, and representative of what great music of commitment can be.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Michelangelo, Schiller, Rilke & humanist elegies

Johannes Brahms' choral-orchestral masterwork is Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). He wrote several other choral "tone-poems"--single movement major works for choir & orchestra--that have not found their rightful place in the repertoire. Three of these works are choral settings of great German Romantics: Goethe's Gesang des Parzens (Song of the Fates), Hölderlin's Shicksalslied (Song of Destiny) and Schiller's Nänie (Elegy). (The most famous example is Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, an extended scena for alto & male chorus on an excerpt from Goethe's poem "Harzreise im Winter"). Telling that the three choral tone-poems take up the humanist thread of memory and elegy so exquisitely woven in the Requiem.

As the singers of the Virginia Chorale, our fabulous pianist, Charles Woodward, and I were rehearsing Nänie today (for our upcoming Romantic Celebration concerts Feb 21-22) I was struck by a particular manifestation of that humanist thread of elegy. Brahms wrote Nänie as a tribute to his friend, the painter, Anselm Feuerbach. Schiller's poem is a dense web of mythological allusions, lamenting the tragedy of life cut short, the double-edged sword of martyrdom, and the transience of mortal life itself. Brahms' setting, true to form, seizes on the salient universal/humanist qualities of the Greek references (Orpheus and Eurydice, Adonis & Aphrodite, Achilles & Thetis) and offers us a splendidly-faceted gem.

Schiller's poem resembles a sonnet, and following four couplets which depict the Grecian heros and the mothers, lovers, and deities who lament their passing, there is a "vanishing point" as the final quartet (that is, the last four lines of the poem) begins. Following music inspired by the poem's coupling of narrative & dramatic images, Brahms turns inward and sets the text "Dass das Schöne vergeht, dass das Vollkommene stirbt (that beauty must pass away, that the perfect must die) with particular poignancy and intimacy, preparing the way for the affecting coda and close of this marvelous, unjustly neglected masterwork.

The intimacy with which Brahms sets the above line brought to mind one of Benjamin Britten's most affecting songs. Britten's first mature song cycle is the 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo, and the first written expressly for his collaborator and partner, Peter Pears. The final song of the engaging set of sonnets is an elegy, "Spirto ben nato." The final couplet of this sonnet (for the artist's lover, Tommaso Cavalieri), inspired one of the first of Britten's many memorable cadences:

What law or earthly government, what cruelty now or to come,
Could forbid Death to spare such a beautiful face?

The sonnet says in words what Michelangelo's sculptures evoke. Through artistic genius, a human subject is eulogized and immortalized. Grief, death, and loss are given voice, given shape and form, and universalized through artistic inspiration.

Rilke's famous sonnet on the "Archaic torso of Apollo" is also (and always) relevant. In addition to the classical subject (the Greek god of the Sun, and father of Orpheus), Rilke shares with Michelangelo, Schiller, Britten & Brahms an inspired humanism that infuses a particular subject with universal significance. All of these examples work on the level of artistic metaphor, as the nature of artistic creation itself is a human effort to best mortality. Rilke addresses the audience with a memorable closing couplet that makes explicit the artist's (usually tacit) desire to move, inspire &/or affect:

For there is no place that does not see you:
You must change your life.

To me, all of these classical, humanist poems and pieces are mitigating agents of openness. They rise above the cool allure of atheism that rejects the balm of ontological security, while resisting the pull of triumphalist fundamentalism which often avoids engagement with the unpleasant facts on the ground to which such elegies give voice.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

VC Program Notes: A Romantic Celebration

Below are my program notes for the Virginia Chorale's upcoming concert of Romantic choral music.

The 19th century is arguably the most beloved period in Western music history, as the enduring popularity of Romantic composers from every corner of Europe attests. Our first program of 2009 is a mid-Winter toast to this grand tradition . It is also a tribute to my predecessor, Robert Shoup, whose first concert as the Virginia Chorale’s second music director was devoted to music from this rich epoch.

The period is notable for many reasons. With the revolutionary, “heroic” style of Beethoven in the early years of the century, the orchestra emerged as one of the most important vehicles for substantive music via the still developing genre of the symphony. The important forms of the preceding Classical period canonized by Haydn and Mozart—the symphony, solo concerto, & string quartet—were given programmatic weight and depth by Beethoven and his successors, like Brahms, Bruckner & Mahler. At the other end of this colorful spectrum, composers like Schubert & Schumann concentrated as much creative energy into miniature forms like the art song, and intimate “musical moments” for solo piano. The rise of choral societies—both amateur and professional—championed by the likes of Mendelssohn and Brahms, laid the groundwork for organizations like ours. Concurrently, 19th century opera flowered in Italy with the triumvirate of composers—Bellini, Donizetti & Rossini—writing virtuoso vocal music in the style we call Bel Canto (literally “Beautiful Singing”). Giuseppe Verdi inherited this mantle. As Beethoven did with the symphony & string quartet, Verdi interwove form and content with Shakespearian dexterity to create a body of musical dramas unparalleled in the history of Italian opera. Space limitations prevent me from further developing these threads of analysis, thus we will leave Berlioz, Wagner, Russia, and the English musical Renaissance for another program (the latter is here represented by Stanford’s exquisite motet, Beati quorum via).

The first half of the program is a novel twist on the most traditional of sacred music forms, the Mass. Our “eclectic and romantic” mass is framed by sublime movements from Joseph Rheinberger. Like Dietrich Buxtehude two centuries earlier, Rheinberger is an unjustly neglected composer known primarily for his organ music. His Mass for double choir in E-flat is a masterwork indebted to the poly-choral style of the Venetian baroque. Dedicated to Pope Leo XIII, its style places Rheinberger in opposition to the conservative Cecilian movement, which sought to restore supposed Renaissance-style “purity” to liturgical music and rejected the expressive, subjective mien of Romanticism. Even so, Rheinberger (like Brahms) was not a musical pioneer aligned with Wagner and the so-called New German School, and his idiosyncratic style resists pat classification. Another idiosyncratic composer whose output refuses simple categorization is Anton Bruckner. A self-effacing, diminutive, late-blooming, Wagnerian disciple who was a master organ improvisationalist, Bruckner is known for his massive, Teutonic symphonies and his Cecilian-inspired motets. "Os Justi" is a gem of the latter genre, inspired by the Cecilian movement’s interest in Renaissance polyphony but highly expressive and individual and therefore not in line with the movements’ reforms. Following the successes of Elgar and Holst, Charles Villiers Stanford was among the generation of English composers indebted to Wagner and German romanticism, and thus one of several sparks responsible for the “English Musical Renaissance. “ So-called because of the dearth of successful English composers in the 18th and early 19th century, this romantic Renaissance in Britain produced a vast body of music for the concert hall and the cathedral. "Beati quorum via" is an exquisite 6-part motet displaying Stanford’s characteristic melding of a continental romantic idiom to a refined Anglican sensibility.

While not liturgical, the trio of opera choruses that form the heart of our eclectic Mass function as a Credo. Verdi’s opera choruses have been beloved of singers and audiences since their composition. In the case of these two popular examples from "Macbeth" and "Nabucco," the chorus is pivotal—functioning at both the dramatic and symbolic levels, in a counterpoint of meaning and significance. Both the Chorus of Scottish refugees and the Chorus of Hebrew slaves comment on the action like a Greek chorus. Both choruses speak for their collective peoples, and thus represent the dramatic conflict of their respective narratives, even as they transcend the specificity inherent in the unified drama. Verdi is the Shakespeare of opera for this singular gift: humanizing the particular into the universal. In between Verdi’s inspired choruses we insert the miniature “cantata” sung offstage in Act II of "Tosca." (I wrote a blog about operas at the movies--Tosca and Die Walküre--last month, for enquiring minds). The earnest prayer of the chorus accompanying the eponymous soprano is rarely heard, such as it is, subjugated to the action onstage where the villain Scarpia interrogates and prepares to torture the artist Cavaradossi. We beg the indulgence of the opera purists among us, and hope the airing of this chorus will illuminate a new angle on it.

We conclude our multivoiced Mass with 2 double-chorus settings of the Sanctus. Mendelssohn’s German version, "Heilig," is a miniature treasure from this beloved composer whose bicentennial we celebrate in 2009. With characteristically deft voice leading and harmonic control, the 8 voices enter independently and sequentially, and the texture varies between antiphonal exchange and homophonic statement. Rheinberger’s "Sanctus" is an apt companion to Mendelssohn’s version. It also features descending sequential writing of melodic and harmonic efficacy, here in voice pairs. As in the Kyrie, the fluent antiphonal dialogue unabashedly betrays its debt to the opulent textures of the Venetian Baroque.

"Der Gang zum Liebchen" is responsible for my enduring love affair with the music of Johannes Brahms, and one of the most intimately shaped examples from the dozen vocal quartets the composer wrote throughout his prolific career. Incidentally, I learned this chorus as a member of the 1988 Virginia Honors Choir, which performed at a conference that also featured music of Brahms by the Virginia Pro Musica, under the direction of Donald McCullough. "O schöne Nacht" and "An die Heimat" are also among Brahms’ greatest miniatures (the oxymoron is deliberate) and as such, represent the essence of romanticism distilled. Love and longing, the artist as wanderer and sojourner, the allure and mystery of night—moon, stars and heavens—and the search for meaning are all central components to “Der Romantik.” This is the “stuff” of poetry, indeed the sentiments that engendered some of the most enduring art we have.

Nänie is among a handful of major choral-orchestral works still underappreciated by a composer whose immortality could stand on the stature of his greatest choral masterwork alone, the German Requiem. Composed in 1881 in memory of his friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach, "Nänie" (Song of Lament) is a choral tone poem evoking the mythological references central to Schiller’s poem. Along with Goethe, Schiller (most known to English-speaking audiences for a particular “Ode to Joy” immortalized in Beethoven’s 9th) played a vital role in reviving interest in the Greek myths and in the ancient world in general. Schiller’s readers would have registered the mythological references in the poem that serve as metaphors for lament over mortality. I am struck by the irony that the translation in the classic modern recording (by Robert Shaw) contains 5 footnotes explaining the references to: 1. Hades/Pluto, 2. Orpheus & Eurydice, 3. Adonis, 4. Achilles, and 5. Nereus. The poem laments that neither human supplication nor divine intervention can preempt death. The first reference is the tale of Orpheus & Eurydice. When his beloved died, Orpheus charmed the underworld with his beautiful music and persuaded Pluto to return Eurydice to life. The god set the condition that Orpheus proceed & not look back, but Apollo’s son doubted, and Eurydice vanished. Adonis was a mortal beloved by the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who could not save him from death when he was killed by the jealous god of war, Ares/Mars, who took the form of a wild boar. Achilles was a Grecian hero, the son of Peleus and the sea-nymph, Thetis, herself daughter of the sea-god, Nereus. Achilles was killed at the gates of Troy with an arrow shot through his heel, by Paris, son of King Priam. While a poem with so many references to violent deaths in epic tales might inspire music of a martial character, Brahms emphasizes the lamentations in music of lyric sweep and pathos. Fittingly, for a work memorializing an artist, Brahms laments the loss of beauty (ie: art) and links Feuerbach to the most artistic of the mythological characters, Orpheus. This sets the stage for the other metaphors, and Brahms finds musical character for each reference, most strikingly for Achilles’ mother, Thetis who “ascends from the sea” in vocal lines that rise in unison and resound in a soprano & tenor duet as the sea nymphs “raise the lament for the glorified son.” It is this image of glorious memory with which Brahms rounds off his evocation. Where Schiller’s lament ends with an image of all going “down to Orcus [the underworld] unsung” Brahms seizes the penultimate line of the poem as the inspiration for the work’s close. In a master -stroke return of the opening theme, this lyrical line also serves as a sublime coda (“to be even a song of lamentation in the mouth of the beloved is glorious”).

Following excerpts from Brahms’ rousing, Hungarian-influenced Zigeunerlieder (“Gypsy Songs”) we will close our Romantic program with another kind of sublime coda. "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" is one of the great songs of Gustav Mahler. Written at the turn of the 20th century, it is as a poignant essay on sublimation, transcendence through art, by a composer at the zenith of this remarkable period of music history.