Chamber Music: Tchaikovsky, Janáček, and More

Chamber Music: Tchaikovsky, Janáček, and More 

Jolivet: Selections from Heptade for Trumpet and Percussion
Carter: Con leggerezza pensosa—Omaggio a Italo Calvino
Janáček: Mládí
Tchaikovsky: Sextet in D minor for Strings, Opus 70, Souvenir de Florence

 

Jolivet: Selections from Heptade for Trumpet and Percussion

Aficionados of French music are familiar with the high-spirited composers who achieved prominence during the 1920s as the Groupe des Six, which included such figures as Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Arthur Honegger. But Les Six was only one of several esthetic assemblages to populate French music during the early twentieth century. We are far less likely to encounter references to La Spirale (The Spiral) or La Jeune France (Young France), but both were born of sincere ideals and aspirations shared by like-minded French composers and musicians during the politically charged 1930s.

In the membership of both we find André Jolivet (1905-74), and also his colleagues Olivier Messiaen and Daniel-Lesur. Both groups promoted music born of a spiritual viewpoint, as opposed to the often satirical silliness Les Six had embraced during the ’20s. Not until 1928 did Jolivet begin to study music rigorously, immersing himself in the avant-garde concert offerings of the Société Musicale Indépendante, through which he became enamored of the music of Schoenberg and Varèse. The latter became Jolivet’s teacher and mentor.

Initially a devoted atonalist, Jolivet adopted a less angular and more streamlined style during the 1940s, and he took a strident stance vis-à-vis Stravinsky, whom he viewed as having injected a pernicious disruption into the historical tradition of French music. He grew fascinated by the implications of acoustics (no doubt an interest inspired by Varèse), and for a while he employed a theory of composition by which a piece would be built on a complex of bass lines comprising two notes; by using pitches plucked from the overtone series of both, he could honor what he considered the natural demands of musical harmonics while still having at his disposal an essentially chromatic palette of notes.

From 1945 to 1959 he was busily employed as musical director of the Comédie Française, for which he wrote incidental music for productions of plays by Molière, Racine, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and other literary icons. He grew fascinated with musics from non-Western cultures and composed numerous works that incorporated exotic elements. His insistence on the spiritual power of music remained intact throughout his career, and in 1959 he fulfilled a goal to institutionalize his beliefs by founding the Centre Français d’Humanisme Musical in Aix-en-Provence. In 1966, he finally was accorded the “seal of approval” from the French musical establishment when he was granted a position on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory, replacing Darius Milhaud and Jean Rivière; he would remain active as a professor there until 1971.

That was the year he composed his Heptade, whose Greek-derived name, designating “group of seven,” refers to the number of its movements. In 1968, Jolivet had composed an Arioso barocco for the trumpeter Maurice André, who was so taken with the piece that he commissioned Heptade as a follow-up. The work was premiered on a 1971 recording featuring André and percussionist Sylvio Gualda, and it received its concert premiere a year later at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris by trumpeter Francis Hardy and percussionist François Dupin. Jolivet explores the variety of the trumpet’s sound by requiring multiple kinds of mutes. The piece revolves, in somewhat symmetrical style, around the central movement, Veemente (Vehement—with glass chimes, bongos, and tumba). Today we hear three movements, concluding with the Veemente.

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Carter: Con leggerezza pensosa—Omaggio a Italo Calvino

In the course of his long career, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) explored the precise and complicated interactions of musical materials. The music theorist Jonathan Bernard astutely observed: “In a musical age dominated by simplification, what has made Carter’s music increasingly attractive is, paradoxically, its very complexity: the sense it often conveys of many things going on at once, producing the most violent sorts of contrast alongside the smoothest of continuities, offering not an escape from the demands of modern existence but a meaningful engagement with them.”

Carter grew up in America and Europe when Modernism was reshaping the arts, and he was a witness to breakthrough works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ravel, Scriabin, Berg, Varèse, Cowell, and Ives. He received his college education at Harvard, where Walter Piston and Gustav Holst were among his composition teachers, and then spent time in Paris under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger. In the late 1930s, having returned to New York, Carter became music director for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan and then embarked on a series of academic appointments, at Saint John’s College (Annapolis), Peabody Conservatory, Columbia University, Queens College, Yale University, MIT, Cornell University, and the Juilliard School.

During the 1940s he began to exhibit a distinctive style built on dramatic contrasts of instrumental timbres, rhythmic plans, and tempos. “I’m always concerned with context—with preceding and succeeding ideas,” he told the music journalist David Ewen. “Making things that go along, changing in very slight degrees, bit by bit. Or dealing with things that change abruptly. And making all this significant.”

In plumbing the instrumental textures of ensembles, Carter often derives sub-groups from his orchestras and chamber ensembles and creates dialogues among several players within a larger group. Con leggerezza pensosa (1990), however, generally uses all three instruments (clarinet, violin, cello) throughout, or at least compresses the reduced dialogue to short passages. Carter provided this comment about the piece:

Con leggerezza pensosa was commissioned by Dr. Raffaele Pozzi, the director of the Istituto di Studi Musicali in Latina, Italy, as an homage to the Italian author, Italo Calvino, to be performed in connection with the institute’s first annual awards for the best musicological papers of the year. Italo Calvino, who died after writing but before giving his Norton Lectures at Harvard University, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Lezioni americane), was singled out for this homage because he presents in these lectures a new view of humanism which has become an inspiration for the Istituto di Studi Musicali.

The title was suggested by the remark Calvino makes in his lecture on Lightness: “Spero innanzitutto d’aver dimostrato che esiste una leggerezza della pensosità, così come tutti sappiamo che esiste una leggerezza della frivolezza; anzi, la leggerezza pensosa può far apparire la frivolezza come pesante e opaca.” (Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we know there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.) 

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Janáček: Mládí

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was approaching his seventieth birthday when he composed his wind sextet Mládí (Youth). It is such a buoyant piece that one imagines the composer in a sort of second childhood, devoid of premonitions that his end lay in the rather near future. It seems he had been inspired to write a chamber work for winds upon hearing a concert by the Société Moderne des Instruments à Vent, a Parisian ensemble he encountered at an International Society of Contemporary Music (I.S.C.M.) Festival in Salzburg in 1923. For Mládí, he settled on an expanded version of the standard wind quintet, an unorthodox combination of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

The subject of youth was on Janáček’s mind since he was working just then with his biographer Max Brod on the early period of his own life. On May 19, 1924, he composed his Pochod modráčků (March of the Blue-Boys), a merry little thing for piccolo, glockenspiel, and tambourine that depicted a memory from his school days, the blue-boys referring to the choristers—of which he had been one—at the ancient monastery in Brno. When it was published in the magazine Hudební besídka (Bower of Music), this inscription was appended: “Whistling go the little songsters from the Queen’s Monastery—blue like bluebirds.” The music would evolve into the third movement of Mládí. While writing the suite, ensconced at his cottage in Moravia, he wrote to his muse Kamila Stösslová, “While here I have composed a kind of reminiscence of my youth.”

The first of the work’s four movements is built around a main theme based on the falling third of A to F, intoned by the oboe at the outset, then in response by the flute; it is said that Janáček intended this motif as a sort of wordless text-setting of the phrase “Mládí, zlaté mládí!” (Youth, golden youth!). For decades Janáček had been fascinated by the idea of “speech melody,” through which a strictly musical phrase might be crafted to follow the natural modulation of verbal speech. This principle became central to his operatic text-settings, and here we find him applying it to a strictly instrumental piece. A sparkling central section is heralded by an unbuttoned outburst from the solo horn, playing con splendore. The movement, which is worked out in rondo form, includes the nervous fluttering that is a Janáček fingerprint. It ends in a whirlwind, except for some comical pauses in the final bars. In contrast, the ensuing Andante sostenuto, with its unmistakably Slavic theme, seems introspective and nostalgic. The third movement is a scherzo (Vivace) that alternates twice with a more tender trio. Here the flutist plays piccolo, recalling this music’s original instrumentation as the “March of the Blue-Boys.” The finale is a joyful romp (though not without its pensive moments) that brings this brief work to its good-humored close.

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Tchaikovsky: Sextet in D minor for Strings, Opus 70, Souvenir de Florence

In October 1886, the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society elected Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) an honorary member and formally asked him to compose a piece for its musicians to unveil. The following June he set down some preliminary sketches for a string sextet, but the project lay dormant until the winter of 1890, when the composer was in Florence working on his opera The Queen of Spades. He jotted down a melody that would eventually evolve into the sextet’s slow movement, where the melody is spun out over a pizzicato accompaniment. This theme is, in fact, the “souvenir of Florence” to which the title refers; nothing else in the piece particularly evokes Italy.

Back in Russia, he wrote to his brother, in June 1890: “I started working on [the sextet] three days ago and am writing with difficulty, handicapped by lack of ideas and the new form. One needs six independent but, at the same time, homogenous voices. This is frightfully difficult.” He confessed to his friend Alexander Siloti that he feared he was imagining the piece in orchestral terms and then forcing his ideas into the procrustean limits of the six intended instruments.

By August 6 Tchaikovsky had completed the composition and the scoring. “I will not publish it at this time,” he wrote to the Society’s chairman, “not until you and your companions learn it, and correct everything in it that is unidiomatic, not good, ill-sounding. . . . Only then, after hearing your performance and taking into consideration all your corrections and advice, will I revise the sextet and submit it to the engraver.” After much rewriting, the revised Souvenir de Florence was enthusiastically received at its public premiere near the end of 1892.

Despite its minor key, Souvenir de Florence is an ebullient and apparently carefree composition, a last sunny spell before Tchaikovsky’s anguished emotional descent toward the Sixth Symphony (Pathétique). Here we glimpse Tchaikovsky’s neo-classical proclivities. Its passionate first movement follows a traditional sonata form, more clearly plotted than many of Tchaikovsky’s well-known works, strikingly “classic” for a work so late in his chronology. The Adagio cantabile e con moto shows off the composer’s melodic gift in both the Souvenir de Florence tune (which immediately follows a short, harmonically fragrant introduction) and the beautifully intertwined counter-themes. A thirty-measure-long central section (Moderato) serves as an imaginative exercise in orchestration, in which subtly shifting instrumental balances provide great musical interest as variations of timbre temporarily challenge the primacy of melody, harmony, and rhythm. The third movement scherzo/intermezzo (Allegro moderato, with its lighter-than-air, balletic trio section) and especially the high-spirited finale (Allegro vivace) show the influence of Slavic traditional music. The last movement is, however, far removed from a mere folk dance. Tchaikovsky finds ample opportunity to show off his contrapuntal prowess and develops one of the movement’s later episodes into a fugue, an appropriately learned gesture given that the piece owed its very existence to an honorary award from a music society.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

(January 2018)