Chamber Music with Members of the SFS (Oct 29)

Chamber Music with Members of the SFS 

Roussel: Divertissement for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Piano, Opus 6
George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (Images I)
Dvořák: Quartet in E-flat major for Piano and Strings, Opus 87

 

Roussel: Divertissement for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Piano, Opus 6

Everyone who knew Albert Roussel (1869-1937) seemed to like him personally. He refused to get involved in musical polemics and he was a generous friend to any number of young composers entering the profession. He provided a forum for many through his position as president of the French division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). La revue musicale, the most prestigious French music journal, honored Roussel twice by dedicating special issues entirely to his achievements; the first, in 1929, was accompanied by celebratory pieces composed in his honor by eight eminent figures, including Maurice Delage, Arthur Honegger, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc, and a “Who’s Who” of leading French musicologists and critics lined up to inscribe appreciations of the man and his music. At that point, some of his best work still lay ahead, including his Third and Fourth Symphonies, his ballet Bacchus et Ariane, his Concertino for Cello and Orchestra, and his String Trio. Following Roussel’s death, in 1937, his colleague Charles Koechlin summed things up: “He was a complete artist—a musician, a thinker, a man.”

His musical awakening came late. His early years were tragically unstable—his father died when he was one, his mother when he was eight—and he moved from house to house to be raised by a succession of relatives. In 1887, he entered the Naval Academy and soon embarked on a career as a naval officer. In 1892, he made his first stabs at composition while on an ocean voyage. He entered the Schola Cantorum in Paris and so excelled in the theory classes taught by the organist Eugène Gigout and the music history and orchestration classes of the school’s director, Vincent d’Indy, that he was invited to assume the direction of the Schola’s counterpoint classes, which he did from 1902-14. His pupils at the Schola included Erik Satie and Edgard Varèse, both of whom felt they learned a great deal from him even if they chose not to apply it to their own compositions. In ensuing years, Roussel enriched other interesting composers through private coaching, including Alexis Roland-Manuel, Knudåge Riisager, and Bohuslav Martinů.

Though Roussel was a contemporary of both Debussy (seven years his elder) and Ravel (six years his junior), he did not grow up perforce compared to either and developed a style of distinct originality. In an essay on Roussel’s stage works in the 1929 Revue musicale, the insightful pedagogue Nadia Boulanger observed: “One might be so bold as to say that before he understood what his true vocation was to be, even before he became aware of musical language, he already ‘contained’ his music. Whereas most musicians learn to speak before they learn to think, he thought before he could speak, and in such a way he created the language of his esthetic. From that resulted unexpected affinities that seemed audacious or bizarre but that for him were obvious and natural. If it is true, as Oscar Wilde puts it, that it is not the era that makes the man, but the man who makes the era, the language of Albert Roussel is already classic.”

The Divertissement makes a case for her contention. Think of its date: 1906. Listen to it: how could it have been written prior to the 1920s? One can hear that its ancestry reaches to Debussy, who was at mid-career in 1906, but on the whole this piece displays a flavor very like Poulenc, Milhaud, and the world surrounding Les Six—or even of composers like Ibert and Jean Françaix who followed them. Its spiky piano syncopations, its cheeky woodwind themes, its carefree shrugging-off of dissonance—such things all sound like the product of a composer acquainted with Stravinsky’s breakthroughs, yet in 1906 Stravinsky had not yet made a dent in the international musical consciousness. When Roussel’s Divertissement was played at the 1923 ISCM in Salzburg, listeners found it entirely up-to-date, even though the composer had signed off on it seventeen years before.    

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George Crumb: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (Images I)

At the head of Black Angels, George Crumb (b. 1929) inscribed the date he completed the piece: “in tempore belli, 1970.” The notation “in tempore belli”—“in time of war”—gave rise to the widespread misunderstanding that this work bore a direct connection to, or was even descriptive of, the United States’ undeclared war in Vietnam. Semantics notwithstanding, certainly it was a time of war. By March 1970, the United States was nine years deep into what was proving a quagmire. Yet Crumb always denied that he intended the piece to be interpreted in so specific a way, although he acknowledged that the war contributed to the dire essence the work reflects and confronts. “I didn’t set out to write an anti-war piece,” he later explained. “But at the end of the writing process it struck me—music can do this—that Black Angels just pulled in the surrounding psychological and emotional atmosphere.” It was, he said, “conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world.”

The phrase “in tempore belli” also serves as a music-historical reference, summoning as it does the title of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War) of 1796. Crumb’s compositions often reach out to figures of the musical past through verbatim quotation of masterworks. These flashes of recognition can help orient listeners who may otherwise lack landmarks in Crumb’s uncharted sonic universe. In Black Angels the most obvious quotations are of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet (in the “Pavana Lachrymae” section that opens Part Two, then revisited on the final page of the quartet), Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre (in the identically named movement), and the plainchant Dies irae, from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which is cited several times. (Another “antique” passage in this work, the “Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura,” is actually original, composed by Crumb.) There is nothing overtly Haydnesque about Black Angels, although this was at the time, and still is, Crumb’s only essay in the genre of the string quartet, which honors Haydn as its first great exponent. (Crumb expands the traditional notion of the genre, however, calling for electric string quartet, with the players doubling on maracas, tam-tams, and crystal goblets.) Then, too, Haydn provided some of music’s most memorable portraits of angels: the same year he wrote his Missa in tempore belli he embarked on his oratorio The Creation, the story of which is related by the angels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. They are all “good angels,” but Haydn’s libretto included among its sources John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which thrust Lucifer and his band of rebellious angels to center stage. They were “black angels.” “The image of the ‘black angel,’” Crumb has stated, “was a conventional device used by early painters to symbolize the fallen angel.”

This quartet is divided into three principal sections: Departure, Absence, Return. Crumb has elaborated on their meaning: “Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation) and Return (redemption).” They are separated by thirteen-second pauses—thirteen, of course, being a numerical symbol of unluckiness. Three “threnody” movements serve as structural pillars: one to open, one to close, and one at the precise midpoint. From these the other movements are draped as ominous, sometimes funereal, garlands. All told, there are thirteen of these sub-movements, and through their succession Crumb deploys his forces to create an overarching symmetry. The first movement (“THRENODY I: Night of the Electric Insects”) uses all four players; the second movement, three; the third movement, two; the fourth movement, one (playing what Crumb describes as “the intensely obscene sounds of the Devil-music”); the fifth movement, two; the sixth movement, three; and back up to all four for Movement Seven, the central threnody (“THRENODY II: BLACK ANGELS!”); and then he repeats this pattern precisely in the work’s second half, finally arriving at the full texture again in the closing number (“THRENODY III: Night of the Electric Insects”). “Night of the Electric Insects,” by the way, is the portion that was fragmentarily employed in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film The Exorcist. The Wall Street Journal reported the next year that for this contribution to the soundtrack the composer received forty times what he had earned to date from sales of scores for Black Angels.

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Dvořák: Quartet in E-flat major for Piano and Strings, Opus 87

The first of Antonín Dvořák’s piano quartets, in D major, was composed in the brief space of three weeks of 1875. The medium of the piano quartet, though not widely explored by that time, proved congenial to the composer. In enlarging the forces of the standard piano trio to include viola, which was one of his own principal instruments, Dvořák (1841-1904) seems to have achieved a greater sense of musical intimacy in his early piano quartet than in either of the piano trios that are its rough contemporaries. Beginning in 1885, the publisher Simrock began urging Dvořák to consider returning to the genre, which he had not touched for ten years (apart from revising the D major just prior to its publication in 1880). Inspiration suddenly hit the composer while he was spending the summer of 1889 at his little country house in the village of Vysoká. On August 10, he wrote to his close friend Alois Göbl, “I’ve now already finished three movements of a new piano quartet, and the Finale will be ready in a few days. As I expected, it came easily, and the melodies just surged upon me. Thank God!” In fact, he did complete it within a few days—nine, to be precise, although more than a year would pass before the work received its premiere.

This was the first chamber work Dvořák had composed since 1887, when he created his famous A major Piano Quintet (Opus 81), and the extreme popularity of that work has served to somewhat overshadow the piano quartet at hand. Nonetheless, this is a fine contribution to its medium, logically compelling and brimful with enchanting melodies. The work’s opening, with the strings and piano working in opposing camps, raises fears that Dvořák may fall prey to the lack of integration that troubles many efforts in the medium. Such concerns are soon dispelled, however, as all the players soon join to create a beautifully unified texture. Although the first movement is structured according to the general plan of a sonata form, it comes across as consisting of strongly demarcated sections, some blustery and melodramatic, some meltingly delicious.

Dvořák’s biographer Hans-Hubert Schönzeler has remarked of this work that “if anything, it is perhaps melodically too rich in its inventiveness.” Perhaps when he penned those words he had in mind the Lento, since its inventive richness extends to at least four distinct themes of strikingly diverse character: a lyrical effusion for the cello, a more formal melody from the violin, an excitable bit from the piano, and a blustery outburst from the whole ensemble. As in the opening movement, the listener had better accept the spirit of rhapsody—though never flabbiness—that reigns over this work.

Third movements are often dance-derived, and in this case the composer offers something akin to a Ländler, the forthright Austrian dance in triple-time whose popularity dimmed when the waltz came into vogue. This is a particularly winsome example. But if the opening tune summons up images of Central European peasants, the second theme sounds oddly Middle Eastern. It has been suggested that its minuscule range and its evocative augmented seconds might just as easily suggest certain strains of Bohemian folk music, though for most listeners something considerably to the southeast is likely to come to mind. A rapid middle section—sometimes flickering, sometimes heroic—leads to a verbatim repetition of the movement’s opening.

The Finale exhibits a full measure of energy and rich texture. Its second theme conveys a particularly Slavic flavor, and Dvořák takes care to provide contrast through lyrical episodes in which the tempo and the harmonic rhythm slacken mightily. The composer cannot be said to under-employ his resources here: the Dvořák biographer Alec Robertson may or may not be right when he objects that “to the final page only a full orchestra could do justice,” but it’s indisputable that the ending invites the foursome to let out all its stops.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.