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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Lament For A Lost World

Some of the most emotional music ever composed has been inspired by feelings of grief and loss.  That is certainly true of the piece I want to tell about today.

Given the date of composition -- 1944-45 -- and the horrific destruction of the cities of Germany in the final years of the war, I have no trouble interpreting this work for strings as a lament, a threnody if you will, for the wholesale obliteration of centuries of rich cultural heritage and artistic beauty in the culminating firestorms of the war.

The odd thing is that the composer -- Richard Strauss -- may have somewhat covered his tracks by giving the piece the following decidedly unemotional title: Metamorphosen: Study For 23 Solo Strings.

No doubt many people have been fooled by this literary-sounding title, but I for one have no doubt that it is purely a smokescreen for what was really happening in this remarkable piece.  For one thing, the title leads us to expect metamorphosis or transformation yet none of the themes undergoes any significant transformation at all.  The composer's penchant for complex polyphony leads to ever-new and more complex combinations of themes, but the materials themselves remain for the most part unaltered.

Since the composer made no explicit statements, many different theories have been advanced as to just what Strauss meant in this work.  That debate, of course, assumes that he in fact "meant" something particular -- and knew what it was.  But there's no proof that he did.

Although the work as we know it was completed to a commission by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Strauss had in fact been sketching out a work for a string septet before the commission came, and these sketches were amplified into the much larger ensemble work we now have.

Now, let's just park all of that information and listen to the music itself.

The most striking aspect of this half-hour work is that almost all the thematic material consists of melodic lines that move downwards.  Although the four-chord opening is a rising sequence, it at once leads into a descending scale passage.  The same result happens nearly every time a melodic line line leaps upwards -- almost at once it descends.  Add to this profusion of descending lines the predominantly minor tonalities, and the reasons for the music's profound feelings of loss and pain become clear.

The work opens in a slow tempo, with the strings playing low in their range -- creating a dark sound that will be often heard as the piece unfolds.  Also evident at once is the use of long, singing legato lines with phrase breaks few and far between.  The four repeated notes heard after just a few bars have been tagged as a homage to the famous four-note rhythm of Beethoven's Symphony # 5, but here are played at the speed of a dirge.  In any case, I find the equating of the theme with Beethoven rather far-fetched because only the first 3 notes of a 10-note melodic phrase imitate the Beethoven -- and those are played at about 1/4 of the speed of Beethoven's work (if even that fast).

At about the six-minute mark, a new theme (rising, in a major key) changes the landscape and the tempo as the music gets a little faster.  This lengthy central section contains much of the innovative recombining of melodies.  It also contains passages which are lighter in colour, in weight, and in mood -- due to major keys, smaller combinations of instruments, and quieter dynamics as well as quicker tempi.  Over a space of eight or nine minutes, the tempo continues to increase until an almost frenzied acceleration lifts the music to a high point of excitement.  Then: catastrophe.  Two massive octave-unison chords return us instantly to the slow dark world of the opening, but now played fortissimo with shattering impact.

From here on, there is less of the elaborate polyphony and more of a process where themes are restated in different keys, and different registers.  Gradually the music descends into the lower ranges of the instruments and grows quieter again.  At last, a double bass intones the Marcia funebre from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (# 3), which fits in perfect counterpoint with one of the descending themes we've heard so often -- the theme that begins with the four repeated notes.  The music then descends quietly, ending slowly in utter darkness at the lowest ranges of the instruments.

The significance of that Beethoven quotation was underlined by Strauss: he placed the phrase between quotation marks, and inscribed the words "In memoriam" above it.  Once again, as with the work as a whole, we'll never know exactly what his point or purpose was in doing so.  But in this instance, at least, it seems clear that he did have a point, and that the written note was a late addition when the work was almost complete.

Ever since I first heard Metamorphosen, many years ago (in a recording), I have always been captivated by the sounds Strauss conjured out of his string ensemble -- so different from any of the famous string works of English composers, for instance.  As time goes on, and I become still more familiar with the luminous darkness of this remarkable piece, I find it easier to believe that Strauss wrote it when his whole world-view was steeped in the depths of sorrow and loss.  

Curiously, listening to Metamorphosen doesn't make me feel sad.  Rather, it's always for me an uplifting experience, a kind of musical catharsis.  I think all of us have times in our lives when we need that kind of emotional relief and outlet.  

Even if you don't agree with my interpretation, I think you will find that Metamorphosen is a work of a rare beauty and quality that demand the greatest respect -- in a word, a masterpiece.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fairy Tale Epic Opera

One of the great under-valued masterpieces of the operatic world is a mysterious fairy tale set in an indeterminate, ancient land and centred upon the actions of a group of (almost all) nameless symbolic characters.  The elements of the story are both timeless and very much of the time in which it was created -- a feature which it shares with all fantasy literature and art.

Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow") by Richard Strauss, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was co-created by the two artists, working in tandem, between 1911 and 1915-17. Its composition thus overlapped the years of the first world war.  The opera had a difficult genesis, and the first performances in 1919 were not successful.  With time, it has come to be better appreciated as a great example of the composer's musical genius.  Yet Die Frau remains relatively little-known by comparison with Salome, Elektra, and the ever-popular Der Rosenkavalier.  

There are two main reasons.  One is the work's deserved reputation for complexity and opacity of symbolism, the element which von Hofmannsthal was most at pains to incorporate.  The other is the extreme difficulty of casting, playing, singing, and staging the piece, which has confined live performances to few and very expensive productions in a handful of the world's greatest opera houses. 
The opera has no less than five demanding principal roles, all of which must be filled by singers with large, dramatic voices, able to be heard clearly over Strauss' rich, heavy orchestration.  All five have numerous passages at the highest extreme of their voice types -- even the rich mezzo-soprano role of the Nurse often rises above the stave.  

It would take far too much space to give a detailed synopsis of the complex story, so here's a quick little outline of a summary of a synopsis.  The Emperor of the Southeastern Isles has captured a beautiful gazelle which has turned into a woman, and he has married her.  But she is the daughter of the spirit world's ruler, Keikobad, and thus not human.  Keikobad (who never actually appears in the opera) has decreed that unless she becomes fully human by acquiring a shadow within 12 months, she will return to him and the Emperor will turn to stone.

The Nurse who cares for the Empress concocts a demonic plan to trick a mortal woman into selling her shadow to the Empress.  This woman, the Dyer's Wife, is out of love with her husband (Barak, the Dyer) and wishes not to bear children.  Selling her shadow will free her from having to do so.

After numerous plot complications, the two couples are put to the test in Keikobad's temple.  The Empress, in spite of seeing her husband already turning to stone, refuses to take the shadow from the Dyer's Wife, since the Dyer and his wife have reconciled.  Her refusal releases both couples, the Empress is granted a shadow, and the opera ends in full reconciliation, with the Voices of the Unborn Children having the final word.

Even with such a brief outline, it will be plain that there are many truly mysterious and indeed magical elements in the story.  Well, that is certainly within the province of fairy tales -- a realm in which this story unquestionably operates.  There's no getting around the fact that both Strauss and Hofmannsthal regarded child-bearing as the highest happiness of women.  Yes, it's a sexist concept.  And yet, the fashionable belief systems of time, place, and people are easily detected in fairy tales from all times and all cultures.  

This shouldn't mean that we set them aside on that account.  There is, after all, a great deal more to be said in this opera on such themes as patience, constancy, honesty, moderation, and caring towards others -- and by no means are these themes developed in relation only to characters of one gender.     

Richard Strauss clothed this epic tale in some of the most complex and inspired music of his entire career.  On the one hand there are moments of grandly dramatic power: the descent to earth of the Nurse and Empress in Act 1, the scene of the Empress dreaming in Act 2, the catastrophic destruction of Barak's home at the end of Act 2, the banishment of the Nurse to the realm of humanity in Act 3, and above all the climactic testing of the Empress -- a scene in which the singer, in extremity of emotion, has to erupt into a speaking voice instead of singing.  In the end, she cries out her final words:  "Ich... will... nicht!"  ("I will not!") as she refuses to take the shadow.

On  the other hand are such lyrical beauties as the temptation of the Dyer's Wife by a beautiful young man conjured up by the nurse, the watchmen's chorus at the end of Act 1, the singing of the Unborn Children in Act 2, the music which leads the Empress into the Temple in Act 3, and the final magical scene of reconciliation at the end of the opera.

The conjunction of all these elements results in perhaps the most powerful and moving of music dramas since Wagner.  I've never seen it staged, but certainly hope to at some time.  In the meantime, there are always the recordings.

The work has only been recorded in studio half a dozen times, while another dozen or so of live stage performances are available in audio or video form.  If you seek an audio recording, try to find the Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.  It was the very first recording to present the 3 1/4 hour opera absolutely complete, with none of the numerous cuts traditionally used in the opera house (many of them sanctioned by the composer).  Solti waited for many years, and spread his recording sessions over the years 1989-1991, in order to have his dream cast: Julia Varady as the Empress, Hildegarde Behrens as the Dyer's Wife, Placido Domingo as the Emperor, and Jose van Dam as Barak the Dyer.  Less well known but no less powerful or dramatic is Reinhild Runkel as the demonic Nurse.  The recorded sound is also exemplary, with subtly varying sonic environments clearly delineating onstage and offstage singing and playing.  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Peaceful Plucking

There's an essentially placid, gentle quality to the music-making of a classical guitar or lute.  Even as the player's fingers are racing up and down the fingerboard, the sounds that emerge always assume an innately soothing character.

It's no surprise, then, that I will turn to this kind of music when I want to have something relaxing and gentle to help me wind down after a difficult day.

A few months back I downloaded (from Naxos) a two-disc set of solo lute music by the Elizabethan English composer, John Dowland (I later discovered that there are two more discs from the same source awaiting my attention).  These pieces are, in the main, short dances or songs for solo voice and lute accompaniment .  Dowland very much followed the fashion of the time by infusing his texts and music with melancholy, sighing, weeping, and other such emotions.

But the result is by no means depressing.  In this purely instrumental collection, lutenist Nigel North maintains a sprightly sparkle in his playing that lifts the music beyond a mere wallow in despair.  In any case, some of the dances are more courtly by intention than personal -- which makes sense when you consider Dowland's years as court lutenist and composer to King Christian IV of Denmark and later to King James I of England.

At the heart of the collection is the cycle which he entitled Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (the French spelling "pavane" is more commonly used today)The basis for this work is his earlier song Flow my teares.  It's probably one of the best-known tunes in all of Renaissance instrumental music, not least because a number of other composers have used it as a basis for theme-and-variations compositions.  

As well as the "seaven teares," Dowland's volume contains an additional 14 compositions including nine more upbeat galiards (galliard) and two almands (allemande).  These works are dedicated to various royal, noble, or wealthy (one presumes) patrons of Dowland's music.

The sound on these bargain discs is excellent, the lute very clear and present in a realistic soundspace, but not so close as to become clangorous.  Nigel North's playing, including his discreet and effective use of ornamentation, is a continual delight.  I realize that some people might find it a bit taxing to listen to the seven quite varied versions of the Lachrimae all in one go, as they are presented on the recording.  Apart from that the entire set is an excellent introduction to a distant and relatively little-known musical byway -- but a very rewarding one.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Medley of Greatest Hits

Not to worry, I didn't lose interest in this blog.  I just kept suffering from surplus lack of time!

Ironic that I'm back, and writing about another work in the same category and from the same composer as my last post!

But where King Olaf was written by the young Elgar during the years when he arrived at his maturity as a composer, The Music Makers came near the end of his most creative years.  Although it is an accomplished score, with many beautiful moments, it can hardly be called original.

The Music Makers, set to a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, is almost as much symbolic of the Edwardian age as the famous Pomp and Circumstance Marches.  The poem itself wavers back and forth between beauty of image and bombast of tone.  It doesn't impress me as very good poetry, but then I have never much enjoyed rhyming couplets -- much less four of them in a row based on the same two rhyme sounds!

But then consider the first stanza; I suspect that it was these deeply-felt themes that most inspired Elgar's composition.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
 Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

And just for the record, this poem is apparently the origin of the phrase "movers and shakers."

The resulting work has a rather bits-and-pieces feel to many pages.  It hasn't travelled well, and is not even frequently performed or recorded.  Why then dredge it up?  The answer lies in Elgar's compositional method for this work, which brings me to my title.

Like Richard Strauss in Ein Heldenleben, Elgar drew heavily on many of his earlier scores for this one work.  Since this was not something he customarily did, it's fairly obvious that his intention in doing so was to underline musically the text references to the central role of the composer and of music in a truly complete world.  The quotations range from a short four bars of the final climax in the Symphony No. 2 to an entire section woven around and through the orchestral texture of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

It's that glorious section based on Nimrod that alone, for me, makes it worthwhile to sit down and listen to The Music Makers again.  Well, that, and the intensely poetic setting of that first stanza which I quoted above.  Of course, it helps to have a truly first-rate recording -- not just first-rate in sound quality, but also in performance.  The central role of the female soloist is taken in my recording by Janet Baker.  If there was ever an artist who could make a second-rate piece of vocal music sound greater than it truly is, she was the one.  (She also performed the same magical alchemy on Elgar's earlier song cycle, Sea Pictures).

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A Saga Drawn From History

Every great composer has gone through an apprenticeship, a period of learning by doing, in which the works composed are often derivative in style, awkwardly plagiarizing earlier works from more mature minds.  In the master-composer-in-training, you can nonetheless see the gradual evolution of a distinctly personal style and approach to writing music throughout these earlier works.

Harder to distinguish is the moment when a composer can finally be said to have arrived fully as a mature artist in his/her own right.  Writers on music continually try to pin down that moment, and as often find that it eludes precise definition.

English composer Edward Elgar provides a striking example.  Look at most music texts, and you are likely to read that Elgar arrived in his full artistic maturity with the Enigma Variations for orchestra and The Dream of Gerontius for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, both composed in 1899-1900.  Those are definitely mature, fully ripened masterworks, but I would suggest that Elgar had already reached the point of mastery with at least some sections of another major choral-orchestral work written four years prior to Gerontius, which is called Scenes From The Saga of King Olaf -- and usually referred to in short form simply as King Olaf.

The story of this 95-minute dramatic cantata is rooted in the real-life Saga hero Olaf Tryggvason (ca. 950-1000), who was the only Christian figure of significance in the Sagas, and indeed lived as a Crusader, bringing Christianity to his native Norway.

If there's a reason why Elgar didn't quite reach the peak with King Olaf, it really starts with the text he was setting -- a loose adaptation of a story told in Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn which cuts out all the sex and a fair bit of the bloodshed.  The tattered remnants form a "knock-kneed libretto"| as Jerrold Northrop Moore so aptly said, but one which still inspired some truly remarkable music from the composer.

The very opening, a mist-laden downwards procession of chords in the strings, establishes an epic tone which is always present in the various choral movements -- and that tone is further emphasized in the opening lines for the chorus, "There is a wondrous book of legends in the old Norse tongue."

This opening chorus sets out several significant themes or motives which will recur.  More still appear in the following Challenge of Thor, a vigorous choral movement with a quick marching ostinato bass which propels the music relentlessly forward. While the voice of Thor is represented by the chorus, the ensuing response by King Olaf brings in the tenor soloist, singing with youthful ardour and energy. 

There follows the single biggest musical structure Elgar had yet attempted, and The Conversion -- in spite of its almost laconic title -- is a dramatic, almost operatic, scene of considerable power.  While the confrontation between Olaf and Ironbeard (bass), the adherent of the old Norse gods, features dramatic singing from the soloists, the music truly gathers depth and weight in Ironbeard's death solo.  Then the chorus has a lengthy movement in slow tempo, depicting the conversion of the people to Christianity, and the music slowly swells to a mighty climax underlain by rolling drums.

The three scenes depicting Olaf's three (attempted) marriages are, alas, the definite weak links in the score.  Each of the three -- Gudrun, Sigrid, and Thyri -- is depicted by the same soprano soloist.  The text allows Gudrun no room at all to develop, which is a pity since she is the daughter of the slain Ironbeard and tries to murder Olaf on their wedding night.  I certainly imagine that she might have a great deal to say on her own behalf!  The much older Sigrid has one fine moment as she sternly proclaims her adherence to the old gods, but it's only a moment.  The love duet between Olaf and Thyri shows some promise but this kind of romance was not Elgar's strong suit.

On the other hand, these three scenes are separated by two masterly, totally unique, yet utterly different, choral movements -- the up-beat drinking song which turns deadly cold in The Wraith of Odin and the light, chattering gossip chorus of the ballad Thyri. 

All the forces Olaf has set in motion eventually gang up on him and the great sea battle of The Death of Olaf summons the various motives from throughout the work, building them up into a Wagnerian climax of overwhelming force as his enemies surround and kill him.

The lengthy Epilogue pictures Olaf's mother at midnight prayer in her convent, hearing a voice in the night time (her son?  the text is unclear) affirming the victory of Christ and of peace over war.  This choral movement swells to a final glorious climax with a ringing high note from the soprano soloist, and then gradually dwindles away in a golden glow which, almost magically as it seems, merges back into the misty opening chords as the choir sings the final lines: 

A strain of music ends the tale,
A low, monotonous funeral wail
That with its cadence wild and sweet
Makes the Saga more complete.

While King Olaf is some distance from being a complete masterwork, its best pages show acute imagination and inspiration, and considerable skill in handling both voices and orchestra.  The Challenge of Thor, The Wraith of Odin, and The Death of Olaf  can certainly stand comparison with many much better-known works, and well deserve more frequent hearing.  Take the piece as a whole and I think you'd agree that, while not a mature masterwork, it's certainly very much more than just an apprentice or student piece.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

An Impressive and Powerful Christmas Work

One of the greatest treasures of the English language is the wealth of beautiful poetry from different eras inspired by the story of Christmas.  Writers at all times from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century have set pen to paper and produced verse of high quality, drawing on different aspects of the Christmas story for their themes.

Among all these Christmas poems, the imperial pride of place must go -- I think -- to John Milton's majestic Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity.  Composed on a most unusual rhythmic and rhyme scheme, Milton's poem in 27 stanzas with a four-stanza introduction is not overly lengthy but in its scope and interweaving of multiple themes clearly foreshadows the more epic creations that would flow from his pen in years to come.  Nothing about this poem is quite so startling as the fact that Milton completed this work while still a university undergraduate.

Although the vivid imagery of the poem and its themes alike seem to me to cry out for musical illustration, no truly well-known composers have undertaken the task.  Certainly Vaughan Williams made magnificent use of six stanzas in two separate sections of his 1954 Christmas cantata Hodie (read about that work here:  A Christmas Miracle in Music).  But years earlier, back around the turn of the twentieth century, Scottish composer John McEwen produced a setting of symphonic scale, bearing the title of the poem.  He set most of the text in due order, omitting the four introductory stanzas and three more from the Hymn proper.

As far as anyone has been able to discover, this uniquely powerful and evocative music -- although written up in at least one contemporary musical journal -- was never performed or even heard until Scottish conductor Alasdair Mitchell recorded it in 1998 with Chandos Records, fifty years after the composer's death.

My first reaction on hearing this large-scale work was to feel regret that the man who created it never (apparently) got to hear it played and sung.  Despite that lack, the music seems to me to display an uncommon degree of assurance and sophistication such as might be expected from an older composer of much more experience.  This is the more startling when you realize that his two greatest works for the orchestra, the Three Border Ballads (reviewed here:  Unknown Scottish Romantic Music) and the Solway Symphony, still lay ahead of him when he composed this setting of Milton's verses.

I wanted to emphasize that point because what strikes me most of all is the strength of the structural organization in the different sections of McEwen's Ode, and his mastery of orchestration and colour as a means of underlying his view of Milton's words.  The very opening proves the point: a chilling orchestral introduction which effectively paints both the violent negative energy and the sheer coldness of the opening line of the poem, "It was the winter wild...."

Even more gripping is the extraordinary battle music in the sixth movement, and the powerful post-Wagnerian chromaticism of the seventh, reaching almost into the sound world of Schoenberg's monumental Gurrelieder. 

But in between these more dramatic moments are others of great lyrical beauty and repose: the moving pastoral vein of Nos. 2 and 3 or the gentle lullaby evoking the sleeping Christ Child in the final pages.  All these, and more besides, are skillfully drawn by the composer.

In some ways, the most startling moment for me comes in the sixth movement where McEwen sets the same stanzas used by Vaughan Williams in the exhilarating finale of Hodie.  But McEwen approaches the poetry from a completely different angle, and the words (as a result) sound brand-fire-new rather than old familiar friends.

The net effect of this entire work is very much a unified whole in spite of its division into numbered movements, a single mighty arch of choral and orchestral sound.  There's no denying McEwen's skill in setting Milton's sometimes-complex phrases, nor the deep insight which the composer has brought to the underlying messages and meanings of the poem.  And, like all the greatest works of music, the end comes far too soon for my liking.

Indeed, I think I admire most of all the concision of McEwen's structure and writing that lets him cover this rather lengthy poem, all but completely, in less than an hour's span.

The one and only (as far as I know) recording is still available as a download from Chandos Records.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

More Christmas Delights Part 2

Another new album that found a home in my collection this year is called A Wondrous Mystery.  The music on this CD comes mainly from the German-speaking part of Europe in the 1400s and 1500s, and is all music for the season of Christmas.  It's expertly and lovingly performed a cappella by the twelve voices of the ensemble Stile Antico and is released on the Harmonia Mundi label.
 
At a quick glance, it's obvious that the biggest work on the disc is the Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by the Flemish composer Jacobus Clemens (yes, that's the composer who was jokingly nicknamed Clemens non Papa, supposedly to distinguish him from his contemporary, Pope Clement VII ("Clemens Papa" in Latin).
 
The Missa takes its title from Clemens' own five-voice motet on the Christmas text which asks, "Shepherds, what have you seen?" (also included in the disc).  The mass is a lovely, serene work of typical Renaissance polyphony of its time (the 1500s).  The disc is organized so that the different sections of this mass setting are interspersed with works by other and later composers. 
 
These other works include both Latin and German texts.  There are settings of Lutheran chorales and settings of German folk carols.  And in the middle of it all is the piece that really caught my attention, and caught it in the most enchanting way.
 
The title is Magnificat quinti toni and it was composed by Hieronymus Praetorius (no relation of the much better-known Michael Praetorius).  This man composed settings of the Magnificat based on each of the eight tones of traditional chant, but then added this ninth setting, specifically intended for Christmas use.  It's a work which bridges the gap between the stile antico of the Renaissance and the new stile moderno of what we now see as the early Baroque era in music.  He published it alongside two ravishingly beautiful settings of two of the German Christmas carols, with instructions that the carol arrangements should be sung between verses of the Magnificat.  The performers here have followed that direction.  The result fuses chant, polyphony, and harmonized chordal singing of the folk melodies into a thing of utter beauty.
 
The simple key to this loveliness is the use of double choirs throughout the composed sections of the Magnificat and the carol settings.  In the two carols, the melody is entrusted to one of the inner parts and the sopranos instead receive a soaring harmony line of the type that English choirs call a "descant".  It's these descant parts that lift the music out of the ordinary and give it wings.  The two carols used are Joseph lieber, Joseph mein (known in English as The Song of the Crib) and In dulci jubilo.  What fuses all these disparate elements together is the simple rising triad which opens the fifth tone chant, a figure which also occurs in the melodies of both carols. 
 
So while all the music on this disc is very beautiful and aptly suited to an evening's listening before the Christmas tree, it's the Praetorius Magnificat that always prompts me to hit the "repeat" button.