Thursday, February 28, 2008

Beauty and Bother

"Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently -- possibly almost invariably -- analytical and impersonal tests will show that when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep."

----Charles Ives

Monday, February 25, 2008

Perfection & Music

"To excell in music, it is necessary to have an insatiable ambition, love and desire, to spare no pains and labour, and to have the courage to support all the discomforts which meet one in this kind of life . . . a noble obstinacy . . . which inspires us to perfect ourselves more and more."
—Joachim Quantz, Essay, Berlin, 1752

"Perfection in any skill cannot be attained unto without the waste of many yeares, much cost, and excessive labour and industrie."
—Robert Dowland (son of John Dowland), Varietie of Lute-lessons, London, 1610

"Perfection is death. I breath life into every note."
—attributed to Wanda Landowska by Albert Fuller

Saturday, February 23, 2008

For Free!

Free is good, and at the Free Scores web site you can download pdfs of a large range of classical sheet music for free!

I've been using it for Helicon the last few seasons and just added a link to the side bar on the right.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Experience . . .

"Experience has taught me that powerful hands capable of performing whatever is most rapid and light are not always those which show to best advantage in tender and expressive pieces, and I declare in all good faith that I am more pleased with what moves me than with what astonishes me."

François Couperin, L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin, Paris, 1716

"And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth show,
and every herb that sips the dew,
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain."

Milton, Il Penseroso, 1633

Monday, February 18, 2008

Zéphyros Winds perform at Merkin Hall
19 February 2008
Tuesday afternoon @ 2 p.m.
129 West 67th Street
(212) 501-3303

Click here for web info.

Building on Merkin Hall's theme for the season, RE:invention, our program of Milhaud, Debussy, Britten, Szervánszky, Ligeti, and Janacek, explores the process of reinvention in six works for winds.

"Reinvention in Early 20th-Century Music for Winds"
by James Roe

The wind quintet had its quiet birth in 1803, with the publication of three works for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn by a now obscure Italian composer living in Paris, Giuseppe Maria Cambini (1746-1825). At that time, chamber music for winds—called "harmoniemusik”—generally was written for an ensemble comprising pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons. The euphonious sound produced by these blended instrumental pairs became ubiquitous in aristocratic European courts from the mid-1700s until the 1830s. Wind ensembles were perfectly suited to entertaining at banquets and out of doors, their sound carried better than strings over the din of dishes and across vast lawns. Harmoniemusik repertoire included transcriptions of operas and symphonic works as well as original music by no lesser lights than Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart. The famous on-stage appearance of a becostumed wind octet in Mozart’s Don Giovanni perfectly underscores the ensemble’s cultural function, performing a transcription of the composer’s own “Non più andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro (along with music of Sarti and Soler) during the Don’s dinner. (Upon recognizing the Figaro aria, Leporello comments, "I know this one all too well!" Mozart’s self-referential jest reveals a post-modern wit, premature only by a few centuries . . . )

Whatever inspired Cambini to disentangle the customary harmoniemusik instrumental pairings in his three quintets is lost to history, but the new genre found fervent converts. Two 19th-century composers made significant contributions to its development: the Czech-born Parisian, Antoine Reicha (1770-1836) wrote over two dozen quintets, and under his influence, German, Franz Danzi (1763-1826) produced a body of nine. Yet, it was not until the 20th Century that the ensemble would gain sustained attention from composers and audiences. With the new century came a cultural hunger for the novel, the colorful, and the populist. The string quartet’s long reign as the preeminent vehicle for chamber music faced challenges from diverse instrumental groupings. Wind instruments, with their advancing technical brilliance and, especially, their distinct timbral variety, led the charge.

This afternoon’s program is drawn from the first half of the 20th Century, a period that comes the closest to being a “Golden Age” for the wind quintet. Our theme is that of musical reinvention. In each work, the composer reinvents historical raw materials, creating new music for winds.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
La Cheminée du Roi René (1942)

Among the major artistic inventions of the 20th Century, cinema enjoys unchallenged pride of place. Our program opens with film music by Darius Milhaud. Cavalcade d’amour (1939) by French filmmaker, Raymond Bernard (1891-1977), explored the theme of love in three periods: the Middle Ages, the Romantic Era, and the 20th Century. La Cheminée du Roi René is drawn from the music for the first section. The music for the other eras was composed by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) and Roger Désormière (1898-1963), respectively.

The work’s title refers to the 15th-century court of King René of Provence (1409-1480). For his portion of the film score, Milhaud uses winds to evoke music from the time of the Troubadours and their songs of “courtly love.” This work reveals the composer at his most lyric and least mischievous; his characteristically pungent bi-tonality leaving no trace in this score. Each movement creates a specific scene with vividly picturesque music. Historic influences mix with the harmonies of early jazz (a major influence on Milhaud), and the spiky sonorities of French Modernism. This film score fragment reinvents ancient music, producing something that sounds both new and old at the same time.

"Pan & Syrinx"

There are two sides to every story. How often those sides divide down gender lines is matter for social scientists, not musicians, nevertheless we now present two musical treatments of the myth of Pan and Syrinx. In this case, Pan’s point of view (roughly that of the man, albeit half goat) is pleaded by the oboe via Benjamin Britten and that of Syrinx (the ill-fated but lovely female nymph), by Debussy and the flute. Since the story is by Ovid, there are neither winners nor losers, only metamorphosis. In this pair of works, the composers reinvent the mythological storyteller in the form of a solo woodwind player—a Greek vase painting come to life—and in so doing, each dabbles in Ovid’s transformative magic.

Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977)
Fúvósötös (1953)

Wind music did not take a foothold in Hungary until after World War II. Up to that time, the violin reigned in both concert and folk music. A government-imposed cultural shift mid-century favored less formal music making, and in response, Hungarian composers took up wind chamber music in great numbers.

The immensely appealing, Fúvósötös, or “Wind Quintet,” of Endre Szervánszky, was one of the first of its kind, and is an example of artistic achievement blossoming under oppressive edict. Influenced by the work of ethnomusicologist/composers Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945), this piece evokes a rustic musical landscape with melodies and harmonies inspired by Hungarian folk music. Szervánszky’s melodic writing is characterized by an accented short note on the beat, mimicking the stressed initial syllable in spoken Hungarian; a device common in music based on traditional Hungarian sources. Though he quotes no actual folk tunes, Szervánszky uses distinctive melodies, characteristic metric formulations, and driving rhythms to reinvent the music of the countryside on the concert stage.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Six Bagatelles (1953)

''I am in a prison, one wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape.'' ---György Ligeti

On June 12, 2006, the music world lost one of its most compelling and innovative voices when Eastern European composer, György Ligeti died in Vienna at the age of 83. With a career that began under Soviet oppression in post World War II Hungary, Ligeti earned a worldwide audience when his music was used for Stanley Kubrick's movie ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' in 1968. As Paul Griffiths wrote in his New York Times obituary, “The moon music was indicative of only one of [Ligeti’s] expressive modes. After fleeing Hungary in 1956, he also showed himself to be a master of a fast, mechanical and comic sort of music. Between these two poles -- the 'Clocks and Clouds' -- he created works of exuberant variety and range.”

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet were written while he still was a young man in Budapest and combine, in his words, “Bartók with a little Stravinsky.” Originally composed in 1951 as part of an eleven-movement work for solo piano called Musica Ricercata, some of the music existed in an even earlier version, a Sonatina for piano four-hands. In 1953, the same year as Szervánszky published his Fúvósötös, Ligeti extracted six movements of the Musica Ricercata to orchestrate for winds. Through this reinvention of earlier work, Ligeti bestowed upon wind players a true masterpiece in miniature. Audiences today will hardly find this music shocking, but the Hungarian government banned its complete premier in 1956, citing musical ‘decadence’ counter to the good of the state. The work would only receive its first complete performance in Stockholm, 13 years after its composition.

Though the title suggests trifles—mere bagatelles—these six movements are diminutive in length only, most clock in at just over 60 seconds, and the longest is just over three minutes. As in the dances of a Baroque suite, each movement expresses a single musical ‘affect,’ and like any good distillation process, the result is intense and memorable. Moods range from playfulness to grief, contentment to craziness. Before one establishes itself, the next appears.

Jeos Janacek (1854-1928)
Mládí (1924)

Reinventing the self, the idea is as attractive as its reality elusive. In his late 60s, Czech composer, Leos Janacek experienced a creative flowering that carried him through the composition of several important operas and, between them, his most significant masterpieces of instrumental music. Among these late works is a sextet for a sui generis ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and horn. Titled Mládí or “Youth,” this work was published after the composer’s 70th birthday. In fact, his most distinctive and forward-looking music was written during his last decade. As would be expected from its title, Mládí is infused with youthful effervescence and even naïveté. Musicologist Zdenek Skoumal writes, “Janacek recalled the days at the old Brno monastery where he received his early education. There he had been one of the ‘blueboys,’ boys dressed in the monastery’s blue uniforms. The recollections infuse Mládí’s musical content, from the childlike exuberance of the first movement, the monastic solemnity of the second, to the ‘March of the blueboys’ of the third, and the heroic optimism of the finale.”

Janacek kept himself abreast of the musical advances made by the younger avant-garde composers prominent in the 1920s. Though he was older than the last generation of Romantic composers, including Mahler, Wolf, and Strauss, his musical language sounds more modernist than that of his younger coevals. One distinct aspect of Janacek’s style developed from his “speech-melody” theory. Beginning in 1897, he engaged in field research to convert the irregular patterns of common speech into musical notation. The results of this work were immediately evident in his operas, where he sought a “realistic” setting of the text, leaving the orchestra with the work of creating the emotional sound world the singer occupied. This research also influenced his purely instrumental compositions. Mládí famously opens with a melodic realization of the phrase “Mládí, zlaté mládí!” (“Youth, golden youth!”) played by the oboe. Other elements of Janacek’s mature compositional style evident in this work include an expanded tonal palette that functions within 19th-century harmony, development through variation, repetition and accretion, Moravian folk-elements, and surprising rhythmic admixtures. His melodies tend toward the short and easily singable, often encompassing both a small range and duration. (In this aspect, he notably eschews the influence of Mahler and Strauss.) Rhythmic patterns receive idiosyncratic treatment, and sections of contrasting tempo abut without transition or warning.

At times, Janacek’s musical notation evinces conceptual effort, as if he struggled to notate on the page the music he heard in his imagination. Thus, the composer’s initial creative act of invention is left in the hands of musicians to reinvent through the act of live performance.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

27 West 67th Street

For decades, 27 West 67th Street, the first door on your right, was a haven for classical musicians. An invitation to Albert Fuller's apartment was a special thing, it meant that you had arrived or at least were about to. I remember my first visit, while still in my first year at Juilliard. It changed me life. Now almost 20 years later, I find myself in the process of selling that apartment, as co-executor of Albert's estate. This space was home to Helicon for 21 years, the site for so many chamber music rehearsals and performances, vocal auditions, Juilliard coachings, movie shoots, weddings, dinners, and parties. (Oh, the parties!) And of course, it was Albert Fuller's home, and as such embodied, and in many ways continues to embody, the enthusiasm, energy, and promise he brought to generations of musicians and music lovers.

Last week a showing of the apartment coincided with a Helicon rehearsal for our Biber symposium. A bit of serendipity as it turns out. I was worried it might be a disruption, but our real estate brokers, the divine Sharon Baum and her brother David Enloe of the Corcoran Group, found it both charming and meaningful. The experience blossomed into an article in today's Real Estate section of the New York Times. (Click here for the article.) Thank you to Josh Barbanel for being pitch-perfect. (I imagine the article's opening sequence, which, in one sentence, goes from dirty laundry to hot milled cider to Heinrich von Biber has to be a journalistic first.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Images from The 85th Symposium of
The Helicon Foundation
James Roe, Artistic Director
William A. Simon, President
Albert Fuller, Founder

The Mysterious World of Heinrich Biber
10 February 2008

Colin Jacobsen, violin
Robert Wolinsky, harpsichord & organ
Daniel Swenberg, lute & theorbo
Myron Lutzke, cello

Photographs by Joe Hsu

Sunday, February 10, 2008

5 p.m., Sunday, 10 February 2008

"Listening to Biber, Some Thoughts"


Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was born in the small Bohemian town of Wartenberg, now Stráx pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic. Little is known of his early training as a musician, though Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680), Kapellmeister of the Imperial Viennese Court knew and encouraged Biber’s career, and may even have been his teacher. Biber held posts in Graz and then Kromeriz, before establishing himself in Salzburg in 1670, a move he made without notifying his former employer he was leaving! He flourished in Salzburg, entering the service of Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg. In 1679, he was given the modest appointment Vice-Kapellmeister, advancing to Kapellmeister and dean of the choir school in 1684. Leopold I granted him ennoblement in 1690 with the title, ‘Biber von Bibern.’ Subsequently, Biber was promoted to the station of 'Lord High Steward' marking the culmination of his social career. By this point, his salary had risen to 60 gulden a month, with free board and lodging including such items as wine, bread and firewood. Jacob Stainer, the most celebrated instrument maker of the day referred to Biber as “the formidable virtuoso,” and indeed his reputation and compositions reveal a man of prodigious talent and quixotic temperament.


Biber’s music can be heard as the culmination of the 17th-century Italian style birthed around 1600 with the invention of opera. In the first decades of the 17th Century, this new Italian music swept over The Alps, quickly dominating the courts of Austria, Germany, and France (the latter, only until the reign of Louis XIV). The major part of Biber’s career was spent in Salzburg, and indeed, it was in this city that Italian operatic music gained its first important foreign outpost. Archbishop Marcus Sitticus von Hohenums, who reigned from 1612-1619, fostered close ties to Italy and in 1614 built a stage in his residence appropriate for Italian opera. On 10 February 1614 (394 years ago today), the first performance of an opera outside of Italy took place on that stage in Salzburg.

To appreciate the music of Biber, it is important to know some things about 17th-century Italian opera. Music before 1600 was characterized by complex polyphony, or the simultaneous sounding of multiple melodic lines. The euphonious pleasures and splendors of 16th-century Italian polyphonic vocal music outweighed clear communication of the text being sung. The music of Palestrina (c1525-1594) represents the highest achievement in music of this style. The invention of Italian opera offered the antidote to the excesses of this complex music. In the new musical style, the vocal line followed inflections of speech and the accompaniment did not obstruct a direct presentation of the text. Instead of polyphony, or multiple melodic lines, 17th-century Italian opera was based on monody.

As Italian opera spread north of the peninsula, it influenced all musical genres, including instrumental music. By the time of Biber, this style had developed a great sophistication of affect, expression, and melodic inventiveness, while retaining its economy of means, and directness of expressive intent.

Each of Biber’s sonatas is a single movement work with contrasting sections. These sections are quite recognizable and while the music is instantly appealing, it may help to know some of the signposts along the road. These works often begin with a freely rhapsodic prelude (Praeludium) where the violin plays seemingly improvised flourishes over long held notes in the continuo. These sections invite the listener to enter the sound world of the work; they seduce and in so doing, prepare the way for what is to come. These preludes are purely instrumental music, but Biber also writes Adagios in the vocal style of small opera arias. Here the accompaniment has a more active and regular metric feel over which the violin sings its songs (albeit without words). The most striking sections of Biber’s sonatas are the long sets of variations (Variatio or Aria e Variatio). These sections are the meat of his works and begin with either a simple song-like melody or simple chord progression. The violin then embarks on a series of fanciful reinterpretations of those simple building blocks. With all the inventive and virtuosic tricks of his trade, Biber moves through these variations, creating a music of accretion, upping the ante with each repetition. These sections can produce a trance-like or meditative experience in the listener. Your own imagination is in good hands with Biber and
these musicians. Enjoy!

Tonight's Violin Music

The eight sonatas published in 1681 represent Biber’s most sophisticated marrying of composition and virtuoso violin technique. Fiendishly difficult, these melody-driven works are marked by unpredictability, inventiveness, and a spontaneity that suggests improvisations. The violinist Andrew Manze suggests that, “but for the fact that it exists on the printed page, [Biber’s music] might have been improvised straight into a baroque tape-recorder.” Biber revels in the surprises he throws at the audience, so be ready.

Biber’s most famous work is a cycle of fifteen violin sonatas based on the Mysteries of the Rosary with a concluding Passacaglia for Violin Solo. “The Mystery Sonatas,” as they are titled, were published in the 1670s. They are remarkable for their use of scordatura, or the retuning of the violin’s strings to allow special harmonic and acoustic effects. Tonight we will hear the first of the “Mystery Sonatas” (and the only one to employ standard violin tuning), to open our second half.

The Sonata Representativa was written for Carnival while Biber was living in Kromeriz. The Prince-Bishop of Olmouc-Kromeriz was a fan of programmatic effects in music, so the piece may have been written for him. The animal noises Biber sets are obvious enough, but they are not exactly his invention. He was quoting from an internationally influential musicological work, “Musurgia Universalis,” written by Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who codified melodies in imitation of nature. (A chart of these musical/bestial quotations is included with your program.) This work would certainly be an “inside joke” for the highly literate audience. As Robert Frost taught us “all the fun is how you say a thing," and when Biber says something, it turns out to be very fun, indeed.

A quick note on Schmelzer

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680) began his career as a violinist in the Viennese Imperial court band, a world dominated by Italians, playing Italian music. This young Austrian musician went on to overturn the foreign domination by becoming a master of their style. His Sonatae unarum fidium of 1664 were the first solo sonatas to be published by a non-Italian. Schmelzer also became the first non-Italian Kapellmeister at the Viennese court and was widely considered to be ‘one of the most famous, distinguished violinists in the whole of Europe’ (J. J. Müller, Reise-Diarium, 1660). Though it has been suggested that he was Biber’s teacher, this attractive idea cannot be proven. We do know, however, that he used his influence to aid the younger musician, and certainly, he was an important role model to any aspiring Austrian musician.

The sonata of Schmelzer that ends our program tonight opens with an extended set of variations—a passacaglia—built on a peaceful descending four-note melody. Over this bass line, Schmelzer presents a simple melodic line in the violin that builds in complexity as the piece unfolds. He weaves two contrasting Baroque dances into the repeating bass line, a graceful sarabande and a lively gigue. At the end of the passacaglia, Schmelzer offers a small aria before ending in flourishes of virtuosic display.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Biber — Helicon's 85th Symposium

Rehearsals are underway for Sunday's concert of the music of Heinrich Biber.

Colin Jacobsen, violin
Robert Wolinsky, harpsichord & organ
Myron Lutzke, 'cello
Daniel Swenberg, lute & theorbo

Germaine Schneider - "Trees in Snow" (1938)

While in San Francisco with Zéphyros this last weekend, I visited the SF art galleries Saturday morning. I was delighted to pick up this small (3 inches by 2 inches), peaceful picture by French photographer Germaine Schneider (fl. 1930s-1950s) at the Robert Tat Gallery. The show, which was on its last day, featured small photographs from the early 20th Century. The picture is formally beautiful and plays with perspective and perception of size, shadow and light, in ways that appeal to me. Her work is in the collections of the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Germaine Schneider
"Trees in Snow" (1938)
3 in. x 2 in.
gelatin silver print
Robert Tat Gallery
Fierce Winds

Zéphyros played a concert in Marin last weekend at a series in Mill Valley. Click here to read the review in The San Francisco Classical Voice.
Just home from a recording session with the divine Issa (aka Jane Siberry), working on new songs for a new recording. My colleagues are the Kim sisters, Pauline on violin (a friend since Juilliard), and Christine on cello.

The work is exacting in its way. Issa's ears hear subtle details of sound and especially timing. Playing her music well always takes me out of my usual performing mind set. Sitting with her in the studio as we played through passages tonight, often a graceful movement of her hands or a phrase quietly sung, revealed the secret to sounding spontaneous. Her music is in her body and achieving the spiritual uplift in her songs requires physically conforming to her inner rhythms. Giving oneself over to these rhythms allows a special ethereal freedom and flow.

Every musical style has its own own vernacular accent, its own way of filling the space between beats and notes. The process of finding and sharing in a particular musical language is difficult to describe, but it is the stuff that brings a musician's life to life, and fills it with secret pleasures and satisfactions. It fills the spaces between notes and the rest.