Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Knights Celebrate New Year's Eve 2011
at The 92nd Street Y

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Fantasia upon One Note (c 1680)

Terry Riley (b 1935)
In C (1964)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 5 in C Minor, op. 67 (1807-8)


by James Roe

“There was a time (time out of mind)”
— James McCourt, opening line of Mawrdew Czgowchwz

“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
— T. S. Eliot from “Buirnt Norton” no. 1 of the Four Quartets

“Make a joyful noise”
— Psalm 100

“The Joy of C”

Happy New Year! Tonight’s Knights concert features three radically different (and radical) pieces that each focus on the note C. Through these works, we will explore the ways in which music enhances, disrupts, and even suspends our perception of time. New Years Eve—a time of heightened consciousness of time past, passing, and yet to come—is ideal for this exploration.

In our concept of tonight’s concert, the note C and its continual presence throughout the music, represents time. The music’s relationship to this note changes throughout the concert just as our experience of time changes across any specific moment, hour, day, year, or lifetime.

Music only exists in the passage of time. At the very moment a musical sound is created, it is instantly consumed by the listener and transformed into emotion and memory. Music cannot be held. The intricacies of its beauty cannot be examined in the present tense. Music is always in the past or in the future. Memory and anticipation dance while music plays.

Why C?

The note C is a fundamental sound in Western music. Middle C divides the piano keyboard between soprano and bass, right hand and left. The music student’s first lessons are always in C. Schumann described C Major as “simple, unadorned.” Schelling wrote that, “concerning the physical expression of this key, it appears to be completely pure.”

Composers have gone to the key of C for major musical statements. Two of Schubert’s last completed works are in C Major, his Ninth Symphony, “The Great,” and the monumental Cello Quintet. Mozart set the complex splendors of his “Jupiter” Symphony in C. The gripping narrative of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is dramatized in the progression from C Minor to of C Major. (More on this later.)

One of the most famous C Major chords in all of music is in Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” After the overture, which depicts the chaos before creation, the chorus quietly intones the words of Genesis 1:3, “God said, let there be light, and there was light.” On the final word “light,” the orchestra and chorus burst forth with a fortissimo C Major chord. An eyewitness to the premiere, wrote that the “enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.”

The note C has pride-of-place in the world of music. It is a starting point and destination, beginning and end, foundation and culmination.

Purcell: Fantasia upon one Note
“Preserving a moment in music”

Henry Purcell was the preeminent English composer of his day. In about 1680, he wrote a group of Fantasias for string ensemble, which demonstrated the 21-year old’s mastery of the current compositional techniques.

The fantasia—or “fancy” as it was called in England—was popular during the 16th and 17th Centuries, and as its name suggests, it showcased a composer’s imagination and wit. These works were intimate entertainments, their principal preoccupation being the harmonious presentation of multiple, equal voices, a compositional technique called counterpoint. The counterpoint of Purcell’s Fantasias achieves an idealization of human interaction in the context of sophisticated musical conversation.

In Purcell's Fantasia upon One Note, a middle C sounds through the entire piece. The other four voices harmonize around this gentle drone, traversing an wide array of sentiments. Listeners may lose track of the sustained C from time to time, but it is there, quietly reminding us that though we may feel time has stopped, it hasn’t. This brief work could make you wish Purcell’s moment lasted forever.

Terry Riley: In C
“Mind altering music”

Terry Riley’s seminal minimalist masterpiece In C erupts with pulsating octave Cs in the piano. The work shimmers and radiates. It can subsume both listener and performer in its trancelike spell.

In his book, "The Rest is Noise," Alex Ross described Terry Riley as, “an easy-going character of the rural-hippie type [who] grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.” Le Monte Young, the maverick pioneer of musical minimalism, introduced Riley to the mind/time altering influences of marijuana and mescaline. According to Riley, Young also introduced him to the “concept of not having to press ahead to create interest.”

In C is written on a single sheet of paper. It has no specified length or instrumentation, rather it consists of the repeating octave Cs and fifty-three short melodic “events” that he called modules. The modules are played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times they repeat each one before moving to the next. The work's improvisatory and interactive elements ensure no two performances are alike.

“Terry Riley’s In C is one of the definitive masterpieces of the 20th Century,” wrote music critic Alfred Frankenstein in High Fidelity. His San Francisco Chronicle review of the premiere offers a brilliant description of the piece: “Climaxes of great sonority and high complexity appear and are dissolved in the endlessness. At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be."

Beethoven: Symphony no. 5 in C Minor
“Joy follows sorrow”

Beethoven's Symphony no. 5 in C Minor does not begin with a C. Its first sound is silence. This, the most famous work of classical music, begins with a rest.

Contained in that diminutive unit of silence is the last moment of calm before fate intervenes, the last second before learning life-changing news. It is the end of innocence before Beethoven’s famous four-note motif launches the obsessive, anxious, fateful first movement.

Beethoven was preoccupied with the idea of Fate. This is not surprising, as early as 1801 (three years before his first sketches for the Fifth Symphony) he began informing his friends that he was going deaf. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, his will in the form of a letter written to his brothers that Beethoven closely guarded throughout his life, he wrote, “But what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back.” Yet he attained a kind of personal resolve in the face of his condition. “I will seize Fate by the throat," he wrote, "It will not crush me entirely!” It is striking that, in the face of deafness, Beethoven begins this monumental symphony with a silence.

The Fifth shows Beethoven's full mastery of symphonic form, harmonic narrative, and rhythmic propulsion. Variations of the opening four-note motif sound throughout the work, as the music responds to the tension established by the first movement.

The Scherzo leads directly into the Finale through an extended, murky passage in pianissimo. Here, static harmony and melodic fragmentation create an aural haze with quiet echoes of the opening four-note motif in the timpani. From this, the lowest point of the symphony, a dramatic eight-bar crescendo ensues, culminating in the joyful fortissimo C Major of the Finale. Piccolo, trombones, and contra-bassoon expand the ensemble to create a brilliant burst of orchestral color. It is Beethoven’s “Let there be light” moment, and the upsurge of emotional and musical energy can be transcendent.

Just as the transformation of fate to joy is nearly complete, the murky Scherzo music makes a disquieting reappearance in the middle of the Finale. These dark clouds last only a moment before the triumphal music from the opening of the movement returns. The symphony ends with an impressive fifty-five bars of C Major played by the full ensemble.

“Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor,” Beethoven wrote to his student Archduke Rudolf, “Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”