Bach, The Musical Offering: Ricercar for 6, overture, in the hand of Bach
J.S. Bach: Two Ricercars from “The Musical Offering” (1747)
Charles Wuorinen: Horn trio (1981)
Paul Lansky: Three movements for Marimba (1998)
Arnold Schoenberg: Ode to Napoleon (on a poem by Lord Byron) (1942)
Performed by the Ulysses String Quartet, Leelanee Sterrett (horn), Alan Feinberg (piano), Brandon Ilaw (percussion), Eric Huebner (piano), Miranda Cuckson (violin) and David Adam Moore (narrator)
The “House Blend” concert series at PS 21 in Chatham, NY, opened its second season Friday night (June 24). PS 21 events are curated by Elena Slyenko and House Blend programs are designed by pianist Alan Feinberg, who was on hand to perform the two Bach Ricercars who served as bookends to a program that was both entertaining and stimulating.
The series is characterized by the “mixing” of older music (usually Bach) with a modernist classic (in this case Schoenberg) and a selection of more contemporary works. As the program’s most imposing dramatic work, Schoenberg’s setting of a long poem by Lord Byron provided its center of gravity. A denunciation of tyranny composed at the start of World War II by a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany nine years earlier, the work has powerful resonances as a congressional committee reveals the ways of a would-be dictator in our own country. attempted to establish a minority regime in a pattern that echoes those who brought to power previous tyrants, particularly Napoleon and Hitler. It was particularly moving to hear it on the day that minority forces in government removed a fundamental right of women to determine the fate of their own bodies.
Despite these dark political overtones, the program had important balancing elements. Bach’s works are serious and abstract (i.e. without external references), even if they were written as a kind of tribute to Frederick the Great: Bach had been invited to the royal court to meet the king of music, who gave him a theme supposedly composed by himself (probably aided by a composer in his employ, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach) and ordered his famous guest to improvise on it. The result was the first ricercar (an ancient name for a fugue) for three voices, which was later written down. It has the character of a keyboard improvisation (of the highest level!) with a loose structure and flowing figures.
According to the story, the king then requested a six-voice piece on the same theme, a seemingly impossible request. Bach said he would have to work ‘on paper’ and went home to compose the second ricercar, a virtuoso counterpoint work (six voices) in a more ancient style. Alan Feinberg made no attempt at a historically informed performance; rather he used the resources of the modern piano (dynamic variation, pedal coloration) to reveal the underlying structure of the music. It worked well in the first work but less so in the second, where the resources of the piano served to obscure its intricate weaving with too much emphasis on vertical harmony. This work needs the clarity of a well-recorded organ or set of viols to reveal its secrets. There is a remarkable transcription by Anton Webern (a pupil of Schoenberg) which uses all the chromatic resources of a modern orchestra to demonstrate the dazzling complexity of this astonishing composition.
The three 20seBach’s works of the last century used various forms of humor to shape their character. Charles Wuorinen’s trio (1938-2020), composed for a rare combination of violin, horn and piano, has a great antecedent to Brahms and a powerful, almost contemporary companion to Gyorgy Ligeti, the latter having been performed last year at the PS 21 by the same musicians. The challenge of composing for this combination is to bring together instruments of very different character and sound to form a cohesive sound whole. Brahms does this by skillfully using warmly blended romantic harmonies, while Wuorinen and Ligeti both exploit the inherent contrasts of the instruments, sometimes to comedic effect.
Wuorinen’s music is known for its atonality, powerful uncompromising gestures, and seriously elaborate structures. This piece provides a contrast. It is in one movement with well-marked character episodes. Dynamics is the struggle of these instruments to find common ground: they begin to try to articulate the same note, but their various ways of doing so quickly cause the texture to fly around as if under centrifugal forces. A form of organized, high-energy chaos ensues, at times comedic or menacing (or both), and at times attempting to find a rapprochement, including a section that sounds like an attempted waltz and a clean repeat of the opening. Then, after a series of failed attempts, the trio reach a fragile agreement to end.
Paul Lansky (b. 1944) is known as a pioneering composer of computer-generated music, but in recent years has focused on music for acoustic instruments. Judging by “Three Moves”, he seems to have decided to have fun doing it. The “Moves” are scored for a large five-octave marimba that requires the performer to shift slightly on their feet to reach all registers (I assume the instrument is about nine feet long). This requires the performer either to have several desks available or to play entirely from memory, which was the choice of virtuoso Brandon Ilaw. In a sense, the music choreographs the “movements” of the performer, both the footwork and the action of the arms and hands, each holding two mallets at varying angles throughout. The visual spectacle was enhanced by the different colors of the four mallet heads which traced graceful arcs in space over the course of the three pieces. The music was light, jazzy, syncopated, clever, and full of delicious surprises, all enhanced by the enjoyment Ilaw was visibly having throughout.
After providing these imaginative forms of entertainment, the program moved on to Byron and Schoenberg’s sarcastic “Ode” – a work by Schadenfreude celebrating Napoleon’s renunciation of power in 1814 and his subsequent (albeit short-lived) exile to Elba. Schoenberg adapted Byron’s mocking verses (19 stanzas) to a form of recitation called Speech (‘spoken voice’) which he had invented thirty years earlier for his masterpiece Lunar Pierrot in which the speaker’s voice glides from note to note without actually singing (i.e. sustaining) them. The rhythm of the lyrics is entirely determined and coordinated with the accompanying ensemble of string quartet and piano, but the inflections are indicated only approximately by the pitch of the notes relative to a central staff at a single line. The result sounds a lot like the kind of old-fashioned political eloquence or rhetoric from the pulpit, a tradition that has been kept alive in some black churches. The poem is read cover to cover at normal recitation speed, much faster than traditional chanting can allow, requiring perfect diction. David Adam Moore came close, but a slightly blurry sound system left some gaps in intelligibility. (Words must emerge through very dense and active musical textures.) The poem compares the fall of Napoleon to classic and historical examples of kings and tyrants who either gave up their power, always to Napoleon’s detriment: Neither man neither demon has fallen so far…” etc.
While Schoenberg’s music has been negatively stereotyped as gritty and sinister, it is a score full of contrasts in character and mood, including some very subtle imagery. Unusually for a late work by this composer, the formidable technique of “todecaphonism” is heightened by fleeting references to more traditional harmonies, including a triumphal finale in E flat major which can be seen as a prediction of the Allied victory to come. . The sheet music even includes Beethoven’s Fifth motto which was a universally recognized symbol of “V for Victory”. In addition to this offering of common ground between traditional and innovative musical languages, the score contains an array of musical gestures ranging from intimate and mysterious string harmonics to an energetic collaboration between quartet and piano to create an almost orchestral. The performers did an excellent job of squeezing all the dramatic juice out of this superb score.
Schoenberg spent the last 18 years of his life in Hollywood, teaching at UCLA and being part of a community of exiled artists who had fled Europe before the Nazi onslaught, including Stravinsky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and many others. There, he became friends with Charlie Chaplin who, in 1941, enjoyed enormous success with his film “The Dictator”. Chaplin came to regret taking a lighthearted approach to portraying Hitler after the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed at the end of the war. It is plausible that Schoenberg may have had similar reservations about the tone he adopted in ostensibly addressing Hitler. After the war, he composed “A Survivor from Warsaw” which takes a much darker documentary approach to depicting the plight of European Jews, and finds solace in their adherence to their faith, indicated by its staging, in Hebrew. , from the “Sh’ ma Yisroel” sung by the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto. Moving from parody to serious indictment, Schoenberg could offer us a way forward as we approach our contemporary situation. Perhaps we should reverse a famous saying of Marx: “History happens twice, first as farce, then as tragedy.