Pau notes

Program notes for our Casals concert - written by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) :: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

The six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concerts with several instruments) derive their nickname, the “Brandenburg Concertos,” from the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. Presumably, Bach met the Margrave in Berlin while he was in town checking on a new harpsichord for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, for whom he was serving as Kapellmeister. It’s also assumed that Margrave took the opportunity to commission Bach for some music. As an employee of Prince Leopold, it would have been inappropriate for Bach to accept a commission for new music from the Margrave. Three years later, however, Bach sent the concertos to Margrave, leading to the hypothesis they were sent as a kind of résumé. During those three years devastating change swept through Bach’s household: out of town on duty with musicians and the Prince, Bach returned to find his wife had died several days before and was already buried. Not only was he heartbroken, he was left to care for their several children alone. Perhaps he remembered meeting the Margrave and saw him as a ticket out of town. Whatever his motivation, they were sent and the met with silence. No reply. The Margrave never even had them performed.

Each of the six concertos stands out for its own reasons, with different instrument combinations used in the “concerto grosso,” (“big concert”) structure made popular by the Italians, where a smaller group (“concertino”) functions as soloist in conversation with the whole (“ripieno”). But the Brandenburg No. 1 has a very modern distinction: it was one of the pieces included on the so-called Voyager Golden Record that was included on board the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 as a testament to any entity that may find it of the intelligence and culture of our earthly civilization.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) :: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129

Schumann spent his life wandering in and out of shadows. Like many artists, reality was the pin threatening to burst the comfort of the creative bubble. Joy and misery were winnowed so thoroughly in the mind of Schumann that the distance between the two seemed impassable by the time he thrust his body into the icy Rhine in February of 1854. Or perhaps it was the opposite; each emotion faded into the other until the edges wore down into a single, indecipherable, dulling numbness that clouded over his mind.

It had been just four years before, in 1850 that he and his family enjoyed a happy and promising time marked by his appointment as music director of the Allgemeiner Musikverein in Düsseldorf. For Schumann, a man always placed a little off to the edges of popularity, the festivities, dinners, performances of his compositions, and general pomp greeting him must have ruffled a refreshing breeze of confidence his direction. Within two weeks of the move he had begun and completed the luminous Cello Concerto in A Minor.

Emerging from the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the symphonic/sonata form revolutionary, meant a generation of composers had performance anxiety about following in his footsteps. As such, Schumann (though he wrote wonderful symphonies) focused on a genre largely untouched by Beethoven: smaller sets and collections, and charming miniatures. When Schumann returns to the larger, more traditional, forms he brings with him the same method of distillation resulting in pieces – like the Cello Concerto – that are incredibly potent. In one long continuous sequence of gestures the three movements never break character or mood with the addition of space to delineate their divisions. Nicht zu schnell (not too fast) relaxes with the reminiscence of a waltz into Langsam (slowly), the short melancholic path leading to the effusive Sehr lebhaft (very lively).

The parties and dinners were long gone by the time Schumann was pulled from the Rhine. He had been unceremoniously replaced as conductor in Düsseldorf following a disastrous string of erratic behavior toward his musicians. He would pass away in 1856 after two years in an asylum. His beautiful Cello Concerto of 1850 would not be brought to life by performance until its premiere in 1860.

Pau Casals (1876-1973) :: Sant Marti del Canigo

In 1890 when the cellist Pau (“Pablo”) Casals was on the verge of his fourteenth birthday, he visited a music shop in Barcelona. There, amongst the stacks of sheet music, he saw the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. From our position in the early 21st century it’s difficult to imagine the cello suites being considered anything less than masterpieces, and yet in the not so distant past they were treated for the most part simply as exercises. They were pieces you would learn to bolster technique, or improve the agility and strength of the fingers. But Casals envisioned something else when he began to delve into the scores: music worthy of the stage. The rest, as they say, is history.

Casals can seem like such a modern presence in our lives that it’s hard to remember he was born in the late Victorian era—having actually played for Queen Victoria in 1899 at the age of twenty-three. By 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out Casals was famous, and used his notoriety to publically supported the Republic faction, opposing and drawing attention to what he viewed as a fascist government led by Francisco Franco. When Franco came to power Casals protested by refusing to set foot in Spain, or perform in any country that supported Franco’s regime.

In the early years of self-imposed exile from Spain, Casals composed Sant Marti del Canigo, named for a place in his native Catalonia—a region he was always extremely proud to be from, and to which he had a deep emotional attachment, all the more so when he felt it was under threat. The work is often described as an orchestral setting of a dance native to the region called the sardana, in which the participants move in the form a circle, grasping hands.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) :: Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals, Op. 46

In a preface to his score, Ginastera wrote:

“It was with great emotion that I composed Glosses to the memory of Pablo Casals. Many things drew me to Casals: his personality; his great qualities as an artist and as a man for whom freedom was the essential element in all of life...the enthusiasm he showed for my works; his interest in keeping abreast of events everywhere in the world of music, and finally my own Catalan origin—the ‘ginesta’ (‘broom flower’) being one of the symbols of Catalonia. I still have in my mind a very clear, almost photographic, recollection of Casals sitting on the beach of San Juan with his inseparable umbrella, looking at the sea beyond the horizon as if trying to reach with his eyes the ocean’s opposite shore. A distant smile—at once enigmatic and mischievous, somewhat poetic, somewhat bitter—lighted his face from time to time, and I knew that his thoughts were over there in his native Catalonia. And I have kept from that time certain mental images of Casals that I have tried to bring back to life with love and friendship through his own musical themes.”

Rather than default to theme and variations, Ginastera’s colorful tribute to Casals took form as “Commentaries on Themes of Pablo Casals,” as the title is often translated into English. It’s as if Ginastera is showing us a sonic photo album of those mental images of his friend he held so dear. We hear a clip of Casals, and Ginastera pauses to provide the context. We hear glimpses of, or allusions to, Casals’ music woven into Ginastera’s modernist tapestry, an ingenious way to paint a musical portrait.