Program Notes: Tongue in Cheek

This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) :: Suite from Minimax

Hindemith came to maturity in a transitional time for music. Just a little over a decade before his birth, Wagner died. By the time he was in his late teens Stravinsky had unleashed the Rite of Spring. Lush longing was bashing up against angular primitivism, and the twelve-tone system was coming into its own. One of the defining characteristics of Hindemith was his objectivity, acknowledging and celebrating the idea that in addition to all this romanticism and innovation music has a deeply practical side. This was perhaps cultivated during his youth when he worked as a gigging musician playing music for theaters and spas (as was the custom in those days, health spas were equipped with their own orchestras to serenade the customers with light classical hits as they took the waters). This philosophy manifested itself in the numerous works Hindemith wrote for every instrument or combination. Posterity was not his aim. The only reason for the music was its immediate use. Whether it was received as a “master work” or not was irrelevant.

Being that Hindemith was so practical, it might be going a step too far to suggest his parody works poke a sardonic finger at the romantics, but he is certainly poking fun at them—and the performances as well. One of his most famous parodies is a rendition of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture “as sight-read by a bad spa orchestra at seven in the morning by the fountain” (certainly informed by personal experience and observation). In Minimax many quotes and references to familiar works of the canon (Beethoven’s fifth, allusions to von Suppé, etc.) sit side by side with elements of near slapstick (listen for depictions of a tuba with a stuck valve, as portrayed by the cello in the movement Armeemarsch 606).

Written between the wars in 1923, the work is cheekily subtitled “Repertorium für Militärorchester” and the word “minimax” refers to both a brand of fire extinguisher, as well as the stitching together of the names Max and Wilhelmine “Minzi” von Fürstenberg, who underwrote the Donaueschingen Festival of Contemporary Music, with which Hindemith was involved.

Carlo Farina (1600-1639) :: Capriccio Stravagante

On the surface Farina’s Capriccio Stravagante seems to be pure fun. Throughout the duration of the piece, one hears string instruments perform charming and comic imitations of a host of objects, both inanimate and animate. We smile as the strings portray lyres, pipes, and trumpets, as well as hens, dogs, and cats. It is meant to be entertaining, but there is something else happening, something of somewhat historic proportions.

As Andrew Bonner notes in his recent dissertation on the piece, Farina is simultaneously serving up a catalog of technique on how to achieve certain colors and effects through the manipulation of the instrument and bow. As the age of the encyclopedia dawned, Farina’s work put into print some of the techniques that would come to define the instrument over time: col legno (striking the strings with the stick rather than the hairs), sul ponticello (on the bridge), pizzacato, glissando. Bonner remarks, “Perhaps, if Farina indeed had an overarching purpose in assembling this gallery of timbral imitations, it was to showcase this defining ability of the violin, just at the moment when the definition of the violin itself was coalescing.” Thus, beyond just being amusing, this piece of music—the only one for which Farina has achieved any notoriety to posterity—captures a unique moment in time when vocal madrigalisms (vocal techniques to “paint” pictures with sounds to correspond with the text) were to give way to purely instrumental expression, and violin technique, and music for strings, were entering a golden age.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) :: Fandango, G. 341

Much of the instrumental music in the Renaissance and Baroque was born from dance. Contrasting “movements” were constructed by assembling dances of various rhythms, moods, and tempos into larger structure known as the orchestral suite (essentially the predecessor to the symphony). As the world became a place of travel and discovery, and musicians moved from court to court across Europe for employment, they integrated different national dances into their music, sometimes adapting it into something completely different than the original; the famous Ciaconna for unaccompanied violin by Bach is a slow and melancholy version of what was originally an upbeat vivid dance from the Americas based on an ostinato pattern, for example. Dance movements were integrated into chamber works, as well—hence the one piece everyone knows Boccherini for: the minuet from his String Quartet op. 11, no. 5.

In stark contrast to that prim and proper calling card is the fandango movement that Boccherini liked so well he utilized twice, once in his cello quintet G. 341(from which the arrangement on this program is derived) and also as the concluding movement of his guitar quintet no. 4, G. 448. The prolific Italian composer (he wrote hundreds of works) arrived in Madrid after a short time in Vienna, finding work as a court musician and composer in each city. Spain would be the country where he remained until his death, and its influence is permanently reflected in the fandango, a Spanish dance in triple meter of a hypnotic, sensual, nature punctuated by the rhythm of castanets.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Ein Musikalischer Spass

Leonard Bernstein, in one of his beloved Young People’s Concerts, explores the question “What makes music funny?” Noting Bernstein’s observation that a joke isn’t funny after it is explained, perhaps it’s of service to pause here and recommend that you, the listener, refrain from reading this note until after the Mozart has finished. After all, this is Mozart’s musical joke.

In that presentation, Bernstein points out that “humor in music...[has] got to be funny for musical reasons.” The punch lines in Mozart’s work emerge when things seemingly go “wrong” with what we expect as far as craft and skill. In this spoof of a divertimento (a genre of music for divertissement—pure entertainment), there are perhaps sly references to amateur musicians unable to play in tune (he originally titled the work, “The Village Band”), and certainly on compositional conventions and rules (mock “improper” uses of chord progressions, unsuccessful counterpoint). Comedy, as they say, is tragedy at a distance. Being Mozart, all this is integrated alongside some truly beautiful melodies.

—Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

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