First Light Notes

Our favorite musicologist-at-large Kathryn Bacasmot has done it again, supplying poetic and illuminating program notes for A Far Cry's upcoming "First Light." Read up after the break!This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

At this point we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.

~Italo Calvino

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) spent the majority of his compositional career in the spotlight, but he recognized the Italian Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) as a prominent figure casting a very long shadow. The two actually met each other for a brief period around 1707 when Handel, a twenty-something, visited Italy during his last years in Hamburg.

The Baroque was basking in the glow of the seconda pratica (“second practice”), the era of purposeful dissonances, heralding the use of music as illustrator of abstract emotions, and Corelli had the corner on the market, coining the term “Corelli Clash” (what we know today as essentially the rub and release of dissonance and its resolution) in the process. He was distinct, notes Michael Talbot, for “being the first composer to derive his fame exclusively from instrumental composition.”

Among the beloved collections from Corelli were his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, of which there were 12. Handel very likely intended his 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, as a tip of the hat to the man who outsold him – even in England.

Unlike Corelli, Handel’s oeuvre extended deep into vocal territory. Today he is best remembered for anthems, oratorios, and operas while his other most recognizable works are instrumental pieces meant for accompanying royal outings (usually of the explosive or aquatic variety). His Op. 6 appear to be a concerted effort on his part (executed with tremendous speed between September and October of 1739) to produce a literal set of purely instrumental pieces meant to be played in succession (his Op. 3 Concerti Grossi appear to be a pastiche put together to sell copies by his publisher, John Walsh).

Concerti Grossi are about textures and depth perception. The interplay of concertino (smaller groupings of instruments or true solo passages) and ripieno (the entire ensemble) shift the entire focus like a watching a film go from wide establishing shots to zeroing in and highlighting a specific conversation. The overall tone of No. 11 is something like a regal country picnic, complete with a fashionable basket containing rich delicious harmonies packaged within delicate staccato articulations that snap like puff pastry, and Waterford sparkling in the abundant sunlight.

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) explains: "I wrote Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it "from afar", the music would probably offer a "beautiful" surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops...The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground."

Namesakes to Golijov’s composition are the three Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”) services, on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday of Holy Week in the Christian faith. Each night begins in light and ends in shadow as fifteen ceremonial candles are extinguished one by one following the reading of each Psalm. Eventually all candles in the church are put out and the congregation are engulfed utter darkness – save for one light of one candle representing hope. The people then dismiss into the night.

The tension of the shadow lands sustains this haunting music in mid-air, caught between darkness and light and their metaphorical doubles of despair and hope in prolonged meditation.

Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) isn’t often grouped with his “Impressionist” contemporaries, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) or Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and his devotion to Johannes Brahms (“The Progressive,” as he heralded him in his famous essay) is frequently overlooked. He is best remembered for building a ladder to the Modern viewpoint via rows of 12-tones.

Verklärte Nacht balances on a thread Schönberg ran through (so-called) Impressionism, Brahms, and Wagner, transfiguring their elements just as the emotional landscape of the poem is transfigured. Rather than programmatic, descriptive of the action, it sets out to describe something more ambiguous: mood. Here his musical language has the syntax of Wagner with compound chords teetering on the edge of tonality, perpetually land sliding key centers, but the delivery is more deliberate and clarified – magnificently amplified versions of the complex harmonics of Brahms’ late works for piano solo.

Embodying the emotions of Richard Dehmel’s poem, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), the heart of Schönberg’s score beats in rhythm with the dialogue in five stanzas. A woman (represented by the viola) and a man (represented by the cello) journey physically and spiritually, as individuals and as a couple, when she offers her lover a stunning and risky confession in the moonlight. Illumination in the dark is the metaphorical center of this “Bright night.” This is a work about events and outcomes: the weight of searing guilt and the buoyant balm of mercy, balancing on the razors edge between terror and beauty. Abated is a dark night of the soul.

Inaugurating the “How to Cause A Scene” chapter in the Strauss & Stravinsky Riot Playbook, Verklärte Nacht for string sextet had a rather eventful premiere on March 18, 1902: “was hissed and caused riot and fist fights,” documented the composer. Fifteen years later, in 1917, Schönberg expanded its textures for string orchestra (which is now the most frequently performed version).

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) transferred the idea of what would eventually be known as the Nocturne in B major for String Orchestra, Op. 40 so many times it can be like attempting to follow the route of a marble being tossed under various cups. From its inception in 1870 (just as Dvořák’s career was about to launch out with the help and approval of Johannes Brahms) through the majority of that decade it changed opus numbers four times (Opp. 9, 18, 77, 40) as it shuffled around as a movement in various string quartets and quintets. Finally it stood on its own as Notturno, Op. 40.

The Irish pianist/composer John Field (1782-1837) is responsible for inventing the “style and name Nocturne for short pieces,” which was subsequently picked up and developed further by Chopin. Historically a Notturno might have been performed in the evening, like many Serenades, but by the late 19th century it simply denoted a work evoking the mysterious romance of dusk deepening into night.

Summoning an atmosphere of majestic blue, the music meditates on a simple lyrical melody that twists and bends quietly like a dark lazy river meandering through memory and emotion. Out of seemingly nowhere a brisk waltz-like theme flies through like a Nightingale improvising an evening song, recalling the words of the poet John Keats:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

But Dvořák’s night is not dark enough to stain; it promises morning, its first light burning through the morning mist, illuminating all that is possible.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) spent his life wandering in and out of shadows. Like many artists, reality was the pin to burst the bubble, the sun to melt the wings of Icarus: fly in its face once too often and it will burn you.

Joy and misery were winnowed so thoroughly that the distance between the two seemed impassable to Schumann by the time he thrust his body into the icy Rhine in February of 1854. Or perhaps it was the opposite; each fading into the other until the edges wore down into a single, indecipherable, dulling numbness that clouded over.

It had been a mere four years prior 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 (presented here in arrangement for violin by Orlando Jopling).

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 nearly untouched by Beethoven: smaller sets and collections, and (like Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2) charming miniatures. When he 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).

Schumann apparently only knew of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) by the time the Austrian was nearly gone. Together they represented the flip side of the Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) fame coin. There is an emotional urgency present, especially in the last works, likely weighted by a similar psychological burden expressed so poignantly by Schubert in the final song of his Winterreise cycle: “will you play the music to my songs?”

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 enlightened by performance until its premiere in 1860.