Intimate Voices: Program Notes

Enjoy these program notes for "Intimate Voices" on Saturday, written, as ever, by our fantastic program note writer Kathryn Bacasmot!


Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) ::  Sinfonietta for Strings
Out of the wars and friction ignited by zealous political ideologies came the avant-garde. Penderecki, a native of Poland, was a member of this collection of composers spanning the globe who, by various ways and means, explored deconstructionism through sound. New theories and philosophies of sound were found everywhere (What role does chance play? Is tonality simply a tyranny imposed over pitches?), and yet the old traditions and old “Masters” remained under the layers of questions. Some would use snippets of recognizable pieces as fragments of sonic collage, or test out the old forms and structures in brashly new contexts, as if to pose the question “What did it all mean?” Others, like Messiaen, would riff off ancient music theory, reinventing the idea of “modes” (predecessors to our modern major/minor scales) by developing newly organized tonalities that he dubbed “modes of limited transposition.”

Penderecki would also employ deconstructed musical traditions, and experimented widely with extended techniques, finding ways to elicit alien sounds from traditional instruments rather than plunging into the world of electronics, such as his contemporaries Stockhausen and Berio did. The music of his youth was predominantly discordant and strident. As he matured, the edges softened a bit, but Penderecki’s music has always remained earnest, passionate, and uncompromising.

The Sinfonietta for Strings of 1992 is a faithful orchestration of his String Trio from the previous year, 1991. In this fuller iteration, the first movement in particular seems to riff off the structural outline of the Baroque era concerto grosso, in which the voice of a soloist occasionally surfaces from and submerges back into the sound of the group. Melding old technique with new sound, the second and final movement traces a fugue theme through a menacing landscape where the stabbing chords of the first movement reappear.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) :: Trisagion

The Estonian composer Pärt had his compositional beginnings in serialism, which earned him a rebuke from the Soviet government. Later, his immersion in studying the works of J.S. Bach as well as Gregorian chant slowly evolved into a compositional style that became the beating heart of Pärt’s oeuvre: tintinnabuli. The term refers to the ringing/sound of bells, and alludes to the mathematical division of the overtone series, the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions. A single pitch is actually an entire sequence working together – the “fundamental” and its “partials” (much like the “notes” of flavor that combine to produce a particular taste of wine). Thus, when you hear the fundamental A-natural you also hear the partials—the overtones—from the A scale sounding sympathetically in a pattern: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc.

Another significant evolution Pärt underwent was deeply personal: his journey to the Russian Orthodox faith (the reason he is sometimes referred to colloquially as a “Holy” minimalist). Much of his music revolves around the liturgy of his faith. The Trisagion is a prayer, with the words, “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” Written between 1992 and 1994, this instrumental iteration of the prayer was written for the 500th anniversary of the Parish Of Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) :: String Quartet in D minor, op. 56, Voces intimae

In moments of personal crisis we go deep into ourselves. We sort through loneliness, pain, fear, and a multitude of other emotions. When Sibelius—the great symphonic composer—wrote the only string quartet of his mature output, it poured out from his experience of being mired in a major health scare. There was a lump, and he believed it was cancer. In the end, after surgery, it was determined to be benign; the only consequences were the doctor’s orders to cease smoking cigars and cut out drinking wine.

The title for this quartet refers to a message that Sibelius wrote in a friend’s copy of the music above three hushed E-minor chords, “voces intimae,” which translates as “intimate” or “inner” voices. Not often does a piece of chamber music unattached to any specifically programmatic elements carry such a deeply personal note—quite literally. It calls to mind Beethoven’s existential questioning in writing “Muß es sein?” (“Must it be?”) as his note to the op. 135 quartet.

Written in 1909, chronologically falling between the composition of his third and fourth symphonies (1907 and 1911, respectively), Sibelius’ Voces intimae was perhaps psychologically a return to the chamber compositions of his youth, memories whispering from deep inner worlds. In the midst of all the complexity in music and in life, he writes these three simple chords, otherworldly, calming, centering.