Misty notes

Notes for our "Misty" program, written by Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) ::  Dover Beach, Op. 3

Occasionally, a composer comes along who seems largely untouched by the usual struggle for work and recognition. Samuel Barber was one of them. The son of a prominent physician, and nephew to an opera singer and composer, he was only seven years old when he started writing music. At nine he knew he wanted to compose professionally (famously proclaiming in a letter to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer...Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football”). His first operetta was written at age ten (libretto provided by the family cook). By age twelve he was a church organist (a job he quickly lost for refusing to hold the fermatas). He eventually went on to study conducting with Fritz Reiner and George Szell, and after his graduation, received many commissions from a wide variety of people (including Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, who commissioned his Piano Sonata).

Barber’s sound is a unique blend of late 19th century lyricism and tonality mixed with the rhythms, dissonances, and angularities of modernist styles. His is a lean, muscular, romanticism where even beautiful and tender melodies always seem underpinned by a singular, focused intensity (listen to his most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings, and you will hear that fundamental sonic interaction). This singular quality of sound he brought to his compositions was evident early on—including Dover Beach, which was written in 1931, during Barber’s time studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In addition to studying piano and composition, his baritone voice gained recognition, and it was Barber who sang at the premiere.

There is something about standing on a shoreline that seems to immediately speak to us of uncertainty, change, possibility and loss all at once. Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, Dover Beach, expresses those sentiments set against the dramatic shoreline of towering white cliffs at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Throughout Barber’s work the shape of the musical phrasings compliments the text: pulsing, ebbing, flowing, swelling, and ceasing. When the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams heard Barber’s setting one year later, he exclaimed “I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it!”

Dag Wirén (1905-1986) :: Serenade for Strings, Op. 11

Dag Wirén’s Serenade for strings rushes in like a warm summer breeze. Enveloping the listener in light, gorgeous melodies, it harkens back to classical and romantic works that share the title of serenade (by Mozart, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky, for example). Having studied in Paris for three years from 1931-1934 on a state stipend from his native Sweden, Wirén had the opportunity to meet none other than Igor Stravinsky. He also became familiar with the music of the loosely associated group of French composers known as Les Six (The Six): Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. This collective tended toward creating music with a lighter, almost neo-classical spirit in contrast with the more modernist trends that were popular amongst many artists of the time. Written only three years after his Parisian adventure, this Serenade from 1937 exudes an energy seemingly derived from Les Six’s compositional style, who perhaps influenced Wirén’s penchant for writing in this more traditional manner.  

Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) :: Orawa

Polish composer Wojciech Kilar carved out an illustrious career as a film composer writing the original soundtracks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola), The Pianist (Roman Polanski), The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion), and many, many more. Before delving into the world of film, Kilar was on the rise as a composer of concert music, having trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and coming into prominence on the world stage with fellow Polish composers Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Orawa is part of a larger group of works (not meant to be performed as a set) centering on a theme of the Tatra Mountain range that define the “natural” border between northern Slovakia and southern Poland. Having grown up in Katowice in southwestern Poland, Kilar retained a special memory of the Tatras, as do many individuals from that region, recalling the beautiful majesty of the mountains, and holidays spent in Zakopane, at the base. The other two works are Kościelec (a specific mountain peak in the range) and Grey Mist.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) :: The Dorian Horizon

In 1889, at age 27, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris and encountered, for the first time, music of the Asian continent: gamelan music from Java. The non-Western tonal system forever influenced his compositional modality. Some sixty years later a teenager in Japan, Tōru Takemitsu, discovered Western music when a military officer played a recording for him of a French chanson, and he continued to delve into learning about Western music on an American military base where he was employed after World War II. What he heard drove him to pen and paper, and he began to teach himself how to compose receiving only occasional lessons.

Debussy was very influential on the young Takemitsu, as was another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. In another twist, it was the music and writings of John Cage, whose philosophy of music and sound was informed by Asian traditions that, in turn, led Takemitsu to re-discover elements of Japanese music. As a result of these inspirations, Takemitsu’s music expresses a unique blend of chromatics, tonalities, and space (both in the use of register—high and low tones at the extremes—and silence).

String music is typically reliant upon the technique of vibrato to provide warmth of sound—akin to a human voice singing. But here, no vibrato exists. The sound is profoundly pure, and piercing, The Dorian Horizon has a sonic landscape that evokes sheets of glacial ice shifting against one another, or perhaps endless grains of sand: it has been noted that it takes its cue from the Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 Japanese new wave film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara about a man who finds himself trapped in mysterious circumstances in a sand quarry.

Josef Suk (1874-1935) :: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, “St. Wenceslas,” Op. 35a

One of Suk's most famous teachers was Antonín Dvořák, who was not just a source of musical instruction and inspiration for the young composer, but the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.

Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák were two composers responsible for grafting in, and emphasizing, Czech folk idioms or programmatic elements into their compositions, and featuring them in concerts of largely German programming. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire strained under the pressure of ethnic groups grasping for more independence, this was not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a political statement via cultural assertion. Their students would follow suit, though it has been observed that Suk's compositions eventually used fewer and fewer Czech idioms, perhaps in an effort to stop comparisons between his music and Dvořák’s.

The hymn (or chorale) “St. Wenceslas” dates from at least the 12th century, with text petitioning St. Wenceslas—the patron saint of Bohemia—for protection and salvation. As 1914 dawned, the world stage was set for war on an astonishing scale. That summer, World War I loomed, and Suk observed his fortieth birthday. His countrymen prepared for battle, and he wrote this work.

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) :: Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs)

Eisler is one of the most intriguing characters in the world of “classical” music, though he is hardly ever mentioned. He was not without controversy, which has likely contributed to the silence with which he is most often greeted in conversations about 20th century composers.

With little funding, but lots of ambition, he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg from 1919-1923. Through the encouragement and support of his teacher, he was able to secure publication and performances. The relationship would grow bitter, however, with Schoenberg considering him “disloyal,” and a traitor to music, after Eisler embraced Marxism and became a member of the German Communist party. As a result of his politics, his views on the avant-garde music of his peers—and even his own previous works—changed drastically. Reflecting on his new outlook, Eisler wrote, “in our new music, one would search in vain for bombast, sentimentality and mysticism, but find instead freshness, intelligence, strength and elegance,” and, “modern music bores me, it doesn’t interest me, some of it I even hate and despise...Also I understand nothing (except superficialities) of twelve-note technique and twelve-note music”—a clear dismissal of his former mentor. For Eisler, music should not frivolously stir the emotions, but rather be functional, applicable, non-elitist, and “used for the theater, cinema, cabaret, television, public events, etc.” David Blake notes Eisler’s scores “abound with such cautionary directives as ‘without sentimentality,’ ‘simply,’ ‘friendly,’ and even ‘politely.’”

During World War II, and the years leading up to it, Eisler traveled Europe before coming to New York City to teach composition. The Mexico conservatory gave Eisler a grant to study the “function of film music,” and through his work there, he wrote the book Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno. Returning to the United States, Eisler found work at the University of Southern California and contributed to film scores. It all came to a screeching halt when his politics landed him a meeting with The House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was subsequently “expelled.” In many ways it was likely the best outcome for Eisler. His return after years abroad to a new Germany—East Germany—allowed him to practice the political ideology he had been preaching.

Ernste Gesänge would be Eisler’s last work. He died shortly after its completion. The texts are taken from the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, Giacomo Leopardi, and Stephan Hermlin. Eisler remarked about the songs: “It is reflection—deliberation—depression—recovery—and reflection again...It just must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic songs...one must describe the up and down of the actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”