New Shovel

Once again, that mysterious, elusive musicologist-at-large Kathryn Bacasmot has come through with some highly entertaining and insightful program notes, this time for our new program: Seasons in Orbit. Happy digging! This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.
Obsession. A mind held by an idea. Orbiting. Unable to escape the gravitational pull. Within, artists contain a chest full of passions, influences, the remembrance of pain, and recollections of joy. Galaxies of feelings spinning at various speeds, some gather near to the marrow, some perch on the skin under the cuff of a sleeve. Bodies in motion wondering when they may rest, theirs are the eyes that have seen the dark side of the moon. The course of a life informed by mysteries, pulsing in time to the music of the spheres, yet bound to the cycles of this human existence to tell us what they’ve seen and heard – the earthly results of those circular orbits.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) had compositional beginnings in serialism, which earned him an official Soviet government slap. Later studies of Bach and Gregorian chant slowly evolved into a personal composition style that continues to be at the heart of Pärt’s oeuvre: tintinnabuli, the ringing/sound of bells, alludes to the mathematical division of a note’s sound wave into the overtone series, the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions, which is heard in the chaotic timbre of a ringing bell. Essentially, if you strike a single note, you are not just hearing that note but an entire sequence working together – the “fundamental” and its “partials,” to use the lingo. Thus, when you hear A-natural you also sympathetically hear the partials from the A scale in a sequence of 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and so on: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc. If you’ve studied music you’ll immediately notice the partials are the components of the triad (in this case, A-C-E). The simple complexity of a musical universe contained in a single note.

Pärt wrote of Benjamin Britten: “Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.” In observation of that grief, his Cantus in Memorium opens and closes with composed silence. Then, the bell tolls sending the divided strings into a sequence of descending A minor scales imitating at varying speeds (prolation canon), growing and swelling like ripples produced by a pebble dropping into a placid lake; the creative life of one person reaching outward, forever impacting others.

“You would not wish your board to be disgraced by the presence of a piano-tuner's son and his wife,” wrote Edward Elgar (1857-1934) in 1897 as he changed his mind about accepting an invitation to attend a luncheon in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Doubt about his success plagued the composer. Unlike many others achieving renown, he received so little formal education (some childhood violin lessons); he was nearly entirely self-taught. Plans to attend the esteemed Leipzig Conservatory evaporated into nothing because he didn’t have the money. After a brief stint in the business world he recognized the only thing that brought him contentment was music, and so he pursued it, cobbling together a living taking whatever musical engagement he could. To his advantage, he grew up in the blossoming era of amateur, semi-professional music societies, and local orchestras giving him a broad swath of options in addition to the established professional orchestras. The Serenade for Strings was perhaps the reincarnation of a piece from 1888. It was first heard in 1892 with Elgar conducting the Worcester Ladies Orchestral Class.

The piece is incredibly atmospheric, evoking that mysterious shadow land between what is forgotten and what is remembered. Evening music, both figuratively and historically: serenades blossomed as a genre performed outside while the gloaming deepened into night. He believed “music is in the air.” Elgar carried with him a deep and abiding love of the Malvern Hills, having grown up in nearby Worcester, a legendarily beautiful patch of English countryside with “England’s grandest views.” No matter how his life changed, how secure or insecure he felt with his increasing fame, that landscape served as his center. He is reported to have said, “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling...on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.”

The six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concerts with several instruments) colloquially known as the “Brandenburg Concertos,” constitute some of the finest instrumental writing of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The nickname comes from the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg to whom the collection was dedicated and sent. The Margrave, however, never performed the pieces.

The origins of the concertos remain unclear. During the time they were sent (March 24, 1721), Bach was employed as Capellmeister (music director) at Anhalt-Cöthen for the court of Prince Leopold. It’s often assumed he met the Margrave in 1718 while checking on a new harpsichord for Leopold in Berlin and that some conversation of a commission resulted in the “Brandenburgs.” But why would the Margrave commission pieces and not ever have them performed? Furthermore, Bach sent them 3 years after the initial meeting. An alternative theory suggests a tragic event in Bach’s life as an impetus for him to leave his position for a fresh start: the death of his beloved wife, Maria Barbara. 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 sent the concertos as a kind of résumé. Whatever his motivation, they were sent and met with silence.

In the “Brandenburg” Concertos Bach riffed on a structure made popular by the Italians, “concerto grosso,” (“big concert”) where a smaller group (“concertino”) functions as a soloist in conversation with the whole (“ripieno”). What varies in Brandenburg No. 3 is the concertino of nine instruments divided into groups of three (violins, violas, cellos), actually larger than the ripieno (continuo – harpsichord and an additional low string instrument), attesting to Bach’s endless innovations that function within the rules yet simultaneously transcend the limits of traditional structure.

“’Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this’... She kept asking: ‘You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?’ And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, ‘Then she will throw me from the fourth floor.’ Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: ‘You idiot, that's Piazzolla!’ And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds,” recollected Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla (1921-1992) about studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris on a scholarship. The great irony is that numerous arrangers have taken it upon themselves to tie Piazzolla’s so called “Four Seasons” ever tighter to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which was never the original intention. Sometimes the anxiety of influence is a projection.

The first of them to be composed was Verano Porteño (summer) in 1964 for a play by Alberto Muñoz. The remaining seasons followed every few years (and were never intended as a suite). This new arrangement by Julien Labro seeks to restore as closely as possible Piazzolla’s quintet version.

Medieval music theorists believed the universe, in its mathematical purity, vibrated with a kind of “music.” Divided into three types, musica universalis, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis, they descended in levels of perfection, and thus, our human ability to hear them. Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his String Quartet No. 2, subtitled “music instrumentalis.” Musica Celestis is a full string orchestra expansion of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1 (also “music celestis,” 1990).

The concept is beautiful. Followed through, its logical conclusion is that everything is music – including you and me. (Modern physics may allow this notion to rise above conjecture: if music is waves vibrating, and if string theory is on to something with the idea that everything is made of tiny vibrating quarks...) The act of composing music is then something like ripping the fabric of our universe, grasping the edges with your hands and stepping through to participate in an ongoing concert. Musica Celestis (heavenly music) takes that principle as its inspiration, as well as the music of the 10th century German mystic, Hildegard von Bingen.

Kernis says the work “follows a simple, spacious melody and harmonic pattern through a number of variations (like a passacaglia) and modulations, and is framed by an introduction and codas.” Within the overarching harmonic progression of the piece there is tucked inside an implied harmonic progression that traverses the “circle of 5ths,” the endless interlocking relationships of every key signature by the interval of a 5th, throwing a lasso out into space, catching a little of the infinite within bar lines dotted with notes.