Take an early peek at the notes for this weekend's "Zoom In" show, written as always by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot.
Henri Dutilleux (1946-2009) :: Ainsi la Nuit
Interesting things happen when you ask someone to step outside their usual compositional formats. Primarily the producer of larger scale, orchestral, works, Dutilleux was commissioned by the Koussevitzy Foundation in the late 1970’s to write a string quartet. The result was a work of astounding complexity and scope, symphonic grandeur encapsulated and disseminated by four instruments.
Ainsi la Nuit (Thus the Night) is written in seven sections linked by four “parenthèses” placed between sections I (Nocturne) through V (Constellations). With no formal pauses between sections, it is experienced as a single expanse of sound. Structurally, it relies on layer upon layer of musical self-referencing. An opening hexachord (a chord of six notes) presents the palette of intervallic relationships (the space of one note to another) and tones upon which the rest of the piece elaborates. As the music progresses, small segments of ideas and patterns are introduced and used as building blocks. It is sometimes noted that Dutilleux was an admirer of Proust, and some theorists speculate that Ainsi la Nuit was the composer’s way of playing with the idea of embedded memories. We, the audience, hear bits of musical ideas that are introduced or recollected within the sections, or the parenthèses, and when we hear them again, in full or in allusion, our minds begin to perceive the overall impression and totality of the music. In other words, the morsels of music awaken memory in the sensory cup of our ears.
Something perhaps similar, albeit stranger, occurs in our dreams in the night. Our memories mix and mingle with far-flung fragments of information and imagination projected in the theater of our mind’s eye. Thus, the night comes when no shadows lengthen, time seems to suspend, and our longings and memories meld into one.
Anton Webern (1883-1945) :: Langsamer Satz
The feelings of romantic love are often described in terms of rooms disappearing, and all else fading in the light of the lover’s visage. Langsamer Satz is a “slow movement” without a sonata or a symphony. It stands alone, reveling in its own pleasurable and beautiful melodies. It is the work of a composer in love.
Webern is perhaps most often recalled as one of the two prominent disciples (the other being Alban Berg) of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who gave to posterity 12-tone music, a philosophy of sound that challenged the presumptions of centuries of music theory. Like his mentor, however, Webern started his compositional career writing in a more lush, late Romantic style (Langsamer Satz is often compared to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht). Perhaps an overly simplistic observation, yet possibly true, would be to say that Webern’s expression of blissful romance needed to be expressed in a more “traditional” lyrical form. There would be time later for disillusionment with the state of art and music in the face of populism, and with a world torn apart by large-scale physical and ideological warfare. At this moment, in 1905, he had returned from a holiday with his beloved, Wilhelmine Mörtl. Nothing else mattered. She would become his wife.
Georg Muffat (1653-1704) :: Ciacona from Concerto Grosso No. XII, Propitia Sydera (To appease the stars)
The Italian violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli was at the center of a musical universe revolving around him, both in interest and influence. His renown stretched across the continent, and over to England, where the Italian music (especially of Corelli) was the rage. You either wanted to meet him, or did—and made sure to let everyone know about it.
Georg Muffat, a French composer of Scottish descent, was introduced to the concerti grossi of Corelli (his exact contemporary) during a sojourn to Rome, and subsequently wrote in the genre as well, completing twelve within his lifetime. An exciting instrumental format in the days prior to symphonies, the concerto grosso displayed the virtuosity of a smaller group of instrumentalists in conversation—at times perhaps argument—with a larger ensemble (the “concertino” and the “ripieno,” respectively). Movements of works were often imitative and inspired by dance. A popular one to riff on was the Ciaconna because of its repetitive base line upon which multiple variants of melodic material could be overlaid. Though traditionally a more fast-paced dance, as it became adapted for instrumental music it also was often slowed down to a more somber, or regal pace, as Muffat does here. Echoes of that earlier, jazzy, Ciaconna can still be found carefully embedded within Muffat’s composition; two contrasting versions of the same form, engaging in brilliant dialogue with each other.
Mark O’Connor (b. 1961) :: Quartet No. 3, Old-Time
Violinist and composer Mark O’Connor has dedicated his career to the cultivation and preservation of American music, infusing his work with traditional folk music and styles. About the Quartet No. 3, O’Connor has noted the work was “composed on the occasion marking 400 years of history dating from the days of the first European settlements” in the Hudson Valley. He continues:
For the musical genesis of the Quartet, I initially created phrases from the fiddle that were molded out of old-time fiddling tradition. With technical twists and turns, the phrases became unique and new but all the while still connected to the tradition. It is these phrases that I used as material to create the String Quartet. Through the process of composing, techniques such as re-harmonization, development, canonic applications spill over each other like the Hudson tributaries in the Adirondacks. The counterpoint of the Quartet invigorates and establishes itself. The result is a wholly participating body emphasizing transitions from the traditional to the contemporary in sound and style. The music here is no longer fiddle music as the inventions of the quartet embark on a new story, a new way to play, and with a new musical idea to put forward.
Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn 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.