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Gargantua Program Notes

By  Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is arguably one of the most complex figures to appear on the scene of 20th century music, an era that reflected an equally complex world in the midst of massive political and social upheaval. Ideas were very important to Schoenberg and he was equipped to pair his ideas with actions that would change the way music was composed, considered and heard. A prolific writer, his prose illuminates the concepts that fueled his creativity (and are recommended reading to better understand his music, which can sometimes seem cerebral and opaque). In one 1946 essay, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea, he wrote: 

It is very regrettable that so many contemporary composers care so much about style and so little about idea. From this came such notions as the attempt to compose in the ancient styles, using their mannerisms, limiting oneself to the little that one can thus express and to the insignificance of the music configurations which can be produced with such mathematician would invent something new in mathematics just to flatter the masses who do not possess the specific mathematical way of thinking, and in the same manner, no artist, no poet, no philosopher and musician whose thinking occurs in the highest sphere would degenerate into vulgarity in order to comply with a slogan such as ‘Art for All.’ Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.

This did not mean that he was particularly averse to the music of the past; in fact, he was a proponent of various older composers whom he viewed as being inventors, or evangelists, of their own ideas (his love for Bach and hailing of Brahms as more “the Progressive” than Wagner are good examples).  What he disliked was when ideas became tired and threadbare through overuse. 

Based on Richard Dehmel’s poem, Verklärte Nacht (read this evening in a translation by Mary Whittall), the heart of Schoenberg’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 they take a moonlit  stroll and she offers her lover the stunning and risky confession that she is pregnant with the child of another man. 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. It balances on the razor’s edge between terror and beauty. Abated is a dark night of the soul when, in a transcendent moment her lover reiterates his love and speaks of the baby as his own. Musically Verklärte Nacht is a thread Schoenberg ran through “Impressionism,” Brahms and Wagner, sewing together and transfiguring their elements of symbolism, developing variation, and grand scale. His idea here was to forgo straight programmatic music that sonically describes the action of the poem, and instead depict something more ambiguous: mood. The musical language of Verklärte Nacht has Wagner’s syntax of perpetually sliding key centers, but the delivery seems to strike the ear as more deliberate and clarified. The sentiment of the poem is conveyed but the music evades becoming sentimental. It calls forth the dramatic power of emotion without necessarily exploiting it. 

Inagurating the “How to Cause A Scene” chapter in the Strauss & Stravinsky Riot Playbook, Verklärte Nacht for string sextet had an eventful premiere on March 18, 1902: the audience “hissed and caused riots and fist fights,” as the composer documented. This may mystify us, because for our 21st century ears Verklärte Nacht is romantic and lyrical in comparison to Schoenberg’s later 12-tone works and the sounds of Stockhausen and Varèse. But at the time, the audience was less accustomed to its sound world (for further context, Strauss’ opera Salome, which was greeted with a “riot” came three years after Verklärte Nacht). Fifteen years later, in 1917, Schoenberg expanded its textures for string orchestra, which is now the most frequently performed version. 

Jean Françaix (1912-1997) :: Les Inestimables Chroniques du Bon Géant Gargantua (1971)

Ravel noted to Jean Françaix’s father, a composer, musicologist, pianist and Director of the Le Mans Conservatoire: “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.” Taking the advice to heart, and observing his son’s obvious talents, his father soon had Jean studying composition with the venerable Nadia Boulanger, and by age eighteen he accomplished the thing Ravel never could: winning the premier prix as a pianist at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Isidore Philipp. 

“Les Six” was a nickname given to a group of French composers that included Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey, and Poulenc. Collectively known for their wit, and bright, effervescent writing (a reaction to Wagner’s heavy handed excess and drama) they were praised by Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist artist, who asserted the French should reclaim their own outlook on music, shrugging off the influences of the Russians or the Germans. It was the tradition of “Les Six,” and Poulenc in particular, that Jean Françaix would fold into his own compositional career. In doing so, he carried on the great French knack for neo-classic wit mixed with overt revelry in pleasure for the sake of pleasure, paired with jaunty rhythms barrowed from jazz, and beautiful lyricism, leaving serialism and atonality (his oeuvre has been described as “resolutely tonal”) to his contemporaries. 

Les Inestimables Chroniques du Bon Géant Gargantua is based on an extracted portion of a 16th century satirical novel in five volumes called La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel) by François Rabelais, which recounts the various events and predicaments the two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, find themselves in. (The composer Frederic Rzewski based his work Les Moutons de Panurge, which AFC performed in their 2014-2015 season, on a different book of the same tale). Françaix said of his adaptation, which comes from the second volume dedicated specifically to stories about Gargantua, “I am not writing a text to follow it, but on the contrary to follow my music, which goes faster and further than the text.” The main body of the Françaix concerns the moment Gargantua’s studies at the Sorbonne are interrupted by a letter from his father, Lord Grandgousier, informing him of a conflict that has broken out with Lord Picrochole whose bakers insulted Grandgousier’s grape-growers. Gargantua comes to help stop the ludicrous bickering that has expanded to a grand scale. In the end he triumphs, and the story is viewed as a moral about the importance of education against the destructive habits of people like Picrochole who will stop at nothing to conquer and win.

©  Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot 

A chat with Robert Pinsky


Embracing my new role as AFC’s blog guy, I was able to steal a few minutes of Robert Pinsky’s time, between our first rehearsal and his cab ride out, to do a quick interview. He’ll be joining us this Friday in Jordan Hall, reciting Richard Dehmel’s “Transfigured Night” and narrating Jean Francaix’s Gargantua, in a new translation by Laura Marris.

MU: First off, any thoughts on reading other people’s poetry, versus reading your own. I’m guessing that most of what you end up reading is your own work.

RP: Well, you know, I did a very significant project, in my opinion, the Favorite Poem Project. And if you go to you’ll hear a construction worker reading Walt Whitman, you’ll hear a glass blower read a Frank O’Hara poem, a Cambodian-American immigrant in San Jose read a Langston Hughes Poem, “Minstrel Man." It’s not about poets or actors reading poetry, it’s not about performance in the sense of an audience, and it’s not about the instrument of the poet being the poet’s voice. The poet writes with that instrument, but the poet writes for the reader’s voice, so it’s for each reader imagining what’s there. The poem is something that happens… like a piece of music.

MU: It’s a shared experience then, in that way.

RP: Yes, and there’s always a collaboration between the composer, or poet, and the person, perhaps thousands of miles away, perhaps not born yet, whoever that person is who reads the poem and gives voice to the poem.

MU: What do you think, then, of the text we’ve inflicted upon you, Gargantua?

RP: Well I’m interested in comedy and in humanism, and Rabelais was a great humanist and a great scholar. It’s not just about toilet talk; it’s not just about sex or absurdity. When he deflates the jargon-ridden pedants of the Sorbonne, he’s saying something very serious about art and knowledge, and it’s a very cleansing laughter. So, for me, it’s not a stretch at all to admire the Rabelais, and to enjoy reading the Rabelais in Laura Marris’s wonderful translation.

MU: It is wonderful! And as a French speaker myself, having gotten to know both versions, the puzzles she was able to solve were impressive. What can you say about Laura?

RP: She was a student in BU’s very small, very selective MFA program in creative writing. She was my student for two or three years and she helped me with my MOOC, The Order of Poetry. She’s a brilliant young poet, a great teacher. And she knows French very well, she’s written about French culture and poetry.

MU: What are your thoughts about working with musicians? You can be honest.

RP: I’m a frustrated musician. I wanted to be a musician. In my high school graduating class, I was not voted most literate boy, definitely not most successful boy. I was voted most musical boy. My identity was playing the saxophone, and it helped me a lot through difficult years. I would be a professional musician today except for the single obstacle of a deficiency of talent.

MU: Do you have a heroes specific to the saxophone? Musical heroes?

RP: I admire Dexter Gordon very much. I would say if I had to pick one I’d pick Dexter. I was fascinated by the fact that there were Jewish saxophone players: Lee Konitz, Stan Getz on the tenor, Zoot Sims.

MU: We had an awesome experience last year doing Stan Getz’s old album Focus, with Harry Allen.

RP: That's great! You know, I do this too; I have two CDs with Laurence Hobgood, who used to be the music director for Kurt Elling. Our new one is called “House Hour,” it’s from my poems, and I always say I’m a non-singing vocalist. We’ll be at the Regatta Bar next month.

MU: I literally wrote these questions during my lunch break…

RP: You’re doing fine!

MU: but… road trippin’ soundtrack?

RP: Well, driving back from the Cape with two cats complaining a little bit in the back seat, we put on – again reeds – we put on the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, and I had a sense that even the cats calmed down a bit hearing that beautiful music. So, you never know. Another time on that same trip it was Jimmy Scott.


Our season-opening TransAmericana is just around the corner! Curated by Omar, this program imagines a wild road trip that starts in New York and heads south, with memorable stops in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. Enjoy a sneak peek at Kathryn Bacasmot's fabulous program notes below: 

Philip Glass (1937) :: Symphony No. 3

Classical and Romantic era symphonies relied on the momentum of key change—the harmonic propulsion that comes from the tension and release of dissonance to consonance. What one finds in the Symphony no. 3 of Philip Glass, a chamber work written originally for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, is more of a reliance on variations of rhythm and pace. As with many works in the “minimalist” vein, there are many bars where specific patterns are repeated numerous times. The ear of the listener becomes accustomed to the pattern (ideally to the point of being lost within it), so that even a slight change can play a significant role.

In a brilliant gesture of tying this idea to the past, Glass employs the ancient repetitive chaconne structure in the third movement of the symphony; in the chaconne, a harmonic sequence and/or bass line is recast over and over again, creating a foundation for a series of variations built “on top.” The composer elaborates a bit on this, and the surrounding three movements in a previous set of liner notes from a recording of the work:

“The opening movement, a quiet, moderately paced piece, functions as a prelude to movements two and three, which are the main body of the symphony. The second movement mode of fast-moving compound meters explores the textures from unison to mult-harmonic writing for the whole ensemble. It ends when it moves without transition to a new closing theme, mixing a melody and pizzicato [plucked strings as opposed to being bowed] writing. The third movement is in the form of a chaconne, a repeated harmony sequence. It begins with all three celli and four violas, and with each repetition new voices are added until, in the final variation, all nineteen players have been woven into the music. The fourth movement, a short finale, returns to the closing theme of the second movement, which quickly re-integrates the compound meters from earlier in that movement. A new closing theme is introduced to bring the Symphony to its conclusion.”

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) :: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Frank paints a picture vivid with Andean legends (“leyendas”). Walking about, following the Andes (the longest continental mountain range on this earth) would take you across several borders, those of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. But the borders Frank is concerned with are much more complex to navigate: those between cultures and races.

She has said of her work: “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje [those of mixed race] as envisioned by Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions.” Frank is the product of mixed elements: a Chinese/Peruvian mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father. Her tapestry of sound, woven together from far-flung threads and patterns, speaks with a foreign – and yet familiar – accent.

“Toyos” and “Tarqueda” represent two traditional Andean wind instruments, the panpipes and tarka, respectively. “Himno de Zampoñas” is described by the composer as featuring another type of panpipe, the zampoña that sounds with “a fundamental tone blown fatly so that overtones ring out on top.” The zampoña ensembles often play using a technique of bouncing the melody from one player to anther to create the melodic line (a kind of pointillist surround sound), known as “hocket” in medieval European music. The following two movements introduce legendary figures, the “Chasqui,” a sprinter that would run across the mountains to deliver messages from village to village, and the “Canto de Velorio,” a woman who was hired to cry at funerals. Frank notes her quotation of the traditional European Requiem service sequence, the Dies Irae, as “a reflection of the comfortable mix of Quechua Indian religious rites with those from Catholicism.” The final movement, “Coqueteos,” depicts a love song.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) :: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9     
In 1945 Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote to the Bach Society of São Paulo saying:

The music of Bach is without question the most sacred gift to the world of art…Since Bach expressed his thoughts of God and the universe through his musical creations originating from his own country, he gave the most spiritual expression of human solidarity, we should also understand, love and cultivate the music that is born and lives, directly or indirectly, from our own land, and make it also universal with faith and good conscience.

The nine pieces known as Bachianas brasileiras were written between 1930-1945 in an attempt to both pay homage to Bach (Villa-Lobos conducted the Brazilian premiere of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 1932) but also show common ties Villa-Lobos believe existed between music of the Baroque and the improvisations in the popular music of Brazil. Furthermore, as David P. Appleby notes “He [Villa-Lobos] once said that the Bachianas brasileiras were the kind of music the Leipzig master might have written had he been born a twentieth-century Brazilian composer”.

The pieces in nearly all nine feature traditional Baroque form titles, such as Preludio, or Fuga integrally paired with a Portuguese word for a subtitle further establishing a connection between the two composers and cultures. An example would be from Bachianas brasileiras no. 1 where the word Fuga is paired with Conversa. Each of the nine suites feature different and widely varied instrumentation. Some are for chamber orchestra, one features a piano concerto structure, and another is for flute and bassoon. Bachianas brasileiras no. 5 is the most well known of the nine and is certainly one of the best-known pieces by Villa-Lobos in general. Bachianas brasileiras no. 9 was originally conceived for chorus, and re-written for string orchestra.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) :: Concerto per Corde, op. 33

Ginastera composed his String Quartet No. 2 in 1958. Seven years later in 1965 he produced Concerto per Corde, op. 33 (“Concerto for Strings”), an adaptation of the quartet for full string orchestra that was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in Caracas, Venezuela, the following year. In revising the work, Ginastera eliminated the original first movement and reversed the order of the remaining movements.

Ginastera was known for his flair for the dramatic, skinning off emotion, showing every tendon, and exposing rawness to the air. In the first movement, Variazioni Per I Solisti, each principal of the orchestra plays a cadenza bracketed by punctuations from the ensemble that echo the soloist in mournfulness or ferocity. Therefore a micro world of slightly lunatic theme and variations is created. The second movement, Scherzo Fantastico: Presto, is a nervous landscape where dreams wreak havoc on reality. Porcelain scraping on glass. Hysteric. Manic. Breathless. Like push pins on a magnetic pincushion, the sounds splay every which way by force of field and yet allude to controlled chaos. In the Adagio Angoscioso we leave the landscape and walk into a Piranesi-like “prison of the imagination” with the sounds of ancient hinges squeaking slowly and methodically. As the movement intensifies, coming unhinged altogether seems like a distinct possibility. The Finale Furioso is breathlessly kinetic, interjected with folk idioms and extremely defined rhythms juxtaposed against constantly changing time signatures where the melodic cells emerge like clear thoughts in a troubled mind. The effect is structured disorientation.

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot 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.


Snow, snow,, no, NO!

That's about where we're currently at in Boston, and there's "snow" getting around it. 

It's hit us at A Far Cry, too. We've shoveled out, trudged to rehearsal, endured insane commutes and broken boilers, and slogged in from out of town under extreme duress. And all because we are 100 percent committed to bringing you a show this weekend that we think might just tip the balance. 

"Aurora Borealis" is a program that, amazingly, addresses our experience right now. Curated by Crier Erik Higgins, it's meant to evoke the beauty and the ferocity of winter before bringing everyone indoors to warm up and have a raucous party. The program moves from a pointillistic duet by Steve Reich (a few snowflakes begin to fall) to a whirling Prelude and Fugue for eighteen string players by a young Benjamin Britten. Then we jump straight into the heart of the storm in Ingvar Lidholm's "Music for Strings" a wild and fierce piece that has helped us exorcise the frustration of all that endless shoveling. 

And then we head inside, for a beautiful "thaw" to some music of Grieg—and a foot stomping set of Erik's favorite Swedish fiddle tunes, which he's  transcribed and arranged for the group. Winter, begone! We have this crazy idea that perhaps if we can defeat the chill of winter in this show, maybe, just maybe, we'll get the weather moving in the right direction. 

There's no more beautiful sight in winter than the glow of the Northern Lights—and in this show, we hope we can convey that gorgeousness in pure sound. 

With Love and Music,

The Criers