by CMSCVA Artistic Director James Wilson
We all want to make our mark on the world! Strangely enough this lofty sounding goal is easily achieved whether by an act of kindness, raising children well, constructing a building or creating something of beauty. Unfortunately, making one’s mark as a composer seems more difficult since time filters out all by the best and perhaps the most infamous of musical works. The works on tonight’s program serve to illustrate four different struggles – four composers straining at the reins of musical convention, and attempting to make their mark on musical history.
Robert Schumann was a brilliant composer, writer and proponent of the ideals of the Romantic era. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, and often found ways to express his complicated character in artistic ways. He had names for both sides of his bipolar character: Florestan and Eusebious, the extroverted and inverted aspect of his personality.
His Piano Trio in D minor represents one of his first tries at writing music for small ensemble. From the start, it’s clear that this is no ordinary piece of chamber music – it is an invasion of the Big into the world of chamber music. With yearning string lines interwoven over a thrumming, churning piano part, this piece poses more like a symphony than a trio. The rhythmic drive is constantly propulsive throughout most of the trio even if the music seems expansive. A galloping scherzo pit unison strings against the piano in imitation, while the contrasting section divides the imitation further into three parts of elegantly scalar material. The only part of this trio that counteracts all of the frenetic, overt action is the third movement, basically a written-out improvisation fore the three instruments. It’s with this movement that we hear the dreamy Eusebious making a stunning appearance before Florestan wins out in a finale reminiscent of Schumann’s own “Spring” Symphony.
Similar struggles against the small scope of chamber music come out in George Frederic Handel’s cantata “La Lucezia.”
Lucretia is a semi-legendary Revolutionary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to legend, her rape by the Etruscan king’s son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.
Handel’s setting of the text is equally revolutionary. In essence, it is a pocket opera, involving only one voice and continuo, and the dramatic scope Handel can squeeze from such meager resources is amazing. Part of what makes this piece work is the dramatic quality of the bass and vocal lines. When Lucrezia rages, the bass part cascades and leaps chaotically. When the singer is more contemplative, the bass line moves in logical step. The ending is classic – Lucrezia’s “see you in Hell” moment is supported by aggressive, fist shaking tremolos in a low register bass.
Arnold Schoenberg had more impact on the trajectory of modern music than any other composer by inventing new ways to organize the 12 pitches of the musical scale, thus breaking hundreds of years of musicial tradition and divorcing harmonies from the tonal major/minor system. His Chamber Symphony uses quartal harmony, a harmonic system relying on fourths for organization. Written in 1905, the piece was arranged in 1922 for the combination you hear on tonight’s program. This is indeed a revolutionary piece – a one movement symphony for five players at once shockingly modern and exquisitely romantic. The quartal harmony is laid bare in the opening bars, then all hell breaks loose. Although written in one continuous movement, the piece can be broken down into several traditional symphonic sections: Allegro, Scherzo, (development), Adagio and Finale. The real treat of this piece is listening to the heart-racing music and enjoying the musicians’ attempts to master it.
Viennese composer Franz Schreker’s attempt to mark his on musical history was interrupted by the wider history of world events. Born in Monaco, Schreker attended the conservatory in Vienna and proved to be brilliant, composing music with an individually chromatic tonal language. Working primarily in the genre of opera, his pieces were very popular in the years leading up to and including World War 1. During the Weimar years between World Wars, he was the second most performed living composer of opera in the world (after Richard Strauss). But his popularity was marred as anti-Semitic views and policies swept Europe. In the last 5 years of his lifetime he went from a top composer of German opera to a shunned position of irrelevance.
Schreker’s music is only now being rescued from obscurity. The work on tonight’s program “Der Wind” was written as music for a dance piece by Grete Weisenthal. The abstract plot concerns a storm and its aftermath. Even in this incidental music, we can hear that Schreker’s musical language is sensitive and beautiful, but also jagged and intense.
It’s tempting to see this storm image as a parable of music during the composer’s lifetime – in the decades after “Der Wind” was composed, all of Romantic musical culture would be swept aside by powerful forces and replaced with new attitudes and aesthetics.