When there are no words....
On the Summer of 2021 I recorded a CD for Cedille Records together with pianist Phillip Bush. This project has been in the planning for about three years and was supposed to have been recorded in April 2020, being postponed due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This recording contains works composed during periods of great strain in the lives of its composers, with ramifications to all of humanity as we watch, one generation after another, similar examples of our civilization defying this very notion. Of being civilized. The obvious question raised is whether these works reflect in any way the particular life-changing situations confronted by each composer, and if so how did they expose those thoughts through music. Were the compositions subliminally impacted by external events? Did any composer intend to relay a message through the music portraying the trying circumstances surrounding him? Or, is the music oblivious to it all, and perhaps even an escape for the composer, providing a safe haven from those trying circumstances?
When researching the artistic content of a musical work there are three main paths set out to disclose the elusive meanings behind each note. This detective work is aided by extra-musical information, such as letters, books, reviews and other information from the time of writing. Their discovery and study greatly enhances the learning process. The interpretive path doesn’t always follow the musicological priorities, but when both strategies walk together we obtain a superior understanding of the piece in question. For this blog post I am focusing here on the point of view of the performer, and not that of a musicologist, in our search for the emotional content of a musical work, and how the essence of its meaning can be transmitted to the listener. The path of the performer may not disagree outright with the research process of a musicologist. The two areas build on each other's input. However, performers are granted "artistic license" to interpret sounds and score information in a certain way which pleases us, and for which we may have no better explanation than "liking it that way". Of course, we look up to musicologists to avoid that path and enrich us with information which has explanations and a solid foundation in history and research. Again, the following discourse is the opinion of a performer.
The first path of discovery in a piece of music is the plain and simple: to play the printed music at face value, without any ties to a particular story or event. Music responds only to itself even if there were factors influencing the composer to write it, and let's be honest, when is it that music making isn't influenced by our feelings? Still, at this path the music one hears is a compilation of sounds placed in an order so as to create nothing more than an auditory and intellectual pleasure directed by the composer and brought to life by the performer. On the current collection, it would appear that the Suite by Klement Slavicky follows this point of view. While it may be argued that the then-recent communist shift in his native Czechoslovakia (a shift which eventually led to his forced exile from it) would
have been in his mind, and even could be speculated as a direct link to the painfully sad third movement - Triste - it would be difficult to impose on this Suite as a whole a rhetoric or link to his exile. The first movement does invoke a - nostalgic? - view of the countryside, but again even that cannot speak for the whole Suite, as the 2nd and 4th movements (Scherzo and Baccanale Rustico, respectively) are alive with energy incompatible with a soul marred by forced exile and actually quite similar to some of his other works. Barring any new research, letters from the composer or his associates specifying a link, the argument that this work would have a specific connection to his exile remains inconclusive and in this recording it is presented as music, plain and simple, with its story being told through musical phrases, harmony and the details contained solely in the score, without a direct link to his exile.
A second path towards the meaning of music appears when a piece is influenced by an event or set of events, and as performers we find clues, even if just imaginary ones, tying the music to a specific scenario. William Bolcom’s “Aubade, for the continuation of life” came about after the composer had a conversation with oboist Heinz Holliger and pianist/conductor Dennis Russel Davies around 1980, a period when the
United States and the Soviet Union could have descended into a nuclear war. With this information in hand we find clues in the apparent loneliness or even helplessness reflected in the score, and on how we often find ourselves incapable of altering world events as they occur. The climax of the Aubade follows an agitated section which then stumbles into a dramatic high note on the oboe followed by similar catastrophic representations in the piano and harmony obviously leading us to consider what would happen if a nuclear war was to devastate our world. Near its closing, a gleamer of hope is brought forth, a hope we all share, through a simple chorale leading to a resting D-major finale. However, even if this connection between music and history is obvious, Aubade does not follow a specific script. The music and the composer were influenced and connected to a situation, but the music still finds its own path of expression without being pegged note-by-note to a specific message, leaving it up to the performer to decide if and how to present a line of thinking about this subject through a performance. A similar case can be made of the Three Etudes by José Siqueira who was also forced into exile like Slavicky, but in this case by the military dictatorship installed in Brazil in the 1960’s. It may be argued that the soft, distant melodies containing themes, rhythms and harmonies of his native Paraiba (Northeastern Brazil) are indicative of a connection, of a nostalgia, as Siqueira saw his lifework prohibited from being performed in Brazil, and his conducting
concerts canceled. Still, in spite of the obvious nostalgic sentiment he must have felt, his Three Etudes only show an arguable influence of the times around him, and not a specific script. His music is therefore influenced by current events, but not in a descriptive way, again leaving it to the performers to lead the musical performance as they see fit.
The Sonata by Paul Hindemith raises questions as to its influence. It was written in 1938, the same year when the composer, his half-Jewish wife and children fled Germany into Switzerland, having felt the criticism of Nazi leaders towards his music and fearing being made into targets of discrimination or worse due to their association with the Jewish
population. Hindemith’s Sonata has two movements which could be seen as representing two opposing points of view, two Germanys if it were. The first movement is energetic, made in the tempo of a military march, with the oboe and piano starting in conflicting rhythms as if that military march is out of pace, and the movement appears to never reach a conclusion, no end, it just fizzles without definition. Further hints are left to the imagination and barring any direct instructions by the composer - which he might have been insane to leave in writing as it could compromise his life and that of his family - one must conclude that the performer may decide where this is a programmatic piece or just an oboe sonata void of any particular links to the times. At the central development section the oboe introduces a new, downward theme which grows aggressively only to be capped by a triumphant return of the second theme leading to the recapitulation. This structural idea was made famous by Beethoven (7th and 9th symphonies) and also used later in Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, “Leningrad”, as he described the German invasion of the Soviet Union leading to the siege of Leningrad, is recognized by the dynamic build up as a theme is incessantly repeated and gains strength. The final movement of J.S.Bach's monumental Mass in B Minor also utilizes this compositional structure. The first movement thus lends an image of an intense social order, an imposition of norms and discipline lacking the proper comprehension and development of each musical idea. For us, several decades after the nazi regime came and went, the musical ideas present in this first movement seem to corroborate with historical accounts of what was happening in Germany in 1938. In contrast, the second movement points to a different scenario. Now we have Wagnerian-long phrases, a sense of order, of oboe and piano complementing each other in rhythm, melody, and chamber music values. Now we have fugues and counterpoint which themselves are indicative of order, of discipline, and giving the right of way. Perhaps the most telling structural feature of this movement is the coda. In the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony we have a fine example of that famous building structure I alluded to above, where a melody begins small and is repeated to eventually create a significant sound mass. This same structure is present in the coda of Hindemith’s Sonata: the oboe reintroduces the second theme - the one we commonly associate with peace and calm in the Sonata form - and gradually builds on it, repeating in constant crescendo until at the very end it appears to further insist on its final chords as if Hindemith is begging for our understanding and acceptance of a specific message, a message which is elusive in its literary specificity but which is made clear through sound. Hindemith leads us to believe that there was a separate path for Germany, one based on its history of art and philosophy, on it’s culture and values which were not well represented by the image shown in the first movement, that image of a forced social order brought about by the nazi regime.
And finally, there is a third path in our search for meaning in music, which is when the music is or arguably appears to be directly tied to a specific message. In this realm we have tone poems by Richard Strauss, or his Four Last Songs and how they explore the difficult subject of life’s end, and of course operas and ballets where the music is meant to represent a pre-determined message specified
by the composer, a librettist or other connected art form. In Pavel Haas’s Suite we find a treasure of valuable information aiding us performers in deciphering what was his original intent in writing this piece, and what is the outcome he would have wanted its performance to elicit. Haas first wrote this Suite as a set of songs for voice and piano containing a nationalistic text exalting the virtues of his homeland. By this time (1938-1939) he, as did
Hindemith, had already been well informed as to where central Europe’s political future was going, and how he - a Jew - would be affected. Haas sent many letters to friends outside of Europe begging for help to emigrate, without success. In desperation, he divorced his wife so she and their daughter could leave the continent. He also destroyed the nationalistic, pro-Czech, anti-nazi text attached to the songs and made them into a Suite for Oboe and Piano instead, changing very little of the original score as can be seen in the limited range and dexterity required of the oboist. That was a smart move from Haas (to destroy the original text) even if it is a major loss for those of us who study his works, as that text would have most definitely incensed the nazi authorities and could have led to his immediate extermination. The musical content, however, has remained, even if the text was removed. One can perceive how the first movement establishes a situation, a discomfort, a lack of comprehension of his surroundings, with musical themes going by without being properly developed before being replaced by new ones, or the near-cadenzas similarly failing to create a sense of continuity, and the movement doesn’t have an end either, it doesn’t reach a conclusion, a coda, a sense of accomplishment or closure. In a brilliant stroke of imagination and creativity, Haas permits this first movement to just disappear, raising more questions than answers, much like the thoughts of a person under oppression, incapable of understanding their surroundings and current events, or establishing a path forward. The following movement begins with the “nazi bells” represented in the piano part, with the oboe helplessly attempting to post a challenge. The drama unfolds and the oboe is eventually buried by the insisting “bells”. It is as if Haas was well aware of how fruitless it was for him or anyone to fight the nazis and the anti-semitism he was facing at the front door of the holocaust (he would be deported to the concentration camp of Therezin within two years, and then to Auschwitz were he was murdered in a gas chamber by none other than Josef Mengele himself). But Haas left us a treasure at the end of this movement, a quote from the hymn from Saint Wenceslas, the 10th-century ruler who became the patron saint of the Czechs. Haas introduces this choral after all hope of survival vanished from the line represented by the oboe/voice. Furthermore, this new theme is not presented submissively as a prayer, nor a hope to ascent to eternal life or anything of the sort. Instead, Haas uses the Saint Wenceslas choral as an act of defiance, the challenge which was impossible for him or anyone to face the nazis, and which he represented in this middle movement by way of a failure of the oboe voice to overcome the massive sound structure presented by the piano. As a performer I view the introduction of this hymn at this moment, plus the entirety of the third movement, as a statement that one can kill us but never really get rid of our presence. Haas shows a sign of defiance of the nazis which he could never have done in person. The third movement complements this statement, as a vision of eternal glory is presented, in spite of the ill wishes of the reigning regime. What were nazi bells in the second movement are not presented in a heavenly posture as both performers grow in intensity to a glorious and triumphal end.
The Temporal Variations by Benjamin Britten (right, below) present us with the most significant puzzle in this collection. It has no written information other than the unusual, arguably cryptical names atop each of its nine movements, making it rhetorical whether to ascribe it to this third path of musical information, giving it such a high content of specificity so as to compare it to a pocket opera following a definitive script. I once heard this piece performed by a
remarkable and ingenious oboist, Mark Weiger, then Professor of Oboe at the University of Iowa, who brought to my attention a theory which could explain the connection between all of these variations and the life and dreams of the composer, thus establishing this piece next to the Suite by Pavel Haas as a work of specific, guided content. This rhetoric or theory
made sense to me and I strived to explore it further, finding more connections as my research went along. Britten’s first years of life, which we know today are important in formatting a young human being’s character and principles, were spent in the hardships of the first World War. It is no surprise, then, that “war” or its exposure as an evil presence in humanity was to be a recurring theme in his compositions. By the time Britten was in college he embraced an anti-war movement whose leader was Montagu Slater (below, left), to whom the Temporal Variations are dedicated. The juxtaposition of Britten’s anti-war stance and friendships with the names of each movement lead us to an interesting theory which is in this recording, in that through the Temporal Variations Britten leads us through a timeline of war and ultimately the futile attempts to avoid them.
As Prof. Mark Weiger explained to me, the theme of these variations is akin to the phonemes of the word “Enough”: two syllables, two notes, one short and the next longer, resonating. Enough. Enough. The first variation, “Oration”, would represent the period when a political leader encourages war and brings forth an emotional appeal on its behalf. An appeal which is enthusiastically received by the hordes of his subjects. Of particular interest here is how Britten makes use of a motive consisting of three notes, in the intervals of a minor second followed by a rising sixth. In this movement this motive has a repetitive, expressive, lyrical form which when looked at from the point of view of a pro-war speech serves the purpose of enticing an emotional response in support of the speech, and of war. Keep that in mind as I will bring up this motive later. This motive appears in reverse order of the same intervals in the “Theme” that precedes it, indicating a possible reversal of opinion between an anti-war narrator of these variations and the orator who pushed his community into war in “Oration”. The second variation, “March", would be a military march where an anti-war voice is quickly run over and silenced. This March follows a pattern also seen in William Bolcom’s Aubade just prior to its high point, as if the moments leading to a catastrophe cannot be stopped until it becomes unavoidable. It would seem that both Bolcom and Britten would hold the well-known discourse to be true, in that the most dangerous moment of a war is not its start but the preparation for it, which can easily get out of control and spark a war at a least expected moment. As such, the March dives right into the third variation, “Exercises” - the ‘exercise of war’, arguably. The term coined by USA Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, “War is Hell”, comes to mind in explaining this variation. There is no “melody” other than a hidden quote from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, more specifically from the movement called “Mars, the Bringer of War”. The remainder of the movement is an insane cacophony for both oboe and piano parts and it is not difficult to conjure up images of utter chaos, human suffering and destruction. At its conclusion, the oboe brings back the original “Enough” motive, now inverted and at top loudness as the Exercises lead into the next variation, “Commination”. “Commination” is a puzzling word only found in this work in all of the oboe repertory, and unlikely to be seen in the rest of concert music as well, yet, it bears the central focus of the theory represented in this recording. “Commination” is a word to describe a musical movement is the focal point of the theory passed on to me by Prof. Mark Weiger. “Commination” is a term found in Anglican Liturgy representing divine punishment, or divine vengeance. Thus, here we have a divine punishment/vengeance following the exercise of a war which itself followed a military build up and political speeches alluding to war. In “Commination” Britten represents the “Enough” motive with divine anger, befitting the disastrous consequences of an armed conflict. Fittingly, this divine vengeance of “Commination” is followed by the desolation felt in the “Chorale” as the piano represents a distant, pathetic call on the consequences of war. It is in these near silent, single notes played by the oboe that Britten left us a profound message of disappointment. Recalling the first variation, “Oration”, when the purported political leader made an emotional appeal to the hordes using a three-note motive with the intervals of a minor second followed by an upward sixth, we now see the same motive here in the “Chorale”, paused, played by the oboe but this time with all notes separated, timidly, first going up as in “Oration” but then, most significantly, going down, backwards, as if this motive is now being retracted, and as if whatever message was imbedded in its original form back in “Oration” with such positive and emotional outlook is now shamefully taken back after the disaster brought forth by the war. The “Chorale” is then followed by two curious caricatures: a “Waltz” and a “Polka”. Leave it to a genius of the likes of Benjamin Britten to properly handle a caricature, applying just the right touch of controversy while still leaving it clear that things aren’t always what they seem. Although brilliantly written, the Waltz is awkward and suffers from a lack of continuity, while the Polka is exaggerated, almost comical. It is as if after a war destroys cultures and interrupts the generational connection that passes it to the future, someone disconnected with that past finds out that a waltz is in 3/4 meter and has certain typical traits to it, and that the Polka is, well, “jumpy” - all of which limitations which would be seen as offensive to any scholar or musician who is well versed in the magical refinements contained within each of these musical forms. Without one generation passing the intricate details of its culture to the next, the traditions of a people are forgotten or grossly misrepresented by those who attempt to relive them, whether they are a conquering country or a subsequent generation of the original people which had no direct contact with the now defunct earlier generations who were denied - by war - the handing over of nuances and true significance of a Waltz, or a Polka, or so much more. Within the context of the performance theory represented herein, the Waltz and Polka represents one more item of concerns with wars: they don’t end when a treaty is signed, at least not as far as culture is concerned. From this point of view Britten reminds us of the long lasting damages that occur after belligerent conflicts, and how humanity is fundamentally changed forever. Finally, the apotheosis of this masterpiece comes with the final variation: “Resolution”. In this final movement the oboe repeats, insistently, the original “Enough” motive, while the piano is instructed to play in fortissimo, con tutta forza (with all strength), chords, notes, intervals which have little or nothing to do with the musical presentation represented by the oboe. It is as if we are repeatedly screaming “Enough” and those around us completely ignore our pleas, paying no attention whatsoever. And then, at the very end of the piece there is a detail that also calls for interpretative speculation. Barring an inexistent low-G in the piano (whose lowest note is an “A"), the final chord appears to resonate a “G-D” combination, or in other words an empty “G chord” without a third (a “B”) defining it as a G-major (traditionally identified to, or linked to peace, or gentle appreciation) or G-minor (traditionally connected with more aggressive, unsettling themes). If so, Britten leaves the listener with a paradox: is this “Resolution” going to lead to peace, or to a resurgence of war? Sadly for Britten, and for all of us, the world descended back into war three years after Britten left us with this brilliant anti-war work. As it turned out, Britten heard it performed only once. He withdrew the piece which was never heard again in his lifetime. It was only published posthumously.