Bryars: And so ended Kant's traveling in this world
Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda
Whitacre: Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
Martin: 5 Songs from Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
Friedrich Nietzsche: Two Compositions for Piano
DallaPiccola: 6 Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti Il Giovane
English composer Gavin Bryars (b. 1943) is best known for his experimental works The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1972, rev. 1993). In the latter work, a recording of a homeless man singing a religious song is looped continuously for — in its longest version — 74 minutes, accompanied by Bryars’ contemplative orchestral harmonization. Although he is famous for his multimedia works employing art installations, dance, and prerecorded material, Bryars has written extensively for the voice in more traditional forms (operas, choral music, and solo works). The piece we will hear was written for the 1997 summer school of the Hilliard Ensemble, using part of a text Bryars intends to make into an opera some day, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant by British essayist Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859). Bryars notes that this passage of text “describes Kant’s last journey, a futile and inconclusive visit to a friend in the country.” The music is full of open harmonies and gentle but striking chromaticism from which emerge passages of melody (note the baritone word painting on the word “meandered,” for example). It reflects the atmosphere of this mundane outing, which turned out to be the last for the ailing 79-year-old philosopher, six months before he died.
English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) grew up in a society obsessed with all things Indian. Exhibitions and pageants of Indian music, dance, food, and art filled the British entertainment scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Holst seemed to have more of an affinity than most of his colleagues for Indian culture; he owned copies of the Rig Veda poems in translation long before he made his first settings for solo voice in 1907. Between 1908 and 1912 he composed 14 choral settings of Rig Veda poems. He created his own translations with a combination of his limited self-taught Sanskrit and several pre-existing translations. The ancient Rig Veda hymns come from 1700-1100 B.C. and deal with the various Hindu deities. We will hear the third group this evening, scored for treble voices (SSAA) and either harp or piano.
The “Hymn to the Dawn” (or Ushas) is bright and expectant; its open harmonies suggest the sound of Indian music. Holst, an avid hiker and cyclist, was known to find solace and inspiration in nature; no doubt he had seem his share of sunrises, and he reflects this experience in the rising motives of this hymn. The “Hymn to the Waters” invokes Varuna, the god who can forgive transgressions. The harp creates the sound of water joyfully cleansing the penitent sinner. The third hymn is sung to Vena, the sun rising through the mists, and a child of Dawn. This anthem begins with a descending motive in the harp, evoking the mist, before the sun begins rising. The chorus sings in block chords, and there is a performance note that the harp’s chords should be struck together, not rolled or arpeggiated. The final hymn is sung to Pushan, of whom Holst writes: “The God invoked in this hymn is the Guide of travellers along the roads of this world and along that leading to the next.” The harp mimics footsteps or a horse trotting in this perhaps most Eastern-sounding hymn of the group, awe-filled and mystical.
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine is the product of a 2001 commission by the American Choral Directors Association from American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970). In his preface to the score, the composer writes that he and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri “started with a simple concept: what would it sound like if Leonardo da Vinci were dreaming? And more specifically, what kind of music would fill the mind of such a genius? The drama would tell the story of Leonardo being tormented by the calling of the air, tortured to such degree that his only recourse was to solve the riddle and figure out how to fly.” Whitacre uses Renaissance musical idioms combined with dazzling rhythmic choral effects to create a sound world for the dream of the tortured genius. The piece opens with a description of Leonardo’s tormented visions; it then morphs into the dream itself, leaving most of the words behind in favor of a highly evocative sonic representation of flight. The piece ends with the flying machine disappearing into the distance.
Any time we encounter an abstract work of art, our brains desperately try to make concrete sense of what we’re seeing, which is why pure abstraction always seems to remind us of something: a landscape, a face, an eggplant, a dog, fast food. It’s the never-ending battle between our left brain and our right brain. Eventually a compromise is reached; we’re either convinced it looks like something else, or we appreciate the textures, form, composition, color for their own sakes.
The abstract quality of Kandinsky’s poetry is not so different from his painting: clarity and contradiction, poignant lines, varied textures, and layers of complexity. In this spirit, my setting of Later is an aural abstraction about the poetry rather than a literal setting of the text. Textures morph and shift; melodic lines dance in and around dense, rich chords. The central narrative is both clear and obscured. It’s an aural juxtaposition intended to delight with a pleasing surface and on further scrutiny please with delightful complexity.
Much of the music that accompanied Shakespeare’s plays is lost, but that fact has perhaps given great musical minds more freedom to create. Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) completed his five Ariel songs from The Tempest in 1950 and soon thereafter composed an opera on the same play (Der Sturm). The songs, characteristic of Martin’s love of harmony, require a minimum of sixteen singers, as each voice part splits into four at some point. In The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island with his daughter Miranda. He learns the art of magic and has enslaved the spirit Ariel (who has historically been played by men, women, or children). Sensing that his brother Antonio, who usurped his position, is on a ship nearby, Prospero conjures a storm to make the ship crash. The first song is Ariel’s “welcome” to the shipwrecked crew and features animal sounds which seem to delight but, at least in Martin’s setting, actually serve to torment the enemies. The second piece, “Full fathom five,” is Ariel’s song to Ferdinand, falsely telling him that his father lies dead at the bottom of the sea. Martin’s haunting setting evokes both the waves of the sea and the tolling of the death knell by the sea nymphs. The third and fifth songs, “Before you can say ‘Come’ and ‘Go’” and “Where the bee sucks,” are Ariel’s songs of loyalty to Prospero, the latter featuring buzzy bee sounds maintained by at least one voice part throughout the piece. In the fourth piece, “You are three men of sin,” Ariel threatens the enemies, cursing every detail of their existence. In one chilling section, a soloist’s menacing line rises gradually over more than an octave and a half, while the rest of the choir sings “Remember” over and over, eventually swelling to a climax. The rest of the piece is written in a low register, reflecting Prospero and Ariel’s seething rage at the wrongs done by the shipwrecked party.
The importance of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) to music is traditionally recognized in his close personal connection with the composer Richard Wagner. Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) presents theories about the origins of Greek tragedy that have been influential upon later generations, but it also propagandizes heavily on behalf of Wagner’s art. The friendship between the two men became increasingly strained, however, and was completely finished by the time of the publication of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagner (1888), in which the philosopher attacks the composer whom he had once so strongly supported. Nietzsche’s writings have also inspired other musicians, perhaps most famously Richard Strauss, whose tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra was stimulated by the philosopher’s book of the same name.
In addition, Nietzsche was an amateur composer, producing a small number of pieces, including several short piano works. Two of those are featured on tonight’s program; both were written in 1862, when Nietzsche was still in his teens. The first, Im Mondschein auf der Puszta (“In the Moonlight on the Hungarian Plains”), is a languid piece in two nearly identical parts with three intervening measures of connecting material. The second piece, Da geht ein Bach (“There Flows a Brook”), was also set by Nietzsche at one point as a song, using a text by Klaus Groth. This piece, marked “Lively,” begins jauntily, evoking German folk song. Each of its two parts concludes with a curious slow passage in which Nietzche’s most adventurous harmonic language is seen. In the first of these slower passages, interestingly, three rolled chords are played, and the composer has marked the word “questioning” as a performance direction.
Although they are youthful projects, these two pieces by their very existence reveal the broad nature of the superb education that Nietzsche received in 19th century Germany: the man whom we know as a classically educated philosopher, it turns out, was also by reputation an excellent pianist (especially as an improviser) — and, occasionally, a composer.
The Due Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane of Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) come from a time fairly early in the composer’s career when he was experimenting with various styles of composition. They are part of a larger set of Michelangelo’s poetry that Dallapiccola began composing in the early 1930s; by the time the set was completed in the 1940s, Dallapiccola’s style had changed so much that the later pieces do not resemble the earlier ones. Although his later works settled into a hybrid of dodecaphonic composition and modality, these two pieces are composed in the madrigal style, consciously summoning sounds of Renaissance Italy but with harmonies and effects updated for the 20th century. Characteristics of the madrigal style include both sections of homophony (block chords, with everyone singing the same rhythm) and sections of independent vocal melodies. These sounds complement the two lighthearted poems by Michelangelo (1475-1564), sculptor of the Pietà and David, painter of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and architect of parts of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Dallapiccola masterfully uses the unique sounds of the Italian language to effect the admonitions first from ill-mated wives and then from unhappy husbands, and it is almost impossible to imagine these pieces performed in translation. The recurring motives and refrains of the pieces, characteristic of the composer’s fondness for structure, make them seem familiar even before we have heard them all the way through.