Pierre-Octave Ferroud was a French composer who died tragically at age 36 when hit by a car while walking along a road in Hungary. He studied with Guy Ropartz and Florent Schmitt, two very prominent French composers. His Three Pieces for Solo Flute were written in 1920-21 in Strasbourg while he was studying with Ropartz. They are all in a quasi-Chinese style, and we are reminded that Asian art and music was very influential in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We will hear the central movement, “Jade,” on today’s program. It is a short and lively dance movement.
Max Reger (1873-1916)
Serenade for flute, violin, and viola, Op. 141a (1915)
Max Reger wore many musical hats: he worked as a concert pianist, concert organist, composer, conductor, university professor (his students included conductor George Szell), church music director, and Kapellmeister (court music director)—very similar to the way in which most professional musicians today make a living. He excelled in each of these roles. If he is remembered much today, it is as a composer of “complicated” abstract music. He wrote a tremendous amount of music in practically all genres except opera and symphony, and he was a firm supporter of abstract music in the model of Beethoven and Brahms, as opposed to program music in the model of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. As an organist, he was intimately familiar with Bach’s great organ works, and much of his music shows the deep influence of Bach’s contrapuntal genius. Many of his works include very serious fugues, and to some extent this led many listeners of his day (and of the present time) to feel his music has an academic, unfeeling quality.
Reger was aware of and deeply troubled by this reputation, and occasionally wrote music to directly contradict this impression, for example the Serenade for flute, viola, and violin, Op. 141a of 1915. When sending the work off to his publisher, he included a note saying, “Enclosed you will find something very light, very simple and very melodious…. I ask you, please, not to look askance upon this unprepossessing little [work, for it] is definitely intended to make me many new friends, and finally to silence a little those ignorant people who still think that I can only write in a ‘complicated’ way, and that I ‘must’ conceal my ‘want of ideas’ and ‘lack of feeling’ under a ‘mass of complexity’!” He went on to exclaim, “It is quite clear to me what is missing from today’s music: a Mozart! The first fruits of this realization, which has been in my mind for some time, are the [two Serenades for flute, violin, and viola].” The model for Reger’s Serenade was not Mozart, however, but Beethoven, and specifically Beethoven’s Serenade for flute, violin, and viola, Op. 25. Reger took from the example of Beethoven’s work the lightness of texture, the clarity of form and harmony, and the joyful rhythmic figures and catchy melodies that make the work so charming. Reger’s Serenade, written in less than two weeks, brilliantly captures the spirit of Beethoven’s work. It is all the things his music is not supposed to be: light, graceful, pleasing, concise, harmonically uncomplicated, and with just the right number of notes.
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Quintet for oboe and string quartet (1922)
Arnold Bax was a British composer, poet, and author who wrote prolifically in all genres during the war years. Though his works are not so well known today, for a time he was considered Britain’s leading composer of symphonies. Born into a prosperous family, his income allowed him to compose without bowing to the fashions of the day, and his early music was colored by his fascination with the music of Wagner, Debussy, and Richard Strauss. (Debussy and Strauss were definitely considered “suspect” by the British musical establishment of the time.) Although British, an early encounter with the poetry of Yeats led him to a deep and abiding interest in Ireland and Celtic culture. Bax wrote in his Memoirs of 1943, “I worked very hard at the Irish language and steeped myself in its history and saga, folk-tale and fairy-lore…. Under this domination, my musical style became strengthened...I began to write Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve.”
Bax composed his First Symphony in 1921-22; critics saw in the work a dark, fierce evocation of the Great War and considered it “a truly great English symphony.” Between the completion of that symphony and its premiere, Bax managed to compose his Quintet for oboe and string quartet. It was written in two months and completed just before Christmas of 1922. The fierce qualities of his symphony are turned into more plaintive and lamenting sounds in the quintet. As critic Lewis Foreman wrote, “[the work has] the mood and atmosphere of Irish songs, songs of more note for their heart-broken sorrow than their picturesque colour.” This Irish tint is most obvious in the finale of the quintet. In the first movement, one hears a strong tint of oriental exoticism, particularly in the frequently used interval of the augmented second. The overall mood of the first movement is sorrowful despite a vigorous central section. The slow movement is the emotional center of the work, a wonderful mixture of beauty and sorrow. It is in the finale that we finally hear the Irish influence: the movement is an Irish jig, full of rambunctious energy. But, as with many works written in the long shadow of the Great War, clouds cover the sun, albeit briefly, as we approach the end of the movement.
The oboe quintet is a non-traditional form, and Bax’s work was revolutionary in this regard. He dedicated the work to the great British oboist Leon Goossens and was undoubtedly inspired by Goossens’ extraordinary virtuosity. It was premiered in 1924 by Goossens and the Kutcher quartet.
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960),
Tenebrae for string quartet (2002)
Osvaldo Golijov is one of the most important American composers of today. He grew up in an Eastern European Jewish family in La Plata, Argentina, surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and Klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. His compositional language draws deeply on all of these styles, creating a compelling mélange of sound. Some of you may remember the extraordinary work The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and string quartet that was played in CPMF’s 2013 season.
“Tenebrae” is the Latin word for “darkness” or “blindness,” and it refers to rites in the Catholic Church celebrated on the eves of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. During the Tenebrae rites, candles are gradually extinguished while a series of readings and psalms are chanted or recited. The readings are taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem. Many composers of the Renaissance and Baroque set the Lamentations for the Tenebrae services, including Palestrina, Lassus, Tallis, Charpentier, and François Couperin. Golijov’s Tenebrae draws extensively on Couperin’s setting for inspiration. Golijov’s Tenebrae exists in two versions. The first, written for soprano, clarinet, and string quartet, was commissioned by the Spoleto USA Music Festival and premiered in Charleston, SC, in June 2002. The string quartet version, the version you will hear on today’s program, was later commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The work is heard frequently in both versions.
Golijov wrote extensively about the work:
I wrote Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it "from afar", the music would probably offer a "beautiful" surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops, and wrote new interludes between them, always within a pulsating, vibrating, aerial texture. The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground. After finishing the composition, I realized that Tenebrae could be heard as the slow, quiet reading of an illuminated medieval manuscript in which the appearances of the voice singing the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet (from Yod to Nun, as in Couperin) signal the beginning of new chapters, leading to the ending section, built around a single, repeated word: Jerusalem.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Assobio a Játo (“The Jet Whistle”) for flute and cello (1950)
Heitor Villa-Lobos was the most important composer of art music from Brazil in the twentieth century. His compositions are over 2,000 in number and include orchestral works, chamber music, choral music, solo vocal music, solo instrumental music, and film music. His music combines the influences of Brazilian folk music with European classical techniques, as exemplified in his most famous works, the series of nine Bachianas Brasileiras (“Brazilian Bach-like pieces”). Growing up, he heard music in the cafés of Rio de Janeiro, folk music throughout Brazil, and the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Bach. When he went to Paris in the 1920s, he befriended Poulenc, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. All of these influences came together in his own unique style.
Assobio a Játo (“The Jet Whistle”) for flute and cello was written in New York in 1950, and it is a perfect example of Villa-Lobos’ exoticism. Villa-Lobos was very attracted to contrasts, and in the three short movements of this work we have the contrasts of high and low, metal and wood, wind and string, breath and bow. The work gets its name from a technique Villa-Lobos uses in the last movement. He asks the flutist to cover the mouthpiece with the mouth and to blow forcefully into it. When this effect is combined with a glissando, the whistle sound that results is like that of a jet taking off—or at least Villa-Lobos thought so! It is an effect that has been much used in contemporary music for the flute.
Kit Turnbull (b. 1969)
Three Cautionary Tales for clarinet and string quartet (2007)
British composer Kit Turnbull has had a varied musical career as the keyboard player in a rock group, a bassoonist in Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Band Service, a composition teacher, and a CD producer. His works have been performed and broadcast all over the world.
Three Cautionary Tales for clarinet and string quartet was written in 2007 and dedicated to British clarinetist Linda Merrick. It is a set of very attractive and haunting miniatures with music reminiscent of medieval modal polyphony and Renaissance madrigals, yet with a distinctive modern spin. Kit emailed Stephanie that he believes these CPMF performances are the U.S. premiere of this set. He wrote detailed notes about the work:
Each movement of this piece evokes a story from folklore used to illustrate perceived dangers, hence [the title] Cautionary Tales.
1. Carbrooke Dancers
With its irregular dance rhythms, this movement is inspired by the medieval legend of young girls turned to stone after dancing to the music of a strange fiddler in a churchyard. Priests used the legend to warn against merry-making on Sundays and Christian festivals.
2. The Mermaid's Pool
The modal colouring and spaciousness of this movement evoke the legend of drowned young women who lured passers-by into sharing their fate through hypnotic songs. Mothers used the story to warn children of the dangers of water.
3. Lantern Man
The virtuosic finale with its busy textures depicts the flickering lights that can appear in marshes through combustion of gases. Characters with names like Jack o' Lantern, Kit with the Canstick, and Will o' the Wisp were said to lead people into the marshes, often to their deaths, a story designed to deter nighttime wanderers.