Time for the opera interval
Oh to have heard Teresa Stolz sing!
Giuseppe Verdi, in his sixtieth year, was in Naples assisting in the production of his latest opera, Aida, when the lead soprano, Teresa Stolz became ill and everything was put on hold. Stolz (forty-one at the time) was his soprano of choice. (She performed the soprano solo in the first performance of his Requiem the following year – 1874.) His wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, had been a celebrated soprano too, but had retired. His first wife, Margherita Barezzi, had also been a singer.
Surely the voices of the women that he knew and his relationships with them fed his musical imagination. The same could be said of Mozart, for sure, and many other composers. It is as if there is something of these women (and men of course) embedded, almost recorded, in the music. Could this be, in a way, a hugely respectful and fond way of appreciating and celebrating them that lasts forever? A debatable subject, for sure, especially bearing in mind their varying roles and reputations in the drama, but something worth debating, perhaps.
Holed up in his hotel, the Grande Albergo delle Crocelle (favourite haunt of, amongst others, Casanova some time back), a beautiful spot by the sea, fifteen minutes walk from the theatre, Verdi must have been aware that there were some string players in the theatre orchestra with time on their hands and he proceeded to pen a large scale work for string quartet which had its first performance in the hotel. He was modest about its qualities but it is in reality an astonishingly assured and brilliant work, infused with operatic drama and ‘singing’ melodies.
Verdi was very involved in modernising opera theatre orchestras, or at least attempting to persuade theatre managers to change things. Opera orchestras had become, basically, large wind bands, and he pushed for more strings, particularly lower strings, to achieve a richer string sound that balanced with the wind instruments better. He (along with other forward thinking composers and academics) also insisted on changes in the layout of the orchestra because many opera houses had become stuck in eighteenth century layouts that didn’t reflect what was happening in operatic writing as it developed through the nineteenth century. He also requested a standard pitch of A = 435, which is a little lower than what is considered standard pitch today. His string quartet is an indicator of the standard of string writing and playing that he was trying to achieve. It is superb – and demanding – string writing, so clearly straight out of the opera.
Teresa was to remain a part of Giuseppe’s life to the end. After his wife died, Teresa went to live with him until his death. The exact nature of their relationship is not known. The story of their lives and loves could very easily be turned into an opera.
We are also playing a short piece for strings – Crisantemi – by Giacomo Puccini. Primarily an operatic composer, and one of the greatest composers ever working in that genre, he was moved to write this elegiac piece in a single night in January 1890, on hearing that his forty-four year old friend, the Duke of Aosta, had died of pneumonia.
Prince Amedeo had fought in the Third Italian War of Independence and was something of a national hero, having been wounded in the Battle of Custoza.
Clearly intended to show off his considerable assets, this portrait may have contributed, in an extraordinary turn of events, to him being chosen to be King of Spain from 1870 – 1873.
Having been installed as king, it turned out that the level of political turmoil in Spain at the time made his position unworkable and he decided to leave and head back to Italy. Still seen as a hero in Italy, his return was greatly celebrated. After his wife’s death, his second marriage was frowned upon by many, but his death, especially at a relatively young age, was a cause for national mourning. Puccini’s Crisantemi is tragic, tender and heartfelt, devoid of pomp or bombast. (It is believed that Madame Chrysanthème, a novel – published 1887 – by Pierre Lotti, about a young French naval officer who enters into a temporary marriage with a geisha while stationed in Japan, was partly the inspiration for Puccini’s Opera Madama Butterfly. The connection between Madame Chrysanthème and Crisantemi is potentially a very interesting subject, so far strangely unexplored and it is likely that it will remain that way unless a particularly inquisitive student reads this blog post and thinks that such a study would make a good subject for a degree.)
Amedeo’s life, and indeed the lives of those close to him, would also potentially make for for good operatic – or film material. We are available, as a quartet, to be part of the production – period costumes and all – and we would be happy to negotiate a fee for our services proportionate to the predictable huge success of the venture.
Rota’s eternal dilemma
The music of Nino Rota (b. 1911 d. 1979) may not be a familiar name to concert audiences but such iconic films as The Godfather and La Dolce Vita will surely be well known to many. Rota wrote the soundtrack for these Federico Fellini directed films, as well as many other films such as Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. He is a hugely significant figure in the history of film making. In particular, he helped Italian film develop its unique character. Fellini called him his ‘most precious collaborator. He had a geometric imagination, a musical approach worthy of celestial spheres. He thus had no need to see images from my movies. I clearly realised he was not concerned with images at all. His world was inner, inside himself, and reality had no way to enter it.’
Rota was a prolific composer in other musical forms too – ballet, opera, concertos and chamber music. His Quartetto per archi (Quartet for strings) was written just after the Second World War, in the same period that he was writing his first film scores. There is definitely something rather atmospheric and filmic about this section in the last movement:
Perhaps it is possible to hear a reference to ceremonial courtly early music in the louder, livelier section here. As a student Rota had written a thesis on the Venetian Renaissance composer and music theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino.
There is something of the celestial spheres suggested in the illustrations of Zarlino’s groundbreaking treatise, Le Institutioni Harmoniche, which must have appealed to Rota. (Zarlino was an exact Venetian contemporary of the painter Tintoretto, whose St Ursula painting is mentioned in the previous blog post here. Surely they must have known each other.)
Whilst Rota was at the forefront of the new wave of post war culture, his fascination with the golden age of Italian music inevitably found its way into his compositional style, as can be heard in this transition in the slow movement:
“When I’m creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy” said Rota – “but the eternal dilemma – how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That’s what’s at the heart of my music.” Tantamount to an artistic manifesto, this says much about him as a person and there is no doubt that he was successful in achieving what he set out to do.
From Mendicanti to cognoscenti
Our Italian programme begins with the music of a courageous and determined eighteenth century woman. Maddalena Lombardini’s impoverished parents took her to audition for a place at the Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, one of Venice’s charitable institutions for the poor, sick and orphaned, which also served as educational establishments. In particular, musical skills were nurtured, presumably with the expectation of the pupils’ involvement in the music in the chapel there. She was accepted.
Lombardini was clearly a talented young musician and managed to get permission to have violin lessons with Tartini, violinist and musical theorist, who lived in Padua. She studied composition with Ferdinando Bertoni, choirmaster at the Ospedale.
Her sights were soon set beyond the walls of the Ospedale. In order to be released from its confines she needed a dowry. She married another violinist composer, Lodovico Sirmen, and they left to tour Europe.
They performed to acclaim in Turin, Paris and London, often playing their own compositions – concertos, duets, and no doubt quartets. A set of six quartets (we are playing No 6) published in Paris in 1769 was considered to have been co-written by the couple but more recently the authorship has been more clearly identified as being that of Maddalena herself. On the cusp of the early classical style that was being developed by Haydn, and contemporary with his earliest string quartets, there is still a flavour in her music of the courtly airs and graces that she would have encountered on her visits to the cultural capitals of Europe.
Despite the early flowering of her talent and fame, she ultimately got rather left behind. Her violin playing became to be seen as old fashioned. She turned to singing as a career, even performing as far away as St Petersburg but this new musical direction didn’t really work out and she subsequently returned to Venice with her travelling companion, Giuseppe Terzi, a priest – this arrangement was evidently not uncommon at the time. (Her husband Lodovico had long since left her, taking their daughter Alessandra to Ravenna, where he had employment and became associated with Countess Zerletti.) In 1795 Maddalena and Giuseppe jointly adopted a child. The couple must have been close, to say the least. One wonders what Maddalena’s inner life was, balancing her musical aspirations, cosmopolitan experiences and maternal feelings.
It is very likely that the young Maddalena gazed at Tintoretto’s painting, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which was installed in the chapel at the Ospedale. It is a very dramatic picture, depicting a scene from the life of the patron saint of schoolgirls, St Ursula, that could almost be the inspiration for a film scene. In particular, the eye is drawn to the huge ships in the background and of course that extraordinary weightless figure flying through the air. There is so much movement in it, so much travelling.
I think it would be a stretch of the imagination to interpret this painting as in any way feminist but perhaps there is an energy in it that is reflected in the impetus of Maddalena’s desire to break out of the Ospedale, travel far and wide and express her feelings through her music.
The gift of silence
Some years ago a scientific research group put out a request for antique objects, ornaments, artefacts, containing air that had been sealed in when they were made. The idea was that this air could be analysed for levels of pollution that existed in Victorian times, or whenever the object was made, in comparison with modern levels.
The sealed air makes me think of the silences in Haydn’s music. Surrounded and sealed by the notes around them, Haydn’s silences are pockets of silence from the 18th century. We are connected to the silence that he experienced and that listeners have experienced and will experience whenever the piece is played. It is also, for some, a communal experience of awareness of a greater universal silence, in the listening present moment of a performance. (In a way, the silence gives us a more authentic experience of the 18th century than the actual notes, because the sounds that we hear are the result of interpretation and such things as the sounds of the instruments and styles of playing, which have changed – but silence hasn’t.)
Haydn leads us to the silence, enabling it to grace our lives for a moment. Perhaps this is his greatest gift to us.
There is another striking silence in this quartet – if silence can be striking.
This one is particularly clever. It catches the players off guard – a deliberate banana skin moment when the music evaporates unexpectedly. Where has the music gone?! How are we going to get it back again? Silence rules. Everything comes out of silence and goes back into silence..
What follows this particular moment of silence is a passage of astonishing harmonic invention. It passes by quite quickly so here it is, slower.
Wagner – yes, Wagner!! – comes to mind. I would never have imagined it in Haydn. It just goes to show how original and modern Haydn was in his writing. With minimal means, Haydn breaks the bounds of the formal constraints of classical structures.
The more we play some pieces of music, the more they reveal themselves to us – and often the more mysterious they become. Could this be a definition of great music? It is certainly the way of Haydn quartets which, with seemingly simple resources, give us so much to ponder and enjoy.
Enigmas and dreams
It is always good to come across composers who we have never heard of before but whose music comes to life with vivid immediacy when the bow strokes the string. One such composer is Ignacy Dobrzyński (born in what was then Polish-Ukraine), a fellow classmate of Frédéric Chopin at the Warsaw Conservatoire.
Dobrzyński and Chopin were encouraged by their teacher Józef Elsner to incorporate polonaises, mazurkas and other traditional Polish folk music into their compositions. Their paths were ultimately very different. Chopin was at the forefront of the Romantic movement, his star ever rising. Dobrzyński, famous in his time, became rather lost in the foggy hinterland of less well known composers but his music deserves to be heard. We are pleased to be bringing his quartet in E minor op 7 to life.
Dobrzyński doesn’t step far out of the magnetic field of Joseph Haydn’s influence in his quartet.
Haydn’s op 50 no 5 is not one of his better known quartets but it is as supreme an example of quartet writing as any – succinct, unpredictable, fascinating. The dream-like slow movement holds its magical spell throughout its relatively brief appearance – a reverie in sound. What is the reverie about? Who knows?! This is surely one of the key elements of the very best art – that it offers our imagination opportunities to roam and dream without boundaries or foregone conclusions.
Shostakovich’s music stimulates the imagination too. What is the link between the 7th string quartet dedication – to his recently deceased wife – and the music within this work? (He was by all accounts deeply distressed by her death.)
As with so much of his music, we are left guessing to a large extent, and we are left with enigmas. One enigma in this work is announced very clearly and meaningfully by the viola near the beginning of the 3rd movement. After the violins and cello have launched into a cascade of violent semiquavers (described by some as a dog barking), the viola plays four quiet notes. They clearly mean something. But what? The notes can be analysed as forming a theme or part of a code but their presence in the context of the movement seems extremely telling, and yet we will never know for sure what the inner meaning is. We are simply drawn into a place where, in witnessing the enigma, we validate its potential to stimulate the imagination.
I feel a strong influence of the faster, turbulent section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet in this third movement. It is unbridled energy, fearless, fearsome. Perhaps the ending of the work wouldn’t be so effective without this sword-fight of a movement, which normally results in a few lost hairs in all respects. See you at the next series, when we’ll be wearing some pretty fetching wigs, no doubt.
The emancipation of the cello
It was difficult to keep a tab on Boccherini. At closing time he would already have travelled to another country, avidly seeking his next musical employment.
Born in Lucca, Italy, in 1743, he started playing the cello aged five, initially taught by his father. He was sent to study in Rome when he was thirteen. Father and son travelled to Vienna in 1757 to play in the Burgtheater orchestra. He subsequently moved to Spain, in the employment of royalty, where his career really took off.
Fashion has certainly changed since Boccherini’s time. What a fantastic outfit he is wearing! This painting records very accurately, too, the bow and cello of the period and the method of playing it – the bow hold, left hand position and the way the cello is supported by the legs rather than with the aid of a spike in the base of the cello resting on the floor, as is the way with modern cello playing.
Op 2 No 1, in our current concert series, is believed to be Boccherini’s first published quartet (1761), and as such it is probably one of the first string quartets ever written, contemporaneous with Haydn’s first quartet works.
This title page is a veritable treasure trove of information. The meaning of symphonie/symphony has changed since Boccherini’s time. He used it in the sense of people playing together rather than the subsequent transition of the meaning to imply something more large scale and orchestral. Then he says ‘O sia quartetti’. This suggests a massive shift into new territory – where the four instruments together were the new symphony – the new togetherness, which he invited people to enter into, with his dedication ‘to true amateurs and connoisseurs of music’. This was music for everybody to enjoy, in their homes, in a way that was conversational and intimate. There was one caveat not mentioned, though. You had to have a very good cellist in your quartet…
Boccherini was the cello virtuoso of his age and even in the earlier works the cello is given way more to do than was considered proper up to that time. It could be described as an emancipation. As a result cellists both love and dread his music. However, whatever feats of musical gymnastics the cellist is required to do, somehow this music generally maintains an air of gracefulness and tender expression – so characteristic of Boccherini.
The benefits of diplomacy
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), so fond of walks in woods and in the countryside, must have been in his element in the extensive gardens of his patron Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752 – 1836), the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Extensive is an understatement. The Count’s residence and gardens were conceived on a grand scale to impress. The mannered, ‘artificial’ style of French gardens that had been popular was given short shrift. English garden design was chosen instead, showcasing nature through irregular, secluded paths and viewpoints onto magnificent natural vistas. One can easily imagine Beethoven’s 6th (‘Pastoral’) symphony – dedicated to Count Razumovsky – as the soundtrack to a tour around the gardens.
Razumovsky was an art collector and played the violin. He also played the torban, a Ukrainian traditional instrument – with good reason; he was born into Ukrainian aristocracy and clearly valued his Ukrainian heritage.
Without doubt, his artistic interests were bound up with his diplomatic role. Conveying an impression of an acute awareness of pan-European culture was part of his diplomatic mission.
His enthusiasm for music extended to employing an excellent string quartet led by Ignaz Shuppanzigh – a good friend of Beethoven – as part of his numerous employees. Razumovsky even provided them with pensions on their retirement.
The Schuppanzigh Quartet holds an important place in the history of chamber music. These were the first musicians in Europe whose careers existed around chamber music rather than orchestral or solo playing. They also premiered many important new works, including the three Op 59 quartets that Razumovsky commissioned Beethoven to write.
All of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ quartets include Russian themes, although it is unclear whether this was a request by the Count to include them or whether Beethoven included them out of respect and gratitude. The slow movement of Op 59 No 3, which we are playing in our current programme, contains the most Russian sounding music in this quartet – possibly suggesting the vast expanses of the steppes rather than the luxury of sumptuous palaces.
Part of Razumovsky’s palace burnt down in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1815, the evening after a ball at which the guest of honour had been Tsar Alexander 1. A large amount of Razumovsky’s art collection went up in flames. Distraught, he became a shadow of his former self, living in seclusion in Vienna until his death in 1836.
Wealth and influence might fade away but Beethoven’s music speaks to each new generation with startling urgency.
The ecstatic condition of Erwin Schulhoff
We live in a troubled world and when we are faced with such an uncertain future, it is good to have a song that lifts the spirits.
Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this fabulous song is as relevant today as when it was written in 1965.
Bacharach studied composition with Darius Milhaud, one of the composers in the group known as ‘Les Six’. Milhaud is the dedicatee of Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet (1924), which is in our forthcoming concert programme. Milhaud and Schulhoff were exact contemporaries and kindred spirits in the way they incorporated jazz and traditional music into their compositions.
We are excited to be including Schulhoff’s music in this programme. It is provocative, even subversive music, and the string writing is superb. Schulhoff wrote in 1919: “Music should first and foremost produce physical pleasures, yes, even ecstasies. Music is never philosophy, it arises from an ecstatic condition, finding its expression through rhythmical movement”. He was a very keen dancer, often dancing for many hours in nightclubs. He was also a brilliant pianist who had a penchant for ragtime and jazz, both of which are embedded in much of his music.
From the outset of the Five Pieces it is clear that dance is central to the work. A Viennese waltz is at play, but not as we know it in waltzes by Johann Strauss and others, but in a disjointed, somewhat grotesque way that somehow conveys the spirit and energy of the waltz and yet…..a waltz is and always has been in three time whereas Schulhoff here contrives the waltz feel within a structure of two beats in a bar, so what the listener hears is decidedly not as it looks on the page. It could be described as an inverted version of the baroque hemiola, where a piece in three beats in a bar suddenly sounds like two in a bar. Each movement of the Five Pieces is dance based – forming a suite reminiscent of the baroque suite form. After the waltz movement, there is a Serenade, then a movement infused with Czech folk music, a Tango and finally a fevered Tarantella.
Schulhoff clearly loved dance but couldn’t resist undermining it and challenging the conventional viewpoint. His friendship with the painters Otto Dix and George Grosz, who both drew attention to the horrors of war and the prevailing fascist politics of the 1920s in Germany in an unremittingly critical way, stimulated Schulhoff’s anti-establishment nature.
Inevitably his Communist inclination became an increasing issue with the authorities; he became persona non grata, was unable to get a visa to go to America and ended up in Wülzburg prison camp in Bavaria. He died of tuberculosis there in August 1942.
Schulhoff gives the viola considerable prominence in this music. (As it happens, his sister, an artist, was called Viola.) He seems to be drawing on what could be described as the viola’s subversive tendencies – the way it can subtly transform music from within the texture of the ensemble, and its ambiguous pitch – both high and low in range. Bringing this voice to the fore is a brazen upturning of prevailing norms.
It is a privilege for us to play music that broke boundaries at a time when boundaries were clearly and harshly defined. It is a powerful reminder of the way that art can challenge – particularly relevant to us today in the context of authoritarian regimes. Schulhoff didn’t survive the particular regime of his time. Neither did the regime ultimately. His music, his voice, lives on though, still challenging, still inspiring.
Rehearsing the first movement of the Spohr sextet. Gentle, warm music that perhaps doesn’t have the depth of Brahms but its texture bears a striking similarity in parts to the music of Richard Strauss – the lyricism, the shifts of key, the fluttering trills.
There is a lot of trilling to do in Spohr. They are a characteristic part of his music, for sure. He was a well known and influential violin teacher and articulating trills was a skill that was very much a part of his method. What is particularly challenging for the performer is the way he incorporates trills in runs of fast notes that are already tricky enough without having to add extra twiddles! But we enjoy it all the same, keeping our fingers nimble and ready for action.
Here is an example of the trilling going on between first violin and viola in that same movement:
And from the slow movement, less trilling, more collective enjoyment in the melodic sweep and contrasting rhythmic decisiveness.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, one of Spohr’s innovations was in providing rehearsal letters in the music to make it easier for musicians to rehearse the music together, so that they could go beyond such practicalities and engage with more profound issues such as phrasing and interpretation. I wonder what Spohr would have made of the deep philosophical discussion going on here: (you may need to turn up your volume to hear our voices.)
Music of the heart
Compared to many artists and musicians – Berlioz for example, or Mozart, or van Gogh – we know very little about the inner life of Johannes Brahms. He took great pains to dispose of any trail that would give anything away, even requesting of friends that they destroy evidence of correspondence from him. What we are left with is his music, which is surely as confessional as any words written in a letter, and tells us so much about him. Surely he was complicit in this manner of self-revelation.
“If there is anyone here I have not offended, I apologise”, he said when leaving a party. Amusing as it is, it shows how single minded he was. (That such irascibility may have been the result of sleep apnoea is by the by.)
By the time that Brahms composed his Op 18 string sextet in 1860, aged 37, he had written a large amount of music, including, it is believed, twenty string quartets. Most of this he had destroyed in a determined striving for what he thought was worthwhile, particularly in relation to the iconic musical forbears he so revered.
So this sextet was written, surprisingly, before his first official string quartet, Op 51 No 1. He needed time to find a way to form his own statement and response to the acknowledged supreme writers of quartet music – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Although he learnt the violin when he was young, his primary instrument was the piano, and he was a piano teacher in the early part of his career. One of his pupils, Minna Völckers, recalled:
‘Between Friday and Tuesday I had to learn a study by Cramer, a prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and the first movement of a sonata by Beethoven. That seemed to me to be an insurmountable task but it went better than I had imagined. I had to play him scales every time. He was very exact with everything and placed special emphasis on a loose wrist. Brahms could not be bettered as a teacher. He was gentle and kind, without praising much. I quickly made big strides with him. I really wanted to play some of his compositions, but hesitated to say so to him. My mother did it for me. “Yes”, he said, “the things are still too difficult, but I will play duets with her” and we had to work on his sextet Op 18, which we immediately got down to in the next lesson. I had to play primo, and we went through it very exactly, and my family were also delighted by the fine music. None of us could ever understand the stupid twaddle that one so often heard about him, that his music was confused. Sometimes, if I asked him, he played fugues after the lesson.’
Presumably the version of the sextet mentioned here would have been a piano duet version; this was common at this time, to make such works available for people to play in their homes if they had a piano, which was very likely.
Brahms gained a huge amount of understanding about string playing from two very significant violinists in his life; Joseph Joachim, considered to be the greatest violinist at the time and a lifelong personal friend of Brahms, and Ede Remenyi, who Brahms toured with giving recitals in 1853. Remenyi had Roma music in his blood and Brahms soon started to incorporate elements of this traditional music in his compositions.
The scherzo of the sextet op 18 has an exuberant energy to it that surely stems from this source of inspiration:
We are probably most familiar with photographs of the older, bearded Brahms. The younger version, as in the two portraits above, makes quite a different impression. It seems that, despite our impression of a very handsome young man, he was not a man brimming with self confidence. It is possible that his decision to break off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold was brought on by the unfavourable audience response to his first piano concerto and he felt that he would be an inadequate partner for her. He was also very close to Clara Schumann but this relationship did not become a permanent commitment.
Is there something fatalistic, or even funereal in this passage in the slow movement of the sextet, expressing resignation at his state of being?:
This excerpt shows well Brahms’s affinity with the richer darker tones of the musical spectrum that he found able to achieve with the help of the extra viola and cello in the sextet. The pizzicati of the violins provide a lovely touch, lightening the atmosphere a little. He knew just how to express his inner feelings in musical form.