Recital Notes for January 29, 2008
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Preludio from the Partita for Unaccompanied Violin No. 3, in E Major, BWV 1006. Johann Sebastian Bach

(Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach; died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig)

In 1717, Bach was appointed composer and music director to Prince Leopold, ruler of the tiny German state of AnhaltCöthen.  Leopold was an accomplished musician with a great appetite for instrumental music.  Bach remained in Cöthen until 1723, and in that six year period, composed nothing but secular music.  Prince Leopold, a Calvinist, was extremely enthusiastic about instrumental concerts and uninterested in or even disapproving of church music.  In 1720, Bach wrote out a set of six pieces, three sonatas and three suites of dances, called partitas, for violin without accompaniment.  Very little of Bach's music was published during his lifetime, and little was none for a century after his death.  Later generations profoundly admired these six works, but profoundly misunderstood them, too.  Robert Schumann, for example, so failed to see that they were whole and did not need not another note that in 1854, he composed piano accompaniments for them.  The partitas did not come into widespread use in their original form until almost the mid-twentieth century!

In Bach's time, it was the custom to produce works for one instrument or a fixed combination of instruments in a series of six pieces.  Although some composers of his time repeated the same musical idea six times with variation, Bach explored the given compositional project in six totally different ways.  Thus the sonatas and partitas for solo violin are varied, logical and extended in their structure.   Sonatas and partitas alternate throughout the set of six.  The partita is strongly influenced by the French dance-suite, which was an outgrowth of the courtly ballet.  The Partita No. 3 departs from tradition in that not all its movements are dances.  It begins with a Prelude that does not even have one of the typical dance rhythms.

Much of the content of this music is implicit or suggested in what is written and can exist only in the minds of the player and listener.  This music for unaccompanied violin is unique in its power and complexity, but does fall into the well-defined tradition of the German Baroque school of violin represented by such composers as Biber and Walther who emphasized polyphony and widely-spaced full chords in their writing.

The Third Partita opens with the brilliant Preludio ("Prelude) that was one of Bach's favorites.  Some years later he arranged it as an organ solo, added an accompaniment for what was at the time a large orchestra, and used the new version as an introductory movement in two different church cantatas.  It is actually a very scintillating study in could be called the concerto style of the time, and it is remarkable for its lightness and high spirits.

Violin Sonata No. 2, Opus 27, "Obsession". . . Eugène Ysa¥e(Born July 16, 1858, in Liège; died May 12, 1931, in Brussels)

Eugène Ysa¥e was a great violinist in a great era of violin playing.  George Bernard Shaw wrote in the 1890's that he thought him greater than Sarasate and equal to Joachim, but when he heard Ysa¥e play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, he said, "Sarasate and Joachim rolled into one could have done no more."   César Franck, a fellow Liègeois, dedicated his Violin Sonata to Ysa¥e as a wedding gift, and Debussy wrote his String Quartet for him.  In 1898 Ysa¥e declined the directorship of the New York Philharmonic, but from 1918 to 1922, he was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  His compositions include an opera, some chamber music and many works for violin.

Ysa¥e's son, Antoine, recorded the history of his father's six unaccompanied violin sonatas in his memoir.  It is not easy to give credence to it exactly as told, but it is all we have.  One day in 1924, in Brussels, Ysa¥e heard Joseph Szigeti play one of Bach's solo violin sonatas, and on the way home afterwards, he spoke of what an interesting challenge it would be to write pieces that particularly suited the styles of individual violinists. "That evening," according to Antoine, "Ysa¥e retired to his study and did not reappear until the following evening.  His meals were served to him on a table at his side, and when he finally came out again, he was radiant.  'I have sketched ideas for six Violin Sonatas,' he said.  Then, during the following days he completed the work and sent it to the printer."  It seems almost impossible to have conceived and written this set of six varied works, which are among the most difficult in the violin repertoire, in so short a time, but they have no earlier history and they were published that year.  The composer said of this work that it was set in a consciously postmodern idiom. The Sonata No. 2 is dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, a violinist twenty years Ysa¥e's junior, who lived at Ysa¥e's home in Brussels for a time.  Stories of their friendship go so far as to describe how Ysa¥e offered to lend Thibaud his Guarneri and Stradivarius while Thibaud's own instruments, one by Carlo Bergonzi and the other by Antonio Stradivari, were being repaired.  Of Thibaud, Ysa¥e once expressed his admiration: "There are two violinists from whose playing I can always be certain of learning something.  They are Kreisler and Thibaud."

This sonata is reflective of Ysa¥e's use of the Baroque tradition.  Each of the work's four movements has extra-musical connotations.  In the first, "Obsession: Prelude," Poco Vivace - Meno Mosso - Tempo Vivo , two themes are opposed.  One is the Dies Irae plainchant of the Mass, which recurs throughout the sonata as a kind of leitmotif, and the other is the Preludio from Bach's Partita in E Major, (see above) with which Thibaud always started his daily violin practice.  The Dies Irae uncannily actually begins with the same opening notes as Bach's Preludio.  The second movement, Malincolia, ("Melancholy"), Poco Lento, is intent but quiet and suspenseful.  The third movement, begins and ends with a Sarabande, Danse des ombres, ("Dance of the shadows"), Lento , pizzicato, and contains six variations.  The last of the four movements, called "Les Furies ," a dance of the furies, Allegro Furioso, a whirling tour de force, exhibits Ysa¥e's mastery of Baroque style and color, including an unusual use of the bow on the bridge, known as sul ponticello , during the quiet part.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the End of Time") . . . Olivier Messiaen

(Born December 10, 1908, in Avignon; died April 27, 1992 in Paris)

Olivier Messiaen, the most original and influential French composer after Debussy and Ravel, was born in the south of France, the son of literary parents.  He began to teach himself music when he was only eight years old, and at eleven, entered the Paris Conservatory.  The Church of the Trinity in Paris, where he became organist in 1931, and the Conservatory, where he was appointed Professor of Harmony after his release from a German prison camp, were his professional bases for most of his life. Messiaen, a man of great simplicity and directness, always practiced his art with unique and absolute individuality.  As a creative artist, Messiaen's special interests fell into a trinity of trinities: religion, nature and love; time, color and form; piano, organ and orchestra.  He composed a large number of works, all of which, he said, "religious or not, are acts of faith."  He often created musical material from the sounds of nature, bird songs especially, and he organized them in highly original ways, sometimes according to principles borrowed from Indian and other non-European music.  Despite the complexity of the language and the labyrinthine quality of the forms, much of his work strikes the listener as directly accessible and powerfully communicative.

Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time in 1940 while he was a prisoner of war in Germany.  The instruments required are clarinet, violin, cello and piano.  The music was "directly inspired, he said, by the Apocalypse of St. John, X117: 'I saw a mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.  And this angel which I saw stand upon the sea with his right foot and upon the earth with his left, lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever that there should be time no longer: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God shall be finished.'"

The Quartet for the End of Time had its first performance in Stalag VIIIA, January 15, 1941 at Gorlitz, in Silesia, during an unusually cold spell.  Messiaen reported,  "The four performers played on damaged instruments: Etienne Pasquier's cello had only three strings.  The keys on my piano would fall straight down and not spring back."

He went on to say that his work was "criticized for its calm and its concern with detail.  My detractors forget that Apocalypse contains not only monsters and cataclysms, but also moments of silent adoration and marvelous visions of peace." Messiaen provided the following explanatory note for The Abyss of the Birds, which he composed for clarinet alone. " The Abyss: it is Time, with its sadness, its lassitude.  The birds serve as a contrast: they symbolize our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and jubilant vocalises!  The bird calls are written in the fantastic and gay style of the blackbird."

Suite from L'Histoire du soldat ("The Soldier's Tale "), for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. . . Igor Stravinsky

(Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia; died April 6, 1971, in New York)

The original L'Histoire du soldat ("The Soldier's Tale") is a unique stage work, born of adversity, late in 1917, when the misery of World War I and the Russian Revolution combined to ruin Stravinsky's position financially.  He was living as a refugee in Switzerland, and casting about for a way to earn a little money, he collaborated with the novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and the conductor Ernest Ansermet in organizing a small scale traveling theater made up of only a handful of actors and musicians.  They decided they would produce pieces requiring just a few players that would thus be easily portable, enabling them to travel around to Swiss villages.

L'Histoire du Soldat was "to be read, played and danced" and was originally scored for three actors, a female dancer and seven instruments. In a collection of Russian folk tales, Stravinsky found a story of a soldier who tricks the devil, makes him drink too much vodka, and leaves victorious.  In the hands of Stravinsky and Ramuz, the story became more Faustian; it focuses on an army deserter and his adventures with the Devil, who ultimately carries him off.   The two collaborators make many references to the inability of the protagonist to cross over the border or to the "Mother" who does not know him.  In these, they must have been referring to Stravinsky and other refugees from Mother Russia in time of war.  In the original arrangement, there is a cast of four: the Reader, who expresses the Soldier's thoughts, speaks directly to him, and comments on the action; the Soldier, who is given a speaking role; the Devil, who both speaks and dances; and the Princess, who only dances.  The first performance given on September 28,1918, was a success but it was to be the last performance until 1924 because the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza epidemic (which would claim almost 20 million lives in Europe and another 500 thousand in America) closed every public hall by law.  The Suite from L'Histoire was, however, performed for the first time in 1919 and several times thereafter, always receiving a positive reception. To accompany the action of L'Histoire, Stravinsky wrote thirteen short pieces of music for a seven-piece band made up of treble and bass representatives of the strings, woodwinds and brasses, plus a percussionist who plays a large assortment of instruments.  Immediately after the first performances, Stravinsky arranged five of the numbers as a little suite for clarinet, violin and piano, probably for the pleasure of Werner Reinhart, a wealthy man who subsidized the little theatrical company and was also a talented amateur clarinetist.  It was first performed on November 8, 1919, in Lausanne, long before the better-known suite for the seven original instruments. The music begins with the Soldier's March, a medley of little tunes that accompanies the Reader's opening speech, in which, before the curtain rises, he prepares for the scenes to come.  Then the soldier, struggling to tune his violin, says, "It's obviously a cheap thing -- it takes so long to tune it."  From the beginning, the violin takes its role as the instrument of the Devil.  Next comes The Soldier's Violin when the Devil swaps a book of magic for the fiddle and then gives a Little Concert of Russian folk songs colored with early jazz.  Later, the soldier wins a drinking bout with the Devil, takes back his violin, and with it raises an ailing Princess from her sickbed playing Three Dances: Tango -- Waltz -- RagtimeThe Little Concert and the Three Dances (Tango, Waltz and Ragtime) are the most complicated of all the pieces.  The tango was very popular in Europe at this time, but the ragtime was quite new, Stravinsky only just having heard jazz for the first time before he created this work.   At the end of the playing of the Three Dances, as the Princess embraces the soldier, the Devil enters, planning to do them some harm, but the music of the soldier's violin in The Devil's Dance forces him into a series of wild cavorting dances.  That wild dancing ends only when he falls exhausted to the floor and the young couple drags him offstage.

The influence of jazz is quite obvious to contemporary listeners to L'Histoire du Soldat. Stravinsky describes the influence that jazz had on him in the book Expositions and Developments, co-authored by Robert Kraft.  He says that it presents "a wholly new sound in my music, and L'Histoire marks my final break with the Russian Orchestral School."

Susan Halpern


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