Saturday, May 1, 2010

Harry Patch: The Bewitched

There is only one composer who would write about ”Visions of a Defeated basketball Team in the Shower Room” and score the work with instruments called the Surrogate kithara or the Boo. His name is Harry Partch (1901 - 1974) and is a pivotal figure in the development of twentieth century music due to the steadfast pursuit of his original ideas. The Bewitched: a Dance Satire is an excellent showing of what Harry Partch (left) has to offer. It is seventy-five to eighty

minute work for Solo Soprano,

Piccolo, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Cello, Kithara II, Harmonic Canon II, Koto, Surrogate kithara, Chromelodeon I, Cloud-Chamber Bowls (ri

ght), Spoils of War, Diamond Marimba, Boo, Bass Marimba, and Marimba Eroica.

Partch’s music is unique as it is based on his own system of just intonation and microtonality that are achieved with original instruments built by Partch himself.

The work provides background music for dancers, yet the musicians themselves are on stage and essential to the drama. The Bewtiched is organized in ten scenes, each with a programatic title, bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In the Prologue, as Partch describes in a 1959 introduction to a WNYC broadcast of The Bewitched, a musician wanders on stage, seeming lost among the huge percussion instruments made by Partch. After beginning to play one of the percussion instruments, the other musicians wander out one by one and join the beat. Together they get lost in their own power. An ancient witch appears and calls the ten scenes forth:

  1. Transfiguration of American Undergrads in a Hong Kong Music Hall
  2. Permutation of Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint
  3. Inspired Romancing of a Pathological Liar
  4. Alchemy of a Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music
  5. Visions of a Defeated basketball Team in the Shower Room
  6. Euphoria on a Sausalito Stairway
  7. Transmutation of Detectives on the trail of a Culprit
  8. Apotheosis of a Court in its Own Contempt
  9. A Political Soul Lost Among the Voteless Women of Paradise
  10. Demonic Descent of the Cognoscenti While Shouting Over Cocktails

I found listening to this work to be a moving experience. I connected with the music on a primitive level through the honesty and pureness of its expression. The music seemed to be expressing to me the basis of music in humanity. Far from simplistic, the music is full of definite textural characters that interact in a balanced and natural way. The microtonality sounds organic and intrinsic, and the rhythms ritualistic. I can imagine a live performance of The Bewitched would be an incredible experience as all the elements of music, dance, and theater are essentially intertwined in a way that strips away the layers and conditioning put on by millennia of human culture, which is exactly what Partch intended. The Bewitched is about how we are all bewitched by superficiality of our lives and unable to truly see our surroundings. Viewed in this vein, the titles of of the individual scenes go from from appearing frivolous and random to being a poignant and pertinent commentary on the state of human values.

I feel that The Bewitched should be included in the canon of western art music as it is a well balanced, clearly expressive work that is relevant to the musicality intrinsic in humans. I believe that it is not in the canon for two reasons. First being the extraordinary commitment that is required of many people to stage this work combined with the requirement of the rare instruments designed and made by Partch that are hard to acquire. Second, being how this work questions what is art and how we experience art. The primitive nature of this experience, as well as the microtonality would likely be uncomfortable for many.

In researching, The Bewitched and Harry Partch, I feel that I am just beginning to scrap the surface of a realm of musical thought that I have yet to entertain.

1 Partch, Harry, Genesis of Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 334

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus

It is hard to imagine a more Hungarian work than Psalmus Hungaricus. A distinctively Hungarian composer utilizes Hungarian sounds to set a Hungarian text in celebration of a Hungarian holiday.

Zoltán Kodály’s (left) Psalmus Hungaricus for Tenor Solo, Chorus, and Orchestra is a setting of a text by the sixteenth-century poet Mihály Kecskeméti Vég. Vég transformed Psalm 55 into a personal yet nationalistic text. Kodály does not use any Hungarian folk melodies in this work, but he obtains a Hungarian sound by using rhythmico-metrical patterns that often appear in Hungarian folk tunes.1The work is roughly in a rondo form and was commissioned to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Buda, Óbuda and Pest into what is now Budapest.2 (Program for the concert is below)

Psalmus Hungaricus immediately intrigued me through the dramatic tutti orchestra opening. The pacing and character of the orchestral cadences gives the work a solemnity that is unique to Hungarian folk music. This character is reinforced by the solemn choir entrance through rhythmic and melodic repetitiveness. An aggressive tenor solo with the orchestra propels the work forward into a more dreamy section. The narrative of the tenor over this state is a heart wrenching cry that is interrupted by a loud, brash, choir & orchestra dialogue that culminates in a loud tutti orchestral climax. The work ends with a quite, meditation for the chorus with solo double bass. This coda displays an inconsaoble grief sadness.

Psalmus Hungaricus covers a huge range of emotion, and speaks to me strongly through its humanistic struggle and eventual defeat. I feel that the music attempts to achieve a higher, more spiritual existence, but cannot. This is from where the human relevance stems. Having music attempt to achieve something and then ultimately failing is a powerful statement that is exceedingly difficult to pull off. The goal is to leave the listener feel unsatisfied, but not musically unsatisfied, but rather with an emotional, intellectual, or spiritual longing that is the essence of humanity.

Kodály attempted to create such a work with Psalmus Hungaricus, and I certainly felt an odd dissatisfaction with the works completion, a dissatisfaction that I did not during the work. This lead me to believe that Kodály intended for this longing. But I do not feel that he fully achieves what was intended. The longing I felt was an unclear and queasy feeling that I attributed ultimately to general ambiguity of the music in reflection. Thus, Kodály does not achieve a lasting impression with this work that is required to balance the profoundness of the humanism in the actual music.

Psalmus Hungaricus is not in the canon of western music as it is not ultimately effective in achieving what the work sets out to do. There is a certain irony in that Kodály set out to create a work that sets out to achieve a goal and comes painstakingly close but fails, as he comes painstakingly close to his goal and ultimately fails.

1 Halsey Stevens, “The Choral Music of Zoltán Kodály,” The Musical Quaterly 54, no. 2 (1968): 149-50

2 David Cooper, “Bartók’s orchestral music and the modern world,” The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, ed. Amanda Bayley (Cambridge: Cambrige Univeristy Press, 2001), 57

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Anthony Philip Heinrich: The Ornithological Combat of Kings or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras

In the years following the American Revolution, the young country sought to define its national identity. Many saw art as vehicle through which Americans could create their distinctiveness. For music, this meant composers working out of the European tradition needed to bring originality, yet stay honest to their tastes and traditions.

Surprisingly, a Bohemian born German became one of the clearest voices of this decidedly “American” art. Anthony Philip Heinrich (left) was born in 1781 and first came to the United States in 1805. He returned again in 1810, and seven years later he ventured to the “isolated wilds of Nature” in Kentucky. It was here that Heinrich decided to become a composer and musician.1 Referred as the “Beethoven of America” in an 1822 article by John Rowe Parker, Heinrich staged the second performance of a Beethoven symphony in America.2

Dating from around 1835 and reaching its final form in 1857, The Ornithological Combat of Kings or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras is a largely neglected symphony and is still unpublished, though it is one of Heinrich’s less blatant attempts at nationalism.3 This half-hour long symphony is in the typical four movement form and scored for an exceptionally large orchestra

of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, basset horn, two bassoons and contrabassoon, three trombones, ophicleide, serpent (right), four horns, four trumpets, percussion (triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, timpani) and strings.4

While Heinrich was openly attempting to create a unique art of the Americas, he clearly falls in the vein of German Romanticism by drawing inspiration from the beauty of nature. This work’s nationalism, which is more of a pan-Americanism, come from his depiction of the land's natural wonders. Nature was great inspiration to Heinrich, and he continually emphasized his backwood Kentucky roots, although he never returned to the state in the last 38 years of his life after a 1823 move to Boston.5

Before I listened to The Ornithological Combat of Kings, I noticed that work is clearly programatic in describing a battle between a condor and an eagle. The first movement, “The Combat of the Condor in the Air” (Allegro ma moderato), has a dramatic opening in minor that grabbed my attention immediately. Occasionally there is quirkiness in the melody and rhythm that is refreshing to hear. Overall the movement appears well crafted, but structurally ambiguous as it seems through-composed. Perhaps this a programatic intention, but it leaves me lost. The movement ends peacefully. Somehow, though the lack of form, the work makes sense to me, and I enjoy it thus far.

The second movement, “The Repose of the Condor” (Andante sostenuto, quasi adagio), starts similarly to how the first movement ends, creating a smooth transition that possibly allows for programatic continuity and clearly shows Beethoven's influence on the composer. This movement has a dance like quality with dramatic contrasts. I am starting to wonder what exactly Heinrich is trying to depict.

“The Combat of the Condor on Land (Allegro)” is the third movement of the symphony. The music thus far has a similar character of aggressive, angry grandeur that wanders around through varying tempos and intensities. I feel that if I had a detailed description of the exact program that Heinrich is trying to convey (one that Heirich never provides), the music would be much easier to follow.

The fourth movement, “Victory of the Condor” (Finale: vivace brillante), is dance like, but more of the same character, yet it is less aggressive that the previous three movements. Besides similar characters and being in the same key, there lacks any element that links these movements.

I feel The Ornithological Combat of Kings should not be included in the canon of western music. Although it is well crafted, dramatic, and possibly effective in conveying a specific story, the lack of any apparent inner relationship limits the work’s ability to convey a message and provide a stimulating musical experience that entices me to return to this work. As effective as a programatic composition may be at describing a story, the quality of music is still an essential element in determining the work’s canonical eligibility, musical quality that The Ornithological Combat of Kings or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras does not possess.

1 J. Bunker Clark, introduction to The Sylviad: or, Minstrelsy of Nature in the Wilds of North America, by Anthony Philip Heinrich (Greenleaf, WI: Conners Publications, 1996), vii-viii

2 William Gibbons, “The Musical Audubon: Ornithology and Nationalism in the Symphonies of Anthony Philip Heinrich,” Journal of the Society for American Music 3, no. 4 (2009): 467

3 Gibbon: 467-8

4 Gibbon: 478

5 Clark: viii

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Antonio Soler - Sonata No. 88 in D-flat major

The designation as a composer working in Spain, writing numerous keyboard works, and teaching Spanish royalty music in the eighteenth century, all matches Dominco Scarlatti, but he is not alone in this category. The nearly unrecognized Antonio Soler likewise fits this exact description. A Catalan composer who lived from 1729 to 1783, Soler was an ordained priest at the monastery El Escorial, an important site where the Spanish royal families would spend the autumn months.1 When the royal family arrived, their entourage always included Dominco Scarlatti, but it cannot be said with certainty that Soler studied with the elder composer.2,3 Like Scarlatti, Soler wrote many of his keyboard works for his royal pupil, Prince Gabriel.4 Like Scarlatti, Soler wrote primarily binary sonatas. The similarities in both situation and output are undeniable between the two composers, yet one remains in the canon of Western music and the other does not.

Soler wrote 120 keyboard sonatas, including the one examined here, the Sonata No. 88 in D-flat major.5 Not surprisingly, Soler’s single-movement sonatas for solo harpsichord are striking similar to Scarlatti's. Soler uses two repeated sections, the first harmonically traveling from the tonic, the second ultimately returning to the tonic without restating any of the opening material to create a rounded binary form. These works cannot be classified as stile galant as the phrases are not succinct and although the accompaniment is sometimes thin, it is not sparse. Throughout this work Soler maintains an active texture made of near constant rhythmic activity. The harmonic trajectory is more aggressive than in Scarlatti’s works. In the Soler’s D-flat major sonata the first section moves from D-flat major to the dominant, A-flat major. The second section suddenly begins in the mediant of F major creating an exciting tension that is resolved back the tonic by the end of the work.

This sonata was initially exciting to hear as its virtuosity and rhythmic activity were invigorating. Disappointingly, this wonderful energy did not travel anywhere. Essentially static, the energy limited the overall dramatic affect. I hoped to hear more contrast in the magnitude of musical energy, but never did. Some phrases occasionally struck me as awkward and confusing. But overall, the initial visceral response was of excitement. Evident to me was the Spanish style. Several figures were reminiscent of castanets or a strummed guitar. While there were dramatic elements in this work they were not combined to create a drama. I enjoy listening to this sonata for its lightness and momentum, but I struggle to find any depth or value beyond the surface in that the emotional breadth, though cheerful, is thin. The lack of dramatic contrast create a desire to often revisit this work.

Antonio Soler is certainly not considered part of the canon of western music. It must be noted that Soler was only able to 12 works published in his lifetime.6 This lack of availability would diminish the chance of his music gaining substantial popularity, but with the ease at which Soler’s works can now be aquired, his exclusion from the canon must be considered on more qualitative terms.

The best way to examine the reasons for his stature is to compare the quality of his works directly to those of Domenico Scarlatti. Essential to a work’s effectiveness in the Classical Era is the contrast that it contains. Soler admirably attempts to display contrast, but the magnitude is often not as great to elicit response from the listener. Scarlatti was more effective at creating contrasting moods by altering the figuration to obtain great variety. Although it was common practice for a composer to vary phrase length for dramatic, when Soler writes a five measure phrase several bars into the second section of the D-flat major sonata to harmonically shift up a whole step,7 it feels awkward and stutters the motion created by the dramatic shift to F major. These factors cause the music to be significantly less dramatically relevant to a listener. This lack of relevance and existence of a contemporary who better succeeds at creating such drama is why Soler, although epitomizing the tastes of the era, is not commonly accepted into the canon of Western music.

1 Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrel, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001), 23:633

2 Powell, Linton E. A History of Spanish Keyboard Music. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980.

3 Frederick Marvin, preface to Ausgewählte Klaviersonaten, by Antonio Soler (Munich: G. Henle Verlag), viiiPaul R. Laird, Towards a History of the Spanish Villancico (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1997), 125

4 Paul R. Laird, Towards a History of the Spanish Villancico (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1997), 125

5 Antonio Soler, Ausgewählte Klaviersonaten (Munich: G. Henle Verlag), 18-22

6 Kitchen, John. “Soler: Sonatas completas, vol. 1.” Early Music 24.4 (November 1996): 717.

7 Soler, 20, mm 60-69