Monday 15 February 2021

Musical mysteries: melodies lost and found - works by Ligeti, Schubert, Dowland, and Kurtág, and Byzantine Chant


(This essay was originally published in a 2020 Salzburg Festival programme for a concert by Camerata Salzburg and Patricia Kopatchniskaja.)

GYÖRGY LIGETI: Concerto for violin and orchestra
ANONYMOUS: Byzantine Chant for Psalm 140 (arranged for violin and string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: First movement (Allegro) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810 – ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (arranged for string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Der Tod und das Mädchen, D. 531 (arranged for string orchestra by Michy Wiancko)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Second movement (Andante con moto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
JOHN DOWLAND: Pavane ‘Lachrimæ Antiquæ Novæ’ for string quintet from Lachrimæ, or Seaven Teares
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Third movement (Allegro molto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria (The answered unanswered question), Op. 31b
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: ‘Ruhelos’ from Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Fourth movement (Presto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, D. 810


Ligeti: Anxiety and Transformation of Influence

Ligeti’s Violin Concerto stands as a truly indispensable work in its genre and a key musical work of the late twentieth century. Initially composed in 1989 and 1990, it underwent significant revision during which composer and work alike moved, so it seemed, towards a Platonic ideal, its sources lost, found, varied, and rediscovered.

During hospital convalescence, the composer engaged in intensive study of Haydn’s late quartets, which seems strongly to have influenced ensuing process of clarification. ‘From Haydn,’ he told his assistant, Louise Duchesneau, ‘you can learn how to achieve the clearest effect with the simplest means.’ When choosing ‘between a more ornate structure and a skeleton, Haydn always chooses the skeleton, never using one note more than he needs. I applied this principle of avoiding unnecessary complexity … and thought that it brought me closer to my ideal.’ Ligeti worried, however, that he had veered too close to Hungarian, especially Transylvanian, folk music, replacing the first movement entirely. He also revised and reordered the other two in an expansion to five movements that yet never reached his originally anticipated eight. The version the work’s dedicatee, Saschka Gawriloff, premiered in 1990 with Gary Bertini and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra was always considered incomplete. Gawriloff and Ligeti employed material originally intended for movements never completed for the fifth-movement cadenza; Kopatchinskaja will play her own.

Ligeti’s interest in different systems of tuning is very much in microtonal play. With a few exceptions marked in the score, the soloist plays at concert pitch. Things are difficult enough for her already with virtuosic writing, according to the composer, born of models such as ‘Paganini, the Bach solo sonatas, Ysäye’s solo sonatas, Wieniawski, and Szymanowski’. However, the concertmaster – one of only five orchestral violins – and first viola – one of three – must play in scordatura, tuned to the seventh harmonic partial of the double bass’s first string and fifth of its third string respectively. Brass too offer natural harmonics, while use of ocarinas, slide whistles, and harmonica both subverts and expands our field of listening. By combining these ‘out of tune’ notes and harmonics with those of the normally tuned strings, Ligeti sought to ‘build a number of harmonic and non-harmonic spectra,’ such conflict between overtones resulting in a veritable voyage of harmonic exploration. The more Ligeti listened to non-Western music, the less he could allow himself to be constrained by equal temperament. ‘It almost hurts’, he said.

The opening is likewise elemental, alternating open A and D strings in lightning succession, furthering Ligeti’s desire for a ‘glassy shimmering character’. In this first movement, ‘Praeludium’, the solo line gradually distinguishes itself from an apparent multitude of other solos, emerging as a well-nigh traditional, first-among-equals virtuoso. Its magic can be tender too, though, as in the violin’s duetting with an array of tuned percussion.

Polymeters run riot, as they will too in the finale, much of whose folk material and allusion Márton Keréfky has discovered to have been reused, ‘albeit embedded in a totally new context’, from the discarded original first movement. The impression of ideas, remembered or misremembered, from earlier movements piling upon one another affords reinvented climax, never quite as we have known it. Listening to Thai, Khmer, and Laotian music afforded inspiration and example for Ligeti’s consciously seeking ‘for a new kind of way of building a melody’. So too did continuing influence from his Transylvanian heritage.

The second movement, ‘Aria, Hoquetus, Choral’ opens with a low solo, G-string adaptation of a melody from Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, and thus ultimately from his still earlier Musica ricercata for piano, the former being a transcription of six movements of the latter. The movement seems to aspire to rootedness, be it folk- or chant-like – are the two ultimately so different? – yet to find its way thwarted, ‘continually splintering’, in Seth Brodsky’s evocative phrase, ‘into weird ironic homelessness’. Such weird irony and modal aspiration are only heightened by a quartet of woodwind pied pipers taking up their ocarinas for the chorale. High, fantastical writing in the central Intermezzo has any number of parallels in other violin concertos, yet can never be assimilated to their party. The Passacaglia makes play once more with time-honoured form, riveting in its never-quite-expected progress. Here beats the heart of the work and of Ligeti’s generative anxiety of influence.  

Byzantine Chant: To the source?

A chant-like, even ‘mediæval’ quality has been remarked on in Ligeti’s second movement. We now move closer to the elusive (illusory?) source, nonetheless mediated. Travel through musical history and you will find any number of instrumental works or movements based on song melodies. Such tended to be the practice in the writing of Byzantine chant. A text, in this case that of Psalm 140, ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man’, would be set to a traditional melody and subsequently shaped – or not – to requirements of the verse. This tradition’s characteristic ‘four-element syllable-count cadence’ – four final syllables of a line, regardless of word accent, tied to four fixed, stylised cadential elements – has suggested to scholars an earlier psalmody than its Gregorian counterpart. To indulge in wild anachronism, is this also an early anticipation of modern clashes between words and music, given a further twist by arrangement for instruments alone?

Touched by Death

Schubert set Matthias Claudius’s Der Tod und das Mädchen in February 1817, two years after Claudius’s death. Here death approaches in instrumental sombre D minor. The Maiden vocally resists, bidding him not to touch her. He has his way, though, also vocally; he is not fierce and will have her sleep in his arms. The song closes with a foreshortened reprise of the introduction, albeit in an equally sombre yet peaceable D major. The manuscript might not have survived, having been cut into pieces by Schubert’s half-brother Anton, the Benedictine Father Hermann, yet was eventually reassembled. (It had in any case been published.) Ludwig Wittgenstein would muse on its fate more than a century later:

Recall that after Schubert’s death his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces and gave such pieces, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. This act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable to us as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as a sign of piety.

Showing the dead respect takes many forms.

Touched by Life

If the song is one of Schubert’s most celebrated, so too is the March 1824 string quartet taking its nickname and the theme of its second movement from it, touched by life rather than death. It stands as tall in its genre as Ligeti’s concerto in its. Resist undue romanticisation as we might, it is difficult not to think at least in partial relation to Schubert’s own coming appointment with the grim reaper. This was, however, the very time his friend Franz von Schober reported Schubert believed new medication had cured him. Either way, an artwork should not be reduced to biography, however tragic.

Tragedy is nevertheless present, vehemently so in the first movement, its second thematic group sweetly lyrical yet undoubtedly in the shadow of a furious D minor daemon not so very different from that which had captivated Mozart. The number of fortissimo and still more sforzando markings might visually suggest a score by Beethoven, although the triplet writing could not be more characteristic of Schubert: both in itself and for the particular variety of propulsion it offers. Such prospects of peace as there are, for instance a shift to D major during the recapitulation, find themselves swiftly, even brutally undercut. The uncertainty of where the coda will lead till it breathes its last offers an apt summation of tensions and overall tragedy in the movement as a whole.

We move to G minor for the Andante con moto theme and variations, five of them. Neither the first violin’s flights of fancy in the first variation nor the cello’s rapt lyricism in the second can forestall the pent-up fury unleashed in the third. If the penultimate variation, as might be expected, shifts to the tonic major and the final variation concludes likewise, this is as resigned, even exhausted a close as that to the original song. Only in the third movement trio, that Schubert can present a (relatively) sustained vision of major mode utopia. Sandwiched as it is, however, between the rhythmic insistence and almost bewildering syncopations of the scherzo itself, we know that it is too late. Is it fanciful to consider the rondo finale a Totentanz, a dance of death? Hardly, for this Romantic tarantella leaves us in no doubt as to the work’s ultimate destination, fury once more and now decisively winning out over resignation. Having the coda open in D major only prepares the way for the final nail in the coffin. Neither hope nor forgiveness is to be had; nor is it sought.

Old Tears New

John Dowland’s 1604 Lachrimae or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans takes as its theme and first pavan Dowland’s existing song and lute solo, Lachrimae antiquae (‘Old Tears’). We hear here its immediate successor variation, ‘Lachrimae antiquae novae’ (‘Old Tears New’), its melodic melancholy and harmonic intensity both related to and a development – to borrow from the Viennese Classical future – of its thematic model. What Thomas Morley in his influential 1597 Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke had held necessary for expression of ‘a lamentable passion’ may be heard immediately: ‘motions proceeding by halfe notes. Flat thirds, and flat sixths, which of their nature are sweet’; semitones or ‘accidentall motions’ that will ‘fitly express the passions of griefe, weeping, sighes, sorrowes, sobs, and suchlike’. And yet, Dowland noted in his dedication to Anne of Denmark that tears differ in cause and effect. ‘No doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weeps, neither are teares shed always in sorrow but sometime in joy and gladnesse.’ Music mirrors yet relieves man’s fallen condition.

Kurtág’s re-enchantment

Two short pieces by György Kurtág ask further questions ‘answered’ and ‘unanswered’, perhaps even unanswerable in the case of Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria, written in 1989, the year Ligeti began his Violin Concerto; and, in the excerpt from his Kafka-Fragmente, to continue the restless (‘Ruhelos’) Schubertian wandering that is our fallen lot. Solo strings and celesta in the former suggest re-enchantment of the traditional quartet, in a slow processional offering neither comfort nor discomfort but something beyond, magically or materially, even a foundational melody yet to be found. The latter piece’s whispered confidences and sudden eruption from intimate theatre into something finely balanced between cruelty and the absurd likewise seem beyond our ken, stretch our ears as we may. Like Ligeti’s Haydn. Kurtág never uses ‘one note more than he needs’. Musical mysteries endure.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Cambridge Companion to the Ring: interview with Catherine Kustanczy


An interview Nicholas Vazsonyi and I had with Catherine Kustanczy, about our Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', and, more broadly, staging Wagner and Wagner in a time of pandemic. Click here.

Friday 12 February 2021

For Palindrome Day

Today is a palindrome day: 12-02-2021. Herewith what is surely the most beloved of musical palindromes, followed by bonus intervention from clever audio software to play the entire sequence in reverse, offering a double palindrome. As noted by the mind behind this, Jason Haaheim, the only differences lie in attack and dynamics.

Saturday 6 February 2021

Haydn's Creation: Chaos and Light


The ‘Representation of Chaos’, with which The Creation opens, is justly the most celebrated number in the oratorio, and it is clear from the sketches that Haydn took unprecedented pains over its composition. Heinrich Schenker wrote of Haydn ‘stretching and straining’ his musical means, to recall in its mysteries ‘the mysteries of Chaos’. Without the aid – or constraint – of a text, the composer depicts the universe prior to the Creative act, whilst also prefiguring that act. This movement does not begin in C minor; it opens with an emphatic unison C, of indeterminate length and indeterminate tonality. As Hegel would point out in the second chapter of his Logic, an absolute – that is, a true beginning and basis for all subsequent determinations – cannot in itself be determinate.              


From the outset, Haydn evolves his tonality, but he does not immediately introduce a tonic chord of C minor. When the music first seems to be heading that way, he substitutes an interrupted cadence for the expected full close (bars 4-5). The cosmos does not evolve in a few seconds, even in Haydn’s concentrated chronology. As the musical conception develops, so do intimations of life. The very slow, swirling mass of nothingness – ‘the earth was without form and void’ – is breached first by a triplet figure (bar 6), and later by another sign of organized motion in chaos, a double dotted figure. Lawrence Kramer writes: ‘From a scientific standpoint, the … structure effects a heroic reduction of chaos to lawlike, quasi-mathematical regularity.’ Surging dynamic marking evokes the ebb and flow of the first tides, for it is from the oceans that the first life-forms will emerge. This was recognized in contemporary reviews, for example that in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of 21 January 1801: ‘… single notes come forth, spawning others in turn … Movement begins. Powerful masses grate against each other and begin to gestate … Unknown forces, swimming and surging, … bring tidings of order.’ As the Spirit of God moveth upon the waters, the life figurations multiply and subdivide themselves, and the seeds of order are sown, before we return to the void whilst awaiting the first words of this sacred drama. There had been some precedent for this in the germinal introductions to Haydn’s London symphonies – at any rate, all but no.95, which ironically is in C minor – but, harmonically rich though they be, this is an introduction of another magnitude, as befits an introduction preparing the way for the specific musical and verbal drama of Creation.


Donald Tovey points out that the ‘Representation of Chaos’ harmonizes well not only with the Biblical account of Creation, but also with the work of Pierre-Simon Laplace and Kant. In his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, disseminated widely since the 1750s, but even more widely during the 1790s, Kant had voiced the traditional Christian doctrine of Creation in space and time (whose validity would be both proven and denied in his subsequent, critical philosophy.)  He had argued that ‘there is a God precisely because Nature can proceed even in Chaos in no other way than regularly and orderly.’ Haydn, Tovey remarks, ‘did a certain amount of dining-out in fin-de-siècle London, [and] was as likely to have heard of the Nebular Hypothesis as a modern diner-out is likely to hear of Einstein and Relativity’.


Replica of Herschel's telescope, Bath

This is supported by Haydn’s visit to the astronomer (and amateur composer) Sir William Herschel at his home in Slough on 15 June 1792. There Haydn was able to look through the telescopes of the man who, to all intents and purposes, added nebulae and the Milky Way to the scientific map and was the first man in modern times to discover a planet, Uranus. Unfortunately, Haydn’s notebook tells us very little about what he actually saw, save for the length of ‘the great telescope’, nor of what they said to each other. But a visit to this site of scientific pilgrimage – the King of Poland sent Herschel his portrait, and Catherine the Great requested specifications of his telescopes – would perforce have made a great impression upon Haydn. Science and religion did not stand mutually opposed; indeed, their close relationship is a key feature of Enlightenment theology. Thus Joseph Addison could write, in the early eighteenth century: ‘Natural philosophy quickens this Taste of the Creation, and renders it not only pleasing to the Imagination, but to the Understanding. … It heightens the pleasures of the Eye, and raises such a rational Admiration in the Soul as is little inferior to Devotion.’ Kant likewise emphasized the ‘harmony between my system and religion,’ which heightens his confidence in the veracity of his writings. And Herschel himself, in a rare clue as to his religious sentiments, wrote in a letter of 1794: ‘It is certainly a laudable thing to receive instruction from the great Workmaster of Nature, and for that reason all experimental philosophy is instituted.’          


Nevertheless, God’s image has not been explicitly evoked in the ‘Representation of Chaos’. Its closing bars, therefore, mark a return to the mood of the opening, the pathos underlined by the descending flute solo and Neapolitan harmony. In a sense, then, the next section of the introduction renders explicit through words that which has gone before. The double dotted figure is hinted at following Raphael’s ‘In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the earth,’ and is soon stated most clearly (bars 69-71). But the explicit presence of God and His act of Creation make events take a different turn; this is not evolution in an eighteenth-century, let alone a Darwinian sense. Haydn’s outlook stands closer to that of Moses Mendelssohn’s Morning Hours or Lectures on the Existence of God, which we find in the composer’s library. This popular philosophy, derived to some extent from Leibniz’s rationalistic deism, has at its heart the necessity of God’s existence and rejection of Spinoza’s – and Lessing’s alleged – pantheism. An absolute, eternal mind is quite certain, since the testimony of the senses to an external world would be unthinkable without a necessary, extra-worldly being.


Portrait by Bernhard Rode, c.1770

A generation earlier, the Swiss æsthetician, Johann Georg Sulzer,
had written of the sublime (Erhaben), in his influential Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste:

We are moved as little by the wholly inconceivable as if it never existed. If we are told that God created the world ex nihilo … we experience nothing at all, since this lies totally beyond our comprehension. But when Moses says, ‘And God said: Let there be light; and there was light,’ we are overcome with astonishment because we can at least form some idea of such greatness; we hear to some extent words of command and feel their power.

Though Sulzer’s work was considered dated by some even at the time of publication (first edition, 1771-4), his is a typical view for eighteenth-century readers, writers, and listeners. It illuminates the importance of the word in Haydn’s Creation but also impressed upon us the magnitude of Haydn’s achievement in the ‘Representation of Chaos’. There, despite what many would have thought, he has shown that the apparently ‘inconceivable’ can be conceived and received in the sublime manner. Nevertheless, the sotto voce chanting of the chorus (‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’) engenders a sense of expectation and tension, heightened following the words, ‘and God said: Let there be Light.’ Here, a generation before the choral finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, we have impressed upon us the necessity of the word – and the Creator’s primal, enlightening word at that, which confers retrospective meaning and direction upon Haydn’s preceding symphonic chaos.

Thus is the groundwork prepared for Haydn’s greatest coup de théâtre, ‘… and there was Light.’ This conception of courageous simplicity, the famous fortissimo C major chord, is entirely Haydn’s own: he ignored his librettist Gottfried van Swieten’s advice that the darkness should ‘gradually disappear’. It is a passage whose stunning effectiveness has never palled. Of the London première (28 March 1800), Charles Burney observed that ‘the generality of the subscribers were unable to disentangle the studied confusion in delineating chaos.’  Yet ‘the composer’s meaning was felt by the whole audience in this passage; there followed an instant interruption of rapturous applause.’ Haydn’s was a language that could speak across national boundaries. As late as the 1830s, when, as James Webster points out, Haydn’s music was ‘rapidly becoming passé,’ the æsthetician Gustav Schilling would write: ‘there is still no music of greater sublimity than the passage “And there was Light”, … in Haydn’s Creation.’ This entailed connecting ‘the finite and phenomenal … with the infinite and divine’. Such connection is precisely what the act of Creation is.

Light was a symbol that few in Haydn’s first audiences would have fail to recognize at some level; it was not simply or primarily a representation of the sublime, but was above all the quintessential symbol of Enlightenment.  Swieten had written to the Austrian Chancellor Kaunitz in 1774 of the need for ‘light’ in politics; a ‘blind’ people could readily be put to bad use. More generally, he had tirelessly urged the cause for a religious enlightenment of the people, that their faith might be grounded upon rational conviction. Joseph Anton Gall, a colleague of Swieten’s during the 1780s, and subsequently Bishop of Linz, explained that the Redeemer had returned the world to a semi-paradisiacal condition, that is, restored ‘Light’ to the world, since God in His goodness could not bear to leave man in his fallen state. In Leibniz’s Monadology (first published in German in 1720), monads are portrayed as simple, windowless entities, which, through the process of entelechy, strive towards greater and greater brightness until united with the brightest and most enlightened monad, God Himself. However it was interpreted, the symbol of Light was always on the side of the angels so far as men of the Enlightenment – be they Protestant, Catholic, or Deist – were concerned. Light had shone brightly from behind the dark clouds of superstition on the title page of the first major book written by Christian Wolff, Rational Thoughts on God, the World, and the Soul of Man. The Revelatory dazzling brightness of Haydn’s fin-de-siècle primæval Light shines all the more clearly.

(Extracted from 'Haydn's Creation and Enlightenment Theology,' originally published in the Austrian History Yearbook, 39 (2008), 25-44.)