Making a Scene: Program notes


Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Vignettes de Marseille: Carmelita; Nicolette; Zoraida; En fête

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Estampes: Pagodes; La soirée dans Grenade; Jardins sous la pluie

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909): El Albaicín (from Iberia, Book III)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Carnaval: scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes, Op. 9

This program explores the theme of evocation through music. Whether in conjuring visions of distant lands or painting portraits of characters (real or imagined), the composers of these works derived their inspiration from extramusical sources and sought to convey their responses on the piano. It is both a pleasure and a challenge as a performer to bring these pieces, and the people and places they portray, to life.

The first half of the program presents Spain and the Mediterranean from English, French and Spanish perspectives. Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was born in Brighton and made his career as a violist, conductor and composer. Although he has a sizable oeuvre: an opera, a ballet, numerous other orchestral works, songs and choruses, chamber works (including four string quartets), and pieces for piano and organ, today he is known mostly for his music for viola and for teaching composition to the young Benjamin Britten. While his earlier works exhibit a beauty easily accessible to the audiences of his time, Bridge’s compositional style then went through major developments in the early 1920s, exhibited most prominently in his Piano Sonata, composed in the years 1921-1924, in which he reached a new level of harmonic complexity; this and his later works are not far from the sound world of Alban Berg. However, Vignettes de Marseille (1925) and another of his piano pieces, Canzonetta (originally titled Happy South, 1926), do not much reflect this change in musical vision; as character pieces describing foreign lands, perhaps they provided Bridge, a strong pacifist, an escape from the reality of his native land post-World War I.

In August of 1925, the Bridges, together with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American patroness of chamber music and Bridge’s friend, embarked on a five-week tour of the Alps and the Mediterranean coast. Vignettes de Marseille was written in October and November of the same year in response to this trip, although when Bridge later orchestrated the first three pieces of the set in 1938, he gave it the title Vignettes de Danse instead, obscuring its origins. These four character pieces, with their light and entertaining quality, can be viewed as a divertimento, and in some ways the work is paced like a sonata, with a vibrant opening movement, vividly contrasting Allegretto inner movements, and a celebratory finale. In utilizing modes, rhythmic tropes, and harmonic parallelisms and dissonances, Bridge evokes the exotic Other, reflecting the trend of Orientalism that began in the nineteenth century (complete with the association of foreign Otherness with femininity, whoever Carmelita, Nicolette and Zoraida may be!). Perhaps the most striking example of this exoticism is found in Zoraida, where an open-fifth drone with an overlaid tritone persists for the duration of the piece, giving it a stunningly hypnotic quality.

The first piece of Claude Debussy’s Estampes, with its evocation of pagodas, then transports us from Marseilles to East Asia. Debussy (1862-1918) was deeply affected by his first experience of Javanese gamelan in the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris (and he was subsequently re-exposed to it in the Exposition of 1900), and its influence can be seen here in his use of modes (the pentatonic scale in particular), parallelisms, and multi-layered textures reminiscent of gongs and metallophones. Said Debussy in 1913 regarding gamelan:

There used to be—indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are—some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any … dubious treatises. … Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child's play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one's European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.

Composed in 1903 and dedicated to Jacques-Emile Blanche, Estampes (‘Engravings’ or ‘Prints’) was one of three works that Debussy dedicated to artists, the other two being Cloches à travers les feuilles (‘Bells through the Leaves’) from the second series of Images for piano, dedicated to Alexandre Charpentier, and De soir (‘Evening’) from Proses lyriques for voice and piano, dedicated to Henry Lerolle. His close ties to literature (the Symbolist movement in particular) and the visual arts were formative elements of his compositional style and aesthetic; the word Estampes is perhaps a reference to the art of Japanese woodblock printing, an example of which Debussy kept on his wall (Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa).

With La soirée dans Grenade (‘The Evening in Granada’) we return to the Mediterranean region. Despite his extremely limited experience at the time of composition of actually being in Spain, Debussy successfully captures its sights, sounds and spirit, using the habanera rhythm as well as drawing upon the Andalusian cante jondo (‘deep song’) vocal style in the hauntingly beautiful opening melody. The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) held this piece in high regard, and quotes its guitar strum motif at the end of his Homenaje (‘Homage’), a guitar piece written as a tribute to Debussy.

Debussy then returns to his native France in the closing piece of Estampes, Jardins sous la pluie (‘Gardens in the Rain’), into which he works two French nursery songs, Dodo l’enfant do (‘Sleep, child, sleep’) and Nous n’irons plus au bois (‘We’ll Go to the Woods No More’). The former is not quoted in full; instead, the opening theme that underlies the rapid sixteenth-note motion is derived from its last phrase. After this melody is tossed around both registrally and tonally by the wind and the rain, the latter tune emerges in the calmer middle section, in which one can imagine seeing with the eyes of a child, gazing out through a window streaming with water to the world beyond. Thunder and lightning then return us to reality and propel us to the work’s brilliant close.

In accordance with his belief that, in engaging with folk or national music, one should try to convey its spirit rather than merely copy its themes, Debussy said regarding Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909): “Without using actual popular tunes he is the kind of person who has them in his blood. They have become so natural a part of his music that one barely distinguishes a demarcation line.” With El Albaicín, Spain is no longer an exotic Other; rather, it is the native land and inspiration for a pianist-composer writing his masterpiece near the end of his life. Albéniz wrote Iberia, subtitled ‘12 new “impressions” in four books’, in France in 1905-1908, with the third and fourth volumes written with the abilities of Joaquín Malats, a pianist with astonishing technical abilities who impressed Albéniz with his interpretation of Triana (from Book II), in mind. El Albaicín is the opening work of Book III, which is dedicated to Marguerite Hasselmans, a French concert pianist who was a close friend of Albéniz’s (and mistress to Gabriel Fauré). The title is the name of the gypsy quarter in Granada, and the piece opens with a perfect depiction of the subtle beginnings of a dance: a single person quietly striking up a rhythm, gradually being joined by others until we have dancers and musicians in full flourish. One can hear the guitar strumming and handclapping of flamenco music, interspersed with reed instruments playing lines of melancholic lyricism. The multifaceted textures and colors elicited from the piano, as well as the wonderful pacing of the piece, perhaps reveal Albéniz’s background as a composer of numerous dramatic works; but more than anything, El Albaicín is an incredible example of emotion and passion conveyed through a Spanish composer’s native musical idiom, and perhaps gaining potency because of it.

The second half of the program then presents a very different kind of evocation. With Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, we have character pieces in the truest sense of the word: every movement bears a descriptive title, many of which are names of characters who hail either from real life, the commedia dell’arte tradition, or Schumann’s mind. Originally meant to be published as op. 12 with the title Fasching: Schwänke auf vier Noten für Pianoforte von Florestan (‘Carnival: Farces/Comic Stories on Four Notes for Pianoforte by Florestan’), Schumann (1810-1856) eventually published it as his op. 9, with title and subtitle in French, and the subtitle now meaning 'dainty scenes on four notes'. The change from a verbal to a visual designator suggests perhaps that ultimately the pieces were centered upon portrayal rather than narration, even though the overall pacing of the work remains dramatically effective, particularly with its cyclic nature. Florestan was the name of one of Schumann’s main personas: virtuosic, wild and extroverted, he was the contrasting personality to Eusebius, Schumann’s quiet and introspective side. The virtuosity of Florestan is plain to see in Carnaval, even without his presence in the final subtitle.

Both subtitles, however, concur in drawing attention to the A-S-C-H (German note names for the notes A, E-flat, C and B) code that underlies the work. Schumann reveals this as the third of the three segments of Sphinxes, which I interpret as secrets shared between the composer and the performer, hidden in the middle of the work like a key buried in the sand. As such, I choose to leave them as written codes rather than a movement to be performed (though others have chosen differently; particularly interesting is Glazunov’s colorfully orchestrated version). In three separate, unmetered measures, Schumann divulges in breves the three pitch series around which the cycle is based: the first is a rearrangement of A-S-C-H into S-C-H-A, the musical letters of his name (SCHumAnn), and the second is another way of musically spelling the letters ASCH (As-C-H, or A-flat, C and B). Asch was the hometown of Ernestine von Fricken, a piano student of Friedrich Wieck’s, whom Schumann met in April 1834 and was engaged to by September of the same year. Schumann reflects his own light-hearted spirit in toying with these musical codes in the nimble and teasing A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A. (Lettres Dansantes) (‘Dancing Letters’) movement.

Schumann began writing Carnaval in December 1834 and finished it in early 1835. This was in the midst of his burgeoning literary activities, with the debut of the Davidsbündler (‘League of David’) in writings published in the journal Der Komet in December 1833 and January 1834. This was a group formed of members both real and imagined who saw themselves as crusaders against philistinism in music; the first issue of their own journal, the Neue Leipziger Zeitschrift für Musik, was released in April 1834, but after a series of complications, the journal was eventually renamed the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and appeared in January 1835 with Schumann as editor. Carnaval in some ways encapsulates all of these developments in Schumann’s life: it depicts characters from the Davidsbündler (despite the earlier opus number, the op. 6 character pieces Davidsbündlertänze were actually written later, in 1837); it references his new romance; and it embodies what he conveyed in his music criticism, such as the exploration of new genres and fragmented or smaller forms. Schumann believed that the “profound combinatorial power, the poetry, and the humor of modern music trace their origins to Bach.” More than just a display of sophistication in opposition to philistinism, holding an entire work together using quatre notes is perhaps a nod to the past (Bach also composed his name into his works), an innovation of the present, and an inspiration for the future.

The Préambule is based on material that Schumann originally composed as an introduction to his unfinished variations on Schubert’s ‘Sehnsuchtswalzer’ (a combination of the second pieces of D365 and D972). Its function as a precursor to waltzes remains, for many of Carnaval’s movements are plays on the waltz trope. Schumann then runs the gamut of depictions, including four movements based on commedia dell’arte characters: Pierrot, a melancholic servant who is mocked; Arlequin (Harlequin), a witty servant carrying a slapstick who entertains his audience; Coquette, a flirtatious girl who receives a response in Replique; and Pantalon et Colombine, a Venetian miser and a clever maidservant fending off his advances.

There are also portrayals of people from real life: Chiarina, the nickname for Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann; Estrella, the nickname for Ernestine von Fricken; Chopin and Paganini, famous musicians of their day; and Eusebius and Florestan, portraits of Schumann himself. Amidst the passionate outbursts of Florestan, there are dream-like references to the theme of the first movement of his op. 2, Papillons (‘Butterflies’, 1831); the later movement of Carnaval titled Papillons is then a fresh take on the matter. The stateliness of the Valse noble is contrasted with the awkwardness of the German waltz' in Valse Allemande; here Schumann pokes fun at his own culture with the aid of a title in a foreign language and clever manipulations of rhythm. A merry act of recognition (Reconnaissance), a nervous confession (Aveu), and a lilting stroll (Promenade) are also depicted before, with the help of a break to return us to the spirit of the opening movement (Pause), we arrive at the grand finale of the work, Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins (‘March of the League of David against the Philistines’), a movement ironically still in triple time despite purporting to be a march. In the middle of the movement, Schumann quotes the Grossvater-Tanz (‘Grandfather-Dance’), a German family-dance tune from the seventeenth century often used at the end of evening events; he had also quoted it in the finale of his op. 2, but whereas the Tanz appears in a rather blatant manner to begin the movement in the earlier piano cycle, in Carnaval the tune emerges organically from its surroundings, expertly woven into the apotheosis of this masterpiece.

(Listen to this recital here.)

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