Friday, January 30, 2009

Brahms' Legacy

The program for last night's Graduate Cello Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of music provided an interesting complement to Tuesday night's recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, most notably in its choice of an opening. While the earlier concert began by introducing me to the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček, last night's began with the second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů. Martinů was born in Bohemia a little less than half a century after Janáček; but he did not "make the cut" in the Oxford Dictionary of Music's "Bohemia" category in their "Nationalism in Music" entry. One reason for this may be that it would not be fair to consider him as a "Bohemian nationalist" composer, particularly in light of the Wikipedia summary of his music (reproduced here with with Wikipedia-style warts):

Martinů was a very prolific composer, writing almost 400 pieces. Many of his works are regularly performed or recorded, among them his choral work, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955); his symphonies, a modern cycle of six; his concertos, including those for cello, violin, oboe and five for the piano; his anti-war opera Comedy on the bridge; and his chamber music, including eight surviving string quartets, a flute sonata, and a clarinet sonatina.

His music displays a wide variety of influences: works such as La Revue de Cuisine (1927) are heavily influenced by jazz, while the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1938) is one of many works to show the influence of the Baroque concerto grosso. Other works are influenced by Czech folk music. He also admired the music of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, among other composers.[citation needed]

A characteristic feature of his orchestral writing is the near-omnipresent piano; most of his orchestral works include a prominent part for piano, including his small concerto for harpsichord and chamber orchestra. The bulk of his writing from the 1930s into the 1950s was in a neoclassical vein, but with his last works he opened up his style to include more rhapsodic gestures and a looser, more spontaneous sense of form. This is easiest to hear by comparing his sixth symphony, titled Fantaisies symphoniques, with its five predecessors, all from the 1940s.

One of Martinů's lesser known works is a piece featuring the theremin commissioned by Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Martinů started working on this commission in the summer of 1944 and finished his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano on October 1, dedicating it to Rosen, who premiered the piece as theremin soloist in New York on 3 November 1945, along with the Koutzen Quartet and Robert Bloom.

His opera The Greek Passion is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

It is clear that, as a composer, he was subject to far more influences than his Bohemian roots; and this was evident last night.

The sonata on the program was composed in 1941 in the United States, sitting between the first sonata (composed in Paris in 1939) and the third (composed in Vieux-Moulin in 1952). Its number in Harry Halbreich's catalog is 286 (out of 384). With regard to the "citation needed" entry in the above Wikipedia passage, I would say that none of the enumerated influences were present in this sonata; but there was, instead, a decided "atmosphere" of the music of Johannes Brahms. This was not so much to make a case along the same lines that Arnold Schoenberg would later commit to text in 1947 in his "Brahms the Progressive" essay. Rather, it seemed to call attention to the relevance of Brahms to ears in the middle of the twentieth century and to reflect on how Martinů's own ears listened to that music. Since Brahms had composed two superb cello sonatas, it should not be surprising that Martinů would be willing to recognize Brahms as such an influence. This is not to say that either of the Brahms sonatas serves as a model for this particular Martinů sonata, but there are ways in which the latter provides opportunity to reflect on the work of the former.

This is evident not only in some of the muscular approaches taken to the cello part but also in both the full-handed writing for the piano accompaniment and many of the rhythms through which that writing is expressed. Thus, while Martinů's "melodic rhetoric" is far more angular than anything we would find in Brahms, one could see how the study of the Brahms sonatas could provide useful technical preparation for the performance of the later work. If we recognize that Schoenberg wrote his essay (and the lecture on which it was originally based) in response to what he felt was an unfairly dismissive attitude towards Brahms in the first half of the twentieth century, then Martinů's sonata basically made the same case through music, rather than through expository text.

The Martinů performance was followed by one of Richard Strauss' only sonata for cello and piano. This is a comparatively early work (Opus 6, completed in 1883) in which Strauss was clearly still in the process of finding his voice. Again, there is a clear sense of Brahms being an influence without necessarily providing any explicit models. Indeed, Strauss' composition actually sits between Brahms' two cello sonatas, the Opus 38 (completed in 1865) and Opus 99 (1885). The result is not as exciting as the Martinů sonata but still serves as an interesting harbinger of the sounds we would hear as Strauss become more mature.

Last night's recital concluded with a performance of the Beethoven piano trio in D major (Opus 70, Number 1, the "Ghost"). I found this slightly ironic (but hardly in a malicious way). Here was Brahms, who spent much of his life worrying about being in Beethoven's shadow; but in this particular program it was his legacy that was being honored, less as a shadow and more as a source of new light.

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