31 August 2007

Koopman’s Sacred Canopy: An Abcediary of Baroque Spiritual Excitement

Ton Koopman, Nikolaïkerk, 30-AUG-2007

O ne mode of emotional excitability is exceedingly important in the composition of the energetic character, from its peculiarly destructive power over inhibitions. I mean what in its lower form is mere irascibility, susceptibility to wrath, the fighting temper; and what in subtler ways manifests itself as impatience, grimness, earnestness, severity of character. Earnestness means willingness to live with energy, though energy bring pain. The pain may be pain to other people or pain to one's self—it makes little difference; for when the strenuous mood is on one, the aim is to break something, no matter whose or what. Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistibly as anger does it; for, as Moltke says of war, destruction pure and simple is its essence. This is what makes it so invaluable an ally of every other passion. The sweetest delights are trampled on with a ferocious pleasure the moment they offer themselves as checks to a cause by which our higher indignations are elicited... The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness. The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced. They are these:
  • A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world's selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power. In Christian saintliness this power is always personified as God; but abstract moral ideals, civic or patriotic utopias, or inner versions of holiness or right may also be felt as the true lords and enlargers of our life, in ways which I described in the lecture on the Reality of the Unseen.
  • A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.
  • An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.
  • A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards "yes, yes," and away from "no," where the claims of the non-ego are concerned. These fundamental inner conditions have characteristic practical consequences, as follows:
  1.  Asceticism: The self-surrender may become so passionate as to turn into self-immolation. It may then so over-rule the ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in sacrifice and asceticism, measuring and expressing as they do the degree of his loyalty to the higher power.
  2.  Strength of Soul: The sense of enlargement of life may be so uplifting that personal motives and inhibitions, commonly omnipotent, become too insignificant for notice, and new reaches of patience and fortitude open out. Fears and anxieties go, and blissful equanimity takes their place. Come heaven, come hell, it makes no difference now!
  3.  Purity: The shifting of the emotional centre brings with it, first, increase of purity. The sensitiveness to spiritual discords is enhanced, and the cleansing of existence from brutal and sensual elements becomes imperative. Occasions of contact with such elements are avoided: the saintly life must deepen its spiritual consistency and keep unspotted from the world. In some temperaments this need of purity of spirit takes an ascetic turn, and weaknesses of the flesh are treated with relentless severity.
  4.  Charity: The shifting of the emotional centre brings, secondly, increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures. The ordinary motives to antipathy, which usually set such close bounds to tenderness among human beings, are inhibited. The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers.”
  —  William James, 1901, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 234.

DSM: Ton Koopman’s performance yesterday in Utrecht was a dazzling, athletic tour de force. It was a veritable ‘catalogue’ of Baroque varieties of religious experience.

  • Buxtehude—Praeludium in G minor (BuxWV 149)
  • Buxtehude—Nun lob, min Seel, den Herren (BuxWV 213)
  • Froberger—Toccata in D minor (FbWV 102)
  • Frescobaldi—Toccata terza
  • Buxtehude—Preludium in D major (BuxWV 139)
  • Buxtehude—Nun lob, min Seel, den Herren (BuxWV 212)
  • Buxtehude—Canzonetta in A minor (BuxWV 225)
  • Buxtehude—Kom, heiliger Geist (BuxWV 199)
  • Buxtehude—Praeludium in G minor (BuxWV 148)
  • Buxtehude—Canzonetta in C major (BuxWV 167)
  • Bach—Praeludium in C minor
  • Bach—In dulci jubilo (BWV 608)
  • Bach—Fugue in G minor

CMT: We have, too, the fantastical rose window of the church where Koopman gave this performance. It reminds me of Rilke’s famous poem—the rose window propelling one’s heart toward God. It reminds me of Borges’s famous Book of Imaginary Beings.

DSM: The relationship of the idea of ‘journey’ to the emergence of image is difficult. In terms of their symbolism, rose windows and labyrinths are paradoxical. They are simultaneously in two categories: a ‘multicursal’ form, associated with literary and verbal and musical practice, and a ‘unicursal’ form, reflected in architecture and the visual arts. In contrast to the multicursal form, the unicursal has only one entrance point, which inevitably, though not easily, leads to the center. Unlike the multicursal model, which requires constant judgment to successfully traverse, the unicursal model demands endurance and patience—it requires determination and stamina, emphasizing judgment only in the initial decision to enter.

CMT: It evokes a winding road or a meander—maybe even a fatalistic view of life, or the reception of the literal level of a literary or musical text or philosophic argument. It signifies patience in adversity, but paradoxically also persistence in folly. The adaptation of the unicursal model to textual purposes can be seen in its combination with the wheel and the rose window in Gothic cathedrals.

DSM: This transformative effect of labyrinthine music and labyrinthine iconography is reinforced through repetition: the stonework tracery of the rose window viewed from outside the structure before we go in and hear Koopman, the labyrinths woven into the music as Koopman plays, and the rose window realized as a pattern of light when viewed from within the cathedral following the shifting sun during this performance. These repetitions create a ‘coincidentia oppositorum’ that mirrors the cathedral’s primary function in guiding the community and individual souls to the perfection of the rose. They evoke a grand, labyrinthine and uncertain wheel of fortune which governs the world of human affairs and the universe. The music plays upon the clockwork of our mind—the effect is to inspire and impel us, in directions we may desire or, alternatively, in directions some of us in the audience may prefer not to go.

CMT: The surprise—my eyes were damp several times as Koopman performed—is that such music can take hold of us and transport us, can propel us so forcefully—even in directions that we may resist. For some of us, it’s not a question of resisting—it’s more the shock or surprise at being escorted to a perception of transcendence that we have known before but have not visited recently. That is what a performance of the caliber that Koopman delivers can do. He physically takes us there, regardless whether we anticipated the journey or not.

DSM: The ‘nonconsensual’ aspect of the experience is a major part of its shock value. We make our way through the routine of most days under the illusion that we have autonomy, have power, are free to choose, are masters of our lives. The ecstatic journeys that Koopman takes us on remind us of our utter dependence on others—it is not merely a sacred or ‘Godly’, let alone ‘Christian’, notion; it is instead a powerful reminder of this profound connectedness, a reminder of our inescapable mortal frailty and diminutiveness, a reminder of this ineffable and fantastic vastness of the cosmos.

I n de eerste helft van de zeventiende eeuw waren ht vooral leerlingen van Jan Pietersoon Sweelinck die de Noord-Duitse klaviermuziek nieuwe implsen gaven. Later doen ook Italiaanse elementen hun intrede, zoals de ‘stylus phantasticus’. Vanmorgen volgen we de lijn die van Frescobaldi naar Bach loopt, met Dieterich Buxtehude als stralend middelpunt… Hierin verschijnt de cantus firmus als canon tussen sopraan en tenor, terwijl ook in de andere stemmen imitatie voorkomt: oude technieken worden hier door Bach zeer geraffineerd toegepast.”
  —  Wilmer de Jong, Program Notes, 2007, Oude Muziek Festival.

I n the first half of the seventeenth century the pupils of Jan Pietersoon Sweelinck gave particular impulse to the North-German keyboard music. Later on, Italian elements also appeared, as the ‘stylus phantasticus’. This morning we follow the line tracing Frescobaldi to Bach with Dieterich Buxtehude as radiant center… In this appeared the cantus firmus as a mutually-reinforcing ‘canon’ between the soprano and tenor voices on the organ, while in the other voices imitation and parallelism ‘prevent’ and ‘rebut’ each other: the by now old techniques are refined and applied here by Bach.”
  —  Wilmer de Jong, Program Notes, 2007, Oude Muziek Festival.

Christelijk Gymnasium, Utrecht
D a drin: das träge Treten ihrer Tatzen
macht eine Stille, die dich fast verwirrt;
und wie dann plötzlich eine von den Katzen
den Blick an ihr, der hin und wieder irrt,

gewaltsam in ihr großes Auge nimmt, -
den Blick, der, wie von eines Wirbels Kreis
ergriffen, eine kleine Weile schwimmt
und dann versinkt und nichts mehr von sich weiß,

wenn dieses Auge, welches scheinbar ruht,
sich auftut und zusammenschlägt mit Tosen
und ihn hineinreißt bis ins rote Blut -:

So griffen einstmals aus dem Dunkelsein
der Kathedralen große Fensterrosen
ein Herz und rissen es in Gott hinein.”
  —  Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Fensterrose, Neue Gedichte, 1907.

I n there: the lazy pacing of their paws
creates a stillness that’s almost dizzying;
and as one of the cats then suddenly
takes the gaze that watches it carelessly

and snatches it into its own great eye, -
and that gaze, as if caught in a whirlpool’s
circle, for a little while stays afloat
and then goes under and is lost to oblivion,

when this eye, which apparently rests,
opens and slams shut with a roaring
and yanks it all the way inside the blood -:

this in olden times out of the darkness
the cathedral’s great rose windows
would seize the hearts and forcibly propel them toward God.”
  —  Rainer Maria Rilke, Rose Window, New Poems, 1907.

29 August 2007

Koopman & Amsterdam Baroque: Buxtehude = Theater

Larry Norman book

H  et idioom van Buxtehude vraagt een enorme creativiteit van de speler. Bij Bach kun je gewoon de nootjes spelen of het werk op een draaiorgel laten uitvoeren. Zelfs dan is het nog mooi. Buxtehude vraagt meer van de musicus. Het is heel theatrale muziek. Heel creatief, geestig en soms enorm macho. Hij kan heel deemoedig zijn in de koralen, om vervolgens in de orgelwerken weer flink uit te pakken. Al in zijn eerste periode, waarin hij nog voornamelijk in de middentoonstemming schrijft, is Buxtehude buitengewoon avontuurlijk. Hij schakelde over op de Werckmeister-stemming en dat leverde hem zowel harmonisch als melodisch een enorme vrijheid op. Hij durft het bijvoorbeeld aan om te beginnen met een lange pedaalsolo. Dat was ongehoord in die dagen. Hij was als een jazzimprovisator en de toehoorders lieten een vergelijkbaar enthousiasme horen. Mensen stonden in de kerk gewoon te klappen. Buxtehude is theater. Critici uit zijn tijd zeiden vaak dat Buxtehude geen opera hoefde te schrijven: de kerk is zijn theater.”
  —  Ton Koopman, interview with Paul Janssen, Tijdschrift Oude Muziek, 2007, Band 2, 23.

B uxtehude’s musical idiom demands enormous creativity from the player. In Bach, you can play the notes normally or allow the organ to do the work. Even then it is beautiful. Buxtehude asks more of the musician. It is quite theatrical music. Quite creative, lively and sometimes very ‘macho’. Buxtehude can be not quite humble in the chorale, and then ‘take it out’ in the organ part. Already in his first period, in which he writes yet mainly in a middle-tone mood, Buxtehude is extremely adventurous. He communicates with a masterwork-mood and that, for him, is a very harmonious, tuneful mode in which he exercises enormous compositional freedom. He dares to begin a piece for instance with a long pedal solo. That was outrageous in those days. Buxtehude might be heard as jazz improvisation—and the listeners had a comparable enthusiasm and personal investment in the music. People in those days routinely stood and applauded in the church. Buxtehude is theater. Critics who were Buxtehude’s contemporaries said often that Buxtehude did not need to write opera: the church was the theater of the time.”

  —  Ton Koopman, interview with Paul Janssen, Tijdschrift Oude Muziek, 2007, Band 2, 23.

DSM: The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are, basically, a golden age of theater. Throughout western Europe, the dramatic arts carried tremendous cultural prestige, political importance. They were also highly commercial.

Kerala Snyder book
CMT: The interactions between the Baroque audience members and performers were also intense and stylized. This is one of the points in Larry Norman’s book, published several years ago, and Kerala Snyder’s book, just published. The audience directly—not vicariously—participated in this popular form of social performance. The participation was a kind of ‘acting out’—a reification of the Enlightenment’s exalting of the individual. This is part of what Koopman means in his remarks during the interview with Paul Janssen. It was highly ‘active’, not ‘passive’.

DSM: Some of the aims of Buxtehude’s music—prime examples are the Cantatas in last night’s performance by the Amsterdam Baroque in Utrecht—are the shaping of space and time for the individual—the performer and the listener alike. There is a transcendental motive that directs the participant to consider her or his responsibility to regard the finiteness of human life and time’s passing—a duty to consider her/his place in the Universe. The individual in Baroque society has wonderful rights and new entitlements but with them come new duties—at least in Buxtehude’s Germany. Beautiful, inspiring Cantatas! But, still, these are cantatas for a fastidious German culture.

CMT: These Cantatas also call into question the relationship that musical and theatrical representations have to the subjects they portray. The Membra Jesu Nostris cantatas BuxWV 75 are sacred pieces, and yet they compel the performers and the audience members to examine what it is to be human, what it is for humans to regard their relationship to the Divine. Who are we to offer prayers of praise and supplication? Buxtehude is asking ‘What kind of supplicatory prayer is authentic?’

DSM: These Cantatas are not only authentic in and of themselves—they ‘ring true’ in the capable hands of Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Miriam Meyer, soprano; Bettina Pahn, soprano; Bogna Bartosz, alto; Marco van de Klundert, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Margaret Faultless, violin; David Rabinovich, violin; Jon Manson, viola da gamba; Susanne Braumann, viola da gamba; Alberto Rasi, bass viol; Michael Fentross, theorbo; Ton Koopman, organ). They also stand as exhortations to authentic conduct in all aspects of life—they assert that beauty and dignity depend on such conduct. Dialogical consonances, not just hierarchical ones. Narrative counterpoint with moral imperatives and individual free-will and consequences, not just passively-received, priestly counterpoint filled with determinism and dogma. The elegant tonal progressions and persuasive cadential ‘points’: these Cantatas function as philosophical meditations on right conduct in bourgeois secular society. In other words, they are not merely sacred ‘cantatas’—they are much more.

CMT: You mean they stand as propositions of the meaningfulness of human existence when one conducts one’s life with authenticity and earnestness. I think this is true. They’re convincing arguments against futility, absurdity, and nihilism. These are filled with emblems, symbols—you could say these Cantatas are allegorical in their rhetoric. I know that there are those who deny that music can use symbolism at all, who deny that allegory in music is even possible. To be sure, music doesn’t represent abstract concepts directly. But that doesn’t imply that allegory is impossible. The music supplies a sensual impression, and the meaning is superimposed on the impression by us. If we enter into the music at all, the meaning must be an individual, personal one—although we may be led to some degree by the composer, the artists' gestures, the program notes, other experiences and expectations, and so on. Individualism! All who participate—the performers, the audience members—turn that proposition round and round, during the time the music lasts and afterward. That’s part of the theatrical magic that Koopman and colleagues worked last night. That’s part, too, of what Koopman means regarding Buxtehude and baroque theater—theater that is intellectually deep, theater that can move minds and hearts. ‘Baroque’ as “irregular, individualistic pearl.” Bravo!

  • Sonata in A minor, BuxWV 254
  • Membra Jesu nostri, Cantatas 1 – 7, BuxWV 75
  • Sonata in C major, BuxWV 266

Ton Koopman

20 August 2007

Schnittke’s Polystylism: Life as Bakhtinian Bagatelles

Kostakeva: Schnittke im Strom

A ll composers somehow reflect their times; some composers do little more. Schnittke is a separate case. Conditions in Russia [were], indeed, dreadful, but that is the least surprising news that this composer brings. He represents not only a moment in the history of Russia, but also a moment in the history of music. To put it simply, he will not vanish when his times are up. The multiplicity of styles, of schools, of genres; the overbearing weight of an impressive past; the overshadowing brilliance and energy of present-day ‘popular’ modes seemingly alien to the classical tradition; the possibilities of a future in which parochial barriers will crumble away—all this is acutely observed in Schnittke’s music, and at times epiphanically reconciled. He is nothing less than the composer of our climate.”
  —  Alex Ross, New Republic, 28-SEP-1992.

CMT: I think the musicologists and music theorists who study Schnittke are not accustomed to reading ‘small’ fiction—miniatures like ‘sudden fiction’ and ‘flash fiction’ and ‘microfiction.’ And, of course, there’s a tendency of the smallest of small fiction to be enigmatic or koan-like. These aren’t stylized stories with formulaic structures and predictable, ironic-twist endings.

DSM: Some microfiction idioms are constrained by the rules to be 55 words or less. They fly in the face of the conventional model for fiction, with heroic individuals making momentous decisions over long periods of time. They’re ‘thrown’—hurled—everything happens in seconds.

T heir driving source was not the need that created the novel but an older urge—the same need that created Norse kennings, Zen koans, Sufi tales.”
  —  Russell Banks.

CMT: There are now two variants—the term ‘sudden fiction’ now refers to pieces that are 4 to 8 pages in length (1,500 to 4,500 words) while ‘flash fiction’ refers to pieces that are 1 to 4 pages (500 to 1,500 words). Microfiction is nominally 250 words or less—less than half a page. And the shorter the piece is, the more subversive and alienated it tends to be. You need to have a look at Shapard’s and Thomas’s new anthology to see what I mean. And much of Schnittke’s music is like this. Especially the more ‘cinematic’ pieces, like the String Quartet No. 3. Schnittke may have been forced by circumstance to make a living writing film and cartoon soundtrack music, but you have to admit—it suited him. I think his temperament would’ve gravitated in this direction regardless what financial or political constraints were placed upon him.

DSM: Shorter equals more alienated, yes. But it also equals more referential to the things from which he asserts he’s alienated. References can be constructed in a variety of ways: allusions—inflections within a discourse—and quotations—incorporation of one discourse in another. Intertextual references have a different status from the surrounding discourse: they’re on another level. For instance, references aren’t directly attributable to the composer in question, but bring in another imaginary subject whose music we’re made believe we’re hearing—a musical persona. The same is true in the other arts—literature, painting, film. It’s in this sense that reference leads to representation. In small pieces, establishing the reference occupies a major percentage of the piece—the reference is the representation.

CMT: Let’s look at Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3, which quotes Beethoven and Lassus and Shostakovich.

E ach cited element breaks the continuity or the linearity of the discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its text of origin; that of the same fragment as incorporated into the new thing, a different reality.”
  —  Perloff, Collages: Revue d’ Esthétique 1978; 3-4: 34f.

DSM: You know, Bakhtin didn’t distinguish between author and narrator—that’s a differentiation established later in literary theory. The ‘implied author’ is a later innovation. These days, Bakhtin’s ‘author’ would be called a narrator. Much of Schnittke’s writing seems to be from an alienated narrator—Schnittke composed as though he were a Bakhtinian ‘author’.

CMT: Bakhtin’s theory of the novel says that individual discourses in a fictional work aren’t isolated from one another but interact. If characters or narrators report or reflect on somebody else’s discourse, they inevitably orient themselves toward it in some way: someone else’s words introduced into our own speech inevitably display our own interpretations and become subject to our evaluation of them; that is they become multivocal. This ‘meta-discourse’ or ‘multivocality’ is discourse with an orientation toward someone else’s discourse. So the same words take on a different meaning if they are, say, the object of parody. As a writing technique, multivocality aims to mimic real life—including turns of events and hindsight. So, yes, I suppose Schnittke was a Bakhtinian.

DSM: As a detached observer/narrator, Schnittke feels less responsibility for insuring that what happens is coherent. The material—the musical collage—is simply represented as historical fact. This is a reportorial Schnittke; a Schnittke-as-collector. Schnittke gives us a collage—an anthology—of found objects whose deeper meaning, if any, Schnittke doesn’t elucidate. The collage is merely comprised of ‘facts’ about ‘others’. The interpretation’s left entirely to the listener.

CMT: But just as the concept of ‘other’ is called into question by the dialogue between ‘authorial’ and ‘represented’ discourses, so is the notion of ‘self’ called into question. The reportorial Schnittke isn’t letting us understand much about himself, is he?

DSM: I suppose that’s true. With his reportorial, narratorly stance, he does give up the conventional, privileged ‘authorial’ voice—or feigns giving it up. With his String Quartet No. 3 (1983), Schnittke embarks on this new stylistic path. While in earlier pieces his musical quotations and borrowings have an ‘irritating’ effect and seem to have been introduced as alien presences, in Quartet No. 3 the motifs he uses (from Beethoven and Lassus and Shostakovich) are introduced benignly into the musical flow and brought into a relationship with one another. It’s not alienation so much as touchy coexistence. I wonder, too, whether his own sense of self was not disrupted by the ongoing series of strokes he suffered during the years he composed the Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 . . .

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 I, 3MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 II, 4MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 III, 3MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Tale Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 I, 3MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Tale Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 II, 4MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Tale Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 3 III, 3MB MP3]

CMT: By contrast to the No. 3, Schnittke’s Quartet No. 4 is suspended between two opposing ideas. The suspension doesn’t prescribe any particular emotion, but it does induce an anxiety in the listener. Alienation and contemplation alternate through struggles between the voices.

Schnittke Str Qt No. 4 I, mm. 1-10
M etrical accents are weakened in the adagios of Beethoven and Schubert and there arises a melodious, flowing, seamless music whose meditative profundity captivates listeners and carries them away from any real sense of time—one has the feeling of making contact with eternity.”
  —  Schnittke in Ivashkin.

DSM: The opposition and struggles aren’t entirely ‘reportorial’, though. The example above shows the first statement by the cello in mm. 1-10 of the first movement of Quartet No. 4. Here we have a melody consisting of all twelve pitch classes, arranged in two chromatic hexachords—{D,D-flat,C,E-flat,F,E}and {F#,B,A#,G#,G,A}. The aggregate is a referential set. I’d interpret it as an initiating event.

CMT: Or we could interpret it instead as a large-scale structural premise in its own right. Concomitant with its structural purposes are its textural properties—it’s the full chromatic array.

DSM: And look at the rhythms. This unclear metric rhythmic organization is associated with the cello. The cello part has this forlorn, wandering, disoriented and disorienting quality. The fluctuating number of beats from measure to measure in the first two statements of the opening of the Quartet and the segmentation of the melodic line by square or traditional fermatas—these account for the lack of a time signature at the beginning of the movement. But, more than this, there’s a quality of abandonment or desolation that comes from this ‘ametric’ or ‘hypometric’ approach. It resembles the ‘fits and starts’ of a person who is recovering from a stroke and is coping with significant ‘residual’ functional deficits from the stroke. You listen and try to resolve what the meter is. But just when you think you have a sense of the meter—have some reliable expectations of the rhythmic structure—the cello proves you wrong and wanders away. The fractured ametric structure or hypometer is, I think, very stroke-like. I have no idea whether Schnittke ever spoke of this or ascribed any such association to his No. 4 Quartet . . .

CMT: Well, life that lacks a consistent, coherent meter isn’t necessarily without meaning! And it’s not just stroke. Discourse that includes a disoriented or demented person is still genuine discourse, however diminished or labored it might be. Think of Alzheimer’s patients and other persons with dementia. Think of the dignity of Down Syndrome people. ‘Goal-oriented’ and ‘coherence’ are not the be-all and end-all of human existence and value. It seems to me that Schnittke privileges the voice of this raspy, ‘impaired’ cello in Quartet No. 4, in part to make the point that this chaotic voice, while chaotic, nonetheless does have moral standing and worth. That voice merits our concern, attention, care. That’s an important point in today’s free-market, globalization-obsessed society, which devalues the elderly and the infirm.

T hat anticipates the definite sense of luminescence of Schnittke’s later works. Generally speaking, talking about his illness as a definite point of change, I would say that there he had a presentiment of the illness even before it came. The String Trio and even moments in the Second String Quartet are evidence of this. After the illness there was further development of this feeling. As he himself said, a new time began for him.”
  —  Gidon Kremer, interview in Russian by Alexander Ivashkin, Besedy; 1989: 238-45.

DSM: Schnittke composed Quartet No. 4 in 1989, four years after his first stroke. From 1985, he lived 13 years with the burden of stroke after stroke after stroke. This was 20% of his entire life—40% of his composing life—that he was living under a shadow of debility and mortality. There are no quotations or pseudo-quotations in the No. 4. Instead, subtle scents and shadows of various styles pervade the composition. In his stylistic allusions in the No. 4, Schnittke relies on borrowings from other styles combined with musical ideas that developed in the whole course of his career, really.

CMT: Too, there’s a surprising level of emotionality in Schnittke’s music. To explain his music’s popularity, you need to remember: Schnittke is no avant-gardist; his concern is not experimentation with sound. Instead, he offers the listener bridges toward comprehension. He helps the listener to perceive familiar material in his music and then uses the familiar as a bridge to other meanings. Not all of it is as ‘interior’ or introspective as the No. 4. But Schnittke’s language is readily understood by audiences because it is so expressive, suggestive and associative.

DSM: Schnittke’s devotion to traditional compositional methods never was in contradiction with his modernism—to the contrary, his classical writing backhandedly reinforced his modernism. His detractors say that his music consists merely of these collages and quotations of motifs borrowed from others. But his composition technique was far more than that. In the Quartet No. 3, Schnittke uses quotations of three composers of very different eras. The formulaic cadences of the Stabat Mater quote Orlando Lasso; the theme of the Grosse Fugue and Pathètique Sonata op. 133 of Beethoven, and the musical DSCH signature of Shostakovich—these form the thematic basis of this quartet.

CMT: And Beethoven’s late style shows features that arise from apparent considerations of mortality and approaching death. Likewise, we see elements of illness weighing heavily on Schnittke in his works from the early 1980s onward. Maria Kostakeva claims that these are instead the result of his artistic development, not his strokes and intercurrent illnesses.

DSM: Of course, collage is used in various arts of the twentieth century, not just music. Collage in music should be considered as more than just a collection of other people’s music reused in another composer’s piece.

CMT: Schnittke’s chaos and alienation—they are lightweight, but not rootless. His wit is never merely humorous. He juxtaposes black, atonal material with nostalgic reminiscences of other types of music—creating this feeling of loss, isolation, grieving, lament.

DSM: I think coherence is over-rated—having a clear musical idea and communicating it concisely are not the card that trumps all others. You said this somewhat differently a few minutes ago, when you were talking about Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome—or stroke or other debilitating conditions. Dread—and the effects that foreboding has on the integrity and dignity of the person—are worthy subjects for artistic expression. This, I think, is part of what Schnittke is saying.

O ne can compose in a contemporary language, imparting archaic attributes to contemporary intonations; or, conversely, one can compose in an ‘antiquated’ language, but follow a contemporary developmental logic. The resulting musical logic will inevitably involve a sense of paradox because it no longer falls within the framework of a single style or a single era.”
  —  Alfred Schnittke, Paradox as a Characteristic of Stravinsky’s Musical Logic.

T  he superficiality of Schnittke’s confrontation with the past is less unnerving than the disorientation found in compositions which ‘in their inner organization measure themselves by the fullest experience of horror.’ With Schnittke the ‘inner organization’ is less likely to challenge convention, and what is genuinely shocking in the later works is that sickness-fuelled melancholy has almost driven out the desire to shock by means of surface confrontations and collisions.”
  —  Arnold Whittall, Problems of Reference, Musical Times, Autumn 2004.

S tring Quartet No. 3 (1983) is perhaps Schnittke’s most unabashedly ‘polystylistic’ composition. The first movement begins with three quotations that provide much of the quartet’s musical material: two cadences from the Lassus Stabat Mater, the subject of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and Shostakovich’s musical monogram, D-S-C-H. The second movement opens with a passage that, while not a direct quotation, nevertheless strikes us as projecting a compositional voice not Schnittke’s own, but rather Beethoven’s. Rather than belittling critical responses to Schnittke’s flagrant stylistic juxtapositions, I instead propose that the passages from the first and second movements indeed beg such scrutiny. A close inspection of the three quotations reveals they have been altered by a meticulous if not subversive composer. In turn, contrasting the second movement’s opening measures with my own Beethoven-like recomposition of the passage, I re-examine the gradual process through which the listener comes to sense the presence of Schnittke’s ‘own’ compositional voice.”
  —  Greg Brown, Univ Wisconsin, MTMW-2001.

CMT: In the case of so called ‘atonal’, ‘twelve-tone’ or ‘aleatoric’ music, it’s difficult to speak about a main or subsidiary key. The concept of sonata form loses its meaning. But we still have opposing musical ideas, and a conflict between them can create a structure in which we can still find features of Sonata form. These Schnittke quartets aren’t normal quartets. The movements are more like Bagatelles! The quartets are assemblies of interrelated, conflicted Bagatelles.

A  work of Russian art is a confession. There is nothing commonplace in it, nothing decorative, well balanced, or moderate. Everything is extreme, sometimes shocking, strange. We treat music as something more than just music; it is a means to express something spiritual.”
  —  Alexander Ivashkin. The Paradox of Russian Non-Liberty. Musical Quarterly 1992; 76:543-6.

DSM: The departure from traditional forms or procedures is something Schnittke did in some of his compositions before Quartet No. 4. I suspect his views on loss and loneliness and alienation and the human condition evolved in parallel with his compositional technique. Schnittke’s allusion to “rational formulas” is significant. He became convinced that a certain type of irrationality is more powerful than reasoning to an understanding of the ordered structure of the universe. He defined “irrationality” in this context as “not what lies outside reason; it is what has not been decoded by reason.” More often we arrive at a solution not solely by means of inference and deduction and reason, but empirically, through trial and error. Schnittke reportedly regarded the process of composition as one of “pre-listening” to a source outside the self—the composer serves as a medium through which music flows. He told Ivashkin, “I am just fixing what I hear. . . . It is not me who writes my music, I am just a tool, a bearer.” [‘Conversations with Alexander Ivashkin (1985-1994),’ interviews in Russian by Alexander Ivashkin, in Besedys, Moscow: Kul’tura, 1994), 127-73.]

P  olystylism] widens the range of expressive possibilities, it allows for the integration of ‘low’ and ‘high’ styles, of the ‘banal’ and the ‘recherché’—that is, it creates a wider musical world and a general democratization of style. In it we find the documentary objectivity of musical reality, presented not just as something reflected individually but as an actual quotation. . . . And finally it creates new possibilities for the musical dramatization of ‘eternal’ questions—of war and peace, life and death ... It is doubtful whether one could find another musical approach that expresses as convincingly as the polystylistic method the philosophical idea of the links between the ages.”
  —  Alfred Schnittke, Polystylistic Tendencies.

CMT: Stravinsky’s famous dictum runs that a composition can only arise as the solution to a problem. Schnittke offers a rebuttal—that a great composition can arise out of a futile search for a solution to an insoluble problem. Schnittke’s rebuttal allows that irrational and aleatoric elements can not only be valid, but may be the only feasible response to an insoluble problem, an incurable condition.

DSM: In 1981, we have the String Quartet No. 2—it’s more engaging, especially the buzzing frenzy of the Agitato movement when all four strings play churning, relentless riffs. Coherence is not Schnittke’s goal. The music evolves according to his instincts, it seems, and if you resist giving yourself over to it, you are left behind.

T his polystylism is not a [syncretist] jumble of different things, but a successfully individual musical language. It opens up the spaces within which Schnittke can present music and ‘comment’ on it at the same time, where he can relate contemporary experiences of dislocation and confusion of the optimistic and progressive language of much of the Western tradition. Some of his works suggest an easy political or social interpretation; the concerto player who finishes her piece looking as if she’s playing her violin furiously but who is not in fact connecting with the strings – her ‘classical’ dialogue with the orchestra has ended in her being overwhelmed and silenced in spite of all her efforts; but such one-dimensional readings of Schnittke’s work do not tell the whole story. The failures and frustrations his music points are not just those of the heroic individual pitted against the social forces symbolised by the orchestra. Many of Schnittke’s works imply the end of, certainly the fragmentation of, the whole symphonic tradition and the conventions of coherence that have defined classical music – modernist as well as traditional.”
  —  Mike Waite, 1996.

H e was one of the greatest humanists who ever worked in the art of music. His music can have a bitter taste yet confront you with the truth of life, the tragedy of life, the poetry of life, the humor of life.”
  —  Kurt Masur.

CMT: In the third movement of the No. 4, we have a struggle playing out between the voices. The movement develops into sections with either a fragmented or a concordant treatment of the theme. An uneasy ‘draw’—not a truce—is found between these two polar ideas, with the first violin and cello playing in unison over the other rhythmically and texturally antagonistic second violin and viola parts. It’s terrifying and witty at the same time—a moving example of how Schnittke confronts irreconcilable conflict, loss, futility and the human condition. As Whittall said, by this time the will to shock had been driven out of him; maybe even the ability to shock has been driven out. And still he searches—but with hopes more modest than he once had. This is a path we all walk, if we live long enough. Listen!

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 4 I, 4MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 4 II, 3MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 4 III, 4MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 4 IV, 3MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, Kronos Qt, Schnittke Qt No. 4 V, 4MB MP3]



14 August 2007

Celebration of Successes in Dealing with Failures: Bender, Joachim, and the Joy and Suffering of Amateurs

Wayne Booth: For the Love of It

I t was in 1961, at the summer session of CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians - Musiciens Amateurs du Canada), upon the occasion of butchering Beethoven’s first Razumovsky String Quartet, Op. 59, when Joachim said, ‘Fritz, you are really an awful violinist.’ Fritz, without missing a beat, replied coolly ‘Yes, Otto, but I am a much better violinist than you will ever be a chemist.’ ”
  —  Robert Bender, reminiscence regarding his father, Fritz Bender (1906-2005), inorganic and medicinal chemist, inventor of process for fabricating aircraft-grade plywood (initially for Mosquito bomber planes), fled Germany, interned in New Brunswick in 1941, served in Canadian government in various capacities thereafter; accomplished amateur violinist and acquaintance of Otto Joachim.

CMT: Otto’s implication was that Fritz ought to quit trying? He was implying that, because Fritz’s playing would never be virtuosic, he should simply stop?

DSM: No, not that. It was simply a genuine expression of frustration—the burden of being bound by the limitations of the other players, including Fritz, was, in that moment, too much for Otto. He lost his patience. It was regrettable, in that the four played together regularly.

Otto Joachim
CMT: Joachim had his symphony chair, and he had his McGill professorship, and he had The Montreal String Quartet (1955-63) - Le Quatuor à cordes de Montréal (1955-63). He had the Canadian government commissions. And yet he routinely played in amateur ensembles as well. That is really remarkable. The Montreal String Quartet was composed of illustrious musicians—Hyman Bress and Mildred Goodman, violins, Otto Joachim, viola, and Walter Joachim, cello. Its early performances were mainly devoted to works of Canadian composers: Vallerand, Papineau-Couture, Betts, Morel, Archer, Freedman, and Turner. It premiered Glenn Gould’s Quartet (1956), Otto Joachim’s Quartet (1957), and Clermont Pépin’s Quartet No. 2 (1956) and Quartet No. 4 (1960). When it disbanded in 1963, the quartet was considered one of the finest in Canada.

Fritz Bender at 99
DSM: Fritz was a little older than Otto. The picture above was taken when Fritz was almost 99 years old. Both of them had fled Nazi Germany in the 30s. Otto Joachim was born in Düsseldorf in 1910 and became a naturalized Canadian in 1957. He studied the violin 1916-28 at the Buths-Neitzel Conservatory. In 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, Joachim left Germany for the Far East, where he remained for 15 years, performing and teaching first in Singapore and later in Shanghai. He eventually decided to settle in Montreal, where he became principal viola of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and of the McGill Chamber Orchestra. At the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal Joachim was in charge of chamber music, violin, and viola classes until 1977. He had a paradoxical interest in old instruments and modernist avant-garde electroacoustic music. As a modernist, Joachim wrote music in its various idioms: serial, aleatoric, and electroacoustic. In 1985, during a concert in Windsor, Ontario, to commemorate his 75th birthday, the Essex Winds premiered his Mobile für Johann Sebastian Bach, commissioned by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted. In 1990, his 80th birthday was marked by a concert of his works presented at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur in Montreal.

T  he terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ are by no means opposites. Indeed, the distinction between them offers difficulties. E.T. Hiller (Social Relations & Structures, Harper, 1947) speaks of five variable attributes of professions:
  • long, systematic preparation;
  • the presence of norms of conduct;
  • an occupational conscience, that is, an emphasis on standards and services rather than material rewards;
  • recognition by the public of professional authority based on knowledge rather than mere credentials or powers delegated by the state; and
  • a kind of personal ‘bearing’ consistent with the value served by the vocation.
... The amateur, on the other hand, is ... free to choose, and can enter into his activity with the greatest of enthusiasm. He can be expected to contribute new ideas [but is not under a professional compulsion to do so]. In this sense, the problem of every professional musician is how to find a balance between freedom from his circle as an amateur in spirit, at the same time that he is supported by it as a professional in occupation.”
  — Max Kaplan, The social role of the amateur. Music Educators’ Journal 1954; 40:26-8.

CMT: Musicologist Robin Elliott has remarked that Joachim’s L’Éclosion and Concertante No. 1 and other pieces ‘exude a spirit of compromise. … [a trait that] has been one of the hallmarks of the Canadian psyche.’

M y deep-felt response to minor-third and minor-second dying falls ... Deryck Cooke rightly insists that our emotional responses to particular intervals and harmonies are partly cultural inventions and partly natural. Consider the half-dying falls Mendelssohn exploits so wonderfully in the quartet Op. 44 No. 2 (E minor) ... We were amateurs without—I suspect—even knowing the word.”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 24.

DSM: According to Udo Kasemets, ‘Joachim’s treatment of the tone-row is at once quite conventional and undogmatic ... his rows are easily recognizable and tuneful.’

T he accidental blessing of the sense of total leisure—that precious freedom to go until ‘worn out,’ utterly drained, totally possessed: that freedom to be an amateur without qualification. How rarely in life do we stumble into anything like that!”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 33.

CMT: Amazing to ears unprepared to believe that 12-tone music can be lyrical, he used tone-rows to achieve phenomenal lyrical and tragic effects. Joachim’s way of creating unusual sounds from traditional instruments also shows the influence of Varèse—the intersection of old instruments and new music.

A ll of this presupposes that you have available other players who are better than you are. It also assumes that you have no insatiable need to shine. Many professional cellists and violists don’t enjoy playing pieces that give them little to do beyond do-sol, sol-do. We don't need any testimony from them—the absence of compositions like that from professionals’ programs tells it all. When was the last time you heard a first-class group doing the early Haydn piano trio? The cellists have just backed off.”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 45.

DSM: Joachim’s String Quartet presents an intricate and cleverly worked out balance between twelve-tone techniques and tonal procedures. Sensible, listenable textures—with ‘Webernesque frailties’ according to Kasemets.

CMT: Each of the instruments has important solo passages—you see, he was concerned with the balance of personalities and voices in ensemble playing. These are not compositions of a pianist but instead the creations of an inspired and knowledgeable string player.

I  s a [music] teacher teaching for the love of music and the teaching of it? It’s always hard to tell. A few of my teachers have taught, like my present one, as if even winning a fortune would not stop their teaching; more of them made it painfully clear that they were simply eking out a living. When Signora X spent several minutes complaining because I’d bought my cello without using her as a paid go-between, I felt that music had long since left the room. But when Kim Scholes moved over to the piano, began to play the piano part of the cello sonata I had just dragged out, and shouted, ‘Come on—dance it with me!’ he was a passionately engaged teacher.”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 91.

DSM: Joachim’s String Quartet’s mixing of non-serial and serial techniques achieves a convincing synthesis of twelve-tone techniques and compositional techniques from earlier periods.

W e are scheduled, according to Phyllis’s calendar, to play the Schubert cello quintet this coming Sunday—a favorite—and perhaps one of the Boccherinis—with Mary and Zeke and two of their friends. So Phyllis and I practice our parts together on the wonderful Schubert—me on cello, as usual—and even run through the famous Boccherini, with me for the first time ever doing pretty well on the colorful solo of the fourth movement. But since the Boccherini is really a bit boring I decide to go to our university library and see if there are other two-cello quintets—I’ve been told that there is at least a Glazunov. Lo and behold, there’s a foot-high stack of them! I check them out and carry them home on my bicycle. She and I try out bits of each of them, and find that they’re either boring (the Borodin) or too difficult (the Milhaud). Then, late Saturday, we phone the Jacksons about time of arrival, but Mary begins by saying, ‘We’re looking forward to those sextets.’ ‘Sextets?’ So it’s the Brahms sextets; but we’ve spent hours working up the quintets!”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 101.

S ince my musical life provides no coherent progression from Mozart to Bach to Bartok to Haydn, to follow mere chronological journal tracings won’t make sense. What will? Some sort of plot line is required. What can it be? The plot line of playing, of laboring at thumb position in your eighth decade, is unavoidably double. Considered as a struggle to get better all the time, it would inevitably trace, twenty years from now, a trajectory from rising to falling, from hope to failure—even if we leave death aside. The moment will finally arrive when I have not only failed to become a really good cellist but am getting worse and worse all the time. ... On the worst days the plot turns into something even more pathetic than the cello tragedy. Yet sometimes, writing after a blissful quartet session the night before, the undrawable plot line rises beyond tragicomedy to become almost a divine comedy: rising, falling, rising—though ever more slowly—to peaks never foreseen but at last coming into view. The always-poor cellist experiences unimaginable ecstasies, and, though he knows that no prosaic account can capture them, he also knows that the aspiration is quite different. It must become a celebration of success in dealing with failure, an account of why failure in climbing one mountain, whether in music or prose, may be success in climbing an unforeseen neighboring peak.”
  —  Wayne Booth, For the Love of it: Amateuring & Its Rivals, p. 119.

F ay ce que vouldras!” (Do what you like!)
  — Rabelais.

T radition of a different nature is the backbone of Otto Joachim’s work. Strict dodecaphony—that is, straightforward serial writing—underlies his String Quartet ... The extraordinary talent of this composer shows already in the basic tone rows. Compiled of a succession of intervals which enable the creation of sensitive melodic curves and intense harmonies, they establish an element of thematic power which never relaxes during the various manipulations of the total form ... Often he employs two-part counterpoint between outer voices while the inner parts articulate rhythmic pedal points or ostinati. Canons over fragmentary rhythmic punctuation in the Quartet ... are not mere mechanical constructions, but inspired formal complexities with enormous inner power. Webernesque frailties appear in contrast to multiple-stop rhythmic orgies ... A performing artist himself, Joachim makes no errors in scoring. Every detail is worked out with meticulous care and consideration for clarity and balance.”
  —  Udo Kasemets, New Music: Canadian Study Scores I, Canadian Music Journal 1960; 1: 65-7.

CMT: Kasemets’ analysis is a good starting point for looking at Joachim’s quartet. The label ‘strict dodecaphony’ is, I think, a misnomer—that’s not really what Joachim’s quartet is. The opening of the work establishes a tonal centre on D, and much of the harmonic and melodic center of mass of the quartet is without a doubt D. And the dramatic tension in the quartet is created by the contrast between the unfolding permutations of the row and the repetitions of the note D. D is also used in a pedal point in the second movement. But Joachim’s String Quartet isn’t truly ‘in D’ or even ‘on D,’ but this pitch is used to articulate several important structural moments. The choice of the pitch D as a stable reference point seems to result as much from considerations of string quartet scoring—the note resonates richly on string instruments, whether played as a stopped note or open string—as from any pre-compositional decisions about tonalaty and twelve-tone techniques. More melodic than strict, Joachim’s row is made up exclusively of minor and major seconds and thirds:

Joachim, String Quartet, 1956 “Row”
DSM: The structure of the row gives a homogeneous character to the melodic material of Joachim’s String Quartet—fourths and fifths are never used melodically except in a few places where the row is used vertically instead of horizontally. The oddity in Joachim’s String Quartet and Paean and other pieces is that he forces old and new together in uncomfortable arrangements. We get the impression that past and present have not been reconciled but are in constant tension and confrontation. This is what I feel when listening to this piece.

A lthough it seems beyond belief, there does not exist a single piece of music composed within the last forty years that is regarded by the learned as worth hearing.”
  —  Johannes Tinctoris, Liber de arte contrapuncti, 1477.

CMT: Like the tensions in the string quartets of Elliot Carter or Brian Ferneyhough … for as long as there has been an avant-garde in music, there has been a vociferous and at times vehement critical opinion in staunch opposition to it. I suppose Monteverdi was judged as harshly in his day by Artusi or other contemporaries, or as harshly as Boulez was judged by Ligeti.

DSM: Joachim’s chamber works include:

  • Music for Violin and Viola, 1953.
  • Sonata for cello and piano. 1954.
  • String Quartet. 1956.
  • Interlude ‘Quartet for Four Saxophones,’ 1960.
  • Nonet, 1960. (wind quartet, string quartet, piano)
  • Divertimento, 1962. (wind quintet)
  • Expansion, 1962. (flute, piano)
  • Dialogue. 1964. (viola, piano)
  • Illumination I, 1965. (speaker, chamber ensemble, projectors)
  • Kinderspiel, Aleatoric Music for Children, 1969. (narrators, violin, violoncello, piano)
  • Twelve 12-Tone Pieces for the Young, 1970. (violin, piano)
  • Six Pieces for Guitar, 1971.
  • Requiem, 1977. (violin, viola or cello)
  • Four Intermezzi, 1978. (flute, guitar)
  • Night Music, 1978. (flute, guitar)
  • Tribute to Saint Romanus, 1981. (organ, 4 horns, 4 percussion)
  • Paean, 1989. (violin, cello)
  • Stacheldraht. 1994. (speaker, solo flute, and chamber orchestra)
  • Trio, 1996. (guitar)
  • String Quartet, 1997.

M y recollection of my father, Fritz, as a violinist was that what he lacked in skill he made up for in both enthusiasm and knowledge: whenever he missed a passage or a page was dropped in turning, he was always able to ‘get back in’ and could in fact play most of the chamber repertoire from memory. As a chemist, he was well regarded by a fairly impressive group, as I came to appreciate late in my youth; even in his late 70s he attracted post-doctoral fellows from a number of international sources.”
  — Robert Bender, personal communication.