Quartet 131 Celebrates Black History Month And American Inclusiveness
Quartet 131 will be featured on the Arion Chamber Music Series on Friday February 21, 2020, from 8:00 - 9:30 PM. The concert will take place at Christ & St. Stephen's Church located at 120 W. 69th St., NYC. Tickets are $30. Students under 25 with ID are $15 at the door. Tickets may be purchased at arionchambermusic.org
Quartet 131, whose musicians include Lilit Gampel and Laura Jean Goldberg, violins, Andy Lin, viola, and Robert La Rue, cello, will perform a concert of inclusion probing three distinctly American music traditions: Afro-American, Native American, and American Cinema. Featured works are by Florence Price, the first African American woman to have been recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have had a composition presented by a major American orchestra - her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint; Charles Griffes: Sketch Based on Native American Theme (Chippewa Farewell Song); and a little-known concert work by cinema's renowned composer of film scores Bernard Herrmann: Echoes. The program concludes with Quartet no.5 in f minor, Opus 9 by the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who came to NYC and articulated the American musical identity.
Bernard Herrmann: Echoes (1965)
Bernard Herrmann (1911 - 1975) may be best known as a composer for film, especially for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, but he also had a long and distinguished music career outside the movie industry. Born in New York City as Max Herman into a Jewish family of Russian origin, Herrmann played the violin as a child, and went on to study music formally at New York University and The Juilliard School. Joining CBS in 1934, he had an illustrious career as a conductor and as an exponent of twentieth century music. He gained notoriety for championing the works of Charles Ives.
"Echoes" for string quartet was composed in 1965; this was a time of deep personal turmoil in the life of the composer. The year before he had been through his second divorce, and shortly afterwards his working association with Hitchcock came to a bitter end. "Echoes" is a piece of absolute music, meant to stand on its own, regardless of its affinities with some of Herrmann's noted film scores, such as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).
"Echoes" was described by the composer as "a series of emotional remembrances". Musicologists specializing in Herrmann's oeuvre have long speculated about what specific life events and memories are expressed metaphorically in this string quartet. It is very possible that Herrmann was looking back on his long career as a film composer with nostalgia, but also with a sense of deep satisfaction: his scores had brought to the screen a vivid sense of expressionistic fantasy. There must have been something in the composer's psyche, a keen sensitivity to the darker, mysterious aspects of life, a gift that predestined him to compose the music for precisely those films dealing with the unexplained and the unsolvable.
One interesting aspect of Herrmann's compositional technique is his idiosyncratic use of repetition. He states and restates motives for extended periods of time, and this creates for the audience a sense of suspended animation, similar to a trance. Another device in his compositional arsenal is the rhythmic and harmonic Ostinato, which he uses to maintain and increase the state of emotional tension associated with suspense. His harmonic language is fairly tonal, but he avoids harmonic resolutions; and this creates feelings of unnerving emotional tension in the listener. Herrmann's tonal process is in constant flux, and this only amplifies the atmosphere of emotional uncertainty. All of these musical compositional techniques are time honored devices, used to lead the emotions of the audience to and from wherever the composer wishes. Composers of film scores, in common with composers working for socio- political mass movements, have to be well versed in the utilization of every musical technique which can help manipulate and modify the emotions of the listener. Bernard Herrmann was the ideal composer for the movies of Alfred Hitchcock as his musical technique helped vivify and intensify the power of Hitchcock's artistic vision.
Charles Tomlinson Griffes: Chippewa Farewell Song (1918)
Charles Tomlinson Griffes was born in Elmira, NY on September 17th, 1894. After being introduced to music by his sister Katherine, and being tutored in piano by Mary Selena Broughton of Elmira College, Griffes went on to Berlin, where he completed his studies at the world-famous Stern Conservatory. Returning to the U.S. in 1907, he made his living as a director of music at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, NY. This job gave him both the financial security and the leisure to compose.
Griffes became known as the first American exponent of musical Impressionism. The works of composers such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel; and also Modest Mussorgsky and Aleksandr Scriabin exerted a strong influence on his musical thinking. All Impressionist creators were drawn to the art of non-Western cultures, particularly from the historical or legendary past. As an American, Griffes did not have to look far to find his inspiration: his "Two Sketches for String Quartet based on Indian Themes" date from 1918. For this concert, Quartet 131 shall regale us with the first piece of the set.
The theme used by Griffes is the "Chippewa Farewell Song". The composer creates an harmonic sound-world based mainly on the pure, austere intervals of the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth. The melodies are inspired by the plaintive songs of Native American tribes, and accompanied by long held tones in a slow moving harmonic rhythm, with melodic material taken from the pentatonic scale. Working with these elements, Griffes creates an aural depiction of vast space, evoking the great expanses of the American West. Incorporating the raw tonal and rhythmic materials of the Native Americans into a Western string quartet medium, the Chippewa Farewell Song is in many ways similar to the American works of Antonín Dvořák.
Griffes evokes a metaphorical farewell scene with deep emotion, seemingly restrained by an overarching sense of inevitability. Also finding inspiration in Debussy and Ravel, Griffes created awe-inspiring aural landscapes, pictures of an ineffable natural world, untouched by civilization. This particular aesthetic orientation helped twentieth-century artists escape from the earlier, Romantic obsession with subjectivism. This in turn, opened the door for the diverse Modernistic schools which came after the demise of Impressionism. The great American composer Virgil Thomson called Griffes "a genius".
Florence Price: "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint" for string quartet (1951)
The "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint" for string quartet by composer Florence Price (1887 - 1953) is a substantial contribution to the American literature for the medium. This cycle transcends the sometimes narrow and misleading labels we use to describe works of art-music, such as "modernistic", "neo-Romantic", "Americana" etc. Florence Price composed music, pure and simple. Like all artists, she was a child of a specific cultural age, as well as the product of a unique social and cultural environment. In "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint" her raw musical material was American Folk Music, of all ethnic groups. Her aesthetic choice, informed by her African-American heritage, was to express universal human values, and she did so with impressive craftsmanship. Every aspect of her prodigious musical technique is used to convey a message of faith and hope, without ignoring the inevitable suffering that comes with the human condition. Florence Price left us a musical legacy that transcends all social and cultural barriers. Her musical discourse is one of pure integrity; there is neither an attempt to impress, nor to overwhelm the listener with excessive displays of drama or musical technique. Like Dvořák, Florence Price spoke several musical dialects fluently, and used them for her own aesthetic purposes.
The cycle opens with a free polyphonic fantasia on the Negro Spiritual "Calvary". The rather complex, contrapuntal texture is reminiscent of Bach, a composer whose own musical depictions of Golgotha are proverbial. Price's own interpretation of "Calvary" opens in a mood of solemn melancholy, and as it progresses, it becomes increasingly dramatic. The theme is presented in stretto, with one musical voice layered upon another. As excitement builds, Price writes fast sweeping runs in the top three musical voices while the cello plays a vigorous rhythmic drumbeat motif. The violins then break out into "rapturous" ponticello tremolo while the viola proclaims the Calvary melody in a powerful fortissimo. The opening motive of the Spiritual is stated one last time in full harmony, just before the final, majestic cadence.
The second piece in the cycle; "Oh My Darlin' Clementine" is based on a folk song that emigrated from England to America. The rhythmic opening motive suggested to our composer a Haydn-esque treatment, less rigorously polyphonic than was the case in the opening movement. "Oh my Darlin' Clementine" is a delightful Neo-Classical gem.
The third movement is a setting of yet another English song that had become an American favorite. "Drink to Me with Thine Own Eyes". Price creates here an atmosphere of perfect contentment. The middle section explores some harmonically distant keys in an impressionistic manner. Just before the return to the tonic key, we hear a segment of the main melody, but using the whole tone scale. At this moment in musical time, the sense of diatonic tonality has been suspended. This creates for the listener a sensation akin to losing one's footing on solid ground. After a few moments of harmonic uncertainty, Price simply restates the tonic D major triad again, and all of our doubts vanish into thin air.
The next song to be used as a source for a free instrumental fantasia is the plantation song "Shortnin' Bread" which originated in the ante-bellum South. The music is lively, and the contrapuntal treatment more rigorous than in the previous two movements. After a very strongly diatonic statement of the theme, in the home key of E flat major, the music roams through a series of related and unrelated keys. The original, purely diatonic motives float on a river of ever-modulating counterpoint, something we are used to hearing in the works of Charles Ives. The ending restores E flat major as the unmistakable home key.
The cycle closes with a heartfelt polyphonic rendition of the classic Spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Something of the spirit of the early Baroque can be felt here, as it becomes synthesized with a quintessential American melody. It has to be pointed out that this co- existence of archaic, learned contrapuntal writing, side by side with the simplest Folk melodies, is one of the striking characteristics of the late Beethoven Quartets. Another musician that this piece brings to mind is Harry T. Burleigh, who studied composition with Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Burleigh sang all the spirituals known in his time before Dvořák, and later published and performed his own concert transcriptions for solo voice and piano. Burleigh's setting of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is similar to Price's, as she begins with the Spiritual stated by the solo cello, in the same register Burleigh would have sung it for Dvořák.
In Price's setting for string quartet, the cello is answered canonically by the viola, and accompanied by two countersubjects on both violins. As the composition progresses, Price introduces shorter rhythmic values and the modulations become increasingly daring, almost blurring any clear sense of tonality, again, in a manner reminiscent of Charles Ives. The home key of C major is restored, and the music briefly pauses, before an extended diatonic Coda, which brings the entire cycle to a triumphant and exhilarating end.
Dvořák String Quartet no.5 in f minor, Opus 9
Antonín Dvořák's epic String Quartet in f minor is the work of a young idealist patriot, who sought to become the voice of his people. The quartet is influenced by the dramatic style of Liszt and Wagner, and it has the dimensions of a symphony. It is not out of the question to suppose that there may be a story behind this music, perhaps the saga of the suffering Czech nation, long deprived of its sovereignty. At this stage of life, Dvorak was not trying to compose works of absolute music, the aesthetic credo of the Austro-German Classical Tradition. The young Dvořák, consumed by nationalistic passion, working with Smetana in the theater, wantedto become a musical bard for the Czech nation.
Quartet no.5 in f minor was composed in the year 1873. The emotional turbulence of the piece reflects the composer's experiences as he entered both his marriage and a burgeoning professional life. This Quartet, like the four previous ones, was not performed publicly during Dvořák's lifetime. From our vantage point in the early twenty-first century, the early quartets and symphonies of Dvořák do not seem flawed at all; the many twists and turns in their musical plots appeal to our generation, since they seem to prefigure some of the vagueness and irrationality found in the music of our own time.
The first movement of the f minor quartet, Moderato-Allegro con brio, is cast in monumental dimensions, like a true late-Romantic symphonic movement. The introductory opening theme could easily bear Schumann's designation "Im Legendton" (In the tone of a Legend) used in his Piano Fantasy Opus 17. In this first phrase of the Moderato, our Czech bard recites the opening verses of an epic poem, a saga relating the adventures of his people through the centuries. This opening declamatory figure will be used often throughout the movement, restated emphatically like a Wagnerian leitmotif.
Following the Moderato introduction, the Allegro con Brio is a vigorous and colorful depiction of Czech life, with all its struggles and disappointments, but also with its times of love and happiness. It must be pointed out that this movement, for all its sweeping Romantic rhetoric, still has some echoes of the Classical string quartet, especially late Beethoven and Schubert. In his expansiveness of utterance, as well as in his sometimes unclear sense of tonal direction, Dvořák was following Schubert's example. The second theme group, stated in A flat major, the relative of the tonic, is as expansive as a love scene from an opera. The deep uncertainty felt by the composer may be said to find expression in the frequent and rather unpredictable harmonic detours. After a development section characterized by sweeping drama, tenderness and moments of monumental excitement, Dvořák returns to the home key for an extended, non-literal Recapitulation. After much soul searching, the composer finds his way to a very clear, pure F major ending. Antonín Dvořák was and remained a simple, uncomplicated man, a person whose sincere religious faith, his patriotism, and love of family always carried him through the darkest hours and trials.
The second movement of this quartet has an inspired melody, which, years later, was recycled by Dvořák in his Romanze for Violin and Orchestra Opus 19. A tender, melancholy Siciliano, the cantabile theme of this movement flows into various episodes in harmonically distant keys, arriving finally to a passionate climax, in the relative major key. The mood is reminiscent of a love aria from an opera. Fulfillment is short-lived, for Dvořák returns to the main theme in f minor. Our composer concludes this charming movement with a tender embrace.
The third movement is titled Tempo di valse. The syncopated accompaniment in the second violin and the viola create a mood of restlessness. The defiant lament in the first violin is a true specimen of Bohemian dance melody. This melodic gesture is answered by a somber, enigmatic figure in the lowest register of the cello. The middle section is a contrasting Bohemian dance melody in 2/4. The mood here is amiable and carefree. The dark clouds of the waltz return briefly. The ending is gruff.
The fourth movement Finale of Dvořák's String Quartet no.5 in f minor returns to the dramatic operatic style, at the same time following the outline of the Classical Sonata-Allegro form. Dvořák prepares the tonic key through a series of chromatic modulations. The first theme in this movement, played by the viola, could be a patriotic song. There is a strong familial resemblance between this theme and that of the composer's Slavonic Dance Opus 46 no.2 in e minor, composed five years later, in 1878. The second theme of our quartet Finale of 1873 would not be out of place in a Slavonic Dance. Dvořák incorporated folk themes into his compositions in a manner that was completely natural, as the folksongs of Bohemia were as much a part of him as the air he breathed. Colorful harmonic and rhythmic modulation ensue, leading directly into an elaborate Development section. The Recapitulation restates the first theme, this time in octaves played by the two violins. The coda is almost symphonic in breath and density. Ever the optimist, Dvořák concludes the whole composition in a clear, ringing affirmation in F major.
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