Thursday, 19 May 2011

More on Jewish art music

Elliot Kahn of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has pointed me to this fabulous resource for those searching for sheet music by composers of the St. Petersburg School. It is the JTS digital archive collection.

Also, those who want to hear some of the music recorded can listen to Louis Danto's recording of songs (with oboe instead of violin), at the Florida Atlantic University Judaica Sound Archives

Monday, 16 May 2011

Violin, voice, and Jews

In the spring of 1897, on the eve of the Russian Orthodox Easter, two Russian musicians met in an encounter that was to have impacts on classical and popular music to this day.  Vladimir Stasov, music historian and promoter of the New Russian National School of “The Five” – Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev, Borodin and Moussorgsky – was introduced to the Russian Jewish composer and music critic Joel Engel.  Stasov berailed Engel for abandoning his own heritage for the Slavic culture of Russian intellectuals.  “Where is your national pride in the music of your own people!” shouted Stasov.

According to Jacob Weinberg, a close friend of Engel’s, “The young Engel was overwhelmed, bewildered… [Stasov’s] words struck Engel’s imagination like lightning… this was the memorable night when Jewish art music was born.”  From that moment, Engel dedicated his life to transcribing, arranging, and promoting the musical heritage of Russian Jewry.  He inspired a group of likeminded musicians of Russian Jewish origin, who together formed the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music.”  Members of the society included the violin virtuoso Joseph Achron, composer and pedagogue Mikhael Gnessin, and a band of lesser known composers.  

The group developed a unique style that merged the melodic elements of Jewish folk and liturgical music – the music of the “klezmer” – with the rich harmonies of the late Russian romantic style. Central to this new style was the uniquely haunting timbre of voice and violin in duo. Their work was an influence on many later composers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, including Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Bloch and others.  They laid much of the foundation of modern art music written in Palestine and later Israel, as well as Israeli popular and folk music. Without their work, there would be no Klezmer revival as it is flourishing today.

The Hebrew National Style

While each of the composers of the new Hebrew national school had his own style, there are a number of clear common characteristics.  First and foremost, these composers prefered the chamber or lied format over larger symphonic forms.  True, there are a few symphonic works, but the vast majority of the works are for voice and piano, or for small string chamber groups. 

Voice and string ensembles

One of the outstanding forms of the group was the song for voice, piano and either violin or viola.  The voice-violin combination, such a favorite during the Baroque period, was virtually abandoned by the classical and romantic composers.  Aside from the two songs opus 91 by Brahms for viola, contralto and piano, the romantic composers wrote almost nothing for this ensemble; Saints Saens wrote a few songs with violin/piano accompaniment, and Donizetti wrote a couple of songs.  Schubert wrote lieder with obbligato clarinet and obbligato horn, but nothing for violin or viola.  

It is somewhat surprising, then, that these composers chose to write extensively for this combination.  No doubt the importance of the violin in Jewish folk music of the time played a deciding role in their choice.  The violin was the instrument of choice, and was almost ubiquitous, in Jewish households.  “How do you know how many men live in a house?” asked Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz.  “Count the fiddles hanging on the wall – that’s how many men there are.”

Sivan Rotem (soprano), Gilad Hildesheim (violin) and Jonathan Zak (piano), perform Hebrew Melody by Joseph Achron

The Character of Jewish Folk Melodies

The melodies of these composers – whether original or transcriptions of Jewish folk melodies – bear the earmarks that we identify with Klezmer music.  The tunes are almost universally in minor; often they are in the “gypsy minor” with two augmented seconds (the raised fourth and the raised seventh). They are often modal, and occasionally end on the dominant rather than the tonic. They often have a minor second leading to the tonic as a cadence; for example in the song “Schlof Majn Kind” (“Sleep My Child”) by Alexander Schitomirsky:

Alexander Schitomirsky, Shloff Mein Kind

Regardless mood or tempo, there is always a soulful character about the song, a character that typifies Jewish Klezmer music.  The Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem vividly describes this character in his short novel Stempenyu: “[The violin] speaks; it pours out its speech, as a Jew pours out his supplication before his God.  It weeps and begs and sighs, its voice the voice of the broken heart and the yearning of the spirit ..."

Rich Harmonies

While the melodies have the earmarks of simple Jewish Klezmer-style folk tunes, the settings have all the complexity and sophistication of late Russian romantic music.  These composers, after all, studied in the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, with teachers like Anton Rubenstein, Tanayev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others; their fellow students included Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and others.  The harmonies are rich with chromaticism and frequent softening of the tonal center.  Take, for example, the song “Hachnissini Tachat Knafech” (“Take Me Under Your Wings”) by Israel Brandmann:

Israel Brandmann, Hachnissini Tahat Knafech
Songs are almost always in Yiddish, which was the spoken language of Russian Jewry.  Most of the composers were also Zionists who sought the revival of Hebrew as a national language; so some of the songs are in Hebrew or have Hebrew translations. 

The songs

Finding sheet music for these songs is not always an easy task.  Copies are available from the libraries of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Freedman collection at the University of Pennsylvania, the YIVO Institute in New York, and at the National Library of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Joel Engel: Er Hat Mir Fest Gelobt (He Promised Me)

Joel Engel (1869 – 1927), the catalyzer and leader of the Society, was, in fact, not one of the best of its composers.  His arrangements, while competent, lack the depth and drama of some of the other songs discussed here.

This song is a rather grim lullaby – the lyrics are about a young woman who was ditched by her fiancé for another.  “Sleep, my child, sleep peacefully.  But God will avenge, because he betrayed, and swore a false oath.”  Engel offers lyrics in Hebrew, with a Yiddish translation underneath; but, in many places, the Yiddish seems to fit the melody better than the Hebrew. 
Joel Engel, Er hat mir fest gelobt
Engel left Russia for Germany in 1922, where he established the Juwal Publishing House, the publisher of most of the Society’s works.  He immigrated to Palestine in 1924, and probably wrote this song after that date (there is no date on the publication).  His reputation preceded him, and he was greeted by the Jewish community as a giant.  He died of fever after only two years in Palestine.

Alexander Schitomirsky

Schitomirsky (1861 – 1937) studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Rimsky-Korsakov.  There he met Engel and others, and became active in the Society.  He remained in Russia, where he became a well-known conductor, pianist and teacher.
The song quoted above, “Shlof Majn Kind”, is an arrangement of a traditional lullaby.  It is one of the few songs for viola and piano (most are for violin).  The tune is the basis for a popular Israeli lullaby.

As ich volt gehat” (If I had the riches of a king) is another traditional lullaby.  “All the wealth of the Kaiser’s kingdom could not make me content… When I look at you, my beautiful sweet child, the whole world is mine.”  By contrast to these upbeat lyrics, the tune is rather lugubrious; and Schitomirsky’s setting in B flat minor, with the tempo marking “Andante Lugubre”, doesn’t add a lot of brightness.  Nonetheless, the song is quite beautiful, with the violin accompanying the singer in a low register (did he really intend viola in this song?), and liberal use of diminished triads with an added major sixth (emphasizing the augmented second).

Alexander Schitomirsky, Ach ich wolt gehat

Israel Brandmann: Hachnissini Tachat Knafech (Take me under your wing)

This is, in my opinion, the finest of the songs for this combination, by one of the most forgotten composers of the Society.  The song is for soprano, viola and piano, with lyrics from a poem by the Israeli national poet, Haim Nachman Bialik.  The poem, rich in Biblical reference, expresses the poet’s desolation and loss of faith – “They say there is love in the world,/ What is love?”  The poem is written like a prayer, addressed to God, but in the female form, expressing the ambivalence between the pure love of the sacred and carnal love.

Brandmann’s setting of the song is brilliant.  The song opens with a major seventh interval between viola and singer, giving the listener an unsettling sense of lack of tonal center.  The singer continues with a line that is built with the augmented second building blocks of the gypsy minor; yet the viola accompaniment constantly disrupts the quest for tonal resolution.

Israel Brandmann, Hachnissini tahat knafech
The song develops, through composed, with haunting harmonies, and a melodic line that melds the breaking klezmer-style mode in an impressionist context.
Israel Brandmann (1901 – 1992) was considered a superstar of the Society composers.  A graduate of the Moscow conservatory, he moved to Palestine, then to Vienna, where he was one of the founders of the Viennese affiliate of the Society.  He made a name as a violinist, composer and choir director.  In 1935 he fled the Nazis and returned to Palestine.  In Palestine, and later in Israel, he continued to compose and to teach, but his works have almost all been lost.

Other composers

Janot Roskin

Little is known about Roskin.  He was not a member of the society, though his music bears all the earmarks of the new Hebrew national style.  He was born in a village near Vitebsk, in White Russia, and emigrated to the United States in the 1930’s, where he conducted a small orchestra and choir in Indianapolis.  He died in 1946.

His songs are perhaps the most dramatic of the repertoire, with violent changes in tempo and mood, and full of dramatic effects. For example, “Dos Gebet” (The Plea), a setting of a poem by Y.L. Peretz, is an expression of extreme suffering – the suffering of the Russian Jewish community in the time of pogroms and mass exiles.  “O Lord, how long must we suffer? … Our blood cries out from the depths of the earth.”

The song opens with a fortissimo melody in the violin, that falls quickly to a dying pianissimo – a recurring motive that expresses the suffering and tragedy of the poem:

Janot Roskin, Dos Gebet
Leo Löw

Like Roskin, Leo Löw (1878 – 1960) was not a member of the Society, though his music bears the same distinctive character.  Born in Poland and a graduate of the Warsaw Conservatory, Löw emigrated to the United States in 1920, after a successful career as choirmaster and composer in Poland.  He was a prolific composer who enjoyed great popularity in the Yiddish theater and music circles of New York and other Jewish communities of the period. 
His arrangements lack the interest of most of the other composers of the group.  But they are important historically, because they form a bridge between the art music of the Russian school, and the popular music of Yiddish theater in the 1920’s and 30’s in the United States.  Many of the songs written for the Yiddish theater in New York were published in arrangements with violin obbligato, and it was composers like Löw who carried this form into the popular music of the time.

Conclusion: the influence of these songs

Beyond the intrinsic musical value of these songs is the important influence they had on future generations of composers.  The most obvious and direct influence was on Shostakovitch, who included Jewish folk motives in many of his works, on Prokofiev, who wrote the Hebrew Melodies for piano quintet and clarinet, and on Milhaud and Ernst Bloch.  Both Milhaud and Bloch sought in their music to find a new Jewish voice that would merge their enlightened world view with their musical Jewish origins. 

Many of the musicians who were members of the Society or who were directly influenced by the society emigrated to the United States, where they were active in the Yiddish theater.  Löw, Rumshisky, Rotkin, and Frugg, among others, were leaders in this world, which later grew into the world of musical comedy.  Many of the heroes of the Broadway musical had their origins in the Yiddish theater, and Broadway composers like Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) and Richard Rodgers (“Oklahoma”, “South Pacific”) grew up in the musical culture that the St. Petersburg Society preserved.  Their influence is also felt in American jazz, with Jewish jazz musicians like Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, and George Gershwin bringing the sentiment of Jewish music to the world of jazz.
Some of the composers – most notably, Joel Engel, Joachim Stutchevsky, Israel Brandmann and Solomon Rosowsky – immigrated to Palestine, and were leaders of the musical community before and after the establishment of Israel. Paradoxically, though, a new school of composers – both of folk music and of art music – was arising who sought to distance themselves from the traditional sounds of diaspora music, which they viewed as expressing melancholy, submissiveness and weakness.  These composers – themselves primarily Russian Jewish immigrants who ironically shared the same musical tradition as Engel and the others – especially eschewed the augmented second, the interval that characterizes the gypsy minor.  “Its character is depressing and sentimental,” wrote music critic and composer Menashe Ravina in 1943.  “The healthy desire to free ourselves of this sentimentalism causes many to avoid this interval.”  In fact, the Israeli folk style that eventually emerged is a fusion of these two disparate schools.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Haydn did it first (continued)

Slow fast slow fast

Here is the last movement of Beethoven's quartet opus 18 number 6, La Malinconia

Here Beethoven created a new form for a quartet movement: the interleaving of a slow, elegaic section with a fast and sprightly one. Beethoven returned to this bipolar form, in different variations, in later quartets (for example, the serioso movement of opus 95, the first movement of opus 127, the first movement of opus 130). It was later a favorite form of Brahms, who used it in his quartets, his sextets, and in the horn trio.

It was a new form. Or, almost a new form. Because Haydn tried it out first. His "Sunrise" quartet, opus 76 number 4. is essentially in this form:

In this movement, there are no tempo markings to separate the elegaic section from the allegro one; but the movement is built on the contrast between the two alternating sections. The opening section is not marked slower, but it is clearly written slower. I am, I suppose, a minority of one for believing that the opening section should be played actually slower - something that the Oberon quartet in this performance hints at by taking large rubatos, though the basic tempo does not change.

It is interesting that both the Haydn opus 76 and the Beethoven opus 18 quartets were written at the same time, and were both dedicated to the prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz. It was the custom in those days to give the manuscript to the dedicatee, who held it for a year or so to share with his friends before publishing it. It is therefore likely that Beethoven and/or Haydn saw the others' quartets in manuscript before publication, and were perhaps inspired one by the other. Is it possible that the last movement of the Malinconia was inspired by Haydn's Sunrise?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Haydn did it first!

"Up until Bartok, there was nothing in string quartet writing that Beethoven didn't do first." Heard that before? Truly, almost every compositional technique, every structural innovation that you see in the quartets of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, even Ravel, has its antecedents in Beethoven's quartets.

But much of that original exploration of the medium was not Beethoven's. A lot of the things that amaze us in the middle and late quartets were invented by that greatest of innovators, Papa Haydn. Here are some of them:

The heartbeat

In the Grosse Fuge, Beethoven writes, instead of quarter notes, two eighth notes tied together:

(The Grosse Fuge, played by the Harlow quartet)

Performers have for years puzzled over this notation. What does Beethoven mean? does he want a quarter note or not? The Alban Berg quartet plays these like quarternotes, with a slight accent on the beginning of the note:

(Alban Berg quartet)

The Emerson quartet plays these like two eighth notes:

(Emerson quartet)

The Takacs quartet plays them somewhere in between; you can hear the difference in quality, but there is no real distinction:

(Takacs quartet)

But Beethoven did not invent this idea. Here are the tied eighth notes, same thing, in Haydn's Quinten quartet, Opus 76 number 2:

And here it is again, later in the same movement - not quarter notes, but dotted quarters, written as an eighth and a quarter, with very much the same halting feeling that Beethoven creates in the opening of his fugue:

Here, too, performers face the same dilemma: play them as quarter notes, like the Cleveland quartet

(Cleveland quartet)

or like two eighth notes, like the Mosaiques:

(Mosaiques quartet)

What key is it in?

Here is the opening of Beethoven's opus 59 number 2:

(Quan Yuan, Jennifer Wey, Matthew Davies, David Meyer)

What key is it in? Beethoven leads us through a labyrinth of loosely related chords connected by a series of suspensions, keeping us in a state of suspended imbalance until he breaks out in his assertively C major theme. That opening is almost atonal.

But that same sense of tonal ambiguity appears in Haydn's string quartet opus 33 number 1:

(Delian quartet)

It sounds like D major - no, that dissonant major seventh means - what? B minor? No, it's wandering about going to... There's B minor again, no, it's E minor, no, it's ... And then the assertive D major theme.

Same ambiguity, same sense of wandering about, searching for a light in the darkness, and then, a step out of the cave into the sunlight. Remember, Haydn did it first.

(Of course, Haydn isn't the only precedent for this idea. Consider the opening of Mozart's Dissonant quartet, K. 465.)

Schoenberg is usually credited with writing the first atonal piece. The last movement of his second string quartet is written without a key signature, and, indeed, there is no tonal center to that movement. But Schoenberg was not the first. The Fantasia movement of Haydn's quartet Opus 76 number 6 has no key signature in the first half. The beginning is in B major, but it then modulates through a series of unrelated keys - E major, G major, B flat major, B minor, A flat major, finally settling back to B major. The entire first half of the movement has a sense of meandering through a forest of keys, with no single sense of tonality. Schoenberg, 150 years early.

(This is turning into a long post. So I will stop here, and continue in a later post)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What does music mean?

And, the next question, what does it matter? These are questions that I have been grappling with since I started taking the study of music seriously, in the last 10 or so years.

As for what music means, I think the answer is: it means a lot less than it did 200 years ago. I think that at at least until the middle of the 19th century, many musical messages that were integral to many works were immediately obvious to every listener. There is the storm:

and the muffled drums of a funeral:

and a drinking song:

and a shepherd's pipe:

These semiotic messages, which mostly have to be explained to modern listeners, were, I believe self-evident to those who heard these works when they were composed. Today, when we hear Haydn's quartet Opus 33 number 3, nicknamed "The Bird", we may well associate what we hear with a bird. But Haydn's listeners probably also knew which bird was being quoted. For example, is this

a  willow warbler?

And this

a  partridge clucking in the hedge?

One of my future projects for this blog is to sit with an ornithologist and identify the exact birds that Haydn is quoting in this quartet.

How did we come to forget that music was trying to tell us something? It was, perhaps, the work of Brahms, Edward Hanslick, and others of the second half of the 19th century, who emphatically rejected the idea of programmatic music in favor of "pure music". Music, wrote Hanslick, by its nature "is specifically musical. By this we mean that the beautiful is not contingent upon nor in need of any subject introduced from without, but that it consists wholly of sounds artistically combined." This was a reaction against the Wagnerians, who claimed that the day of pure music ended with Beethoven, and that the art needed the crutch of a program to advance.

Is it true? Is pure music dead? Do we need theatrics to prop up out music?

But even "pure music" is programmatic, in the sense that it is the expression of the composer's inner thoughts and feelings. "Is not all music program-music?" asks Charles Ives in "Essays before a Sonata". "Is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power, or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion?"  In the case of Ives, of course, much of the external referents of his music is explicit. His first string quartet, for example, quotes from six American hymns, and is a conscious attempt to create an American music. And it really sounds American, whatever that means.

I am a believer in the return of meaning to music. And for this reason I want to recommend  New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's series of videos on his top 10 list of great composers. His seat-of-the-pants method of analyzing music ties the technical structure of pieces - the harmonic structure, the rhythmic changes, all the things we studied in high school and wondered why - to their musical meaning. This is the way music should be understood. 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Broken Bow

Sounds like a James Fennimore Cooper novel? Well, it happened to me this week. At a particularly passionate moment in the last movement of the Beethoven C minor piano trio, my bow went off like a gunshot. The weak point at the tip split off, with tremendous effect.

I had always thought that people broke bows through carelessness,  tightening the bow hair too tight, dropping it or knocking it around. Not so. I have always treated this bow with the utmost care. I store it in the bow tube of my Bam case, wrapped lovingly in chamois cloth. I play with very loose hair, so loose that I sometimes find myself in moments of excitement dragging the stick across the strings. So I can't feel any guilt about this.

Luckily, it was my cheap bow. My good bow, a Morgan Anderson, was safely stashed in the tube. Cheryl, our cellist, said the same thing happened to her, when she was playing a delicate pianissimo.

I am told that this accident reduces the resale value of the bow to zero. But this summer I played with a viola bow that underwent the same trauma, and, after an artful repair, worked just fine. So I am optimistic that my luthier can restore this bow to its former state.

The day before this, we played through Jonathan Newmark's string trio. That's the Jonathan that played piano quartets with us the previous week. It is a lovely piece and definitely playable. His use of whole-tone scales reminded me of the Faure quartet. Faure was 92 when he wrote his quartet, while Jonathan is only pushing sixty - which made me wonder what he will be writing like in another 30 years. Tempo markings are typically Jonathan - quirky and clever - "With an attitude", "Uncomfortably Slow". You can listen to a recording of it here.

I often wonder why amateur quartets are so reticent to play new music. I play with one quartet where the other violinist refused to play anything written after Brahms. Debussy is modern music for him (well, actually, it is modern music, but that's another matter). One reason I so enjoy my regular weekly quartet is that we are all adventurous. We may not be very good, but we are always willing to take a chance. We have played five quartets by budding composers who hear about us and send us their work. We performed one of them, a premier (also, I think, the only performance of the quartet ever). We have also played the quartet by Yehezkel Braun, a wonderful piece by one of Israel's best composers, and the Rosendorf Quartet by Noam Sheriff, also a beautiful piece. The Rosendorf Quartet is named after a book by Natan Shaham, about a string quartet in the first days of the Jewish State. If you are interested in that kind of thing, I urge you to get the book, which is delightful. Then get the quartet,  You can buy it from the Israel Music Institute.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

About time

Last night we played piano quartets with Jonathan, who is visiting from the United States.  Jonathan got in touch with me through the ACMP 11 years ago when he visited Israel the first time. He is a neurologist in the US Army whose specialty is the charming subject of nerve gas. He claims his work is in civil defense - developing antidotes and vaccines against all the ghastly stuff the bad guys are planning to dump on us. But I don't know. He signs his emails "Nrv Gas R Us", wears a military crewcut, and writes that he can play on Monday evening because his conference here (on nerve gas, with the Israelis - enough to make you nervous by itself) "concludes by 1830 hours". An odd combination - talented musician (pianist, violist, composer), extroverted and charming, yet military careerist and passionate student of weapons of mass destruction. A cross between captain Nemo and Dr. Strangelove.

Anyway, we played the Schumann quartet as you might expect from such a person: at a tempo just over the edge of comfortable. Fast so that you have to scramble to get in all the notes. The sixteenths bunch up in little piles, instead of standing out sharply like pearly shark's teeth; the subito pianos come by the second note after the forte, instead of the first, and the cadences never line up absolutely exactly. But it is thrilling. It is like skydiving, all the thrill and adrenaline of extreme sport without the risk.

I have played the Schumann quartet many times, at a speed just a hair slower. The difference in tempo is objectively almost imperceptible - probably less than a single click on the metronome - but the sense of the piece is completely different. I am not saying better or worse. At this faster tempo, we lose much of the attention to detail (even when reading) that lifts a performance out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.  On the other hand, there can never be anything about the reading that is pedestrian or plodding. You are forced into a kind of vital, life-or-death attention that leaves you weak at the end.

All of which takes me back to thoughts about detail. It is always amazing to me how acutely minute changes in details make huge differences in performance. The physically measurable differences between a performance of a Beethoven sonata by a second year conservatory student and one by Yehudi Menuhin might be miniscule - a few milliseconds difference here, a single cycle difference in intonation there, a note stressed more or less by an almost negligible difference in amplitude - yet the sense of the perfomances are completely different. It is almost as though the difference is not in the physical dimensions of sound, but in a completely different, perhaps mystical dimension.

Much, if not almost all, of these differences are in time. Music, says Stravinsky, is what defines the relation between man and time. It is in the infinitesimal elasticity of time over a note or a measure that creates the difference between performances. These differences are often so minute that they don't even jiggle the metronome. On the other hand, I often find that my tempo has deviated wildly, without having any sense of its having changed. If I didn't check with a metronome, I would never know.

I have now reached the point in this blog entry where I should write a neat concluding paragraph, with something snappy to say at the end. But I don't have such a paragraph. Well this is a blog, I can do what I want, right? so we'll leave that discussion as it is. I'll think of a conclusion later.

I will only add that those of you who didn't come to hear us play at the Dancing Camel missed a gay old time. People got up and waltzed to the Blue Danube (which forced us to play it more or less straight, instead making the huge rubatos we like), and my arrangements of Israeli and Hassidic songs was (it's my blog, right?) a smash hit. Also, and most important, the beer was simply wonderful.