“In the 1970s and '80s it took a lot of courage for a young composer to write pop-influenced tonality,” says Brian Connelly, a guest artist on NOVA’s February 12 concert. “It was a sure-fire way to be dismissed and derided by the serious critics and the powerful academicians who could make or break a career.” Yet in the early 1970s, two young composers in Michigan chose to take such a risk, forging a style deeply influenced by ragtime. Connelly, a close friend of the two, will bring their music to the stage of Libby Gardner Concert Hall.
William Bolcom was born in Seattle in 1938; William Albright was born in Gary, Indiana, six years later. Both were trained in the modern style of composition then in favor at American universities and conservatories, had lessons in Paris with Olivier Messiaen (a composer featured in NOVA’s December 4 concert), and were hired in the early 1970s to teach at the University of Michigan. It was around this time that ragtime, an old strain of American music, began to see a revival. While living in New York in the late ‘60s, Bolcom had begun to play and record ragtime, and he would soon begin to write his own. Albright, too, began to experiment with the form.
The popularity of ragtime at its inception, around the turn of the twentieth century, is best attested by an anecdote about commercial music sales. When Scott Joplin published his “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, musicians typically sold the publication rights for a one-time lump sum of $25. Unsatisfied with this arrangement, Joplin negotiated a deal that would earn him a 1¢ royalty on each copy sold. “The Maple Leaf Rag” sold only 400 copies in its first year; by 1909, however, the work had sold well over a million copies, and it would provide Joplin with a comfortable income until his death in 1917. The syncopated rhythms and infectious melodies were a major precursor to jazz, yet the popularity of ragtime itself would wane with time.
Bolcom and Albright’s interest in ragtime dovetailed with a sudden spike in mainstream popularity the genre experienced in the early 1970s. This was due, in large part, to the inclusion of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in the soundtrack of the 1974 film The Sting. Suddenly, a syncopated style that had been the domain of black musicians at the end of the nineteenth century was sharing space on the pop music charts with the biggest hits of rock and roll. As Connelly notes, to write music influenced by an idiom that was so popular (in both senses of the term) was essentially at odds with the academic musical tendencies of the time.
Connelly sees in the work of both Bolcom and Albright a tradition stretching back much farther, to one of the most important modernists in the history of American music, Charles Ives. The son of a music teacher, Ives grew up steeped in the musical traditions of the American North-East. He was born in Danbury, CT, worked as an organist in New Haven, attended Yale, and had a successful career as an insurance salesman. Through it all, he developed one of the most unusual voices American music has ever known. The upcoming NOVA concert will feature two of Ives’s works: the Piano Trio, and the Violin Sonata No. 4. Both Bolcom and Albright, Connelly told me, are, like Ives, “astoundingly literate. They fully absorb the traditions of––but are not limited by––the musical ‘establishment' of their times.” And, like Ives, both “put enormous pressure on themselves to write the most imaginative, emotionally direct, and exquisitely crafted music.”
The upcoming NOVA concert will also include Albright’s “Hymne,” from his Flights of Fancy for organ, and Bolcom’s Black Host. Inscribed in the score of Black Host is a Lord Russell quote: “In the daily lives of most men and women, fear plays a greater part than hope: they are more filled with the thought of possessions that others may take away from them, than of the joy that they might create in their own lives and in the lives with which they come in contact. It is not so that life should be lived.” At a time when fear threatens the very cultural diversity upon which both our nation and our arts have depended for so long, both Russell’s quote and this concert are a reminder that America’s identity––artistic and otherwise––has always been a reflection of the rich variety of her people.
It was exactly five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, that a German monk mailed a list of ninety-five “theses” to the Bishop of Mainz and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. The monk, Martin Luther, focused his attack on the the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences (i.e., offering absolution for sins in exchange for money), yet his small action kicked off a storm of radical religious changes. Most importantly, Luther and his followers believed that every individual could have direct access to God. Wishing to incorporate the laity into religious ceremonies, Protestant leaders translated the bible into vernacular languages (French, German, English––in contrast to the Latin that would remain the language of the Catholic church until the 1960s), and began composing short, simple hymns that the entire congregation could sing together. These hymns stood in stark contrast to the wildly complex, mathematically precise “imitative counterpoint” had become the norm in Catholic compositions.
The Catholic Church was the richest and most powerful entity in Europe, and their payroll included the greatest artists, architects, and musicians that money could buy. Five short years before Luther mailed his theses, Michelangelo Buonarotti finished painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Six years before that, ground had been broken for a new Basilica di San Pietro at the Vatican, a project funded primarily by the indulgences that Luther so abhorred. Ensconced in Rome, the leaders of the Catholic Church could initially afford to overlook the religious unrest to the North. But as Luther’s Reformation picked up steam, the Catholic oligarchs realized the need to counter the Protestant threat more directly. In 1545, Catholic leaders met in the city of Trent to plan a Counter Reformation; the Council of Trent would meet on and off for the next eighteen years.
It was not until 1563, the final year of the Council’s meetings, that an official (if vague) statement was released pertaining to the performance of music in the church. The intelligibility of the words should be prioritized, it was declared, and influences from secular music should be avoided. Yet the most important musical development had taken place some years before––not in Trent, but in the Sistine Chapel, underneath Michelangelo’s famed frescoes.
In 1555, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina had been named the maestro di cappella of the Sistine Chapel. The appointment, the most important musical position at the Vatican, was unexpected: traditionally, the Sistine Chapel had employed foreigners, and it was forbidden for married men to work in the chapel. Palestrina was an Italian, and a married Italian at that. He was also young––born in 1525 or 1526 in the town of Palestrina (near Rome), he was younger than Luther’s theses by almost a decade. As Holy Week of 1555 approached, Pope Marcellus II called his musicians together: the piety of Holy Week, he suggested, demanded a more reverential musical approach to the religious texts, one which prioritized the words. As the maestro di cappella of the most important chapel at the Vatican, the task of developing an intelligible form of counterpoint fell squarely upon Palestrina’s shoulders, and he began developing a style of composition that would retain the polyphonic complexity of his predecessors while allowing the words to shine through the rich musical textures. The influence of Palestrina’s counterpoint cannot be overstated: the fundamentals of his style are still taught to composition students today. On January 15, NOVA will perform one of Palestrina’s 104 extant masses, the Missa brevis (published in 1570), a musical jewel in which Palestrina’s counterpoint can be heard in all its exquisite (and intelligible) detail.
For NOVA artistic director Jason Hardink, the music of the young American composer Michael Hersch pairs particularly well with that of Palestrina because of Hersch’s use of sounds reminiscent of early music. Coincidentally, the two composers also find a common point in Rome: the first of Hersch’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano was premiered in Rome in 2001, while Hersch was in residence in the Eternal City as a recipient of the Rome Prize. The work was premiered in its entirety in 2010 at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., with the composer at the piano and Daniel Gaisford on cello; Sunday will be the first time that Two Pieces has been performed by musicians other than Hersch and Gaisford.
Palestrina and Hersch will joined on NOVA’s concert by Richard Strauss and Anton Webern, two young composers searching to find their unique voices in the early years of the twentieth century. Strauss’s soaring Brentano Lieder, written in 1918, is a tour de force of expression and virtuosity bringing together the techniques of vocal composition Strauss had perfected in his operas. Webern’s Langsamer Satz for string quartet is one of the few extant works dating to his first year of study with Arnold Schoenberg. A lush, Romantic work, standing in stark contrast to the pointillistic modernism for which Webern is better known, the Langsamer Satz is sure to beguile and surprise.
The Parisian composer Camille Saint-Saëns was as social as a butterfly and as curious as a cat. A beloved bon vivant in the musical life of mid-nineteenth century Paris, he counted among his friends Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini and Charles Gounod. A taste for travel took him to South America, northern Africa, and eastern Asia, and during a concert tour in St. Petersburg he is said to have danced an impromptu ballet with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. A prolifically talented musician who made his debut performing concertos by Beethoven and Mozart at age 10, he was also a devotee of Classical literature and the natural sciences, and the money he received for the first publication of his music he quickly spent on a telescope.
On December 4, NOVA will perform Saint-Saëns’ zoological extravaganza Carnival of the Animals, written during a few days while Saint-Saëns was on vacation in Austria. Although it is now a beloved staple of the concert repertoire, Saint-Saëns forbade performances of the work during his lifetime out of concern for his reputation: the work bubbles with child-like good humor while offering one irreverent musical parody after another.
Saint-Saëns’ many interests–the telescope foremost among them–exemplify a nineteenth century interest in harnessing technology for the sake of natural observation. In the twentieth century, however, technology and nature would begin to represent two divergent sources of inspiration for composers and artists. At the vanguard of composers whose interest in technology pushed the boundaries of musical sounds stands Edgard Varèse, a French composer whose early artistic contacts and influences included Dadaists in Paris, modernist composers and writers in Berlin, and (after moving to the United States in 1915) the major American cultural institutions of the 1910s and 1920s.
Varèse would make his deepest mark on music with his electronic compositions, which he began in earnest in the 1940s. Yet his early work displays an interest in how the material technology of an acoustic instrument may be exploited for new sounds. His composition for solo flute Density 21.5, which will be performed by Lisa Byrnes on NOVA’s concert, includes many examples of so-called “extended techniques,” such as clicking the flute’s keys. This will be joined by Tristan Murail’s, composition Vampyr! for solo electric guitar, which brings into the chamber music hall one of the most significant musical technologies of the twentieth century.
One of Murail’s teachers was Olivier Messiaen, a French composer and organist whose work brims with a unique harmonic language. In contrast to his contemporary Varèse’s interest in technology, however, Messiaen turned to nature for his musical inspiration. The most important source of natural influence for Messiaen was bird-song, and he spent decades transcribing the songs of different species and incorporating these songs into his music.
NOVA’s upcoming concert will feature two works for piano and violin. The first is by Messiaen: his achingly beautiful Theme and Variations for violin and piano, written in 1932 as a gift to his new wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. The second is the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Francis Poulenc, a work of thrilling virtuosity and profound lyricism composed in 1942 in memory of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.