Violins, Violas, and Virtuosi
Nicolò Paganini, the violinist whose technical command and compositional ingenuity would forever alter the art of his instrument, came from humble beginnings. He was born in Genoa in 1782. His father, Antonio, was a dock worker and amateur musician who delighted in giving young Nicolò violin and mandolin lessons. The child’s phenomenal talent was evident early: at the age of thirteen, Paganini’s public concerts earned enough money to fund his studies with Alessandro Rolla, one of the leading violinists in northern Italy. When Paganini arrived in Parma to begin his lessons, however, Rolla declared that there was nothing left to teach the young musician.
Paganini’s flamboyant performance style would have a profound impact on a society just beginning to embrace the public concert as a locus for bourgeois artistic enjoyment, and his technical prowess would fundamentally redefine what it meant to play the violin. Moreover, his compositions––all written to showcase his own playing––pulled revolutionary new sounds from the instrument. For instance, in an early set of variations (Carmagnola, based on a French revolutionary song and written when Paganini was only twelve), he specified that the violinist should play “organetto,” i.e., imitating the sound of a bagpipe by bowing on the bridge. He regularly utilized scordatura tuning (in which the strings of the violin are tuned to different pitches than the usual G-D-A-E); had the bridge of his Guarneri violin flattened so that he could easily play triple and even quadruple stops; and pioneered the technique of double harmonics.
At the time, Paganini’s works were considered unplayable by anyone other than the master himself. He also preferred to keep techniques such as the aforementioned double harmonics secret. As such, Paganini published only five collections during his lifetime. Of these, it is the set of twenty-four violin caprices, Op. 1, that remain his calling-card; today they are still considered diabolically difficult and a hallmark of any modern violinist’s repertoire. NOVA’s April 23 concert will feature three of the caprices, alongside works for violin and viola by Mozart, Bartók, and the young composer Eric Wubbels.
A daguerrotype of Paganini, circa 1840
In modern terms, Paganini’s unusual methods of producing sound on his instrument would be called “extended techniques,” i.e., modes of producing sound from an instrument that “extend” the instrument to include the entire body and all its material parts. The young composer Eric Wubbels makes extraordinary use of extended techniques in his quartet “IJver” for four violas. In fact, Wubbels’s program note begins with two quotes suggesting that his extended techniques are inspired by the technology of science fiction:
[Checklist for forming Voltron]
Keith: Ready to form Voltron! Activate interlocks! Dyna-therms connected. Infra-cells up; mega-thrusters are go!
All: LET’S GO VOLTRON FORCE!
- Voltron, Defender of the Universe
“Now, [this concept] is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality and personality— the matrix of all phenomena.”
- Haku-un Yasutani
As a citizen of the nineteenth century, Paganini’s career played out on the stages of public concert halls. A generation before, by contrast, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career had taken place in the gilded palaces of the European aristocracy. The small boy, with his phenomenal talent and prodigious charm, was feted by kings and emperors, coddled by queens (he is said to have proposed marriage to Marie Antoinette at the age of seven), and showered with gifts. As the young Mozart approached adulthood, however, his marketability as a prodigy began to wane, and the family returned to their home town of Salzburg, where Mozart entered the employ of the Archbishop Hieronymous Colloredo. Mozart’s relationship with Colloredo was stormy at best, yet the stability of the Salzburg years gave him the opportunity to mature as a composer, and his position as the lead violinist of the court orchestra gave him a platform for writing solo works for the instrument. Between April and December 1775, he wrote no fewer than five violin concertos, of which the concerto in G Major, on NOVA’s upcoming concert, was the third.
It was not merely his difficult relationship with Colloredo, however, that made Mozart’s years in Salzburg unhappy: there was also the shadow cast by his domineering father. Finally, in 1781, Mozart broke away (he had been dismissed by Colloredo, he would later recall, “with a kick in the ass”), and made his way toward Vienna, where he would spend the last decade of his life. It is thus somewhat surprising that Mozart and his wife Costanze returned to Salzburg for several months at the end of 1783. The exact reason for the return is unknown; perhaps Mozart wished a reconciliation with his father. Alas, he was greeted with coldness, and his visit to Salzburg was rendered infinitely worse by the news that his infant son, who had remained in Vienna in the care of a nursemaid, had died while he and Costanze were away. Despite the difficulties, however, it was a musically fruitful visit for Mozart, and included the composition of two duos for violin and viola––for none other than Hieronymous Colloredo! In fact, the duos are two of a set of six that Colloredo had commissioned not from Mozart but from Michael Haydn, Salzburg court composer and brother to Franz Josef. Haydn had fallen ill before completing the final duos, and asked Mozart to complete the commission. Mozart, remembering the distinct lack of amicability in his parting from Colloredo, is said to have found it humorous that he was once again writing a work for the archbishop.
NOVA’s selections by Paganini and Mozart display the violin at its most virtuosic; the violin duos by Béla Bartók grew out of a project for students. In 1931, the pedagogue Erich Dorflein asked permission to use some of Bartók’s pieces in a collection of violin exercises Dorflein was preparing. Bartók was so intrigued by the request that he offered to write a set of duos for two violins that would draw on folk music from a wide range of cultures: Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and even a kind of orientalized “Arabic.” Bartók had long drawn on folk songs in his compositions, and his repeated trips to the Eastern European countryside to catalogue and collect folk tunes (which he recorded on wax cylinders) set the groundwork for modern ethnomusicological research. Yet the violin duos also reflect another more overtly political project: on January 13, 1931, Bartók accepted an invitation to join the Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations’ Commission for Intellectual Co-operation. As a member of the commission, Bartók would spearhead efforts for musical research and preservation, as well as champion artistic and musical freedom. Only a few days before accepting this position, Bartók clearly articulated the importance of music in international peace efforts in a a letter to the Romanian diplomat Octavian Beu:
[I believe in] the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood in spite of all wars and conflicts. I try – to the best of my ability – to serve this idea in my music; therefore I don’t reject any influence, be it Slovak, Romanian, Arabic, or from any other source.
The idea of music reaching across international borders to foster peace and community is one that Mozart and Paganini, traveling virtuosi, would have recognized well.
Bartók (center) on a trip to collect rural folk songs.
“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.