Sunday’s NOVA concert features music by composers who were enchanted by different idioms found in folk music. Michael Ellison and Antonín Dvořák were deliberate in their use of folk models. Melodies and textures that evoke Czech, American, and Turkish folk music play a central role in the respective musical identity of each composer, and they both wrote (write) extensively about the importance of their musical source material.
Haydn’s use of Hungarian folk elements in is music is well known. His “Gypsy” Piano Trio, written a year before his opus 76 no. 1 string quartet, is perhaps the most famous example. Otherwise we tend not to think of Haydn as a folklorist. It is worth pointing out that Haydn came of age as a composer at the same moment as the Classical style. When he began composing in the 1740s and 50s, there was no accepted, definitive style as such. Taste was rapidly shifting away from Baroque and Rococo ideals; the dynamic changes that were occurring during Haydn’s youth could perhaps account for the dynamism of his own genius. His own personal, musical style never evolved into a static “style” at any point during his career. His music always avoids the formulaic and strives towards newness and surprise.
Haydn entered his first maturity as a composer just when Classicism was doing the same; in a certain sense, Haydn’s career and the classical style are synonymous. The musical scene in Vienna at that moment (1750s) represented a mélange of styles and aesthetics. Modern audiences (and musicians) tend to think of Haydn’s music as an abstract entity, beautiful and essentially pure of influence; the reality is far more interesting.
Recent research has begun to explore the idea that the major composers of the high Classic era were influenced by vernacular styles more than previously supposed. Of particular note are the writings of Dr. Catherine Mayes of the University of Utah. She has presented her research on exoticism and national styles in music at numerous national and international conferences on subjects such as "Cultural Associations of Turkish and Hungarian-Gypsy Styles in the Late Eighteenth Century and Their Compositional Implications," "Eastern European National Music as Concept and Commodity at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century," and "Reconsidering an Early Exoticism: Viennese Adaptations of Hungarian-Gypsy Music around 1800.”
In the end, Haydn’s music was chosen to complement Ellison and Dvořák on Sunday’s concert simply as a way to introduce this concept to chamber music enthusiasts. Haydn’s music mirrors the melting pot of influences he was exposed to in Vienna; this includes serious art music and vernacular styles. One could make the case that specific moments in Haydn’s opus 76, no. 1 quartet evoke or are drawn from folk sources. For example, the opening melody (after the opening three chords) has a shape and lilt reminiscent of the opening melody of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, a tune scholars have traced to a Croatian folk song. But for the most part, such theorizing is merely conjectural and subjective since much of the would-be source material for 18th century composers was never recorded or written down. Instead, this introduction serves merely to point out the possibility that Haydn’s intended audience of the 18th century probably heard his works much as we hear Ellison, a kaleidoscopic blend of references to familiar styles of music.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s career paralleled the rise of of the “Classical Style,” a term assigned to a period of music known for beautiful elegance and graceful proportions. A sense of propriety governed this body of music, largely written for the courtly pleasures of the aristocracy. While these ideals may be operative in the music of Haydn, a wider view is necessary when examining the music of a complex artist who sought constantly to defy expectation.
Haydn came of age in the 1750s as the aftershocks of Baroque music were giving way to a number of different trends in music. Two of the most notable examples of opposing styles thriving during this time were found in the music of Bach’s sons: C. P. E. Bach, who wrote expressive, subjective music vs. that of a more Italianate flavor, J. C. Bach and the stile galante.
But citing these two examples represents a gross oversimplification of the musical life in Europe during this time of rapid stylistic change. Vienna, Haydn’s stomping grounds as a student and his home from age 8-29, offered a rich tapestry of musical experience. Italian opera dominated the dramatic landscape, while a more dignified and antiquated approach suited the wealth of music composed for the liturgy. The north German school offered idiosyncratic, introverted music as opposed to the new drama found in the concert music at the court of Mannheim. The symphony, string quartet, keyboard sonata (and the piano itself) were only just taking on the forms we now recognize as Haydn was writing his first serious works in his twenties.
It might be possible to look at later examples of musical classicism and try to distill patterns and trends into a theory that one could label the “Classical Style.” But for Haydn, whose music was born out of a melting pot of styles, such distillation is often difficult. In addition, Haydn followed a unique path as he spent 1761-90 quite isolated from the rest of the musical establishment at the Esterházy estate. As a court composer suddenly devoid of interaction with current trends in music, he came to view composition in this setting as a place to take risks and push the envelope. The creation of music as Haydn saw it was a fluid, evolving process. For fear of becoming artistically stagnant, he “had to become original” (his words).
So while Haydn uses techniques, genres, and forms that we can often neatly categorize with hindsight, we can still hear his music as he intended it; each new work a grand experiment of expressive possibilities that steps beyond the bounds of convention in a singular way. The Fry Street Quartet performs Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, opus 76, no. 1 this coming Sunday on NOVA. It is a thrill for our series to have access to collaboration with a Utah string quartet at this level of artistic excellence. You can be sure that all the drama of Haydn’s poetic sensibilities, elegance, off-beat sense of humor, and rustic charm will be illuminated by a dynamic and breathtaking reading by the FSQ.
This coming Sunday, the NOVA Chamber Music Series will present the second performance of Michael Ellison’s String Quartet #3 – ‘Fiddlin.’ The work was co-commissioned by NOVA and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for the Fry Street Quartet, who performed the world premiere in Tuscon last month. Ellison's new quartet will be performed in Utah twice this month (NOVA on Jan. 12 as well as a repeat performance in Logan on Jan. 14).
Michael Ellison has worked in Istanbul for over ten years, where he co-founded and directs the groundbreaking Hezarfen Ensemble, a group that specializes in combining Turkish instruments with the performance practices and mediums of Western music. In his note on String Quartet #3 (below), Ellison discusses how his music creates a kind of parallel universe to our modern existence, seeking meaning in tradition within a global landscape that is largely post-tradition.
String Quartet #3 is based on the idea of ‘fiddling’ and ‘riffs’ across traditions, primarily using North American bluegrass fiddle and Turkish/Balkan kemençe styles as starting points for a work that deals with tradition, its endlessly revitalizing energy, and its integration into a contemporary, highly ‘rhythmicized’ compositional language. With its stream-of- consciousness, multi-movement structure (even more movements than in my seven movement String Quartet #2, but just as continuous) this work contextualizes ‘vernacular,’ traditional string figures and ‘riffs’ within a more abstract sound world, presenting fiddling elements in some moments as a total, immediate physical presence occupying the entire quartet sound space, while at other times juxtaposing them as fragments of pastoral innocence set within a web of post-modern abstraction and illusion or memory; that is to say, at one or several steps removed from tradition. For me, this is something that perhaps roughly corresponds to situations we all face today and difficulties of integration within our own consciousnesses, seeking meaning from tradition in a post-tradition, post-classical music, multi-cultural milieu—an urgent reason for creating new works that can address such paradoxes in a musical realm. For me, this also means a give and take, and a creative tension between perceived vernacular elements and my own compositional language, for which the quartet medium provides a particular discipline while offering nearly limitless intimate and expressive freedom.
While based on fiddling elements, the work is meant to be chamber music in the deepest sense, creating what Hans Keller called the peculiar ‘harmonic counterpoint’ that only the string quartet can create, at times within dense or widely spread, contemporary textures, while maintaining a high level of individuality between the players and navigating its cultural and technical overlays with wit, energy of the ‘folk’ and a dose of formal, mercurial audacity. – Michael Ellison
Last spring the NOVA Chamber Music Series presented the Utah premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s piano trio Fremde Szene II, a wild and memorable experience for many in the audience (and certainly for those on stage!). Over the course of this season and next, NOVA is dedicating a fair amount of time to this composer on the Gallery Series by presenting the first complete Utah cycle of his solo Klavierstücke. By the end of this cycle, the NOVA audience will have had serious exposure to this wonderfully creative mind.
It is no exaggeration to say that Wolfgang Rihm is the most important German composer alive today. His works are paired on NOVA this season with the complete Beethoven violin sonatas as a testament to the strength of his musical craftsmanship and creative spirit. Like Beethoven, Rihm absorbed the language and styles of his predecessors but railed against the confines suggested by this musical inheritance. One of the traits of his style is that he does not restrict himself to a “style” at all. His catalogue is very difficult to pin down into a convenient “ism,” leaving us to judge each of his works in a more singular fashion.
Paul Griffiths, modern music critic and historian (and guest speaker at NOVA during Salt Lake City’s Messiaen Festival of April 2007), addresses this very point:
The selfhood of a Beethoven sonata or a Lachenmann string quartet is made partly by how it relates, and does not relate, to the composer’s output. But with Rihm these relations lie dormant. His music remains, surely for most of us, a map with a few islands, a few strands of coastline, and large, large areas of white paper. A new Rihm piece comes to us, therefore, almost from out of nowhere. And there are gains in this: of anonymity, of an individuality in each piece that is self-created, not dependent on coordinates of linkage.
If you’re looking to read a little more about Wolfgang Rihm, two articles celebrating Thierry Fischer’s performances of Rihm’s music with the London Sinfonietta present a great introduction to his music. Tom Service wrote a fantastic preview article of the London events celebrating Rihm’s 60th birthday, while Ivan Hewett wrote a review of Fischer’s concerts for The Telegraph.
I happened to catch a Seinfeld episode the other night, and something George said reminded me of Beethoven antics I keep reading about.
George: I don't like when a woman says, 'Make love to me', it's intimidating. The last time a woman said that to me, I wound up apologizing to her.
George: That's a lot of pressure. Make love to me. What am I, in the circus? What if I can't deliver?
Jerry: Oh, come on.
George: I can't perform under pressure. That's why I never play anything for money, I choke. I could choke tonight. And she works in my office, can you imagine? She goes around telling everyone what happened? Maybe I should cancel, I have a very bad feeling about this. (Seinfeld, Season 3 ep. 10)
George here is commenting on how a pleasurable activity can quickly become arduous once demanded of somebody. During Beethoven’s early years in Vienna, he was in constant demand as a pianist at aristocratic salons. He performed enough of these events to quickly become established as the most important pianist in the city, but he soon got tired of this scene. He felt he was more valued as a kind of circus act than as a human being. His friend Franz G. Wegeler relates:
His aversion to playing for an audience had become so strong that every time he was urged to play he would fly into a rage. He often came to me then (1794-6), gloomy and out of sorts, complaining that they had made him play, even though his fingers ached…
Or this memory of Frau von Bernhard:
He [Beethoven] was very haughty. I myself saw the mother of Princess Lichnowsky, Countess Thun, go down on her knees to him as he lolled on the sofa, begging him to play something. But Beethoven did not…
This scene reminds me of my arrogant teenage self. I remember my grandmother asking me to play for her at my own birthday party. I detested playing for family at such gatherings for the same reasons (“What am I, your circus monkey?!”) And I remember a friend mocking me on the occasion, “Won’t even play for his own grandmother. What a bastard.”