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.”
Beethoven’s early Viennese works were met with mixed reviews in the Viennese and German press. He was often criticized both for being too learned and too imaginative, sometimes even within a single review. While imagination and technique sound like opposing concepts, these reviewers were responding to the exuberant outpouring of energy and ideas found in Beethoven’s music. While his overall lack of restraint may have puzzled some early listeners, it became the most celebrated feature of his music during the 19th century.
For a sample of what writers were saying about Beethoven’s music in the 1790s, here is a review (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) of his opus 10 sonatas:
It cannot be denied that Mr. v. B. is a man of genius, has originality, and goes entirely his own way... Fantasy such as Beethoven possesses in no common degree, supported especially by such excellent knowledge, is something very valuable and indeed indispensable for a composer who feels within himself the dedication to become a greater artist and who disdains superficial and conventional composition. Rather, he wants to put forth something that has an inner, powerful vitality, which entices the connoisseur to a more frequent repetition of his work. However, in all arts there is an overabundance that derives from a too great and frequent craving for effect and learnedness, just as there is a clarity and charm that can well exist in conjunction with any thoroughness and diversity of composition.
So the reviewer seems to be saying that Beethoven has everything needed to become a great composer except for good taste. But then he goes on to say that after all is said and done, the writer actually admires these qualities of Beethoven.
There are undoubtedly few artists to whom one must exclaim: save your treasures and be thrifty with them! For not many artists abound in ideas and are skilled in their combinations. It is therefore less a direct censure of Mr. v. B. here than a well-meant acclamation, which retains something honorable even if it does censure. (AmZ, 9 October 1799)
A different writer from the same publication (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) reviewed the opus 12 sonatas for violin and piano. He too found Beethoven’s music to be overly elaborate to a perverse degree:
Studied, studied, and perpetually studied, and no nature, no song. Indeed, to put it precisely, there is only a mass of learning here, without good method. There is obstinacy for which we feel little interest, a striving for rare modulations, a repugnance against customary associations, a piling on of difficulty upon difficulty so that one loses all patience and enjoyment. (AmZ, 5 June 1799)
How often have I heard these very complaints regarding modern music! Perhaps it is reassuring to know that after 200 years, those who criticize innovation in music haven’t changed their tune…
Check out this passage from Stravinsky’s autobiography of 1934. He is writing about Ernest Ansermet, the conductor at the premiere of “Histoire du Soldat” on September 28, 1918 (our NOVA performance yesterday celebrated the 95th anniversary of this event almost to the day- Happy Birthday, L’Histoire!).
Ansermet is one of the conductors who emphatically confirm my longstanding conviction that it is impossible to grasp fully the art of a bygone period, to penetrate beneath the obsolete form and discern the author’s meaning in a language no longer spoken, unless he has a comprehensive and lively feeling for the present, and unless he consciously participates in the life around him. For it is only those who are essentially alive who can discover the real life of those who are “dead.”
Musicians and artists are almost always taught that to understand the art of your contemporaries, you must be thoroughly versed in works of the great artists and composers of history. Stravinsky felt the same ideal applied in reverse, that you can only understand the art of the past if you are truly alive and sensitive to the present. Perhaps NOVA concert programs are onto something by placing the music of the past and present in dialogue with each other…
When Stravinsky and Ramuz first began discussing the collaboration that would culminate in A Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky suggested a Russian folk tale as told by the Russian author Alexander Afanasyev. While I believe Stravinsky and Ramuz adapted the story into a marvelous dramatic work, I find the changes they made to Afanasyev’s version of the story intriguing. Many of these alterations are relegated to the following categories:
It is clear that Stravinsky and Ramuz wanted to portray a more sympathetic character than that of the Afanasyev soldier. Also at play was an idea that Stravinsky himself spoke of: creating a story that had universal qualities such that it would transcend national stereotypes and be applicable in all locales. Ramuz succeeded in transforming the soldier into a figure who always maintains free will but is inexorably hunted and manipulated by the devil. Ramuz’s soldier has moments of helplessness and frustration, so much so that the narrator of the story has to butt in and tell him what to do!
But what I miss most in the translation of the tale from Afanasyev to Ramuz is a reduction of the strange, fantastic qualities the original tale shares with writers like Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Some of the magical episodes remain, like the soldier’s ride from the devil’s house back to his village. The gambling scene, however, is much more compelling and humorous in the original. Ramuz has the soldier play the devil at cards in a clever and heroic attempt to rid himself of the devil’s influence once and for all.
While the result is the essentially the same in Afanasyev, there is little heroic about the soldier’s actions. Over the course of several nights, the soldier invites the devil to drink, carouse, and gamble. On the first night, the soldier gets the devil drunk enough on kvas to trick him into eating lead bullets (the devil asks for nuts to munch on). As they continue to play cards, the devil’s teeth all fall out- he is presumably too drunk to notice or care that he’s chewing lead instead of nuts.
The soldier does even better on the second night. After hours of drinking together, the devil notices an enormous vice in the soldier’s room. The soldier tells the devil it is for his violin students; many of them, like the devil, have crooked fingers that need to be straightened in order to play the violin properly. The devil, an aspiring violinist, wants his fingers straightened, so the soldier places the devil’s hand in the vice and tightens it as far as he can. Now trapped, the devil is mercilessly and violently beaten by the soldier. The devil, once free, vows never to come within 100 miles of the soldier. Should the soldier travel more than 100 miles from his home (which he inevitably does), he will belong to the devil.
The idea of a soldier tricking the devil and beating him relentlessly could come right out of a Gogol short story, with the moral of the story found beneath wildly surreal imagery and a dry, sarcastic tone. (Perhaps the most famous Russian story playing to the idea of surreal episodes starring the devil is Bulgakov’s novel of the 1930s, Master and Margarita.) I’m very happy to have tracked down the original story- it doesn’t make me appreciate the Stravinsky/Ramuz any less. But maybe it’s time to pull the next Dostoyevsky off the shelf and revisit the world of 19th century Russian storytelling that I love so much…