Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Shostakovich, Prelude in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva) (1987 version, if you want to be really anal about this)
Shostakovich, Fugue in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva) (1992 version, what the hell, take a walk on the wild side and mix them)
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)
In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”
To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.
In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever. Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.
Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.
So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.
Siege of Leningrad
This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.
Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”
Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.
On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).
“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).
From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.
It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.
Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.
And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.
Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.
Here’s a video clip of Tatiana Nikolaeva playing Prelude No. 17.
Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.
I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:
SoTW 005: Toccata in Cm, JS Bach (Glenn Gould)
SoTW 077: ‘The Art of the Fugue’, JS Bach (The Emerson Quartet)
Posted by jeff on Jun 8, 2016 in Classical
, Song Of the week
My knowledge of classical music is patchier than an Iowa quilt. But my wife still harbors delusions that I’ll grow up some day, and in her mind listening to Bach is a more dignified and mature activity than listening to The Beach Boys. Well, a lot of people with highly-refined musical sensibilities don’t really understand Brian Wilson, but the opposite is the opposite, I believe. Anyone – even a corner-boy drug dealer from West Baltimore, who takes a moment to pause and listen to “The Art of the Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) – must grasp that he is standing before a grandeur and beauty rare in the course of our ordinary lives. Like standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Like gazing at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Like hearing your grandchild say “I love you, Poppa.” Those moments in which we transcend the traffic-jam that is our life.
JS Bach, 1746
Bach wrote this work during the last decade of his life, parallel to the B-minor Mass, another momentous work. But if the Mass is an exploration of how God informs and transforms the human soul, “The Art of the Fugue” is a demonstration of the counterpoint between the sublime, infinite perfection of God’s laws of nature and the workings of the human mind.
Let’s start with a couple of terms, just to get us on the same page of the score.
Fugue – a composition built on a subject and one or more ‘imitations’ (variations), which recur in opposition to each other. A fugue usually has an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation returning to the subject in the tonic key.
Counterpoint – the interaction (literally ‘point against point’) of two or more voices that are independent in contour, rhythm and harmony.
The two usually go together. In other words, you have two or more independent lines interweaving, comprising a unified whole. There’s a whole world of theory underlying this, which I wouldn’t try to explain if I could. But it’s way, way beyond my Pooh-brain’s capacity. In “The Art of the Fugue”, Bach set out to explore the extreme limits of this form.
He begins with ‘simple’ fugues (believe me, that’s a technical term, not a lay description), which are actually two voices—a main theme and another completely independent line which plays against it. Then you get an inverted fugue, where Herr Bach turns the score upside down and continues playing it. But not necessarily in the same voice–he can move it up a third, or a fourth, or an eleventh, whatever he feels like on that fine Leipzig morning. That’s four lines intertwining, yes? But then he’s getting bored, so he combines the two, the original fugue together with its inversion, maybe taking one of the lines at half speed, one at double speed. And then, after a cup of coffee, he’ll write another ‘mirror’ line that can be played the same either forward or backwards.
And that just takes us halfway through the work, which comprises fourteen fugues and four canons. The structure of the pieces in the second half are so complex that even anal I can’t get through a single paragraph describing the workings under the hood.
“The governing idea of the work is an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.” (Chrisoph Wolff). Each of the fugues uses this theme as its basis:
Here it is in a stripped-down harpsichord version, Contrapunctus 1.
“The Art of the Fugue” is unique in that it’s primarily a theoretical work. Bach didn’t even name it. His son-in-law attached the name “Die Kunst der Fuge” (BWV 1080). Bach didn’t even bother to orchestrate it – he failed to mention what instrument/s should play it, apparently because its performance was of secondary importance to him. Hence the many, many different settings in which it is played.
If you, like me in my weaker moments, think that various versions of a classical piece are inherently indistinguishable, try this exercise. Here are a number of versions of the same fugue. What will jump out and bite you is not only how greatly the orchestration impacts the piece, but how individual and discrete each one is from its colleagues.
For our Song of The Week, we’re presenting Contrapunctus 9, a 5, alla Duodecima. I have only the foggiest idea what that means, but it shor is pretty. We’ll start with my very favorite, the version I listen to most often, my default music for soothing my soul:
- The Emerson Quartet
- The Julliard String Quartet
- Academy of St Martin in the Fields, directed by Sir Neville Marriner – 2 violins, viola, cello, violone (a Baroque instrument), 2 oboes, English horn, bassoon, organ, 2 harpsichords
- Glenn Gould – organ
- Glenn Gould – piano
- Tatiana Nikolayeva – piano
- Davitt Moroney – harpsichord
- Ton Koopman-Tini Mathot – 2 harpsichords
- The Liszt Ferenc Chamber Orchestra, Budapest, directed by Janos Rolla – orchestra
- Musica Antiqua Koln, directed by Reinhardt Goebel (period instruments)
The Emerson Quartet
David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet: “I don’t know if there’s scientific evidence to support it, but when I listen to this music I feel my brain cells being realigned. The fugues are so complex yet so perfectly ordered, so respectful of the laws of physics that govern music and make it a universal language. Just hearing Bach’s work, even without much concentration, is like having my musical windows cleaned–all other music around me becomes clearer and more understandable.”
Bach didn’t quite finish “The Art of the Fugue”. While he was writing apparently the final fugue, based on the notes B-A-C-H (B natural), the score peters out. Bach’s son says he died while writing it. Here’s what the original looks like. Here’s what it sounds like, in Glenn Gould’s rendition:
Contrapunctus XIV (Fuga a 3 Soggetti) unfinished]
I confess–for me, listening to Bach isn’t so different from prayier. They are both human attempts to impose an artificial order upon an inherently chaotic world. They’re both beautiful; and, thank God, they both make a lot of sense.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)
012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’
073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′
Posted by jeff on May 4, 2016 in Classical
, Song Of the week
I try to confine myself in SoTW to music I enjoy and admire. I figure there’s so much great music waiting to be praised, why occupy ourselves with anything else? But I admit that this week, it’s not the music but the story behind it that moves me. Holocaust Day just ended, and here’s the stranger-than-fiction story of a Jewish composer from Eastern Europe.
The personal odyssey of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996) is emblematic of that of the Jewish people in the 20th century, not only for the trials and tribulations he underwent (although there were more of them than can be grasped), but because of the wholly bizarre, tortuous and miraculous course of events.
Before we get started with this tragic saga, a word about the man’s names. In Polish (i.e. prior to his move to the USSR), his name was rendered as ‘Mieczysław Wajnberg’. In the Russian it became ‘Моисей Самуилович Вайнберг’ (Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg). In the Yiddish theater of antebellum Warsaw he was known as Moishe Weinberg (Yiddish: משה װײַנבערג). Among close friends he would also go by his Polish diminutive ‘Metek’. Re-transliteration of his surname from the Cyrillic alphabet (Вайнберг) back into the Latin alphabet produced a variety of spellings, including ‘Weinberg’, ‘Vainberg’, and ‘Vaynberg’. The form ‘Weinberg’, an English-language rendition of this common Jewish surname, is now the most frequently used form.
Weinberg’s father Shmuel (Shmil) left his home in the Moldavian town of Kishinev after the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 in which both his father and grandfather were killed (fired by a blood libel, in which The Jews were accused of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in the baking of matzos for Passover). In Warsaw the Weinbergs joined the Yiddish theater, Shmil as a violinist and conductor, Sonia as an actress. The father gave his prodigy son his initial practical experience, exposing him to the traditional and liturgical Jewish music that was to inform his work for the rest of his life – a life already impacted by family history such as Moishe’s cousin Isay Abramovich Mishne, the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune who was executed in 1918 along with the other 26 Baku commissars.
Moishe made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of ten, and two years later, in 1931, he became a student at the Warsaw Academy of Music. Moishe, or ‘Metek’, had time to compose a number of works (while working to support the family after the Yiddish theater had closed) before he graduated in 1939. Soon after the German invasion in September, his parents and sister were interned in the Lodz ghetto and murdered in the Trawniki concentration camp. Mieczysław managed to flee. He was stopped by a border guard who insisted on registering his name as “Moisey”, to mark him as a Jew, to which Weinberg replied: “Moisey, Abram, whatever you want, if I can only enter the Soviet Union!”
Jewish Life, Ukraine, 1903
In Minsk, Belarus, he studied composition in the conservatory for two years. On the day after his final examinations in June, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR, and Weinberg again fled eastwards, this time finding work as a coach in the opera house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
There he met Solomon Mikhoels (and married his daughter Natalia Vovsi), who served Stalin first as the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and then during the war as the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In this capacity he travelled around the world, meeting with Jewish communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin became virulently anti-Semitic. Mikhoels was the most visible and respected Jewish intellectual in the USSR, so instead of receiving a show trial for his service to the state, in 1948 Stalin had him bludgeoned to death and his body run over by a truck as a thinly-veiled hit-and-run accident. Mikhoels received a state funeral.
Meanwhile, back in Tashkent in 1943, Mikhoels encouraged his new son-in-law to send the score of his First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to be officially invited to Moscow (an extremely rare occurrence), where he would remain for the rest of his life. Life in Moscow in 1943 seems to have had a lot of advantages over that in Uzbekistan. Like food. Shostakovich was a cultural icon with a complex relationship with the establishment. He had already been denounced in 1936 (and subsequently rehabilitated). But he was to have many more ups and downs with the authorities over the years. Shostakovich (a philo-Semite) was a man of great personal courage, and had a great admiration for the younger Jew. Over the decades, Shostakovich used Weinberg as his first reader. He would bring him all his new compositions, discuss them. He greatly valued Weinberg as a musician, as a composer (much more so than did the critics and the public, who often dismissed him musically as a Shostakovich clone), and as a friend.
Shostakovich was denounced again in 1948 for Formalism. Most of his works were banned, he was forced to publicly repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. He waited for his arrest at night on the landing by the lift, so that his family wouldn’t be disturbed.
At the time, although Weinberg refused to join the Communist Party, his music was officially praised “for depicting the shining, free working life of the Jewish people in the land of Socialism.” But even that didn’t help. He was arrested in January 1953 and charged with conspiring to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea — a concoction that although absurd, was still accompanied by a death sentence. The real reason for his arrest was the fact that his wife was the niece of Miron Vovsi, the main defendant at Stalin’s anti-Semitic ‘Doctors Plot’ trial. It was assumed that the sickly Weinberg, incarcerated in sub-zero temperatures and deprived of sleep and clothing, would not return. It was likewise assumed that Weinberg’s wife would be arrested. Shostakovich and his wife agreed to accept power-of-attorney for the Weinbergs’ seven-year-old daughter Vitosha.
Shostakovich and Weinberg
Then, in an act of incomprehensible courage, the out-of-favor Shostakovich wrote to Stalin and to NKVD security chief, Lavrenti Beria, protesting Weinberg’s arrest. A month later Stalin died, and many intellectuals and artists were released from prison, including Weinberg. He was officially rehabilitated shortly afterwards. Weinberg’s wife:
“Soon after this Shostakovich and his wife went to the south on holiday, making me promise to send a telegram as soon as Weinberg was released. And shortly we were able to send them this telegram: ’Enjoy your holiday. We embrace you, Tala and Metak.’ Two days later the Shostakoviches were back in Moscow. That evening we celebrated. At the table, festively decked out with candles in antique candlesticks, Nina Vasilyevna read out the power of attorney that I had written. Then Dmitri Dmitriyevich got up and solemnly pronounced, ’Now we will consign this document to the flames,’ and proposed that I should burn it over the candles. After the destruction of the ’document’, we drank vodka and sat down to supper. I rarely saw Dmitri Dmitriyevich as calm, and even merry, as he was that evening. We sat up till the early hours of the morning. Nina Vasilyevna laughingly recounted how I was worried that Vitosha would get a bad upbringing in the orphanage; it was then that I discovered that they had decided to take her into their own home.”
But Weinberg’s personal response to the attacks on himself and those close to him remained stoic and positive. Among his prolific output in almost every musical genre are 17 string quartets and 26 complete symphonies, the last of which, “Kaddish”, was written in memory of the Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Weinberg donated the manuscript score to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. In 1968 he wrote “Die Passagierin“, a ‘shatteringly intense’ opera with a libretto based on the novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, a native of Krakow who survived three years in the Nazi horror factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. Weinstein considered it to be the most significant of his compositions, although he never heard it performed. The opera was only premiered in 2010; Director David Pountney brought Posmysz on stage.
Two months before his death in 1996, dispirited by Russia’s disregard for him and weakened by a long battle with Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Weinberg: “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.”
While I can’t say I identify with his response to the life forced upon him, I can’t help but be moved by the life itself.
Here’s the first movement (Adagio) of his Cello Concerto Opus 43, as performed by the masterful and muscular Mstislav Rostropovich.
String Quartet #16 in Ab Minor, Op. 130 – I Allegro
String Quartet #7 in C Major, Op. 59 – I Adagio
Piano Sonata Op. 46 I Allegretto
If you liked this post, you may also like:
084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)
086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)
Posted by jeff on Dec 10, 2015 in Classical
, Song Of the week
Thanks this week to my friend MK, who has so generously and virulently argued with me over the last couple of weeks about the sanctity and inviolability of classical music. She believes in all her heart and soul that it’s legitimate to cover Bruce Springsteen but not Bob Schumann. You know, I pretty much agree with her. Just not in this case.
A while back I undertook to take a walk through Miles Davis’ music of the 1950s. Today’s SoTW is the third in a series of four. We’ll be taking a look at the cut ‘Concierto de Aranjuez‘ from the album “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. Thom Jurek, a critic whose effusiveness pales even mine called this cut “…one of the most memorable works to come from popular culture in the 20th century…To listen to it in the 21st century is still a spine-tingling experience, as one encounters a multitude of timbres, tonalities, and harmonic structures seldom found in the music called jazz.” Whoo, them’s some high-falutin’ words. Sure sounds like this is worth listening to, right?
So let’s get some terminology in order here. A concerto is a large-scale orchestral composition of three movements featuring a solo instrument. Aranjuez is a small town 50 km south of Madrid. Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) was a blind Spanish composer whose ‘Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar‘ is one of the most popular orchestral works of that century. The piece is widely believed to have been inspired by the atrocities of Guernica, but after decades of silence Mrs Rodrigo said that it reflected both their honeymoon and the composer’s devastation at her miscarriage. Miles Davis (1926-1991) was a spoiled junkie trumpeter of limited technique who played as an 18-year old in the quintet of Charlie Parker, alto sax luminary of bebop. He came under the influence of visionary of the Cool big-band arranger Gil Evans (1912-1988). Together, they created in 1949 the stunning “Birth of the Cool” sessions (see SoTW 35). Miles descended into heroin, came out to make a series of seminal genteel albums for Prestige (see SoTW 41). In 1957 he was at the top of his game, signed to a lucrative new contract with Columbia – fame, fortune, acclaim, boxing gloves (he was a serious pugilist), Ferraris, and lots of beautiful women in the pockets of his elegantly tailored Italian suits. Columbia suggested that Davis work with an arranger. He turned to Evans, and the resulting collaborations, most notably “Miles Ahead” (1957, in this stunning clip), “Porgy and Bess” (1958), and “Sketches of Spain” (1960) (as well as Evans’ “Out of the Cool” from 1960, very much in the same vein) are indeed among the greatest achievements of modern jazz.
All four albums sound more Evans than Miles. Not to diminish Miles’ contribution, but he’s there more as a collaborative artist than as a soloist. Nowhere on the three collaborations do you really sit up and notice Miles’ playing. You’re immersed in the orchestration, the gestalt of the sound. So much so that “Out of the Cool”, even without Miles’ participation, is part and parcel of this group.
One more issue we need to clarify here, orchestration vs bandization. Rodrigo writes for the ‘classical’ concert idiom, i.e., the symphony orchestra, which is a mix of up to 80-90 woodwinds, brass, percussion, and predominantly strings. Evans’ instrument is a small concert band —about 20 musicians sans strings. The former is by nature softer, the latter typically harder–the difference between catgut on wood and a Bronx cheer amplified on brass.
The four albums from the Evans/Davis group always pair up in my ears: “Miles Ahead” and “Out of the Cool” together, brassy, brash and bright, upbeat, energetic, gleeful, glowing. Music to Grin To. But “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain” are soft, floating, contemplative, stunning intricate tapestries of Evans’ trademark nimbus-like concert bands and brass/wind ensembles.
What Gil Evans did in this piece was to re-cast the second movement (‘Adagio‘, i.e., slow and graceful) of Rodrigo’s concerto. From what I can figure out, he uses almost the entire original notation but re-orchestrates it, the brass and woodwinds replacing the strings. But it’s so much more than that. He rebuilds the harmonic texture of the original. It’s the same but oh, so different.
Let’s dissect one small part, the very beginning of the two pieces.
The very first section begins with a statement of the main melodic theme a number of times in different harmonic contexts, both minor and major. (As far as I can figure out the piece is written in B minor, but I wouldn’t bet the family farm on that or any of the technical gobbledygook I’m throwing out below.)
In the original, it begins with a guitar strumming the chords, the English horn playing the melody, strings providing sustained chords based on the (minor) tonic. The sentence is then repeated, with the guitar playing the melody. Then up to the (major) dominant, the guitar against the sustained strings with a bass providing a steady pulse on the first beat of each measure, just to keep things in order.
Gil Evans’ version is so similar, but so wholly other. We’re way, way beyond the coherent world of beat-on-the-one. From the get-go, the backdrop is a very high tinkling piano and some indefinable chirping instrument supercharged with a manic, jittery clattery castanet that allows scarce respite throughout the entire piece. The melody is stated not by one instrument but by two, Miles on his muted flugelhorn (much like a trumpet, but with a softer, gentler tone) and another brass below him.
The sustained chords accompanying them are not the stately, classical minors of the original, but a restless, hungry body of harmony menacingly shadowing the melody. There’s a tuba (I think), then later Paul Chambers’ bass, providing a tense, lurking line independent of the rhythm of the melody, searching, probing, a fierceness in its eyes. Of course in a normal listen to the piece you don’t consciously hear these underlying lines. But they have a profound psychological effect, one of menace, impending conflict, dark clouds on the horizon and a still heaviness in the air.
The backdrop accompaniment of Evans’ brass and woodwinds are utilizing the same chord progression, as far as these untrained ears can discern, but with a rich retinue of bizarre embellishments. Not embellishments, enrichments. Heaven is in the details.
That’s the heart of the difference to my ears. In Rodrigo’s original, the sustained chords providing the fabric of the piece are orderly minors, clear, recognizable, calming. In Evans, this backdrop is full of internal tensions, oblique jazz notes creating a complex, inscrutable tapestry contrasted upon which the melodic line couched. The juxtaposition of the clear, beautiful melody creates–for me–a rich, evocative dialogue which doesn’t exist in the original. That’s why I prefer “Sketches in Spain” to the original.
But MK, thanks a lot for arguing with me. It sure did help me clarify things for myself.