290: Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’

Posted by jeff on Mar 16, 2018 in Classical, Song Of the week

Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Central Park in the Dark’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Concord Sonata’ Movement 2 (The Alcotts)

I have a self-imposed rule: Write about music you love with a passion. This week I’m breaking that rule.

I do not love the music of Charles Ives, but I admire the man passionately. He’s my new role model – despite (or probably because of) the fact that his life was a paragon of a trait I painfully lack.

Charles and Melody

During the work week, Charles Ives (no relation to Burl) founded one of the most successful insurance companies in the US, invented the concept of estate planning, and wrote crazy, impossible music on the commuter train and on weekends. His music was largely ignored during his lifetime—and he didn’t give a flying hoot.

Me? I dabble in quasi-creative enterprises and when the world doesn’t collectively lie down on its back in reverence I run home crying. This is a guy I have to learn from.

Charles Ives Ives (1874 – 1954) was an American modernist composer, experimenting in atonality before Schoenberg and in free dissonance before Stravinsky. His roots were the church and band and popular and folk music of Danbury, Connecticut. His musical education (at Yale) was in the classical European tradition.

His mentor, inspiration and guiding light was his father, George, who led ‘the best band in the Union army’ during the Civil War. When he caught his 5-year old son banging out the rhythm part of a band piece on the piano with his fists, he patted the boy on the head and sent him for drum lessons. Charles later became one of the first proponents of cluster chords, instructing the pianist in one of his most famous compositions, the Concord Sonata, to use a board 14 3/4 “ long to play them.

George Ives would have his son sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones; he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed. Of a man singing off-key in church: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds–for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.”

Charles was a professional church organist at the age of 14, already composing pieces considered difficult to play even today, which Charlie called “as much fun as playing baseball”.  He moved to New Haven, captained his high school baseball team, was touted as a potential champion sprinter, joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and learned all the rules he was determined to flaunt under the leading teacher of the European classical tradition in America.

He left Yale in 1898 to work in the insurance business in New York. As he put it, if a composer “has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?”

From 1906-08 his various lives climaxed.
He founded the insurance company which he would build into an empire until his retirement in 1930.
He suffered his first breakdown.
He married Harmony Twitchell, a fellow Transcendentalist (followers of the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau).
And he composed prolifically (on the commuter train and on Sundays), including “Two Contemplations”: “Central Park in the Dark” and our SoTW, “The Unanswered Question”. Both pieces would wait until 1946 for their first performance.

“Central Park in the Dark” was originally titled “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time’”.  He described it thus: “This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

“The Unanswered Question” is scored for 3 voices playing in independent tempos. A string quartet placed offstage! sustains slow tonal triads that according to Ives represent “The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing”. The solo trumpet presents a nontonal phrase seven times—”The Perennial Question of Existence”, which a quartet of flutes answers in increasing frustration six times. They are “Fighting Answerers” who, after a time, “realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question'” before finally disappearing, leaving “The Question” to be asked once more before “The Silences” are left to their “Undisturbed Solitude”. The seventh ‘question’ of the trumpet is left unanswered by the flutes.

Leonard Bernstein called these “the beginning of American music”.

Ives fan

Over the next decade, Ives composed furiously, including his major works. In 1918, the same year he published his groundbreaking “Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax”, he suffered his second breakdown, after which he composed very little, although he continued to revise earlier works. One day in early 1927 Ives came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, “nothing sounds right.”

He would spend the rest of his life revising, organizing and self-publishing his own compositions, as well as anonymously supporting other modernist composers. But his music went unperformed until 1939, when a recital of the “Concord Sonata” garnered rave reviews. In 1947 Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Symphony No. 3, completed nearly 40 years earlier.

Ives fan

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic premiered Ives’ “Second Symphony”.  Although he offered Ives to conduct a private performance for him in a darkened hall, Ives refused to attend. A few days later, when the symphony was broadcast, he went into the kitchen to listen to it on the maid’s radio. From the liner notes of the LP: “He emerged from the kitchen doing an awkward little jig of pleasure and vindication. This seems to have been the only unqualified pleasure in an orchestra performance that Ives ever had.”

His reputation has since grown exponentially, his works being canonized as those of a “true primitive”, an “authentic American saint” (Bernstein). “Americans found Mark Twain, Emerson and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one.” His proponents eventually included Mahler, Stokowski, Tilson Thomas, Frank Zappa, and Phil Lesh, bassist of the Grateful Dead (“One of my two musical heroes”).

He responds to negligence with contempt.

Arnold Schoenberg: “There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

“He responds to negligence with contempt.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. When people ask me “What do you do?” I mumble something about my history of day jobs, and add “but mostly I am involved with music.” “Oh, you have a hobby?” they respond, smiling condescendingly.

After Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford. Was his poetry a ‘hobby’?

In his twenties, Tenessee Williams worked at the International Shoe Company factory, then later as a caretaker on a chicken ranch. His mother:”Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.” Were his plays a ‘hobby’?

Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin (b. 1938) has 35 albums and piles of awards to his credit. He was also clinical professor of psychiatry the University of San Francisco. Was his music a ‘hobby’?

Minimalist composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber and a taxi driver. Glass was called to the house of art critic Robert Hughes to install a dishwasher. Hughes recognized him and complained that Glass was an artist, and therefore shouldn’t be installing a dishwasher. Glass replied that yes, he was an artist, but he was sometimes a plumber as well, and Hughes should go away and let him finish the job. Were his compositions a ‘hobby’?

These gents achieved recognition in their lifetimes. So we retrospectively minimize their day jobs, right? Charles Ives only began to taste acknowledgement at the very end of his life, but is today canonized, and good for him.

Is that what makes these people ‘artists’, their belated public recognition?  What about the forgotten Franz Kafkas and Emily Dickinsons? – the uncountable, unrecognized, potentially great artists who labored at their crafts nights and weekends and train rides, year after year, decade after decade, only to have their executors eventually dump the contents of their desk drawers into the garbage bin? What about the myriads of honest, dedicated pedestrian practitioners who supported their families by day and toiled in their chosen medium with passion at night as “amateurs”–literally, ‘lovers’?

To all the honest, unrecognized or insufficiently appreciated practitioners of creative endeavors, myself included, I wish you a modicum of Charles Ives’ dignity. May you–correct that, may we–respond to negligence by contempt. Well, we’re not all Charles Ives, so may we at least temper the lack of appreciation with the knowledge that we had the passion and conviction of our creation. Charlie Ives knew that that’s what really matters.

Tags: , ,


278: The Danish String Quartet, ‘Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part II’/Dreamers’ Circus, ‘Kitchen Stories’

Posted by jeff on Feb 9, 2018 in Classical, New Acoustic, Nordic, Song Of the week

Spring is here, even though it’s still February. My head is crunching and comparing and contrasting and generally consternating itself, but my heart is a-flitting and a-fluttering like a 17-year old girl in the throes of first love. For I have discovered joyous new music that makes me bounce and grin and tap my feet; and, gosh and b’golly, wish there were a Danish country dance floor for me to get out onto and jig and reel and polsk like a Danish country fool.

And you know what kind of music it is? It’s – I’m asking politely. No, I’m begging: Please read this paragraph through to the end – a Danish classical string quartet playing Nordic roots music. Now I know you may well have no great interest in roots music; no vested interest in Danish music; and no significant interest in a young string quartet. All I’m asking is that you listen. Because it’s passionate, human, engaging, irresistible, ebullient, and you can’t help but love it.

Danish String Quartet – ‘Gammel Reinlender fra Sønndala’

Dreamer’s Circus – ‘A Room in Paris’

Did you notice the same violinist in both groups?
Two hours after Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was born in 1983 in a small Danish village, his parents (who had met on the folk-dance floor) brought in a traditional fiddler to play for the swaddler, to welcome him to the world in a properly harmonious way.

The Danish String Quartet

“The three of us [Rune, violin; Frederik Øland, violin; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola] met very early in our lives in the Danish countryside at a summer camp for enthusiastic amateur musicians. Not yet teenagers, we were the youngest players, so we hung out all the time playing football and chamber music together. During the regular school year we would get together often to play music and just have fun… All of the sudden, at the ages of 15 and 16, we were a serious string quartet. It all happened so fast that none of us seemed to notice the transition.”

The three drafted Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, a Norwegian cellist, and their career was off and running, despite the violinists’ full-time gig in the Copenhagen Philharmonic (where Rune was concertmaster!). They played the whole classical string quartet repertoire, Haydn and Beethoven and Shostakovitch, as well as the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (d. 1931). In 2013, the violinists left CPH:Phil to concentrate on The Danish String Quartet, which was busy touring worldwide and winning awards and whatnot.

But they’re not just ‘a covers band’, as Rune calls them. Almost from the beginning, DSQ would play as an encore traditional Scandinavian folk music they had arranged for the string quartet. They could do it sitting or standing on a formal concert stage.

But watch what happens when they let their proverbial hair down (of course, their very shaggy demeanor is part and parcel of their utter charm), lose the suits and don the Plastic Man t-shirts in this NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

These guys aren’t just charming. And not just tighter than tight. And not just ridiculously good-looking. They’re playing music. It matters to me not a whit that it’s couched in a style far from what I grew up with. It’s human beings playing joyous human music.

DSQ has two fine CDs, “Wood Works” (2014) and “Last Leaf” (2017, ECM). They’re both rich, exciting, fun, exultant. I feel lucky to have discovered them.

Roots, Americana Newgrass

I wouldn’t want to have to take a blindfold test on distinguishing between some of the Nordic, Celtic and American roots music I listen to. I’ve asked more than a couple of Scandinavian professionals involved in this style about the affinity of Nordic to Celtic roots music. They all say, as if they were thinking of it for the first time, “Yeah, they do sound very similar, you know?”

It turns out that roots are roots, and it seems there is some sort of border-defying musical collective unconscious operating here.

DSQ’s roots music begs comparison with the whole burgeoning world of Americana roots music (aka Newgrass). Check out, for example, “Appalachia Waltz“, a fine album by Mark O’Conner, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. Or this Newgrass all-star team Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, playing their own NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.

It’s fine, admirable music. Copelandean, as they would probably like to be called. I love the attitude and the gender-bending and the virtuosity. I’ve admired it for quite a while now, keep going back to it—and keep leaving, unsatisfied.

They just don’t got the voltage. Listen to the DSQ playing this original traditional-styled tune ‘Shine You No More’. I don’t know about you, but that gets my pulse racing.

Dreamers’ Circus 

But that’s only half the story.

“We met by chance one night in 2009 during a folk festival in Copenhagen. Ale [on cittern, a traditional 10-stringed mandolin/bouzouki-ish instrument] and Rune were standing in the corner of a pub jamming some folk tunes. Nikolaj just came in, sat at the piano and began to play along. The three of us ended up playing together all through the night.”

Did you watch ‘A Room in Paris’? Wow. How can you not love that?

Want more? Check out the second half of this one, from 3’35”

And check out ‘Carrousel Prime’, the encore from that same festival. These guys are so much sexier, more charismatic, more fun than anything else I’ve seen in a long, long time.

See where Rune starts dancing? That’s not a Mick Jagger look-at-me dance, that the very human dance impulse, rising from the roots of many generations dancing the same dances to the same tunes.

And they also did a series of knockout concerts with CPH:Phil. They even present Mozart in Folk Style, roots trio + classical orchestra. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Just watch it. Want some more of this? Here’s ‘Prelude to the Sun’, a Nordic folk remix of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, Preludio, ‘recomposed’ by Dreamers’ Circus.

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Father Into It’

Dreamers’ Circus – ‘Fragments of Solbyn’. This ain’t no casual jig. It’s classical in form, Saturday night roadside bar for enthusiasm.

You think they only know how to rock? Check out the elegance and intelligence and utterly refined Danish aesthetic in ‘City Gardens’.

Check out their wonderful album “Second Movement”.

Rune, DSQ, DC and Old Stories Told Anew

Dreamers’ Circus has this amazing tonal blend, and they’re playing very tightly. I struggle (gleefully) to pick out which instrument is playing which note. It’s a pleasure I experienced with Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album.

Rune: “In DSQ there are four stringed instruments of same nature. When it really works, you can achieve one single voice. I brought that same mindset to Dreamers’ Circus. The violin has a great range of the types of sounds it can make. It’s primarily a melodic instrument, but it can also be percussive. The cittern is usually driving the rhythm, but we try not to lock ourselves into these roles. When I play with accordion, I’m very conscious of when I try to blend and when I try to stick out. You give focus and you take focus; sometimes you shadow, sometimes you solo. We’re striving towards an ideal of a unified voice. Before we go on stage, we remind ourselves: One voice, one story, one message, one instrument. That’s the way to convey a story.”

Every summer Rune goes to Sønderhø on Fanø island, with 3345 residents and 100 traditional local songs going back hundreds of years, almost all in D major or G major (only one in a minor key!). He dances, smokes a pipe and plays music. Sounds pretty hygge to me.

Why does the music of the Danish String Quartet and Dreamers’ Circus speak to me? Who can say why a piece of music speaks to you? Or what it’s saying, for that matter? But it does. Clearly, passionately, directly. From the roots up.

Thanks to Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like SoTW 071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’, an overview of Nordic roots bands from a few years ago.



Tags: , ,


086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.


Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

Tags: , ,


084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical, Personal, 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)

Tags: , , ,

Copyright © 2018 Jeff Meshel's World. All Rights Reserved.