Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Bachs of Sweden

In my seemingly ceaseless pursuit of unfamiliar music a fleeting question entered my head: "What did Swedish Baroque music sound like?" So I decided to try and answer it. In the process I stumbled upon a modest Swedish equivalent of the Bach dynasty - namely the Düben family. 

The composers on the family tree seem to begin with Andreas Düben I (of whom I have heard no music) and continue with his two sons, Martin Düben (c.1599-1649) and Andreas Düben the Elder (c.1597-1662). The latter's son, the exceptional Gustaf Düben the Elder (1628-1690), fathered two further composers, Baron Gustaf von Düben the Younger (1660–1726) and Baron Anders von Düben the Younger (1673–1738). Four generations then - at least three of them in the service of the Swedish monarchy - and one composer at least whose name needs spreading far and wide . 

Both Martin and Andreas Düben the Elder pupil of the influential Dutch master Sweelinck (about whom I've been meaning to do a post for some time), so good things should be expected from them. They are classed, like their father, with the North German organ school (which Sweelinck helped to found). The only piece I've been able to lay my hands on for you by Martin is, appropriately enough, a Praeambulum for organ - a piece that is pleasing unpredictable in some of its harmonic progressions. A few works of Andreas Düben the Elder have also survived. He is the man credited with bringing the influence of Sweelinck to Sweden, so it's not surprising to find a chorale fantasia, Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, in his output. As is usual with this form, the phrases of the chorale melody, elaborated, are set amidst contrasting yet complementary music and (perhaps inspired by the echo fantasias of Sweelinck) there are charming echo effects too. We also have a Suite of courtly instrumental dances. Andreas also wrote music for the funeral of King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1634, His Pugna Triumphalis is for double-choir and shows that the Gabrieli revolution in Venice was well  and truly established in Sweden. It is revealing that by the time of the five-part Miserere mei Deus, written for the funeral of King Charles X in 1660, the style has become recognisably mid-Baroque and shows a Monteverdian influence - albeit in a plainer, more direct manner. 

With Gustaf Düben the Elder we come to the man who seems to me to be the Johann Sebastian of the Düben family. In his attractive organ Suite (which can also be heard in this version for harpsichord), we see the effect of the standardisation of the German-influenced Baroque suite into its familiar key movements - Praeludium, Allemande, Courante and Sarabande. Bach would later compose many a work build around those forms. The prelude is dropped but other three remain in his Suite for strings. Both works are full of melodic appeal and have unexpected rhythms and phrase lengths that keep them fresh. We have quite a bit of vocal music from old Gustaf. For starters he wrote a catchy hymn tune of his own, Jesus är min vän den bäste ('Jesus is my best friend'), but also wrote a beautiful setting of Fader vår ('Our Father') - a work I heartily recommend to you. Just as fine is his motet Surrexit pastor bonus. If you like the music of Monteverdi and Schütz you should also enjoy these excellent pieces. The wonders of this unfamiliar mid-Baroque Swedish master continue to grow when you encounter his spiritual songs, a selection of which can be heard here. These are of remarkable quality. I would single out Tröstesång ('Comforting song') as being a particular delight. (Now that's one catchy tune! Now where have I heard it before? Oh yes!!)

What then of Gustaf's sons? Well, unfortunately I can't find any music by Gustaf Jnr. There's not much I can offer you from Anders either, other than his contributions to the Narvabaletten - a ballet written to commemorate King Charles XII's victory over the Russians at the Battle of Narva in 1700.  There's a Choeur des guerriers, a Marche pour les Suédois and an Entrèe pour les Colèriques. What else was young Anders capable of?

And there the musical line ends. Alas. 

Men and Angels - a recommendation

Arianna Savall

Talking of French music, I strongly use you to watch what must rank among YouTube's most captivating videos - a beautiful concert by Jordi Savall and his marvellous Le Concert des Nations of music by the great French Baroque composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c.1636-1704). As well as various heart-tugging viol pieces, there are a number of French music's finest vocal jewels - the rapt dialogue between men and the angels Canticum in honorem Beatae Virginis Mariae inter homines et angelos, H400 , the hypnotically serene Stabat mater pour des religieuses, H15,  the contrapuntal yet contemplative Litanies de la vierge, H83 and the composer's beautiful final mass setting, the Missa Assumpta est Maria

Beauty everywhere.

Fauré and the Senses of the Night

Delphin Enjolras, Portrait of an Elegant Lady Reading

The music of Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) is particularly close to my heart (in my superior vena cava perhaps?). For my first post about the great man's music I'd simply like to compare two of his pieces - one of the loveliest of the early piano nocturnes and one of the finest of his later ones.

The Nocturne No 3 in A major, Op 33/3 dates from around 1882 and shows how Fauré had already passed well beyond his beginnings in Chopin and Schumann, despite the somewhat Chopin-like shape of the piece's opening melody. There is a harmonic sensuality to it that is pure early Fauré and as soon as the melody is outlined those characteristic harmonies, tinged with modality, begin flowing in. The first paragraph of the nocturne floats upwards gradually until it is left suspended on an enchanting pattern. The lovely appoggiatura-soaked second subject then enters and sings. A modal melodic continuation grows out of it, gently. It then crescendos into a heady reprise of the second subject in octaves. The main theme is then re-introduced beautifully. The earlier ascent to the heights is re-imagined and its figures spun into something fresh before a magical modulation lifts us again into the deepest beauty. The work seems to me to be an unblemished gem. 

Contrast the romantic opulence and sensual joy and Fauré's Third Nocturne with the leaner, darker world of his Nocturne No 9 in B minor, Op 97 of 1908. The piece opens with a wistful modal theme which might mislead you into thinking that you are about to hear a soothing piece. That misapprehension is soon banished by the dark whole-tone-inflected thunder that bursts in within bars and the lovely tune's immediate return is followed by a passage of anxious sequences, full of jet-black harmonies and aching dissonances, which tug at the music's tonal security with increasing desperation.  Fauré holds off again and again from releasing us from this anguish and even the main theme's beautiful return fails to free us as the tension keeps on mounting until the storm erupts again. The coda begins suspended in harmonic ambiguity before an heroic attempt is made to climb to major key security. Its success feels well and truly earned. The whole nocturne is something of an emotional epic in miniature. 

Beautiful pieces, aren't they?

I'd rather turn myself into a tree...

Albani, Apollo and Daphne

Many and various are the unfamiliar delights in Handel's gargantuan output. I've been getting to know one such piece, his dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne, HWV122. Though styled a 'dramatic cantata' this early masterpiece is more of a miniature opera, even though it has no overture and only two singers - a soprano and a bass. 

Apollo's first aria Pende il ben dell' performs some of the missing overture's function as it first introduces the orchestra, including in the prelude solo introductory bows for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello. The opening tune is taken up and turned (with a little tweaking) into a swinging, triple-time tune for the bass. The bass part is written to convey authority and virtuosity and interacts pleasingly with the 'solo bows' when they return.

After this satisfying start comes the delightful Spezza l'arco e getta l'armi - an eager number for Apollo. This is a hunting aria par excellence with clarion call-style themes and some vocal jumping-over-hedges along the way. The first sounds we hear are a pair oboes playing the loveable main tune over a running bassoon line. The strings complete each phrase decisively. Voice and oboes then entwine with delicious results. What an aria!

And if you agree that Spezza l'arco e getta l'armi is a wonderful Handel number, just wait till you hear Felicissima quest'alma, Dafne's first aria. This is a very beautiful, peaceful pastoral piece in sicilienne form whose opening sounds - a limpid flute solo over serenade-like pizzicati and a discreet drone effect - make me sigh with pleasure. The flute continues to serve as an obbligato throughout, duetting with the soprano's no less limpid line and the serenade-like textures return at all the main junctions of its da capo form.

By way of contrast her next aria Ardi, adori, e preghi in vano is vigorous and driven by an urgent bass-line. Singer, oboe and strings unite to win us over with attractive melody. The first of the cantata's duets Una guerra ho dentro il seno is no less vigorous, as the strings make clear straight away. The bouncy tune they announce has a rhythm which dominates the duet. Apollo's charming aria Come rosa in su la spina continues at the same pace.

Dafne's aria Come in Ciel benigna stella is another of the work's highlights, with a dancing rhythm and a dominating seven-note motif that runs throughout the accompaniment. The long notes of the singer's lovely opening melody counter the underlying rhythm deliciously. The oboe sometimes plays in parallel with the singer here and later engages in delightful echoing exchanges. The lilt of the middle section only adds to the number's charm.

The second duet Deh, lascia addolcire dramatically contrasts the slow-moving lyrical mellifluousness of Apollo (set in the minor, with solo flute and cello supplying gentle, melancholy support) with Dafne's fieriness (fast-moving, with full scoring). 

Apollo's Mie piante correte includes a virtuoso part for solo violin, though it's fair to say that both the bassoon and the strings are stretched too here. The bass has a heroic and dramatic part which stirs the blood of this particular listener.

The god's closing aria Cara pianta is an utter contrast - melancholy and beautiful. Oboes and bassoon again greet us, wistfully, with the aria's melody before they repeat it with strings. The singer expands the melody's lyricism touchingly, with string support and woodwind punctuation. A haunting finish to an irresistible work.

I'll let Wikipedia tell the story:

Apollo, having released Greece from tyranny by killing the menacing dragon Python, is in an arrogant mood. He boasts that even Cupid’s archery is no match for his own bow and arrow; however his conceit is shattered upon spying the lovely Daphne. Apollo is instantly smitten and plies his full range of charms in an attempt to win Daphne’s favour. Naturally distrustful, she rejects his advances, stating that she would rather die than lose her honour. Apollo becomes more forceful in insisting that she yield to his love and physically takes hold of her. When all seems lost, Daphne manages to escape his clutches by transforming herself into a laurel tree. Displaying great sorrow, Apollo states that his tears will water her green leaves and that her triumphant branches will be used to crown the greatest heroes.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Mexican Music...a Modern Miscellany

What come after Moncayo and the demise of Mexican musical nationalism? Well, an explosion of modernism and the development of an avant-garde. So it's out with mariachi, huapangos and Mayan folk tunes and in with electronics, extended playing techniques and staggering levels of dissonance? Well, that's only one part of the story...

Here's a final, rather chaotic and sketchy sprint through some of Mexico's recent musical offerings. There's music for all tastes here!

Take two composers born in 1916. The still-living Luis Herrera de la Fuente (1916-) was taught composition by Rodolfo Halffter, the man who brought serialism to Mexico from Spain. The only piece I've got hold of by Herrera de la Fuente is the Piano Concerto of 2011, where Schoenberg's lingering influence is plain to hear. He appears - on the evidence of this one piece! - to have persisted with modernism. 

The other notable Mexican composer born in that year, Carlos Jiménez Mabarak (1916-1994), is somewhat different. He was taught not only by Revueltas but also by that leading French apostle of the post-war serialist revolution, René Leibowitz. Mabarak subsequently began employing serialism - and using magnetophonic techniques, as you can hear in the remarkable El paraíso de los ahogados ('The paradise of the drowned') from 1960. (How splendidly odd - and dated - early electronic music can sound these days!)  Jiménez Mabarak had at one time been firmly in the camp of the nationalists, writing fine music full of Mexican spirit such as Balada del Pájaro y las Doncellas ('Ballad of the Bird and the Maidens') and La Balada del Venado y la Luna ('The Ballad of the Deer and the Moon'), plus Neo-Classical works such as the String Quartet in D major. Like so many other composers across the world, he was also to abandon modernism again late in life, as can be heard in his traditionalist 1982 opera La Güera and in his score for the 1984 horror film Veneno para las hadasJiménez Mabarak, incidentally, wrote the fanfare which opened the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. 

With Manuel de Elías (1939-) we really do enter the world of the post-war avant-garde, Mexican-style. He was a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen no less. An example of his electroacoustic work, Non Nova Sed Novo (1974) for tape, shows the more radical side of his work, while two solo cello pieces written in memory of Shostakovich, Artificios and Capricho (both exploiting the Russian's famous DSCH motif), show a more traditional brand of modernism. 

Mario Lavista (1943-) was also a Stockhausen pupil, as well as being taught by (among others) Ligeti and Xenakis. His music is very much that of the international avant-garde. A selection of his solo pieces should give you a clear impression of what kind of composer he is, including Madrigal for solo clarinet (1985), El pífano: retrato de Manet for solo piccolo (1989), Cuaderno de viaje for viola/cello (1989) and Natarayah for solo guitar from 1997An interest in John Cage seems to have led to the gentler spirit of Quotations (1976) for cello and piano and most definitely led to the prepared piano piece Jaula (also from 1976), an explicit homage to Cage. From roughly the same period comes Game for one or more flutes (1971). Simurg for piano (1980) and the Cinco preludios en recuerdo a Eduardo Mata (2005) show Lavista writing for conventional piano. Also worth hearing is his Danza de la Bailarinas de Dégas for flute & piano (1991-92). 

With the same year of birth and some of the same teachers - Stockhausen. Xenakis and Ligeti (as well as Messiaen) - Julio Estrada is another leading light of the Mexican avant-garde. Xenakis seems to be the main influence. Estrada's eua-on-ome (1995) is a turbulent orchestral score that has plenty of Xenakis-style ferocity and follows the Greek's example by manipulating dense masses of sound. It re-casts an earlier piece electroacoustic piece eua-on (1980). For more such fierce modernism, please give these other representative Estrada pieces a try (if you dare): Canto Mnémico for string quartet (1973-83); Quotidianus for voice and string quartet (2006); Memorias for piano (1971); Yuunohui'se'ome'yei'nahui for violin, viola concertante, cello and double-bass (1983-90); Miqi'nahual for double-bass (1995); and ishini'ioni for string quartet (1984-1990).

So, the avant-garde swept all before it in post-Moncayo Mexico? Er...

Federico Ibarra
Federico Ibarra (1946-) was taught by the French composer Jean-Etienne Marie, whose main influences were Messiaen and Mexico's very own microtonal master Julián Carrillo (two of my favourite composers!). Ibarra strikes me as a fabulous composer. Listening in sequence and at one sitting (then repeated) through his series of six piano sonatas has been a real pleasure. The first of the sonatas is the most experimental, with its clusters, plays of resonance and Henry Cowell-like insides-of-the-piano writing. Thereafter we journey through a series of what seem to me to be masterpieces. No.2 is a gripping single-movement piece unified by the recurrence of the flourish which opens the piece. The influence of Messiaen emerges most strongly in No.3, a very beautiful work. No.4 is, in my opinion, the best of all. The fierce toccata-like eruption in the first movement is as exciting as the music which it interrupts is beautiful. The slow movement is rapt and withdrawn to begin with but reaches a sustained nightmarish climax of considerable power before withdrawing again. Maybe it's my recent total immersion in Scriabin that makes me think that the swirling, darkly-dancing wonders of No.5 have something of late Scriabin about them. No.6 contains a good deal of delicious, delicate fantasy but also has passage of wild passion. There is an urgent need to get Ibarra's sonatas into the repertoire of leading pianists. That he can be just as compelling when writing for the orchestra is shown by his Second Symphony, subtitled Las Antesalas del Sueño ('The Antechamber of Sleep').  The exciting, nightmarish music towards the end of the work is not, I think, too far removed from a Revueltas rite. His tuneful, tonal one-act opera, Antonieta (concerning the ill-fated Mexican intellectual Antonieta Rivas Mercado, beginning with her suicide in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris), reminds me in more than trivial ways of Puccini. (Tasters of other stage works by this composer can be heard on his own YouTube channel). The song-cycle Navega la ciudad en plena noche, setting a recent poem ('Vaivén') by Octavio Paz, is further proof of Federico Ibarra's gift for conjuring atmosphere.

Another Mexican opera composer whose style has been compared to Puccini - and one whose operas have travelled to the United States - is the late Daniel Catán (1949-2011). For a taste of his neo-Romantic style please try this aria from Rappaccini's Daughter (1991), the opening scene and Paula's aria from his 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas or these short extracts from his 2010 opera Il Postino. The music he wrote for the TV series El Vuelo del Águila ('The Flight of the Eagle') is just as lush. (Korngold, eat your heart out!) There is, however, more than a hint of user-friendly minimalism - mixed with a little Mexican colour - in his Tu son, Tu Risa, Tu Sonrisa for orchestra.  

Next up is one of the best-known names in contemporary Mexican music, Arturo Márquez (1950-). In some ways we return to Mexicana with Márquez, whose choice of Mexican folk music is popular salon music, most famously the somewhat tango-like dance form known as the danzón. The piece that put him on the international map was the Danzón No.2 for orchestra, a piece that begins with a nostalgic but catchy tune on clarinet. This tune then acts in a rondo-like fashion as the piece gradually grows in passion and rhythmic élan. Audiences love it, and why wouldn't they? Apparently, the success of the popular, tuneful Márquez has proved controversial in some quarters - presumably with people who thought they'd seen off music like this decades ago! Mariachi was back! The danzón might be seen as being the composer's answer to the Chôros of Villa-Lobos, as Márquez has turned his Danzónes into a series, each one following a similar form but with a great variety of instrumentation. (Links aplenty: Danzón 1Danzón 3Danzón 4Danzón 5Danzón 8). Now, if you enjoyed those pieces (as I do) you might also like to line to up dance his Conga del Fuego Nuevo
Further listeningLeyenda de Miliano (for orchestra), Marcha a Sonora (a march!), Espejos en la Arena (his cello concerto), Zarabandeo (for flute and piano), Danza de Mediodía (for wind quintet) and Homenaje a Gismonti (for strings).

Moving on, briskly. Ana Lara (1959-) appears to fall firmly into the avant-garde camp if her engaging Y los ojos la luz and Ícaro anything to go by whereas, by what I can judge from extracts from his post_colonial discontinuum and from the opera Decreation/Fight CherriesGuillermo Galindo (1960–) appears post-modernist. Gabriela Ortiz (1964-) is a modernist too, c.f. her Five Micro Etudes for Tape and, rather more conventionally, her string quartet piece La CalacaI'd place flautist/composer Alejandro Escuer (1963-) in this modernist camp too, as per Templos and Trazo III for solo flute. 

Sergio Berlioz
Sergio Berlioz (1963-), in contrast, is an out-and-out Romantic. He writes serious large-scale symphonies and symphonic poems for starters. His exciting orchestral score Toledo: La ciudad de las generaciones is a true symphonic poem and his Fifth Symphony "La luz de Mayo"  (commemorating the 5 May 1862 victory of the Mexican army over occupying French forces) is a big symphonic statement. The Zarabanda para orquesta is neither neo-Classical nor Márquez-like but rather a serious, beautiful piece of old-fashioned writing of the kind a fine British composer of some seventy years ago might have written - and I don't mean that as a back-handed compliment! The quality of Berlioz's writing is exceptional. (I shall have to think of him as 'the other Berlioz' from now on!) Just listen to his gorgeous Dédalos for soprano and string quartet, his luscious yet rather introspective Cello Concerto or his warm Second Divertimento for strings. In my journey through Mexican music, there's been nothing quite like this before. If it sounds like music from my own country's past, so much the better! Mexico clearly never had the pleasure of such music before and is now getting - and, I suspect, enjoying - the experience. 
Further listening: Magma (for string quartet)

On we hurtle through the Bacanal of Armando Luna (1964-) and the rhythmic games of Juan Trigos (1965–) and his Ricercare II to arrive at Javier Torres Maldonado (1968–), another avant-gardist with a taste for electroacoustic music, as his Tiento for cello and electronics shows - as does his Fontane

I'll end though with the youngest composer in my Mexican survey, Enrico Chapela (1974-). Chapela is a typical contemporary composer in his accessible eclecticism, heard at its best in his Ínguesu which, we are told, parallels a football match. The spirit flows on in his solo guitar piece Melate Binario and in his Estropicio innato, ígneo sustrato for rock trio and acoustic quintets. 

OK, I've doubtless missed many a riveting voice of modern Mexican classical music but I hope this short, scatter-gun survey has given you a fair impression of how varied and interesting the contemporary music scene is in Mexico. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

Rum Punches - the Music of Conlon Nancarrow

American or Mexican? Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) spent the last 57 years of his life in Mexico, 41 of them as a Mexican citizen. Either way, Nancarrow is a one-off composer whose stature should make any country proud to claim him.

Nancarrow's music has thankfully shot to prominence in the last forty years, partly after he was acclaimed as the greatest living composer by another great (then) living composer, Ligeti. (Ligeti was amazed to discover that Nancarrow's Study No.20 resembled his own Monument). Music lovers of various hues - lovers of complexity, minimalists and John Cagers, mainstream contemporary types, avant-gardists, others - all began eagerly devouring his music.

From 1951 to 1983 Nancarrow (working in isolation) wrote only for the player piano - also known at the pianolo - in an attempt to realise music that he felt would be impossible for live musicians to perform. With a degree of patient that is quite staggering, he would spend months punching out by hand all the notes on a roll that would, say, comprise a single, four-minute piece. The player piano was a mechanical instrument that could play, as perfectly as the composer intended (without any of the imperfections of a human performance), layer upon layer of independent lines. It could help create music of unprecedented complexity, setting those lines in inhumanly precise and recondite ratios to each other, allowing ultra-sophisticated rhythms that are impossible to notate and creating patterns of cross-rhythms that had never previously been possible to perform. Any sequence of notes was now possible.The instrument could also play music at unheard-of speeds. Massive, perfectly coordinated chords that are beyond a pair of hands and lightning-fast glissandi became possible. As for those lines, counterpoint is one of the main essences of Nancarrow's music. At the heart of his style stand canons. Fiendishly complex canons. The player piano was at their command. 

All this may sound daunting and experimental but this is music that brims with exuberance and is often great fun to hear. It invariably sounds right. I know I'm not the only listener to gasp and laugh out loud many times while listening to Nancarrow's pieces, and I don't doubt for one second that that's just the way he would have wanted it. It can sometimes sound as zany as a Looney Tunes cartoon. It is, simply put, some of the most life-affirming music ever written. 

The early studies often have a strong feel of popular music and jazz. (Nancarrow had been a jazz trumpeter). The world of Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Earl Hines is often a felt presence. Boogie-woogie reigns supreme at times. As time passes, however, Nancarrow's studies lose a lot of their jazziness and become more abstract-sounding, either more Neo-Classical (Bach, Stravinksky, Hindemith) or more pointillist (Webern). They don't, however, become any less engaging.  

As recent virtuosos exceeded the virtuosity of earlier generations, Nancarrow found that some of his 'impossible-for-humans' pieces weren't impossible to perform after all. (Some, however, always will be. They are simply too fast). Also, people began arranging his pieces for ensembles (ranging from two pianos to orchestras). Those by Yvar Mikhashoff were highly influential and remain especially beguiling. (A healthy selection of them can be heard here). I urge you to give them a listen. Click on any number and see what happens!

Studies for player piano
1, 2, 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, 3e, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 1011, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 42, 43, 44, 45a, 45b, 45c, 46, 47, 48c49a, 49b, 49c, 50

Other player piano pieces
For Yoko (1992-3)

Towards the end of his life the composer even began writing for conventional instruments (and living people) again. His early years as a composer, naturally, involved writing for nothing else.  

Early Works for Human Beings
Prelude & Blues for piano (1935) 
Toccata for violin and piano (1935) 
Sonatina for piano (1941) 
Trio No. 1 for clarinet, bassoon, and piano (1942) 
Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1943) 

Late Works for Human Beings 
Tango? (1983) 
Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra (1986) 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Beethoven in Our Alley

Sir Henry Raeburn, Mrs. Robert Scott Moncrieff
A neglected aspect of Beethoven's output is his setting of foreign folk songs, the bulk being from the British Isles. I've just spent a very pleasant hour or so listening to his Schottische Lieder, Op.108, twenty five settings of Scottish folk songs set for solo singer, mixed chorus and piano trio. 
(Wikipedia has a full list of the songs & details of their origins here). 

They came about from a commission from George Thomson, Secretary to the Board for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures in Scotland (who also commissioned Haydn). Mr. Thompson was trying to sell Scotland to the world, with a little help, and sent the tunes across to the composer. 

There are a few things to say about them. The first thing is that, collectively, they are a delight. There are some very catchy tunes and the way Beethoven sets them for different combinations of voices (solos, duets, trios and choruses) as well as their varied moods (from the wistful and romantic to the heroic and playful) makes the experience of listening to them as set a purely pleasurable experience. The violin and the cello add extra layers of colour, even though the piano could easily manage the job of accompanying the singers by itself. They are set in the Classical style and with harmonies to match. Today, after a hundred or more years of hearing folk songs arranged with modal harmonies to match the modal melodies of the originals, it is an initially disconcerting thing - and probably a disappointing one (even for those of us who aren't folk song purists) - to hear them set to conventional tonic-dominant Classical/Romantic harmonies. The ear soon grows accustomed though to this 'unauthentic' treatment and begins to appreciate the tonal harmonies on their old terms. 

Hope you enjoy them. 

As a little bonus, here's one of my favourites, Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie, as played by the Pipes and Drums of the London Scottish Regiment.  

The Group of Four...and some more besides

Rivera, Mercado de flores
OK, let's breeze at a leisurely pace through a few more fascinating Mexican composers.

Luis Sandi (1905-1996), studied with Carlos Chávez There's not much to go on, but what little music I've been able to access suggests that he was a fine mainstream Mexican composer. The third movement of his La Hoja de Plata, for example, begins as a rhythmically-driven, tuneful piece of Mexicana before it abruptly veers into something far more dissonant. (It may be a sign of watching too much news but the rhythm of this central section sounds like Allahu Akbar to me!) The invasion of modernist dissonance soon passes and the tuneful, popular-style music of the opening dances back in. The tempting Scherzino from his Third Symphony may use percussion and has a strong rhythmic element but the themes sound more international than Mexican. Given the quality of that short movement, this is a symphony I'd love to hear in full. The only other piece is a short, pleasant work for viola and piano from 1986 called Hoja de Álbum 2 which sounds like something a minor French composer from the Fauré could have written.

Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910-1956) is an interesting, eclectic figure, a composer of Mexican nationalist religious music (nacionalismo sacro - 'sacred nationalism')Though a friend of Ponce and Revueltas, his teachers were Italian and taught him organ, composition and Gregorian chant. Some of his pieces are openly Neo-Classical, most obviously the elegant Suite "Antigua Valladolid" for piano (where there's a minuet and a gavotte), though the harmonic tartness that usually goes with Neo-Classicism is largely missing. Others combine Neo-Classical currents with shades of post-Debussyan French-style organ harmony - as in the Passacaglia and other pieces from the organ cycle Catedral. Bernal is, however, fully able to provide us with plenty of Mexican colour, as in his colourful orchestral postcards Tres Cartas de México. All the main cross-currents of his style - Gregorian chant, Mexican folk elements, Neo-Classicism, colourful orchestral scoring and organ music - come together, with Poulenc-like abandon, in his Organ Concertino of 1949. One of the composer's more charming compositions is the villancico for organ, Arrullo del Pastorcillo ('The Shepherd's Lullaby'). For a flavour of his Gregorian chant-suffused choral writing, please try the Te Deum Jubilare or his Ave Maria.
Miguel Bernal Jiménez
Next, we come to the Grupo de los cuatro ('Group of Four'), a group of nationalist composers who sought "to use indigenous Mexican musical materials in art-music compositions", as Wikipedia puts it. (That, of course, was am aim shared by many other composers at the time.) By all accounts all four composers were taught by Carlos Chávez in a special composition class, where they consorted with some of our old friends, Reveultas and Huízar, and also got to know Copland. When political pressures forced the closure of the class the four remaining students decided to form the Grupo de los cuatro. 

The oldest member of the group was Daniel Ayala (1906-1975), a composer of Indian extraction. Chávez wasn't his only teacher. Manuel Ponce, Candelario Huízar and Julián Carrillo all had a hand in teaching him to compose. However, Chávez is the teacher who matters if Ayala's most famous work is anything to go by. Tribu ('Tribe') consists of three sections evoking ancient Mayan scenes - On the Plain, The Black Snake and Dance of Fire. The titles show the Chávez 'Aztec' agenda of using Indian melodies and plenty of percussion. It dates from 1934 - that is, before Sinfonia India, which is interesting. It is a highly enjoyable piece and brilliantly orchestrated. What else did he write? Where did he go from there? 

Salvador Contreras (1910–1982) also had Huízar as a composition teacher as well as Chávez. I have only two works for you - which is one more than I had for Ayala, except that I only have extracts! The first is a brief glimpse of his choral piece Corridos which confirms that he was a nationalist composer at one strange. However, all I substantially have for you are the final two movements of his  Fourth String Quartet of 1966. I could say that the slow movement sometimes uses Revueltas-style ostinati to accompany its sombre melodies but that would be clutching at straws for - like Revueltas in his quartets (he says, keeping at it!) - the music ploughs a firmly international path. There is something of the Shostakovich of the string quartets about it, though it has travelled further down the atonal road than Shostakovich ever went. Serialism clearly impacted on Contreras (as it did on Copland), though the music still shows its tonal roots. I like this sort of music and would love to hear the full piece. Maybe someone can perform it alongside a Shostakovich quartet, so as to get the punters in!
Rivera, Muchacha con girasoles
The third member of the Group of Four is a more familiar name to me, Blas Galindo (1910-1993), another composer of Indian extraction. I know him through the Sones de Mariachi, an undemanding work that does get occasional airings in Britain. Mariachi, as you probably know, is Mexico's best-known kind of folk music - one that drew in elements of popular music as it developed. The score comes from 1940 and presents three tunes. It is well-scored and full of enticing cross-rhythms. Galando was taught by another old friend, José Rolón, as well as by Copland and Chávez. Some of Rolón's Neo-Classicism may have rubbed off on Galindo if his Homenaje a Cervantes of 1947 is anything to go by. The Baroque-style movement titles Gavota/Museta, Sarabanda and Giga give that game away. The orchestration remains colourful however. Like Sones de Mariachi, Homenaje de Cervantes makes for pleasant listening without touches any depths. (Not all music needs to touch any depths of course). A different, deeper side to Blas Galindo can be heard in a lovely accompanied choral piece, En noche entristecida ('In saddened night'), which has some interesting harmonies and a beautiful solo soprano part. This piece needs airings in Britain, maybe courtesy of the BBC Singers. Another chorus you (and they) might like to try is La Montaña, which has some intriguing chromatic writing. And, as good things are said to come in threes, I suspect you'll find the calming Me gustas cuando callas a winning piece too. (The title has nothing to do with liking Maria Callas). All three choruses are tonal and international in style. The Neo-Classicist resurfaces in the beautiful Siete Piezas for Piano from 1952, now tinged (as come to think of it were the choruses) with a touch of Ravelian harmony. These are also pieces that would have a wide appeal if pianists took them up. The remaining Mexicana elements in these pieces are faint scents rather than strong perfumes. Like Contreras, he seems to have moved away from the Mexican musical nationalist agenda as time passed. As did Mexico, by all accounts, following the death of my next composer... 

The best-known member of the Grupo de los cuatro, however, was José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958) - another Huízar and Chávez pupil . Many people know (and love) his 1941 Huapango. When I was much younger I would imagine film scenarios to it where I would ride into a Mexican village to save it from Eli Wallach, cheered on by children, and then ride off to the big tune with the loveliest señorita. Yes, it's either that sort of piece or else I was that sort of young man! Huapango uses three very catchy folksongs (el siquisirií, el balajú and el gavilán) and Moncayo scored them to bring out the folk colouring - the trumpets, for example and the call-and-response effects - and add extra percussion and an attractive part for harp. The huapango itself is a dance that combines 2/4, 3/4, and 6/8 time. What results are cross-rhythms. Huapango remains a delightful, uplifting piece. I've pressed the replay button three times tonight already. 
José Pablo Moncayo
Now, what else did Moncayo write? Well, there's a symphonic poem called Tierra de Temporal (1949) for starters (does this translate as 'Land of Time'?) This does seem to me to be a masterpiece and I would place it as one of my main discoveries on this journey. In the phrase 'symphonic poem' I would place emphasis on both words. Moncayo does place some Mexican folk melodies at the heart of the piece but they are threads woven into a tapestry of the greatest beauty. There is a definite flavour of Aaron Copland in this piece - the Copland of slow movements - and I reckon the American would have felt proud to have penned something so radiant as this gentle, glowing orchestral score.

Huapango has been such a hit that it has obscured everything else by this composer. The more I hear the sadder this becomes. Another symphonic poem, Bosques ('Forests') from 1954, is almost in the same league as Tierra de Tempora. Again, the Aaron Copland-like feel of the music is plain to hear but with it go some native Indian-inspired passages. Moving to the early stage of his career, Impressionist underpinnings are heard to good effect in Amatzinac, for solo flute and string quartet (or string orchestra), where the flute plays modal melodies against a quiet and mysterious backdrop of strings before the piece erupts in an energetic Indian dance. Ostinatos underpin the slow dance that follows before another fast dance bursts out. The music, however, ends mysteriously. Amatzinac (named after a river in Mexico) is another cracking piece. The Chávez-inspired Indian side of Moncaya's pieces can also be heard in the attractive short opera La mulata de Córdoba (1948), based on an old Mexican folktale about an unaging black enchantress who vanishes in a cloud of fire just before the Inquisition can execute her. I'm also very taken by the Sinfonietta (1945).

For a taste of what Moncayo sounds like without orchestral clothes, please try his likable Viola Sonata (1934) and Muros verdes for piano (1951).

The death of José Pablo Moncayo in 1958 is thought to be one of the most significant landmarks on our journey through Mexican musical history as it is said to mark the end of the nationalist school in Mexico. What came next?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Revueltas, the Sharpener

A series of quietly interlocking ostinatos on horns and low woodwinds begins. Over this drowsy backdrop (strongly suggestive of a hot, sultry, summer afternoon) a flute plays a wisp of melody in its highest register then disappears. The drowsy backdrop of interlocking ostinatos continues and a cor anglais enters varying and expanding  the wisp of melody into a fuller melody.The flute joins it and then they both stop. The drowsy backdrop of interlocking ostinatos continues. The flute re-sings its wisp of melody and the cor anglais re-sings its full-blown melody in counterpoint with it. A clarinet joins in. Soon there's a babble of them at it and the music breaks down. New ostinatos weave a new drowsy backdrop and new wisps of melody are spun into a melodies that are set against each other until there's another mêlée. Everyone stops, except for a bassoon who tootles on until realising and then stops itself. The process begins anew and there's an exciting climax where instruments join together to sing a sharply-etched melodic phrase. A pause takes us back to the start as if the piece is beginning all over again. After one-run through two groups of three players play alternating, slightly dissonant chords and the flute plays its high-register wisp of melody one last time adding its last note to the final chord. 

We have been visited by the Sharpener, El afilador - the first masterpiece of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the wild man of modern Mexican music. The piece, in its 1929 reincarnation, is for wind septet, though it was written for violin and piano in 1924. The wind-sound of the septet version was to remain a key feature of Revueltas's music throughout his short composing career, until his alcoholism-induced early death. So were the ostinatos, strong rhythms and the memorable melodies - and the humour. Where does the powerful soundworld of El afilador come from? Many places no doubt, some never existing prior to appearing fully-formed in the composer's head. You could say though that there's something of the Prélude à la nuit from Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole about it, albeit severely toughened up by the more acid style of post-Rite Stravinsky (pieces like The Soldier's Tale) or the instrumental innovations of Edgard Varèse (as in, say, Octandre)

Revueltas remains (in the world's eye), along with his one-time friend Chávez, Mexico's most famous composer. He is a rougher, tougher-sounding composer than Chávez and his scores can be dark and exciting. Probably his best-known piece, Sensemayá, evokes chanting during the ritual killing of a snake. Even in its full orchestral version, the sharp wind sonorities help given it that unique Revueltas sound, as do the ostinatos, the strong rhythms and the memorable melodies. Even though the ritual evoked is Afro-Cuban in origin, the music does have something of the character of Chávez's Aztec-style pieces, with percussion to the fore, but Revueltas's ritual is more primitive-sounding, more pungent, more dissonant that Chávez's equivalent pieces. (I wouldn't say scarier though, as the climax of Sinfonia India is one of the scariest passages of music I know). Comparisons are often made to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and they are understandable, but I've long suspected that the aggressive sections of Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin might be a more fruitful comparison. The percussion writing here and in La noche de los mayas doubtless owes something to the example of the composer's friend from the North, Varèse. Just listen to the rhythm established at 1.00 into the French-born American's ground-breaking Ionisation and then re-listen to the start of Sensemayá and I hope you'll see what I'm getting at. (Surely I can't have been the first to spot that?!) Whatever the influences, Sensemayá is a masterly, gripping score. 

As is La noche de los mayasIf it has moments, such as at the very start, where it sounds as if it would make a fabulous soundtrack for, say, a tragic romantic drama set among the ruins of old Mayan temples and a tribe of people still living in same way as their ancient ancestors, well that's precisely how it started out. It's interesting to see the list of the percussion instruments used in the score - 2 snare drums (one without snare), bongos, Indian drum, tom tom, deep conga, caracol (conch shell), guiro, metal rattle, tam-tam, tumkul (2 deep woodblocks of different pitch), xylophone, piano. (Varèse would surely have been proud of him!) In the course of the music you will hear brooding monumental music interrupted by lyricism, then scherzo-like music in the form of the half-Spanish/half-native Jarana dance followed by a passionate and sensuous slow movement led by the strings interrupted by a sad flute-and-percussion-led Mayan song, and then an increasingly wild closing section as the brass and percussion begin to have a field-day which ends with a sacrificial dance (shades of Sensemayá and the Rite of Spring, of course). The score, like so many by Revueltas, pulses with energy.

Knowing Sensemayá and La noche de los mayas, I happened to listen to a Revueltas string quartet a decade or so ago and got a shock. I think it would be fair to say that the string quartets are not the place to go for easy listening! They are all short and serious in intent. They tend to alternate fierce passages with lyrical ones and, while not being remotely twelve-tone they skirt atonality, especially in the fierce sections. (Presumably this arises out of bitonality or polytonality). They all came in quick succession - Quartet No.1 (1930), Quartet No.2 (1931), Quartet No.3 (1931) and Quartet No.4 (1932). The Fourth Quartet, my favourite, is subtitled 'Musica de Feria' ('Music of the Fair') and contains just about the only Mexican-sounding tune in the whole cycle. Like Bartok (whose spirit seems closest in these works), Revueltas asks his players to use several extended techniques and some of the most attractive moments in the quartets come when they employ ethereal harmonies. The Fourth contains such a passage, which contrasts well with the boisterous, dissonant writing found elsewhere. As for its slightly earlier companions, I'd like to steer you towards the fine Misterioso y fantastico slow movement of the Third Quartet. If you like Bartok's quartets, you'll also like that (I hope).

After all those toughies, it's high time for a duet between a duck and a canary! Dúo para pato y canario for soprano and small ensemble is a delight. Some of the snatches of instrumental melody are typical Revueltas, though the soundworld has traces of Ravel and Stravinsky about it. 

The piece that brought Revueltas to the world's attention was the symphonic poem Cuauhnáhuac, named after a Mexico city, Cuernavaca. This was one of a series of pieces the composer called 'picture postcards', colourful, earthy, vibrant pieces which the phrase 'picture postcards' doesn't do justice to. Here the Mexican folk spirit that is found in other nationalist Mexican pieces and was also to be found in Copland's El Salón México is heard in characteristically rowdy and unairbrushed fashion. Copland surely knew Revueltas's international hit of 1931 when he wrote his El Salón México in 1936. Did it inspire him? Or did the very direct and wholly enjoyable Janitzio of 1933, which sounds remarkably prophetic of more than one famous Copland piece still to come?  The form was something the composer also called a "sound mural", drawing direct parallels with the famous painters of post-revolutionary Mexico. Other "sound murals" include the bracing Ventanas (windows with attitude - and then some!) and the light-hearted and highly entertaining Caminos (another one which might have inspired Copland, and which should be heard far and wide as audiences would love it). 

Diego Rivera, Baile en Tehaunpec
The picture is building up of a complex, first-rate composer, closely attuned to the international modern scene but ready, willing and able to turn a hand at writing music that would appeal to the Mexican (and international) masses. Revueltas was a man closely involved in the post-revolutionary politics of his country and left-wing politics generally, as you might have guessed. He famously went over to Spain to fight against General Franco in that country's civil war. One of his best-known pieces is the Hommaje a Federico García Lorca, written after the poet was shot by members of a Nationalist militia (for reasons and in circumstances that still remain uncertain). If you have never heard it before it's not what you would expect a piece written in such circumstances to be, i.e. it's not a wholly elegiac piece, nor is an angry protest piece. No, it's a fascinating and completely convincing mix of rowdy, cheerful festive music and laments (particularly from a solo trumpet). The outer movements are were the bulk of the celebratory music lies, with the final section sounding not unlike mariachi music, while the central Duelo is the main lament. One of Revueltas's complex ostinati weaves plays a key role here and the movement is marked by a searingly dissonant climax. This is one of the great works of the 20th century - if only most of the world knew it.

A social protest film called 'Nets' was the starting point for another Revueltas classic, Redes. As befits a protest film, the emotions are tugged at by 'a child's funeral' and other such manipulative scenes. Despite such unpromising beginnings, the conductor Erich Kleiber wrung a symphonic poem of great power from the film score. A bossy, brassy opening soon yields to the moving, elegiac funeral march for the starved-to-death child. As you would expect from this composer there is also plenty of energetic music, some with a Mexican flavour. The final section sets up a characteristic ostinato on strings and builds a satisfying, brassy climax over it. 

After Redes something lighter is needed. How about a song about frogs? Ranas is such a song. Brilliant orchestration and touches of true Revueltas gives this Stravinsky-song-like rarity a real lift. And, just as entertaining, the Ocho por radio, a light-hearted Mexican octet, Revueltas-style. Typically, this is no ordinary octet line-up. There are two violins, double-bass, cello, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet...and an Indian drum. 

I hope that will give you a good flavour of this complex, appealing composer. If you want more (and I hope you do), here's some more of the best of Revueltas (and, boy, some of it is going to make your day):