Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 4 Amazing Grace

Ben Johnston

String Quartet No. 4 Amazing Grace

Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 is a one-movement work based on the hymn Amazing Grace. The ten-minute work includes a wide range of textures and styles. Although often overlook in his field, Johnston has firm command over the compositional techniques used in this piece. Unfortunately, the composer’s lack of prominence and the piece’s difficulty have kept this work from being included in the canon.

Born in 1926, Johnston’s was recognized at an early age for having a keen ear and grew up studying piano and composing (Von Gunden 3). He has become known for his work with composer Harry Partch. As Partch’s apprentice, for six months, he helped with the construction of instruments and the performance of Partch’s music (Gann 85). In his own work, Johnston focused on just intonation and the use of other non-standard tuning on regular instruments. Aside from Partch, other composers such as John Cage and Darius Milhaud also influenced Johnston.

As a composer, Johnston has a small but concentrated output. His compositions are generally written for small groups of instruments or singers and encompass a wide range of twentieth century compositional techniques. Amazing Grace is the fourth of ten string quartets. The piece can be performed alone or as the final movement of a larger programmatic work, entitled “Crossings.” “Crossings” includes three movements, Verging (String Quartet No. 3), The Silence (actual silence), and The Ascent (String Quartet No. 4). Quartet No. 3 is serial and Quartet No. 4 is tonal; Johnston uses the series to represent his abandonment of serialism for tonality (Von Gunden 138). This change in Johnston’s compositional style is largely a reflection of the depression and mental health issues he was experiencing at the time (Von Gunden 139).

Although the quartet is written in one large movement, it is divided into sections each containing different sounds and textures. As it progresses, the work becomes increasingly complex in rhythm and number of pitches used (Gann 88). The piece begins with the melody to Amazing Grace based on a Pythagorean pentatonic scale in Johnston’s key of G minus (Gann 87). This initial statement of the melody is folk-like and reminiscent of fiddle playing particularly in the use of ornaments. In the next section, the rhythmic complexity begins to grow as several players provide a pizzicato rhythmic underpinning while others share a variation on the main melody. A short transitional section follows, hinting at influences of jazz. During this portion all members of the quartet return to bowed playing and continue to bend the original melody. The next variation is extremely complex with a 36/35 rhythmic ratio between the cello and viola (Von Gunden 142). The playing in the upper strings in spirited and virtuosic, incorporating double stops and combating parts. The next variation provides a stark contrast by featuring a somber version of the melody inverted and played by the viola. It has an Asian or eastern sound, alluding to another type of folk music. This is followed by a short section of interplay among parts. The variation that follows is frenzied and minimalist in nature, featuring the melody played in harmonics. The next section is fast, virtuosic, and improvisatory, eventually making its way to the final variation, a completely transformed version of the melody.

Aside from the decidedly avant-garde aspects of the piece, Johnston experiments heavily with folk music. I was drawn to this work because its folk-like qualities reminded me of several things I’ve heard before. The first was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Johnston created a similar type of composition by taking a folksong and manipulating in to create variations on the original. It also contains many aspects of “American” sounding music, for which Copland is famous, such as open spacing of sonorities and syncopated rhythms. The quartet, especially the beginning, also reminded me of the Appalachian and American fiddle music crossover projects that musicians like violinist Mark O’Connor and string bassist Edgar Meyer have been involved with more recently. Like Johnston, O’Connor and Meyer combine American folk music tradition with newer compositional techniques. In this way Ben Johnston is tied to the use of folk music in the classical genre both before and after his composition of this piece.

In the case of Johnston’s 4th String Quartet both the piece and composer have their merits. Johnston is typically only recognized as an extension of other composers; however, he does have innovations of his own. With this quartet he has managed to create an unusual phenomenon, a work that is musically fulfilling to a general audience despite its exceptional complexity. As Johnston says in a published interview, “… [the] piece is one of my most accessible. It really is art concealing art, because listeners have no idea how complex it is” (Keislar, et al. 183). This still creates a large problem. Who is going to play it? Even with the some of the most talented players of our time, this piece has remained almost untouched. In order to gain prestige it will have to make its way on to the concert stage. Perhaps future generations will embrace its difficulty, but until then it must remain outside the canon.

Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Schirmer Books, 1997.

Keislar, Douglas, Easly Blackwood, John Eaton, Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, Joel Mandelbaum, and William Schottstaedt. “Six American Composers on Nonstandard Tunings.” Perspectives of New Music 29, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 176-211.

Von Gunden, Heidi. The Music of Ben Johnston. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press,


Monday, March 29, 2010

Alexander Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony Op. 18

In his Lyric Symphony, Alexander Zemlinsky combines a variety of immerging musical ideas into a hybrid of early twentieth century genre and style. Written for baritone, soprano and orchestra, this work is a seven-movement crossbreed between a symphony and an opera (Beaumont). The work is also known for incorporating diverse compositional styles ranging from impressionism to atonality. Although Zemlinsky weaves an unusual array of musical techniques into his eclectic sound, he avoids making any new innovations of his own.

As a composer, Alexander Zemlinksky primarily wrote for voice in the form of Opera and song. His instrumental works are fewer and include chamber music, orchestral works, and piano pieces. Zemlinsky’s music is unique because it draws on the ideas of a varied group of composers including: Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Brahms, Ravel, and Berg, many of whom he knew personally. Like numerous composers of his time, Zemlinsky was also a prominent conductor, holding posts in famous musical cities such as Vienna, Prague, and Berlin (Oncley). His work as a conductor introduced him to large-scale works by major composers, such as Mahler, whom he later came to admire. In this way, his conducting had a profound impact of his compositional style.

Lyric Symphony Op. 18, one of Zemlinsky’s most important pieces, was premiered in 1924 at the International Society for New Music in Prague. He used text from a set of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian writer, entitled The Gardener. Zemlinsky carefully selected seven poems from the set and arranged them as a type of dialogue between a man and a woman longing for love. He used a German translation of Tagore’s poems, which were originally written in English. The seven songs in Lyric Symphony are performed continuously without breaks between movements. The soprano and tenor never sing together, instead they take turns singing alternating movements.

The first movement begins with a gallant and stately introduction, setting the stage for the baritone’s character. The baritone sings of his great desire to see other lands and to go beyond what he knows. It is a song of yearning to experience new things and foreshadows the new experiences both characters are about to discover. The second movement introduces the soprano’s character. She sings a light, peasant-like song about her excitement that the prince is going to pass by her door. She later tells that she threw her ruby necklace at him even though he didn’t notice. This movement establishes the contrasting lives of the two characters. The third movement returns to the baritone in a dream-like song. The melody is passionate and flowing as he sings about the night sky and love. The fourth movement is the sopranos night song, however, her’s has a slightly different tone. She sings about how day will come and they will see each other but go their separate ways. The tonality twists and the orchestration is sparse with frequent interjections from a solo violin. The fifth movement is fast paced and fiery. The baritone sings that he wants to be freed back to the light so that he can offer his love. In the sixth movement the music becomes increasingly atonal. The soprano sings of how her heart is hurting and worries that they will forget their love when day comes. The baritone finishes the work with the seventh movement. He refers to their parting, suggesting they consider it not “death but completion” (Beaumont). At the end of the movement turmoil builds in the orchestra but then resolves into a dream-like state and floats to a pleasant ending. Both the sixth and seventh movements bring back material form earlier movements, similar to a leitmotiv. The piece has a thick and complex orchestral texture and requires strong operatic voices and careful interpretation for all parts to be heard (Gorrell).

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony is a combination of such a wide array of styles, it is difficult to compare it to just one type of early twentieth century music. Like many other composers of his time, Zemlinsky was experimenting with new ideas. However, several styles are specifically referenced in the work. One example is his use of an ethereal orchestral texture in several movements, particularly those taking place at night. This technique is attributed to the influence of Debussy and Ravel. Zemlinsky is also said to have written his symphony with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in mind, intending to pay homage to the composer (Gorrell). The two works have important similarities in form and in the use of text by non-western writers. Lyric Symphony, in turn provided inspiration for another work, Berg’s Lyric Suite that quotes the symphony’s third song.

I was originally drawn in by the unusual timbre of this piece. I was surprised by Zemlinsky’s ability to capture so many different styles. He combined the sounds of everything that was going on around him, impressionism, late romantic symphonic writing, atonality, exoticism, primitivism, and more. I was also fascinated by his use of Tagore’s poetry. He arranged seven unrelated poems into a type of story. The characters have a strange connection, even though they are singing about their individual experiences, they are also singing to each other.

Zemlinsky created Lyric Symphony by combining a wide range of styles, an innovation of sorts. At the same time, by copying other composers he avoided inventing a musical style of his own. Composers like Debussy and Mahler are known for shaping music into something it hadn’t been before, which is why they’re considered great composers. Zemlinsky didn’t do this; he just took their ideas and used them in his music. Although I like his work, this is the main reason I feel it isn’t currently in the canon and should not be added. Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony is a fascinating piece but lacks originality.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spohr's Symphony No. 6 Op. 116

Although long forgotten, Louis Spohr was a prolific musician in his time, highly revered as a composer, violinist, conductor, and teacher. As a composer, Spohr maintained a close connection to his teaching and playing, similar to piano composers Chopin and Liszt (Kolneder). He wrote in many genres but favored his own instrument; his large output for the violin includes fifteen concertos and numerous chamber pieces. Spohr also wrote a treatise, Violinschule, which had a profound impact on how the violin was taught and played (Eddy). His non-violin works include four clarinet concertos, several operas and oratorios, a relatively small amount of piano music, and ten symphonies. Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 Op. 116 (Historical) was written in 1839, 2 years after his highly acclaimed Symphony No. 5. The four-movement work contains a wide variety of characters, tempos, and moods, each representing a different stylistic era. The first movement is a Largo – Grave in the style of Bach and Handel (1720), the second movement is a Larghetto in the style of Haydn and Mozart (1780), the third movement is a Scherzo in the style of Beethoven (1810), and the final movement is an Allegro vivace in the “new” style (1840). He sought to create a musical timeline, showcasing the development of music from the Baroque through the music of his time. Theoretically, his idea was innovative; in real life it was a disappointment.

The work begins with a stately “tip of the hat” to two prominent Baroque era composers, Bach and Handel, showing his knowledge of the primary stylistic features of both. To represent Bach, Spohr includes fugue, imitation, and extensive development of ideas. He also explores beautiful melodic material in the style of Handel. Although the movement is rich in aspects of Baroque composition, those aspects are heavily romanticized. There is no question for the listener about the origins of the piece, it is clearly not written by a composer from 1720. The second movement, intended to emulate Haydn and Mozart, is full of late 18th century trademarks. Beautiful arpeggiated melodic passages flow throughout the movement. Spohr also creates a strong sense of harmonic push and pull typical of this era of music. Disappointingly, as the movement lingers on the melody becomes mundane and unlikely dissonances begin to slip in. The third movement is dedicated entirely to Beethoven and features an increased contrast in dynamics and stylistic features. Spohr includes numerous Beethoven-like manipulations of melodic material. The listener can also feel the continuous build to the end. For the final movement Spohr attempts to satirize a modern compositional style of his time, Grand Opera. The movement is quirky and joking, showing an unmistakable resemblance to the music of opera composers like Rossini and Auber. Through this composition, Spohr shows his feelings toward past and current music.

Despite the success of his other works, Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 was never well received, a fact attributed to issues surrounding the fourth movement. For the “new” style, Spohr wanted to make a joke about the quality of French opera music being produced at the time. The problem was that many of his audience members enjoyed this style of opera and did not find his joke funny. The movement was heavily criticized and its reputation destroyed immediately. In fact, it was so poorly received that the audience of the work’s London premier actually hissed (Powell). Even Spohr’s good friend Felix Mendelssohn diplomatically suggested that Spohr should have included some of his original work instead of the mocking finale (Brown).

Listening to Spohr’s music, I found it appealing but not revolutionary. Even though the piece was written for a full orchestra, he seemed to favor the strings, especially the violins. I also felt the symphony was overly repetitive and at times lacked a flow of new musical material. Spohr was clearly a talented musician and a well-trained composer but he did not have his colleagues’ creative genius. As a result, his fall from fame is simple to trace. What I find fascinating about this work is the unique window to the past it provides for the listener. The way Spohr wrote each movement provides us with information about how he viewed different composers and styles. He pays homage to great composers of the Baroque era (Bach and Handel) in one movement and to great composers of the Classical era (Haydn and Mozart) in the next. He then gives Beethoven his own movement, showing how highly Beethoven was respected at the time. Spohr commits his last movement to poking fun at the “newest” style of music, which he clearly viewed as inferior to the other three. Interestingly, the opinions that he expressed in his music almost two centuries ago still prevail today.

Two main factors keep this piece out of the Canon of Western Music: the works original perception and the reaction of today’s listener. Unfortunately, most listeners were against this piece form the beginning. Spohr made a critical mistake by underestimating the controversy the fourth movement of his work would create. The mocking tone of the final movement offended audience members causing the piece to lose support while it was still new. Modern listeners aren’t as concerned with this aspect of the piece as they are with others. Today, performances and recordings of the music of composers such as Bach and Mozart are abundant. So if someone wants to hear their music, they have ample opportunity. In Spohr’s time this was less common. The way he copied the style of older composers would have been more interesting to listeners at the time than now. In today’s society his music sounds like a knock-off. If people are going to listen to Bach, they want the real thing. This makes Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 less noteworthy to modern listeners. Both of these aspects factor heavily into why this piece is not more commonly heard.

Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 (Historical) was an intriguing idea that did not turn out as planned. Controversy destroyed the work when it premiered and mediocrity has kept it from gaining prestige today. The one advantage the piece has is its ability to freeze history. One composer’s views on the music before and during his time are documented in this work. I agree that it should not be part of the canon. When compared to standard compositions from this time period, musically it doesn’t hold up; however, as a part of history, Spohr’s Symphony No. 6 is truly unique.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp K. 299

Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto is a charming piece that exhibits many of his strengths as composer. Like most concertos of the period, it consists of three movements: Allegro, Andantino, and Rondo. Each movement is approximately eight to ten minutes long, depending on the tempo chosen by the performers. The work is a double concerto written for two solo instruments, flute and harp, accompanied by a small orchestra. In general the concerto shares many stylistic features with Mozart’s other works, especially his two Flute Concerti. The outer movements are playful and jovial while the second movement is more lyrical and flowing. He also places emphasis on the tonic and dominant of the key, an important practice at this point in music history.

I personally enjoy this piece. All three movements exhibit different characteristics while maintaining a beautiful singing quality throughout. The piece begins with a torrent of sheer classical brilliance. When the flute and harp enter the orchestra backs away to let their delicacy shine through. The second movement is a display of rich melodic material. While maintaining the beauty of the piece, Mozart allows this movement to drive. The final movement returns the listener to the exuberance of the first movement, and even beyond. The flute and harp have sounds that intertwine to provide a unique chamber ensemble within the concerto, a welcome contrast to music pairing flute with pianoforte or harpsichord. This concerto contains the essential elements of composition during its era, while also highlighting a unique branch of Mozart’s work.

Mozart’s views on the flute, as an instrument, are fiercely debated. Based on the contents of a letter written to his father (while working on an earlier commission), many say that Mozart did not care for the flute. In the letter he tells his father, “…you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument that I can not bear (Morgan).” The controversy is whether he actually meant what he was saying or was just making an excuse for not finishing the commission his father had written him an angry letter about (Morgan). Some say that Mozart’s dislike for the instrument could have stemmed from the poor quality of instruments being built and the lack of musicianship on the part of flutists, many of which were amateurs (Bowers). The flute of Mozart’s time was very different from the flute of today. Instruments used in the classical era had extensive intonation problems and a limited range of expressive qualities. Mozart composed his Flute and Harp Concerto for the wooden 6-keyed flute, a recent improvement upon the 4-keyed flute (Solum). The man who commissioned this work in 1778, Duc de Guines, had recently brought back one of these instruments from London, as they were not being produced in Paris at the time (Solum). Duc de Guines was a wealthy amateur flutist with a daughter who played harp and studied composition with Mozart. According to a letter Mozart wrote to his father, he thought highly of them both as musicians (Bowers). Although Mozart may not have been fond of writing for the flute, (as he mainly wrote for it on commission) he seems to have had more favorable conditions for this concerto than his other flute works. This perhaps accounts for the particularly joyous quality of the piece.

Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp remains outside the Canon of Western Music for several reasons. Most obviously, this concerto is not a masterwork. Major operas and symphonies, written for important people and grand events are more likely to find their way into history books. This concerto was written on the side to make extra money (Feury and Martens). Also, the flute and harp are not historically considered to be influential solo instruments, such as the piano and the violin. At the time they was merely seen as orchestral instruments and popular hobbies for wealthy amateurs. Finally, there is the matter of Mozart’s views on the flute. Whether he truly disliked the instrument or not, the comment he included in the letter to his father does create a prejudice, leading some to believe that he put less effort into this Concerto and his other works for flute.

In addition to being outside the canon, this piece also rests outside the core of the flute repertoire. This is puzzling because many of Mozart’s other works for flute are frequently played: his G Major and D Major Flute Concertos being especially popular. In fact, most flutists spend a lifetime studying Mozart’s two Flute Concerti, which are both regularly seen on orchestral audition list. Somewhere along the line the Flute and Harp Concerto has been overlooked, primarily because of its instrumentation. Unfortunately in the “Concert Series” setup of today, concertos with two soloists are not particularly convenient. Coordinating for two musicians to fly in and perform together can be difficult. Orchestras often have only minimal time to rehearse with guest artists, which complicates the matter further. The concerto’s dual instrumentation also prevents it from being used in competitions and auditions intended for a single soloist. Many pieces gain popularity because of their accessibility to students for such events. It’s important to note that the Flute and Harp Concerto is not the only double concerto to be swept under the rug. The Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello has also gotten lost in western music. Even though it contains many of the same desirable attributes as the famed Brahms Violin Concerto, the double concerto receives considerably less attention. A concerto with only one soloist is simply more practical.

Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is a beautiful piece despite the technicalities that surround it. Although lovely, this piece is lacking when compared to Mozart’s most important works, and thus has been left out of the canon, a decision I uphold. There is simply nothing monumental about it; the concerto is a typical example of Mozart’s commission work for amateurs. However, it definitely deserves a better place in the flute repertoire. Flutists have a sparse selection of concertos from this era, so there is no reason to avoid this one. This concerto may not be a masterwork but it is well composed and pleasing to the ear.