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x2 Program Notes: Renaissance to the 20th Century

Please enjoy the program notes for tomorrow night’s x2 Concert: Renaissance to the 20th Century. These program notes were created as part of Project Resonance, the Music Academy’s unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UC Santa Barbara are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival. *** GIOVANNI GABRIELI Sonata pian’ e forte Venice—Saturday, August 6th, 1611 It is a cool, sunny fall day. The gentle Venetian breeze carries with it the scent of the fish market and canals. A young boy stands watching a road traversed by throngs of people—noblemen and ladies wearing furs and golden and multicolored embroidery befitting their station; businessmen, some sporting the latest imported fashions; regular parishioners of Saint Rocco’s church, many displaying their symbols of Saint Rocco (dogs, or figurines of the Saint himself). Some in the crowd have no clue what they are doing there, but with all this fuss, there must be something grand in store. An old man hobbles determinedly along, his walking stick and boots worn and mud-stained from his travels. All are making their way to a large building with a pillar-lined facade of white marble. “What is in that building?” the boy asks the weary traveler. “It is the Feast of Saint Rocco,” he replies. “When I was a young man, I went to the feast for the first time. I heard the most exquisite music there is to hear in all of Christendom, and I vowed to return one day before my death. I have walked 150 miles from my village to hear this music one last time.” With that, the man turned and passed serenely into the marble hall.
The music of which the old man spoke was that of Giovanni Gabrieli and his Venetian contemporaries. We know from a firsthand account by Thomas Coryat (famous as the bringer of the fork to old England), of the unique beauty achieved by the Venetian musicians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Coryat claims “. . . I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life both in the morning and the afternoon, so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles afoote at any time to heare the like.” There are several reasons for the eminence of the Venetian school during this time. Trade and geographic location brought immense wealth to the port city, which not only gave the Venetians a reason to simply display it, but also the ability to attract the most skilled musicians at the time. Venice became a gestation chamber for experimenting with the newest sonic devices, namely echo effects, as well as antiphonal arrangements (two or more groups of musicians on opposite sides of a space). The piece heard on today’s program displays both of these techniques. Gabrieli was a pragmatic man, and while dedicated to his craft, he also understood the importance of allowing one’s ideas to get out into the world. He worked intensely to edit and publish much of his Uncle Andrea’s music, as he felt himself “a little less than a son” to him. This will to disseminate his music in an authentic fashion is probably what led him to notate dynamics that were most certainly already being used in performance practice—the name of the piece, Sonata pian’ e forte, comes directly from the markings piano (soft) and forte (loud). This led German biographer Carl von Winterfeld to erroneously claim that Gabrieli “invented dynamics.”
In the background, there was an even deeper motivation behind the music of Gabrieli, one that was born in the religious turmoil of the 1500s and is still at work today. In order for the church to work as intended, people needed to be members. The music and architecture of the Venetians was a consequence of wealth, but also a call by the Catholic church that they had more to offer than a way to save one’s soul. The inclusion of the pageantry of instrumental and vocal music in services was part of a concerted effort by the Catholic Church to retain its power over the hearts and minds of Europe. Thomas Coryat’s account of the festival of Saint Rocco describes what was essentially a three-hour concert in honor of the saintly protector against infectious diseases (Very fitting for our current time). While the motivation was religious, the performance was truly one of the earliest examples of chamber music that would move north to Germany and eventually dominate the 19th century and concert halls today. Today’s performance is also a culmination of evolving concert norms and evolving instruments. The instruments Gabrieli wrote for were softer and mellower in their sound, incapable of the brilliance of modern brass playing. The original instrumentation called for two choirs of four members each; the first a cornetto (a cross between a recorder and a trumpet) and three sackbuts (trombones without flared bells), the second a viola da braccio (early violin) and three sackbuts. The music once used to venerate and honor Saints is now used to venerate and honor its composer—but the chief element of the appreciation of human expression has remained constant for 400 years. – Connor Alexander Rowe, Academy fellow, trombone
MAURICE RAVEL Introduction and Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, Flute, and Clarinet  Pleyel vs. Érard. This rivalry was the talk of Paris’ music scene in 1904. Upon the invention of the chromatic harp, the Pleyel company, a Parisian manufacturer of pianos and harps, reached out to famed composer Claude Debussy to write a piece to showcase their new achievement. The instrument he was tasked with writing for was unlike previous harps in that it had no pedals. Conventional harps of the time were made with seven pedals, one for each upper or lower accidental in the diatonic scale; Pleyel’s chromatic harp did away with them all together in favor of more strings. Each string now had a specific note assigned to it much like a piano, creating two rows of strings comparable to the relationship between white and black keys. The resulting composition was his Danse sacrée et danse profane, written for harp and orchestra. Though Debussy’s work was well received, and still exists in the repertoire today, the chromatic harp would go extinct soon after the Érard company fired back with its own instrument. The double-action pedal harp was the newest model at the Érard company, retaining its seven pedals and featuring the newest mechanics the instrument could offer. Like Pleyel with Debussy, the Érard company commissioned Maurice Ravel to write a piece that featured their instrument and all of the technical possibilities it offered to a composer. He then began work on his Introduction and Allegro. Scored for harp, flute, clarinet, and a string quartet, the forces used in this septet are meant to surround and support the harp, making the advertisement for Érard’s instrument even more enticing.
Ravel wrote the piece at a remarkable pace in an attempt to finish it before going on a holiday with friends. That rush to complete it does not show in the work itself, as the piece is polished, refined, and holds its own next to other works in the composer’s output. Curiously, Ravel omitted the piece from his own catalogue, possibly because he wrote it so quickly or felt that it did not deliver to the usual standards to which he held himself. Ravel did not produce as many works during his life as other contemporaries such as Debussy or Gabriel Fauré, but every one of his pieces is so intricately and meticulously written that it would seem a detail-oriented composer like him would wish to have had more time to write the Introduction and Allegro. This may be the reason for its omission in Ravel’s mind. Sixteen-year-old Micheline Kahn, a famed harpist of her time who won the Conservatoire de Paris’ prize for harp two years prior, was selected to perform the harp solo at the work’s premiere on February 22, 1907 in Paris. Érard’s harp reigned victorious, and Pleyel’s faded into history. One key difference between Debussy and Ravel’s works written for these two instruments is that Ravel was ultimately able to utilize a fuller spectrum of techniques and colors available on the instrument. An absolutely magical moment occurs near the end of the cadenza where the harp plays the second opening melody with harmonics while simultaneously playing glissandos high above the texture. This is one of the many techniques that would not have been possible on Pleyel’s harp, and it shows how well Ravel adapted to writing for Érard’s advertising needs. Such a wide range of sounds simply was not available to Debussy while he was writing for Pleyel. Though both composers were at the height of their careers when asked to write these pieces, Ravel demonstrated an awareness of his music’s purpose, which shows that a commercial containing all the features of a product can make or break its success.
– Benjamin Pawlak, Academy fellow, collaborative piano
CLAUDE-PAUL TAFFANEL Wind Quintet in G Minor The Wind Quintet in G Minor is of the few great romantic works for this type of ensemble, and yet it’s unlikely that most people have heard of Paul Taffanel beyond this piece. Often, one encounters works by an otherwise-unknown composer that have become standard repertoire simply because they fill a gap. But if this wind quintet fills a gap in the genre, perhaps that’s precisely what Taffanel intended.
As flute professor at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century, Taffanel was one of the first French musicians to introduce the oeuvre of J.S. Bach, as well as other 18th-century composers like Handel and Mozart, to his students. The French had mostly ignored the revival of Bach across Europe sparked by the young Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 with an extremely successful and unprecedented performance of the St. Matthew Passion. But with six flute sonatas and a Partita for solo flute, Bach’s music amounted to a substantial repertoire for the instrument. Taffanel preferred that his students learn these serious masterpieces as opposed to much of the 19th-century flute music, which his pupil Louis Fleury referred to as “idle twittering.” Taffanel was not a prolific composer by any means, mainly writing flute concert pieces. Inspired by Bach, Taffanel sought to make the flute an instrument capable of intense emotion and astounding virtuosity. And while he didn’t compose much, he was very successful in achieving his goal. Many of Taffanel’s flute works are still standard repertoire, and they demand mastery of both technique and musicality. Likewise, his one chamber composition—the Wind Quintet—is very serious in nature, bringing the ensemble away from light, so-called “trivial” music and into a new, exciting era. Taffanel felt that other great composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms had neglected the wind quintet in favor of more popular ensembles like string quartets and piano trios. As an example of Taffanel’s approach, the beautiful second movement of his quintet contains one of the most luscious and lyrical horn melodies in the repertoire, and proves that this piece is truly great music, written by a skilled composer in his own right. It’s possible that, had Taffanel spent more time composing, many more musicians might know and appreciate his music today. – Kipras Mazeika, Academy fellow, bassoon
CHARLES MARTIN LOEFFLER Four Poems The Wikipedia entry about Charles Martin Loeffler is roughly 700 words long. There is one biography of Loeffler that is readily available at a university music school library, written by Ellen Knight, singular in her field as a Loeffler specialist. Loeffler’s name does not come up often on programs and it doesn’t ring bells for most musicians aside from a few seasoned chamber musicians. All in all, the image formed by Loeffler’s general absence from the modern stage and musical discourse is one of a composer mostly forgotten by posterity, and likely not particularly well known in his own lifetime. Yet the reality of Loeffler’s life reads very differently. He was quickly adopted and adored by Boston’s cultural elite in an era when Boston was the titan city of musical America. He was a member of the symphony, later a member of the opera’s board of directors, and generally considered a model citizen of noble character, wit, and refinement. In Ellen Knight’s words, Loeffler was “idolized by the Boston public and recognized internationally as one of the country’s most important creative talents.”
What happened to Charles Martin Loeffler? How does one go from the musical centerpiece of a nation seeking to find its own artistic voice free from the towering influence of Europe, to a mostly forgotten figure, cared for by one biographer and a few musicians who play his chamber works? One reality of Loeffler’s life may shed some light on why someone so loved and so creative fell mostly to the wayside. He was born German but was entirely French in his tastes, and in America he was the sole representative of the French style. Although he was a centerpiece of American musical society, he was an eclectic one, popular despite—not because of—a style that was out of the norm in America of the time. Yet in France, Loeffler was seen as American. In an era of intense nationalism, this lack of singular alignment with a nation and its musical principals put Loeffler into a muddy middle ground. Despite being born German, he was not part of the powerful German musical tradition, nor an imitator of Wagner. Neither was he part of the French camp that sought to escape Wagnerian influence and reestablish a French musical language. Loeffler was an American to Europe before being an American composer carried significant weight—the world did not yet know the likes of Charles Ives, George Gershwin, or Aaron Copland. Many other elements of Loeffler’s life and output play into the contradiction between his fame during his own life and his absence in the canon. His output is scattered, for instance; Loeffler doesn’t have a large core of orchestral repertoire, he completed only one opera that has never been staged, and there is no bulk of solo piano works or concerti to attract the eyes of virtuosi. He was also intensely self-critical, a man who revised and edited his works extensively and destroyed many others. In the end, an artist’s legacy is largely out of their hands. There are too many aspects—the era they belong to, the country they came from, the shifting interests of the public—that they cannot control. Certain composers, some expected and some perhaps less so, have been solidified in the musical canon that we repeatedly draw from when we create programs, but now more than ever there is significant interest in programming beyond the confines of that canon. Hopefully Loeffler’s works will continue to see the benefits of growing interest. – Alexander Soloway, Academy fellow, vocal piano

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