The Artie’s Festival is set to bring to the stage two chamber concerts featuring works from Brahms and Bloch, among others. Sandipan Das compiles his notes on some of the composers and their music.
In the tenth year of their association with the NCPA, the Artie’s Festival, led by cellist Gauthier Herrmann, will be taking on some of the greatest classical works. With a performance that moves from religious themes to poetic, each work has been carefully selected. Below, we look at the cultural contexts in which these pieces were composed, and dive into the melodic movements of each.
By Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Bloch’s Baal Shem is in three parts scored for violin and piano (or orchestra, 1939). ‘Vidui’ (contrition) forms the first part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the annual ritual of fasting that marks the new year in Judaism, when congregates publicly confess their sins and seek forgiveness. Featuring a strong cantilena violin with sparse but coloured accompaniment, it is a prayer in contrition. In ‘Nigun’ (marked improvisation; with a special place for violinists, often programmed as a standalone piece), the improvisational character of the music is the focus with repeated motifs and unison lines. Ninety-five years on, the piece does sound Jewish, thanks to incessant attempts by the media to capture the exoticness found here and in secular Klezmer music. The final movement, ‘Simhat Torah’, meaning ‘rejoicing of/with the Torah’,marks the end of the annual cycle of the public Torah reading. Bloch’s version is a joyous recreation of the celebratory spirit and never vulgar. The repeated note patterns for the violin seem to pin on the idea of joy-thumping feet. The key changes from E minor to E major in keeping with the mood. Bloch never thought of himself as a torchbearer of Jewish music, nor did he seek to change it. His music contains a Jewish identity not byaccident but from a need to bare the Jewish soul, dislocated in body but never in faith. Baal Shem is not a religious work but a work that uses religion to offer a set of images, sounds and feelings which may foster a better spirit of understanding.
Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115
By Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
One of the finest clarinet quintets, Brahms wrote it when he had retired from composing. Only on hearing Richard Mühlfeld play the clarinet did he consider composing again. And when he did, he did quite a bit of it. Works of this period include the Clarinet Trio Op.114, the two Sonatas for Clarinet, Four Serious Songs Op.121, and Chorale Preludes to name a few. Among these, the quintet has a special place in the history of European music as the only significant clarinet quintet after Mozart’s (though several were composed by others). Brahms may be considered the true heir of the first Viennese school, and even in such a late work, the influence of the Mozart quintet is evident. There is the quintessential Sturm und Drang, which features great construction that is not a mere assemblage of dramatic jolts. For example, the quasi canons of the strings in the first movement and the subsequent upward scale runs of the clarinet are all engaged to modulate but with a supreme effect of colour. The first movement shows the marked advancement in writing that this man could achieve in the span of two succeeding works, the earlier being the clarinet trio. The quintet truly integrates the clarinet as a chamber instrument not in the Gran Partita way using woodwinds, brass and a hidden double bass but as a seamless entity with a string quartet. This may sound simple but it is not. The clarinet begs to be a diva, not by the schemes of intelligent clarinettists, but by the very sound of the instrument, and divas are difficult to control. Brahms does this effortlessly. No part of the first movement is in excess. The pianos are beautifully written, often rising to the fore to finish a phrase. The second movement is the soloist’s with the strings muted. The clarinet constantly contours whatever shape is elaborated on by the strings. In the second movement, the softness of the clarinet is a matter of great virtuosity for the player and sensitivity of the composer. Not to mention the arpeggios of the clarinet in the second part of the second movement, in which each section resolves using a very baroque cadence.
Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 81
By Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
When Brahms reviewed music for the Austrian state prize in the mid-1870s, he was impressed by the compositions of the then unknown composer Antonín Dvořák, with whom he would later have a very congenial relationship. Dvořák apparently did not even have a piano or reliable finances yet the jury awarded him the prize. The piano quintet, the second one – for there is a first one which Dvořák would have preferred to have destroyed – is not from this period of penury. The quintet displays not a technical mastery like the first one, but an understanding of the romantic idiom: balanced, thoroughly melodic and a much appreciated bohemian vitality (curiously enough the A major key is retained for both). The first movement is a melodious piece with a frenzied end. Carefully chosen thematic material makes this movement something that may have you whistling the themes on your way back from the concert. The opening of the cello solo with a comforting piano accompaniment passes rather quickly. The second theme introduced by the viola, along with the first on the cello, provides the material for the whole movement. The gem is the second movement, dumka (from ‘dumy’, a Ukrainian lament with contrasting moods), which the composer used often. A nostalgic melody on the piano opens the movement passing on the melodic content to the viola. The viola is given a lot of attention. The scherzo or in this case, furiant (another east European form), has energy in its articulated entry and tempo much enhanced by the sonorous accompaniment on the piano. The strong triple time is everpresent even in the tender cello passages.
Verklärte Nacht Op. 4
By Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, this was not the first use of his work by the self-taught modern master. The text is used as a programme rather than set to music. It is chamber music and programme music at once. Syntheses of late romantic tendencies of Brahms and Wagner, amounting to what we may call the seed of musical expressionism, found its ultimate vessel in Erwartung Op.17. Yes, there is adherence to form and structure, to extended harmonic means, and also freedom from the need to present music in a deterministic way. Yet, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is not a romantic sonata; it has no apparent musical groupings. The musical material itself points us to the five stanzas of Dehmel’s poem. The description of the night, the assertion by the woman her right to motherhood, the guilt and so on are all broken down into small thematic kernels in an attempt to make the work say things the poem could not. Schoenberg makes motivic variation the key to the emotional content of the work. The poem in itself is a good listening guide as Schoenberg himself mentioned while writing liner notes. Schoenberg was never too dissociated from the past and much like Brahms saw himself a part of a tradition, which also meant to make effort to move it forward. Verklärte Nacht is a transitional piece both in the life of Schoenberg and of Western music moving from the 19th to the 20th centuries.
The Artie’s Festival will take place on 27th & 29th March at the Experimental Theatre.
This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the March 2018 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.