Monday, August 28, 2017

Henry Hornbostel's Porter Hall/Baker Hall

A photo tour of Carnegie Mellon University's Porter Hall/Baker Hall, the work of architect Henry Hornbostel from 1905-1914. Architect Naomi Yoran, who designed the 2002 addition to the connected halls, gave me a guided tour and showed how the new addition was created to blend in with Hornbostel's original design. Connecting the two structures is a glass, modern "bridge," from which distinct details of Hornbostel's design can be viewed up close. Details include a spectacular, almost Art Nouveau Guastavino-tile covered curved staircase; and sconced lighting in wide corridors creating ceiling light patterns, steel-reinforced corners and doorways, with doors recessed. The new addition, unlike the original buildings, has a basement, where the Giant Eagle Auditorium was placed. Several pyramidal skylights admit light into the lobby of the basement area. At the top of the round stairway I found two antique proof presses, relics of the Carnegie Institute's printing school. It will take a long time to exhaust the fascinating geometries of this building, just one of Hornbostel's Pittsburgh treasures. Thanks to Naomi Yoran for the guided tour!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

An English Fantasia

Back when I owned a Neupert harpsichord in the 1980s, I did more improvising than playing, and I wrote down a theme and variations inspired by my various attempts to play music from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. This collection of Elizabethan keyboard pieces for virginal (a smallish harpsichord string sideways) or organ are the first real solo keyboard music in England. 
Composers like Orlando Gibbons and John Bull and William Byrd graced its pages. Any number of the pieces seem to be based on lute music, and one frequently finds pieces all notated in C Major, but using the same accidentals to create various chords that might have been played on the lute (just my guess on why this is so). 
A number of the pieces also have a lot of close-fingered melodies with imitation back and forth across a small span. So the theme I created has that same feel. It's not really a promising theme for variations but I had fun with it. A "skipping" variation uses dotted notes. A C-Minor variation was a devil to notate. Some bridge passages came from who-knows where. Then the theme is adapted into 5/4 time and the harpsichordist gets some trills and runs. The main theme returns at the end, played slowly, and ornamented with trills.
So here it is, for your enjoyment.
An English Fantasia on SoundCloud

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Death by X-Ray" - The Shostakovich Seventh Quartet

I wrote these program notes for a concert given in Providence in 2012 by the Jerusalem Quartet. This is an intense, short, and very weird string quartet, but worth the effort it takes to get to know it.

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975). String Quartet No. 7 in f#, Op 108 (March 1960)

  1. Allegretto
  2. Lento
  3. Allegro

Written in the same year that Shostakovich was forced to join the Communist Party, this quartet is spared the tragic dimensions the composer put into his Eighth Quartet, a virtual suicide note in music. Although it cannot be separated from the times and circumstances in which it was composed, this is an intensely personal work, an elegy for the composer’s first wife Nina, who died in 1954.
The work was premiered May 15, 1960 by the Beethoven Quartet in St. Petersburg (then still Leningrad), and had its Moscow premiere at the Moscow Conservatory on September 17 of the same year.
It is the shortest of all of Shostakovich’s quartets, and there is the risk of writing notes that take longer to read than the quartet takes to listen to! But as is often the case with great music, composers can compress much into a small interval of time.
The composer had a life-plan for composing string quartets, intending to compose one in each major and minor key, doing for the quartet literature what Bach did for the keyboard in his Well-Tempered Clavier. That said, the Seventh Quartet should have been in Eb Major, following the scheme the composer was using. Instead, the quartet is set in the moody and passionate key of F# Minor, which puts it in company of Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony and Mahler’s withering Tenth Symphony.
Shostakovich often includes coded content in his work, and when you hear the first theme in the opening Allegretto, a kind of sardonic, skipping melody, you will immediately hear three repeated eighth notes, followed by a rest, quite literally a “knock at the door.” In German folklore, Death knocks three times at the door or window of a dying person, to the horror of family members watching at the bedside. Considering how many nights during the Stalin years, the composer expected a different kind of “knock at the door” that would take him to the Gulag, this gesture is richly suggestive. We are meant to recall terrible times. (In the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich alternated the door-knock with the notes D-Eb-C-B, which are D-Es-C-H in German notation for the composer’s initials, meaning, “Knock-knock-knock! Shostakovich!”) So no matter how engaging the violin’s utterances might be, the knock at the door is embedded in the theme.
There is a break into hurried sixteenth notes, and a key change to Eb (the “home” key Shostakovich planned to use originally!) with the cello carrying the line, some very chromatic passages passing it back to the violin, and then a bridge passage played in block chords.
This bridge brings us back to F# Minor, with the main theme played pizzicato. This adds further to the grotesque atmosphere. It has the air of a hushed conversation, and the pizzicato requires leaving out the grace notes, so that the effect is a coded conversation, out of earshot of Those Who Watch and Listen. The movement ends with extensions of the “knock at the door” motif.
The Lento is an eerie, almost minimalist movement, with no key signature, played with the strings muted (con sordino). The second violin plays an unsettling succession of arpeggios, which look like a wave depicted on an oscilloscope. Viola and cello play glissansdi at one point, adding to the weirdness of the atmosphere. What is going on here? The clue, I think comes from the biography of Nina Shostakovich. She was an experimental physicist who spent months each year on Mt. Alagez in Armenia, engaged in cosmic ray research. Like many Soviet researchers, she was exposed to massive doses of radiation from radioactive materials, and from poorly shielded X-ray equipment. She died from a radiation-induced cancer. This music sounds to me almost like a science-fiction sound track depicting radiation. I would venture to give this Lento movement the nick-name “Death by X-Ray.”
The final Allegro has, for most of its length, no key indication. It is highly atonal, and since it is riddled with intermingled sharps and flats, it must be a daunting task to play. Even though the musical materials are spun out from motifs in the first movement, it would seem to be a Dance of Death, with the skeletons from the X-Ray now hammering away at a fiendish dance. The theme is passed among the viola and the two violins as a canon, the strictest type of fugue imitation (a melody played against itself, not against a second theme). Even though what we hear would give Bach convulsions, it is a Baroque concoction as conceived by a wrong-note revolutionary. This is angry music depicting a universe that kills capriciously. Then, abruptly, the “home key” of F# Minor asserts itself, with muted strings. As the quartet slows down and softens to its conclusion, there is no fist-shaking against Death (what is the use?), just a quiet slipping away, life sitting at life’s deathbed, and a hint of the ominous three-note “knock at the door.”

Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8

I wrote these notes in 2005 for a performance by the Chiarra Quartet in Providence, RI. At this time, there were still people claiming that Shostakovich was a "good Communist" and a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union. At the time I left Providence in 2015, I was still getting in arguments with musicians and academics about this. Hard to believe, but political fantasies die hard, and the facts be damned. Here are the notes, and I shall link to a YouTube video of the quartet as well.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op 110

Allegro molto
No work in the string quartet literature is more intense or more emotionally devastating than Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. It was long assumed that this quartet was about “The Victims of Fascism and War.” So says the epigraph in the published score. So said all the program notes, and some of them still say so. There is no denying the tragic sweep of this work that seems to cry out like a dirge for millions of souls extinguished.
But since the publication of Shostakovich’s memoir, Testimony, in 1979, and more so the publication of the 1998 volume Shostakovich Reconsidered, we now know that the Eighth Quartet — however nobly it has served as a tombstone of the Holocaust and World War II — was composed as a purely personal self-epitaph, a suicide note in music.
The quartet’s obsessive use of the four-note “DSCH” motto which spells out Shostakovich’s name (Es is Eb and H is the note B in German notation); and its extensive quiltwork of quotes from other Shostakovich music have always seemed odd in a work that supposedly had a “public” purpose. At the very least, the work has always been understood to contain “I suffered too” as a sub-theme, including as it does quotes from works that were banned for public performance through the Stalin years. What was the Soviet Union’s “most loyal son” of composers doing and saying?
It may come as a surprise to many that Shostakovich did not become a member of the Communist Party until 1960, his 54th year. According to his wife Irina, he was finally blackmailed into joining. In Testimony, Shostakovich says, “When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of ‘exposing fascism,’ You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet; it quotes a song known to all Russians: ‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison.’”
It was not until 1990 that Shostakovich’s colleague Lev Lebedinsky further confirmed the Eighth Quartet’s link to this low point in the composer’s life: “It was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as a physical death… [H]e had completed the quartet and purchased a large number of sleeping pills, he played the Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped that I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim, explaining to him the true meaning of the Quartet.”
The composer’s son, Maxim, at a conference in 1992, added, “My father cried twice in his life: when his mother died and when he came to say they’ve made him join the Party. […T]his was sobbing, not just tears, but sobbing.” Lebedinsky also reveals that “a much-trumpeted Party plenum” was called to present Shostakovich for one and all to see as a born-again Communist, and the event “deteriorated into a farce due to … the unexpected absence of the composer!” Abject apologies were made, and Shostakovich was dutifully enrolled as a Party member, but clearly one to be watched.
In the limited space we have to describe tonight’s work, it has seemed more compelling to tell the truth about this staggering composition than to engage in musical analysis. Moreover, those who know Shostakovich’s music in depth are “insiders” to this music, which resonates with themes from four of his symphonies, several other chamber works, and the opera Stalin hated, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Better perhaps, to let the DSCH motto take over and view the work as a phantasmagoria of musical threads, woven with passion and musical genius. Since Shostakovich is one of the truly great quartet composers, this work deserves to be examined as pure music — but not now, and perhaps not for a long time to come. Accept this quartet as a message in a bottle, a cry of despair, a warning that collaboration with evil destroys the soul.

Death and the Maiden

after the German of Matthias Claudius The Maiden: Pass me by, oh, pass me by! Go, ...