Concert Notes for 11.17.19

Welcome All to our midwinter concert entitled “The European Experience,” in which Europe will be represented by a typically American blend of musicians, playing music by a worthy Hungarian[Zoltán Kodály], the best known Czech [Antonín Dvorák] and a first rate Saxon [Robert Schumann].  And Today which, as I write, has been promised to be another Sunny day (by the not always unimpeachable National Weather Service) and I think all three works on our program will be felt as pleasingly warming.  

Most of us, especially if we have listened to a lot of classical radio, will have run into Zoltan Kodály in connection with the suite from his Opera/Singspiel Hary Janos [ HAH-ree YAH-nawsh]and the orchestral Dances of Galanta, and maybethe Variations on the Hungarian folksong The Peacock.  We may also know the Concerto for Orchestra but probably not the Symphony in C.  And if we’ve been extremely lucky, we will have heard, or perhaps even sung in the glorious Psalmus Hungaricus: for Tenor, Chorus and Orchestra, a triumph of the choral art which, incidentally, is the composer’s favorite mode of composition…  

But Today, our friends, I Musici di Saratoga offer us the gentle Intermezzo for String Trio: violin, viola & cello op.12 (1919-20), by now cured of the ugly influence of World War One. (Austria-Hungary was a part of the so called Central Powers in that huge and extremely bloody Act One to World War 2, the war many of us elders remember, if only dimly, and as children.  Kodály and his friend Béla Bartók were somehow both able to avoid what in those days was called The Great War and then The War to End All Wars (H.G. Wells).  Both are widely regarded as the two most important Hungarian composers of the 20th century. 

Kodály was born in town of Kecskemét and as a child learned to play the violin from his father, an ardent amateur musician. In 1900, he entered the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest where he studied composition with Hans Koessler.  After graduating, he began a serious study of Hungarian folk melodies and around 1905 started visiting remote villages and collecting folk songs, often going with his close friend and Folk-melody-freak Béla Bartók.  Needless to say, these melodies play an important part in the compositions of both men.  Kodály later went to Paris where he studied with Charles Widor and was greatly impressed with the music of Debussy and his followers, often referred to as “impressionists” at first in derision, although increasingly as praise. 

Zoltan composed in most genres, but there is quite lot of music for the Stage — the most famous being the large Singspiel Hary Janos, the suite from which has become his best known work.  But as the years went on, there was a huge and impressive accumulation of his Choral works, often accompanied by orchestra although more often unaccompanied.   We will, of course, not be hearing any of that this afternoon and while Zoltan did not write a great deal of chamber music, what he did write is surprisingly engaging.  These will seem like strange words to those of us who remember the experience of the first time our friends brought us to an encounter with Kodály.  Let us cast our minds back to the second Sunday of November 1996!  That was the day when Jill Levy, violin & Eliot Bailen cello engaged with Zoltan’s Duo Sonata opus 7.  And what a magnificent musical moment they treated us to! 

But next let us bring our memories forward almost twenty years to April 2016, when Jill was joined by Adrianna Contino: they each played a solo suite by Papa Bach: Jill an unforgettable performance the Partita in B minor and Adrianna the familiar Cello suite #1 in G. Then after intermission they teamed up to play this same powerhouse Duo Sonata of Kodály & they again hit it off magnificently, making it sound like a very great work, in fact a stunning masterpiece!

The Kodály music that we have today is not by Zoltan-the Fire-Breather, but rather the warm-hearted master whose one movement Intermezzo, only 6 short minutes long!has the pleasant character of a relaxed serenade….as does Zoltan’s own Serenade, which we heard here, early in April of 2011!  But this is today and once the music begins, we will have this lovelyString Trio to delight inIt  dates from about 1905, near the time the composer began his travels — both with Bartók and alone — to collect folk melody. Our piece today abounds with the sounds of “real Hungarian folk” tunes rather than the ersatz Gypsy music which Austrian and German composers popularized, led by Johannes Brahms. [I’ll bet almost all of us know those Brahms pieces…and we don’t care that Kodály, Bartok & yes Dvorak too — who owes so much to Brahms —  condemn as “artificial” the Brahms pieces we love so well]!

Now this little string trio that Kodály called Intermezzo will make an excellent starting point for a concert that admits of almost no angst at all. For who doesn’t like Dvorák? Many of us will remember the old Sara Leesinging-comercial that went: 

Ehvrybuddy doesn’t like SOME-thing…  but nobody duhzn’t like Sa..ra Leee…”  For us today, substitute “nobody doesn’t like Dvorák…” Awright, so it don’t fit! well just mispronounce the name as Duh-vor-zhock.  Should there be such a person show up at our church door he/she would be soon disarmed, as it were, by the Kodály piece even if an Intermezzo should, by rights, come between one scene & another… and early Dvorak should be kept at home in a drawer… !   

Woopse!!   It got out!  It has gahdout that it is I who’s the one person in the Western World who doesn’t like Dvorák.  And it’s not ALL Dvorak I don’t like, just the endless boring repetitions, especially in the myriad early works.  And in fact the pieces that he composed in the United States in the next-to-last act of his life, when he came at the end of the century to take charge of the new music school in New York: the famous “American” Quartet that everybody knows and the String Quintet (also like the quartet) dubbed “The American…”, the “New World” Symphony and the great B minor Cello Concerto of 1896: all are great works!

     AND Maybe, if I keep quiet & stop making up nonsense like this, they’ll let me stay and listen to my favorite Schumann chamber work, the Piano Quartet in E-flat.  He, Robert,  had finished the soon to be famous Piano Quintet in E-flat in record time and then relaxed  to enjoy life because he had finished this soon-to-be-recognized-as-a-great-work, right?  No!! Not at all!  he went right on composing without even clearing his mind of E-flat, so that he might go on with fresh thoughts in a fresh new key!  And in my opinion, the outcome of this second consecutive piano & strings quartet in E-flat was even better than the quintet before it.  You wait till you see!  I mean hear! wait’ll you hear!  It’s a Rare Beauty!! And as for Robert 

God-love-him for this fine piece of work, The Piano Quartet in E-flat!

But before we get to that, we must get through the Piano Trio #1 in B-flat by Antonin Dvorak.  Not a bad piece, quite nice in many places, it runs about half an hour (well, 34 minutes) and is not at all difficult to make sense of, but believe me it will take our three musicians quite a lot of hard work.  Well, I don’t mean that they’ll need pickaxes and shovels, but each of the three will get some pretty arduous passage work.  And what about us?  Well, as always, we have our function here too: in order to complete the transaction between us and the musicians Our Job is to Listen, to listen as carefully, if not as artfully, as these three fine musicians play. And if you should find yourself reading these foolish words of mine, instead of using your mind to listen, STOP immediately and listen — only children can do both at once & even for them, it diminishes what they are doing:  You remember how that used to be! 

    Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) Intermezzo for String Trio (1905)

The Hungarian Zoltán Kodály was a man of many parts. In addition to composing, he was a professor and then assistant director at the Budapest Academy of Music. He was a music critic for newspapers and journals in Hungary and the author of numerous scholarly writings on central European folk music. And he was an internationally recognized music educator! the father of the “Kodály method” for developing musical literacy in schoolchildren!

Perhaps just as important, he became a leading ethno-musicologist, working with Béla Bartók to free Hungarian folk music from the gypsy encrustations heard in European cafes. Over a 10-year period, starting in 1905, Kodály & Bartók spent their summers touring Hungarian villages and recording folk songs on wax cylinders or jotting them down in notation as the villagers sang them. This pioneer effort resulted in a series of folk-song collections and studies, which are classics in their field.

In his composing, Kodály, like Bartók, was committed to furthering the musical heritage of his country, drawing his subjects from Hungarian literature and folklore and seasoning his music with the pungent vigor of Hungarian peasant idioms. In that regard, Bartók paid his friend the highest praise: “If I were asked,” he wrote, “in whose music the spirit of Hungary is most perfectly embodied, I would reply, in Kodály’s. His music is a profession of faith in the spirit of Hungary. His work as a composer is entirely rooted in the soil of Hungarian folk music.”  Well said! Béla Bartók!!

But, unlike Bartók, Kodály wrote mainly in a late Romantic style, conservative in its harmonic language and easily accessible to modern audiences. Several of his nationalist compositions have won a permanent place in the international repertoire – his nationalist opera Hary Janos and the orchestral suite drawn from it, the “Peacock” Variations, the Galanta and Marosszék Dances for orchestra, and the Psalmus Hungaricus for chorus and orchestra.

In contrast to these masterworks of his maturity, the Intermezzo dates from 1905 immediately after his graduation from the Budapest Academy of Music and just before his first field research with Bartók. The principal themes, however, reflect his early interest in Hungarian folk melody…  In the words of an anonymous English writer: “the Intermezzo sounds rather like Dvorák with a slight Hungarian accent.


‘Kodály’s two string quartets tend to linger under the shadow of the mighty ‘six pack’ (of String Quartet’s) that his compatriot Bartók wrote over a period of some 30 years … but they deserve more attention than they’ve so far received … 

‘Kodály’s music is invariably approachable, it is welcoming without avoiding complexity … the passion of the opening of String Quartet No 1 sets the tone, but this alternates with an almost neo-classical quality. Folksong shadows much of the work, but does not drive it … superbly played and recorded, these readings are of the highest order’ (BBC Music Magazine)

After a work by Mozart, instead of an opus number, you often see a ‘K’ + a number.  As most of us know, this K. stands for Ludwig Alois Ferdinand Ritter von Köchel.  Dvorák’s Köchel was a guy named Jamil Burghauser, a Czech composer, conductor, musicologist who lived from 1921 to 1997 and published a Bio of Dvorak with a catalogue of his works, in which he gave a chronological ‘B-number’ to each one, the B standing for, you guessed it BURGHAUSER!! and thus getting a slice of immortality for himself from the biography of Antonín that he published in Czech at the end of the 20th century and was published in an English translation in 2007, ten years after the original author’s death in, YES: 1997!  I thought I should pass along this much information in case any of us are really interested in Dvorák studies: frinstance, did you know there is a lively Dvorák society and a whole lot of stuff about our Antonin is being argued about & written about and any one of us could become a Dvorák expert.

except me 

I guess I’ve made it clear how much I love and admire the great Piano Quartet of Robert Schumann.  But my liking Schumann so much began with learning to sing his great song cycles: opus 39 simply called Liederkreis/Song Cycle & op.48 Dichterliebe /Poets love op. 48… By the time Schumann came to the summer of 1842, he had established himself as an important new composer in the repertoires for piano (in the 1830’s), for lieder (in the wunderjahr 1840 with 158 songs!) and for Symphony Orchestra (1841).  1842 would be the famous Year of Chamber Music, in which he would compose in rapid succession his three string quartets op. 41, and then returning to the piano in an extroverted & exuberant mood, the Piano Quintet in E-flat & the Piano Quartet in E-flat — it was not that he needed Schubert’s great Trio for inspiration or as a model, but that, in his maturity, he must move himself past it.  The neoclassical character of Robert’s Quartet gives it a strong presence both to emulate the chamber music of its illustrious past and to provide new directions for others to come.  Herewith: Exeunt and Amen.

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