October 30, 2012

BEETHOVEN  Trio Op. 70, No. 1 “Ghost

DVORAK  Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 “Dumky”

SCHOENFIELD  Café Music (1986)

PIAZZOLLA  “Spring” and “Fall” (from the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)

NOTES  By Sasha Margolis

Beethoven, Trio in D, Op. 70, No.1, “Ghost”

For a simple piece of chamber music, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio has a surprising yet inescapable destiny: to constantly bump up against works by the world’s great playwrights. Samuel Beckett wrote a 1975 television play called Ghost Trio, which includes seven excerpts of music from the piece’s Largo movement. August Strindberg wrote a 1907 “chamber play” called Ghost Sonata, and surely had that same movement in mind when he wrote in his introduction, “one enters a world of intimations where one expresses oneself in halftones and with a soft pedal, since one is ashamed to be a human being.”

Strindberg’s play was actually inspired by two works of Beethoven, the trio and the “Tempest” Sonata, and, extraordinarily, both are also linked to plays by William Shakespeare. In the case of the piano sonata, Beethoven’s secretary Schindler (who may have been something of a fabulist) claimed that, when he asked the master for the key to understanding the piece, he was told: “Read Shakespeare’s Tempest.” As for the trio: its ubiquitous Largo reminded Beethoven’s student Czerny of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and that is the simple origin of the nickname.

But there is a further complication regarding the origin of the Largo itself. In one of Beethoven’s notebooks, the Largo’s opening measures are found on the same page as sketches for an operatic treatment of yet another play, Macbeth. It is believed by some that the Largo music was intended to represent Shakespeare’s witches, and a reconstructed Macbeth overture has even been made, beginning exactly as the Largo does. Whether or not this represents Beethoven’s true intent, there is clearly something extraordinarily evocative, and perhaps otherwordly, in this music.

The trio as a whole was the subject of a seminal 1813 review by the great polymath E.T.A. Hoffmann. In his review, Hoffmann (who counted composition among his many accomplishments) first demonstrates the way in which, in each movement, the music consists wholly of material first heard in that movement’s opening few bars. Then, moving outward, he puts his finger on something still more essential (something similar, perhaps, to the meaning of Strindberg’s statement): “Despite the geniality that prevails throughout the trio, not even excluding its melancholy Largo, Beethoven remains serious and solemn. The master seems to be implying that the deeper mysteries can never be spoken of in ordinary words, even when the spirit feels itself joyfully uplifted in moments of intimate familiarity with them, but only in expressions of sublime splendor.”

Dvořák, Piano Trio in E minor, Op.90, “Dumky”

Dvořák’s Dumky Trio is a highly unusual work of chamber music. Although written for one of the standard types of chamber ensemble, it eschews most of the typical qualities found in the trios, quartets and quintets of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and of Dvořák himself in his other such works. The trio is divided into six movements, not three or four (although the first three, to be played attacca, could be claimed to form one super-movement.) There is no hint of sonata form, or rondo form, or Teutonic thematic development. In other words, and to put things more usefully: in a typical piano trio, the momentum and shape of at least the opening movement are generated by a long-term process of sounding out themes, arranging them in tension-building harmonic patterns, developing their possibilities in ways that build even more tension, and then recapitulating them in tension-resolving ways to arrive at a satisfactory ending. Here, Dvořák is up to something else.

The work is made up of six dumky. Dumky is the plural of dumka, which according to Dvořák himself is an untranslatable word of Ukrainian origin, with its roots in melancholy poetry. This is perhaps correct, but does not tell the whole story. In the first place, melancholy musical dumky already existed before Dvořák’s trio, courtesy of both the Ukrainian ethnomusicologist/composer Lysenko and Tchaikovsky. These dumky, however, were much less complex in form and texture and comprised fewer distinct moods than Dvořák’s patchworks of bold rhetoric, tragic lyricism, and dancing playfulness and defiance.

According to musicologist Milan Kuna, Dvořák’s dumky actually derive from two Ukrainian poetic forms: “Dvořák takes from the dumka its softly elegiac, lyrical tone, and from the duma, epically verbose and narrative, he uses a variative and imitative method of theme elaboration.” Kuna traces the combination to a genre of Czech poetry known as ohlasy, or echoes, popular in Dvořák’s day, with individual poems bearing such titles as “My Dumky,” “Cossack Dumky,” and “Evening Dumky.” “Not without basis,” concludes Kuna, “is the hypothesis that … this principle of the division into two emotional worlds was derived by the composer from the Czech ohlasy, in which dumy and dumky, in a Czech context, were often combined with heroic subjects, as, for instance in the story of the Ukrainian Cossacks’ fight for freedom (an allegory for Czech patriotism against the Austrians).”

Whether or not Dvořák did derive the flavor of his dumky from the ohlasy, and despite the fact that he was not known to be a particularly literate fellow, there is something distinctly literary, or at least speech-like, in these six movements. The second and third dumky, for example, open with themes made up of very few unique pitches–more like speaking than singing. Apart from the counterpoint of the fifth dumka and some violin-cello interplay in the first, there is little in the way of conversational chamber music, and there are few instances of more than one real melody sounding at the same time; in other words, it is usually one voice telling or singing the story, surrounded by a great deal of atmosphere.

This one voice, however, is constantly changing. Themes are fragmentary, or else complete but not inclined to build momentum. One dumka may have a brief, rhetorical opening and two or three sections each of lament and dance. In searching for an analogue to this patchwork form, it may be helpful to make another literary comparison, this time with the narrative style known as skaz. Skaz, popular with writers from Slavic-speaking lands including Gogol, Leskov, and Sholem Aleichem, is a variety of written monologue which imitates oral speech, incorporating folk sayings and characteristic speech patterns, and often appearing where literate and non-literate cultures coexist. (Another example, closer to home, is found in some of Mark Twain’s writing.) This seems, translated into musical terms, an apt description of Dvořák’s dumky, which artfully incorporate folk elements into an art-music setting to produce a folk effect.

The specific folk elements in question are sometimes Czech; sometimes Ukrainian, whether by design or not (Tchaikovsky, a fan of Dvořák, considered the portraits of Russia in the Czech’s opera Dimitrij to actually sound Ukrainian); and sometimes Russian (particularly the chord progression beneath the sixth dumka’s violin solo, with its move to Tchaikovsky’s favorite key area, the super-dominant, that is, the chord of the sixth.) As with most successful recreations of folk spirit, the trio manages to transcend any specific ethnicity or topicality, reaching the listener above all (or below all) at a gut level.

 Schoenfield, Café Music

Like Dvořák, Paul Schoenfield is a composer who often turns to his own cultural heritage–in this case Jewish–for source material and inspiration. He has written works with titles such as Tales from Chelm, Klezmer Rondos, and Six Improvisations on Hassidic Melodies, with Jewish themes and nods to Klezmer music. Also like Dvořák, Schoenfield has explored other styles of folk and popular music, in works such as Six British Folk Songs, Slovakian Children’s Songs, Three Country Fiddle Pieces, and Vaudeville. In Café Music, Schoenfield opts for not just one tradition, but the whole kitchen sink.

Schoenfield, born in 1947 in Detroit, is both a pianist and composer. As a composer, he has received commissions and grants from the NEA, Chamber Music America, the Rockefeller Fund, and the Juilliard School, among others, and now teaches at the University of Michigan. As a pianist, he studied with Rudolf Serkin, toured with Music from Marlboro, made numerous recordings, and also worked, freelance, in the Twin Cities. It was from this last experience that he drew inspiration for the present work:

“The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio which plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music — music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement. Café Music was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and received its premiere during a SPCO chamber concert in January 1987.”

Schoenfield’s eclectic list of styles may be amplified and specified to include, in the second movement, the violin-piano sonata in A major by Brahms, Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Richard Rodgers’ “Bali Ha’i,” and anything else that might occur to the listener.

Piazzolla, “Spring” and “Fall,” from the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

 The case of Astor Piazzolla differs from Dvořák’s and Schoenfield’s. Rather than write art music recalling or recreating folk and popular music, Piazzolla sought to transform the popular music with which he grew up into a new, contemporary variety of art music. His music, now beloved the world over, met with some resistance in his native Argentina when it began to be heard there in the 1960s. Even as cosmopolitan an artist as Jorge Luis Borges, the great writer with whom Piazzolla collaborated on some songs in 1965, ultimately rejected Piazzolla’s nuevo tango in favor of the traditional version, rather stupidly referring to the composer as “Pianola” in his later years.

A writer with whom Piazzolla had a more fruitful relationship was the playwright Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz. In 1957, Piazzolla wrote a piece called Tango del Ángel; in 1962 Rodriguez Muñoz decided to write a play of the same name, about an angel who appears in a block of Buenos Aires apartments to purify the souls of its residents. He asked Piazzolla to write additional music for the play. Then, in 1965, Rodriguez Muñoz asked Piazzolla for music for a new play, Melenita de Oro (“the little mop of golden hair”) and received, among other pieces, Verano Porteño, or “Buenos Aires summer.” (Porteño, or “of the port,” is an adjective, and noun, which Buenos Aires residents use to refer themselves.) In 1969, Piazzolla wrote “Fall,” and in 1970, noticing that Vivaldi had had a fairly good idea, wrote “Spring” and “Winter.” It has been noted that, as the seasons in Buenos Aires are less meteorologically diverse than those in Italy, Piazzolla’s work focuses more on the porteños’ shifting feelings than on outdoor conditions.

The Seasons were originally written for Piazzolla’s quintet of piano, bandoneón, violin, electric guitar, and bass. The piano trio transcription, quite free with regard to instrumental textures and melodic details, yet absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original, was made by José Bragato, a cellist who played in Piazzolla’s octet and transcribed a great many of his works.