2015 Arcadia Event 6 - programme notes

4.00 pm Sunday 4th October at St Giles Downton-on-the-Rock SY8 2HU

Samuel Barber Summer Music

“I myself wrote always as I wished, and without a tremendous desire to find the latest thing possible…I wrote as I wanted to for myself.”  Barber spoke these words towards the end of his life and they echo in his musical legacy.  A great expansion of musical styles was burgeoning in the early 20th century and although Barber experimented with almost every one of these styles, the works we now know and love are mostly lyrical and neo-romantic.  They bear his unique musical signature and his emotions – he always wrote what he ‘felt’. He knew he was a composer from early childhood but also went on to be trained as a singer, pianist and conductor at the Curtis Institute in his native Philadelphia. He has become one of the most loved American composers, uninterested in current fashion but not old-fashioned. 

Summer Music was commissioned in 1953 by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, to be performed by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for their 10th anniversary season. The premiere which was to take place in 1954 didn’t actually materialise until 20th March, 1956 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The birth of Summer Music had many unusual circumstances.  The commission was the first ever to be financed by public subscription – the audience paid what they could and the Society guaranteed $2,000. It was performed twice at the premiere.  Unlike other woodwind works at the time which tended to have 3 or 4 movements, it was written in one continuous movement.  The piece was originally meant to be for 3 wind, 3 strings and piano.  The unusual line-up attracted Barber to accept the commission but he changed his mind several times, no doubt influenced by hearing the New York Woodwind Quintet, who then took part in his compositional process, enough to inspire the quintet line-up.  After an early read-through, the flautist said “We were completely gassed!  What a wonderful new quintet conception…the piece is very hard, but so far it sounds just beautiful to us.”  Hearing them perform music by Jean Francaix seems to have leaked a French flavour into his quintet, and closely studying their horn player’s written exercises for the group influenced his choice of material.  He also borrowed themes from one of his own earlier works - Horizon

Barber was still consulting with the New York group until the final edition of Summer Music emerged in 1957.  In rehearsals he was changing notations, making cuts and was very particular about adding faster tempo markings to several passages.  (Even in 1961 he warned a Welsh clarinet student – “Do not play it too slowly.”)  The first recording was made by the New York Woodwind Quintet in 1959.

In an interview about the work, Barber states, “It’s supposed to be evocative of summer – summer meaning languid, not (clapping hands loudly) killing mosquitoes.”   Critics described it as having a ‘mood of pastoral serenity’ and as a ‘chamber work of both beauty and humor.’  It is in free, rhapsodic form underlined by a nocturnal, romantic language.

Suggested further reading:

Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music
Barbara B. Heyman
ISBN: 0195066502

Janáček String Quartet No.2 ‘Intimate Letters’

Janáček’s reputation is today largely based on the work of his later years. Built up over many years, his assimilation of the inflections of normal Czech speech helped create the very distinctive vocal melodies of his opera Jenufa (1904), whose 1916 success in Prague was to be the turning point in his career and a break from years of struggle with the establishment and relative obscurity.  He developed the concept of ‘speech tunes’ to build a musical and dramatic style that is quite unique.  His many operas  - such as The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead, use this method especially tellingly but it is no less present in other works such as the two string quartets, orchestral works like the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba and the Glagolitic Mass. His music always has a particular atmosphere of psychological and emotional truth. 

The second quartet 'Intimate Letters' was written in 1928 and is one of his most direct and emotionally raw compositions. Unusually the composer himself gave it the title and this was Janacek's own expression of an intense spiritual relationship which had carried on for many years in correspondence form between himself and the much younger Kamila Stosslova. 

Janacek wrote to her; 'You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses - no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately...'

Originally Janacek wanted a viola d'amore in the quartet which was to represent the voice of Kamilla but he later changed it to the standard viola. He writes for the first viola melody to be played 'sul ponticello' (on the bridge ) to emulate the mysterious and fragile tone of this instrument from the baroque era. 

This work swings turbulently between gentle warm beauty and desperate, violent passion in a way that reveals the huge complexities of that most dominating of human experiences - love.

Suggested further reading:

Janáček and His World
Edited by Michael Beckerman
Princeton University Press

Janáček’s Uncollected Essays on Music
Marion Boyars Ltd
ISBN: 978-0714529516

Beethoven Septet in E flat major op 20 

Serenades and divertimentos were all the rage in 1799 when Beethoven wrote the septet, op. 20 and it is indeed part of this light-hearted genre.  The serenade was by no means a new musical form but by the 19th century it had grown from a simple minstrel’s lovesong to a multiple movement work for large instrumental ensemble, these works now more often performed in the concert hall rather than outdoors, which had been the custom up to the 18th century and had led to the choice of instrumentalists who could stand.  

No signs of deafness were yet reported to plague Beethoven until about 1801 and up to the time of the premiere of the septet he had already written many songs and chamber music and completed 10 of his 32 piano sonatas.  The septet might first have been heard in a small venue in Dec. 1799 but we know it was definitely performed along with the premiere of the first symphony on 21st April 1800 at Beethoven’s “Grosse Musikalische Akademie”.  It was listed fourth in the programme – “A septet, humbly dedicated to her Majesty the Empress and composed by Mister Ludwig van Beethoven for 4 string and 3 wind instruments,...”  This combination of instruments was original at the time along with the use of the clarinet as an equally important melodic companion to the violin.

The form follows the overall shape of a serenade with its fast opening and closing movements book-ending slow and fast alternating movements but in typical Beethoven fashion there are alterations.  He expands the first and final sections with an introduction and changes the second minuet to a scherzo.  The last movement presents a violin cadenza and the third movement borrows material from his 2nd piano sonata.  It seems Beethoven did not present the septet to a publisher until December of 1800.  At this time he coined the phrase obligato accompaniment (a necessary line to be played as written) in reference to the work, and says “I can write nothing ‘un-obligato’ since I already came into the world with an obligato accompaniment.”

This septet remains one of Beethoven’s most successful and popular works and was later arranged for several different forces.  Although he himself produced it in trio form for clarinet (or violin) with cello and piano, its popularity above what he considered his more serious works angered him to the point of referring to those who loved the piece as the ‘herd.’  Perhaps we can forgive the relatively young and aspiring composer for this comment and allow ourselves to equally enjoy his Turkish-delights as well as his main courses.