Arcadia 2016 Event 5 - Programme Notes

‘At Home and Abroad’ 5

Saturday 1st October 7:30 pm, St. Michael and All Angels, Kingsland, HR6 9QH

William Walton (1902-1983)  Piano Quartet in D minor (1921)
1. Allegramente;  2. Allegro scherzando;  3. Andante tranquillo;  4. Allegro molto

Like Mendelssohn, the precocious Walton wrote as one of his most significant early works a Piano Quartet in his teens, and this 30-minute work, written in 1919 when he was only 16, won a prize which led to its publication with funds provided by the Carnegie Trust whilst Walton was still studying at Christ Church, Oxford.  He retained affection for it enough to revise it in 1921 before its first publication and render the piano part playable in its revised edition published in 1976, the edition usually used for performances.  Like its 1923 sibling, the first (and later discarded) string quartet, it was performed in Salzburg in 1923, as part of the International Society for Contemporary Music's annual concerts, when he met Alban Berg and Schoenberg.  It was dedicated to the Right Reverend Thomas Banks Strong, Bishop of Ripon, who had been Dean of Christ Church when Walton had sung in the choir there and who had supported him with finance and encouragement.

Critics have seen in the work traces of Stravinsky, Ravel and the pastoral mood of Vaughan Williams, but there are indicators of his mature style that admirers of the older Walton will recognise.  Tonight, we must appreciate it on its own terms, and we can rejoice that Arcadia has this year devoted time for us to compare a significant amount of the scarce chamber music of Walton and Elgar, two giants of British 20th century music.

As in the second string quartet we heard yesterday, the piano quartet has two weighty movements, the third at ten minutes and the fourth at nine, whilst the first two take just over ten minutes together.  The first is in conventional sonata form and begins with a folk-like first subject on the violin played over sustained cello notes, and a unifying device, shared with the Elgar Piano Quintet, is that this melody not only furnishes the material for this movement but also for elsewhere in the piece.  The yearning second subject is first heard on the viola, and a development with moments of repose and a modal piano passage precedes an abbreviated recapitulation.

The second movement rushes forward and swirls of piano filigree are answered by percussive string comments.  A fugato passage starts low on the cello and bursts into an assertive, almost triumphal melody.  These three elements are repeated (but not exactly) to create an ABCABC form.

Vaughan Williams is evoked by the modal shape of the andante melody and the atmosphere of pastoral repose brings each instrument into solo prominence before subsiding back into the texture, with only a brief climax punctuating the idyll.

The final movement sounds the most modern, with its aggressive, jabbing syncopations.  A long-limbed fugue with off-beat accents presages such passages in later Walton, and the energetic, jazzy atmosphere is maintained to the very end. 

Arnold Schoenberg (1875-1951) Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for String Quartet (Orchestra), Piano and Reciter op.41 (1942/43). Text by Lord Byron (1788-1824)

George Gordon (Lord) Byron, the archetypal Romantic poet, escaped the trammels (and the laws) of his England home to flee abroad in 1816 and met his death in Missolonghi, fighting for the independence of Greece from Turkey.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that this freedom-lover detested the tyranny that Napoleon had imposed upon Europe for so many years.  Starting his Ode to Napoleon around the time of Napoleon’s first exile on Elba and completing it after the dictator’s escape, Waterloo and second exile, he expressed his detestation (later more nuanced – he called him the “glorious tyrant” in 1821) in his 19-verse poem, comparing the “little General” with other figures, finally lauding George Washington, one of the heroes of the American War of Independence. 

Over a century later, Schoenberg had to flee another European tyrant and settled abroad, like other distinguished German artists, in California.  In January 1942, a few weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, Schoenberg received a commission from the League of Composers for a short chamber work.  Opining that “I knew it was the moral duty of intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny”, he selected Byron’s savage poem as an obvious mirror of his own feelings at the time, and he later wrote that the singer must have “the number of shades, essential to express one hundred and seventy kinds of derision, sarcasm, hatred, ridicule, contempt, condemnation, etc., which I tried to portray in my music.”  The last line of the poem also implies his thanks to the USA for sheltering him.  He composed the 15-minute work between 12 March and 12 June 1942 but refused to send it to the League and, although he and his students searched for suitable performers and venues, the Ode was not premièred publicly until 23 November 1944. 

Schoenberg himself heard the Ode played live in its original form only at a rehearsal preceding the concert in honour of his 75th birthday (13 September 1949) in Los Angeles. 

Leonard Stein, Founding Director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California from 1976 to 1991, analysed the structure thus:  “The Ode is divided into four parts (five, three, four, and seven stanzas respectively) separated by instrumental interludes and prefaced by an introduction which contains the leading motifs.  The first part, following the entrance of the Reciter, consists primarily of two themes – the “Napoleon” motifs – denouncing the tyrant.  The second main part, following an instrumental interlude, treats three historical characters whose fate is contrasted with Napoleon’s.  After a second interlude, which uses elements of the Introduction, the third part is presented, interrupted by frequent recitative passages.  The final section follows a brief interlude and develops nearly all the main aspects of the poem, culminating in the reference to Washington (depicted by a four-note up-down-up motif: D, E-flat, G, B-flat) as the heroic counterpart of the tyrant.  This final passage gradually settles down to a definite tonality (E-flat), which has been hinted at throughout the composition.”

’Tis done—but yesterday a King!
And arm’d with Kings to strive—
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject—yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones,
And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscalled the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.

Ill-minded man! why scourge thy kind
Who bow’d so low the knee?
By gazing on thyself grown blind,
Thou taught’st the rest to see.
With might unquestion’d,—power to save,—
Thine only gift hath been the grave,
To those that worshipp’d thee;
Nor till thy fall could mortals guess
Ambition’s less than littleness!

Thanks for that lesson—it will teach
To after-warriors more
Than high Philosophy can preach,
And vainly preach’d before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre sway
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.

The triumph and the vanity, 
The rapture of the strife—
The earthquake voice of Victory,
To thee the breath of life;
The sword, the sceptre, and that sway
Which man seem’d made but to obey,
Wherewith renown was rife—
All quell’d—Dark spirit! what must be
The madness of thy memory!

The Desolator desolate!
The Victor overthrown!
The Arbiter of others’ fate
A Suppliant for his own!
Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
Or dread of death alone?
To die a prince—or live a slave—
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!

He who of old would rend the oak,
Dream’d not of the rebound:
Chain’d by the trunk he vainly broke—
Alone—how look’d he round?
Thou, in the sternness of thy strength,
An equal deed hast done at length,
And darker fate hast found:
He fell, the forest prowlers’ prey;
But thou must eat thy heart away!

The Roman, when his burning heart
Was slaked with blood of Rome,
Threw down the dagger—dared depart,
In savage grandeur, home—
He dared depart in utter scorn
Of men that such a yoke had borne,
Yet left him such a doom!
His only glory was that hour
Of self-upheld abandon’d power.

The Roman - Lucius Cornelius Sulla (Sylla) (138-78 B.C.) - "Felix".  Twice made Consul after a military career, Sulla made changes he thought necessary to the government of Rome, then simply stepped down in 79 B.C.            

The Spaniard, when the lust of sway
Had lost its quickening spell,
Cast crowns for rosaries away,
An empire for a cell;
A strict accountant of his beads,
A subtle disputant on creeds,
His dotage trifled well:
Yet better had he neither known
A bigot’s shrine, nor despot’s throne.

The Spaniard - Charles V. resigned the kingdom to his son Philip, circ. October, 1555, and the imperial crown to his brother Ferdinand, August 27, 1556, and entered the Jeronymite Monastery of St. Justus at Placencia in Estremadura.

But thou—from thy reluctant hand
The thunderbolt is wrung—
Too late thou leav’st the high command
To which thy weakness clung;
All Evil Spirit as thou art,
It is enough to grieve the heart
To see thine own unstrung;
To think that God’s fair world hath been
The footstool of a thing so mean;

And Earth hath spilt her blood for him,
Who thus can hoard his own!
And Monarchs bow’d the trembling limb,
And thank’d him for a throne!
Fair Freedom! we may hold thee dear,
When thus thy mightiest foes their fear
In humblest guise have shown.
Oh, ne’er may tyrant leave behind
A brighter name to lure mankind!

Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
Nor written thus in vain—
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
Or deepen every stain:
If thou hadst died as honour dies,
Some new Napoleon might arise,
To shame the world again—
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?

Weigh’d in the balance, hero dust
Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
To all that pass away;
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
To dazzle and dismay:
Nor deem’d Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.

And she, proud Austria’s mournful flower,
Thy still imperial bride;
How bears her breast the torturing hour?
Still clings she to thy side?
Must she too bend, must she too share
Thy late repentance, long despair,
Thou throneless Homicide?
If still she loves thee, hoard that gem,—
’Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!

Then haste thee to thy sullen Isle,
And gaze upon the sea;
That element may meet thy smile—
It ne’er was ruled by thee!
Or trace with thine all idle hand
In loitering mood upon the sand,
That Earth is now as free!
That Corinth’s pedagogue hath now
Transferr’d his by-word to thy brow.

Thou Timour! in his captive’s cage
What thoughts will there be thine,
While brooding in thy prison’d rage?
But one—‘The world was mine!’
Unless, like he of Babylon,
All sense is with thy sceptre gone,
Life will not long confine
That spirit pour’d so widely forth—
So long obey’d—so little worth!

Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,
Wilt thou withstand the shock?
And share with him, the unforgiven,
His vulture and his rock!
Foredoom’d by God—by man accurst,
And that last act, though not thy worst,
The very Fiend’s arch mock;
He in his fall preserved his pride
And, if a mortal, had as proudly died!

There was a day—there was an hour,
While earth was Gaul’s—Gaul thine—
When that immeasurable power
Unsated to resign,
Had been an act of purer fame
Than gathers round Marengo’s name,
And gilded thy decline
Through the long twilight of all time,
Despite some passing clouds of crime.

But thou forsooth must be a king,
And don the purple vest,
As if that foolish robe could wring
Rememberance from thy breast.
Where is that faded garment? where
The gewgaws thou wert fond to wear,
The star—the string—the crest?
Vain froward child of empire! say,
Are all thy playthings snatched away?

Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes—one—the first—the last—the best—
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath’d the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!               

Maurice Ravel (1835-1937) Tzigane – Concert Rhapsody for Violin & Piano

Whilst Ravel’s rhapsody was originally written for violin and piano, we are not hearing it quite as the composer intended, for the piano was meant to have a ‘luthéal’ attachment.  The luthéal was a 1919 invention that, organ-like, had stops above the keyboard to provide tonal colour.  On 26 April 1924, the work’s first performance, by its commissioner and dedicatee, Jelly d’Arányi, had Henri Gil-Marchex at the piano with the device attached, doubtless faithfully following the instructions in the score for these register-changes.  The work is heard nowadays both in the original combination and in Ravel’s own orchestration of the piano part, which followed within a few months of the original’s first performance

Those who recognise the French ‘Gitanes’ cigarettes know that the word in various guises and spellings across Europe means ‘Gypsy’, although the title Ravel gave it nods towards the Hungarian version cigány, almost certainly because of Jelly d’Arányi’s birth in Budapest in 1893.  He wrote it after requesting her to play ‘Gypsy’ music at one of their meetings.  Jelly and her equally beautiful and accomplished violinist sister, Adila, captivated admirers wherever they went:  Jelly and Béla Bartók performed the two sonatas he dedicated to her, Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Concerto Academico to her and Gustav Holst wrote his Double Concerto for Two Violins for the sisters.  There is a tradition of Hungarian ‘Gypsy’ violinists evoked not least by Brahms’ Hungarian Dances for Jelly’s great-uncle Joseph Joachim and by all those virtuosi who have performed a Csárdás, also based on Hungarian folk music.  Rather than having any ethnographic authenticity, Ravel’s work conjures up a mood of ‘Gypsy-ness’, just as Bizet does in his opera Carmen.  Its ‘exotic’ nature and bravura virtuosity put it firmly in the tradition of violin showpieces from Paganini onwards.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Piano Quintet in A minor, op.84
1. Moderato;  2. Adagio;  3. Andante – Allegro.

Elgar was born at Broadheath in Worcestershire and it is a reasonable proposition that it was only when he was in the countryside, or thinking about it, that he actually could compose.  Beyond composing to commission to bolster the War effort, his creative spirit had virtually burnt out during the First World War when he was living in opulence in London.  But in 1917 he and his wife found ‘Brinkwells’, a cottage in Sussex where they stayed for short periods.  In 1918 they decided to stay there and his health improved and his creativity returned, resulting in the late-flowering String Quartet, Violin Sonata, Cello Concerto and this major, 36-minute Piano Quintet.  In a letter he describes it as “running gigantically and in a large mood” and dedicated it to the eminent critic, Ernest Newman, to whom he described it as “ghostly stuff”. 

Elgar mentioned in connection with the Quintet a cluster of tall, dead trees on their own on high ground near Flexham Park, quite close to Brinkwells.  These trees were gnarled and twisted, and legend, according to the Elgars, has it that there had once been a monastery of Spanish monks who had renounced their vows and taken to “evil and impious rites”, for which they had been turned into these trees.  This legend, Edward implied, influenced the writing of the quintet.  It’s a lovely story, and perhaps thinking of what these “evil and impious rites” actually involved will occupy you and possibly cheer you during this performance but, sadly, the legend has absolutely no provenance in the area and was probably a fiction of a visiting writer friend of Elgar. 

The first movement’s construction appears episodic but slowly a curious sonata form becomes clear and a thematic unity suffuses the movement.  It starts with a stark, slowly descending, possibly plainsong-based phrase on the piano, against which the strings mutter darkly against it in a stabbing rhythm that will assume ever greater importance.  These are used often in the movement and reappear in the middle of the last movement.  As the strings take over a faster version of the piano’s final phrase, the cello has a rising, imploring figure before the movement proper begins with a vigorous first subject immediately followed by a vigorous transformation of the imploring phrase.  We subsequently realize that the true second subject does sound a bit Spanish, with a violin duet accompanied by pizzicato sounding vaguely like tango-esque café music.  Then, instead of heralding a ‘conventional’ development section, this fades back into the quiet introduction, until the cello assertively drags the ensemble into an extended fugato.  After the biggest climax of the movement, we launch into the recapitulation of the first subject.  At the end we hear a repeat of the cello’s imploring phrase, the staccato motif still defiantly mutters as it fades into the distance until resistance is overcome, and the movement falls silent.

The second movement is sublime (Arcadia this year is full of transcendental slow movements!) and Diana McVeagh opined “If ever a movement of Elgar’s ought to be headed nobilmente it is this adagio.  It is most assured and ripely lovely music.”  The construction is masterly, but never mind the analysis, just let the music wash over you.

The final movement is in sonata form and the introduction of the first movement’s imploring theme soon gives way to the first subject, a bowling, “outdoors” sort of tune which is nevertheless marked unusually “with dignity”.  The second subject is a syncopated piano tune (which I have seen described kindly as “galumphing”) leading to a bumpy ride through a variety of keys with triplets shouted between the piano and strings culminating in a very loud version of (3a).  As this exposition ends and the development begins, the tension eases and the piano accompanies odd, short rhythmic solos from individual strings, particularly the stuttering viola.

Suddenly emerges reflectively that initial piano, ‘plainsong’ tune from the first movement, which the strings join to give a chorale-like effect.  That stuttering viola passage introduces the first movement’s violin duet sounding like a sad waltz.  This nostalgic mood is heightened by sustained cello notes of lament from which emerges quietly the recapitulation with the outdoors tune, loud versions of it being hushed by softer ones.  Predictably the “galumphing” tune follows, but again quietly.  This is all in preparation for the movement to recover its vitality as the exposition’s “bumpy ride” of shouted triplets occurs with a triumphal reassertion fortissimo of the “galumphing” tune, its repetitions marked nobilmente, and a long coda brings the piece to a thunderous close.