Old New Worlds: 20th -century music for cello and piano
Pedro de Alcantara, cello
Fabio Gardenal, piano
Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, That all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, That all novelty is but oblivion.
(Francis Bacon, “Of Vicissitude of Things”)
The history of music in the 20th -century is one of violent revolution. The New tried to replace the Old, and the proponents of the Old fought with all their might. The Nazis banished “degenerate” composers, many of whom had to flee into exile (including Paul Hindemith). Dmitri Shostakovich submitted to a humiliating auto-da-fé, on Stalin's orders, for writing bourgeois music. Igor Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” caused a literal riot when it premiered in Paris. The conductor Walter Damrosch, speaking of the young Aaron Copland's music, said that “If he can write like that at 23, in five years he'll be ready to commit murder.” We conclude that, to trigger these reactions, the New must have been incredibly different from the Old. Such a conclusion, though, isn't supported by the evidence of the music itself.
The sonata for cello and piano by Claude Debussy is the most forward-looking and experimental of the works on this CD. Indeed, its startling modernity must have been shocking for the ears of the concert-going public in 1915. It's hard to believe that it was written by the same person who, only a couple of decades earlier, showed his songs to Brahms and commingled with Liszt and Verdi at the Villa Medici. The cello writing is a lollapalooza of effects that Brahms wouldn't have abided: harsh pizzicati that nearly rip the strings off the cello, glassy ponticello passages in measured tremolo, floating flautandi high up the fingerboard. The rhythmic language is full of imprecations and interjections, short bursts of accented notes, sudden changes of tempo. And the harmonic language veers far enough from tonality to escape it altogether for long stretches.
Debussy wrote in a letter to his publisher, Jacques Durand, that he regarded highly the “proportions and almost classical form in the best sense of the word” in his freshly composed cello sonata. Such a claim might startle you after hearing the piece for the first time. And yet, despite its exuberant modernity, the piece starts and ends in D minor, the way a sonata by Mozart would. Throughout it we recognize snippets of F major, C major, D Major, and other sounds that would be familiar to Haydn or Beethoven, and that retain an organic, intimate relationship with the initial and final D minor. Structurally, the first movement can be heard as a transformed allegro-sonata form – the ultimate form of Classical music, an Aristotelian construction consisting of a beginning, a middle, and an end. The exposition contains a first theme in D minor and a second in F major (creating a key relationship that is indeed classical). The development employs classical tools to create and sustain drama, although its harmonic language is utterly modern. The recapitulation presents the first theme in brighter clothes, and the second theme nearly as it was in the exposition. And the movement ends with a coda in D major, another device that one would have often heard in a composition written a hundred and fifty years before Debussy.
The second and third movements are much freer in construction, more improvisational and varied – seemingly more modern and less classical. But we shouldn't jump to conclusions. The second movement takes the role of the Scherzo in a classical sonata or string quartet. Scherzo means “joke” in Italian. And, indeed, this movement is full of humor and wit (as were Beethoven's scherzi) and even irony. The third movement is a dance (like many last movements in classical pieces). Upon listening to it one is struck by the wide palette of colors: instrumental effects, big shifts of tempi, exaggerated rubati, the juxtaposition of unrelated tonalities. Amazingly, though, the entire movement is in 2/4 time – there isn't a single change of meter in the whole shebang.
Again and again, throughout the sonata Debussy finds myriad ways of inserting modernity within a classical framework. He is doubly right in his claim to his publisher – right to believe that his work contains classical proportions and formal elements, and right to think highly of it. Working feverishly over a few weeks in the summer of 1915, he created one of the supreme masterpieces of the cello repertoire.
If Debussy's work provides a link between modernity and classicism, the sonata by Samuel Barber, op. 6 in C minor, follows a strand of Brahmsian Romanticism as it takes root in American soil, blossoming with the spirit of its time and place. This is the expansive, showy, nearly melodramatic Brahms of the big piano sonatas and the string quintets, not the autumnal, intimate Brahms of the intermezzi and the clarinet quintet.
The Brahmsian elements in Barber are both structural and textural. The piano writing contains thick, heavy, agitated passages in the instrument's lower registers that create an ominous effect. Orchestrated, some of these passages might be re-written for cellos, double basses, bassoons, and timpani, reminding us of the opening of Brahms's first piano concerto. The contrasting passages, lyrical and peaceful, would be played by the clarinets and oboes, like similar phrases from Brahms's symphonies. Brahms's absolutely favorite rhythmic device was the hemiola – the superposition of two beats against three, or the alternation of two groups of three beats and three groups of two beats. In the presto section of his sonata's second movement, Barber takes the principle farther, superposing sub-divided three against four – in essence, pitting nine against twelve. (There must be a Greek word for this exacerbated hemiola!) The device harks back to Brahms while pointing forwards to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, 19 th -century Germany transmogrified into 20 th -century America.
In the piece's first movement, Barber uses the traditional allegro-sonata form, sticking to its architectural foundation more closely than Debussy does. He inserts a modern element into the traditional form by writing cadenza-like passages on three occasions. At these points in the piece the unfolding of the piece's structure seems to be suspended while either or both instruments break into improvisatory declamations. But in truth the tension of the piece isn't suspended but heightened – we listeners sit on the edge of our seats, holding our breath and waiting for the craziness to stop so that we can hear the rest of the story.
The sonata's second movement is a different take on the Aristotelian triad of beginning, middle, and end. We call it simply the ABA form, and we'll hear it elsewhere on the CD. To start the movement, the cello intones a slow, prayerful melody above a simple accompaniment – perhaps a hymn accompanied by a harmonium in a revivalist church. It's an utterly American sound that Aaron Copland also captured in his works, and that generations of movie goers have heard on the soundtracks of Hollywood paeans to the great American pioneering spirit. A dance interrupts the prayer – a hokey-pokey, say, where the congregation pretends to praise the Lord while actually communing with the Devil. It's here that Barber pits nine against twelve, a devilish trick for the cellist and pianist to play together. The worshippers exhaust themselves in short order, and the prayer returns, more exalted than before. The whole movement could only have been written in the New World – in turn lofty and down-to-earth, pious yet extraverted, a land of magnificent vistas and endless possibilities.
The last movement, too, is a version of the allegro-sonata form, but its tonal structure is rather more daring than what even revolutionary Romantics like Schumann or Wagner might attempt. The piano plays the first theme in c minor; the cello re-states it in f-sharp minor, the key most removed from c minor along the circle of tonalities. The cello and piano converge briefly in g minor, only to speed away together in e minor. The movement continues in this extravagant manner, the harmonic liberties made more exciting still by sudden improvisatory outbursts, sometimes from the cello, sometimes from the piano, sometimes from the two in cahoots. The piece ends with a severe admonition in c minor, American fire and brimstone unlike the sober German resignation that Brahms might have uttered given these tonal and rhythmic materials.
In Barber we note both the composer's debt to a Romantic German voice and his original American modernity. Every piece on the CD incites similar thoughts about nationality. On the frontispiece of his cello sonata, Debussy made it be known that the piece was composed by “Claude Debussy, musicien français.” And, indeed, few people would mistake it for the handiwork of, say, a German or Russian composer. The Frenchness of the piece lies in its limpidity and elegance, but also in its prosody – the rhythm of its language. Certain passages remind one of the “tititi parisien,” a busy speech pattern brimming with short words spat out at a fast clip, their pitches rising quickly and hesitating to come down. “Je t'ai vu à Pigalle l'autre jour.” “Mais non! Pas du tout!” “T'es fou , quoi.” “Arrête, ça m'ennerve.”
Bohuslav Martinů wouldn't need to announce, on the frontispiece of his score, that he was a “Czechoslovak composer.” The very title of his work – Variations on a Slovak Theme – indicates the national origin of his music. Theme is a song titled “Ked bych ja vedela” (If only I knew), a bittersweet title for someone composing his last chamber work before dying. Theme's prosody couldn't be more different from that of a French melody. Two aspects of French language are lightness and a tendency for words to receive an accent on their last syllable. In this Slovak song, the first syllable receives a double accent, as it were: of length (the first syllable being longer than the second) and of actual stress. It lends the language a certain weight. Let's represent the French prosody as “pa-ta-TEE,” and the Slovak prosody as “PA-ta-ta.”
The form of Theme and Variations is much looser than the allegro-sonata. Stealth and feint are Martinů's creative weapons in this piece. In Mozart or Beethoven, variations tend to refer back to Theme and remind the listener of at least one or two basic aspects of Theme's construction and mood: a harmonic progression, for instance, or melodic and rhythmic elements that are somewhat transformed yet recognizable. In this set by Martinů, the materials of each variation are so strongly different from Theme that the listener tends to forget what Theme was about after a few bars into each variation – until Martinů surprises and delights us by flashing Theme in front of our eyes, as it were, usually right at the end of the variation. With this strategy, Martinů is the musicianly version of someone like Muhammad Ali. More magician than boxer, Ali would dance and prance in front of his adversary, almost lulling him out of a boxing attitude. Then he would punch… and start prancing again, repeating the cycle until the inevitable K.O. Even the defeated adversary would relish the memory of the match once he recovered from it. “How did he do it? How could I fall for it so many times in a row? I wish he'd do it again!”
Comparing Debussy and Martinů, we see that prosody – the rhythm of language – plays a determining role in giving music its national character. The prosody of Brazilian music is unmistakable. One of its patterns is repeated many times in both the “Modinha” by Francisco Mignone and Villa-Lobos's “Alma Brasileira.” Below you see two 4/4 bars, represented as a series of eighth notes numbered from 1 to 8.
Let's organize this shapeless sequence into three words, signaled by hyphens.
We give strong accents to one number in each unit, signaled by the bold marking.
1 23- 4 56- 7 8/ 1 23- 4 56- 7 8/ 1 23…
Now we shift the start of the sequence from one to 7:
7 8/ 1 23- 4 56; 7 8/ 1 23- 4 56…
Better to speak, sing, or dance the pattern, we use syllables rather than numbers, giving a slightly heavier accent to beat number one:
Pa-tee/ Pa-tee-tee, Pa-tee-ta; Pa-tee/ Pa-tee-tee, Pa-tee-ta…
And that is the rhythmic cell repeated again and again in much of Brazilian music. It's asymmetrical, in that a two-note unit is followed by two three-note units. And one of its accents falls on a note that normally is weak within the meter (the “Pa” of “Pa-ti-ta” above). For those two reasons the pattern pushes the listener to swing her hips ever so lazily and ever so… so… New Worldly. The Germans wouldn't dream of it. (Or rather, they do, but from dream to reality there are ten thousand kilometers, several time zones, and a few religious and cultural hurdles to jump.)
Brazilian music may strike our ears as so unlike French or German music as to appear utterly original. But the whole of Brazilian culture – its music and prosody, its dances and rhymes – didn't come into being out of thin air. True, it contains African elements that may be absent from, say, the German mainstream. But, mixed with all that's African and New Worldly, we also find influences that are absolutely European in origin and character. The Modinha came to Brazil straight from Portugal, where it was an art form not that different from a minuet or a waltz, suitable for “decent” rituals of aristocratic courtship. Mignone's take on it simply heats up the courtship a little and gives it a delightful whiff of indecency.
If you think Brazil is all about sun, sand, and samba, you haven't heard enough of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, the country's most daring and accomplished composer. A largely self-taught genius, Villa-Lobos absorbed the lessons of the Old World and transcended them in developing his own voice. His music makes liberal use of the hip-swinging rhythms appropriated from the popular singers and guitarists that Villa-Lobos liked to play with in the bars of Rio de Janeiro in the 1910s and 1920s. But what we hear in “Alma Brasileira” (“Brazilian Soul”) is richer, deeper, and ultimately sadder than a samba. The tropical Eden that Brazil was in the 1500's never recovered from the invasion by the pillaging, rapacious Portuguese. The joyous voice of the modern Brazilians hides a nostalgia for something long lost and unrecoverable. “Alma Brasileira” is in ABA form. The outer sections sing a languorous and introspective tale in e minor – not coincidentally, also the key of the “Modinha,” and one of the favorite keys of guitarists for the ease of tuning and playing it affords. In the middle section, the cello cries out a violent story of anger bordering on despair, soaring above samba-like rhythms in the piano – the Brazilian soul indeed, anguished yet filled with celebration.
The middle movement of Camargo Guarnieri's third sonata for cello and piano, composed in 1977, could have been penned by another great Brazilian musician – Antonio Carlos Jobim, the author of “The Girl from Ipanema” and so many other jewels. Villa-Lobos communed with popular singers and players in smoky bars and dance halls, subsequently bringing low-brow and folk elements into what is essentially high-brow art. Jobim traveled the reverse route to arrive at bossa nova. His influences include Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, yet his songs are whistled by the millions. The Guarnieri excerpt is as caressing to the ear as a Jobim tune or a Debussy prelude. Its harmonies appear to be highly chromatic and elaborate, and yet every other note in the movement is at the service of plain-vanilla C major – the very embodiment of tonal normalcy.
Of all the pieces in the CD, the one to make the greatest departure from tonal normalcy is the set of variations by Paul Hindemith (one of the composers the Nazis declared degenerate). This departure isn't noticeable right away. Theme starts in a very plausible imitation of G major, and the piece ends unequivocally with a G major chord. In between, though, much happens that isn't tonal by any means. One of Hindemith's innovations was to create chords by piling up fourths (C-F-Bb, for instance), not thirds (C-E-G) as tonal chords do. For many centuries, composers and listeners alike considered a harmonic fourth (that is, two pitches a fourth apart sounded together) a dissonance that quite “needed” resolution (most readily by a downwards movement of the top note, so that the interval of the fourth became a consonant third). Sit at the piano and play a C and an F together. For traditional ears such a sound is dissonant; you can “right” it by changing the F to an E. Hindemith builds chords and melodies on sequences of fourths that are never resolved. This lends his music a particular sonority, more brainy than sensual, indisputably modern, and definitely Germanic in character.
The modernity of the work stands in charming contrast to the source that inspired it: an Old-English nursery rhyme from a time that precedes Hindemith's (and Goebbels's) by generations – nay, eons. The rhyme is wonderfully funny and absurd, telling the tale of a courtship between a frog and a mouse that ends badly when the tom-cat interrupts the festivities. Hindemith's variations rise to the compositional challenge of depicting the rhyme's characters and their travails. Like Debussy in his cello sonata, and like Haydn and Beethoven a hundred and fifty years before, Hindemith writes funny music – sometimes witty, sometimes mocking, always amusing.
It's nearly impossible for the New to escape the pull of the Old. Brazil hasn't escaped Europe, Barber hasn't escaped Brahms, Debussy hasn't escaped Haydn and Mozart. Indeed, some would say that there is no new thing under the sun, and that all novelty is but oblivion. And they would be right – for all knowledge is but remembrance.
©Pedro de Alcantara 2004
A frog he went a-courting
A frog he went a-courting, he did ride
With a pistol and a sword hung by his side.
He rode up to little Mousie's door,
He off his horse and he boarded the floor.
He took Miss Mousie upon his knee,
Saying: Miss Mouse will you marry me?
O kind sir, I can't say that,
You have to ask my uncle rat.
Uncle rat went galloping to town,
To buy his niece a wedding-gown.
Where will the wedding supper be?
Away down yonder in the hollow bush tree.
The first come in was the bumble-bee,
With his fiddle on his knee.
The next come in was an old fat goose,
He began to fiddle and she got loose.
The next come in was a little flea,
To dance a jig with the bumble-bee.
The next come in was the old tom-cat,
He says: I'll put a stop to that.
The goose she then flew up on the wall,
And old tom cat put a stop to it all.
Gentleman Frog swam over the lake,
And he got swallowed by a big black snake.
That is the end of one two three,
The frog, the mouse and the bumble-bee.