Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Farewell to 2009

From Beyond the Stave will take a Christmas break until early January, but before we go we’d like to remind you of some of the books we’ve published this year. We hope that you’ll find at least one or two under your tree on Christmas morning.

It was, as always, our pleasure to turn the spotlight on to some unfairly neglected composers in 2009: Chris Walton’s Othmar Schoeck is an engagingly written portrait of a composer whose reputation is very much in the ascendant after years of comparative neglect; Erik Chisholm is another whose work should really be heard more often than it is, and John Purser’s biography of the man has been well-received; still awaiting Fate’s tap on the shoulder is Dane Rudhyar, whose interests in painting, philosophy, novel writing and astrology have perhaps overshadowed his modernist compositions – hopefully Deniz Ertan’s sympathetic biography will encourage you to investigate his music.

In the field of British music we published a new volume in the Aldeburgh Studies in Music series, Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives, edited by Lucy Walker and including essays by composer Colin Matthews, Piper biographer Frances Spalding, oboist George Caird, writer Claire Seymour and many others. The New Aldeburgh Anthology is a book for those drawn back to Britten’s Aldeburgh year after year for the music, writing and arts - and to all who care for the landscape, the sea and the ongoing life of the Suffolk Coast.

Michael Barlow’s Whom the Gods Love (Toccata Press) told the story of the short but intensely creative life of composer George Butterworth, whose life ended alongside so many others at the Battle of the Somme. Toccata also published two volumes of writings by British composers: William Alwyn’s Composing in Words, edited by Andrew Palmer, and the long-awaited second volume of Havergal Brian on Music (edited by Malcolm MacDonald), where the maverick English composer looks at works by Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg as well as Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Dohnányi, Hindemith, Kilpinen, Mahler, Messager, Ravel, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Sousa, Szymanowski, Tailleferre, Varèse and many others.

Collections of essays of this kind provide enormously useful insights into the minds of composers, as does Bálint András Varga’s compelling book of interviews with György Kurtág which also includes his deeply moving homages to his friend and fellow-modernist, Ligeti. No-one with an interest in contemporary music should be without this superb publication.

The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss was the subject of Wayne Heisler Jr’s book, a richly interdisciplinary study of Strauss's collaboration with prominent dance artists of his time as well as his explorations of musical modernism. Ravel is the subject of Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound: written with insight and flair, it provides a long-needed reconsideration of Ravel's modernity, his teaching, and his place in twentieth-century music and culture.

Sterling Lambert’s Re-reading Poetry looks at Schubert’s multiple settings of Goethe: just as the poet maintained that his work could often be read in more than one way, so Schubert recognised that several of his settings of Goethe’s poems could be rewardingly revisited. A fascinating study of a neglected aspect of a great composer’s work.

Proust, Cocteau, Monet, Diaghilev and Colette were just some of the luminaries of French culture who gathered at the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, and Stravinsky, Satie, Falla and Poulenc all wrote music for her. The glittering world of fin-de-siècle Paris is beautifully evoked in Sylvia Kahan’s Music’s Modern Muse, her acclaimed biography of Winnaretta Singer and her times. Her second husband, Edmond, Prince de Polignac, was a respected composer and music theorist in his own right, and Kahan’s In Search of New Scales details his exploration of the octatonic scale and presents his groundbreaking treatise in English and in the original French.

Composer and critic Bayan Northcott’s collection of essays, The Way We Listen Now, was published to considerable acclaim under the Plumbago imprint earlier this year. Ranging widely over composers from the great European masters to American modernists, Northcott’s collection is a superb volume to sample or to read from cover to cover.

Another author incapable of writing a dull sentence is Daniel Albright, whose latest collection, Music Speaks, also ranges widely, but rarely strays far from opera. For Albright the opera house is the venue where the performances speak the most intricate and significant language invented by our culture - a language that speaks in music, words, pictures, and light.

Indeed opera lovers would have found much to enjoy from our lists in 2009. We were extremely pleased to be able to respond to readers’ requests to reissue Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s classic, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. This now joins Dean’s volume on the later operas for complete coverage of Handel’s works for the stage, available either separately or as a two-volume set. Another welcome return was John Lucas’s Reggie, available for the first time in an updated paperback under the new title, The Genius of Valhalla. A must for the many fans of the conductor or anyone interested in Wagner and his interpreters.

Gillian Opstad’s acclaimed Debussy's Mélisande is not simply a book about the opera, but looks at the lives of the three early interpreters of the role: Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte. Many reviewers remarked how convincingly Ms Opstad managed this complex narrative weave. Derek Katz presented an interpretive and critical study of the great Czech composer’s operas in Janáček: Beyond the Borders.

String players will welcome the two-volume set, Intimate Voices: The Twentieth Century String Quartet, edited by Evan Jones. Examining work by 21 composers from 11 countries, this study is a unique examination of a form used by many to confide their most personal thoughts.

Early music has once again been well served by the Boydell Press. Hermann Pötzlinger's Music Book, a study of the St Emmeram Codex by Ian Rumbold with Peter Wright, not only examines the manuscript itself but looks at the culture in which it was compiled. Emma Hornby’s keenly anticipated Medieval Liturgical Chant and Patristic Exegesis examines the relationship between text and melody in medieval music.

In the early 1900s August Halm was widely acknowledged to be one of the most insightful and influential authors of his day, yet today is music theories are less well known than those of his contemporaries such as Hugo Riemann and Heinrich Schenker. Lee A Rothfarb’s recent book looks at his life and the enduring interest of his critical writing. Music historians will also want Bernarr Rainbow’s introductions to the various music manuals he reissued, collected for the first time in Four Centuries of Music Teaching Manuals 1518-1932, edited by Gordon Cox.

Genetic Criticism and the Creative Process, edited by William Kinderman and Joseph E Jones, looks at the process of creative endeavour in an interdisciplinary context, emphasizing literature and drama as well as music.

Finally, where would you have found the most German speakers in the nineteenth century after Berlin and Vienna? Munich, perhaps, or Frankfurt? The answer is surprisingly New York City, and musicologist John Koegel has written a fascinating study of Music in German Immigrant Theater in New York from 1840 until 1940.

All of us at Boydell & Brewer, the University of Rochester Press, Toccata Press and Plumbago wish you the most harmonious Christmas season and a joyous start to 2010, the beginning of another exciting decade of music books from one of the world’s leading independent publishers!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Prince Edmond, Octatonic Explorer

In October we posted a series of extracts from Sylvia Kahan’s superb biography of Winnaretta Singer, Music’s Modern Muse. This week we turn the spotlight on her second husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac, and his discovery of the octatonic scale which is the subject of Professor Kahan’s latest book, In Search of New Scales. ‘A fascinating and valuable contribution to modern French musicology,’ enthused Robert Orledge in the Winter 2009 issue of the Musical Times, ‘Kahan shows herself ever aware of the social and cultural milieu in which Prince Edmond operated…[her] enthusiastic advocacy makes one long for recordings.’ Orledge concludes, ‘Prince Edmond was far more than a mere social appendage to a famous wife; as well as being far more than the “charming…big ironic bird” of Colette’s description.’

The ‘discovery’ of the octatonic scale by Edmond de Polignac—and, later, by Alexandre de Bertha—entirely independent of the collection’s earlier applications by German and Russian composers, can be attributed in part to a logical development in a tonal system that was rapidly becoming chromaticized. However, it may also speak to a deeper cultural need. If we look back on the history of another art form, for example, the first photograph was taken in 1826, but photography as a science was not invented until 1839. The imagination that wanted photography was ready for its reification only when it had reached a certain state in its technical advancement. Similarly, the Romantic musical imagination that dared to break the mold of conventional diatonic procedures, moving gradually into the realm of mediant-related harmonic progressions, would have to wait until 1867 for the scale governing some of those procedures to be reified, and another dozen years until that scale was theorized.

In the musical realm, a similar process of ‘evolutionary’ revolution in musical composition was surely at work as well. The time that has passed between Rimsky-Korsakov’s first version of Sadko—the tone poem, Op. 5 (1867), which introduces his first octatonic scale—and the second version—the full-length opera of the same name (1897), whose second scene is based, in large part, upon triads drawn exclusively from Scale C—is a full thirty years. And, as Allen Forte has demonstrated, Franz Liszt experimented with proto-octatonic thirds related constructions as early as 1858, but it was not until the composer’s very late period (1880–83), when he was writing highly atonal experimental works, that, according to Forte, ‘[Liszt’s] conscious manipulation of such structural properties seems incontrovertible.’ At the end of the manuscript of one such experimental work, Ossa arida (1879), Liszt wrote the following postscript: ‘Professors and apostles of the conservatories most strongly disapprove of the dissonance of the continuous thirds-construction of the first twenty bars, which is not yet customary. Nevertheless, so has he written. Liszt (Villa d’Este, 18–21 October 79).’ The year 1879 also marks the period of Polignac’s octatonic discovery: by then, the idea was unquestionably ‘in the air.’

It is not inconceivable that the early French modernists might have been influenced by Polignac’s music and theories. The public debates and articles surrounding Polignac’s ‘octatonic wars’ with Bertha would surely have been followed with interest by composers who read Le Figaro and the leading journals of music and culture. Claude Debussy, an octatonic composer (of the ‘fortuitous’ type, according to Taruskin), was introduced to the Prince and Princesse de Polignac in 1894 by musical salon hostess Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, and subsequently frequented the Polignac salon; an 1895 letter to Pierre Louÿs attests to Debussy’s interest in—and implied admiration of—Polignac’s music. Maurice Ravel (in Taruskin’s terms, a ‘true’ octatonic composer) began to attend the musical gatherings in the late 1890s, in the company of his teacher Gabriel Fauré. While both composers—especially Ravel—were influenced by the Russians, both would also have had many occasions to hear Edmond de Polignac holding forth on ‘his’ scales. It is impossible to prove Polignac’s influence with absolute certainty, but what is certain is that Debussy and Ravel can be placed in the Polignac salon—in Ravel’s case, well before the date of his first octatonic essays; therefore this indigenous source of influence cannot be ruled out.

In any event, Polignac’s octatonic compositions and treatise (transcribed, translated, and analyzed in part two of In Search of New Scales), and Bertha’s subsequent writings on the same subject, must now take their place in the history of the theoretical recognition of the collection. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1867 description of the ‘halfstep, whole-step’ scale will remain its first written reification, the first published description of the octatonic scales, originally attributed to Berger in 1963, must now be moved backwards to 1888, and attributed to Edmond de Polignac.

More information about Music’s Modern Muse may be found here, while further details of Prince Edmond’s octatonic adventure are here.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Handel’s Deidamia

BBC Radio 3’s Handel opera season draws to a close. Here we post the last of our excerpts from Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, where author Winton Dean offers some background to the opera broadcast on December 10th and 11th, Deidamia:

The post-Homeric story of Achilles in Scyros was popular with librettists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settings by Legrenzi and Draghi appeared in 1663, in Ferrara and Vienna respectively, and Metastasio’s version, written for Caldara in 1736, was subsequently set by other composers. The opportunities for transvestist disguise and sexual innuendo had a natural attraction for practitioners of opera seria with its dependence on soprano or alto heroes, and Rolli was not slow to exploit them.

Rolli’s source was not Bentivoglio’s libretto for Legrenzi, nor Metastasio, who approaches the subject with his usual high seriousness, nor Gay’s posthumous ballad opera Achilles (1733), which later formed the basis of Arne’s Achilles in Petticoats (1773). In Gay’s version Lycomedes is unaware of Pyrrha’s identity and tries to rape her, with predictable results; Deidamia does not appear till half way through the opera and is pregnant by Achilles, who has been itching to get to Troy from the first and uses the arrival of Ulysses with his gifts (late in Act III) as a convenient means of circumventing his mother’s precautions.

Rolli treats the story as a sophisticated ironical comedy which only the sufferings of the heroine redeem from outright cynicism. Apart from Deidamia and her father, none of the characters evinces any emotion beyond a superficial level. Achille is a thoughtless boy, Ulisse a self-confessed politician, the secondary lovers more than usually conventional. Yet the libretto is a skilful and consistent piece of work, free from involutions of plot and language. Its equivocal tone, seasoned with wit, is never offensive (Gay’s is much coarser). The parallel between hunting and war in act II is neatly turned and gives some backbone to the plot. The element of parody is not disguised; Achille’s opinion that Calchas faked the oracle, as Dent remarks, would have horrified Metastasio. Levity at the expense of classical and historical figures had of course been a commonplace of Venetian opera; Rolli follows the method of Agrippina in placing them in undignified postures rather than the earlier tradition by which their servants mock them in asides to the audience. He also employs an amusing brand of literary irony by appealing to the audience’s knowledge of future events. Achille’s destiny at Troy is an obvious example; more subtle is the hint that Ulisse’s wanderings on the way back to Ithaca (in fact the entire action of the Odyssey) are the product of Deidamia’s curse.

In its compound of flippancy and serious emotion, its ‘off-beat’ flavour and the light bantering tone of most of the dialogue, the libretto seems a natural successor to Serse and Imeneo, and may have been deliberately framed as such. It should have suited Handel down to the ground. Yet Deidamia is a disappointing opera, a sad culmination to his long and glorious career in the theatre. Despite half a dozen beautiful arias a good deal of the music sounds tired, wanting in tension and marred by long stretches of mechanical sequences and accompaniment figures. The notes come spinning out, but the governing brain seems preoccupied, as if Handel, having glimpsed in Saul the measureless possibilities of the dramatic oratorio, found the routine of opera seria more bother than it was worth to transcend.

If this is the explanation, we cannot be surprised. But the nature of the plot imposed a technical handicap. There were obvious advantages in casting Achilles for a woman, and Rolli as well as Handel clearly had this in mind from the start. As a result the one castrato in the company had to play Ulisse, who pulls the dramatic strings but is not at any time emotionally involved. This was to battle against the tide of the opera seria convention, in which personal emotion is the driving force of every principal character. a castrato who does not make love (except as a ruse de guerre) is almost unknown, and unique in Handel. But since he is the primo uomo he must have plenty to sing, and his part is padded out of all proportion to his dramatic merits. he is worth two or three arias; he has six, not to mention a duet and a substantial solo in the Act II chorus. No doubt Handel might have overcome this difficulty, as he overcame others as intractable, if his powers had been operating at full stretch; but Ulisse gave him little to bite on, and he failed.

The discrepancy is most glaring at the end of the opera, where, as in the final version of Imeneo, a wry coro is preceded by a duet in which one of the newly united pair remains silent. In both operas this unbalancing of the structure corresponds to an ironic twist in the story, even if it was conditioned by the conventional requirement that the primo uomo, though in neither case does he get the girl, must share the limelight with the prima donna. But whereas the climax of Imeneo communicates a dramatic truth, that of Deidamia is lopsided and unsatisfactory. a trio (as in Gay’s Achilles) and a coro with an undercurrent of pathetic emotion, perhaps in a minor key, could have met all requirements; if there must be a duet, we want to hear Achille, not Ulisse.

Nor do most of the other characters seem to have roused in Handel more than a flicker of interest, probably for a similar reason; their feelings seldom penetrate beneath the surface, even when they are not feigned. Deidamia herself is a shining exception. Handel would not be Handel if he failed to respond to a heroine who is suddenly deprived of her lover for political reasons which she cannot be expected to understand. Apart from one aria for Lycomede and one for Ulisse, all the finest music in the opera falls to her. She alone emerges as a full-length portrait, a high-spirited girl in whom misfortune strikes a flame of passion and defiance. As experience harrows her heart, her music assumes an increasing strength and eloquence. When she first appears, destiny is still smiling on the well-camouflaged union with Achille. Handel gives her two consecutive cavatinas in this scene, both with continuo accompaniment, the light touch reflecting the intimate note of contentment. This is underlined in ‘due bell’alme inamorate’ by the use of the lute with concertino cellos and harpsichord in the continuo (no double bass or bassoons). ‘Ma chi sa’, sung aside, is little more than a heightening of the recitative; but the minor key and changes of tempo (larghetto – andante – adagio – andante in twenty-two bars) warn us that her heart is engaged. Later, as she waits for Achille, she happily repeats ‘due bell’alme’, the tempo now largo instead of larghetto. The flexible form of this scene looks forward to the arioso of Gluck. In ‘Quando accenderan’ the minor key and an occasional touch in the harmony suggest the dawn of anxiety as Deidamia recalls Achille to his vows; but the ornament is facile. The same is true of ‘nasconde l’usignolo’, a conventional bird aria in which scale figures serve as a mechanical representation of flight. The music, though effective, is not much more distinguished than Rolli’s natural history.

Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 by Winton Dean. Available along with the companion volume by Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 which has recently reissued by the Boydell Press. For those of you yet to discover these monumental volumes, they are also available as a set for a special price.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Punctuating Music

This week we would like to revisit the theme of a book we published last year, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century, by cellist and teacher Stephanie Vial. In this post, Ms Vial takes up the subject of her book and demonstrates how punctuation has remained an important element in the way she interprets and plays music.

This past June in the Washington DC area, violinist Elizabeth Field and I directed the first Modern Early Music Institute: a chamber orchestra seminar designed for professional string players who wish to explore historical performance practices using their own modern instruments. As part of our introductory lecture, I read to the group an eighteenth-century sentence from the work of elocutionist Joshua Steele, his Essay Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech (1779). A firm believer in the close relationship between the expression and notation of music and language, Steele's writing itself - and particularly his lively use of punctuation (my pet subject) - proved to be as eloquent as his words. To enhance the sentence's effect, I verbalized each punctuation mark.

The puzzling obscurity relative to the melody and measure of speech [comma] which has hitherto existed between modern critics and ancient grammarians [comma] has been chiefly owing to a want of terms and characters [comma] sufficient to distinguish clearly the several properties or accidents belonging to language [semicolon] such as [comma] accent [comma] emphasis [comma] quantity [comma] pause [comma] and force [semicolon] instead of which five terms [comma] they have generally made use of two only [comma] accent and quantity [comma] with some loose hints concerning pauses [comma] but without any clear and sufficient rules for their use and admeasurement [semicolon] so that the definitions required for distinguishing between the expression of force [open parentheses] or loudness [close parentheses] and emphasis [comma] with their several degrees [comma] were worse than lost [semicolon] their difference being tacitly felt [comma] though not explained or reduced to rule [comma] was the cause of confounding all the rest [period]

My recital garnered quite a few laughs and made the point I intended. No one writes in this elaborate manner - a single sentence the length of a paragraph, containing no less than three semicolons, sixteen commas, and a pair of parentheses! Today we prefer our sentence style to be succinct, to the point, and with a minimum of punctuated stops along the way. As Lynn Truss states in her clever and highly anecdotal book on the subject, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation: “Nowadays the fashion is against grammatical fussiness . . . People who put in all the commas betray themselves as moral weaklings with empty lives and out-of-date reference books.”

My book, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century: Punctuating the Classical “Period,” explores the analogy, frequently drawn by eighteenth-century musicians, between the use of commas, colons, and periods in language and the way musical phrases are distinguished and combined to create both simple dance forms and larger, more varied compositions. Part 1, in particular, is devoted to exploring the historical shift in attitude towards punctuation usage described above. This is key to understanding both the theories and applications of musical punctuation as well as why eighteenth-century musicians were so fond of the analogy. For performers, such an understanding is absolutely crucial.

The way our modern ears hear music is, I believe, very similar to the way we write and speak. We are goal oriented, unwilling to pause lest we lose sight of that goal, pushing ever forwards over bar lines towards harmonic resolution, which is usually to be found on a near-by, strong down-beat. Yet eighteenth-century musical phrases operate in essentially the opposite manner. Emphasis is generally felt at the beginnings of measures, releasing away from the bar lines. In addition the pauses of punctuation often occur at the point of dissonance, creating moments (to greater and lesser degrees) of suspension and anticipation. As I emphasize repeatedly in Part 2 of my book (which explores the interpretation of the written and unwritten rests which belong to musical punctuation), while it may seem natural to pause after a dominant chord has resolved to the tonic, to do so (with repertoire of this period) has the tendency of ending sentences prematurely. Instead, if the pause is allowed to occur before the resolution, a series of smaller punctuation points can be used to create a sense of energy, expectation, and forward motion. Far from resulting in the choppy style of which music from the classical period is so often accused, much longer sentences are achieved than otherwise would be.

Without punctuation, Steele's sentence simply makes no sense: words need to be changed; emphasis must be moved; the whole cadence and flow of the language must be altered. As we discussed with our MEMI group, the same must be done to eighteenth-century musical sentences if their punctuation is similarly misjudged. Because over time our instruments have become increasingly powerful with greater sustaining abilities, and our performing venues ever larger, our aesthetic of sound production has also changed. With it we have developed a new set of performance conventions such as beautifully seamless legato playing and the continuous use of rich vibrato to the point that in essence we employ an entirely different musical language than we did in the eighteenth century. New elements of expression must be found to replace those which the older language relied upon. It is no wonder that instructive editions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, detailing additional accentual and dynamic nuance information for nearly every note, proliferated in the late nineteenth century. It has now been the effort of decades to clean up these well-intentioned, but misguided “excesses.” Yet in the end we will have achieved very little unless we face the challenge (and obligation) of relearning a language at once familiar but nevertheless distinctly foreign.

As a performer, what continually amazes me about the subject of musical punctuation is the constant care and attention one must give to it. It is not enough to merely read and understand the nature of a language. One must also be able to speak (or perform) it. Earlier this year, in February, I was working on a project developed by flutist Mary Oleskiewicz with keyboardist David Schulenberg to record six largely unknown, but remarkable flute sonatas by J.J. Quantz. As we worked, we found that though seemingly straight-forward, the minuet and dance-like forms proved to be particularly problematic. Unless we delivered exactly the right character, the precise degree of strong and weak accents on the beginnings and endings of the phrase units, and especially just the right amount of pause to convey the simple commas between the two-bar and the larger four- and eight-bar phrases, the movements fell completely and utterly flat. It was astonishing, when listening to playbacks in WGBH's new state-of-the-art recording studio, to realize how much more poised and skilled we had to be in our execution. It is not surprising, really, as simplicity can be difficult to convey. I devote the first chapter in Part III of my book to the punctuated nature of such movements, likening their form to the poetic verse of language, and as the opposite of that which is prose, or in music, recitative. The latter is irregular in its accent and meter and prone to sudden and unpredictable starts and stops. Verse on the other hand exhibits a contrasting rhythmic regularity. Both its punctuation and layout (its meter and scansion) has to literally leap off the printed page and become almost visible to the ear. To convey this orally requires an eighteenth-century like attention to the internal rhythm and structure of language ―a savoring of its beauty and elegance that is not at all goal oriented.

Recently, too, I had the privilege of performing three of C.P.E. Bach's extraordinary and dramatic string symphonies with The Vivaldi Project ensemble and guest conductor John Hsu. This often prose-like music with its striking juxtapositions of plaintive statements immediately followed and interrupted by dramatic, and at times harsh responses, can seem quite strange, even bizarre. How then do we make sense of it? With careful attention to the character and structure of the phrases and the nature of their relationship, of course. John Hsu's skill in perceiving and communicating such ideas is unparalleled. Although I must admit that I am not unbiased in this opinion as Hsu was my teacher when I was a graduate student at Cornell. In fact it was the desire to understand the why and how of what he knew that led me down the path to musical punctuation. It has been a year and a half since my book on the subject was published, but I do not believe I will ever be “finished” with it. The concept of musical punctuation, and the vast array of expressive devices associated with it, necessarily remains the foundation of my teaching, my exploration of unknown eighteenth-century works, and all my performances. It has become an undeniable and fundamental part of the musician that I am.