Blair String Quartet
8 p.m. Nov. 3
Turner Recital Hall, Blair School of Music, 2400 Blakemore Ave.
For information, call 322-7651
This fall the Blair School of Music has been presenting a lot of music from the last century and has scheduled some more for the spring. “The last century” sounds longer ago than it isless than a yearand the music itself is sounding different as well. That’s partly because even before the 20th century ended, some classical music critics were lending it new ears, realizing that the century had not been nearly so pervasively radical as many had thought.
Formless racket exists in 20th-century music, to be sure. But the radical experimental stuff, most notoriously “serialism” (the use of custom-designed sets of the 12 chromatic scale-tones permuted with mathematical rigor), was always rare; most 20th-century composers emulated their tonal ancestors. Moreover, as Michael Linton notes, even serialism begot some lyrical, beautiful, and elegant music “purified of the kinds of [Romantic] excesses that had led to the horrors of the mid-century.” What’s more, some of the most puissant music of the later 20th century combines the virtues of tonality and atonality in ways that transfigure both.
A concert this Friday evening at the Blair School, performed by the Blair String Quartet and two guest performers, offers three works very much to the point: the String Quartet No. 1 by Charles Ives (1874-1954); Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a string sextet by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951); and the String Quintet (double cello) by George Rochberg (b. 1918). The first two are by radical noisemakers blamed for driving lots of listeners out of classical performance halls. The third is by a composer hardly known except to specialists, though among them he is seen as a major reconciler of modernism and traditional procedures.
Rochberg (pronounced “Rockburg”) began his career as a committed serialist who not only composed noteworthy music in this idiom, but evangelized for it in keenly lucid prose. Then, unexpectedly, he turned around dramatically. Amid outcries of artistic treason, Rochberg proceeded to meld non-serialist kinds of atonality with traditional tonal procedures in ways that Paul Horsley called “perhaps the most significant musical excursion of the final third of [the 20th] century.” This BSQ concert offers a rare chance to hear some of the evidence.
The concert is structured to make Rochberg the centerpiece between Ives and Schoenberg. Ives is notorious as a Yankee maverick who performed some radical musical experiments before anybody else didthough he was so isolated hardly anybody knew he was there. He wrote his most characteristic works between about 1906 and 1916, until ill health stopped him some 30 years before he was belatedly “discovered” and awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Ives composed in a Mark Twain mask and a Ralph Waldo Emerson jacket, infusing rhythmically jagged dissonance with mordantly humorous affirmation. Recently the Nashville Symphony recorded for Naxos his Robert Browning Overture, a sustained outpouring of morphing noisy vitalitywhat the poet Walt Whitman referred to as a “barbaric yawp.” It’s possible to admire such work without enjoying itand to understand why most folks would cover their ears and run.
The BSQ begins its own evening with some young Ivesa string quartet written in 1896, when the composer was only 21. Though it shows Ives’ assertive individualism and his Twainish humor (he calls it “From the Salvation Army”), the piece reminds us that Ives was himself a Romantic, committed to the ideal of capturing in music “the essence of emotional experience.” This quartet is tonal, has the customary four movements, and is more 19th- than 20th-century in idiom. As the title suggests, the materials come from the hymns Salvation Army bands play, handled here with delightful sophistication.
The BSQ ends this concert with an early work by Arnold Schoenberg, the big daddy of serialism. The original 1899 version of Transfigured Night was written for string sextet, although it is better known in its 1917 arrangement for string orchestra. As with the Ives, this piece belongs more to the 19th than to the 20th century. Like Ives also, Schoenberg remained Romantic in spirit all his life. This work has some clear links to his forebears: Liszt shows him the one-movement symphonic form; Wagner shows him some things about harmony; Brahms shows him the string-sextet medium and classical discipline.
Transfigured Night is based on a love poem by Richard Dehmel: A woman, pregnant by one man she does not love, confesses her condition to another man she does love. She receives his forgiveness, and the two celebrate their reciprocal emotional transfiguration. Dehmel himself told Schoenberg he had intended to “follow the motives of my text in your composition,” but was so enthralled by the music he forgot to do that.
Schoenberg himselfthough he did not know it yetwas pregnant with serialism. The pure “scientific” lucidity of the form, a response to Romantic bloat, made it the procedure of choice for composers getting launched just after World War II. Schoenberg invented it, and student Anton von Webern did wonders with it before mid-century. Then, in the 1950s, Webern became for young composers the musical Moses. The young Pierre Boulez wrote: “Any musician who has not felt...the necessity of the 12-tone language is of no use.”
George Rochberg felt that necessity and produced serialist work still held to be as good as it gets. But when, in 1964, his son died at age 20 from a brain tumor, the composer suddenly found that this musical language, in Linton’s phrase, “could not bear the weight of his sorrow.” Though Rochberg turned against 12-tone serialism as a narcissistic dead end and began writing tonal music again, he did not abandon atonality. Instead, he put the two together in a dramatic reinterpretation of musical form. Pervasive atonal dissonance, he concluded, had made music dramatically static and emotionally impotent. It was the interplay of dissonance and consonance that gave Western music its dramatic forward impetus. This insight moved him toward melding tonality and atonality into a contemporary language that could both “bear the weight of his sorrow” and enable him, without falsifying it, to transfigure that sorrow into authentic joy.
One distillation of his discovery is the centerpiece of this concertthe 1982 String Quintet (for two violins, viola, and two cellos), rightly called in the Blair School’s press release “virtuosic and passionate.” Joining the BSQ as the second cello is Norman Fischer, for 16 years cellist with the Concord Quartet. Fischer is now at Rice University in Houston.
I’m eager to hear this musicand to hear it bookended by pre-modernist Ives and Schoenberg. Arranged as it is, the concert moves from quartet (Ives) to quintet (Rochberg) to sextet (Schoenberg). Fischer will play in both the quintet and the sextet; to complete the latter piece, Blair School violist Kathryn Plummer will join Fischer and the BSQ. This insightful program offers three composers well known as modernists in works that are not modernist. Two had not yet arrived at modernism; the third has passed through it. Thus Rochberg’s quintet is Janus-earedit listens backward and forward at once.
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