Arensky's Piano Quintet: [BONUS] Creepy Waltz

I didn't do anything for Halloween this year. Penny, while adorable in her owl costume, is not big on knocking on strangers' doors nor on eating candy with her baby teeth. Plus, Jess and I consider the day only an annoying, loud, orange-and-black stepping stone to Thanksgiving, Fall's real holiday. #hewentthere #nohalloweenspirit #oldfogy

Hocus Pocus  (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

Hocus Pocus (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

However, I'll give a nod to Halloween with this little "trick and treat" (see what I did there?): a spooky waltz from Arensky's Piano Quintet. Now, I already did a post on this composition where I talked about the fugue theme from the final movement. But I couldn't pass up this fascinating moment in the midst of the second movement. This movement is a Theme and Variations, meaning, you hear a theme at the beginning and then the rest of the piece is reiterations of that theme varied in a variety of various ways. It's like someone trying on different costumes, one after the other (not unlike a picky Halloween-er).

Press play. Listen up to 0:31. That melody in the first violin is the Theme. (It's actually a French folk song from maybe the 1400s called Sur le pont d'Avignon, j'ai ouï chanter la belle.) If you keep listening after that, the piano enters, playing the theme quite clearly and prominently, and constituting the First Variation. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now check out the Sixth Variation. It starts around 3:16. The meter has now changed from duple to triple, as heard in the "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in the piano and pizzicato cello. Meanwhile, the piano's upper part gracefully glides about like a solitary ballroom dancer. The effect is actually rather pleasant...

But then, the other three string players enter. In unison. In long, drawn out notes. And so quietly you might not notice it until it's been happening for a while. And then you wonder how long this sighing specter has been looking over your shoulder. Eeeek!

But it gets a little creepier. Because the piano waltzer doesn't seem to realize that they aren't alone. It doesn't acknowledge this austere presence and dances on, oblivious to the ghostly melody wafting in like a chilly breeze from the other side. Double eeeeek!

And then, with a bone chilling gasp, you realize that the unison strings are actually playing the original Theme, but with the duration augmented (that is, elongated) to the point at which it's almost unrecognizable. That sweet and sad melody that you just got to appreciate from 0:00 to 0:31 appears here in ghastly form. The situation is punctuated by the continued presence of the unsuspecting (or is it complicit?) music-box dancer. Triple eeeeeek!

Anastasia  (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Anastasia (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Wow. Maybe I like Halloween more than I thought... I will say that this musical interpretation could fit in well with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque, a term he developed in the study of Renaissance carnivals and a time when weird festivals like Halloween actually had important cultural significance. (Check out his introduction to Rabelais and His World.)

Have a Happy November!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...

Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as  Scriabin  and  Roslavets .

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.

That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.

It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.

It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown

Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's  The Golden Key .  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.

Enjoy!

Preludophilia: Slonimsky's Preludes and Fugues

Sergei Mikhailovich Slonimsky was born in Leningrad 1932, the son of the well-known "Serapion Brotherhood" author Mikhail and nephew of the prolific musical emigré Nikolai. Every genre is represented in his long list of compositions, including operas (one entitled "Mary Stuart") and symphonies (the Tenth Symphony subtitled "Circles of Hell after Dante"). His pieces make use of his experience as an ethnomusicological researcher in Russian folk musics, his improvisational concertizing à la nineteenth-century preludists, and his use of both dodecaphonic techniques and jazz styles. One word that has been used to describe his compositions is the term "poly-art", a holistic aesthetic that freely and unexpectedly combines influences from all historical periods, including popular and folk styles. More info at the Saint-Petersburg Contemporary Music Center.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky wrote a set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key in 1994, published in 1996 (Saint-Petersburg: Kompozitor), and recorded in 2000 (Nikita Fitenko, Altarus). The CD is particularly good as it was performed under the composer's supervision and really brings to life the notes on the page. It takes about an hour and a half to play or listen to. The pieces progress in "Bach Order", that is chromatically with each major key followed by its parallel minor (C c Db c# D d etc.). Each prelude is marked attacca and various cyclical properties exist between preludes and their accompanying fugues. The majority of fugues have 3 or 4 voices with one 2-voice fugue and two with 5-voices. The fugal expositions tend to introduce the answering voice in the subdominant, and you can read more about it at this doctoral thesis by Yun-jin Seo.

There are definite aesthetic challenges to "poly-art" music, especially in those instances where our expectations of "serious" music (especially something in the tradition of J.S. Bach's WTC) come up against overt simplicity, vagueness, or even awkwardness. At times I am reminded of the improvisational antics (read: sloppiness) of 24 Preludes by Zhelobinsky or the (sometimes forced) folksiness of 24 Preludes by Kabalevsky. But this is not an attempt at socialist realism from the 1930s, nor is it a patriotic overture to Russianness during WWII. It seems far removed from those sorts of cultural-stylistic arguments. I feel myself relaxing even as I write that last sentence. It's all going to be ok.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by  Vasco Morelli (buy it here).  It's all about space.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by Vasco Morelli (buy it here). It's all about space.

Here's a few more specific observations.

Catchy: I've had some serious ear-worms with this music. Especially engaging, Fugue 6 in D minor and Fugue 20 in A minor get the toes tapping with snappy rhythms. I also tend to hum the opening melody of Prelude 1 in C Major, a gorgeous but slightly manic hymn.

Contrapuntal: Fugue 1 in C Major can't leave it alone with constant 2-voice stretto, but pulls out all the stops with simultaneous 4-voice stretto with two voices in inverted augmentation and one in augmentation, and a final 4-voice stretto with one voice in augmentation. It's saturated with theme! As if that weren't enough, the theme also makes use of a 32nd-note turn that recalls Bach's WTC1 C Major fugue. Also the 5-voice fugues are crazy-sauce (to use a technical term)!

Neo-Something: Prelude 11 in F Major could be called a Neo-Baroque romp that reminds me of Bach's Italian Concerto III. Prelude 6 in D minor is a genuine passacaglia in almost functional harmony with four embellishments. Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major is almost completely pentatonic with definite appeals to "exotic" gestures (see below). Prelude 18 in A-flat minor (so many flats!) has no measure lines and functions like some free-floating Renaissance recitative. Prelude 19 in A Major could have come right out of Bach's Inventions and many other pieces make use of Baroque-flavored, melodic inversion. The most intense moment of Prelude 7 in E-flat Major upsets an otherwise charming aria with activated bass motion with a harsh shift into bursts into a disjunct section redolent of serialism and melodically coming close do dodecaphonic writing.

Time Signatures: Shostakovich's single 5/8 fugue from the Preludes does not prepare you for Slonimsky's rampant and consistent use of interesting time signatures. By the time you're done, 5/4 (5/8) and 7/8 don't feel nearly as foreign when compared to Fugue 15 in G Major's use of 9/8 (2+3+4) or Fugue 23 in B Major's squirrelly alternation between 3/2 and 4/2 or Fugue 21 in B-flat Major constantly switching between major and minor prolation (thank you Hoppin!) in 6/8.

My Favorite: By far the one I enjoy the most in playing is Prelude and Fugue 10 in E minor. They work excellently as a pair and each use melodic themes that are capable of various moods and conjure beautiful thoughts in my imagination. Nice use of augmentation in the fugue, which is nevertheless not forced, and almost happens imperceptibly.

For the history of the prelude-fugue set, Slonimsky's combination of styles fits right into the genre's age-old mandate to present unified diversity. His frequent changes in style, sometimes within a single piece or between a prelude and its fugue, constantly open the imagination (and critical faculties. The added accessibility of his style with an emphasis on rhythm and harmonic color allow listeners of all types to find something to enjoy. Prelude and Fugue 13 in F-sharp Major performed by Anton Tanonov below. Enjoy!

Boris on Butterfly Beach

The past week and a half has been quite eventful. Jess and I pulled the trigger and came down from Roseville to our new duplex in Santa Barbara. We made due for the first few days with two chairs and a mattress on the floor - just until my bargain huntress of a wife found a free dresser, free bed frame and box spring, free couch, and $10 bookshelf. Things are starting to look like a house. Santa Barbara is starting to look like a home as well, with familiar beaches and streets, new discoveries and surprises, and the constant bumping into old friends in the most providential places.

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch  by Chris Potter. 

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch by Chris Potter. 

Amidst looking for summer employment and networking, I'm trying to keep loose by brushing up on my German ("shadowing" and "dictation" with a podcast), rereading some history books in preparation for the UCSB placement tests (history, theory, and musicianship), and going on very long walks with Jess and Numi on various beaches and through various parks (Numi is a complete nutter for the waves!). Check out Jess's blog for upcoming pictures that attempt to capture something of the outrageous beauty that overflows everywhere in this place. I'm going to write a bit on Boris Goltz and his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 2 (1934-35), getting some mileage out of my thesis and keeping up those writing and analyzing skills for the two months before school starts.

Boris Grigorevich Goltz (1913–1942) was born in the city of Tashkent. I wish there was more information on his family - their ancestry, how long they had lived there, why, what they did during the 1916 Basmachi Revolt, or where their sympathies lay in the violent anti-Bolshevik riots that lasted into late 1920s. All we know (thanks to a short monograph by Rafael Frid) is that thirteen-year old Boris moved to Leningrad in 1926. He worked, like Shostakovich several years earlier, as a silent movie accompanist, and took piano lessons, again like Shostakovich, from Leonid Nikolayev. It wasn't until the Leningrad harmony professor Venedict Pushkov saw the young pianists sketches for twenty-four preludes that Goltz gained the confidence to pursue composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in piano in 1938 and composition in 1940. Within that time he had composed or sketched out quite a wealth of pieces (almost all completely lost), got married to a piano colleague, and had every mark of excelling as a composer.

In 1941 Russia entered into WWII. Goltz, apparently not senior enough to be shipped off to one of those artistic refuge communities in Siberia, joined the Baltic Fleet Political Administration, a group of composers stationed in Leningrad, charged with the task of writing patriotic songs and plays for performing groups and military choirs. His songs in particular enjoyed wide success, one-hit-wonders like “The Song of Anger,” “The Song of Vengeance,” and “Shining Star in the Heavens.” Despite the idealized texts, Goltz and his colleagues worked in debilitating hunger and cold, crammed into a small room and composing without the aid of a piano. Seven months into the Siege of Leningrad, Goltz died of malnutrition.

It's a little ironic to write about the tragic, 1942, shivering-in-the-Leningrad-winter death of a Soviet composer with the sunny Pacific Ocean breezes wafting through my 2012 window. I can only hope that as I write about this composer and his music that I not be disingenuous and that I attempt to come from as good a place as I can - that of breathing a small measure of life into the memory of a nearly forgotten, but ultimately noteworthy individual.