Performance History

Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, February 19, 2008


Zephyros Winds

Merkin Concert
Kaufman Music Center
New York City

With Richard Faria, bass clarinet

February 19, 2008


Darius Milhaud La Cheminée du Roi René

Benjamin Britten Pan from “Six Metamorphoses after Ovid” for Oboe Solo, Op. 49
Claude Debussy Syrinx for Solo Flute

Endre Szervánszky Fúvósötös

György Ligeti Six Bagatelles

Leoš Janáček Mládí (“Youth”)


“Reinvention in Early 20th-Century Music for Winds” by James Roe

Building on Merkin Hall’s theme for the 2007-2008 season, RE:invention, our program of Milhaud, Debussy, Britten, Szervánszky, Ligeti, and Janacek, explores the process of reinvention in six works for winds.

The wind quintet had its quiet birth in 1803, with the publication of three works for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn by a now obscure Italian composer living in Paris, Giuseppe Maria Cambini (1746-1825). At that time, chamber music for winds—called “harmoniemusik”—generally was written for an ensemble comprising pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons. The euphonious sound produced by these blended instrumental pairs became ubiquitous in aristocratic European courts from the mid-1700s until the 1830s. Wind ensembles were perfectly suited to entertaining at banquets and out of doors, their sound carried better than strings over the din of dishes and across vast lawns. Harmoniemusik repertoire included transcriptions of operas and symphonic works as well as original music by no lesser lights than Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart. The famous on-stage appearance of a becostumed wind octet in Mozart’s Don Giovanni perfectly underscores the ensemble’s cultural function, performing a transcription of the composer’s own “Non più andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro (along with music of Sarti and Soler) during the Don’s dinner. (Upon recognizing the Figaro aria, Leporello comments, “I know this one all too well!” Mozart’s self-referential jest reveals a post-modern wit, premature only by a few centuries . . . )

Whatever inspired Cambini to disentangle the customary harmoniemusik instrumental pairings in his three quintets is lost to history, but the new genre found fervent converts. Two 19th-century composers made significant contributions to its development: the Czech-born Parisian, Antoine Reicha (1770-1836) wrote over two dozen quintets, and under his influence, German, Franz Danzi (1763-1826) produced a body of nine. Yet, it was not until the 20th Century that the ensemble would gain sustained attention from composers and audiences. With the new century came a cultural hunger for the novel, the colorful, and the populist. The string quartet’s long reign as the preeminent vehicle for chamber music faced challenges from diverse instrumental groupings. Wind instruments, with their advancing technical brilliance and, especially, their distinct timbral variety, led the charge.

This afternoon’s program is drawn from the first half of the 20th Century, a period that comes the closest to being a “Golden Age” for the wind quintet. Our theme is that of musical reinvention. In each work, the composer reinvents historical raw materials, creating new music for winds.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
La Cheminée du Roi René (1942)

Among the major artistic inventions of the 20th Century, cinema enjoys unchallenged pride of place. Our program opens with film music by Darius Milhaud. Cavalcade d’amour (1939) by French filmmaker, Raymond Bernard (1891-1977), explored the theme of love in three periods: the Middle Ages, the Romantic Era, and the 20th Century. La Cheminée du Roi René is drawn from the music for the first section. The music for the other eras was composed by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) and Roger Désormière (1898-1963), respectively.

The work’s title refers to the 15th-century court of King René of Provence (1409-1480). For his portion of the film score, Milhaud uses winds to evoke music from the time of the Troubadours and their songs of “courtly love.” This work reveals the composer at his most lyric and least mischievous; his characteristically pungent bi-tonality leaving no trace in this score. Each movement creates a specific scene with vividly picturesque music. Historic influences mix with the harmonies of early jazz (a major influence on Milhaud), and the spiky sonorities of French Modernism. This film score fragment reinvents ancient music, producing something that sounds both new and old at the same time.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
“Pan & Syrinx”

There are two sides to every story. How often those sides divide down gender lines is matter for social scientists, not musicians, nevertheless we now present two musical treatments of the myth of Pan and Syrinx. In this case, Pan’s point of view (roughly that of the man, albeit half goat) is pleaded by the oboe via Benjamin Britten and that of Syrinx (the ill-fated but lovely female nymph), by Debussy and the flute. Since the story is by Ovid, there are neither winners nor losers, only metamorphosis. In this pair of works, the composers reinvent the mythological storyteller in the form of a solo woodwind player—a Greek vase painting come to life—and in so doing, each dabbles in Ovid’s transformative magic.

Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977)
Fúvósötös (1953)

Wind music did not take a foothold in Hungary until after World War II. Up to that time, the violin reigned in both concert and folk music. A government-imposed cultural shift mid-century favored less formal music making, and in response, Hungarian composers took up wind chamber music in great numbers.

The immensely appealing, Fúvósötös, or “Wind Quintet,” of Endre Szervánszky, was one of the first of its kind, and is an example of artistic achievement blossoming under oppressive edict. Influenced by the work of ethnomusicologist/composers Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945), this piece evokes a rustic musical landscape with melodies and harmonies inspired by Hungarian folk music. Szervánszky’s melodic writing is characterized by an accented short note on the beat, mimicking the stressed initial syllable in spoken Hungarian; a device common in music based on traditional Hungarian sources. Though he quotes no actual folk tunes, Szervánszky uses distinctive melodies, characteristic metric formulations, and driving rhythms to reinvent the music of the countryside on the concert stage.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Six Bagatelles (1953)

“I am in a prison, one wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape.” —György Ligeti

On June 12, 2006, the music world lost one of its most compelling and innovative voices when Eastern European composer, György Ligeti died in Vienna at the age of 83. With a career that began under Soviet oppression in post World War II Hungary, Ligeti earned a worldwide audience when his music was used for Stanley Kubrick’s movie ”2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. As Paul Griffiths wrote in his New York Times obituary, “The moon music was indicative of only one of [Ligeti’s] expressive modes. After fleeing Hungary in 1956, he also showed himself to be a master of a fast, mechanical and comic sort of music. Between these two poles — the ‘Clocks and Clouds’ — he created works of exuberant variety and range.”

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet were written while he still was a young man in Budapest and combine, in his words, “Bartók with a little Stravinsky.” Originally composed in 1951 as part of an eleven-movement work for solo piano called Musica Ricercata, some of the music existed in an even earlier version, a Sonatina for piano four-hands. In 1953, the same year as Szervánszky published his Fúvósötös, Ligeti extracted six movements of the Musica Ricercata to orchestrate for winds. Through this reinvention of earlier work, Ligeti bestowed upon wind players a true masterpiece in miniature. Audiences today will hardly find this music shocking, but the Hungarian government banned its complete premier in 1956, citing musical ‘decadence’ counter to the good of the state. The work would only receive its first complete performance in Stockholm, 13 years after its composition.

Though the title suggests trifles—mere bagatelles—these six movements are diminutive in length only, most clock in at just over 60 seconds, and the longest is just over three minutes. As in the dances of a Baroque suite, each movement expresses a single musical ‘affect,’ and like any good distillation process, the result is intense and memorable. Moods range from playfulness to grief, contentment to craziness. Before one establishes itself, the next appears.

Jeos Janacek (1854-1928)
Mládí (1924)

Reinventing the self, the idea is as attractive as its reality elusive. In his late 60s, Czech composer, Leos Janacek experienced a creative flowering that carried him through the composition of several important operas and, between them, his most significant masterpieces of instrumental music. Among these late works is a sextet for a sui generis ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and horn. Titled Mládí or “Youth,” this work was published after the composer’s 70th birthday. In fact, his most distinctive and forward-looking music was written during his last decade. As would be expected from its title, Mládí is infused with youthful effervescence and even naïveté. Musicologist Zdenek Skoumal writes, “Janacek recalled the days at the old Brno monastery where he received his early education. There he had been one of the ‘blueboys,’ boys dressed in the monastery’s blue uniforms. The recollections infuse Mládí’s musical content, from the childlike exuberance of the first movement, the monastic solemnity of the second, to the ‘March of the blueboys’ of the third, and the heroic optimism of the finale.”

Janacek kept himself abreast of the musical advances made by the younger avant-garde composers prominent in the 1920s. Though he was older than the last generation of Romantic composers, including Mahler, Wolf, and Strauss, his musical language sounds more modernist than that of his younger coevals. One distinct aspect of Janacek’s style developed from his “speech-melody” theory. Beginning in 1897, he engaged in field research to convert the irregular patterns of common speech into musical notation. The results of this work were immediately evident in his operas, where he sought a “realistic” setting of the text, leaving the orchestra with the work of creating the emotional sound world the singer occupied. This research also influenced his purely instrumental compositions. Mládí famously opens with a melodic realization of the phrase “Mládí, zlaté mládí!” (“Youth, golden youth!”) played by the oboe. Other elements of Janacek’s mature compositional style evident in this work include an expanded tonal palette that functions within 19th-century harmony, development through variation, repetition and accretion, Moravian folk-elements, and surprising rhythmic admixtures. His melodies tend toward the short and easily singable, often encompassing both a small range and duration. (In this aspect, he notably eschews the influence of Mahler and Strauss.) Rhythmic patterns receive idiosyncratic treatment, and sections of contrasting tempo abut without transition or warning.

At times, Janacek’s musical notation evinces conceptual effort, as if he struggled to notate on the page the music he heard in his imagination. Thus, the composer’s initial creative act of invention is left in the hands of musicians to reinvent through the act of live performance.

(copyright James Roe)

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