Poulenc, Hindemith & Schoenberg Program Notes
By ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Tonight's concert presents music in transition: ranging from tonality to atonality; from simple triads to complex harmonic constructions of over twenty simultaneous notes; from the coloristic impressionism of Debussy to the cerebral atonality of Stravinsky; from the rugged, carte blanche experimentation of lves to the finely honed chansons of Hindemith ; from the early striving of Webern at 25 to the mature reflections of Stravinsky at 80; from the complex chromaticism of the young Schoenberg to the stark harmonic simplicity of Ginastera.
"In the course of the last hundred years, the concept of harmony has changed tremendously through the development of chromaticism. The idea that a root or fundamental note dominated the construction of chords and regulated their sequences - the concept of tonality - was first transformed into that of extended tonality. Very quickly it became doubtful if such a fundamental note was still really the center to which every chord and sequence must relate. Wagner's harmony had promoted a change in the logic and constructive power of harmony. One result of this was the so-called impressionist use of harmony, made above all by Debussy. His harmonies, deprived of constructive significance, often serve a coloristic purpose; they try to express moods and pictures. These, though of extra-musical origin, now become constructive elements and finally take on musical functions. This produces a sort of emotional comprehensibility. In this way tonality becomes already dethroned in practice, if not in theory. At the same time there took place a development which ended in what I call the emancipation of dissonance. The ear had progressively become familiar with a great number of discords. One no longer expected the preparations of Wagner's discords, nor the resolutions of those of Strauss; one was not upset by the non-functional harmonies of Debussy, nor by the dissonant counterpoint of some more recent composers. This led to a free use of dissonance. By the phrase the emancipation of dissonance I rnean that the comprehensibility of the discord is equal to the comprehensibility of the concord. A style based on this premise treats discords like concords and denies the supremacy of a tonal center. By avoiding the establishment of tonality, one leaves behind the idea of modulation, as modulation means leaving one established tonality in order to establish another." (Excerpts from a lecture given at the University of California in 1939 by Arnold Schoenberg.)
The Messe en Sol Majeu; (Mass in G Major), written in 1939, utilizes the impressionistic vocabulary of Debussy and Ravel with a strength and subtlety typical of Poulenc. There is great rhythmic variety. Rollo Myers has described this composer's works as "oscillating between sophistication and simplicity, playfulness and gravity with over all a flavor of vieil/e France that is not the least of its charms."
Six Chansons on Original French Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke were set to music by· Hindemith in 1939, the year he decided to settle in the United States. He had tentatively flirted with atonality during his earlier "neo-classic" period. But by this time he had definitely turned his back on it in favor of what could be described as chromatic tonality. In keeping with his theories, set forth in his book on the Groundwork of Musical Compositions (Unterweisung im Tonsatz), there are no key signatures, although each chanson revolves around a particular tonal center (a, e, g, a flat, e flat, g). Partial translations (by Elaine de Sincay) follow:
La Biche. O thou doe, what vistas of secular forests appear in thine eyes reflected·! What confidence serene affected by transient shades of fear.
Un Cygne. A swan is breasting the flow, all in himself enfolded like a slow-moving tableau. And so, at some time or place, a loved one will be molded to seem like a migrating space.
Puisque tout passe. Since all is passing, retain the melodies that wander by us. That which assuages when nigh us shall alone remain.
Printemps. O song that from the sap art pouring, and through the sounding- board of all this greenwood art soaring, amplify our brief tone.
En Hiver. With the winter, Death, grisly guest through the doorway
Verger. The earth is nowhere so real a presence as mid thy branches, O orchard blond.
Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), opus 13 of Arnold Schoenberg, was written in 1907. In this work Schoenberg "carried chromaticism to the limits of tonality, both by chromatic alteration and by the use of the wandering (schwebende) chords, like the augmented triad, which are equally at home in all keys" (Humphrey Searle). Although Schoenberg wrote instrumental parts which double the voices, he preferred that the work be performed a cappella.
The poem, by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, is in four stanzas. The first stanza reminds us of the shepherds who were told by an Angel of the Mother and the Child; and who heard the heavens ringing with the glad tidings: "Peace! Peace on earth!" The music is of a simple anthem-like quality.
The mood changes in the second stanza, and the music becomes agitated at the thought of the "many bloody deeds" that have occurred since the Angel spoke. A sudden pianissimo ushers in the second part of the stanza; during all this time the heavenly choir has continued to plead for "Peace, peace upon the earth!"
The third stanza brings the belief that a time will come when the earth will finally seek peace (Das den Frieden sucht der Erde); and the final stanza triumphantly envisions peace on earth as an accomplished fact.
In 1945, Schoenberg jotted down these words:
"There is a great man living in this country - a composer.
He has solved the problem of how to preserve one's self and to learn.
He responds to negligence by contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame.
His name is lves."
According to lves' wife, Psalm 90 (written about 1901) was the only one of his compositions that satisfied him. The poem has a Mosaic majesty, and the whole setting, in C 111ajor, is undergirded by a constant low C, like an eternal presence. The chords of the introduction outline a symbolic vocabulary: the first chord labeled The Gods Eternities; the second, Creation; the third, God's wrath and punishment against sin (Floods, etc.); the next phrase Prayer and Humility; and the last part of the introduction as Rejoicing in the Beauty and. Work. This last phrase anticipates and combines the four bell phrases which will join in the final verses of the Psalm.
Anton Webern and Alban Berg were students of Schoenberg at a critical phase when, according to Erwin Stein, "they actually experienced the absolute necessity that gave birth to a new music, and could therefore not help making Schoenberg's style their own." Entflieht auf leichten Kahnen, opus 2 of Webern, was written in 1908. It is technically in the key of G major the first three notes and the last chord are definitely in that key - but the oody of the work is already beyond the limits of tonality~ The rather enigmatic poem, by Stefan George, is given here in a translation by Peter Bank:
"Flee in light skiffs from enraptured sunny worlds, so that ever milder tears may reward your flight. Behold the unfolding of this whirl of blonde, light blue visionary forces and intoxicating bliss without ecstasy - lest the sweet thrill may cloak you in new sorrow. let it be the -quiet grief that may fill this springtime."
In Anthem (1962), Stravinsky explores the possibilities of the tone row: d, f sharp, e, g, a, a sharp, c, b, c sharp, d sharp, g sharp, f. In line with the practices of the duodecuple composition, Stravinsky uses the tone row in its original form, inverted (upside down), retrograde (backwards), and retrograde inverted and transposed an augmented fourth. Webern might not have approved of the occasional repeated notes, but Schoenberg is on record as follows: "It should be mentioned that in my opinion, in the formula: the method of composing with 12 tones, the accent does not lie so much on 12 tones, but on the art of composing." (Letter to Humphrey Searle, January 6, 1950.)
The poem is by T. S. Eliot:
"The dove descending breaks the air with flame of incandescent terror of which the tongues declare the one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre to be redeemed from fire by fire. Who then devised the torment? Love is the unfamiliar name behind the hands that wove the intolerable shirt of flame which human pow'r cannot remove. We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire."
Claude Debussy wrote Trois Chansons in 1908 to poems by Charles, Due d'Orleans. The result is vintage Debussy. Partial translations by Nita Cox follow:
Dieu! qu'il Ia fait bon regarder! Lord, lovely hast thou made my dear! A graceful, good and winsome creature.
Quant j'ai ouy /e tabourin. Whene'er the tambourine I hear that sounds to call us all to May, snug lie I at the break of day, from the pillow lift not my head.
Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain! Cold winter! Villain that thou art! How sweet to see along my way the tokens of April and May… But thou, cold winter, mak'st us smart with snowstorm, wind, hail, all the day. Fain would I exile thee for aye.
Lamentaciones de Jeremias Propheta was written by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera in 1946. The text, in the Latin of the Vulgate, is selected from the Book of Lamentations (possibly written by the Prophet Jeremiah). These words have traditionally been used during the Office of Holy Week. The musical setting is stark, strong and, in the first and third sections, quite rhythmic. The middle section is reminiscent of a Renaissance motet.
O vas omnes qui trans itis per viam. All you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me when the Lord afflicted me on the day of His blazing wrath. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam. I am a man who knows affliction from the rod of His anger, one whom He has led and forced to walk in darkness, not in the light ... He has left me to dwell in the dark like those long dead.
Recordare Domine quid acciderit nobis. Remember O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace. Lead us back to you, O Lord, that we may be restored. You, O Lord, are enthroned forever: