I’ve posted some liner and program notes here that I wrote in recent years. Enjoy reading and listen to the music! Keep scrolling down for notes on Gervasoni, Scelsi, Davidovsky, Hersch, Saariaho, Martino, Ferneyhough, Shapey, Finney, Feldman, Cuckson, Donatoni, Haas, Bach, Carter, Nono, Xenakis, Webern, Sciarrino, Ysaÿe, Janáček, Strauss. Notes on music by more composers, mostly contemporary, can be found on the Blog page.
Notes reprintable only with permission.
Anton Webern’s Quartet Op. 22
Anton Webern (1883-1945) was one of the twentieth century’s most influential and path-breaking composers. Born in Vienna, he studied cello and piano before taking up composition studies with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg and his twelve-tone method of writing were decisive influences in shaping Webern’s own work, as was his close collegiality with fellow Schoenberg pupil Alban Berg. Though Webern worked for years as a conductor, he sought always to focus on composing. His relatively small oeuvre consists of astonishingly crafted works in which expression is distilled into its essentials. Following his late-Romantic early works, his mature output combined a devotion to dodecaphonic technique with his interest in the clear contrapuntal textures of Renaissance music. Mostly very brief, his pieces feature an intricately meticulous handling of twelve-tone organization, spare textures, wide-ranging intervals, and a detailed concentration on timbral quality, involving then-uncommon extended techniques and a passing around of lines quickly from one instrument to another (Klangfarbenmelodie). Though not very appreciated during his lifetime, Webern’s music later garnered huge interest from other composers, spawning a whole area of new-music often referred to as “post-Webern”.
Webern first imagined his Op. 22 quartet in 1928 as a concerto for violin, clarinet, horn, piano and strings, “in the spirit of some of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos”. By end of 1930, it had changed into a two-movement quartet for saxophone, clarinet, violin and piano. Though it met hostile criticism from critics at its Vienna premiere, Berg declared it “a miracle. What amazes me above all is its originality.” Its first movement, Sehr mäsig, is in a modified sonata allegro form. An introduction of five bars presents two tone rows in a spare texture of lightly lilting gestures. Two staccato F#s in the clarinet point out that pitch as an important structural axis. The first and second themes are stated almost at the same time. The development section widens the dynamic and interval range and culminates in a climax of five voices using four tone rows. Exposition, development and recapitulation are each repeated. In the second movement, Sehr schwungvoll, a flexible version of rondo form (ABACABA), the A section has two themes, the second of which is canon-like. The movement’s central C section presents notably slower material. The final A section intensifies the opening material with much louder dynamics.
Giacinto Scelsi’s Xnoybis
Now recognized as one of the most revolutionary composers of the 20th century, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88) was born to an aristocratic family near Naples and lived in Switzerland and Rome. Following a promising early period in which he showed much mastery of counterpoint and form, he experienced a severe psychological breakdown, and as he recovered he spent many days playing single tones on the piano, concentrating on the variation and nuances of the sound. His music thus evolved into an exploration of the dynamism of sound itself. Focused upon reiterations of single pitches and on movement within a narrow pitch range, his work treats notes not as single events, but as variable, eventful processes in themselves, affected by timbral changes, microtonal adjustments and layerings, and qualities of resonance and decay. The deeply transfixing, trance-like quality of his music arises also from his immersion in yoga and forms of mysticism, following trips to India and Nepal.
Scelsi took inspiration for his titles from ancient languages, and meanings are often hard to identify. The title of his solo violin piece Xnoybis is of unknown origin; it means, according to one source, “the ability of energy to ascend to the spirit.”
Composed in 1964, Xnoybis draws the listener into the mesmerizing interior of sound, revealing astonishing spaces and timbres in the relation and interaction of tones. The piece is written for violin scordatura – the strings are tuned to D#-B-G-F, instead of E-A-D-G – and is notated with a separate staff for each string. Long pitches are layered in close microtones, creating “beating” of frequencies, and are sometimes altered with “wide vibrato, halfway between ordinary vibrato and trill.” Timbral changes come from playing near the bridge or on the fingerboard, pizzicatos, and a large range of dynamics.
Though the three movements share a basic state of heightened concentration, they each pursue a distinct idea. The first movement is mainly characterized by fitful alternations of timbres, and sudden intrusions of pitches from different registers, either higher or lower.
The second movement is centered around pitch unisons: strands of microtonal polyphony keep converging into unisons, then pull apart. Oscillating figures introduce whirls of energy.
The third movement is an acutely intense study in sustained tension. It essentially presents a struggle upward from C three-quarters-sharp to F-natural. Edging upward microtonally on each string, the tones drag each other along. At a screeching climax on F-quarter-flat, the pitches fall again in a prolonged descent, then climb back tenaciously to reach the F at the end.
Partita No. 2 for solo violin, BWV 1004 by Johann Sebastian Bach
JS Bach composed his three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin between 1703 and 1720 in Weimar and Cöthen. They were published in 1802 by Nicolaus Simrock. Though they were not widely performed until Joseph Joachim brought them into his repertoire in the mid-late 1800s, they were very much part of an exploration of solo violin writing that had been burgeoning in Germany. Among the new works Bach likely knew were the solo partitas of Westhoff, and violin pieces by Biber, Pisendel, Walther and Vismayr. With his surpassing skill and artistry, however, Bach took this medium to a level that remains the inspiration for many composers for the instrument. The six Bach works are a timeless achievement in their use of the violin’s polyphonic potential (through chordal writing and implied harmonies in single-line passages), in their expression of a huge gamut of emotions and characters, both exalted and earthy, and as a unified body of music linked by aspects of form and possible religious subtext. In these pieces, Bach demonstrated how to combine gravitas, liveliness, virtuosity and sheer compositional ingenuity in music for the solo violin, giving the instrument a multi-dimensionality and independent presence more associated with keyboard instruments. Whereas the Partitas present sequences of Baroque dance forms such as Sarabandes and Gigues, the Sonatas are in the four-movement, slow-fast slow-fast “sonata da chiesa” form, incorporating free-flowing preludes and brilliantly devised fugues.
The Partita No. 2 consists of four dance movements – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue – followed by a monumental Chaconne. This Partita was a mournful response to the sudden death and burial of his wife, Maria Barbara, while he was traveling. Its opening dance movements, can be interpreted as looking back fondly but sadly at an energetic life. The subsequent Chaconne lets loose an outcry of grief that builds and falls in huge waves; its inexorable 3/4 rhythm and bass line seem to convey the onward flow of time. A chaconne is a slow dance in 3 that originated in Spain; as a musical form, it is a set of variations built on a repeating ground bass. The piece builds inexorably in the three large sections, the middle one a transcendently beautiful epiphany, as the mounting waves of the D minor opening section give way to a sublimely tender and peaceful D major.
Morton Feldman’s Four Instruments and Spring of Chosroes
Morton Feldman (1926-87) was a remarkably unique and distinctive composer who made revelatory innovations in the areas of indeterminacy, notation, and temporal scale and proportion. His personal aesthetic involved simple held tones in a mostly quiet dynamic, a floating sense of rhythm without discernible meter or pulse, generally gentle timbres and attacks, and a very gradual pace of evolution. A native and longtime resident of New York, he studied with Riegger and Wolpe and was associated with the New York school of composers including Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and John Cage. However, his own style was highly individual and intuitive. He and Cage became close friends upon meeting after a performance of Webern’s Symphony, which stunned them both. Their collegiality, along with associations with visual artists including Pollock and Rothko, provided a stimulating environment for prolific experimentation. Feldman’s early work used graphic notation to convey rather open-ended directions to the performers. From the 1950s-70s, he tried various means of notating aleatoric scores, giving players choices regarding particular elements such as pitch or rhythm. Having returned to conventional notation in the 1970s, he later explored extremes of duration in his works, allowing them to develop over several hours or more. Feldman taught at SUNY Buffalo from 1973-87.
Feldman’s piece Four Instruments, for piano, violin, viola and cello was written in 1975, when he had returned to conventional notation. This eight-minute work, marked “Extremely quiet”, is a compact example of Feldman’s characteristic style, with its long tones of unpredictable durations, suspended in a light texture and passed delicately among the instruments. Beginnning in rhythmic tutti unison, the piece places some voices in dialogue but is mostly more chorale-like, with the string players playing held harmonies together, answered or joined by the piano.
Spring of Chosroes, for violin and piano, was written in 1978 and commissioned by the McKim Fund of the Library of Congress, which retains his sketches. Morton Feldman’s music essentially constitutes a reasoned rejection of past paradigms: seeking to abolish metric emphasis and formulaic rhetoric, he adopted a gestural style inspired by the treatment of space and material developed by visual artists including Guston, Pollock and Rothko. Feldman’s style employed slow paced events, spare textures, soft dynamics, no aurally discernible metric divisions and a love for sound itself. In the 1970s, he developed an interest in Middle Eastern rug designs and wrote several pieces modeled on them. Spring of Chosroes refers to a renowned carpet that was owned by King Chosroes of Persia in the 6th century AD. Woven with gold and silver, magnificent jewels and crystals, it depicted a beautiful garden. Feldman’s piece musically conveys the variously sized and exquisitely patterned sections of the rug, with each note radiating beauty like individual gemstones.
Brian Ferneyhough’s “Intermedio alla ciaconna”
Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaconna is one of several solo violin pieces that he has written. It is dedicated to English violinist Irvine Arditti. Ferneyhough’s music is highly dense and complex, with flamboyant gestures skittering across large registral expanses and calling for vigorous physical choreography. His notation is very layered and detailed, with polyrhythms nestled within polyrhythms, microtonal pitches and frequent alternations between varied extended techniques. While the surface activity is often fast-moving, the pulse, as notated in the time signature and metronome marking, is often very broad. Ferneyhough has described this as a “tension-field between tempo and meter”. In Intermedio alla ciaconna, this tension is amplified by Ferneyhough’s use of the chaconne, or passacaglia: a ground-bass that underpins the music. The chaconne is presented at the outset of the piece as very loud, sustained double-stops outlining eight chords (a series upon which Ferneyhough based his “Carceri d’invenzione” group of compositions). The violin then sets forth with mercurial, brilliant flourishes and irregular explosions. A relatively lyrical, calm interlude in the middle of the eight-minute piece builds up to some very high glissandos and to a jaggedly-contoured, single-line climax, after which the chaconne intervals return as heavy sliding tones. The material splinters into sparser utterances at the close.
Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne
Saariaho wrote her Nocturne for solo violin in 1994. She had just commenced work on a new violin concerto called Graal Theatre when the great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski died. In her sadness, she immediately composed her Nocturne, which was performed in Helsinki. Returning to work on her violin concerto, she then decided to use the Nocturne as its opening material. The piece progresses slowly in languorous sighs and heaving waves. It utilizes resonant harmonies, the open strings of the violin, fluttering harmonic trills and crunchy, bow-pressure sounds – a color that she employs with an unusual delicacy.
Liner notes for More Music by Ralph Shapey
An American artist of tremendous talent and adamant artistic conviction, Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) displayed a natural aptitude for composition and violin playing from a young age. Born to Russian parents in Philadelphia, he studied with Emmanuel Zetlin and Stefan Wolpe. After freelancing in New York, where he was much inspired by Abstract Expressionist painters including Willem de Kooning, he accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago. There he founded and conducted the Contemporary Chamber Players and was renowned as a teacher for decades. His works were played by outstanding musicians including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Juilliard Quartet, Gilbert Kalish, Russell Sherman, Charles Neidich and Walter Trampler. His work won him awards (including the MacArthur, Kennedy Center Friedheim and Fromm) and an ardent following.
Though he was hailed as a major composer, performances of his music were never abundant, probably in part because of his bluntly combative, controversial personality. Yet his works are still heard – through the efforts of his champions, people continue to discover his music. This is my second CD of Shapey’s violin works and I am more excited than ever about the communicative effectiveness and craft of his compositions. His pieces are both viscerally moving and brilliantly constructed, combining intriguing musical concepts with intense emotive power. His music is rewarding as an immediately graspable aesthetic experience, and for the intelligent vitality of his vision as an American artist. Known as a “radical traditionalist,” he combined a fervent regard for and understanding of the music of past Germanic masters – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms – with a bold spirit of innovation that is distinctly American.
This recording comprises a significant segment of Shapey’s works for the violin, a genre that is illuminating for its relevance to his experience as an instrumentalist and for his understanding of the violin’s potential. Except for the Four Etudes, these pieces have not been recorded before, and they have been rarely, if ever, performed. As on my previous Shapey CD, the pieces span much of his compositional career, and together my two CDs include most of his oeuvre for violin and violin/piano duo.
Shapey’s Sonata for violin and piano (1949) was one of his first major works. It represents both a culmination of his years of study with Wolpe and an assertion of his own viewpoint. Shapey composed his Sonata in response to Wolpe’s violin/piano Sonata (written months earlier), which Shapey later described as one of Wolpe’s finest compositions. However, Shapey’s fiery piece (and his likely fiery performance of it) signalled a period of rivalry between student and teacher. Some of its ideas are akin to Wolpe’s: the isolation of motivic cells that are rotated and altered, the positioning of motives as objects within an unmetered stretch of time and mobile texture. Shapey’s Sonata has the neoclassical traits found in his early work, but its hefty sonorities and jagged contours point to the intense physicality of his later music.
The opening violin motive D-Gb is clearly derived from the motive that begins Wolpe’s sonata. The movement features brusque figures in the piano and a warmly assertive violin line. Contrasting episodes include lively staccato passages and a grotesque march. The ensuing Scherzo is brash and swaggering, its rhythmic drive jolted by changes of meter and accentuation. Its bravado is relieved by elegant cantabile sections. In the violin’s Rubato recitative, Shapey places arcing gestures within a meterless expanse, creating an eloquent, unhurried sequence of ideas. Shapey shared with Morton Feldman a fondness for the pure musical tone itself and he rarely employed “noise” effects. Here, though, he contrasts normal and “snap” pizzicato, and uses slides and ponticello. In the final Allegro, the visceral pulse is tugged against by jazzy syncopations in a web of interlocking figures. A refrain is delivered in forceful octaves or ninths. While the sonata is not a serial work, this chromatic line comes close to including all twelve pitches of the scale.
Like his Partita (1966), Shapey’s Sonata No. 1 (1972) is a large-form work that shows his imaginative approach to expanding the violin’s possibilities as a virtuosic and expressive vehicle. The Sonata is remarkable for its economic handling of material and its use of fractions of rhythmic units to subvert the listener’s expectations of pulse. In the first movement, a theme and three variations based on a few measures from his String Trio (1965), the violin traverses huge intervals, soaring from low to high and hurdling complex chords. While the pitch content remains essentially the same, the mood shifts, becoming by turns delicately impish, grandly sweeping and solemnly rhetorical. The Quasi March movement is based mainly on a distinctive repeated-note triplet. Shapey’s use of unusual chords introduces surprisingly resonant dissonant harmonies. In the middle section, the violin line is angular but disarmingly sweet and moderate in pace. In the Cantabile movement, Shapey creates a lyrical melody of graceful sighs and broadly embellished upbeat gestures. The finale, despite its irregular rhythmic groupings, is somewhat reminiscent of a Baroque gigue. Sprightly chords engage in playful dialogue with scatterings of notes across strings and registers. After the middle section’s elegant filigree, the first section is repeated.
Adagio and Allegro (1955) is one of several short pieces that Shapey composed early on. Gruff and confident like a feisty terrier, this character-filled piece opens with exchanges of repeated-note figures. The Allegro sets off at a sturdy, striding pace that is jostled by meter changes and sudden eruptions. The opening returns at the end, closing with the piano growling in the bass and the violin tearing off a furious tremolo.
Though the Four Etudes (1980) were commissioned by the String Teachers Association of America as a pedagogical tool, they stand with his other solo violin works as a highly expressive concert piece. Shapey wrote: “Each piece explores a specific technical problem while at the same time incorporates those from each other. I hope that the learning and performing of these, while giving precedent to technical problems, will at the same time give pleasure as a piece of music. At all times, Make Music!” Though only the third movement is titled Variations, all the movements are variations of the opening Maestoso. The pitch content remains the same as Shapey explores some of his favorite characters: a poised march, spikily disjointed passagework, and gently vaulting lyricism. The final Brillante, with its elaborate arabesques, recalls Henryk Wieniawski’s Etudes, which Shapey was known to have played. In his own Brillante etude, he convincingly translates the Romantic virtuoso tradition for the modern era.
The Sonata No. 3 (1998) is one of several violin/piano works that Shapey wrote around the turn of the millenium. His late style revels in sensual spirituality and the moment-to-moment resonance of sound, much like the music of Olivier Messiaen. Melodic development or narrative is subsumed within swathes of texture, intricately meshed counterpoint and reverberating harmonies. Large sections of music establish essentially static moods of heightened joy, exultation and love. The two Rondo‘s are vivacious and full of panache, and the exuberance of Shapey’s ubiquitous dotted rhythms is contrasted by sections of full-throated romanticism. The Aria movement is played with a wooden mute, giving this meditation a yearning, exquisitely hushed quality. The final movement is Shapey in fist-shaking, triumphant mode, tempered by outpourings of tender lyricism before the mighty close.
Four Etudes for Violin by Ralph Shapey
In 1982, the American String Teachers Association commissioned four composers – Ralph Shapey, Allan Blank, George Flynn and Virko Baley – to write four etudes each for solo violin. These were published by the Association as 16 Contemporary Violin Etudes for Study and Performance. Shapey’s Etudes were accompanied by this biography and note:
“Born in Philadelphia in 1921, Ralph Shapey began his musical studies at the age of seven. He later studied violin with Emanuel Zetlin and composition with Stefan Wolpe. Mr. Shapey has produced an opus of uniquely characteristic works for almost every instrumental and vocal medium in addition to his activities as a spokesman and proponent for contemporary American music. He is Professor of Music at the University of Chicago and Conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Players. A man of strong artistic convictions and beliefs, Shapey suspended performances of his music in 1969 as a protest against what he considered to be the steadily deteriorating ethical standards in the musical world. He reversed his decision in 1976, and since that time there has been a renewal of interest in his work among the public, performers and the press. New York Times has described him as one of America’s ‘most gifted, vital and dynamic composer-conductors of the 20th century.’
Note from the composer: The conception of these Etudes are a one unit work. Each one can be played by itself as a single unit, or all four can be performed as an entire piece. The main thematic material is common to all four etudes. Each piece explores a specific technical problem while at the same time incorporates those from each other. I hope that the learning and performing of these, while giving precedent to technical problems, will at the same time give pleasure as a piece of music. At all times, Make Music!”
Shapey, who died in 2002, combined a passionate respect for and understanding of the music of past Germanic masters – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart – with a distinctly American spirit of innovation. Known as a “radical traditionalist”, he used conventional forms, motivic devices and counterpoint, while experimenting with extreme melodic range, rhythmic ideas such as polyrhythms and meterless contexts, and idiosyncratic harmonic means of organization. This approach also informed his use of the violin: his works feature the instrument’s traditional attributes – cantabile tone, legato melodic lines, chordal playing – while expanding its virtuosic and expressive potential by means of unusual chord configurations and extremely wide-ranging intervals, requiring large left-hand stretches, quick leaps and adept maneuvering of the bow across strings.
Ross Lee Finney’s Fiddle-doodle-ad: Eight American Folk Tunes
Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997) belonged to the generation of American composers that included Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and Virgil Thomson- artists who grappled with the conflicting European and homegrown influences on American classical music and sought to define it as a distinct national art form. Finney, who was born in Minnesota and grew up in North Dakota, sang folksongs with his family during his childhood, and he always retained a great love and affinity for the tunes of his native land. Following studies with Nadia Boulanger and Alban Berg, Finney sought to incorporate the twelve-tone method with material and melodic/harmonic qualities drawn from folksong, and the fluctuating balance of these elements formed the central dynamic of his compositions throughout his life. Though never a hugely well-known composer, he had some high-profile premieres and was a much-regarded teacher for decades at the University of Michigan, where his pupils included George Crumb and William Bolcom.
Fiddle-doodle-ad is a suite of transcriptions of American folktunes. Written in 1945, it comes from a time when Finney was making much direct usage of folk material in his compositions. The piece was a nationalistic response as World War II was reaching a close. The eight melodies are presented simply, with little embellishment or departure from their basic forms, and with subtly enriched harmonic support. The suite is artfully organized in a satisfying sequence of moods, ranging from the rambunctiousness of Rye Whiskey and Rippytoe Ray to the sorrowful Wayfaring Stranger, and from the pure simplicity of The Nightingale to the intriguing asymmetries of Cotton Eye Joe and Oh, Lovely Appearance of Death.
Franco Donatoni’s Ciglio II
In Franco Donatoni’s Ciglio II for violin and flute (1993), the two instruments are combined together in a meticulously controlled but shifting texture. Sometimes the two parts are bound together in rhythmic unity, their short spurts of activity punctuated by silences. Sometimes they pass fragments back and forth to create a sinuous stream of continuous patterns. The piece is in several sections of different tempos, which segue suddenly but smoothly into each other. While the frequent 16th-note motion has a mechanical character, the music keeps metamorphosing subtly, through changes in the articulation (staccato or legato), the addition of delicate grace-notes, double-stops, tremolos and trills, and varied bow techniques for the violinist (playing on the bridge or fingerboard, or playing with the bow stick).
Stefano Gervasoni’s Due Voci
Gervasoni works with subtle elements in order to intrigue the listener and draw them into the composition. He has said: “I like a kind of music that is not too obvious, that does not impose on us an aesthetic programme and does not exhibit its complexity, but that contains a high degree of ambiguity. The theatrical side to my music does not show openly but is rather revealed in intricate details.” In his Due Voci (Two Voices) for violin and flute, he combines the timbres of the instruments with great delicacy, specifying tone colors and dynamic shapes that together form composite effects. In the piece’s four movements, rhythms feel unstable but are actually carefully notated. The unison is explored as both a pitch and rhythmic element. At times, the instruments unite to create sounds on the same pitch; sometimes, as in the third movement, they are locked in rhythmic unison while they are kept slightly separated pitch-wise, a second apart.
Gervasoni wrote these thoughts on Due Voci:
When a voice speaks, there are at least two voices being heard. A voice is always accompanied by its counter-voice.
There can be one or more counter-voices of the intentions that have remained hidden, and work as a background to the manifest voice. At least another voice, moreover – that of the listener -, joins in with the speaking voice – even though this is alone and talking to itself. A voice talking is always meeting its hearing voice.
Every utterance, while it aims outward, also aims at flowing back to itself and at gathering its own hearing. Since no solo can be reduced to mere oneness, it is always at least a unison. No unison can be a perfect coincidence of two solos.
Liner notes on Music by Donald Martino
While planning this CD, I had the most fleeting of exchanges with Donald Martino. Having decided to apply for a Copland Fund grant to make a recording of his music, I wrote him a letter asking if I could obtain scores to two of his recent works: the Sonata for Solo Violin, and Romanza. He emailed me in return, saying he was sending the pieces. He thanked me for my interest in his work and suggested we talk in a few weeks, after he returned from his vacation. About a week later, I was looking at his website, dantalian.com, and I was shocked to read there a notice that he had just passed away while on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
Though haunted by an eerie feeling of sadness, I soon continued with my plans. As I looked through his violin music, I realized I should also obtain his Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. I contacted his wife, Lora, who kindly found a copy of it in his office and mailed it to me. Some months later, the Copland grant came through.
I regret very much not having met Donald Martino in person, and not having his reactions and ideas during my process of working on his music. Exploring his work has been an engrossing experience and I am gratified to be able to present these pieces to listeners. Martino’s music appears to provoke a range of responses. Enthusiasts extol the Romantic qualities of his music, with its rhapsodic freedom and large, elegant gestures. People also praise his inspiring mastery of craft: his handling of complex but clear textures, cohesive but free-sounding structures, and vibrant instrumental color.
At times one hears criticism of his work as dry or hard to follow. I believe this may stem from several factors. Martino was a highly learned musician who was thoroughly engaged by the techniques of the Second Viennese School, and who studied with the most probing exponents of serialism: Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Luigi Dallapiccola. Like Babbitt and Sessions especially, he was known for his vast knowledge and a cerebral mastery of mathematical processes. His reputation as an “academic” was reinforced by his many professorial positions at prestigious universities. In aesthetic terms, his music’s tendency to proceed in a stream of notes can perhaps make it seem amorphous and difficult to follow.
It is important therefore, for the listener but especially for the performer, to recognize that in Martino’s music, intellectual control forms the underpinning for a freewheeling Romantic sensibility. His cerebral interests aside, he had a deep love for styles of music that embrace intensity of emotion, impulsiveness, and virtuosity. These included jazz (he was a jazz clarinetist and arranger), Italian Baroque music, the Romantic piano works of Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt, and the Expressionist music of Berg and Schoenberg. His music should therefore come across as serious, committed and thoughtfully created, but also flamboyant and dazzling, full of sensual movement, aural color, volatile mood changes, and jazz-influenced improvisatory flair.
This CD offers three previously unrecorded works that were written in the last few years of Martino’s life, as well as a piece from an earlier period. Whereas the Fantasy-Variations of 1962 is a striking example of his extremely detailed writing at the time, in his late music his writing became more streamlined and simplified. Though still filled with an abundance of notes and gestures, there are fewer symbol markings than before, and material is spun out into longer sections.
Like the solo violin sonatas of Bartók and Sessions, Martino’s Sonata for Solo Violin (2003) is a large-scale, majestically sweeping, fiery work in four movements. The fff 7ths that open it recur at the close like pillars of a temple. In the highly rhapsodic first movement, Maestoso brillante, extensive, elaborate virtuosic outbursts settle into lyrical episodes. The second movement, Adagio molto, has a soulful melancholy that recalls the slow movement of Bartok’s solo sonata. After a sighing opening, a single-lined melody becomes increasingly lively, turning first into an ornate, waltz-like passage full of élan, and then into a spiky, flamboyant scherzando, before fading out mysteriously. The third movement, Intermezzo: Fughetta in omaggio, is a four-voice fugue played entirely pizzicato. Measured and resolute, it is a clear successor to the fugue in Bartók’s sonata. Intriguingly, Martino wrote out his “ideal” polyphonic vision on two staves, leaving it up to the performer to figure out which notes to actually play. (The score provides one possible version, fingered by dedicatee Robert Mann.) The fourth movement is sectional, Presto or Andante in character, with strongly defined reprises and passages of quickly alternating pizzicatos and bowed elements. The brilliant coda is a scurrying whirl of notes that broadens into a triumphant close.
Based on a twelve-tone row, the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004) opens with a firmly striding pulse before unleashing a cascade of contrapuntal, virtuosic runs that essentially flows onward through the piece, tumbling over unexpected polyrhythms and meter changes, and occasionally taking on a dance-like character. While the instruments are equal partners, the violin often takes flight in extravagant roulades, which the piano punctuates with strong injected chords. In the second movement, Lento, the violin part settles into spacious, cantabile melody, while the piano adopts a Lisztian character with ornamental, sweeping passagework. The third movement is a very quick scherzo with a tipsy-sounding middle section. The final movement brings a return of the opening, with its declarative start and its dizzying stream of notes barreling to the finish. Martino indicated that the movements should follow each other attacca, and the work has the feel of an extended single movement: the excitable Animato first movement trails off suddenly from its peak, to be succeeded by the sweetly singing Lento, and the brief Presto vanishes from the scene, to be followed by the impassioned final movement.
The Romanza for Violin Solo (2002) is a relatively brief work of lyrical fantasy. Recalling the instrumental romances of the 18th-19th centuries, the predominantly cantabile music sometimes takes flight into elegant, capriccioso gestures and brilliant episodes. A quality of informal, but intense, lyricism is illustrated by the expressive markings, including Adagio flessibile, Con moto, Con anima, Andante cantabile, Comodo; liberamente, and Andantino. The material announced at the outset features large, languorously Romantic leaps and consonant intervals, establishing a sweet, genial atmosphere that later turns more passionate and emphatic.
The Fantasy-Variations for Violin (1962) presents a veritable encyclopedia of violin effects, ranging from many sorts of pizzicato to harmonics, glissandi, varied bowing styles, and combinations thereof. Martino indicated in minute detail not only the desired dynamics, but in many cases, extremely specific nuances of phrasing and pacing. The work has the feeling of a scherzo, with brief phrases and different characters succeeding each other abruptly, and a nervous intensity which pervades the piece. Recurrences of the bold opening 10th mark the start of some of the variations, but other variations are obscured by discursive elaborations. In the work’s middle section, marked Il più presto possibile, the mute is quickly applied and removed amid hushed scorrevole murmurings. Following a climax, the scherzando variations resume. As the work draws to an end, gestures become more relaxed, melodic and almost elegiac. A last confident flourish provides the close.
Robert Cuckson String Trio
Robert Cuckson’s music has a largely lyrical and contrapuntal cast that can naturally be identified with his Austrian background. While it is not his general intention either to adopt or reject those references, his String Trio is indeed much associated with the Viennese heritage. He writes:
“The String Trio reflects a reconsideration in style as well as in content of classical models – Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg – making it possibly my most Viennese work. This reconsideration leads rather to an amalgam of different elements than to any consistently derived principles. The work is in two movements. The first movement Moderato is a sonata allegro form; the true second subject finally makes its appearance in the repeat of the exposition, as occurs at times in the classical concerto. The second movement Adagio is an apparent variation movement, formed, however, from a series of episodes based on independent material. The cycle of transformations of texture and rhythmic division commonly found in variation movements molds its overall shape. Its stark opening measures return at the close below a decorative violin obbligato.”
The strings bring to mind the homogeneous string sound of Austria- the chamber music of Haydn and Mozart through to Schoenberg and Berg, the warm sound of the strings in the Vienna Philharmonic. His is an example of music that requires a basic flexibility and understanding of style to make it fully expressive.
Mario Davidovsky Quartetto
Mario Davidovsky’s pioneering work in electronic music in the 1960s led him to explore detailed aspects of sound as a defining expressive element. The electronic medium was revolutionary in that it demonstrated new capabilities to control sound: precise attacks, from very hard to emerging out of silence; infinite potential for sustaining; decays ranging from the most gradual to sudden stops with no after-resonance; abrupt transitions between extreme dynamics or different timbres. In writing for electronics, Davidovsky used his ear, accustomed to the refinement of traditional instruments, to create highly specific and nuanced sounds and phrases. His concentration on such elements was reflected in his instrumental writing as well, leading to new technical challenges for performers and a new emphasis on articulation and Klangfarben as means of determining form and defining material.
Davidovsky is especially renowned for his Synchronisms for acoustic instruments with electronic tape, in which he achieved a remarkably organic combination of different mediums. His Quartetto involves a similar blending of disparate sound worlds. The three strings tend to work as a homogeneous unit, with which the flute interacts. Sometimes the flute converses with the strings in florid phrases, or in rapid interchanges of jagged gestures. At other times, Davidovsky uses the pitch unison as a focal point of the work, combining all the instruments, or just the strings, in unison phrases. In soft unison passages, the flute’s sound and the strings’ sul tasto strokes melt together to create a beautifully cushioned tone. At louder, more strident unison moments, the flute’s timbre stands out of the texture, as though attacking the same pitch from a different perspective. Quartetto is in four large sections, in an ABBA form.
de terrae fine for violin, by Georg Friedrich Haas
Georg Friedrich Haas (born 1953) is widely recognized as one of Austria’s leading composers. His music has been performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, the Opéra National de Paris, and at festivals including the Venice Biennale, Bregenz Festival, Huddersfield Festival, Akiyoshidai Festival, Musik der Zeit in Cologne, Wien Modern, Darmstädter Ferienkurse, and the Borealis Festival in Norway. Chosen as the “Next Generation Composer” by the Salzburg Festival in 1999, he has been honored with awards such as the Ernst Krenek Prize and the Music Prize of the City of Vienna. He has composed numerous symphonic works, concertos, chamber ensemble pieces, instrumental solos, and acclaimed operas including Nacht (1998), Die schöne Wunde (2003), and Melancholia (2008). Currently Lecturer in Music at the Hochschule in Basel, he studied piano and composition in Graz with Gösta Neuwirth, and in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha.
Frustrated by the limitations of conventional equal temperament, Haas has probingly explored the sonic, harmonic, and expressive possibilities of microtonality. His work uses minute intervals like eighth-, sixth-, and quarter-tones, and pitch relationships drawn exactingly from the overtone series, causing intense beating of frequencies, and “difference tones” that buzz along with the actual played pitches. In addition to generating a radical focus on sound itself, Haas’ insistence on microtonality has created new wells of expressive meaning in these relatively unfamiliar sonic distances. Perpetuating the malaise and despair of much twentieth-century art, his music finds nuances of despondency and pain, but also surprising beauty, in the uncomfortable spaces between tones.
Reinhard Kager writes: “A touch of futility hangs over this music, quietly bemoaning the impossibility of ever achieving perfect harmony, let alone the harmonic co-existence of human beings.” Haas’ violin piece de terrae fine (2001) is a stark expression of this state of mind. Haas relates that, while composing this piece on a year’s sabbatical in Ireland, he was mired in a severe depression. The work’s title, meaning “about the end of the world”, evokes not just an apocalyptic vision but a devastating sense of isolation. The music’s single line of winding microtonal motions seems to trace the twinges in a person’s lonely, anguished train of thought. Long tones swell in heaving sighs. At times, the overwhelming feeling of desperation suddenly gives way to a sickly nostalgia, with startlingly sweet double-stops and feather-light, sliding arpeggios. About halfway through the work, the mood turns to anger, as pounding, massive chords burst out. Moving upward by microtonal increments, the chords build in accelerating waves to a violent frenzy of raging despair- followed by a collapse into exhaustion, as a few tremulous, wistful wisps disappear into silence.
Ralph Shapey’s Reyem for flute, violin, piano
Shapey wrote Reyem in 1967 for the fiftieth birthday of musicologist Leonard Meyer, his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago. Meyer, who passed away in January 2008, described Shapey as a “radical traditionalist,” a term that Shapey embraced and which has become the defining characterization of his work as a composer.
Reyem is in the meterless, gestural style of Shapey’s middle-period music. By avoiding bar lines and pulse, he evokes a sense of timelessness and open space, within which he dramatically positions jagged, irregular rhythmic events. The piece presents a refrain in which polyrhythmic, arching statements in the piano and violin are answered by soaring melody in the flute. This refrain alternates with sections of contrasting, vivid moods: energetic passages of interlocking, robust rhythms in all three instruments, and dialogue between gentle violin pizzicatos and sweetly singing flute phrases.
Elliott Carter’s Duo for violin and piano
Hailed in recent decades as a pathbreaker especially in the areas of tempo relationships and texture, Elliott Carter was a late bloomer who found his distinctive style in 1951 with his daringly complex First String Quartet. In that work, he introduced the idea of metric modulation to create the sense of motion between different, independent layers of music. He soon followed this with his Second String Quartet, in which the four parts set up a paradigm of heterogeneous interaction, and many more works in which he further developed his revolutionary ideas of eliminating a uniform rhythmic framework. When composing his violin/piano Duo in 1973, he was evidently thinking about the beginnings of his pioneering discoveries over twenty years earlier, for he wrote about this piece:
The general form is quite different from that of the music I wrote up to 1950. While this earlier music was based on themes and their development, here the musical ideas are not themes or melodies but rather groupings of sound materials out of which textures, linear patterns, and figurations are invented. Each type of music has its own identifying sound and expression, usually combining instrumental color with some “behavioral” pattern that relies on speed, rhythm, and musical intervals. There is no repetition, but a constant invention of new things – some closely related to each other, others remotely. There is a stratification of sound so that much of the time the listener can hear two different kinds of music, not always of equal prominence occurring simultaneously. This kind of form and texture could be said to reflect the experience we often have of seeing something in different frames of reference at the same time.
Carter’s Duo is a landmark work for the violin/piano combination. Carter positions the two instruments in obvious opposition to each other, making this the premise of the composition. The violin engages mainly in legato passages, held tones and long lines, moving in irregular streams of rubato and transitioning with sometimes surprising suddenness from one character to another. The piano part emphasizes the percussive nature of the instrument and often adheres to very steady pulses (though at a variety of rates). It also exploits the possibilities of pedaling to blur and reveal specific sounds. The constantly evolving nature of the players’ interaction creates an unfolding drama of layered speeds and activity, beginning and ending in states of distinct separateness. As Carter wrote, ” the long opening section for the piano forms a quiet, almost icy background to the varied and dramatic violin, which seems to fight passionately against the piano… [Toward the end] as the piano reaches a point of extreme slowness, the violin is heard increasingly alone, isolating for a few measures at a time the various elements of its part, with the quiet and more lyrical aspects given more prominence than previously.” Carter dedicated the Duo to his wife of many years, Helen.
Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima
One of the most remarkable aspects of the work of the Italian composer-philosopher Luigi Nono (1924-90) was his melding of music with words and political message. His early work was based on more purely musical study of polyphony, the madrigal tradition and the Second Viennese School, and later on, serialism, which was explored at the Darmstadt courses. However, his interest in putting forth pointedly political, anti-fascist themes soon became evident with Il canto sospeso, for solo singers, chorus and orchestra (1955). The piece incorporated text from letters by political prisoners during World War II. He thereafter wrote many large-scale pieces encompassing ideas drawn from philosophy, politics, history and religion. His work strove toward a new kind of music theater, involving text (often documentary material from taped speeches and riots), spatialization, improvisation, references to the physical world, electronics and amplification.
Nono’s string quartet, Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima marked in 1979 a turning point in his work. At this time, he found a need to renew his approach and his interest turned more toward introversion and reflection, silence and listening, rather than outward statement and protest. As he said, “Listening is very difficult. Difficult to listen to others in the silence…When one comes to listen, one often tries to rediscover oneself in others. To rediscover one’s own mechanisms, system, rationalism in the others. Instead of hearing the silence, instead of hearing the others, one often hopes to hear oneself. That is an academic, conservative, and reactionary repetition…Perhaps one can change the rituals; perhaps it is possible to try to wake up the ear. To wake up the ear, the eyes, human thinking, intelligence, the most exposed inwardness.”
Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima consists of 52 musical sections, which are linked to 53 fragments of text from either Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion or his poems to Diotima. Diotima, a character in Hyperion, is surmised to represent a woman with whom Hölderlin was in love (and also is a figure in Plato’s Symposium). In this quartet, Nono stipulates that the text not be read aloud or presented to the audience in any way, but that the fragments be thought silently, or “sung inwardly”, by performers as they play the piece. Meanwhile the music progresses haltingly with numerous fermatas, sometimes on held tones but often in silence and for long spans. Thus the fermatas allow time to think on and internalize the text and for listeners fully to experience the silence or stillness.
As Nono’s pupil Helmut Lachenmann put it: “It is not just the composed score of the Diotima quartet which puts across this music’s message: it is the perception of its reflection in our inner selves, across the space of silence and also remembrance, reflection, self-discovery as opened up by the fermata.” Also: “the silence into which Nono’s late works lead us is a fortissimo of agitated perception.”
In the musical sounds, Nono sought to explore varied, nuanced sound qualities, inspired by Schoenberg’s idea of Klangfarben. The players are asked for many different kinds of timbres, attacks and dynamics, often at quiet volume. There are a few places where material returns in the piece, perhaps in relation to subtle links in the text. Nono developed some material from Giuseppe Verdi’s scala enigmata, a scale that Nono employed in other works. Other musical references here are his use of Ockeghem’s “Maleur me bat” in the viola at section 48 (perhaps a homage to Nono’s teacher Bruno Maderna who used it as a harmonization exercise) and his use of a marking from Beethoven’s quartet Op. 132 – “mit innigster Empfindung” – at section 26, exactly halfway through the piece. That section is notable for the anomalous absence of fermatas. Nono’s quartet was commissioned by the City of Bonn to mark Beethoven’s 210th birthday and was premiered by the LaSalle Quartet.
Iannis Xenakis’ Mikka S
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) was among the avant-garde composers who thrillingly revolutionized post-World War II classical music. A Greek who became a French citizen, he was not only a musician, but an engineer, architect, mathematician and author of major theoretical works on music. In his compositions, he brilliantly incorporated ideas stemming from his scientific interests, pioneering electronic and computer music, and applying stochastic and aleatoric processes, and set and game theory. While his works derive from highly cerebral concepts and treat sounds and sound events as objects put through experimental processes, the results are usually very visceral and emotional. Tension and excitement build up as layers accumulate and clash, and the combination of control and disorder in the rhythm creates a wild sense of motion. Xenakis wrote “Mikka S” in 1976 following his first solo violin work, “Mikka”, of 1971. Both pieces are brief and based mainly on the glissando, a sliding pitch effect. Whereas “Mikka” consists of a single line, “Mikka S” ups the ante with two contrapuntal lines that move independently. At times, this requires extreme physical flexibility, as the violinist’s fingers must converge and cross directions, or stretch across strings. The two lines are in almost constant motion and often create a buzzing microtonal friction, but they coincide now and then on momentarily consonant intervals. Toward the end of the piece, the constant sliding is shattered into spiky groups of jagged glissandos and eruptions of aggressively bowed attacks.
Salvatore Sciarrino’s Omaggio a Burri
Sciarrino began to compose at age 12 and had his first concert in 1962. Initially self-taught, he later worked with Antonio Titone and Turi Belfiore, and completed his studies in Rome and Milan. His large catalogue of music has been performed by many of the world’s fine orchestras, ensembles, instrumentalists and opera companies, and is published by Ricordi and RAI. Author of the librettos to many of his own vocal works, he has also written numerous articles and essays on music and other arts. He was director of Teatro Communale di Bologna from 1987-90, and he has taught at conservatories in Milan, Florence, and Berlin.
Sciarrino is known for his exploration of new extended techniques, his exquisite focus on the qualities of individual sounds, and his handling of silence and near-silence.
Sciarrino wrote Omaggio a Burri after the death of his friend, Italian abstract painter Alberto Burri. Sciarrino and Burri shared a central belief that art must maintain its connection not only to metaphysical and spiritual meaning, but also to physical materiality. For Burri, this meant experimenting with unusual, often rough-textured matter, such as pumice, burlap, and charred wood, and creating paintings with 3-dimensional protuberances. For Sciarrino, this has involved an exploration of any physical means of sound production, unlimited by traditional ways of playing or singing; a keen awareness of “natural” sound (breathing, percussive dropping or tapping); and a synesthetic approach to his art.
Omaggio a Burri begins with soft murmurs that develop into a clock-like marking of time (Sciarrino writes “Al tempo degli orologi, eighth-note=60”) played primarily by the wind instruments. After a while, this mechanical character is supplanted by a stream of melismas that eventually devolve from tone into delicate noise, ending in mere key-clicks. Throughout the piece, the violin mainly contributes a surface of atmospheric sighs – breathy quasi-harmonics and high-pitched whispers.
Ysaye’s Sonata No. 5 “L’Aurore”
Violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was one of the most celebrated performers of his time, a busy touring artist beloved by many for his elegant style, lusciously organic phrasing and rich tone. Many of the great composers of his time, including Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, Cesar Franck and Ernest Chausson, wrote works for him. He studied with the great Romantic-era violinists Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski, and in turn took up teaching at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he was a renowned professor of violin for decades. After years as a traveling virtuoso, performing recitals and concertos, Ysaÿe’s turned more to conducting and composing. Among his compositions are a Sonata for Two Violins, works for orchestra, two string trios and an opera. However, his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op. 27, from 1923, remain his most well-known oeuvre. In these pieces, he drew upon a wealth of experience and insight as a violinist, developing highly idiomatic passages and patterns that bring the violin’s coloristic and timbral potential gloriously to the fore. The music of these sonatas is in a French Romantic-Impressionist vein, featuring lush, rosy harmonies, whole-tone scales, languidly arching phrases, and brilliantly cascading passages that are passionate yet elegant.
The Six Sonatas are each dedicated to a well-known violinist of the time. The Sonata No. 5 is dedicated to Ysaÿe’s student, Belgian violinist Mathieu Crickboom, who played in the Ysaÿe Quartet and later in a quartet with cellist Pablo Casals. This Sonata is an embrace of renewal, as possibilities and radiance bloom anew. The two movements – “L’Aurore” and “Danse Rustique” – portray the wondrous progression of dawn to day, beginning with the quiet and portentous mystery of sunrise and bursting joyously into rambunctious physicality in the rustic dance. “L’Aurore” opens with gentle stirrings of nature against a glowing backdrop of harmonies. This gradually unfolds into rising waves of arpeggios, portraying the sun as it climbs into the sky. “Danse Rustique” then erupts into a vivacious celebration of the day, with earthy, romping dance sections framing a middle section that is rhapsodic, fluttering and sighingly romantic.
Leos Janácek’s Violin Sonata
The Czech composer Janácek (1854-1928) developed a highly personalized manner of writing that incorporated piquant inflections and gestures from Moravian folksong, remarkably vivid atmospheres, and a beguiling mixture of fantastical and earthy qualities. Deeply involved in the collection and study of his country’s folk music, Janácek was a forerunner to the ethnomusicological work of Hungarians Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and was contemporaneous with Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, whose music also displayed an ingrained, personal association with folksong. Janácek became known mainly for his vibrantly colorful and soulfully moving operas – Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Case, House of the Dead– and he put much of his own effort into seeing those works produced in opera halls. However, his small but tremendously distinctive output of chamber works garnered great fondness and admiration in later years. These works often had an autobiographical bent – relating to his youth, falling in love etc. They include some piano pieces (Into the Mists, the Sonata), two programmatic and fiercely Romantic string quartets, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano.
The Violin Sonata was written in 1914 amid the early rumbles of World War I. Janácek kept revising the piece until 1920, by which time he was at work on his opera Katya Kabanova. It is in four movements, with moods that shift suddenly from sweetly wistful and warmly relaxed to breathless and impassioned. Pizzicato gestures evoke sounds from nature, and melodies have a plainness and directness that contrasts with the flourishes that suddenly erupt throughout the piece.
Richard’s Strauss’ Violin Sonata
German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) possessed a very identifiable compositional style that combined extravagantly swirling lines and intricately layered textures with advanced chromatic harmonies. Following on the innovations of Liszt and Wagner, Strauss and his contemporary Gustav Mahler took Romanticism to heady extremes of complexity, intensity and harmonic experimentation. Though brilliantly florid and seemingly free-flowing, Strauss’ works form remarkably cohesive expressions of emotion, whether of heroic grandeur, poignant longing, tenderness or ardent romantic outpouring. Strauss did not profess particular interest in folk music, but certain elements, such as horn calls and snippets of melody, evoke the indigenous music of the Bavarian countryside.
Strauss was mainly renowned for his operas – Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Salome, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio – his orchestral tone poems – Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldeleben – and his songs. However, he did produce a small number of chamber works, mostly earlier in his career. These include the Cello Sonata, the Piano Sonata, and the Violin Sonata in E-flat major. The Violin Sonata was written in 1887-8 and is considered the last of his works to adhere to classical forms (mainly the sonata allegro of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo). At the time of writing the piece, he was in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna, and the work exudes a youthful, optimistic exuberance and an undercurrent of sweetness that pervades even the bold virtuoso writing. The second movement, titled Improvisation, meanders gently; its wistfulness and hovering dreaminess are qualities that recur throughout much of his oeuvre. The closing Finale movement opens with a somber introduction in the piano, after which the instruments sally forth with almost orchestral grandeur and sweep.