|Taste the Music|
Le Bœuf sur le toit (The Bull on the Roof)
A native of Provence in Southern France, Darius Milhaud retained throughout his life the sunny atmosphere of his native region. His parents were both musically gifted, and from age three he played piano duets with his father. At seven he started the violin and at 13 began harmony lessons and discovered composition, his true vocation. In the aftermath of World War I he joined composers Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre in what became known as Le groupe des six, disciples of composer Eric Satie and author/painter Jean Cocteau, who were preaching an anti-Romantic credo. The only thing uniting them was their insistence on the right to express themselves musically in their own personal way. They resisted what they considered the “phony sublimity” of the Impressionists and the other art movements in vogue at the time.
Milhaud became one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century, composing in every genre, reaching Op. 443 in 1973. He experimented with new musical idioms and was a proponent of bitonality – the use of two keys simultaneously; he even composed two string quartets that could be played simultaneously as an octet. In 1940 he was among the few fortunate French Jews to escape the Nazi invasion of France. Settling in the US, he spent the rest of his life teaching at Mills College in Oakland, CA, and at the Aspen, Colorado Summer School.
During 1917-1918, diplomat, poet and dramatist Paul Claudel served as French minister to Brazil, engaging Milhaud, by then a promising composer, as his secretary. While in Brazil, Milhaud spent a good part of his time soaking up the native music, and on his return to Paris declared his intention “…to write a ballet about the carnival in Rio, which will be called Le Bœuf sur le toit, from the name of the samba that the band was playing this evening while the negro women, dressed in blue, were dancing.”
He undertook the project in 1919, amusing himself merging folk tunes, tangos, maxixes, (a kind of Brazilian syncopated polka) sambas, and even Portuguese fado music (a style of popular and dance music that combined Portuguese and Brazilian traditions). He transcribed them with a recurring theme between each tune like a rondo. The rondo theme was original.
Milhaud conceptualized the music as accompanying an imaginary Chaplin film, at first calling it cinéma fantasie, but Jean Cocteau decided to turn it into a ballet-pantomime. Since it was to open just as the 18th Amendment went into effect, Cocteau set it in a Manhattan speakeasy, with sets by Raoul Dufy. The pantomime featured three clowns -– the famous Fratellini brothers – and included: cross-dressing; the beheading of a policeman by a ceiling fan; and the display of his head à la Richard Strauss’s Salome. It became a succès de scandale, and soon thereafter a Paris nightclub called Club Gaya changed its name to Le Bœuf sur le toit, presenting Milhaud with a lifetime membership.
Between the repeats of the rondo, Milhaud evokes a musical rainbow of moods and Latin imagery. His introduction of a competing key into the repeat of this melody is a typical feature of his style.
La revue de cuisine (The Kitchen Review)
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s formative years were unusual. He spent his childhood in relative isolation in a tiny room at the top of the church tower, in the small Moravian town where he was born. His father, a cobbler, served also as fire-watch, bell ringer and tower keeper. Until he started school, the boy seldom descended the 193 steps to street level. He remarked that his whole aesthetic was influenced by his early bird’s eye view of the world, "…not the small interests of people, the cares, the hurts, or the joys but space, which I always have in front of me."
Although his musical talent manifested itself early in childhood, he was expelled from the Prague Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence.” In spite of his strong nationalistic feelings, Martinů left Prague and newly independent Czechoslovakia in 1923 for Paris in order, as he said, “To escape the cult of Smetana and the pervasive influence of German music with its full metaphysical apparatus.” He ended up settling there for 17 years until forced to escape after the fall of France in 1940. Like many of Europe’s displaced intelligentsia, he reached the US via Lisbon in 1941. His stay here turned into an extremely creative period with commissions and compositions, many written for his friends and colleagues, including the Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano, written for violinist Albert Einstein and his friend, the pianist Robert Casadesus.
In his rebellion against the German influence in the 1920s, Martinů experimented with jazz, which was all the rage in Paris at the time. The war and its aftermath brought American dance bands to Europe, and classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions. Some of the first were Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918), and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).
The ballet La revue de cuisine, composed in 1927, became Martinů‘s first great success. The instrumentation – clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano – recalls Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat of 1918.
In the complete ballet, which was only discovered in 1990, the dancers portray kitchen items: Pot, Lid, Stirring Spoon, Grinder, Cauldron, Dish Cloth and Broom. The archetypal plot concerns the imminent marriage of Pot and Lid, disrupted by Stirring Spoon and Dishcloth, who flirt with Pot and Lid respectively. Broom salvages Pot’s honor by dueling with Broom. The original ballet had ten numbers, from which Martinů extracted the four-movement suite consisting of:
Prologue: A fanfare plus a quote from Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote.
Tango: The attempted seduction of Lid
Charleston: The duel between Broom and Dishcloth in which a chromatically ascending duet between bassoon and clarinet leads into the dance, including riffs on the most famous Charleston tune
Finale: A reprise of the music from the Prologue, followed by a medley of classical and jazz tunes, and French folksongs.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart|
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for Violin and Viola, K. 364
In January 1779 Mozart reluctantly returned to Salzburg after a disastrous two-year trip to Germany and Paris. Not only did he fail in obtaining a court appointment, but private commissions were also few and far between. The most severe blow during his Paris sojourn, however, was the sudden death of his mother, who was accompanying him.
One of the works that Mozart composed shortly after his return was the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. The sinfonia concertante is a cross between a symphony and a concerto, a form popular in the second half of the eighteenth century that Mozart encountered on his travels. Like his contemporaries, he seldom composed large works without a commission, but we have no surviving record of this work’s genesis, who commissioned it or who premiered it. Perhaps he wrote it for his father Leopold as violinist and himself as violist. Subsequently it may have formed part of the portfolio he carried with him to Vienna in 1781when he tried to establish his career as a freelance composer and performer in the Empire’s capital.
The Sinfonia concertante, which is more of a formal double concerto than a symphony, may have also been an experiment in the writing of a double concerto since the Concerto for Two Pianos also in E-flat, K. 365, follows it by only one Koechel number. Both concertos are elegant creations with moments of breathtaking beauty.
The violin and viola parts weave in and out of each other in a way that harks back to Bach’s Double Concerto for Two Violins in d minor. At other times the two soloists chase each other in the same way as the two pianos in the Concerto in E-flat. In all three movements the solo parts are often anticipated or echoed by a pair of oboes.
Now one of Mozart’s most beloved works, its premiere in the USA, nearly 80 years after it was composed, was not a success. The critic of the New York Times wrote: “On the whole we would prefer death to a repetition of this production. The wearisome scale passages on the little fiddle, repeated ad nauseam on the bigger one, were simply maddening.”
Maddening indeed! The reason the first movement consumes nearly 15 minutes is because of Mozart’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of melodies. The orchestra’s exposition comprises three. But while motives from the three are used as support, Mozart provides the soloists with a whole new set. The sound of the violin emerging out of the little oboe cadence pattern is one of those minor strokes of genius that we often take for granted in Mozart. Once the two soloists get going, they seem to run their own concerto. Only at the recapitulation do the soloists participate in the opening orchestra themes. Just before the end, there’s an exquisite cadenza.
The poignancy of the cadenza sets the mood for the melancholy Andante. It is this movement that the sinuous interplay of the two soloists comes to the fore. Here, we encounter fewer melodies, but rather an emotional journey of a single theme. The soloists do more than decorate it; they gradually intensify its meaning, as if discussing its fate in a serious dialogue. Occasionally they come to an agreement, but resume the dialogue. It is significant that Mozart makes the cadenza the emotional highpoint rather than just an obligatory add-on.
The Finale shakes off the last vestiges of melancholy in a light-hearted rondo that may have been the feature that irked the New York critic. There is quite a bit of repetition, especially since the rondo has four themes, each stated twice every time. The multi-themed episode is also repeated – along with internal repetitions as well. It took a Beethoven to really endow finales with heft.
Johann Strauss II
|Johann Strauss II|
Champagne Polka, Op. 211
The Austro-Hungarian Empire never really recovered from the devastation of the Napoleonic wars. All through the nineteenth century it fought a rearguard action to maintain its integrity against nationalist movements from within and encroachment by its neighbors from without. Then, in 1866, the Austro-Prussian war settled who was the dominant power in the German-speaking countries. Austria lost resoundingly and never again would have a major say in German affairs.
But in Vienna, the capital, one would have seen little of that instability and disintegration. For those at the Habsburg court, the well to do and the upper class of civil service, it was a time of glitter and joie de vivre, ostensibly the most brilliant and prosperous period of the monarchy. Opulent parties, balls and dancing were all the rage while the empire disintegrated.
Johann Strauss II, by far the best known of nineteenth century Vienna’s composers of dance music, was adored by high society who fondly named him the Waltz King. He was by nature shy, self-effacing and insecure, far removed in nature from the light-heartedness and exuberance expressed of music. He was a close friend of Brahms, who always tried to convince him that posterity would remember his music, but to no avail. Brahms, however, got it right.
All ballroom dances of this period consisted of an unspecified series of melodies that achieved musical coherence by means of a refrain between the episodes of new music. The polka – which means “Polish” – originated in Bohemia, first appeared in Prague in 1837, and quickly spread throughout Europe.
Strauss composed Champagne Polka, subtitled A Musical Joke, in 1858, during a tour of Russia. It is full of humorous orchestral side effects.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014|