Tuesday, November 25, 2008

KSO Programme notes: 25 November 2008

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970)

Concerto for Orchestra

Reader, beware: Roberto Gerhard once said, “My favourite listener is the one who does not read explanatory programme-notes… Understanding comes first, knowledge second,” and asserted: “I stand by the sound of my music. It is the sound that must make sense.”

He was born of Swiss-German and French-Alsatian parents in Catalonia. Inevitably this gave him an internationalist outlook, but nevertheless he felt his identity as a Catalan strongly. After studying with Schoenberg, he worked during the 1930s as a consultant to the Arts Ministry of the Catalan government, which acted as an autonomous body within Spain from 1932. Here, he was responsible for raising Catalonia’s artistic profile considerably, not only with his own scores but his work promoting others. This culminated in his bringing the International Society of Contemporary Music’s annual festival to Barcelona in 1936, during which Berg’s Violin Concerto had its world première.

In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain, and when in 1939 Franco’s troops captured Barcelona, a centre of Republican resistance, Gerhard was forced into exile. He ended up in Cambridge, where he adopted the Hispanic form of his name (he was christened Robert) and produced music for theatre, radio and television. From his earlier romantic style, concerned with the use of Catalan folk music, in his later years he cultivated a more modernist music, partly derived from his teacher Schoenberg, but with a sensitivity for colour that produces a sound far removed from the expressionist angst of pre-war Vienna: the folk music he studied so carefully in his youth lay beneath the surface, continuing to influence his sound-world.

His sensitivity to the nuances of sound was sharpened by his experience as one of the pioneers of electronic music: his music for the RSC’s 1955 production of King Lear was the first electronic score for the stage in Britain, and a few years later he was one of the first composers to work at the BBC’s newly-established Radiophonic Workshop, the cradle of some of the most radical experimentation ever to appear in mainstream culture, such as the extraordinary piece of electronica that nearly 50 years later still holds television audiences in thrall: the theme to Doctor Who.

As his colleagues gave voice to the TARDIS, Gerhard was re-establishing himself as a composer of concert music, and it was a commission for the 1965 Cheltenham Festival that resulted in the Concerto for Orchestra. In fact, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in Boston in April 1965 by permission of the Festival Authority. The British première followed in Cheltenham a few months later. It ruffled a few feathers, far removed as its sense of drama was from the cosy familiarity of the typical “Cheltenham symphony.”

By this time Gerhard was seriously ill: he had had heart trouble for some years which was by then becoming acute, and would cause his death in 1970. There is however no hint of fragility in the Concerto, which from its opening explosion of notes is a work filled with vigour. Gerhard overcame his aversion to explanatory notes to provide a preface to the published score, in which he described his approach to what remains an unusual genre in orchestral music: “Ensemble playing, the distinguishing feature of the concerto for orchestra, in fact here takes the place of the virtuoso soloist in the traditional concerto.” So the emphasis is less on individual display (although Gerhard certainly provides plenty of challenges for the players) than showing off the orchestra as a collective.

If there is a solo element in this piece, it is time itself: the music is constantly moving between different perceptions of time, expressed in three contrasting ways. The first, exemplified by the very opening, is characterised by busy, dense textures which create a sense of an infinitely expanded tonality. Then there are passages of what Gerhard describes as “almost static yet pulsating constellation-like patterns”, where tone gives way to a myriad array of sounds produced through unorthodox playing techniques, from tapping and rustling sounds in the strings which sound like an abstraction of flamenco music, to the unearthly harmonics of bowed cymbals. Finally, there are moments where time seems to stand still, and we experience “the magic sense of uneventfulness.” These kaleidoscopic changes of texture that abound in the Concerto, in which busy, scurrying passages dissolve into radiantly static textures have a dreamlike quality that the listener might experience as a sonic parallel to the images of another prominent 20th century Catalan, Salvador Dalí.


Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Manfred Symphony Op.58

  1. Lento lugubre - Moderato con animo
    Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fateful questions of life, tormented by the burning anguish of helplessness and by the memory of his criminal past, he feels cruel tortures to the soul. Manfred penetrates deeply into the secrets of magic and communicates imperiously with the mighty powers of hell, but neither these, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which is the single thing he vainly seeks and begs for. A recollection of the lost Astarte, whom he once loved passionately, devours and gnaws at his heart and there is neither limit nor end to the boundless suffering of Manfred.
  2. Vivace con spirito
    The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall.
  3. Andante con moto
    Pastoral - picture of the simple, poor, free life of the mountain dwellers.
  4. Allegro con fuoco
    Underground devils of Ahriman. Infernal orgy. The appearance of Manfred amid the Bacchanal. Summoning and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is forgiven. Death of Manfred.

In the winter of 1867-8 Tchaikovsky came into the orbit of the nationalist composer Mily Balakirev. The influence was profound: the domineering Balakirev suggested and acted as midwife to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, in the wake of Berlioz’s second visit to Russia, the influential critic Vladimir Stasov suggested to Balakirev the idea of a symphony in the same vein as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy on another Byron work: Manfred. Balakirev was not keen, and offered Stasov’s suggested programme to Berlioz himself, who declined due to failing health. In the early 1870s Balakirev, suffering financial ruin and mental collapse, withdrew from musical life in Russia and the project seemed dead.

A decade later, Tchaikovsky, preparing the score of his revision of Romeo and Juliet in 1880, sent a letter to Balakirev via his publisher Bessel. “I want you to know that I have not forgotten who was responsible for this score's appearance in the world, that I vividly recall the friendly sympathy you showed me at the time, which I hope even now is not completely extinguished,” he wrote.

The publisher was evidently not in the habit of forwarding correspondence promptly, as it was over a year before Balakirev replied. “Your kind letter and dedication to me prove you have not completely struck me out of your heart's memory”, he responded. He went on to demand that Tchaikovsky come and visit him in St Petersburg, announced that he had a programme for a symphony that he thought would suit Tchaikovsky admirably, and finished with a post script pointing out an error in the published score of Francesca da Rimini: “On p.92 the horns have been omitted, and the result's terrible.”

As it happened, Tchaikovsky was looking for a new project, and so he agreed to take on the job. Having got his claws in again, Balakirev quickly sent the details of the project to Tchaikovsky: a plan for a symphony based on Byron's dramatic poem Manfred. “I had originally offered the subject to Berlioz,” he wrote, somewhat disingenuously. “You would be able to tackle this subject brilliantly – provided, of course, you make an effort... don't hurry to finish at all costs.”

Tchaikovsky's waspish reply suggests he was already regretting renewing his acquaintance: “it leaves me completely cold... To please you I might, perhaps – to use your expression – make an effort... but such composing in no way attracts me.”

And there the matter rested for two years. Then something happened: following a meeting in 1884 Balakirev sent him Stasov's original programme, this time accompanied with extensive notes on what key schemes to employ and a list of pieces that might serve as models for each movement. Balakirev may not have been interested in composing a Manfred Symphony himself, but was evidently determined that whoever did the task should do it his way.

The two men had been discussing religion. Tchaikovsky had recently read Tolstoy's Confession, an account of his faith which was outlawed but circulating nevertheless. Tchaikovsky's interest in religion was largely aesthetic, but Balakirev had moved from being a free-thinker to a devout, if rather eccentric brand of Christianity under the influence of a soothsayer. Tchaikovsky had outgrown any need of Balakirev as a teacher, but he was filled with a need for certainty in the face of overwhelming self-doubt and guilt at his homosexuality, so perhaps felt he had something to learn from Balakirev the mystic.

Tchaikovsky took a copy of Byron's poem to Switzerland and reading it would have become aware of the subtext that is clear in Byron but absent from Stasov’s programme: that Manfred’s love for Astarte is almost certainly incestuous. A tortured soul wracked with guilt at forbidden passion chimed with Tchaikovsky, and it was this conflation of Manfred's feelings with his own that finally provided the incentive to compose.

He found progress difficult, but by August 1885 he declared “this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.” By the time of the première in March 1886, he was qualifying that “because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity it is doomed to failure and to be ignored,” and by 1888 he declared that “it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the one exception of the first movement.” This reflects the deep association he made between Manfred and his own troubles. It is perhaps significant that where Byron’s Manfred dies refusing to submit to higher powers, Tchaikovsky’s hero is granted absolution and dies peacefully, an act of forgiveness the composer was unable to grant himself.

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