Monday, November 02, 2009

KSO Programme notes: Debussy, Ullmann, Stravinsky

Claude Debusy (1862-1918)
Ibéria

1. Par les rues et par les chemins (In the streets and byways)
2. Les Parfumes de la nuit (Perfumes of the night)
3. Le matin d'un jour de fête (The morning of a festival day)

When Debussy composed Ibéria, the central part of his orchestral triptych Images (and the first to be written), he was at a turning point in his life. The notoriety that characterised his early successes had become international fame with the first productions of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. The cult of “Debussyism” reached its peak, and scandal was replaced by expectation.

As is often the case, success was to be swiftly followed by a backlash. Those who had championed his earlier work found his new music staid in comparison. Those who had always considered his style to be a threat to the very foundations of all musical orthodoxy found more grist to their mill.

Shortly after he completed Ibéria in December 1909, Debussy exhibited the first symptoms of the cancer that would eventually kill him. In June 1912 his transformation from enfant terrible to yesterday’s man was brought home forcefully to him when he sat at the piano with the young Igor Stravinsky and played through the piano score of The Rite of Spring.

Some say that Images betrays a falling off of inspiration. This is unfair. Ibéria, in particular, shows off Debussy’s masterly and original way with an orchestra to the full, including what is for him an unusually unrestrained percussion section. Debussy had a strong mystical streak, which came from his involvement with the Symbolist movement. One of the aims of the Symbolists was to create art so evocative that it actually becomes the thing it depicts. In his attempt to achieve this, Debussy jettisoned traditional ideas of musical structure and form. A letter he wrote to a friend reveals something of what he aimed at: “You can’t imagine how naturally the transition works between ‘Parfums de la nuit’ and ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’. It sounds as though it’s improvised.”


Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
Symphony No.2 in D major (“Theresienstadt Sketchbook”)
(Reconstructed from the Piano Sonata No.7 by Bernhard Wulff)

1. Allegro
2. Alla marcia, ben misurato
3. Adagio, ma non tanto
4. Scherzo: Allegretto grazioso
5. Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong

Terezín (Theresienstadt), about an hour's drive from Prague, was built in 1780, as a garrison town. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph II wanted to ensure that the borders of the Czech territory he had conquered would not be overrun by German hoards from the north. In the event, the town was never used for its intended purpose. Instead it found an effective alternative role as a high security prison. When the German invasion finally came in 1940, Terezín reached its final form as a concentration camp. At its height, the ghetto was home to over 60,000 Jews. The town had been designed to house a population of 5,000. Food was scarce and disease rife.

This was not so different from any other concentration camp. But Terezín was distinguished by one extraordinary fact: its cultural life, which flourished. The plan was to dispel rumours of death camps by promoting Terezín as a cultural beacon. To this end, many Jewish intellectuals were sent there. Artistic activity and the performance of otherwise banned musical and theatrical works was at first tolerated, and later actively encouraged. The results, paraded to visiting representatives of the Red Cross and filmed for a propaganda film, were held up as proof that the Czech Jews were living an idyllic life, separate from the “native” Ayrians (who had been encouraged to immigrate by the Nazis).

Terezín was host to many talented composers, but Viktor Ullmann was perhaps foremost. A former pupil of Schoenberg, he had in the years preceding the war forged his own style, building on but completely distinct from his teacher’s. When war broke out and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia Ullmann found himself transformed overnight from an internationally renowned composer into a nonentity. His music was barred from performance and he was forbidden to appear in public. In 1942 he was sent to Terezín. For the next two years he was heavily involved in the musical life there, not only as a composer and pianist, but also as a critic. His surviving (by no means always kind) reviews of the musical productions there are one of the most important sources of information about artistic life in the ghetto.

That a vivacious artistic culture should thrive in a concentration camp seems scarcely believable. In an essay written towards the end of his time there, Ullmann reflected on the morality of art in captivity. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure. Before, when one did not feel the force and weight of existence because of comfort, this magic of civilisation, it was easy to create beautiful form. Here, where one must daily overcome the substance of life, where everything goes against the Muses: here is the masterclass... I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work at Theresienstadt, without inhibition, and that in no way did we merely sit down and weep by the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was inadequate to our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who have struggled to wrest Form from Art and Life will say that I was right.”

The symphony you hear tonight is a reconstruction: it has a dual existence as Ullmann’s seventh piano sonata. By the time he wrote it in August 1944, dedicating it to his children, such luxuries as manuscript paper were a distant memory. He wrote piecemeal on whatever paper came to hand. The manuscript is a fragmentary piano score, with notes for orchestration. It is unclear to what degree it was intended as a piano work or a short score for an orchestral work. Quite possibly Ullmann abandoned his initial ideas for orchestration simply because the resources were not available. Perhaps they reflect a hope for a day when he might be free again and able to write for a symphony orchestra once more.

The music contains many quotations, partly autobiographical, and partly coded messages to his fellow inmates. Mahler’s Song of a Wayfarer, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Richard von Heuberger’s operetta The Opera Ball are all quoted, as is Ullmann’s own opera The Emperor of Atlantis, also written for performance in Terezín. The latter is the source of an unusual feature of the symphony: the presence in the orchestra of a harpsichord, which also appears in the opera.

The “Hebrew folksong”that forms the basis of the Finale is in fact a Zionist song by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the Russian Jewish poet Rachel, in which the she imagines herself as her biblical namesake. Ullmann’s variations draw attention to its resemblance to the Slovak national anthem (also banned by the Nazis) and the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are God’ s Warriors”. The famous chorale “Now thank we all our God” and the four-note motto derived from Bach’s name. Such Germanic Protestant music may seem incongruous in a Jewish ghetto, but it should be remembered that many of the prisoners would have previously considered themselves secular and German. Bach’s music especially was cherished as an important, and comforting part of their own culture.

Liberation came to Terezín in early 1945, too late for Ullmann: On October 16th 1944, having been persuaded by his friends to leave his manuscripts in their care, he was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On arrival he was sent directly to the gas chambers. For all the darkness surrounding its creation, however, the lasting impression left by the music is one of great courage and determination. The music itself, and the fact of its survival, is a remarkable testament to the tenacious spirit of Ullmann and his fellow prisoners. Its diversity of influences and materials represents a plea for tolerance that is still all too pertinent today.

Igor Stavinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka (1911 version)

Scene 1: The Shrove-tide fair
Scene 2: Petrushka’s cell
Scene 3: The Moor’s cell
Scene 4: The Shrove-tide fair (towards evening)

The Russian puppet-show Petrushka was a familiar fixture at the fairs of Stravinsky’s childhood. It was these he had in mind when he sketched an idea for a piece for piano and orchestra in 1910, in between his ballet The Firebird, and the next production he was due to write for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring.

Like many ancient national traditions, the show is a nineteenth century import. Petrushka himself is Russia's version of Mr Punch. The plot is essentially the same: the protagonist has a succession of confrontations with authority figures, all of whom he whacks with a large stick. Eventually he is tried and executed for murder, and goes to Hell. Diaghilev was taken by the music, and the idea of a production based around the carnivals, and asked Stravinsky to rework it as a ballet.

Anyone familiar with Stravinsky’s music will probably now be scratching their head, as the above plot bears very little resemblance to anything in the ballet. In fact, Stravinsky voiced the concern early on that librettist Alexandre Benois’s scenario for Petrushka contained very little Petrushka. What Benois (12 years older than Stravinsky) remembered most vividly from the carnivals of his youth were the Harlequinades – plays based on characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Thus Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina are in character closer to Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine than what Stravinsky remembered from his youth. The closest Petrushka comes to his traditional demeanour is in the second scene in his cell (which derives from Stravinsky’s initial sketches) and in the closing pages where Petrushka’s ghost appears – which may raise the question, is the final apparition a ghost, or the real Petrushka? This is only one element of a disturbing undercurrent of the ballet: puppets behave like people; people behave like puppets; and the audience, which finds itself viewing events from the perspective of both as well as its own, may wonder where it fits into the scheme of things.

The combination of Stravinsky’s music, the exotic setting of the Russian carnivals and the flamboyant production values of the Ballets Russes added up to an instant hit. Not everyone was pleased with the result: many Russian critics condemned Stravinsky for his stylistic experiments and appropriation of folk materials. They saw it as a debasement of the legacy of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is a curious reaction given that Stravinsky’s veneration of his teacher is written in every note, sometimes to a plagiaristic degree.

When Stravinsky emigrated to America in the 1940s, he rewrote and rescored a number of his early works, principally to be able to copyright them under US law, but in some cases the changes were quite radical. The latter incarnation of Petrushka is largely unchanged in its music, but the orchestration is radically altered: by slimming down his forces, Stravinsky gave the work a new and lucrative life as a concert work. However, when he came to re-record the ballet towards the end of his life, he performed Petrushka in its original garb: more extravagant and theatrical than its leaner, concert-hall oriented revision.

Synopsis

The curtain opens on the eve of the St. Petersburg Shrovetide fair, sometime in the 1830s. – we hear the cries of the sideshow barkers drumming up audiences and street songs sung by drunken revellers. A barrel organist accompanies himself on the cornet (a rather rude song about the actress Sandra Bernhardt that Stravinsky had heard on a barrel organ while staying in Beaulieu on the French Riviera) while a dancer joins in. At the other side of the stage, another dancer performs to a music-box.

Two drummers appear in front of a little theatre and attract the crowd’s attention. The Charlatan, an old conjuror, appears from behind the curtain. He plays his flute, and the curtain rises to reveal three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. The Charlatan brings them to life by touching them with his flute, and they dance.

Petrushka is thrown into his cell and the door is locked behind him. The puppets have been filled with human emotions by the Charlatan’s magic, and Petrushka most of all. He curses the Charlatan for imprisoning him, and suffers at the knowledge of his own ugliness. The Ballerina enters, and he attempts to woo her. But she is terrified and runs away. He flings himself at the wall in frustration.

In contrast, the Moor is vain and stupid. The Ballerina finds him attractive, however, and uses every trick in her book to seduce him. Just as she succeeds, Petrushka bursts in, mad with jealousy. The Moor throws him out.

Ouutside, it is now evening, and the carnival is in full swing. The wet-nurses dance. A peasant with a bear enters, and the crowd scatters. A merchant enters, with two girls on his arm. He throws bank-notes into the crowd as the girls dance to an accordion. The coachmen dance, joined by the wet-nurses. A group of mummers burst in, and their leader, dressed as the Devil, provokes the crowd into dancing with him.

The revels are interrupted by a commotion. Petrushka runs out of the theatre pursued by the Moor, who pulls out his sabre and strikes Petrushka down. The crowd falls silent in horror.

The Charlatan arrives. He picks up Petrushka and shakes him. Seeing that the corpse is only a puppet, the crowd disperse. As the Charlatan pulls the body back to the theatre, he looks up and sees Petrushka’s ghost, threatening and mocking him and everyone he has fooled.

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