Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Variations for Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg


The shadow of Arnold Schoenberg – a composer extravagantly praised and damned, but just as often misunderstood – looms over the whole last century of art music. The challenge he laid down, of composition with “twelve tones that are related only to each other,” proved to be among the most controversial artistic legacies of the century: a rupture with several centuries of tonality.  Ironically, while others frequently viewed him as a radical, Schoenberg saw himself as upholding the tradition of Western art music, an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary. In his own words: “I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”

Completed in 1928, the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, is a monumental work that shows the composer in both his guises: as traditionalist and as innovator. It is Schoenberg’s first orchestral work written using his serial technique; as such, its very sound could be strange and disorienting to listeners raised on tonality. However, its formal structure is almost comfortingly clear-cut. Though the Variations can sound mind-bendingly complex on first listen, it is divided into three discrete sections, which are quite easy to follow if you know where the “joints” are. A misty, atmospheric introduction sets the stage; the theme and variations section follows; and an extensive finale wraps things up.

The very lack of traditional tonal modulation drives Schoenberg’s lurid genius to its fullest expression. Deprived of one of the fundamental tools in a composer’s kit, he turns to alternate means of contrast and expression. Thus, the variations at the heart of the piece are distinguished by fantastic shifts of orchestral color, rhythm and texture. Full-blooded orchestral outbursts run up against delicate episodes of chamber music; stridency gives way to calm; a noisy streetscape cuts away to an elegant waltz, the music almost cinematic in its shifts of perspective. Schoenberg’s technique of Klangfarbenmelodie (splitting a melodic line among instruments to enrich the colour or texture), and the ongoing contrast between the full orchestra and smaller chamber-like ensembles within it, make the sheer sound of the Variations a source of constant wonderment.

The finale, coming after the nine variations that lie at the centre of the piece, can be viewed both as an additional, greatly expanded variation in its own right, and as a separate, culminating episode. The presiding spirit, hinted at in the introduction, is that of J.S. Bach – a quite explicit statement of Schoenberg’s respect for the tradition which he saw himself as upholding. This polyphonic finale makes use of both the main thematic material and the so-called BACH motif (in German musical notation, the notes B flat, A, C, and B natural).

Below is a recording of Variations for Orchestra followed by a brief listening guide

The music emerges out of the mists, accompanied by fluttering trills on the wind instruments. It rises to a congested climax where different forces seem to be contending, then relaxes into stasis. We hear passing hints at the BACH theme, which is to be so important in the finale.

After a pause the main theme appears (1:39). In its mid-range, cello-dominated sound, it forms a monochrome image from which pictures of riotous color will shortly be fashioned. It is followed by nine variations, which can be characterized briefly as: (1 – 2:44) nervous, spare and jumpy; (2 – 3:56) calm, canonic, and chamber-like in texture; (3 – 6:14) bright, rhythmically incisive, brassy, as if depicting a busy urban street; (4 – 7:03) elegant and dance-like, with notable contributions from woodwinds and solo violin; (5 – 8:24) forceful and marching, finishing off with powerful percussive blasts; (6 – 10:34) fragile and gentle, with slightly agitated solo work; (7 – 12:15) elegant and calm, underpinned by strong bassoon and oboe tone; (8 – 15:05) hard, frantic, and loud, ending with an industrial clatter of percussion; and the variations finish (9 – 15:41) with another shadowy, chamber-like affair.

The finale gets under way with a misty statement of the BACH theme (16:42). As it develops, that theme is stated repeatedly. Near the close, the music halts, and we hear a reminiscence of the variation theme (22:13), now clothed in gentle, ruminative orchestration, as if meditating on the turbulent events it has passed through. This gives way to a brief, crashing coda.

The linked performance is by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The Variations, being one of Schoenberg’s most important orchestral works, have been recorded by a number of internationally renowned conductors, such as Boulez, Barenboim and Mehta.

Another impressive take on the challenge of writing variations in an atonal format is Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra of 1955. Schoenberg’s own student Anton Webern applied the serial technique to symphonic processes in his spare, haiku-like Symphony, completed at about the same time as Schoenberg’s piece.

Artwork: Denken, Arnold Schoenberg

by Scott Spires

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Ralph Vaughan Williams


At its premiere in 1935, the 4th Symphony came as a shock to its listeners. The composer, by then over 60, had long been known as a leading figure of the English pastoral and folk revival school; he was also a musical programmist, whose first three symphonies evoked specific subjects (the sea, the city, and the countryside, respectively). But in the 4th Symphony, he broke with his previous approach by composing one of the tightest, most vehement and dissonant symphonies of the century, in an abstract form that lacked any programmatic intent.

With this work, Vaughan Williams stepped briefly into the ranks of the neoclassicists. This trend – principally associated with such European modernist masters as Stravinsky and Hindemith – involved the revival of the classical forms and procedures of Haydn, Beethoven, and other 18th-century composers, rejuvenated by the more dissonant language of the 20th century. None of its major adherents began their careers as neoclassicists: rather, they arrived at it after making their names with other (often quite radical) styles. Thus, neoclassicism is often reactionary in form and radical (or at least modernistic) in content.

It is in fact the form of Beethoven, if not quite his spirit, that is followed most closely here. Vaughan Williams’ structure reflects that of Beethoven’s 5th so closely that it almost sounds like a parody of its model. This is evident in such things as the brusque four-note motives that provide the basic thematic material for the symphony, and the ominous connecting passage from scherzo to finale. The relations of the movements in regard to form, duration and tempo are also remarkably similar. Both symphonies contain extended codas that work out the musical material exhaustively, but while Beethoven’s coda is an exhilarating rush to a triumphant finish, Vaughan Williams’ is a fugue that seems to rage in a confined space.

The overall impression of the symphony, then, is not one of progress toward a goal, but rather an abstract image of tightly channeled power and tension. If, as Goethe said, “architecture is frozen music,” then the 4th Symphony is a Bauhaus skyscraper, a sonic counterpart to those soaring, forbidding glass-and-steel structures. Some early listeners related the harshness of the music to the political state in Europe in the 1930s. The composer himself rejected any symbolic or programmatic meaning, and brushed away such claims with dismissive comments (“I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external… but simply because it occurred to me like this”). What the composer meant – if anything – is likely to be a matter of each listener’s personal interpretation.

Below is a recording of Symphony No. 4 in F Minor followed by a brief listening guide.

I. A powerful dissonance erupts from the orchestra; two four-note ideas arise from it, at 0:07 and 0:11 respectively. (The first motif is a transposed version of the BACH theme: B flat, A, C, B, here starting on D flat.) The hostilities continue with a high-strung, lamenting theme on the violins (1:00), followed by a menacing marching episode on horns (2:15), repeated by screaming trumpets to ratchet up the drama still further. The high level of volume and tension slackens for the first time at 3:32, only to build up again towards a shattering climax (4:21) and a recapitulation of the main material. Finally, the thunderous orchestral engine runs out of steam, and the music slips into an icy, exhausted coda (5:45).

II. The glacial mood continues as the slow movement begins (8:06). With its treading bass, aria-like main melody, and multiple woodwind solos, this austere movement sounds more baroque than classical. It divides neatly into two halves, with the break marked by a bassoon solo at 12:15. On two occasions (from 10:43 and 12:45, respectively) the icy calm is torn by orchestral eruptions, after which woodwind solos soothe the music back to its initial mood. A lonely flute solo (15:30) brings the music to a subdued close.

III. The scherzo brings back the pounding energy of the first movement (16:41). The opening four-note figures are prominent here, providing much of the rhythmic underpinning. The lumbering trio, a fine example of fugal counterpoint, gets under way at 18:57. The main scherzo material comes back (19:52), but instead of a coda, we hear a rumbling, murmuring bridge passage from 20:56, which builds up a great head of steam, until it emerges into…

IV. …the finale (21:39), announced by three crashing chords. This develops frenetically, into a kind of nightmarish military march. The second subject (22:43), brighter and less strident, comes in on violins. In a sudden strange turn, the music begins to run out of energy (23:35), like a dying battery. The first movement coda returns (24:12), like an interval of desolate sleep between episodes of frantic activity. This, however, soon gives way to an increase in tension, which rushes into the recapitulation (25:40). After further development, a loud declamation of the opening BACH theme transposition (27:04) announces the fugal coda, which sustains the high level of volume and stridency all the way to the end.

The linked recording is the one led by the composer himself, made only two years after the premiere. Of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, the 4th is the one that has proved most popular with non-British conductors, and there are noteworthy recordings by such figures as Bernstein, Mitropolous and Haitink. A personal favorite is Paavo Berglund’s: a swift and forceful version that strongly brings out the neo-classical aspects of the score. Other manifestations of Vaughan Williams’ dissonant, vehement side include his Piano Concerto (which also exists in a two-piano version), parts of the ballet Job, and the 6th Symphony.

The middle of the century brought forth a wonderful crop of neo-classical symphonies. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 are good pieces to explore next. An overlooked gem in the style is Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra of 1948.

Artwork: Job’s Evil Dreams, William Blake

by Scott Spires

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Bohuslav Martinů

queen of sheba

Among Czech composers, none was more cosmopolitan than Bohuslav Martinů. Though born in a tiny town in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in France and the United States, eventually dying in another small town, this time in Switzerland. As a result of his multiple residences and an amazing compositional facility, one can find in his oeuvre the most varied styles and influences: from Czech folklore to hot jazz, from neo-classicism to neo-baroque, from the romanticism of Dvořák to the impressionism of Debussy. Throughout all these changes, however, his personal style remained remarkably distinctive: a mixture of rhythmic vitality, bittersweet folk-influenced melodies, and colorful, percussive scoring.

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca was completed in 1955, during an extraordinary last decade in which he embraced a style of seemingly free-form, yet structured, composition. This orchestral triptych was inspired by Martinů’s viewing of the title paintings in a church in Arezzo, Italy: a cycle of frescoes entitled Legend of the True Cross. Martinů did not intend for his music to be descriptive or programmatic, but rather to evoke a certain mood inspired by the paintings: “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colors creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful and moving poetry.” The sonic world of Frescoes is luminous and fluid, yet punctuated by intense outbursts; Martinů’s vast range of orchestral colors forms a fitting counterpart to the style of the Renaissance painter.

From the point of view of musical structure, what is most interesting is the kaleidoscopic approach that Martinů follows in this work (which became standard for him in his last decade). Usually, a piece begins with a certain theme or motif, and then continues via a series of freely developed, flowing episodes (which may or may not be related to the opening theme), until it reaches a terminus somewhere remote from the opening. At that point, the opening returns to complete the cycle, and is developed further in a different direction, leading to the coda. The return of the opening is reminiscent of the recapitulation in standard sonata-form structure, but due to the distance it has travelled and the fluidity of the musical processes, its return is less expected; the experience is like running into an old friend in an unfamiliar environment. This process plays out clearly in The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Below is a recording of The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca followed by a brief listening guide

I: Andante poco moderato. The opening movement was largely inspired by the painting Procession of the Queen of Sheba. The music begins with two Martinů hallmarks: a swirling, diaphanous orchestral sound, and a long-short-long rhythm that haunted him throughout his career. This leads to a brassy, percussive climax (1:19), which flows into the first of the piece’s characteristic broad, soaring melodies (1:33). The music grows softer and more contemplative (3:00), and delicate solos on English horn (3:33) and other instruments announce the terminus of the initial material. The opening returns (4:24); material is repeated until an abrupt break (5:27) announces that the coda is upon us. A long melody brings this movement to a placid finish.

II: Adagio. The inspiration for this slow movement was Constantine’s Dream, in which an angel assures the future Roman emperor he will triumph in battle by following the sign of the cross. It opens with a march-like theme on woodwinds. The music begins to “swirl,” taking on an air of mystery. A viola solo (1:18) marks the piece’s sole explicit programmatic element: according to Martinů, it is intended to depict a trumpet announcing the call to battle. Around 1:40, the music reaches a rapturous climax on the march theme, crowned by brilliant trumpets. From here, after the march dies down, we pass through a series of highly contrasting episodes: an interlude of calm (3:22); a radiant polyphonic fantasy (3:47); and another long, romantic melody (4:20). A quiet coda, featuring harp and English horn (5:28), expires with soft taps on the timpani.

III: Poco allegro. A choppy melody in woodwinds launches the final movement, which expresses Martinů’s response to two paintings showing scenes of battle. The music slows, and another radiant “endless melody” takes over (0:56). A sense of crisis develops (2:22), with a quick increase in dramatic tension; a trumpet call caps this episode. As in the first movement, the opening returns (3:17), and the material that followed it is repeated until the coda begins. A powerful climax, marked by roaring brass and luminous strings (4:08), gives way to a feeling of rapture as the music fades out.

This recording of Frescoes is by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. The classic recording of this piece was made a few years after its premiere, by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic; it is available on the Supraphon label.

Other masterpieces of Martinů’s last decade that display this rhapsodic, kaleidoscopic style include his 6th Symphony (Fantaisies symphoniques), the orchestral work Parables, and one of his very last works, the Nonet. For another attempt to capture the essence of painting in sound, listen to Hindemith’s symphony Mathis der Maler, an essential 20th-century orchestral work inspired by the art of another Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald

Artwork: The Queen of Sheba (Scene 2), Piero della Francesca

by Scott Spires

The Well-Tuned Piano, La Monte Young

Ding Yi Shi-Shi

The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.

So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informative articles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.

The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.

Below is a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano followed by a brief listening guide

To accompany a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano with any sort of systematic listening guide would perhaps be somewhat antithetical to the music’s sense of stasis and lack of narrative development. It doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the piece in one sitting (a herculean task) and its steadily shifting textures do not demand – although they generously reward – attentive listening. The piece oscillates, albeit slowly, between sparse inactivity and frenetic activity, with Young conjuring expansive tone-clouds from the piano (the first beginning at around 5:50 in the first video above).

The recording above is performed by La Monte Young in 1981, released on the Gramavision label. Sadly, this edition is now out of print and no recording of the piece is currently available.

La Monte Young is often labelled as a minimalist composer, along with numerous other American composers of his generation. For more conventional examples of minimalism’s repetitive, yet steadily unfolding, musical structures, try Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964).

Artwork: Shi-Shi, Ding Yi

by Thomas May

Piano Quintet, Alfred Schnittke

Aleksey Savrasov - Winter

Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet was completed in 1976. Coming one year after the death of fellow Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Schnittke’s work shares much in terms of atmosphere and compositional strategy with a number of the former’s late works (particularly the Viola Sonata and 15th String Quartet), which impress as apparent meditations on the composer’s looming demise. The impulse behind the quintet was, however, a death that had already taken place: that of the composer’s mother. In this, Schnittke hearkens back to Anton Webern, who composed his Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) early in the century as a reflection on his own mother’s death.

Though he passed through several phases in his career, Schnittke was probably most famous for his polystylistic approach, creating stylistic clashes by mixing musics of different genres and historical periods. In the quintet, however, his approach is quite restrained; there is little to break the obsessive, dissonant gloom of the five movements. In its overall structure, the quintet charts a progression from dark, almost impersonal despair to an ambiguous evocation of memory, life, and perhaps faint hope.

The five movements of the quartet contain very little fast music. It begins moderato and ends moderato, with the third and fourth movements marked andante and lento respectively (that is, two varieties of “slow”). What passes for sprightly music here is also the quintet’s main nod to polystylism: in the second movement, a distorted waltz comes crashing into the desolate music, only to dissipate its energies as it becomes louder and more insistent.

Another dramatic stroke is provided by the obsessively repeated passacaglia theme in the finale. It is hauntingly non-specific: is this an echo of folksong, of some kind of mechanical music, or of something religious? (The orchestrated version of the quintet, titled In Memoriam, suggests the last possibility by setting this tune for organ.) This theme comes as a slight shock after the third and fourth movements, which chart a process of disintegration as the music steadily becomes more fragmented and athematic. Schnittke seemed to view these two movements as the dark heart of the work; he said that they “are based upon situations of genuine grief, about which I wish to say nothing because they are of a highly personal nature and can only be devalued by words.”

Despite the passing, flickering signs of life, the overall impression left behind by the quintet is one of gloom and quiet despair. This mood was destined to become more and more dominant in Schnittke’s work, reaching its apex in his own late works of the 1990s. Composed while Schnittke had been disabled by a series of strokes, they reach extraordinary depths in their bleakness and sense of disorientation – a feeling embodied most starkly in the fragmented rumblings and shrieks of the quintet’s fourth movement.

Below is a recording of Piano Quintet accompanied by a brief listening guide.

I. The piano opens the piece playing solo, with a 5-note theme that will recur in every movement. The strings only enter with the same theme (2:31) after the piano has developed it thoroughly. Another structural element, in the form of a single repeated note on the piano, makes its initial appearance (3:26). The music grows in density until it reaches a climactic “plateau” at 4:15, then gradually fades on the repeated note.

II. Weakly, the strings drag the incipient waltz theme up from the depths (6:40). It becomes clearer, then yet more so when the piano enters. An increasingly dissonant exchange between piano and strings leads to a break in the tension at 7:50, and a momentary respite from the waltz. The 5-note theme returns (9:00) and is developed to a climax;  it is joined by the waltz theme (9:48); a climax is reached (10:54), which then fades until the end of the movement.

III. The 5-note theme is back, this time stretched out slowly (12:28). The piano enters; a subdued mood prevails, though the strings begin making an odd buzzing noise, like flies (13:30). A stark theme, playing off high versus low registers, plays on the piano. The buzzing leads to a climactic plateau (15:30), then fades away. The obsessive single note returns, followed by a shriek in the strings. The single note continues while the cello intones the 5-note theme in a low register. High strings at loud volume mark the last climax of the movement (17:06); the single note takes over again, and the movement ends with the repeated thudding of the piano pedal (18:34).

IV. The grim, static opening on strings (18:49) highlights the athematic character of this movement. The piano enters. At 19:47, string pizzicati evoke the quartets of Bartok or Shostakovich. Loud strings, still lacking any thematic material, scream in a void (20:15). An increase in volume leads, finally, to an iteration of the opening theme (21:28). From about 21:50   onwards, we hear the climactic point of the entire piece: a contest between the ferocious buzzing of the strings and thunderous piano chords, followed by the obsessive repeated piano note. Which fades into

V. the passacaglia theme of the finale, intoned on the piano (23:19). Played 14 times, this theme now provides an unchanging background for a procession of the main ideas from previous movements. The main theme comes in at 23:57; the waltz then puts in a brief appearance (24:32); the distended opening of the third movement is referenced at 24:50; then the static of the fourth movement (25:00); and the procession ends with the opening theme again, played in a high register, with strained effect (25:22). The piano closes the proceedings with the final, fading iterations of the passacaglia theme.

The YouTube performance comes from the 2011 Utrecht Chamber Music Festival. The Piano Quintet is one of Schnittke’s most-recorded works, and a variety of recommendable versions exists. For those who want to put a toe in the Schnittke waters, budget label Naxos has two different recordings of the piece.

The Piano Quintet also exists in an orchestration entitled In Memoriam. Many of Schnittke’s later works, such as the 3rd and 4th String Quartets, the ballet score Peer Gynt, and his final three completed symphonies (6-8), inhabit much the same world of feeling, and use many of the same techniques, as the Quintet.

For another take on grief and remembrance from that part of the world, making use of many of the same effects at Schnittke, listen to Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa (1999), written for his recently deceased wife.

Artwork: Winter, Aleksey Savrasov

by Scott Spires

Recitativo oscuro, Salvatore Sciarrino

Kandinsky Composition VIII

The music of Salvatore Sciarrino doesn’t just interrogate our strictly musical expectations, it probes the very boundaries of aural and temporal perception. Conjuring cavernous voids punctuated sparingly by fleeting outbursts of instrumental colour, the Italian composer confronts the listener with stretches of inactivity so vast that the sheer absence of event begins to imbue a near-excruciating sense of tension and urgency to his music. Such prominent use of silence is intended, in Sciarrino’s own words, to “put pressure on the ear”, ushering us into an almost meditative state of awareness in which all sounds, even those of our bodies, take on a revelatory significance. And this acute attunement to the corporeal is mirrored in the textures of the music: often centred around a heartbeat-like throb of a bass drum, Sciarrino’s sound-world seems as tied to the natural and the physical as it is to the ethereal.

Completed in 1999, Recitativo oscuro traverses the shadowy soundscapes common to the composer’s orchestral work: the music remains veiled and elusive throughout, rarely rising above a hesitant pianissimo. Yet, the piece is perhaps one of his least esoteric; a piano concerto of sorts, Recitativo oscuro avoids complete abstraction by virtue of the focal point provided by the instrument which sits in the foreground of the musical texture. The accompanying orchestra is largely used to create a sonic context for the piano’s music, cloaking its angular motifs in an intoxicating, translucent gauze of sound; as such, the piano serves to signpost the journey through Sciarrino’s amorphous sound-world, transforming the hushed textures of the orchestra into something remarkably approachable.

Recitativo oscuro is bestowed with further drama in live performance; the spectacle of such a large orchestra exuding only the most tentative, muted sonorities provides a fitting visual counterpoint to the music. Constantly threatening a climactic resolution that remains tantalisingly unrealised, this piece is haunted by ominous absences, defined as much by that which goes unheard – the spaces between and around its clusters of sound – as by the sounds themselves. Recitativo oscuro courses with colossal yet dormant power: a static and expansive piece that seems perpetually to point beyond itself – to other sounds, to other ways of listening.

Below is a recording of Recitativo oscuro accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Recitativo oscuro is cast in a single, slowly unfolding movement; however, for the purposes of this brief guide, it will be helpful to break the piece down into three sub-sections. The first passage (until 2:37) is dominated by the piano with tentative interjections from the orchestra. The piano’s music in this section, whilst erratic, is centred around the two chord motif heard at the opening of the piece. At 2:37 a low, rumbling beat enters – a bass drum skirted by the tapping of the keys of woodwind instruments – which forms the basis of the second section (2:37-11:41). This passage has a simple construction: howling woodwinds rise and fall atop the continual beat with the piano appearing only fleetingly, seemingly disconnected from the orchestral backdrop. A particularly striking moment comes when an outburst from the piano and brass (10:44) leaves the beat distorted, almost frayed (first heard at 10:50). The final passage begins as 11:41, following another eruption from the piano. In this section, the bass drum is stripped of its adorning woodwinds, receding to the edge of audibility, whilst the piano becomes increasingly agitated. The piece closes with a passage of call and response between piano and orchestra (beginning 14:45), perhaps the only instance of sustained interaction between the two, culminating at 15:45 with the orchestra’s insistent repetition of a single chord as the piano plays frantic, circling figures.

The fine recording above is performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, conducted by Tito Ceccherini and with Daniele Pollini at the piano. The performance is available on the Kairos label as part of a comprehensive 3 CD set of Sciarrino’s orchestral works.

To delve further into Sciarrino’s shadowy sound-world, the early orchestral work Variazioni (1974) and the flute concerto Frammento e Adagio (1991) are both highly recommended. A more expressive side to the composer’s music is revealed by Macbeth (2002), an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The music of German composer Helmut Lachenmann is similar to Sciarrino’s in its sparse textures; the skeletal Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung) (1982) is a fascinating, if somewhat unforgiving, listen.

Artwork: Composition VIII, Wassily Kandinsky

by Thomas May

Asyla, Thomas Adès

kush, sunrise

It would be easy to forgive the critics who patriotically claimed Thomas Adès as the next Benjamin Britten, despite the composer’s squeamishness at the honour. By the age of 26, having rebelled against many of high modernism’s inflexible, academic ways of composing, Adès had already forged a highly individual end-of-century mainstream, full of postmodern wit and historical irony. Perhaps Britain’s historical lack of musical genius has provided him with a (not undeserved) fame usually reserved for dead composers. Asyla (1997) encompasses echoes of intoxicating late-Romanticism, a compelling, breathless narrative amid violent contrasts, and a grotesque orchestral reimagining of dance music, all while pursuing a single, elemental figure. The typically Adèsian wordplay of the title (implying places both of rest and for the mentally unstable) neatly captures the subversive tone of the piece.

An almost universal reaction to Asyla and to Adès’ oeuvre in general is his uncanny ability to make something simple sound strange and elusive – a basic interval or chord becomes a mass of possibilities, each pursued to its logical extremes. His music is characterised by the extreme organicism of his approach to development, the magnetic attraction he finds between two notes; notably when the chaconne-like harmonisation of the principal melody of the first movement begins to take on a life of its own, creating a complex, spiralling structure with the theme, or the bass oboe tune in the second movement which reframes the same intervals in an endlessly fascinating harmonic kaleidoscope.

The orchestra itself is here reimagined as a universe of colouristic extremes. Adès’ textural hallmark is being able to “compose in” an acoustic to the fabric of the music itself; the electrical energy of a city seems hard-wired into the potent orchestration of Asyla, just as his string quartet Arcadiana is acoustically infused with the simplicity of another age, making the quartet seem as though they are playing outdoors in an Arcadian country landscape.

There has always been a touch of the anti-establishment about Adès; an ability to be subversive in very public places. His eloquent critique of cliché and suspicion of generic formulae has long been a feature of his work; indeed he often cites his aversion to Wagner and Brahms for these reasons (see his witty “anti-homage” Brahms). He admits that “reality is always going to leak into the work to some extent” – questioning the basic premises of music, exposing the latent absurdity and surrealism of the art form (well suited to the idea of exploring these musical ‘madhouses’) is a key component of his musical mind. In terms of both form and content, the music perceptibly strikes a careful balance between extra-musical, cyclical, worldly experience, and a fantasia-like exploration of the subjective, musical ‘world of extension’. The work’s formal ambiguities and ceaseless musical argument raise many more questions than answers, leaving the listener enraptured by Adès’ unique and visionary world.

Below is a recording of Asyla, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

An ethereal introduction scored for cowbells and a piano tuned a quarter-tone flat prefigures the entry of the spectral, distant theme in muted horns at 0:45. Several intertwining melodic lines fight for attention before a fusion of the introduction and first theme at 2:38, with strands of leftover melody in the piccolo. An apotheosis of the omnipresent theme appears at 4:44, after parallel developments of the opening harmonic sequence supposedly based on Couperin.

The enigmatic second movement opens with a theme that Adès describes as “a knight’s move away from how a melody might normally work”, seductively scored for bass oboe (0:32). These hypnotic, descending two-note cells grow into passage for full orchestra before a magical moment of stasis at 2:43, where memories of the first movement’s emotional language of dissonance intrude. 4:37 looks both forwards and backwards, with an outburst prefiguring the third movement, just as the ‘knight’s move’ theme has lulled itself into the background, before we are left with thematic and harmonic debris to close the movement.

Adès wanted the third movement to “evoke the atmosphere of a massive nightclub with people dancing and taking drugs”, hence the double meaning of its title Ecstasio. Characterised by manic repetition, fragments of techno parody eventually cohere at 1:55. It is not hard to imagine the journey through the club, which is advanced very cinematically at moments such as 2:50 (and in all its glory at 4:20) leading to a climax quoting from the end of Act II of Parsifal. The atmosphere is all the more compelling because it crosses the threshold from the abstract “asyla” of the first two movements into the real (or surreal) world.

The finale is an aerial view of the whole piece, beginning with several frozen tableaux (an expressively dissonant wind duet at 1:11, and a ghostly, veiled piano solo at 1:42). In the footsteps of his hero Janáček, the movement is built on nothing more than a variant of standard ternary form, but richly patterned to form something very personal. 3:37 leads to a final, tempestuous search for the meaning of the opening figure, suggesting a circular resolution – a haven even – but one tinged with harmonic instability, neatly encapsulating the dichotomy at the heart of the work.

This fine recording is a product of the long-standing partnership of Adès and Simon Rattle, here conducting the CBSO. Rattle’s releases of his later music with the Berlin Philharmonic are similarly immaculate.

Adès has so far been influenced by an eclectic range of musics in his relatively short career. Tevot, written a decade after Asyla, is another creative summing-up of his formal inventiveness and ear for orchestral colour, and his Violin Concerto Concentric Paths is a thrilling exploration of the nature of musical form. The work of Julian Anderson, also at the forefront of young British composers, is similarly evocative and open-minded.

Artwork: Sunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

by Joel Sandelson

Coro, Luciano Berio

gottlieb Ochre and Black [cropped]

Italian composer Luciano Berio is perhaps best known for his large-scale 1969 piece Sinfonia. Scored for orchestra and voices, the work’s third movement is a post-modern melting pot of disparate musical and literary references; centred around a quote from Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the movement flourishes into an intricate, and often humorous, collage of musical “samples” that, to the modern listener, eerily foreshadows the dense bricolage of late 1980s hip hop production. Completed in 1977, Berio’s longest concert work, Coro, likewise comprises an intertextual web of references, yet this later piece is an altogether sterner prospect, devoid of the irreverent playfulness that characterised Sinfonia.

Coro is scored for a large ensemble — consisting of forty-four instrumentalists and forty singers — and its libretto comprises a variety of texts, mostly taken from the folk traditions of a range of different cultures. Yet, rather than pursuing the amusing juxtapositions of Sinfonia, Berio integrates this diverse array of source material into a mosaic of abstracted human expression; displaying his fascination with the theories of French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, Berio constructs, as John Fallas has called it, “a structuralist matrix of words and themes” (“woman, red, dance, song, death…”) which take on increasingly nuanced meanings as the piece progresses. Based as it is around such brief snippets of text, Coro proceeds as a series of miniatures (thirty-one all told) which collide in an erratic and volatile stream of consciousness. Yet, despite the absence of an obvious overarching structure, there are a number of elements deployed to prevent the music from spinning off into incomprehensibility; the piano is often foregrounded, acting as a guide through the work’s labyrinthine design, and a recurring text (“venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”, taken from the poetry of Pablo Neruda) is used to signpost key moments in the piece. Certainly, Coro is overwhelming and disorienting but never excessively so: there is a communicative thrust lurking beneath its chaotic multiplicity.

In live performances of the work, each of Coro’s forty singers is situated next to an instrumentalist, integrating the traditionally segregated entities of orchestra and choir. As the piece progresses, this blurring of boundaries takes on a symbolic function, a visual representation of Coro’s erosion of the binary categories that frame musical perception. Through the sophisticated interplay of the voices and instruments, intertwined as a single body, Coro glides seamlessly between the intimate and the expansive. At the opening of the piece, an elegant duet for soprano and piano is gradually enveloped in a mesh of competing melodic voices; the once imminent sounds receding into the distance, obscured behind a dense fog of urgent expression. Indeed, throughout the entirety of Coro, singular melodic lines bleed together to form vast harmonic blocks, accumulating into colossal, static clouds of sound as individual voices become subsumed completely, inseparable from the resultant outpouring. As such, this is a piece exploring the viability of intense individual expression within the bewildering chaos and noise of the modern world: a theme that finds little resolution in the midst of Coro’s ambiguous and heady swirl of sound.

Below is a recording of Coro accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Coro is segmented into thirty-one distinct passages, although these miniatures can be heard to combine into three larger sections.

The first section (until 18:43) opens with a stately duet for soprano and piano, gradually joined by other vocalists. A sudden orchestral outburst at 4:34 introduces the Pablo Neruda text to which the piece will return on a number of occasions. Only a snippet is heard at this point, but the full text is stated later at 8:40, following another orchestral tutti: “venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”. The section closes with a hypnotic, rhythmically vitalised section beginning at 14:50, interrupted midway (15:54-16:18) by another statement of the Neruda text.

The second section (18:43-41:13) begins with another statement of “venid a ver la sangre” before opening out into an intimate duet between tenor and cello at 19:07. A melancholic alto, joined by piano and woodwinds (21:35-22:22), introduces another rhythmic section which expands ever outwards from the insistent piano figure at its foundation. Listen out for the eccentric vocal flourishes beginning at 25:20 and the metronomic percussion that anchors the expressive, meandering melodic lines at both 34:46-36:00 and 38:15-39:18.

The final section (from 41:13) closes Coro in enigmatic fashion, allowing the piece to recede into ambiguity rather than providing any sense of closure. Opening with an elegant a cappella passage, the section draws to a close as the almost drunken expressions in the brass (52:00-52:50) melt away into the muted sigh of the Coro’s final moments.

The recording above is available on the Brilliant Classics label, conducted by Berio himself and performed by the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Another fine recording is conducted by Leif Segerstam, released on Orfeo D’Or label.

If Coro presents something of an uncompromising introduction to this seminal composer, Berio’s numerous concertos provide more forgiving entry-points into his sound-world; the piano concerto Points on a curve to find (1974) and the violin concerto Corale (1981) both come highly recommended. For another work exploring the simultaneously intimate and expansive potential of different vocal groupings, try György Ligeti’s Requiem (1965).

Artwork: Ochre and Black, Adolph Gottlieb

by Thomas May

Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen

Kline Mahoning 1956 [cropped]

The story of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941)’s genesis is widely known, oft repeated, but what is often ignored in the telling is the remarkable nature of what was produced, given what one would have expected in the circumstances. Born in the midst of war, death, frost and famine, the Quartet, though explicitly apocalyptic, is not a fiery Requiem, striving to translate divine wrath, but rather an intensely devotional, transcendent composition, that reaches a realm in which such worldly troubles matter little, or not at all.

Imprisoned in the Stalag VIIIA German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in the winter of 1941, the young and brilliant French composer Olivier Messiaen, then in his thirties but already of considerable reputation, had the good fortune to encounter a guard who lent him paper and pencils and a secluded place to work. Three other musicians – a cellist, a clarinetist, and a violinist, were also imprisoned, and Messiaen thus composed a quartet for those instruments and a piano for him: an unusual combination, but not unheard of. It was the Quartet for the End of Time, where ‘Time’ playfully referred both to the world’s end, but also the end of time as meter: indeed the Quartet does away with strict rhythmic meter almost entirely, drifting as it does in a cosmic stillness.

Messiaen was inspired by a dream of his, drawn from the King James version’s Book of Revelation, which he transcribed in the score’s preface: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth… And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished.”

Played in the chilly night for the prisoners and the German guards, Messiaen’s meditative chamber suite was received with rapt silence: “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding,” he later recalled. So impressed was his guard patron that Messiaen was smuggled back to Paris to continue his work. It is little surprise, for the Quartet is one of the most remarkable compositions of the twentieth century. A deeply committed Catholic, Messiaen composed not a lament of war or death, or a bitter strike at oppression, but instead a paean to the world beyond (and above) of transcendence, redemption, and even, of joy.

Messiaen composed eight movements for the Quartet, seven for the days of creation, with an eighth for the eternity after. The eternal is a leitmotif of the piece: we catch glimpses of its gentle stillness in the first movement (the ‘Liturgy of Crystal’), and the cello and violin solos of movements five and eighth strive for it as a soul might in its ascension. The Quartet cannot but be understood in religious terms, nor would Messiaen have wished it to be interpreted otherwise. And indeed, I doubt even the most worldly of us can endure the haunting sublimity of the final movement (‘Praise to the immortality of Jesus’) without feeling momentarily detached from all that is concrete.

Below is a recording of the Quartet for the End of Time, followed by a brief listening guide.

I. Liturgie de cristal: The ‘liturgy of crystal’, which introduces the full quartet, is intended to evoke both the early morning strains of birdsong (the blackbird of the clarinet at 0:00, and nightingale of the violin at 0:10), as well as a brief glimpse into the sounds of paradise. Notice immediately the rhythm-less suspension of the movement’s sinewy melodies. The cello, meanwhile, plays circular, five-note melody, eternally repeating.

II. Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: The second movement introduces the angel who announces the end of Time. Here, the cascading piano chords of the angel’s presence (at 0:00 and 5:20), brackets the eternal stillness of heaven (0:47).

III. Abîme des oiseaux: At a funereal pace, the clarinet alone here depicts the melancholy abyss of time (0:00), until (at 2:21) the birds are announced, whose playful, jubilant warbles entirely negate the previous mood. Extremely minimalist for its time, much of the beauty here is in the texture of the clarinet’s voicing.

IV. Intermède: For violin, cello and clarinet, the short scherzo interlude is recalls some melodies of the second movement before (0:35) shifting into a rather playful, melodic chamber tune (though not for long). Again, the birdsong in the clarinet part is evident.

V. Louange à l’éternité de Jésus: The first of the two haunting louanges (‘prayers’), the sixth movement reflects on the eternal Word of Jesus, played by the duet cello and piano. The cello’s reverent melodic phrase (0:00) – whose tempo is literally marked as ‘infinitely slow’ – is answered by gentle, reassuring piano chords (0:22). Messiaen wrote that the melody “stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance.” The cello’s final, fading notes ends with a sense of infinite yearning (7:11).

VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes: Sidestepping harmony entirely, and with jagging rhythms, the full quartet here plays a ‘dance of fury’ in striking unison, recalling the seven trumpets that announce the apocalypse. Messiaen wrote of a “Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness.” Note the growing wrath, culminating in the explosive restatement (at 5:09 and again briefly at 6:03).

VII. Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: A ‘tangle of rainbows’ announces the reappearance of the Angel, cloaked in clouds, in the seventh movement, recalling the second. The early leading melody is the cello’s, with the swirling cloud wisps of the piano (both at 0:00), though this is interrupted by cascading piano chords and violent string/clarinet interjections at 1:40. The thud of the piano (7:06) ends the movement (and Time?) abruptly.

VIII. Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus: The second louange, this one to Jesus as man and flesh, replaces the cello’s line in the fifth movement with the more delicate violin. Of the melody, Messiaen wrote that its “slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.” Words fail in describing its power, though it might well be the most arresting lines ever composed. The yearning height of the fifth movement is reached in the violin’s ascent at 6:56… and then, at 7:41, transcended into the eternal.

The recording above is superb, arguably peerless RCA edition, recorded in 1989 – another end to another time – by the Tashi Quartet’s Peter Serkin (Piano), Ida Kavafian (Violin), Fred Sherry (Cello), and Richard Stoltzman (Clarinet), which is still widely available. There are some twenty recordings available, another highlight of which is the EMI Classics edition presided by none other than Messiaen’s wife and creative partner Yvonne Loriod.

Messiaen was immensely prolific composer, and any recommended selections cannot be possibly be taken to be representative, but most and justifiably celebrated alongside the quartet is Theme and Variations (1931) for violin and piano. The decidedly more bombastic Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8) provides another side of his work altogether. For a sense of history, another vibrant and near-contemporaneous take on the chamber quartet, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet (1944), is of interest.

Artwork: Mahoning, Franz Kline

by Simon Torracinta

Tranquil Abiding, Jonathan Harvey

Xu Bing - Tianshu [cropped]

An obsession with the human voice was a central project in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly passed away this week. It was a preoccupation present right from his first explorations of acoustic and electronic borders at the Paris music research institute IRCAM – the brainchild of Pierre Boulez. Harvey’s 1980 tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I lament the dead, I call the living) delved into the particular sonorities of Winchester Cathedral’s Great Bell and his chorister son’s voice – a soundworld where spiritual boundaries met submerged acoustics via groundbreaking digital synthesis. Nearly two decades later, emerging from a period of intense research at Stanford University’s Centre for Composition Research into Music and Acoustics, Harvey’s ecstatic approach to aural shape-shifting elevated the voice to orchestral grandeur.

The voluminous power of sound crosses from instrumental expression towards the voice at its most primal in Harvey’s pulsating 1998 essay, Tranquil Abiding, written for chamber orchestra and extended percussion. Organic symbolism is given physical life as a backdrop of oscillating chordal movement – inhalation and exhalation blown up to universal proportions – while timbral life flickers across the surface. Fractured melody is streaked through this perpetual breath, before drifting into cathartic resonance. The title, described by Harvey as “a state of single-pointed concentration”, is typical of how eastern philosophy infuses his music.

The seminal influences of Stockhausen’s musical mysticism and the electronic soundscapes that Harvey encountered while at Princeton during the 1970s, combined with a personal and intensified spiritual shift to the East, pushed his music out of the confines of the British canon towards a state of “Gregorian Paradise” – a strange meeting of plainchant and Tibetan ritual. Within Harvey’s interest in rendering emotional issues strange by digital technology was a great paradox. Here the electronic world had become a way of discarding the obsession with suffering inherent to 19th century music, reaching for a pure land beyond.

And yet despite its evocation of transcendent realms, the articulation of chant and intense radiance, Harvey’s music has always been a far cry from New Age escapism or the minimalist oases of Arvo Pärt’s “new simplicity”. Writing tonal music “fills me with dread”, the composer once said. Tranquil Abiding’s elongation of soundscapes and unravelling of facades inhabits a complex environment. Buddhist conceptions make a perfect fit for Harvey’s spectralism, where sound is exposed in all its minutiae: “the materiality of the sound itself…the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of sound”.

Below is a recording of Tranquil Abiding accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Over the course of its 15 minutes, Tranquil Abiding sustains a continuous inhale/exhale structure of held crescendos and lowered decrescendos. The cavernous string motif emerges (0:00), around which the texture increasingly fills (0:46). The breathing grows in climactic force as the orchestra literally works in organic unison. Across this, independent woodwind (1:20) orbit, come loose and expand into rhythmic flourishes (2:50). Fragmentation over textural passivity builds into sharp frenzied song (3:08). By 4:20, the extended percussion of Harvey’s orchestration, complete with oriental bells and gongs, breaks through. This language of symbolic oscillation and sharp expression is stretched out, in a masterclass of orchestral colour, peaking at 11:55 and closing in radiant catharsis at 13:30 with the sound of plucked strings and rustling bamboo.

The above recording for the NMC label comes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, on a Buddhist ritual-infused set that also features the song cycle White as Jasmine and Body Mandala’s exploration of the sound of Tibetan low horns.

Harvey’s opera, Wagner Dream, premiered in 2007, is a work of totemic significance. Its dual inspirations – Wagner and Buddhist philosophy – blur the boundaries of geography and thought, in a spectral drama filled with Harvey’s most oppositional music.

Artwork: Tianshu, Xu Bing

by En Liang Khong


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