On the trail of . . . Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt

January 08, 2017

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

It is still quite easy to imagine walking in the footsteps of Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt, a small town in the Austrian Burgenland, less than 50 km south-east of Vienna. Eisenstadt was the principal residence of the Esterházy family, whom Haydn served for more than four decades, and it was here that he created much of a vast catalogue of musical compositions.

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary. Photo 1772-3 attrib Grundmann, painted C Peel

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary

Walking a few steps beyond the palace, to the left of my photo above, you can find the Margaretinum.  It’s now a parish centre and, before that, a convent.  Even earlier, the building housed an apartment where the young Haydn lived with his wife in the early 1760s, when he was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy.

Next door lies the Bergkirche where Haydn played the organ. His remains have lain in its crypt for almost two centuries. Sad to recount, Haydn’s corpse has only been reunited with its skull for a little over a quarter of this time . . . . . . maybe more of this gruesome tale in a later post.
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A few minutes walk in the opposite direction, behind the buildings to the right above, there’s the Joseph Haydngasse – which was known as the Klostergasse in Haydn’s day.

No. 21 is the house that Haydn bought in 1766 once he was feeling confident in his future, having taken over the full Kapellmeistership of the Esterházy court.

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Haydn and his wife lived upstairs, with his copyist Johann Elssler and pupils occupying a former stable on the ground floor.

The Haydn-Haus has been a museum since 1935. Its scope increased significantly after 1998 when the neighbouring property was acquired and carefully restored to allow for more display space.

Its eight rooms aim to give a picture of Haydn and his times in a chronological sequence.

There’s a fine looking Anton Walter piano from 1780, believed to have been used by Haydn. Sadly, I couldn’t find a way of  laying a finger upon it.

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

A standout, for me, is a craquelé porcelain bust made by Anton Grassi, for which Haydn sat in 1799 and again in 1802. This comes closest to the mental picture of the composer that I have built up for myself over the years through reading about the man and listening to the music.

 

Autograph scores, original letters and early printed scores which were formerly in the museum now appear to have been moved.

 

An exhibition Haydn and the Women: 12 stories about music and love coyly delves into Haydn’s sex life, without saying anything that’s new.

 

 Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Haydn married Maria Anna Theresia Keller, daughter of a wigmaker, in 1760 having first fallen in love with her sister, destined for a nunnery.

Unlike Mozart, who similarly first fell for the wrong sister a generation later, Haydn did not have a happy marriage.
Both Haydns had affairs and there were no children.
The Haydns were to remain together until Maria Anna’s death in 1800.

Her affair was with the court painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn.

His was (mainly) with the soprano Luigia Polzelli, hired with her violinist husband for the Esterháza opera in 1779, fired by Prince Nicolaus in 1780, but almost immediately reinstated (for the remaining decade of the relationship) at Haydn’s request.

Haydn wrote just one role for Luigia’s limited talents. He did, however, spend much time adapting, rewriting and arranging arias in operas by other composers that were presented in the busy Esterháza season, to best display her way with music described as “light, ironic and charming.”

Haydn is believed to have been the father of her son Antonio. He provided for the young violinist in his will and Antonio’s daughter, in turn, maintained that she was Haydn’s grand daughter.

 

 City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

Along with the house at Klostergasse 21, the Haydns acquired several plots of land, including a “kitchen garden behind the hospital,” beyond the city walls.

Needless to say “Secrets from Mrs. Haydn’s Garden” is now a tourist attraction in itself, by ticket only.

An inventory drawn up following one of the two fires that damaged the Haydn-Haus during the 12 years that Haydn lived there reveals that he raised pigs and chickens received as part of his salary in this Kräutergarten.

Who knew?

 

 

Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt's Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn's time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle

Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt’s Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn’s time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Pride of place in the big house on the hill goes to the Haydnsaal, a 650-seat concert hall with outstanding acoustical and visual elements.
The room dates back to a Baroque building phase when 13th century fortress was transformed into 17th century palace.  Attractive ceiling frescos by Carpoforo Tencala tell the story of Psyche and Amor.

Berlin-based manager Andreas Richter programs the April through October concert season on behalf of the Esterházy Foundation. The Banff prizewinning Rolston Quartet will make its debut in the Haydnsaal June 6, 2017 and return the following year.
Richter outlined this year’s annual festival for me in a recent interview.
It runs September 6 – 16, 2017, titled Herbst Gold / Autumn Gold.
More details of the season, including stylish picnic concerts in the
splendid palace grounds HERE.

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit

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Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates. Details HERE. Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!

Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates.
Details HERE.
Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!

 

 

 

 

 

Haydn led a comfortable, if demanding, life working for the Esterházy family.

Under Prince Nicolaus he and the musicians initially moved between Eisenstadt and Vienna.

By the 1770s, as opera became the centre of the prince’s attention, a hunting lodge at Süttör was transformed into a new summer palace, complete with two theatres, one for opera, the other for marionette opera.

Now, Haydn’s life involved long summer residences at the newly named Esterháza palace, just across today’s Hungarian border.

The scale of the enterprise was huge, peaking in the year 1786, with 125 performances of 17 different operas, all of them under the direction of Haydn, several of them also composed by him.

With less time to spend in Eisenstadt, Haydn sold his house there in 1778 and lived in the accomodation built for the court musicians in the three hubs of their activity: Esterháza, Eisenstadt and, in December and January, Vienna.

With the death on Prince Nicolaus in 1790, opera for Haydn and the Esterházy family came to a crashing halt.

Prince Anton dismissed all the court musicians save his music director Haydn and concertmaster Tomasini.

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies made during the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies of the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

Haydn, however, survived the downsizing quite well.

He now had a pension of 1,000 gulden per annum from Prince Nicolaus’s will, plus a salary from Prince Anton of another 400 gulden.

With little music at court, the way was clear for Haydn – now the most celebrated living composer in Europe – to accept an invitation to travel to London for two visits in the early 1790s.

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His house in Eisenstadt had brought in 2,000 gulden; but his time in London netted a princely 15,000 gulden.

“Such a thing is possible only in England,” the gleeful composer reported after one of his highly successful benefit concerts.

The rich proceeds of Haydn’s travel, together with his astute business sense selling his manuscripts to publishers across Europe, helped him prepare for old age in Vienna.

He purchased a house in 1793 for 1,370 gulden and had renovations done while he was away in the British capital.

With a salary increase to 700 gulden under Anton’s successor, Nicolaus II, and a wine allowance now at 515 litres a year, a complimentary uniform and various lump sum payments, Haydn additionally negotiated apothecary bills into his contract.

These were substantial and were to amount to 1,000 gulden in the final year of his life.

St Martin's, Eisenstadt's present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the "Nelson' Mass from the organ here in 1798

St Martin’s, Eisenstadt’s present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the ‘Nelson’ Mass,  from the organ here in 1798

 

 

Nicolaus II spent the main season, the winter season, in Vienna, with the main musical performances of a much reduced ensemble (now a wind harmonie of eight and string ensemble of a similar size) taking place in September and October. Haydn’s late masses date from this period.

 

 

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Haydn’s Bergkirche undergoing restoration,sporting the banner ‘Restoration 2020: we’re saving the Haydn church.’ Haydn’s Bergkirche was originally intended as the presbytery to a much larger church, planned but never built. Throughout the 20th century – except for the year 1945 – to the present day, Haydn’s Seven Last Words has been performed here every Good Friday

 

 

 

 

Most of these six masses were privately performed on the nameday of the prince’s wife, Princess Marie, during a church service in the Bergkirche.

 

 

Incomplete rear of Bergkirche

Incomplete rear of Bergkirche

 

 

 

 

In Vienna, meanwhile, Haydn was having some of the greatest successes of his life with his two newly written oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.

 

By 1806, Haydn was confined to his house and never returned to Eisenstadt.

He was a celebrated figure throughout the musical world, but frail and no longer composing. He was taken to a special performance of The Creation by Princess Esterházy and family, but it proved too overwhelming for him. He had to leave at the end of Part One.

Haydn died peacefully in his sleep at 12:40am, May 31, 1809.

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche

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The St. Lawrence Quartet will play two of Haydn’s Op. 20 string quartets, written in Eisenstadt in 1772 and first performed there, for MusicTORONTO, January 26, 2017.

Blog post and photographs © copyright 2017 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Johannes Brahms in Hamburg

November 22, 2016

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Speckgang 24, Hamburg,
Brahms’s birthplace

It’s not exactly where you’d wish to be born and grow up, is it?

A large, shabby tenement building in a run-down area of Hamburg, close to the city walls. This is the crowded Gängeviertel, or Laneway Quarter of the North German port city, where tall, gabled wood-framed buildings of brick, clay and straw are packed together in narrow laneways.

One of Brahms’s earliest biographers, his piano pupil Florence May, visited the family’s former apartment in 1905, a few years after her mentor’s death. Feeling “a shiver of bewilderment and dismay” as she surveyed the cramped quarters, May apologises to her readers for having to speak of “the commonplace reality of bare and repulsive poverty.”

Poor Johannes!  But there’s worse to come.

This image of Speckgang 24 (later renumbered to Speckstrasse 60) has been reproduced on many web postings and in books about the composer. Pages of myths have portrayed Johannes Brahms as the romantic hero, rising from the slums of Hamburg to become the most celebrated composer in Vienna, the city of the great classical masters.

 

1906 plaque marking Brahms's birthplace

1906 plaque marking Brahms’s birthplace

It’s an easy hook to swallow.

A recent visit to Hamburg gave me an opportunity to assess how much of the bait I might have swallowed over the years and see a few of the remaining sights known to the composer in a city that he called home for more than half of his life.

My starting point was the Brahms Museum at Peterstrasse 39, a few minutes walk from the St. Pauli U-Bahn station. The museum is housed in a detailed reconstruction of the old Hamburg townhouses known to Brahms. Most did not survive the Great Fire of 1842 and the devastating 1943 weeklong bombing and resulting firestorm that all but wiped out the German port city.

 

The museum’s holdings are modest and mostly drawn from the Hoffman Collection, the largest privately held Brahms archive.

Among what survives from Brahms’s early years are a baptism spoon, silver tumbler and confirmation cup.

Brahms's baptismal font from 1833 also survives in today's St. Michael's Church (Michaeliskirche)

Brahms’s baptismal font from 1833 also survives in today’s St. Michael’s Church (Michaeliskirche)

The rebuilt Michaeliskirche, Hamburg's largest church, was badly damaged in 1943 but continues to dominate today's Hamburg skyline C.P.E. Bach is buried in its crypt. He was city music director for Hamburg's five churches. Georg Phillip Telemann was his predecessor in the role.

The rebuilt Michaeliskirche, Hamburg’s largest church, was again badly damaged in 1943 but, once more restored, continues to dominate today’s Hamburg skyline.
C.P.E. Bach is buried in its crypt. He was city music director for Hamburg’s five churches.
Georg Phillip Telemann was his predecessor in the role.

 

 

 

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A fire in 1906 destroyed the Michaeliskirche as Brahms knew the historic building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peterstrasse, Hamburg - Brahms Museum in foreground

Peterstrasse, Hamburg – Brahms Museum in foreground

 

Hamburg's new 'Composer's Quarter'

One corner of Hamburg’s new Composer’s Quarter.  The ’Hamburg’ Bach and Hasse museums, together with an excellent café (try the Esterházy wine that Haydn would have known)

 

 

 

 

The Brahms museum opened in 1971. A Telemann museum opened next door in 2011. Now, with the restored burger’s and merchant’s houses on Peterstrasse designated as Hamburg’s ‘Komponisten-Quartier’, museums for C.P.E. Bach and his contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse are also open to the public.

 

Making up for lost time, further museums for Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn (both born in Hamburg) and for Gustav Mahler (opera are in the works.

Who’s next?  Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina has lived here for two decades.  Alfred Schnittke spend his last decade in the city and Hungarian composer György Ligeti was taught in Hamburg during the 1970s and 80s.  Oh yes, which member of a quartet of musicians said “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg?”

Two enduring memories from the Brahms museum are the magnificent marble bust which greets the visitor on arriving and the square piano upstairs on which Brahms, in his late 20s, gave piano lessons. Taking a copy of the least technically challenging Brahms Intermezzo that was in my repertoire 50 (!) years ago from the Complete Brahms Edition in the bookcase behind the piano, your reporter played the piano that Brahms himself had played in the city of his birth. No-one save the marble bust and an understanding curator witnessed this random act of violence.

Marble bust of Brahms made in 1903 by the Austrian sculptor Ilse Conrat. She also created the gravestone for Brahms in the musician's quarter of the Central Cemetery in Vienna.
Marble bust of Brahms made in 1903 by the Austrian sculptor Ilse Conrat. She also created the gravestone for Brahms in the musician’s quarter of the Central Cemetery in Vienna

 

Square piano by Hamburg makers Baumgardten & Heins, manufactured in 1859. Brahms gave piano lessons in Hamburg using this instrument in 1861/2.

 

 

Square piano by Hamburg makers Baumgardten & Heins, manufactured in 1859. Brahms gave piano lessons in Hamburg using this instrument in 1861/2

 

 

 

 Johann Jacob Brahms    (1806 - 72)

   Johann  Jacob  Brahms          (1806-72)

Johann Jacob Brahms, the composer’s father, was a musician by profession. His five years of music study taught him the way around violin, viola, cello, flute, flügelhorn and, above all, double-bass.

He started playing in the cafes and Lokals (places of entertainment) in the St Pauli suburb of Hamburg, odd-jobbing as a street musician wherever there was money to be made. 30 years playing flügelhorn with the civil militia brought a modest pension for life.

In 1831 he became a founding member of the Hamburger Musikverein. By the 1840s, he was known as one of the best double-bass players in Hamburg, performing at the Stadttheater and in the Philharmonic concerts.

He continued to play music in the taverns between gigs in the concert hall throughout his working life. Brahms senior was industrious, down-to-earth, respected and convivial in company. He worked his way up the social ladder – when such things mattered – to a social position somewhere on the line between lower and middle class, from rural petit bourgeois to respected Bürger.

Johann Jacob Brahms was, in the words of musicologist and collector Kurt Hoffman (to whom I am indebted for many of the details of the Brahms family life), “a role model, always admired by his son.”

I mean this sort of thing, taken from one of the books on my shelves, Brahms,a Critical Study by Burnett James (Dent, 1972):

“In the Hamburg Lokale, Brahms made direct contact with the low of sex*, and the impact made an ineradicable impression. The boy Johannes not only played the piano but probably sang also in a piping treble . . . in the taverns and alleyways of the dock areas. The whores frequented tavern and alley alike, anywhere the sailors moved or gathered; and few of these ladies of the oldest profession were above using the handsome, sensitive, fair-haired boy to help excite the passions of potential customers. Thus Johannes found himself in all too close proximity to semi-naked (even naked at times) female flesh of no particular sweetness or cleanliness. The whole business revolted him; and he never forgot.”
[* a misprint – publisher’s edit, perhaps?]

Steamy stuff! But fiction according to Hoffman who has thoroughly researched the social and economic minutiae of the Brahms family and 19th century Hamburg.

Brahms senior had an annual income of between 800 and 1,000 marks in 1840, at a time that the annual rental on a modest family dwelling amounted to 60 Hamburg marks. That income peaked at 1,800 marks in 1864, by which time Brahms’s parents and their three children had moved apartments eight times, each time to a larger and more costly location in Hamburg.

Brahms's birthplace was destroyed in 1943. This monument now commemorates the site

Brahms’s birthplace was destroyed in 1943. This monument now commemorates the site

Brahms (‘Jehann’ or ‘Hannes’ as he was called by his family) was given what he later referred to as the ‘best grounding’ in piano by his first teacher, Otto Cossel, who taught the gifted young musician to express through his fingers what he felt in his heart. This advice stayed with Brahms.

When an impresario offered the ten year-old Wunderkind a concert tour to the United States, the offer was reluctantly declined. In return, Eduard Marxsen, Hamburg’s principal music teacher, took over his private piano, composition and theory teaching, gratis.

By 14, Brahms arrived at day school by 7:00 a.m., not so much to study, but more to give his school teacher free piano lessons!

Throughout these very early years, Brahms recalled in later life: “I composed, but only in secret and very early in the morning. All day, [weekends and vacations presumably] I arranged marches for wind music and at night I sat at the keyboard in taverns.”

So here we have the beginnings of the story of playing in taverns that Brahms planted in his later years. Biographers immediately ran with it and then began to elaborate.

“Brahms never played in Tanzbordellen,” Hoffman says, quoting a Hamburg statute from 1834 banning entry to bordellos by persons under 20. Even dance music was forbiddden under the city’s Bordellos and Prostitution regulations.

So Brahms, who at an early age, had inherited his father’s work ethic, was exaggerating his rise from poverty to independence and prosperity as a freelance composer – putting a romantic glow of the memories of youth. Yes, he played in Kneipe or inns, where food was served along with the wine. But not in the brothels and never, according to Hoffman’s research, before the age of 13.

Gasthof 'Stadt Hamburg,'Bergedorf, as it was . . .

Gasthof  ‘Stadt Hamburg, ‘Bergedorf, as it was . . .

. . . and today. Brahms likely played in this historic Hamburg Gasthof. It dates from 1669 and is located opposite St Peter's Church.

. . . and today.   Brahms likely played in this historic Hamburg Gasthof (1669).  It is located opposite St Peter’s Church

A friend, pianist Christian Miller, heard the young Brahms playing for a dance at a summer inn in Bergedorf for a fee of two thalers for the afternoon. This was good money – half a week’s wage for a printer at the time. Miller returned the following Sunday afternoon with Brahms – just for the fun of it – and the friends played piano duets for the surprised Gasthof guests.

 

Johanna Henrica Christiane Brahms (1789-1865) photo taken three years before her death

Johanna Henrica Christiane Brahms (1789-1865).  Photo taken three years before her death

Brahms’s mother encouraged a sense of thrift in her son. When he was 21 she reminded him of the bank account she had opened for him years earlier. “When you had work from [the Hamburg music publisher] Cranz for a time, which brought you in a considerable sum, do you remember how I took care that the money went into the bank?” she wrote.

Johann Jacob Brahms and Johanna Henrica Christiane Nissen were married June 9, 1830. Brahms was the second of three children born to a mother who was 17 years older than her husband. At the time of his birth, May 7, 1833, the family was living in the back courtyard on the first floor of the apartment building pictured at the top of this post. The city was still built round the relatively small, formerly Hanseatic port, with its sailing ships and as yet undeveloped portlands.

This was a far cry from today’s massive port, the largest in Germany, with 43 kilometres of quay.

Crucially, it was also a far cry from the port it had become by the end of the 19th century when Brahms’s earliest biographers were making the pilgrimage to the city where the celebrated, now deceased composer had spent roughly half of his life.

When Brahms was born, the Gängeviertel quarter was then leafy, with tended gardens and half-timbered apartment buildings grouped around the laneways between. It was a respectable neighbourhood where the middle-class lived. The family moved to even better quarters when Brahms was just six months old.

Later in the century, with the expansion of the port into the Neustadt and with Hamburg now the major Central European port for transatlantic traffic, the area fell into disrepair and disrepute. This was the Gängeviertel on which biographers built their picture of the composer’s childhood, fueled by the aging composer’s predilection for a romanticised tale of childhood poverty.

Brahms in 1853, at 20. This is the earliest known photograph of the composer

Brahms in 1853, at 20.    This is the earliest known photograph of the composer

Brahms only made a lasting committment to Vienna when he was 38. “I am rather old-fashioned in most respects . . . and cling to my native city as to a mother,” he wrote to pianist Clara Schumann in 1862. He lived at home until he was almost 30, then lived in seven or more residences (including Vienna) while touring as a pianist and conductor or seeking a quiet retreat for composition. But it was only on December 27, 1871 that he rented rooms at Haus Wien, Karlgasse 4, Vienna, where he would remain for the final 25 years of his life.

Brahms’s ties to Hamburg ran deeper than family ties alone. Throughout his life he continued to contribute to his family’s income, supporting both parents when they separated in 1864, then his father after his retirement in 1869, and his sister Elise even after she married.
He kept a room and all of his books in one or other of the family homes until 1869.

Brahms was seeking a professional position throughout his years in Hamburg and well into his time in Vienna. Top of his list was the conductorship of the Philharmonic Orchestra, his father’s orchestra – and Brahms knew that, with such an appointment, no father would have been more proud of his son than would Johann Jacob. It was not to be. Twice passed over, Brahms held a grudge against the organisation until the end of his life. When the members of the committee of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society finally offered the position in 1894, the 61 year-old Brahms replied from Vienna with a letter conveying emotions ranging from regret to disdain:

“It was long before I got used to the idea of going along other paths. If things had gone according to my wishes I would perhaps celebrate an anniversary with you today; but in that case you would still have to look around for a younger capable talent. May you find him now, and may he serve you as faithfully as would have . . . your respectful and obedient servant, J. Brahms.”

Brahms’s personality was complex and not easy to live with. There is, of course, another side to his deep anger over not having been sooner offered the conductorship in his native city. Several of his friends and supporters felt that his lack of both practical and people skills disqualified him for the position. Even Clara Schumann, arguably the person he felt closest to in the 1860s, recommended someone else over Brahms for the position, though Brahms never knew this.

As we sailed out of Hamburg, I wondered what the city’s most famous composer would have made of the new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, about to open two months from the time of this posting, on January 11, 2017.

The Elbphilharmonie in the HafenCity quarter of Hamburg

The Elbphilharmonie in the HafenCity quarter

Like a proud galleon sailing down the river Elbe

Like a proud galleon sailing down the river Elbe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off to the pub . . . in Vienna, not Hamburg. Zum roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog) was Brahms's favourite dining establishment

Off to the tavern . . . but in Vienna, not Hamburg. Zum roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog) was Brahms’s favourite dining establishment

 

 

The crystal structure sits atop an old brick warehouse like a proud galleon sailing down the Elbe. And proud she should be, having docked with a $1.22 billion (€860 million) pricetag, more than 10 times the original estimate.

There will be a party, of course, with a three-week festival showcasing the Elbphilharmonie’s three concert halls, large music education area, hotel and panoramic viewing platform with views of the city. The Hamburg Philharmonic will be part of the festival, but not as resident orchestra of the main 2,100 seat, vineyard-shaped Grosser Saal – that honour goes to the NDR (North German Radio) Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.

Neither orchestra is offering an homage to Brahms during the opening festivities. The only orchestral Brahms to be played in the festival will be orchestral transcriptions of four of his Chorale Preludes and the Four Serious Songs . . . the two final works from his pen.

And the orchestra? . . .

.  .  .   it’s not from Hamburg; it’s the visiting Vienna Philharmonic, from Brahms’s adopted city.

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B, Op. 8 (1853-4, rev. 1889) will be performed by the Gryphon Trio, December 15
© copyright 2016 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Beethoven in Heiligenstadt (with audio)

September 11, 2016

beethoven-around-1803-portrait-by-hornemannDoes any composer have more plaques, statues, museums or memorial sites than Ludwig van Beethoven?

Top of the list are the 12 museums and memorial sites spread over five countries.

Vienna has a quarter of them. The city is also decorated with many of the more shadowy ‘Beethoven lived here’ and ‘site of the dwelling of . . .’ signs.

Beethoven was a restless soul and a demanding tenant who is known to have held simultaneous leases on two or even three apartments for his own use.

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Print of one of Beethoven’s studios in the Eroicahaus museum, Vienna

One book documents an eye-popping 87 apartment moves during Beethoven’s three decades in Vienna. Imagine the labour involved in moving all those books, manuscripts, printed scores and pianos, in a city without elevators.

One of these moves was to the rural village of Heiligenstadt, beyond the city walls to the north. Beethoven had by then been living exactly ten years in the Habsburg capital and made the move on the recommendation of the music-loving Dr. Johann Schmidt. He was Beethoven’s trusted, ‘intelligent’ doctor and his prescription was for the peace and quiet of the village, the local spa and its waters.

Although just 32 at the time, Beethoven had been alarmed by deteriorating hearing and persistent noise in his ears for five years and had already visited many doctors and tried all manner of medicines, oils, baths and infusions. He was to remain away from the bustle of Vienna in Heiligenstadt from May until October, 1802.

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19th century postcard – Beethoven seeking the peace and quiet of
the village of Heiligenstadt

The personal drama Beethoven went through in Heiligenstadt is reflected in the four-page document, which he wrote in the depths of despair when he was even contemplating suicide.

Now known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, it remains Beethoven’s most famous literary text.

It is a heartfelt plea for understanding and sympathy from his brothers and from the world at large and in it, Beethoven confronts his feelings, faces his deafness and ultimately finds renewed determination and independence as a composer.

Although addressed to his brothers, the four pages were not sent to them during his lifetime and were found among his papers at his death.

The original German text (below) seems neatly copied out rather than a heat-of-the-moment original manuscript. Nevertheless, the emotions Beethoven was feeling at this personally tumultuous time ring out with aching immediacy and intensity.

Below is my reading of the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ translated into English, which I was moved to record shortly after visiting the village. . . now a leafy, but still tranquil suburb at the end of Vienna’s U4 subway line.  (Click on the arrow to play).

 

 

 

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The four pages of Beethoven’s ‘Heiligenstadt Testament,’ dated October 6 and 10, 1802

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Probusgasse in 1896. Beethoven’s believed residence is in the distance, centre left

 

 

 

 

Beethoven is believed to have stayed at No. 6 Probusgasse in Heiligenstadt, though this is based on anecdotal evidence dating back to 1902, the centenary year of his visit.  The City of Vienna now runs a museum at the site.

 

 

 

 

Probusgasse in 2016, facing same direction

Probusgasse in 2016, facing same direction

Beethoven returned to Heiligenstadt for stays in the summer of 1807 and 1808 and again in 1817.

"Beethoven: Habitations and Monuments in Heiligenstadt" . . . now a minor tourist industry in Heiligenstadt. This street map in the Pfarrplatz shows seven of them.

“Beethoven: Habitations and Monuments in Heiligenstadt” . . . now a minor tourist industry in
Heiligenstadt. This street map in the Pfarrplatz shows seven of them.

 

Heiligenstädter Kirche

 

Pfarrplatz (Parish Place) in Heiligenstadt around 1910. It is two minutes walk from the Beethoven museum. Far left, another Beethovenhaus at Pfarrplatz 2. Centre, to the left of St Jacob’s church, entrance to spa.  Far right, wall of a large winery where this example of Viennese Heuriger culture dates back to 1683.

 

 

 

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       Pfarrplatz today, from opposite side, at bottom of Probusgasse

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Entrance courtyard of the Beethoven museum

beethoven_heiligenstadt_dauerausstellung_04The two rooms of the museum shows Heiligenstadt at the time of Beethoven’s visits there and deal with his illness and death, including (above) a death mask and lock of his hair. The house itself, thoroughly restored in 1970 to something approaching its layout in 1802, in fact dates back to the 16th century. It is currently undergoing another refurbishment, with all the displays and furniture removed. Walking through the empty white building (early Spring 2016) alone, except for the occasional construction worker, was an extraordinary, somewhat melancholy experience, almost like entering a dead person’s house now that they are no longer around. It put me in the frame of mind to re-read the composer’s will and testament at the earliest opportunity.

Probusgasse 6, now undergoing restoration

Probusgasse 6, now undergoing restoration

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Street entrance to the Beethoven museum

Street entrance to the Beethoven museum

Rear garden at Probusgasse 6

Rear garden at Probusgasse 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beethoven’s First ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1, was the first string quartet Beethoven wrote after his life-changing 1802 visit to Heiligenstadt. It is featured in the opening concert of the MusicTORONTO 2016 season, October 13, performed by the Juilliard Quartet.

© copyright 2016 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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Train-spotting with a famous composer

August 29, 2015

Here’s a curious sidelight on the life of Antonín Dvořák – the viola-playing member of ‘The Czech Quartet’ above.  Dvořák’s Op. 61 quartet is featured in the Apollon Musagète Quartet concert this November

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

A small exhibition at the Dvořák Museum in Prague highlights the fascination that the Bohemian composer had with the steam locomotive.

This is how Dvořák spoke of trains in a conversation recalled by his student Josef Michl, after the two of them saw a train near the small country property the composer owned in Vysoká, just South of Prague:

“I [Dvořák] especially like the huge and clear ingenuity with which the locomotive is constructed! It consists of many parts created by many different components.

Each of them has its importance; each of them is right in place.

Even the smallest screw is in the correct place, being used to hold something.

Everything has a purpose and role and the result is amazing.  Such a locomotive can be put on the track and filled with water and coal. One person moves with a small lever and the big levers start to move too. Even though the carriages weigh a few thousand quintals, the locomotive runs as quickly as a rabbit with them!”

 

Dvořák was nine and living in Nelahozeves when he witnessed his first train, carrying miltary personnel, in the spring of 1850. It was on a branch of the main line from Prague to Dresden, passing through Nelahozeves and Kralupy to Podmokly.

Nelahozeves was a farming outpost, lying on the Vltava River, within the large estates owned by the Lobkowitz (Lobkowicz) family – a name familiar to music-lovers via Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s key patrons.

 

Dvořák’s home in Nelahozeves for the first 12 years of his life

Today, Dvořák’s house, Building No. 12 in this then rural community of a little over 400 permanent residents, remains, as it was during Dvořák’s childhood, directly across from the station.

His father, František, rented rooms in the property and ran the inn on the main floor – though his  interest in running the business (and that of his earlier occupation as butcher at Building No. 24) increasingly came second to that of playing the zither.

Once freight started being carried on the line in 1851, Dvořák’s curiosity in the latest form of transportation was piqued.

In his maturity, when traveling in Europe or the United States, Dvořák would avidly – some would say obsessively – comb railway timetables to plan his best connections.

He would also keep records, such as details on the express trains traveling from Prague to Vienna.

His habitual early morning walk when living in Prague would take him above the tunnel, just beyond the historic Vinohrady quarter of Prague, through which trains would exit from Prague’s splendidly grand main station.

Prague – Franz Joseph I central station

Dvořák was reported to regularly chat with train drivers to find out about the latest technical innovations on the trains.

He was also a trainspotter, collecting the engine numbers of the express trains from Prague to Vienna and Dresden.

Composer Josef Suk (1874-1935)

Dvořák once asked one of his students at the Prague Conservatoire, composer Josef Suk, to wake up early and record the engine number of the Vienna express train as it came out of the tunnel.

The young Suk obliged – as befits a future son-in-law – taking his opera glasses to ensure accuracy.

No train-spotter he, Suk duly reported back to Dvorak’s apartment in Žitná street with a train number . . . not of the engine itself, but of the tender at the back of the train.

A workman here installs marble on a balcony  at Žitná Street No. 564, alongside a new bust of the building’s most famous resident: ‘Dr. Antonín Dvořák – composer.’

 

The five-storey apartment block at Žitná Street No. 564 is currently under renovation.

 

Dvořák lived here, in four different apartments as the size of his family changed, from 1877 to his death in 1904.

 

The impact of Dvořák’s train-spotting hobby on his music is . . . well . . . mostly intangible.  But there are shared qualities between what Dvořák saw as the precision and elegance of a steam locomotive’s design, construction, and function with one of his own carefully crafted scores.   At its best (and there are a surprising number of gems in his catalogue), a Dvořák score is designed to sound natural, uncomplicated, spontaneous and ‘right’ on its chosen instrument – these are honest, hard-working qualities achieved through both inspiration and perspiration.

It’s quite often said that the famous Humoresque (No. 7 from his last piano collection,  Op. 101)CLICK is inspired by the movement of a train.  I don’t hear it, myself.

On the other hand, No. 6 from the same collection CLICK certainly opens with the sound of a North American train whistle and continues with an accelerating motion not unlike that of a train. The Op. 101 collection uses sketches that Dvořák made in notebooks during his three years in the United States. So, just maybe . . .

There is a solid connection between Dvořák and trains in the Seventh Symphony, however. Here’s the manuscript score of the opening movementCLICK.

 

At the very bottom, Dvořák’s handwritten note reads:

“I got this theme when the festival train from Pest was arriving in the State Station in 1884.”

The train was bringing several hundred anti-Habsburg sympathisers from Budapest to Prague for a festival at the National Theatre.  Nationalists – and Dvořák strongly identified himself with the rising tide of Bohemian nationalism – had been tracking the group’s progress through Moravia and Bohemia with enthusiasm. Dvořák was at the station with them when the ominous, stirring theme, rich in ideas for development, came to him.

Dvořák was artistic director and professor of composition of the American National Conservatory of Music and based in New York for almost three years, 1892-5.

To the right is the boarding pass that got him on board the S.S. Saale which took him to the United States.

But when it came to watching the trains at Grand Central Station, the famous composer had no such privileges.  Only ticket-holders were allowed on the platforms.  From his East 17th Street apartment, it was too time-consuming to travel to a good vantage point where he could spot the inter-city New York to Boston or Chicago trains.  So what to do?

Well, there were always the pigeons (sic)!

Dvořák often went to see them – pigeons, that is – in the gardens in Central Park.  Back home, he specialised in breeding pouter and fantail pigeons among the many he kept in a pigeon loft at Vysoka.  He had even been sent a gift from one member of the British royal family after they had found out that the Bohemian composer had a thing for pigeons – two braces of English pouters and four braces of wig pigeons, no less.

The excitement on Dvořák’s face is palpable as he presides over his loft (or kit) of pigeons at Vysoka

Pigeons, however, were but a sideline for Dvořák’s main New York hobby: trans-Atlantic ocean liners.  Here was a hobby with both technology and a timetable (of sorts), just like his beloved trains.  The arrivals and departures from the New York port were to be found in the New York Herald.  Dvořák mapped them out and, as his biographer John Clapham narrates, toured every ship bound for Europe  from stem to stern, making friends with their captains.

Business card of Dr. Antonín Dvořák Director of the Prague Conservatory of Music Member of Parliament

But, once Mrs. Thurber’s noble plans for her New York Conservatory crumbled and Dvořák returned to the country of his birth, train-spotting again resumed its place in the composer’s priorities.

He was appointed as a member of the Herrenhaus of the Austrian government in March 1901 (a sort of MP – though he attended just one session of the parliament).

Then came the Directorship of the Prague Conservatory later that same summer (with an assistant doing all the admin).

Still, Dvořák found time for his trains.  They were to remain important to him right to the end.

He was now well into his sixties.  Even days after a severe pain in his side gave cause for concern during production rehearsals for his last opera Armida, Dvořák insisted on walking to the Franz Joseph I central station to view the locomotives and chat with an engineer.  He caught a chill and never recovered.  A few days later, on May 1, 1904, Antonín Dvořák, composer, train-spotter, pigeon-fancier died.

“I’d give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive!” (Antonín Dvořák)

Dvořák’s C major quartet, Op. 61 opens the Toronto début concert of the Apollon Musagète Quartet, November 26, 2015.
Antonín Dvořák Museum, Ke Karlovu 20, Prague.
© copyright 2015 Keith Horner    –     khnotes@sympatico.ca

 

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Trolling for Grieg – Janina Fialkowska, October 28, 2014

September 07, 2014

grieg_3When Janina Fialkowska performs a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for MusicTORONTO October 28, she continues to champion the cause of a composer who remains his country’s most widely known cultural export, more than a century after his death.

For Norway today, as it continues to preserve and discover a cultural identity outside mainstream Europe and the EEC, Grieg remains a catalyst for self-discovery.  “A society that has a visible heritage is a society with a future,” is how Norway’s King Harald V put it during the composer’s anniversary celebrations in Bergen a few years ago.  “Grieg has contributed towards giving us confidence in the value of our own culture in an international society.”

The frail, diminutive silver-haired popular composer was active throughout his life as composer, pianist and conductor, consciously marrying Norwegian tradition with new European trends in music.

Grieg statue at Troldhaugen, outside the sod-thatched intimate modern concert hall which has been built adjoining his home.

“Grieg lives today,” was a phrase I heard many times during my first visit in the early 1990s to the West coast port city of Bergen. The city was Grieg’s home city and is now the centre of a thriving Grieg industry. There’s the usual bric-à-brac of tee shirts, medallions, postcards and Grieg umbrellas (it rains a lot in Bergen as the tubercular Grieg, constantly in ill-health, lamented throughout his life). In the nation’s schools back then, over 4000 Grieg projects ensured that there was not a child in Norway who didn’t know about Edvard and Nina Grieg.

 

Troldhaugen, the idyllic turn-of-the-century home Grieg built to find solitude by an isolated fjord, which now finds itself, rather incongruously, in suburban Bergen.

Nina, the Copenhagen cousin Grieg married, outlived her husband by almost three decades. In the tradition of Constanze Mozart, Nina Grieg destroyed or edited thousands of his letters.

Grieg’s composing cabin overlooking the fjord, where he sought, but did not always find, the tranquility to compose

Many of Grieg’s projects were left abandoned, despite the care with which Grieg located his composing cabins at both Troldhaugen and Lofthus.

Those works that were completed, however, brought considerable wealth. When Grieg turned out another set of Lyric Pieces, his Leipzig publisher, Peters, was said to raise the flag in anticipation of wide sales.

When Grieg died, his estate was worth many millions of Kroner.  He held shares in several shipping companies.  Future royalties and all his manuscripts, letters, and diaries were left to the city of Bergen.  The Harmonien, which Grieg himself conducted for several seasons, later became the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. It was sustained by these funds until copyright ran out in the 1960s.

Bryggen: the Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, dating back to the 11th century. “I am simply enthused at the smell of fish at the Wharf. Indeed, I believe there is both coalfish and cod in my music.” Grieg on June 15, 1903, speaking at his 60th birthday celebrations.

Today, there are Norwegian composers who find the carefully contrived public image of Norway’s hero stifling.  They want to find ways of breaking free from his ever-present legacy. Someday I may get around to posting the full radio documentary I made probing deeper into the life and legacy of a restless Norwegian composer who spent over half his life in Denmark and much of the rest of it travelling as a renowned virtuoso pianist throughout Europe. In the meantime, here is the opening segment – which, I caution, you may find poses more questions than it answers. . . .

Janina Fialkowska (piano) – Grieg, Schubert, Ravel, Chopin
Tuesday October 28, 2014 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright 2014 Keith Horner

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Mendelssohn’s Octet – an athlete sets the bar high

October 13, 2013

When the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble brings the Mendelssohn Octet to MusicTORONTO at the end of the month, we’ll be treated to a work that has been at the heart of the ensemble’s repertoire since they were founded almost a half-century ago. It’s music they have played more frequently than any other work . . . . music that R. Larry Todd, today’s leading Mendelssohn scholar, told me in an interview in a Leipzig hotel room a few years ago, “catapulted 16 year-old Felix Mendelssohn into the Western canon of ‘great’ composers.”

Mendelssohn in 1821, four years before composing the Octet, by Carl Begas

 

As a composer, Mendelssohn peaked earlier than Mozart – possibly, in part, because his father had a thriving private banking business to attend to and saw to it that his four children had an intensive, well-rounded education in the family home from the best instructors. Or, maybe it was just luck of the draw. Mozart’s education, on the other hand, was frequently undertaken on the road, in breaks between concerts, in carriages, in rented accommodation, while travelling throughout the European musical capitals in pursuit of gold snuff boxes.

Mendelssohn, eight years later in 1829

 

Mendelssohn wrote the Octet for the 23rd birthday of his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, for whom he had already written a concerto and sonata. In the Octet, Mendelssohn’s concerto-like writing for the first violin within a chamber-music framework elevates Rietz’s fiddle to first among equals – an appropriate role, perhaps, when teacher and pupil and other musicians gave the première of the piece at one of the family’s Sunday noonhour musicales, a well-attended feature on the Berlin social calendar. The concept of the piece is ground-breaking. Mendelssohn paints in myriad instrumental colours, ranging from the hushed monochrome unison at the end of the Scherzo to the burst of multi-coloured hues in the eight-part fugal exuberance that follows. Though I find that there are still musical discoveries to be made in this innovative, four-movement Octet, the circumstances of its composition have long intrigued me.

Mendelssohn’s family life at the time of composition was not without its adventures, as anyone who has undergone a house move and renovations might agree. On February 18, 1825, Mendelssohn’s father Abraham had purchased a big pile at No. 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin, just around the formerly baroque, still octagonal platz where you can find the present-day Canadian Embassy. The mansion, imposing though run-down, had earlier served as a silk mill and was next door to the royal porcelain factory. Abraham Mendelssohn’s plan was to return the mansion to the grand family home that Heinrich von der Groeben had designed it to be nine decades earlier, around 1835. Abraham and his wife Lea also had plans for a third floor addition drawn up, but they were shelved.

Leipzigerstrasse 3, two storeys and 19 windows wide, into which the Mendelssohn family moved around July 1825. The Prussian state purchased the building from Mendelssohn’s brother Paul in 1856. It became the Upper House (Herrenhaus) of the Prussian Parliament. An unknown photographer took this picture shortly before the building was demolished in 1898.

While work on the house proceeded, the family moved into a summer house in the garden at the rear. This Gartenhaus was at the far end of a substantial, half-acre inner courtyard, with the main house and its two wings, stables and carriage house forming the other three sides. Mendelssohn’s musical education continued through the move from the previous family home at Neue Promenade No. 7. Even the family’s Sunday musicales, begun in 1822, continued in the 16-room, three-kitchen summer house, with its fresco-painted central saal, which, according to his nephew Sebastian Hensel, could hold ‘several hundred.’ That’s quite a ‘summer house,’ even if some of the audience was listening from outside the sliding glass doors which overlooked a park of about seven acres (almost 3 hectares).

The Gartenhaus at Leipzigerstrasse 3, Berlin

It was here, living in the Gartenhaus, with renovation work in full swing, during the summer and Fall months that Mendelssohn wrote his earliest masterpiece, the Octet Op. 20. His ability to focus on a project and to multi-task was exceptional. A friend (Julius Schubring) recalls chatting with him the following year on a variety of unrelated subjects while he was at work composing the Trumpet Overture in C – or ‘copying out’ as the young Mendelssohn put it of an orchestral work which was already fully created and scored in his mind, if not yet on the page. Mendelssohn’s musical education was still in progress, generally together with that of his older sister Fanny, an exceptional musician in her own right, already beginning to act as a trusted go-to editor for Felix as he composed. Schubring’s picture of his friend, (put together after Mendelssohn’s death and after his own collaboration in the preparation of the librettos for both St. Paul and Elijah), next mentions Mendelssohn’s skill as an athlete, regularly doing a vigorous half-hour work-out on the horizontal pole and bars set up in the garden. Mendelssohn also swam well and, like any well-to-do upper class Prussian youth of the time, was a good horseman. He also danced well, winning many friends in his youth, but could not skate. Curiously, though a good chess player, Mendelssohn had a hard time with math.

After visiting Paris before composing the Octet,  Mendelssohn’s ‘grand tour’ lasting several years began in 1829 with trips to England, Scotland and Wales.

In an age before photography, the young traveller captured many of the scenes in hastily-made sketches and watercolours.  

His skill as an artist resulted in some 300 works.

↑    The sketch of Dunollie castle on the isle of Mull captures something of the mystery and wildness of the Scottish Hebrides.  This trip also inspired the earliest musical sketches for the Hebrides overture.     

→  To the right, Mendelssohn’s sketch of Ben More, on the Isle of Mull, the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides.

 

At the end of 1825, Mendelssohn moved from the summer house at Leipzigerstrasse 3 into a room on a mezzanine level in the left-hand wing of the main house.  But he was to return to the Gartenhaus with what his nephew Sebastian Hensel referred to as its ‘deep loneliness of a forest,’ steps away from the bustling city of Berlin, the following summer.  Then, in the space of just a month, July 7, 1826 to August 6, his imagination — plus a good deal of reworking under the supervision of his composition teacher Adolph Marx  — conceived another perfectly shaped composition.  The Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows the lead of the Octet in exploring the boundaries between absolute and program music.  Mendelssohn never again brought the same spontaneity, certainty of touch and vividness of imagination to a composition as he did in his teens in the Octet and music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, free to explore his private world in the seclusion of the Gartenhaus . . . in the former hunting grounds of Frederick the Great which now form the site of present-day German Bundesrat, or Federal Council.

Mendelssohn's sketch of the Gartenhaus

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble – Raff, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn
Thursday October 31, 2013 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright 2013 Keith Horner

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Only 88 hammers on the piano, you say? Pity!

January 12, 2013

Only 88 hammers on the piano, you say? Here are more!

When Marc-André Hamelin brings his latest delicious, over-the-top, home-baked treat to MusicTORONTO, the confection will be iced with enough piano-insider jokes to give a pianist’s fingers cavities.

Hamelin will venture where few living pianists dare to venture and none can quite bring off with the Montreal-born pianist’s deadpan nonchalance – and chops!

Hamelin’s 10-minute take on Paganini’s fearsome 24th Caprice had a Moscow fan quivering with delight and an audience unable to contain laughter when the Canadian pianist introduced the piece to the Moscow International House of Music one year ago – and to over 40,000 additional fans via that fan’s YouTube video of the performance.

“One of the best days in my life. EVER. I cannot even express how Marc-André’s concert overwhelmed me with ecstatic glee,” s/he wrote in awe of  ‘The Omnipotent.’

Hamelin, of course, is playing his way down a path with a rich history, where the performer is also composer. Pianistic bravura first became the stuff of billboard legend in the 1830s, in the wake of the fabulous success of Paganini, the first in a long line of traveling musical virtuosi.

Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), cadaverous appearance, left foot forward, neck of the violin pointing down, devilish sounds

 

There was something about the tall, cadaverous Paganini that inspired wild urban legends. Paganini himself went about fanning the flames with glee. He remained aloof from his audience. He deliberately broke strings to demonstrate that four was too many when it came to playing his ferociously difficult music. He wasn’t above using his phenomenal technique to imitate the cries of animals or bagpipes. Paganini, they said, was in league with the devil.

Franz Liszt (1811-86)

Liszt, emulating Paganini’s transcendental bravura, married charisma with content, bringing wider credibility to the mid-19th century celebration of technical prowess.

Liszt's earliest rival, aristocratic, Swiss-born Sigismond Thalberg (1812-71), whose party trick was dividing a melody between both thumbs amidst cascading arpeggios – giving the illusion of three hands. The trick wore thin and he soon became known as Old Arpeggio

 

Henri Herz, (1803-88), Austrian-born, whose nimble fingers propelled him to the top layer of salon pianist-composers in Paris in the 1830s and 40s. His vast output of potpourris, variations and other morceaux, his piano factory and round-the-clock teaching made Herz immensely wealthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexander Dreyschock, (1818-69), Czech pianist with a renowned technique emanating from two right hands, according to one informed, if confused,witness

 

 

Hundreds of pianists from across Europe began to vie for attention as Paris became the centre of the piano universe.

Piano wars inevitably resulted.

All these pianists came to the public’s attention at a happy confluence of evolving instrument, evolving public concert and evolving piano technique.

Their operatic fantasies, mostly forgettable, flooded the market. Those by Liszt – and, later, Busoni – set the bar as high as it would go.

When it came to re-creating art from art with the piano transcription, Liszt simply had no equal. In all, he made 145 arrangements of other composers’ music, from Schubert songs and Beethoven symphonies to the stunningly virtuoso masterpiece Réminiscences de Don Juan.

Liszt’s piano transcriptions led to the 19th century becoming the golden age of piano transcription.

Not that the art of transcription itself was new. Its roots stretch back to mediaeval times and to some of the earliest music we know.

Transcription then thrived in the Baroque, with Bach setting the gold standard by which we measure a composer’s success in transforming one medium to another – a violin concerto by Vivaldi, say, into a keyboard concerto by Bach.

Tivadar (Theodor) Szántó (1877-1934). Marc-André Hamelin includes Szántó's grandioso transcription of Bach's Great G minor Fantasia and Fugue

As performer-composers, many of the great composers we are familiar with before Chopin and Liszt were skilled keyboard performers. But none focussed on technique and wrote music to exploit this technique to the same degree as the 19th and early 20th century composer-pianists.

The late Dutch pianist Rian De Waal, who was writing a book on the art of piano transcription before his untimely death in 2011, sees interpretation and transcription as two sides of the same coin.

“In interpretation,” he says, “you try to find out what Beethoven or Schubert could have meant in writing this piece. In making a transcription of the same piece, it is about your own reaction to the piece: your feelings towards it, your fantasy that’s stimulated by it and, very important, the wish to make it available for your instrument.”

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)

 

The great auto-didact and pianists’-pianist Leopold Godowsky regarded the transcription as a musical essay on a musical subject.
Marc-André Hamelin has recorded Godowsky’s brilliant transcriptions on the Chopin Etudes and Strauss waltzes.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

 

Rachmaninoff, whose music also appears in Hamelin’s MT recital, was one of a generation of pianist-composers whose piano transcriptions delighted audiences on his many concert tours.

 

 

The piano transcription as an art form declined in popularity decade by decade throughout the Twentieth century to its present status as an endangered species. Memories of Kempff playing a handful of his elegant Bach transcriptions in the Seventies remain a cherished memory. And even more vivid memories of working with Earl Wild in London on a radio feature about his hair-raising piano transcriptions remain another. Both these very different pianists had roots that stretched deep into the romantic past and both were willing to make their own transcriptions a focal point of their recitals. Today, when not conducting, Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev helps keep the tradition alive with his Nutcracker and Prokofiev transcriptions. There are others. None more so than Marc-André Hamelin whose January 22 concert will be a date for the memory books.

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
– Bach/Szántó, Fauré, Ravel, Paganini/Hamelin, Rachmaninoff
Tuesday January 22, 2013 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre,
St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

© copyright Keith Horner 2013

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Mendelssohn in Love

September 13, 2012

Mendelssohn in 1829 James Warren Childe

Mendelssohn at 20. Watercolour made during his first visit to England in 1829

There’s a back story – a love story – to the remarkable quartet by Mendelssohn that the Attacca Quartet brings to MT later this month. A love story that lies in the shadow of the powerful, intellectually compelling A minor quartet, Op. 13, the first quartet that Mendelssohn wrote for a public audience.

In it, the 18 year-old composer is prepared to throw caution to the winds in a way he would find impossible for most of his adult composing life. It was something of a gamble – and Mendelssohn’s risk-taking resulted in one of the cornerstones of today’s quartet repertoire.

By bringing together the spontaneity of the moment with deeply considered rational thought, the young Mendelssohn took the string quartet into territory the genre had not previously visited. “The subtlety of the young Mendelssohn’s procedure is intellectually breathtaking,” says the prickly, notoriously demanding critic and pianist Charles Rosen, “but it ends up as deeply expressive.”

The expressiveness, in part, stems from Mendelssohn’s bright idea of basing the quartet on the music of a short love song he had written earlier in 1827. Titled Frage (‘Question’), this slender slip of a song plays by the rules and conventions of polite society, raising the temperature of the blood by a single degree at the most – on a hot day. But it’s in the transformation of art song to string quartet that Mendelssohn’s genius shines through. The song becomes the goal of the entire quartet. “You will hear its notes resound in the first and last movements, and sense its feeling in all four,” Mendelssohn wrote to the Swedish composer Adolf Lindblad. “I think I express the song well, and it sounds to me like music.” Mendelssohn even titled the song “Thema” and published it facing the first page of the quartet when the quartet full score was first published in 1842.

Frage (‘Question’), Op. 9 No. 1

Is it true
That you wait there for me
In the arbour by the vineyard wall?
And ask the moonlight and the stars
About me too?

Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, can only be understood
By she who feels as I do,
and is true to me
Forever, remains forever true

‘Is it true?’ – the first words of the song – open the quartet as a short, questioning motif that will underpin the entire work. They also echo another rising, questioning musical motif ‘Muss es sein’ (‘Must it be?’) from Beethoven’s final string quartet, Op. 135 – by means of which Beethoven constructs an entire movement in search of a resolution. Beethoven had died earlier the year Mendelssohn wrote his A minor quartet. His entire score is riddled with technical ideas borrowed from four of the late Beethoven quartets, recently published – and, of course, the most progressive music of the day. While Mendelssohn quickly absorbed and built upon this music, few at the time understood it. Mendelssohn’s father Abraham disliked late Beethoven and racked his brains trying to figure out what his son was trying to say with his A minor quartet. Then, much to his son’s dismay, he concluded that he hadn’t been saying anything at all.

But back to that song. The 18 year-old Mendelssohn wrote the words himself, disguising his authorship with the pseudonym ‘H. Voss’, (according to the memoirs of his brother-in-law Wilhelm Hensel).

Who was the object of his attention?

By 1827, the year the quartet was written, Betty Pistor had been a childhood friend of Felix and his younger sister Rebecka for several years – from the time that Felix sang alto in the Berlin choir to which they belonged. Musical parties were frequently shared in both musical households. In 1828, Betty Pistor’s astronomer father purchased the musical estate of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. With the opportunity of frequent visits to the Pistor family home, Mendelssohn eagerly took on the task of cataloguing and sorting Bach’s papers. In 1827, both young musicians had become members of the select Berlin Singakademie group directed by their mutual teacher Carl Zelter, Mendelssohn’s boy alto voice by now traded for the role of piano accompanist. Mendelssohn was 18, Betty (Dorothea Elisabeth Pistor (1808-87)), one year older.

The Mendelssohn family home at 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin became the Upper Chamber of the Prussian Parliament after Mendelssohn's death. Mendelssohn's mother described its garden as "a park, with splendid trees, a field, grass-plots and a delightful summer residence."

“I am composing a quartet for you,” Mendelssohn told Betty the following year. This was to be his next quartet, in E flat (both were published in 1830). But Betty did not know that Mendelssohn added the secret dedication ‘To B.P.’ on the score and frequently referred to it in letters to his sister and friends as the ‘B.P.’ quartet. In the previous summer, while working on the score in England, Mendelssohn wrote to his close friend, the diplomat Karl Klingemann, of “carnations lying near me on the score of the quartet for B.P.” Then, in January 1830, to mark Betty’s 22nd birthday, Mendelssohn gave her a copy of another song he had written and copied onto fine blue manuscript paper, with an original sketch by his brother-in-law on the cover. The young musicians met, as usual, at the Singakademie choir rehearsal. “We were very merry along the way there,” Betty recalled in her family memoirs.

Just three months later, writing to his friend the violinist Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s shock is palpable: “Hear now and take alarm: Betty Pistor is engaged. Totally engaged. She is the legal property of Dr. and Professor of Jurisprudence Rudorff. I authorise you to transform the ‘B.P.’ on the score of my quartet in E flat to a ‘B.R.’ as soon as you get confirmation of their marriage from the Berlin newspapers. It will take just a skilful little stroke of the pen – it will be quite easy.”

Betty Pistor did not hear of the dedication until three decades later.   According to the Rudorff family memoirs, written by her son, the composer, conductor and teacher Ernst Rudorff: “Betty’s feelings for Felix Mendelssohn were never mixed with any elements of passion. . . She was the elder of the two, and it is known that in early youth, a girl is uninterested in younger men.”

What more could he say? Betty Pistor was, after all, his mother!

Attacca Quartet – Haydn, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn
Thursday September 27, 2012 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright Keith Horner 2012

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Dancing on the graves

August 15, 2012

Brahms left slim pickings for the musical grave-robber. He composed in his head, not in a notebook – directly to his C:\\, as it were.

Brahms also burned his sketches – reducing PhD candidates to tears. He also admitted to destroying dozens of completed works that fell short of his own exacting standards.

Sibelius, too, left behind few bone fragments, though there was a minor rattling in 2011 when a partial skeleton for the ‘lost’ Eighth Symphony was pieced together. Listen to these lean, mysterious, if tantalizing Sibelius fragments here.

The lost Sibelius Eighth Symphony?

The lost Sibelius Eighth Symphony?

Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, flung open the cemetery gates with a staggering 800 pieces of juvenilia he himself exhumed. Now, almost a half century after his death, they’re still tinkering with the  BTC  (Britten Thematic Catalogue) numbers in the Red House in Aldeburgh, whenever they come across a fresh work that Ben wrote in the cradle.

Britten’s contemporary and sometime friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, is receiving similar loving curatorial treatment. Moscow’s  DSCH publishing house threatens 150 hard-cover volumes of the new collected works, 25% of which are previously unpublished, including “more than a hundred lesser know, or unpublished works by the composer.”  The Brentano have pounced on one of these – what’s believed to be an abandoned draft for the first movement of his Ninth Quartet – and set composer Stephen Hartke to work exploring what he refers to as ‘a sense of disquiet and emotional preoccupation’ that underlines Shostakovich’s recently unearthed musical fragment.

Many musical corpses have remained unburied for centuries. Take Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. If the title alone (not Schubert’s) does not present a sufficiently provocative challenge to the musical antiquarian, Schubert’s sketches for a third movement are irresistible. I recall interviewing English pianist Frank Merrick in the early Seventies about the 1928 Columbia Gramophone Company competition, which he won, to ‘finish’ the Unfinished. [I felt there was more of a story in Merrick’s many songs to Esperanto texts at the time, but the Schubert story was wanted by those who paid the bills]. Twenty years later, another interview, same story – finishing the Unfinished – this time when Brian Newbould brought his Schubert ‘realisations’ to the Festival of the Sound (including the Schubert quartet fragment, D.703 that the Brentano’s program will re-examine).

As though to tie a bow on Gustav Holst’s seven-movement suite The Planets, one neat-freak composer added a planet to Holst’s astrological fantasy to include Pluto (Colin Matthews: Pluto the Renewer) – which became a questionable inclusion for programmers once Pluto was down-sized to ‘dwarf’ planet. Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony fared better with the splendid posthumous creative collaboration of English composer   Anthony Payne.

‘At the point where the composer introduces the name B-A-C-H in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died,’ wrote his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (above) on the manuscript. The Brentano will perform Gubaidulina’s intense, often searing meditation on the incomplete fugue from The Art of the Fugue which rises in intensity as the music climbs ever higher on all four instruments.

The half-dozen fragments that the Brentano are bringing would grace either half of a string quartet program by themselves – even without the new works they have inspired. Of the oldies, only the Bach (the final, incomplete Contrapunctus from The Art of the Fugue) – and not even the Haydn (his final quartet, Op. 103) – has been played previously for MusicTORONTO.

‘Hin ist alle meine Kraft, alt und fehwach bin Ich’ – ‘Gone is all my strength,old and weak am I.’ Haydn published the two movements of his final quartet with these words by way of an apology. They also appeared on his calling card (above).

The Josquin and Dufay, too, are receiving their MT premières, deeply buried in a new score by American Charles (‘All my composing life, I’ve done things with and to old music’) Wuorinen.  The Schubert and Mozart are both discarded quartet movements. American composer Vijay Iyer took up the challenge of dancing on the grave of the latter: “I get laughed at whenever I tell anyone that I’m finishing an unfinished Mozart string quartet,” he reports.

Brentano Quartet – Fragments: Connecting Past and Present.
Fragments by Schubert, Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart. New works inspired by them by Wuorinen, Adolphe, Gubaidulina, Harbison, Hartke and Iyer. Thursday September 13, 2012 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright Keith Horner 2012

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Uncovering the roots of Bartók’s string quartets

March 08, 2012

Béla Bartók transcribing his phonograph recordings of folk songs

 

“The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time it is void of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive . . .  and a composer in search of new ways cannot be led by a better master.”

 

Bartók had been led by his own advice for more than two decades when he penned these thoughts in an essay in 1930.  Folk music is the very life blood of Bartók’s six string quartets, as we’ll hear when the Tokyo String Quartet embarks on a journey through this landmark of the quartet repertoire in their MusicTORONTO concerts this season and next.

 

 

 

The ‘right type’ of folk music implies that, for the Hungarian composer, there must have also been a ‘wrong’ type. This would have been the showy gypsy music that stirred Liszt to write his Hungarian Rhapsodies and Brahms his Hungarian Dances.  The ‘wrong’ type also included songs that resembled simple folk songs but which were, in fact, made up by popular 19th century composers.

Bartók went in search of the real deal.  The older generation of rural villagers, he found, generally held the key to the purest folk song; young people tended to prefer popular song.  His colleague and fellow collector Zoltán Kodály was a frequent traveling companion, both of them carrying heavy phonographs initially borrowed from the Budapest Ethnographical Society.  “We went into the country and obtained first-hand knowledge of a music that opened up new ways to us,” Bartók said.  “Of course, there were occasions when we were received with suspicion,” Kodály admitted.  “It wasn’t so bad as long as went on foot, but when we needed a carriage to take all our equipment they smelt a rat, suspecting some kind of ‘business’.”

On the road - Bartók (black hat) and phonograph (second from right)

Recording women could present a problem, Kodály reported.  While the men would be glad to cooperate after a glass or two, the male villagers believed that their women-folk only sang when drunk.  But by making a social event out of the recording – sometimes playing back recordings to encourage a sense of occasion and greater participation from the villagers – Bartók found that a line-up soon formed next to his phonograph, sometimes even proudly dressed in national costume.

Collecting Slovak folk songs in 1907. Bartók (centre) coaxing a female singer in village of Zobordarazs, now Drazovce, Slovakia

Bartók’s earliest folk song gathering was done with noble, if, ultimately, restricting intentions: “I shall collect the most beautiful Hungarian folk songs and raise them to the level of art songs by providing them with the best possible piano accompaniments,” he told his sister in 1904.  Many of his folk songs did, indeed, end up as solo songs with piano accompaniment or as choruses.  They also provided the starting point for one of his most straight-ahead and popular compositions – the Six Romanian Folk Dances of 1915.  Take a listen to this imaginative concert recording from Budapest which reunites these by-now well-known melodies with their folk origins.

Still, folk song arranging was only the beginning for Bartók.  His goal lay both musically and geographically farther afield.  He traveled through Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria between 1907 and 1912.  As the First World War approached, he was in North Africa meeting and recording the Berbers.

Bartók (centre) also collected folk songs in Turkey in 1936.

After gathering an incredible 10,000 recordings, then meticulously transcribing and cataloguing them, Bartók was to write: “The composer does not make use of a real peasant melody, but invents his own imitation of such melodies.”  Folk song, in other words, was so much under his skin that it now became his musical language.  And this brings us back to the string quartets and two brief glimpses of how Bartók’s scholarly field work influenced his composition.

Folk music, specifically certain types of Hungarian folk music with its distinctive accent on the first beat, colours the cello theme at the beginning of the slow movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet.  [Click on arrow above for audio – no video].
Its rhapsodic, wonderfully evocative cello theme unfolds against static chords.
Its accents also mirror those of Hungarian speech.

There are many examples of this sort of distinctive melodic writing drawn from folk song and speech rhythm throughout Bartók’s music.
If you continue listening, the cello rhapsody gradually reveals another profound influence on Bartók’s music, the sounds of nature – insects, birds, animals – and the sounds of the night.

Bulgarian rhythms (click on arrow above for audio) drive the third movement of the Fifth String Quartet in a teasing rhythm -one-two-three-four
one-two
one-two-three.
As the Tokyo Quartet works its way through all six Bartók quartets, we’ll hear how folk music was to drive composition of one of the greatest cycles of string quartets in the repertoire.  “In our case, it is peasant music which holds our roots,” Bartók said.

 

Tokyo Quartet – Haydn, Bartók Quartets 1 and 2.  Thursday March 15, 2012  – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto 
Posted by Keith Horner 

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