Celebrating Tax Day with Burlesque Bach

250px-Johann_Sebastian_BachIf you’ve been griping about taxes recently, you may sympathize with the characters in J.S. Bach’s secular Peasant Cantata, BWV 212, first performed in 1742. Bach referred to this popular, comic work as “Cantate burlesque.” Listen to the entire work here.

In this excerpt, Ach, Herr Schösser, geht gar nicht zu schlimm, the farmer decries the unfair burden of land taxes. Here is a translation, beginning with the preceding recitative:

The master is good: but the tax collector
comes straight out of hell.
Quick as a lightning flash he can slap a new tax on land-us
harm the very moment we’ve just got out of hot water.

Ah. Mr tax- collector, Do not Be Too Hard
with us poor peasants.
Leave us our skin.
Eat up the cabbage
Like the caterpiilars to the bare stalk.
That Should Be enough!

Here is Christopher Hogwood and the The Academy of Ancient Music with David Thomas (bass) and Emma Kirkby (soprano):

Remembering Christopher Hogwood

conductor Christopher Hogwood
conductor Christopher Hogwood

Conductor, harpsichordist, and early music scholar Christopher Hogwood passed away last week at the age of 73. He was an influential advocate of authentic performance practice and the use of period instruments. He helped pioneer a movement which attempted to recreate the original sound and style of baroque and classical music. In 1973 he founded the Cambridge, England-based Academy of Ancient Music. You can explore a collection of his lectures here and view a catalogue of his extensive writing and recordings here. His approach to music, which emphasized musicology, is summed up in the follow quote:

Every piece of music should be looked at as a painting that dissolved off the wall when you closed the gallery door. If all the colors dripped down into a huge pot and you took this pot, along with a recipe of how to reassemble the colors back into Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ you would be very careful to get all the reds and the yellows in the right places, and not to paint it bigger or smaller than it was. I think music carries with it this responsibility.

A comparison of Hogwood’s period performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Romantic 1954 interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler demonstrates how different the same music can sound, depending on the philosophy of the performer. 

Youthful Beethoven

Let’s listen to Christopher Hogwood’s sparkling and stylish recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 with the Academy of Ancient Music. The performance features harpsichord and period instruments tuned to a slightly lower “A” than we’re used to.

Beethoven’s first two symphonies are his most youthful and classical, but listen carefully and you’ll hear hints of explosive, revolutionary sounds to come. The music was shocking enough to elicit the following description from a Viennese critic following the premiere:

“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.

You may also notice the kind of humor we rarely associate with Beethoven. While the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn commonly featured stately minuets for the third movement, Beethoven began writing scherzos. The word “scherzo” literally translates as “joke.” Notice the musical cat and mouse games and sudden interruptions which occur between instruments in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony.

The comically boisterous opening of the final movement is like a loud guest who attracts attention at a party for all the wrong reasons. It’s an outburst which opens the door to a spirited and simultaneously ferocious romp. As the motives are tossed around and developed, notice the way they become increasingly compressed between 29:11 and 29:25. Strangely, this movement contains subtle premonitions of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony (31:55). Then there’s the eerie intensity of that moment in the coda where everything drops out except for the string tremolo. What  follows may be the biggest joke of all.

  1. Adagio molto-Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (12:50)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (22:45)
  4. Allegro molto (27:10)

Haydn’s Final Symphony

Franz Joseph Haydn was employed in London during the final years of his life. Symphony No. 104 in D major is the last of twelve “London Symphonies”. Here is a live performance with Christopher Hogwood:

  1. Adagio — Allegro (0:00)
  2. Andante (8:56:
  3. Menuetto and Trio: Allegro (17:10)
  4. Finale: Spiritoso (21:33)

Stravinsky Goes Back to the Future

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.

Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.

Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.

Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.

By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.

This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:

  1. Sinfonia (0:00)
  2. Serenata (1:48)
  3. a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
  4. Tarantella (8:56)
  5. Toccata (10:49)
  6. Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
  7. Vivo (15:27)
  8. a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)

At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale. 

Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.

Violin Concerto

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up  a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”

Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:

  1. Tocatta (0:00)
  2. Aria I (5:58)
  3. Aria II (10:18)
  4. Capriccio (15:43)

Dumbarton Oaks

Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.

Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:

  1. Tempo giusto (0:00)
  2. Allegretto 
  3. Con moto (8:01)

"Hey Nick…Can We Go Home Now?"

Prince Esterhazy's summer palace near Fertod, Hungary
Prince Esterhazy’s summer palace near Fertod, Hungary

That’s pretty much what Franz Joseph Haydn said to his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, except not in those words. Instead, Haydn found a clever musical way to get his point across.

As this article explains, in the summer of 1772 Prince Esterházy decided to extend his vacation at his country palace. The court musicians in Haydn’s orchestra were missing their families back home. Haydn gave the prince a gentle musical nudge. The final movement of Symphony No. 45 begins with the typical fast Presto. But at the end of the movement (27:35 in the video below) Haydn does something strange which would have attracted everyone’s attention. At the moment when the symphony should be coming to an end, a slow Adagio begins. One by one musicians drop out and exit, until two violins are left to play the final notes of the symphony. The good-natured Prince Esterházy allowed the musicians to return home the following day. The piece earned the nickname, the “Farewell” Symphony. 

Let’s listen to a recording of Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music. The first movement begins in a stormy F-sharp minor. Listen to the way the music spins and evolves, sometimes going to unexpected places. Beethoven was a student of Haydn and I sometimes hear the seeds of Beethoven in Haydn’s music (15:50 in the second movement, for example). But while Beethoven ushered in a Romantic Era of the composer as “artist” and “hero”, Haydn probably saw himself more as a “worker”, writing only for the next gig.

As you listen to the instruments gradually drop out in the final movement, consider the emotional impact of this ending. There’s something touching about a symphony which began with such ferocious energy ending with the intimacy of two violins.

  1. Allegro assai (00:00)
  2. Adagio (07:27)
  3. Menuet: Allegretto — Trio (20:34)
  4. Finale: Presto — Adagio (24:52)

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