Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

JaschaHeifetzPlaying
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

 

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddlerthe American Masters documentary which aired last week on PBS, offers an inside look at the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential violinists. The program includes rare film and audio clips and features interviews with prominent contemporary violinists and former Heifetz students. It follows Heifetz from child prodigy roots in Russia, where he was a student of Leopold Auer at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to his immigration to the United States and longtime residence in Southern California. In addition to his private and somewhat lonely personal temperament, the documentary highlights Heifetz’s rigorous sense of discipline and emphasis on scales.

Jascha Heifetz raised the bar for all violinists who followed, his name becoming synonymous with technical perfection. His recordings suggest an exhilarating sense of pushing limits…staying right “on the edge” without ever falling. This quality seems to have been present from the beginning. As the story goes, the young Jascha launched into Paganini’s Moto perpetuo at such a stunningly fast tempo that Leopold Auer gasped, saying, “He doesn’t even realize that it can’t be played that fast.” Heifetz’s playing transcended sentimentality, unleashing raw power and blinding intensity.

A Sample of Heifetz Recordings

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:

The Sibelius Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960:

Chaconne, From Partita No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy:

Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So:

There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.

-Jascha Heifetz

Washington’s Birthday

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Washington’s Birthday, the first movement of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony, emerges out of the desolate, snowy gloom of a midwinter night in rural New England. The music feels strangely amorphous, as if we’ve suddenly slipped into a dream.

As we enter this sonic dreamscape, it’s easy to get the sense that we’re joining music already in progress. Who knows where or when it began? Drifting from one hazy moment to the next, we gradually become aware of a growing hubbub of voices. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a spirited barn dance. Fragments of old American folk melodies float in and out of our consciousness and begin to blend into a growing, joyful cacophony. With one shocking, climactic chord, our strange dream shows signs of turning into a nightmare. But then, just as suddenly, the night begins to wind down. Amid the final echoes of a fragment of Goodnight, Ladies, our ephemeral vision evaporates…

Here are the opening lines of Charles Ives’ description of Washington’s Birthday:

Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic:

Visit Listeners’ Club posts featuring other movements from Ives’ Holiday Symphony, Thanksgiving Dayand Decoration Day.

Written in 1909

Composed in 1909 and revised and published four years later, Washington’s Birthday is an adventurous journey into atonality. Similar music was pushing the boundaries in Europe. 1909 was the year Anton Webern wrote the groundbreaking Five Movements, Op. 5.  The same year, Claude Debussy began writing his twenty four Préludes for solo piano. Listen to the hazy impressionism of the second Prélude from Book 1, Voiles. This music is constructed on the same whole tone scale Ives uses in the opening of Washington’s Birthday.  

In 1909 Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Ravel began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky was a year away from completing The Firebird.

Music Beyond the Holocaust

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

 

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the allied liberation of Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War. Orchestras around the world, including the Richmond Symphony, commemorated the event by playing often neglected music by Jewish composers who were affected by Nazi atrocities.

Music was performed frequently in the concentration camps. At Terezin, near Prague, prisoners defiantly performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times as a veiled condemnation of the Nazis. The conductor Raphael Schächter taught his fellow prisoners the music by rote, using a single score. As prisoners were moved to other camps, Schächter painstakingly began the process again.

In 1936, Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Huberman helped nearly 1,000 Jewish musicians flee the Third Reich. He is often credited with helping to preserve the Jewish musical tradition.

Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes examines the importance of the violin in Jewish culture.

Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (b. 1894-1942) was mentored by Antonín Dvořák and later studied with Claude Debussy. You can hear both Czech folk music and the wispy sounds of Impressionism in his brief but powerful String Quartet No. 1. Schulhoff died of tuberculosis at the Wülzburg concentration camp on August 18, 1942.

This piece contains ghostly and ethereal voices. Listen to the way the final movement fades into eternity.

Here is a performance by the Kocian Quartet:

  1. Presto con fuoco (0:00)
  2. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca (2:15)
  3. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca (5:53)
  4. Andante molto sostenuto (8:50)

Korngold and the “Hollywood Sound”

We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.

-Erich Wolfgang Korngold

In one of the great ironies of music history, Hitler was partly responsible for the lush, colorful sound we associate with the golden age of Hollywood film scores. Jewish composers, including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Miklós Rózsa emigrated to the United States as the film industry was blossoming. Had these composers been free to remain in Europe, many of the greatest film scores would likely have become symphonies.

Korngold created film scores for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Kings Row (1941). The later score seems to have subconsciously (or consciously) influenced the Main Theme of John Williams’ Star Wars as well as Superman. Listen to a suite from the score and then a back-to-back comparison of the two themes here. This music can be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic tradition of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Brendan G. Carroll writes,

Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written in 1945, draws on music from the movies Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn (1937), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and Juarez (1939). The concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, who served as a childhood mentor to Korngold. There are moments where the spirit of late Mahler briefly surfaces (in the first movement at 6:44 in the recording below). Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere with the Saint Louis Symphony in 1947.

Some concertos open with a long orchestra introduction before the solo instrument is heard. By contrast, in this concerto the violin greets us from the start; the expansive, open intervals of the theme suggesting endless possibilities. Waves of colorful sound leap from every corner of the orchestra throughout the outer movements. At moments, the violin becomes a solitary voice, venturing towards the wilderness of atonality before the orchestra pulls us back.

The Romanza enters intimate new territory. Listen carefully to the subtle conflict in the second movement’s opening chord. This is an instance where one note changes everything. The music seems to be searching. We hear high, shimmering voices followed by a dark and icy low chord. Notice the splashes of color which sparkle around the violin’s lamenting melody.

Here is a performance by Hilary Hahn and the Kölner Philharmonie, conducted by Heinrich Schiff. Hahn talks about the music here.

  1. Moderato nobile (0:00)
  2. Romanze (8:36)
  3. Allegro assai vivace (16:44)

Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major

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Great composers are never born out of the smug, comfortable bubble of academia. School has its place when it comes to perfecting the essential technical craft of composition (Beethoven studied with Haydn). But in the end, the greatest composers largely have been outcasts. Their bold, exciting and disruptive visions are usually misunderstood and rejected by the ruling establishment of the day. They hear things that others cannot.

The story of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major is a case in point. Written in 1903 when Ravel was 28 years old, the work was rejected by both the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. Ravel dedicated the work to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who called the last movement, “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” After being formally expelled, Ravel continued to audit Fauré’s class. To be fair, Fauré isn’t the only great composer to leave a “foot-in-mouth” statement for the history books. His quote gives us a sense of how shocking and revolutionary Impressionism must have been for older generations. This new music broke established rules of harmony and form, drawing on jazz and Asian Gamelan influences. Single chords evoked magical and surreal new atmospheres. In 1905 Claude Debussy wrote to Ravel saying,  “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

From its opening bars, Ravel’s String Quartet unfolds like a dream. It takes sudden turns effortlessly, often ending up where we least expect. As voices are passed around, the two violins, viola and cello seem to be conversing (listen between 0:54 and 1:16 for an example). In the first movement’s haunting second theme (1:54), notice the atmospheric sound of the first violin and viola in octaves and listen for the cello pizzicato.

One of my favorite passages occurs between 2:23 and 2:55, where each harmonic door opens into a room which seems more special than the last. Then this moment evaporates as if it had never occurred and we find ourselves in the more uncertain world of the development section, surrounded by splashes of color.

You’ll hear echoes of the first movement return throughout the rest of the piece. Listen carefully to the way 3/4 and 6/8 time merge together in the twangy pizzicato opening of the second movement. As the movement progresses, it covers a wide range of musical atmospheres, but the persistent opening motive keeps popping up, as if to say, “I’m still here!” (listen around 9:03 and in the mysterious passage at 11:50 in which the motive hints at a gradual transition back to the “A” section). The third movement enters strange, ethereal territory, while the final movement erupts with a blazing, unstoppable energy.

Here is a recording by the Alban Berg Quartet:

  1. Allegro moderato. Très doux
  2. Assez vif. Très rythmé 
  3. Très lent 
  4. Vif et agité 

Appalachian Spring at UMD

Unknown-41A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”

In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.

In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:

What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).

But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.

The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.

Here is the complete performance:

Ballet for Martha

Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.

In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.

If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.