A visit to the Paris Exhibition in 1889 introduced Claude Debussy (1862–1918) to the music of Javanese gamelan orchestra and proved to be a potent inspiration for his exploration of a musical language outside the perimeters of Western tonal harmony. Stimulated by the four Javanese five-note scales, he began employing pentatonic and other non-standard scales into much of his music.
In 1903, he completed his set of three solo piano pieces titled Estampes (“Prints”) with the expressed intent of evoking imaginary voyages to three locales—Asia, Spain and France. The initial piece, Pagodes ("Pagodas"), imitates the glittering sonority of metallophones and the harsh punctuation of the gongs. Debussy insisted that the music be played in strict tempos, likely in reaction to Romantic era apostrophizing musical points through overuse of tempo fluctuation. The occasional ritards in Pagodes are not expressive, but stylized gestures.
Pagodes evokes a mysterious Orient of the mind rather than an attempt to accurately mirror Eastern music. His fascination with Asia, of course, was shared by Ravel and other artists flourishing in the years before the outbreak of the First World War.
A number of Debussy’s piano pieces re-emerged in orchestral garb, many of them orchestrated by the composer’s younger contemporary André Caplet (1878–1925), a gifted musician with a passion and for and the requisite insight into the sound world of his musical idol. Caplet’s arrangement of Pagodes skillfully employs contrary motion between harp and celesta in enhancing the rainbow-like hues implicit in Debussy’s original keyboard version. As the short piece approaches its closing bars violin and viola trills blend with the harp and celesta in a subtle yet gently thrilling moment of ecstasy, as if created by the pealing of temple bells.
Like Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and a number of other American composers, Canadian-born Colin McPhee (1900–1964) shared a keen enthusiasm for Eastern music. Unhappy with what he perceived as the increasing chaos of Western urban life and the growing chasm between modern music and audience acceptance, he sought refuge and artistic inspiration in the East. In 1931 he and his anthropologist wife Jane Belo (a student of Margaret Mead) moved to Bali where he proved to be a catalyst for the revival of interest in gamelan. “At first,” he noted, “as I listened from the house, the music was simply a delicious confusion, a strangely sensuous and quite unfathomable art, mysteriously aerial, Aeolian, filled with joy and radiance. Each night the music started up I experienced the same sensation of freedom and indescribable freshness.” Tabuh-Tabuhan is McPhee’s most frequently performed work. The score is a successful meeting of East and West, skillfully blending Balinese and Western musical elements largely within the parameters of a Western orchestra whose core includes two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. Two Balinese gongs and cymbals also grace the ensemble.
The following material is taken from a program note written by the composer:
“The title of the work derives from the Balinese word tabuh, originally meaning the mallet used for striking a percussion instrument, but extended to mean strike or beat—the drum, a gong xylophone or metallophone. Tabuh-Tabuhan is thus a Balinese collective noun, meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive.
“…I consider it a purely personal work in which Balinese and composed motifs, melodies and rhythms have been fused to a symphonic work. Balinese music never rises to an emotional climax, but at the same time has a terrific rhythmic drive and symphonic surge, and this partly influenced me in planning the form of the work. Many of the syncopated rhythms of Balinese music have a close affinity with those of Latin American popular music and American jazz.
“To transfer the intricate chime-like polyphonic figuration of the gamelan keyed instruments and gong-chimes, I have used a 'nuclear gamelan' composed of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. These form the core of the orchestra.
“In form, Tabuh-Tabuhan is more or less that of the classical symphony—there being three movements, 'Ostinatos,' 'Nocturne' and 'Finale' … The flute melody in the Nocturne is an entirely Balinese flute melody, taken down as played. The syncopated finale is based on the gay music of a xylophone orchestra which accompanies a popular street dance. This is heard in its most authentic form at the beginning of the work and given the grand treatment at the end.”
Zvonimir Nagy (b. 1978), currently assistant professor of Musicianship Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, embraces an ecumenical view that draws from cognitive science, neuroscience and digital media as well as the world of spirituality. Unlike many in the West, he eschews the notion that science and spirituality are incompatible. On the contrary, his music and research reflect what he perceives as the intersection of esthetics and spirituality on one end, and music cognition and philosophy on the other. In addition to his composing and performing activities he is at work on a book project in which he discusses how the creation of music and its performance shape the religious experience and how they affect musical creativity. In the realm of performance, Nagy is known for his gift for improvisation on organ and piano.
His education has been international: the Academy of Music of the University of Zagreb, Conservatoire de Paris “Jacques Ibert,” École Normale de Musique de Paris, Texas Christian University, and Northwestern University, where he completed his doctoral studies. His music and performing skills have attracted much attention, including awards from important music institutions including the BBC/Aberdeen Music Prize, César Franck & Olivier Messiaen International Organ Competition, International Summer Course for New Music Darmstadt, and most recently as composer at the 2012 Cleveland Recording Institute, and several other instances of recognition.
Nagy kindly provided a précis relating to Suizen, Symphonic Evocation for Shakuhachi Flute and Orchestra, herein excerpted:
“Influenced by traditional Asian religious practices and music performance, this evocation for shakuhachi and orchestra is inspired by ‘suizen’—a blowing meditation; suizen is known as a form of Zen practice characterized by the ritual of playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute (a Japanese end-blown flute) as a means of achieving a state of self-realization. ‘Suizen’ may be best described as a tone poem for orchestra—a sound image of the moments of inner reflection and musical experience.
“My interest in spirituality in music could be best described by a personal relationship to sound, whose behavior bears a strong analogy to the human soul. One of the tenets of this explication may lay in the nature of musical material, where the dynamic qualities of sound color, harmony and rhythm, with their envelopes of growth and decay could be compared to the tremors of one’s soul. What is more, I would also say that this physical resonance of sound could be well compared to our inner, spiritual resonance. As such, I regard musical harmony as closely related to sound, an attitude that continues to shape my aspiration to search for the experience of one’s spirit as a possible prerequisite for the ultimate insight into the world of the divine.”
Lakshminarayana Subramaniam (b. 1947) is a renowned Indian violinist, composer and conductor trained in both the Karnatic tradition of his homeland as well as in Western classical music. As a performer he appears in more than 200 recordings including collaborations with such Western musicians as Yehudi Menuhin, Stéphane Grappelli, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Herbie Hancock among many others. As can be inferred from their names, Subramanian is conversant in European and American classical music as well as jazz. His three-movement violin concerto, Shanti Priya, received its premiere in 1989 and was dedicated to Indira Gandhi. The composer has provided the following comments, slightly abridged and amended:
“The first movement, Adagio rubato, starts with sustained strings followed by vibraphone, bell tree and harp leading to the exposition of the theme by the oboe. It is joined by the flute the second time. The soloist then brings in the theme with slight variations. During the developmental section there is a trade-off between the woodwinds/strings and the soloist…An improvised cadenza by violin soloist is followed by a recapitulation that reprises the melody in the brass with support from the strings and winds, thereby creating a climax leading to the final rhythmic motif repeated three times in a traditional South Indian manner. The movement is based on a Karnatic Raga Charukesi, one of the 72 scales used in Southern Indian music.
“The following Adagio poco rubato opens with strings and winds, and then leads to a slow and romantic theme played by the violins. A solo violin cadenza yields to the recapitulation of the theme, played by the strings and soloist. The music is based on a Karnatic Raga Kirvani, another of the aforementioned 72 scales, and corresponds to the harmonic minor scale in Western usage.
“The concluding Allegro starts with the motif that mixes three different meters in its unfolding… The soloist enters after the theme is introduced by oboe and clarinet. During the development the theme is transposed and repeated in different keys while different sections of the orchestra move simultaneously through different meters. A cadenza follows after which the soloist re-introduces the theme. The movement is based on a pentatonic scale, Mohanam, derived from the Karnatic raga tradition. In Western terms it can be likened to a major scale without the 4th and 7th degrees.”
© Steven Lowe
Discounting his still rarely played Second and Third piano concertos, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93) produced two concertos that have maintained a steady berth in the standard repertoire. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 — the Romantic piano concerto for generations of listeners — and his only violin concerto have enjoyed prime status, yet both had rocky beginnings complete with rejection by their respective dedicatees. Leopold Auer (teacher of Heifetz, among other notable fiddlers) declared the Violin Concerto unplayable, whereupon Tchaikovsky found a champion in the figure of Adolph Brodsky. In the case of the First Piano Concerto, the composer’s first attempt at a large-scale work for soloist and orchestra, the rejection was lengthy, detailed and especially upsetting since it came from a close friend and colleague, Nikolai Rubinstein, head of the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky also taught.
Nikolai, brother of noted pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, attacked the work mercilessly. His judgment was that of a musical conservative who recoiled from what he perceived as vulgar display, tawdry emotions, structural inelegance and overall gaudiness. At the end of his diatribe, Nikolai tried to assuage his friend by offering to perform it if only the composer would make certain changes. Whether from inner strength or angry defiance, Tchaikovsky was able to declare, “I shall not alter a single note. I shall have the concerto printed exactly as it stands.”
He also erased the intended dedication to Rubinstein and replaced it with the name of Hans von Bülow, that estimable conductor and pianist cuckolded by Wagner (who took Bülow’s wife Cosima first as his mistress then as his wife). Von Bülow’s response to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was as positive as Rubinstein’s had been negative, praising the work for its originality, nobility and power. Rubinstein eventually recanted.
Introduced by the horns, the concerto’s initial theme — in the “wrong” key of D-flat — unfolds in the orchestra while the piano plays hugely sonorous chords beneath it. This arresting extended passage is the work’s introduction and gives way to an Allegro utilizing a quirky recurring theme heard by the composer at a fair, sung by a blind beggar. Beyond the pyrotechnic challenges of the solo part, one notes the imaginative orchestration and ingratiating countermelodies that weave around the piano’s line.
The slow movement in song form (A—B—A) opens serenely and barely audibly with muted strings cushioning a lovely melody sung by a solo flute before the piano enters to elaborate. A central scherzo-like section adds spice before a reprise of the movement’s opening theme. The concluding Allegro con fuoco is a hybrid sonata-rondo based on a Ukrainian folk tune. Dance-like and exuberant, the main body of the movement is contrasted with a gorgeous lyrical theme that the composer uses to build a grandly powerful climax. No wonder that the finale had to be repeated at several early performances by von Bülow!
© Seattle Symphony
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