FOLK FORMS: RICHARD STRAUSS & BELA BARTOK
I wake up, a soggy morning. 9 am Sunday, I am sipping baby shots of whisky, not for the taste this time but on account of my stomach; as it helps with the cramps. Having just met a deadline, I have that temporary downtime which can sometimes drive me crazy or at the very least has led to trouble. Were it a weekday I could lose myself in errands, playing catch-up with all the mundane tasks I had neglected while in the midst of working on the Contessa's portrait.
I shave, more out of habit than vanity. I will go out and just try to lose myself in the day. I make sure the Suggo twins have their bellies full of lead and ink respectively and throw them in my book bag with a small sketch pad that begs to be tattooed.
People are out and about, the market is bustling with tourists taking photos of the tables piled high with pyramids of fruit and vegetables. Atop mini Kilimanjaros of ice, beds of wicker are placed for the fish and deep purple castanets of muscles to sleep upon. The invasion of Mouffetard will peter off as people stagger towards where the Eiffel tower is hanging out. I need to feel one of my little side streets under my feet.
I stop at the place with the faded deco bar I like but which no one uses as the street-side tables make for greater theater. Out of habit I glance at the drink list. I should just have a coffee as I had already had several drinks. That was medicine though, this would be for fun. I order a coffee, the waitress smiling at me, code that she has seen me standing behind her as she bought her leeks at the market and knows I am local and will make sure it is hot, good and strong.
I take out my sketchpad and capture the brick wall across the street with its Rorschach test of water stains. Standing on the sidewalk by the tables is a man in a dark blue polo shirt who, despite being older has great sideburns and an athletic build. He is looking about as if waiting for some kind of sign but not exactly sure what. He takes a small map from his back pocket and unfolds it. I lean forward and ask him;
"Excuse me, are you an American?"
He smiles and nods. I ask him if he is lost and he introduces himself, Curtis, he tells me that he has a few hours to kill while his wife visits a childhood friend. I invite him to sit down. He looks a little relieved as he had no idea what to do with himself. We talk about the different face Paris wears on a Sunday, even to a visitor it is apparent. He says that the visiting of friends for a big but laid back meal is the same kind of vibe as in Memphis. As we continue to talk I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. From diagonally across the street Monica is watching me. I do not want to talk to her; it is a girl in Wales I am thinking of. She crosses the street anyways as if invited, ignoring my psychic quarantine warning.
Curtis half rises from his chair as she approaches our table. She sits next to me. The waitress came back and took their order. We people watched and Curtis and I made small talk but as I had not been compelled to by any kind of social obligation or etiquette, I did not mind. Their drinks came and I switched to Pastis which was so a part of my daily routine that too was not really drinking. Monica asked Curtis what he did for a living. He was a Jordanaire, mainly doing studio and session work now. It did not really register with her but most things that she could not parlay into something from which she would benefit did not.
I took the folded menu and started blowing into it, my tone like a cross between the tiny sound of a cheap trumpet and a kazoo, Curtis provided baritone "Doot dah-doot doot doo's" and even Monica joined in playing wine glass and plastic stirrer drum kit for what had to be the strangest cover of "Things Ain't What They Used To Be."
Some people stopped and listened. The owner did not mind as some of the audience decided this had to be an interesting place and took up at some tables. In general he was easy going with what went on at his tables as long as it did not involve blood or heartache for he was, like us all, superstitious. Curtis finally has to go, he wants to check out some of the classic cafes where Hemingway drank, we shake hands and he leaves. Monica becomes morose again as no one is looking at our table any longer and there was not even the novelty of talking to a stranger who did not realize that she was a dilettante.
I was going to just walk around; Monica said she would join me.
"I might be stopping to sketch."
"That is ok, I have my book with me."
I shrug my shoulders and as I dig through my pockets for money she takes care of the bill, tip and all. The sun feels good, we do not talk. Without thinking about it I steer us past the Dante statue towards all the book and record stores to which I am so devoted. We go into one and because she is with me they do not make her leave her bag at the register. Of course there are things that I like but nothing new. Naturally I begin to mentally go down the list of my white whales of albums which I already know will not be in the bins I am already so familiar with. There are things that I like; to buy one would add to the already large body of my collection but not the timbre. Another Zoot Sims album will be enjoyable but not a journey of discovery. I go into two more record stores. I now feel obsessed; I want to buy something but what? It has to be different not just a different musician but altogether different. Monica has told me that she will see me around; she is bored and going home. I had not wanted her with me but it offended my sensibilities that I bored someone into exile with one of my passions. Back in the day, when I had no money, to be able to buy any record was a joy and sadly, to some extent a big deal. Now as long as I did not gorge myself I could do so whenever I wanted to. It was money, this freedom of choice that kept me weaving in and out of all these record shops, determined to get something. Having money can be rougher than not for when you had none your choices were simplified and one had to concentrate on being able to just get the most basic essentials. Being poor in some ways is like being sick, life becomes finely focused, reduced to the purity of small tasks like links in a chain attached to one another, each standing for a day, which will eventually pull you up and out to where you want to be. Just keep taking your medicine, try to rest get your strength back and you can go home and sleep in your own bed with no waking up every hour as they check your IV, just save up your money so you can move to a place that does not have the rotting skeletons of several cars in the backyard and one communal bathroom....
I very much enjoyed opera and to me Mahler's works may be as close to the divine as man may ever come but even when I made any type of resolution to go to the classical section during one of my many forays, I still found myself in the world of jazz.
This time I would do it, something classical. As into opera as I was I preferred it live as opposed to on record. The records always had faults I could not get past, live recordings there would be sound drop outs, maybe someone coughing over a delicate Elizabeth Schwarzkopf passage. Studio recordings, the energy always seemed truncated and sterile. Symphony did not seem as sensitive to picking up these faults.
Another lifetime ago and half a world away, Kit frying up liver to help me get my health back. I had a copy of Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. She would de-seed using the album jacket as a mini table, eventually smoking some of her stash as I played the record and sketched her becoming sleepy eyed. A crasher to one of our impromptu parties broke it or something, that first time I moved it was gone.
Not on account of nostalgia but I would get something of Strauss's. I was very interested to see what I would now notice and enjoy that the me back then had not. I go into my store and greatly surprise everyone by not going down the stairs to my section but detouring instead to the section at the back.
They do not have Death and Transfiguration but there are plenty of other things by Strauss. I remember sometimes if Kit smoked the right amount and all the stars were aligned, she would enjoy the piece which became a sort of soundtrack for her inner musings. The next day she would not really recall the music but retained the memory of the feelings it produced asking me;
"Who was that again?"
It became a sort of ritualized question and answer where I would always have to answer;
"Richard Strauss, Strauss but not the Waltz king one."
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was born into a musical family. His father Franz (1822-1905) was an accomplished French horn player much in demand in Munich (1860's). Franz was a fierce enemy of Richard Wagner's (1813-1883). Wagner held the world premier of Tristan Und Isolode (1865) in Munich. Franz was 1st horn in the orchestra. During the middle of one of the rehearsals he got up and left, stage whispering that he would not play such avant garde music. The anti-Wagnerist in the musical community rallied around Franz. Later when during an orchestra rehearsal Wagner's death was announced all the musicians stood for a moment's silence except Franz, who conspicuously remained seated. Franz's almost pavolvian negative reaction to Wagner's music seems not to have affected his musical career but did initially color his son Richard's musical view. Ironically Richard would eventually develop his own musical palette to paint from and within his father's lifetime became one of the preeminent interpreters of Wagner's music.
Richard started learning piano at the age of four. By six he had written one of his first pieces, a polka for piano and a song inspired by children singing around a Christmas tree. Once he started attending school, he wrapped his books in notepaper as to be able to quickly jot down the musical sketches he was constantly coming up with.
Franz believed that Richard should have a strong, well rounded education. Richard's education went from elementary school to high school where he stayed until the age of eighteen, which was then not a common thing as teens would often be apprenticed out for specific vocations. While caught up in his general studies Richard also studied violin, piano, harmony, counterpoint and instrumentation. Richard built up an early momentum when in 1880 a concert singer included three of his songs in one of her Munich recitals. The following year one of his teachers, Benno Walter gave the premier of his "Quartet in A Major." Two years later he graduated from high school and attended University of Munich. After a year of general studies he decided he wanted to focus solely on music.
Despite being a student he already had enough reputation to have his "Overture in C Minor" performed in Berlin, making the trip there himself to oversee the production. By now Strauss had already had some of the works from his growing catalog published. His publisher felt that his presence out of university and on the Berlin music scene a good promotional tool and had some of his piano music printed up and sent to various powerful and prominent musicians.
One of the recipients was Hans Von Bulow (1830-1894). Hans was Franz Liszt's (1811-1886) son in law via marriage to his daughter Cosima who would later run off with Wagner. After a career which saw him championing new and challenging music while engaging in dramatic feuds, the temperamental Von Bulow became conductor/director of Meiningen Court Theater. This was an orchestra which he personally built up to become one of the finest in Germany by implementing such then novel concepts as having the orchestra learn to play their parts by memory and introduction of different percussive instruments.
Von Bulow's initial impression was lukewarm, feeling that there was talent but not genius in Strauss. A year later Von Bulow found "Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments" more favorable, performing it with his orchestra. Strauss was invited to Meiningen and given a commission ("Concerto for Horn and Orchestra/Suite for 13 Wind Instruments") Strauss conducted the suite impressively overcoming a complete lack of rehearsals. This got Strauss the position of Von Bulow's assistant (1884). Ushering in the true start of Strauss's career as a conductor.
He would become the successor to Von Bulow in the late 1880's as principle conductor. Strauss continued writing even while busy with conducting duties. This was the start of his composing some of what would later be regarded as his major works. He was afforded the opportunity to travel with the rare accord of some pieces receiving their world premier in the United States. Straus had been inline with his father's way of regarding Wagner's works but exposure to new concepts through travel began to change his aesthetics. After hearing Die Walkure performed in Bayreuth he found himself completely converted and sitting artistically at Wagner's feet.
The new possibilities this music opened up for Strauss made him reassess all he had written so far, finding it no longer to his liking. At this time when in artistic flux he met Alexander Ritter (1833-1896) who was in his orchestra. Aside from being a musician, Ritter was also a philosophical poet who deeply believed in Wagner's artistic creed (he would marry Wagner's niece). He preached of the new possibilities to be found in dramatic/programmatic music and how to utilize these new concepts, the old skin of classical-romantic style must be shed. By way of example he had Strauss delve deeper into the works of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz, the genre Liszt had baptized as "The Music of the Future (or sometimes Future Music).
1886 found Strauss visiting Italy and writing Aus Italien which was a programmatic piece describing Italian life and being the first piece in which he intentionally sheds all of his old artistic influences and incorporated dissonance. It premiered in Munich in 1887 with Strauss conducting. It was not well received, booed during performance and critically lambasted as "noisy, ugly and confusing". Even Von Bulow who had himself been a young lion championing (then) avant garde music thought Strauss had gone too far tonally. Strauss actually enjoyed the uproar with his faith in himself not being shaken in the least. Oddly energized by the controversy, Strauss wrote his first tone poem in 1887 "Macbeth" which was the start of a ten year creative burst that permanently solidified his reputation and fame.
While composing his tone poems and programmatic music Strauss also continued to write songs. His first mature set was done in 1882-83. This work utilizing singing and his new influences could also in some ways be seen as practice leading up to his attempt at operatic composition. His first opera (1894) Guntram was a flop as was his second attempt (1901) Feuersnot. The failure of these two operas is important in that they gave Strauss a "nothing to lose" attitude, freeing him up to incorporate more radical innovations into the next two which would be considered his master works (1905 Salome, 1909 Elektra). With these two operas he brought a more naturalist approach to the text, les of the typical operatic suspension of disbelief in plot devices and singing more to convey the emotional landscape of the characters less for mere technical virtuosities sake. The devices in these works were further emboldened by Strauss being named to one of the most prestigious musical posts in Europe, Director of Berlin Royal Opera, a post he would hold for twelve years. Strauss would also use his new power to create a trade union for German composers which allowed for the new practice of composers collecting royalties from every performance of their work in major orchestra/opera houses.
Strauss would find himself once again touring both Europe and a growing cosmopolitan America. By the start of the 20th century he is considered the living master of German music. Strauss's creative powers were said to have lessened starting from the years of the First World War but many of the older generation were distracted or heart broken by the end of European society as it had been known previously for generations.
During World War II Strauss was forced to play a political shell game with the Nazis. It is inaccurate and a simplification to label Strauss as a collaborator with the Nazis. Pragmatically he worked with them during their initial rise to power before anyone realized how truly horrific the regime and its policies would prove to be. Strauss never formally joined the party but affiliated with them as to be able to protect the Jewish members of his extended family. He also used his influence to continue to perform works officially banned by the party (Debussy, Mahler et al). Strauss had international fame and his name leant a certain legitimate cache to the Nazi regime so they named him to a position as sort of the equivalent of national conductor/composer laureate. Despite his position Strauss insisted on working with his friend the Jewish author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) for the opera Die Schweigsame Frau even going so far as to demand his name also be printed on the libretto and concert programs despite the fact he had been officially declared a forbidden artist. It was after their correspondence was intercepted which contained criticisms of high ranking party members that Strauss was removed from his post. The letters remained unknown to the outside world and his dismissal was kept largely silent as his composition "Olympische Hymne" was used without his permission for the Berlin hosted 1936 Olympics.
Several times Strauss personally tried to intervene on behalf of people in camps to no effect. He spent the rest of the war years with his family in Vienna under a sort of house arrest. In many ways his position and interaction with a fascist regime matches that of Respighi (1879-1936) under Mussolini or Shostakovich (1906-1975) under Stalin. Great artists, men forced to walk among wolves.
It is also too simple to say that artistically after such and such a date Strauss artistically ran out of steam. There is evidence enough that this is not true in one of his final major works "Four Last Songs". Was he still innovating? No, but considering all that was going on and his age, not too shocking. Some artists can put themselves outside the stream of all that is going on in their world and just create using their inner muse as a sort of North Star, others can use the zeitgeist itself as a sort of catalyst for creativity and some it fatigues slowing down if not all together stopping exploration.
I was able to get a copy of "Four Last Songs" whose overall melancholy feel had an elegiac aspect to it which somehow made me feel better. I also on a whim grabbed a copy of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra whose cover featured a somber colored Joan Miro type drawing that caught my eye. The cashier rang me up, looking at me questioningly as he wondered if it were a divorce or merely trial separation from my kingdom downstairs.
Bela Bartok (1881-1945) had a lot in common with Straus including an oeuvre which was effected by life during war time and its after effects.
Bartok's father was a good amateur musician and director of the School for Agriculture. As a baby Bartok was given a small pox inoculation whose negative side effect caused him to have a rash that demanded quarantine from other children until he was five years old. In this solitude he spent most of his time listening to his mother playing the piano. When he was eight his father passed away and his mother began to formally teach him piano. By the age of nine he was adept at composing dances. Unlike the biographies of many artists, Bartok's mother approved of his calling and actively supported his ambitions. She believed in his talent from the very beginning and the family often moved to where the best musical instruction for Bela could be obtained. The first of such moves was to Bratislava (Czechoslovakia) where she taught and Bartok studied under Laszlo Erkel.
In his early years Bartok showed clear influences of Brahms (1833-1897). From 1899-1903 he studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It was at the end of this study period Bartok felt the desire to create a new nationalistic music but did not have the idea of how to bring it about. A performance of Strauss's "Also Sparch Zarathustra" inspired him and left him with a yet unrealized notion of new ways to compose and convey emotion. After leaving the academy while still trying artistically to find his way he earned a meager living playing piano, teaching and writing arrangements. It was the happenstance in 1905 of hearing a servant girl in a hotel singing a traditional folk melody with an unusual progression that lead to what Bartok said was his second birth. This melody spurred on his travel all through the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he desired to capture this music. It was the start of a lifelong attachment to ethnomusicology in which he would eventually become one of the leading voices of in his day. His first trip stopped only when he ran out of funds.
A lot of the music collected was unknown to the rest of the world, even to formally trained sophisticated Hungarian musicians. While in the process of forming his musical identity he would be made Professor of Piano at the Liszt Academy (1907). His teachings would be done concurrently with what would end up being eight years of ethnomusic travel and exploration. Often Bartok would travel with his artistic Gemini and best friend, fellow Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967). The formation and end result of Zoltan's artistic life closely resembled that of Bartok's. They differed in some finer points such as Kodaly primarily being interested in Hungarian folk music where as Bartok embraced all of Eastern Europe. Once they both found their own voices Kodaly preferred to create new works from within the frameworks of the traditional music he and Bartok explored where as Bartok used the music as a building off of point, embracing modernistic devices too.
Together the two of them collected music from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia. They would transcribe the music or make wax drum recordings. In all they would preserve more than six thousand songs, making sure they were all published.
Early on in his expeditions he came to realize that what the cosmopolitan cities of the empire regarded as "Hungarian music" such as Brahms dances had little if anything to do with the real thing. Until Bartok and Kodaly's foray into the field, overly sentimental sinuous music as played for tourists in cafes had been held up as example of "authentic". What Bartok discovered in the true music was different in style and technique. The melody's cadence was based off of ebb and inflection of Hunagarian speech, jagged rhythms which helped create complex yet raw art, an effect he would absorb for his own music. The contrasts of emotions and its seemingly inexhaustible possibilities made him aspire to write true Hungarian music becoming part of a tradition not merely creating sketches "in the style of" but true to form compositions which would also incorporate the vernacular of late romantic/impressionistic components which had initially so inspired him.
During this process his own compositions began taking on a greater complexity and actually moved further and further away from the late romantic template as he allowed his creative process to be fueled directly from his explorations both geographically and musically.
The challenge of his music, once his voice was fully formed earned him respect but was a deterrent from it being performed as frequently as works by more minor talents who presented more palatable faire.
The Baldwin Piano Company sponsored Bartok's first trip to the U.S in 1927. This was a ten week tour in which he personally conducted his major works. People were polite but not overly enthusiastic, his work was not embraced. In Europe his various accomplishments from documenting and transcribing music to his own compositions were seen as important, they just did not manage to maintain widespread popularity, his works still being performed sporadically at best.
During the onset of World War Two Bartok had to flee to America as his refusal to allow any of his works to be performed in occupied or Axis countries brought him to their notice.
The last years of his life were spent in exile in NYC. Bartok lived in great poverty and privation. He was largely ignored by his great conductor peers and musicians. One of the few to recognize his talent was Serge Koussevitzky who visited him when he was hospitalized and commissioned Bartok to write an orchestral piece for the foundation that Serge was the namesake of. For three years Bartok ran a fever, an effect of his leukemia, which left him depressed, lonely and bitter. He put his final energies into his last works, shedding all thoughts one by one except for the creation of the group within his larger body of works that would comprise his swan song.
These last pieces ironically, proved to be world popular, the premier of the concerto receiving the standing ovation that the composer did not live to witness. From the small seed of recognition would sprout over the next five years the wider recognition and appreciation that had always eluded him in life.
The Concerto for Orchestra is the perfect place for a novice to start. Although his most popular piece here the word "popular" should not be considered to have any plebian connotation. The piece is made up of five movements. There is a switching of emotional gears in the duel themes of melancholy and joy.
Pessimism is theme of the first movement as portrayed by lower strings, then flute and trumpet. There is a slow building tension created as the theme slowly appears. The first and last movements of the concerto are in traditional sonata form but utilize dissonance. The second movement offers a moment of lightness which serves to bolster the power of the more dark moments. Bartok himself had given this section the subtitle "The Game of Couples". In it five different couples are portrayed by five different pair of woodwinds (in order: bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, muted trumpets). Each couple is separated by a choral for brass.
The 3rd movement has the melancholy theme taken up from the first movement. Even though to some extent the theme is being repeated it manages to retain both its beauty and mystery. Over all the concerto is not programmatic but even if one knows nothing about the story behind the concerto or what Bartok intended for the listener the varying moods easily resonate to the audience.
The concerto concludes with a lively and energetic Hungarian round, a cheerful victory over the pervading melancholy. The development section of this last part is a fugue and in some ways with its cadence shows how well Bartok always managed to fuse the old with the modern. With some of the first modern classical composers, as soon as you become familiar with the influential cannon, you hear a sort of cross pollination upon listening to other composers. It has been said that all modern classical had initially sprung Athena like from the twin artistic godheads of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). Listening to their contemporaries or those who came immediately afterwards there is not necessarily whole sale mimicracy or borrowing but components taken from one of the two are usually pretty clear. With Bartok, his works have the sound of what we think of as embodying the first generation of modernists but executed largely outside the influence of the big two. Part of this is from Bartok drawing upon ethnic music in a "deeper" way than Stravinsky did who more used such structures for inspiration of motifs. Bartok created Poly Modality which was the use of several modes/scales within a piece. A mix of ancient "exotic" scales with modern dissonance that gave much of his music its beautifully savage modernism. He not only found his own way but created it where as even the better modernists were freed up or inspired by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
I liked both the Strauss and Bartok. I think I liked the Strauss even more than I used to. I stand by the window blowing my cigar smoke past the bowed heads of the Geraniums. Would she still like Strauss? And me, how often was my name alternated between a curse and half remembered day dream? One of us had been wrong, not always though. Memory was like seeing a stone under quickly moving water, wavering years of indiscriminate shape.
image above 'Tenderness' (watercolor on paper) by Wayne Wolfson