Tuesday, June 1, 2010

program notes: duetti

J.S. Bach | Suite no. 1 for solo cello BWV 1007
Likely one of the most oft appropriated selections from Bach’s oeuvre, the first cello suite has achieved "pop" status—featured in a myriad of television commercials and films alike. The complete suite is comprised of the oh-so-familiar prelude, followed by a series of dance movements. As it is accessible to the ear, we need not discuss musical style, harmonic language, etc. Certainly crafted with incredible skill, the musical forms are not too difficult to grasp: the music is "pretty" and we like that.

More compelling are the uses (and implications [1]) of dance forms. Before discussing Bach’s stylization, we must first turn to the intellectual firmament in which the composer’s aesthetic was codified. Still lit by the Scientific Revolution's afterglow, the beginning of the eighteenth century (Bach's most prolific period) was enlightened by empirical thought. Particularly pert for our discussion of Bach is the epistemological shift occurring between the onset of the early modern period and the nineteenth century. Where the former looks to break from Scholastic dogma via empiricism, the latter idealizes the mind, perpetually seeking transcendence. Nestled by these epistemological poles, Bach synthesized theology and eighteenth century rationality. Like his classical-era artistic offspring, Bach is partially interested in the physical sensations of living, "practice" (read: empiricism). And it is this context that his use of dance forms becomes truly captivating. In conjunction with the deeply religious overtones of the music, Bach's stylization of once lascivious and lewd dance forms contributes to a musical aesthetic elegant, intricate and dense. The result is the interaction of spirituality/learned-ness and physicality coalescing in Hegelian unity. Combined with his overt religious affiliations, references to the physical (the "low" dances: gigue, courante, sarabande) become apt descriptors of the dichotomy of the epoch.

Luciano Berio | Duetti per due violine: Bruno
Berio’s collection of thirty-four violin duets follows in the tradition paved by Telemann, Leclair, Mozart, and (later) Bartok. Composed in 1979, Bruno (an excerpt from the complete collection of duets) offers a glimpse into Berio's musico-rhetorical language. Brief though it may be (a mere 1’45”), the music betrays both a love of folk idioms and an influence from the twentieth century European modernist milieu from which the composer emerged. This kind of duality is expressed in Berio’s use a nineteenth century form (the waltz) dressed in Darmstadt-ian [2] garb. Further aligning himself with the Second Viennese School (the progenitor of his "European modernist milieu"), Berio’s dance quotations are akin to those of Mahler and Schoenberg. Within these allusions, another hallmark of Berio's aesthetic is evidenced: there is an unmistakable sadness—the ennui associated with nostalgia.

Jean Marie LeClair | Sonata no. 4 in D Major
In any exegesis on eighteenth century repertoire the influence of the salon must be considered. More than merely an enlightenment extravaganza, cacophonous and "cultured," the salon held tremendous sway for the intelligentsia, composers, and musicians of the day. One such musician was the composer-violinist Jean-Marie Leclair. Likely composed for performance at the French Concert-Spirituel, his sonata features thematic reiteration in predictable (and might I add, repetitive) forms. Indeed, the salon was raucous, abuzz with discourse and dialectic and it was this nascent environment that shaped the aforesaid formal characteristics (repetition—If you wish your music to be heard in a noisy setting, repeat it). Furthermore, the virtuosic writing is a product of Leclair's own violinistic facility.

[1] The dance would become extremely important for Arnold Schoenberg, largely considered to be the father of the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg saw himself as the successor to Bach, and as such referenced the baroque suite frequently (perhaps most famously in the op. 25 piano pieces). Although Schoenberg saw these allusions as natural and organic, they would later garner criticism from total serialist, Pierre Boulez.
[2] Darmstadt—an institute and festival in Germany—would act as a breeding ground for the European aesthetic popular from the 1950s-1980s. It was here that composers such as Ligeti, Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, etc, would learn their craft.

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