Playing homage

A few months ago we aired a selection of works in which composers made reference to other composers by quoting snatches of their melodies. This week, we highlight pieces that are dedicated in their entirety to a particular composer, making the product less referential, and more reverential, although you may question that latter description in my first example.

The Chinese composer and pianist Gao Ping was born in 1970. He wrote his Two Soviet Love Songs for Vocalizing Pianist (8.557678) in 2003. The second song is titled Katyusha: Homage to D. Shostakovich, Katyusha being a Soviet tune that the composer grew up with and is still popular in Chinese karaoke bars. Alongside that tune, he quotes Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony as well as a familiar American show-tune that Shostakovich once arranged for orchestra (Tea for Two). Stir in the experience of idiosyncratic mannerisms of some performers, and you can understand why the piece was written “ …for the private entertainment of accomplished pianists who also like to sing…” says Gao “ …but, as I played them after their completion, I felt that their theatricality seems to demand an audience.” And that, dear readers, is your role today!

Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) was born near Lemberg in Austrian Poland. He made his concert debut aged nine performing a Concertino by Czerny, which was conducted by Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, the younger surviving son of the great Mozart. When he was 11, Leschetizky began piano studies with Carl Czerny himself and went on to enjoy a successful career as a pianist, teacher and composer. His piano suite Contes de Jeunesse, Op. 46 (8.223803) comprises nine character-pieces. Three of the movements carry the word ‘Hommage’ in their title, being dedicated variously to his teacher Czerny, to Robert Schumann and to Chopin. Here are short extracts from those movements. Can you match the audio to the correct dedicatee?

Extract 1                              Extract 2                              Extract 3

The American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote his first composition at the age of 7 and went on to enjoy great popularity, appreciated in his own time. That success was described by The New York Times in Barber’s obituary as “early, persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” His melodies are broadly songful, his harmonies opulent, which led the journal to continue “Although he often dealt in pungent dissonances and complex rhythms…there was a lyrical quality even to his strictly instrumental pieces that, from the first, established him as a neo-Romantic…” How appropriate that description is for Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field), Op. 33 (8.559015). Field was the Irish composer and pianist who created the form of the nocturne, before giving way to Chopin to realise its fullest possibilities. Barber’s neo-romantic harmonies and exquisite filigree passages make this dreamy and highly pianistic piece one of the composer’s most ethereal works.

Manuel María Ponce (1882-1948) was one of Mexico’s most prolific composers; one characteristic of his work is the use he made of varied styles, reflecting his knowledge and mastery of different compositional techniques. Back in 1912, Ponce’s desire to explore new directions had led him to present the first recital in Mexico, given by his students, devoted exclusively to the music of Debussy. Shortly afterwards he wrote the Scherzino (Homenaje a Debussy) (GP764), whose first and third parts are built on the hexatonic scale, used extensively by Debussy, to whom he dedicated the work. The change in harmonic style can be clearly heard.

Catalonia has been in the news recently for wanting to go its own way, independent of Spain. It made me think of the Catalan composer Leonardo Balada (b. 1933), who went to New York in 1956 to study composition. The unique ‘avant-garde’ techniques that he developed during the 1960s set his works apart from other composers of the time. Later, in the seventies, he was credited as a pioneer in fusing the modern with folkloric ideas and mixing the new with the old in works such a Homage to Sarasate (8.557342), the Spanish violinist and composer. Here’s how Balada himself describes that transition:

“A new stylistic adventure began in 1975 when I felt again the need for change. Now those abstract sounds would be blended with traditional ideas, and the avant-garde would meet with the ethnic and traditional in a symbiosis. This brought criticism from some quarters… It may seem facile, but it is not easy if those folk elements are presented in a non-conventional context.”

We end with music by the Cuban composer, guitarist and conductor Leo Brouwer (b. 1939). Between 1959 and 1981 he wrote three sets of Estudios sencillos (Simple Studies), composed as alternative study material to the 19th-century pedagogic guitar repertoire; they became popular among students and professionals alike. In 2001, he wrote a further set, 10 Nuevos estudios sencillos (10 New Simple Studies) (8.570251). As before, each study deals with a particular area of technique, but each one was also dedicated to a 20th-century composer, among them Omaggio a Stravinsky, Omaggio a Villa-Lobos and Omaggio a Szymanowski. As with Leschetizky’s music heard earlier, can you match the audio to the correct dedicatee?

Extract A                              Extract B                              Extract C

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