Although classical music is able to fill a multitude of niches, most would agree that it falls into two broad categories: works that prompt the listener to formulate a picture in their mind of the composer’s initial inspiration (a story, an event from history, a painting, and so on); and pieces that elicit an emotional response, but without that literal, graphic element.
Compositions that are descriptive of an occasion or an object are referred to as ‘programmatic’; works that stand on their own, without external references, are classified as ‘absolute’. This month’s list of new releases has examples of both types, so I’ve chosen a few from each by way of an introduction to both the music, and the programmatic/absolute concept.
First, we have Chang Ping’s Oriental Wash Painting, a suite of four concertos, each featuring a different traditional Chinese solo instrument: guzheng (Chinese zither), erhu (Chinese violin), pipa (Chinese lute) and zhudi (Chinese bamboo flute). The first movement is titled The Wind Washed Clouds and is scored for guzheng and orchestra.
In discussing the work, Chinese musicologist Li Jiti has explained how the idea came from a classical Chinese poem, My Cottage Unroofed by Autumn Gales, written by Du Fu, a famous poet from the Tang Dynasty. The poem reads: “Shortly the gale subsides and clouds turn dark as ink; The autumn skies are shrouded and in darkness sink.” Chang Ping was struck by these two lines, which gave him the inspiration to create the concerto. A number of images came to his mind on reading the poem: the gale had just passed away, the cloud was as dark as ink, and the rainstorm was about to come. He then immediately turned these images into notes, just like a painter’s decisive sweep and stroke on a canvas, or a Chinese calligrapher splashing ink on paper without hesitation. Here’s the first part of the concerto.
The Wind Washed Clouds (8.570627)
A much more gentle scene is depicted in Bruce Paine’s Oakura Chimes for solo guitar; Paine is one of New Zealand’s leading composers for the instrument. In January, 2018, he spent a week with Yvonne Blatti, mother of one of the organisers of the Taranaki Classical Guitar Festival held at Oakura, a small township located on New Zealand’s North Island. Here he found inspiration for a new work in a set of wind chimes hanging by the back door of the house where he was staying, which spurred him to try and tune the guitar as closely as possible to the same notes. The composer has written an introduction to Oakura Chimes:
“The opening section of the piece is intended to give an impression of the chimes gently moving in the breeze. This evolves into melodic material occasionally interspersed with wind chime arpeggios (natural harmonics). Overall the piece is meant to depict the peaceful Oakura garden setting which included rabbits, quails, and other bird life. During my stay with Yvonne, I learned of her affection for defenceless animals and disgust at the way many are treated, such as poisoning and the destruction of habitats. She does her best to care for those that frequent her garden and neighbouring fields. She also pointed out new monarch butterflies flexing their wings and preparing to fly and how she was careful to protect the chrysalises in order to give them the best chance to fully develop. In the music I have arpeggios in harmonics that slowly ascend then later descend to represent a butterfly opening and closing its wings. This evolves into the butterfly’s first flight represented by rapid arpeggios. After the flight there is a recapitulation of the opening melodic material and a transition to material similar to the ‘chimesesque’ introduction.”
Oakura Chimes (8.574121)
As a young man, the German composer Max Reger (1873-1916) already felt a close affinity with the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). Reger dubbed the variation movement of his String Quartet, Op. 74 Der geigende Eremit (‘The Hermit Fiddler’) in allusion to Böcklin’s painting, originally titled Der Einsiedler (‘The Recluse’). For Reger, it encapsulated the symbolic ideal of the musician who could concentrate exclusively on his vocation, far from worldly distractions. Böcklin and Reger both made death a central and lifelong theme of their work, looking it squarely in the eye: their motto was “as long as I paint (or compose), I am alive”.
In Reger’s Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, the sequence of ‘four orchestral mood pictures’ corresponds to the movements of a symphony distinguished on the one hand by their different instrumental scoring, but at the same time interlinked by thematic connections.
The turbulent Vivace finale was inspired by Böcklin’s Bacchantenfest (Bacchanal). Reger himself considered it “incomparable in its savagery, frenzy and Dionysian spirits”, and one commentator thought that at the end it seemed as though “the gods themselves were hopelessly intoxicated”. As you listen to the piece, you may well think that Reger used a more orgiastic lens than Böcklin to draw the image.
Finally, and far more gentle on the ear, is William Perry’s Toujours Provence that comprises four snapshots of Provence, the region in France that Perry has often visited, thoroughly embracing the history and culture of this picturesque part of the world.
The first part of the work is titled A Brief History which whisks the listener’s imagination down the centuries through musical interludes in different historic styles. The opening music is marked ’From a Distant Past’ and begins in the low strings before gradually working its way up through the woodwinds to a solo piano entrance and a ‘Welcome to Provence’ theme. It summons the spirit and beauty of Provence from the earliest days of settlement. A solo trumpet and then full brass announces ‘The Arrival of the Romans’. After some elaboration, the music moves to the High Middle Ages where woodwinds and light percussion suggest the period of ‘courtly love’. The piano picks up the theme for a modern presentation. The last historical reference comes with the piccolo trumpet presenting La Carmagnole, a melody widely sung and danced to during the French Revolution.
A Brief History (8.573954)
Now to four examples of absolute music from this month’s new releases. The first two, by Beethoven, are from the turn of the 19th century, when audiences would have been mentally responding not to any programmatic content of a composition, but to its form. Sonata form, rondo, theme and variations, for example, were used so frequently that listeners would have been aware of what was around the next corner, and responsive to occasions when a composer delivered the unexpected!
Any rondo was built on a simple plan: a main theme, stated at the start of the movement, that alternates with contrasting themes. A typical plan might be: A-B-A-C-A-D-A.
Here’s the finale of Beethoven’s Sextet in E flat major, Op. 71, scored for pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons. Does the rondo’s structure reflect the suggestion given above?
Sextet in E flat major (8.573942)
Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was published 5 years later, in 1801. The finale of many concertos at the time was cast in rondo form, and this concerto is no exception. Can you detect if the suggested plan is repeated here? or if it is slightly different?
Second Piano Concerto (8.574151)
Our next example is by Carl Czerny, a pupil and lifelong friend of Beethoven. His Andantino and Rondo for piano and orchestra was published six years after Beethoven’s death, in 1833, but still draws on the rondo form for its high jinks finale.
Andantino and Rondo (8.573998)
Finally, to a concerto written more than a century later, in 1961. It’s the Flute Concerto No. 1 by the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg. Its finale isn’t cast in rondo form, but presents two themes that are duly repeated to emphasize their contrast. Attention is sustained through Weinberg’s skilful contrasts in melody, rhythm, texture and timbre. An ‘absolute’ joy!
Flute Concerto No. 1 (8.573931)