Beethoven R/Evolutions: Undeniable, fundamental change in power or inherited traits – complete or modified.
"There are moments when the forces of man and nature align perfectly, and our job is simply to appreciate." --Rebecca Webber, "Big Moments", Psychology Today September 2010
One of the prime problems of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is that after his string quartet, Opus 130, No. 13 in Bb Major was premiered in 1826, with the Grosse Fuge as the last, and most unconventional of the unconventional six movements, he replaced it. Beethoven, who waited out the premiere in a nearby tavern, called the audience cattle and asses for encoring the second and fourth movements but not the fugue. Urged by many to provide a less unusual finale, a compromise was agreed to with his publisher. Beethoven wrote a much more conventional Rondo, the last piece he ever wrote it turns out, to replace the fugue, and his publisher agreed to publish the Grosse Fuge as a separate work. This troubled beginning foreshadowed much of the work’s subsequent history. It was not an overnight success: the Fuge was next performed in Vienna 35 years later, and it received only three public performances in the seventy five years after it was written.
Many words have been written about Beethoven’s “Grand Fugue” since then, and most express admiration but not love for the piece: “It will scarcely ever touch the heart.” “An incomprehensible piece.” “Long, complicated and through many hearings repellent if not unintelligible.” “Impersonal, hostile objectivity.” Robert Kahn collected adjectives that others had written about it: astonishing, incompressible, abstruse, bizarre, unharmonious, extravagant, inconsequential, unplayable, tiresome, waste of sound, impracticable, cerebral, repellent, unintelligible, impenetrable, pathological eccentricity. Joseph Kerman claimed that it “stands out as the most problematic single work…in the entire literature of music,” high sort-of-praise indeed.
Why is this so?
I think part of the issue is the nature of the fugue, a formal design that engenders respect for the composer who can do it well because it is so “tricky,” but in which it is hard to be emotionally stirring. But Beethoven’s fugue doesn’t follow the plan slavishly and at times is more free-form fantasy than fugue. Part of the issue is the length of the movement, especially when it is played alongside the much shorter movements of Op. 130. But there are far longer works out there that don’t engender this kind of response. Part of the issue may be that it is a late Beethoven work, which, in so many minds, is a recipe made up of equal parts of the “deepest human emotions” sifted together with “daring formal brilliance.” Perhaps in the Grosse Fuge the formal brilliance dominates to the point that we cannot find the emotional component we so love in, say, the Ninth Symphony.
Or is it just the notes? Are the pitches and rhythms Beethoven chooses so uncompromising that they simply do not let most of us in? There are a lot of notes. The arranger of tonight’s version, Brian Bondari, reported that his arrangement of Beethoven’s 742 measures contains 9603 notes and 2094 rests. There are even 55 time signature changes, a quantity that would be more typical of a mid-20th Century work than one from the 1820s.
My recommendation: forget all of this. Forget, even, that Beethoven composed this when he was near the end of his life (a fact he was blissfully unaware of) and stone deaf. Maybe even forget you’re listening to Beethoven. Instead, try following the composer’s obsession with his theme through about fifteen minutes of musical intensity.
One more matter needs to be addressed in case any of you have a low opinion about arrangements. Any notion of “instrumentation purity” is just a product of modern times’ obsession with historical accuracy. There is a grand age-old tradition of performing arrangements of great works, and we just need to get over our snobbery. In fact, Beethoven created his own four-hand piano arrangement of the Grosse Fuge (after rejecting one commissioned by his publisher). Side story: Beethoven’s manuscript of this arrangement was lost for over 100 years, and only turned up in 2005 when Heather Carbo, a librarian at the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, found it while cleaning out an archival cabinet. My favorite detail: there are notations of “aus” (“out”) and cross-outs and areas where the paper is worn through with corrections and changes made in red crayon, for goodness sake, and this is his arrangement of a piece he had already composed!
The arranger of tonight’s version, Brian Bondari, should have the final word. He wrote, in an email to me:
I've spent a lot of time with this piece, and if I had a Facebook-style relationship status with it, it would read: "It's complicated." I love it... and I hate it. It's an excessive and amazing work that is beautiful and grotesque, timely and timeless, astounding and terrifying. For a piece completed in 1825, it continues to amaze me with its brutal modernity. Perhaps it was the "noise music" of its day. Above all, I agree with Stravinsky in that it will forever be a piece of contemporary music.
BRIAN BONDARI was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1979. He holds both a DMA and a M.M in Composition from The University of Kansas, as well as Bachelor’s degrees in Music Education and Music Composition from Valdosta State University. His private instructors have included Mary Ellen Childs, Tayloe Harding, Kip Haaheim, and James Barnes. He recently joined the faculty at the Trinity University Department of Music, where he teaches Music Theory and Composition.
As a composer, Brian has written for chorus, wind ensemble, chamber and percussion ensembles, theatre, and the electronic medium. He was recently awarded a Helianthus Commission as well as a grant to travel and serve as a guest composer at the Oiniades Theatre Festival in Greece. His recent commissions include a piece for flute and piano, which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in June 2006 and followed by performances in Italy.
Brian is a member of ASCAP, College Music Society, and Society of Composers, Inc.
DOUG BALLIET is a prolific artist whose career has spanned classical performance, composition, rap, rock, spoken word, period performance and conducting. As a double bassist he has performed with Ensemble Modern (del: solo bassist), the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, the San Antonio Symphony (principal and assistant principal), and the Metropolis Ensemble. He has earned fellowships at Tanglewood, where he performed as principal bass under James Levine, Aspen (principal under Jane Glover), National Orchestral Institute (principal under Andrew Litton), National Repertory Orchestra (principal under Carl Topilow), and the Lucerne Academy (principal under Boulez). He also maintains an active life as a recitalist, including live radio recitals and recital tours. Recent solo engagements have included “The Time of Stones” of Wielecki in Alice Tully Hall and Dragonetti’s Third Concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum of New York. Mr. Balliett makes his gamba debut with Cantori New York in November 2011.
Mr. Balliett’s compositions have been heard throughout the US, garnering several awards, including prizes in the Frederick Delius Competition, the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship, the Kirkland House Music Award, and Harvard’s first annual Artist Development Grant. Recent compositional projects included a late-night event at the Chelsea Art Museum (as composer-in-residence at the Chelsea Music Festival) and the composer-in-residence Spotlight with The Oracle Hysterical at the Lucerne Festival, where he and his collaborators presented an evening of Grimm songs and a new hip-hopera based on Melville’s Billy Budd. In 2010 Mr. Balliett composed, produced and conducted his first popera seria Lucretia. His “virtuoso rapping” was praised by the San Antonio Express-News. The work was recently revived at New York University.
Mr. Balliett graduated from Harvard in 2007 with high honors and is currently pursuing a master’s at The Juilliard School in Historical Performance.
Composer’s notes: Groove Parade is a set of interlocking grooves, played continuously, each derived from a unit of common material. It is a kind of "mosaic composition": rather than being conceived linearly, it's more like a quilt. Each groove is a patch of a different color, the interest revolves around how these patches interact. Formally Groove Parade maps the tempos and textures of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, in a condensed form, onto itself. The eight-pitch motto of the Grosse Fuge is also used throughout as a kind of "row". At times these pitches are quoted literally; at other times they simple exist as a rubric for other operations, such as bass line shape or transposition. Groove Parade runs about 7 minutes.
PAUL MORAVEC, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music, has composed over ninety orchestral, chamber, choral, lyric, film, and electro-acoustic works. His music has earned numerous other distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome as well as many commissions.
A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he currently holds the special rank of University Professor at Adelphi University, and is also recently served as Artist-in-Residence with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy, recorded by Trio Solisti and clarinetist David Krakauer, appears on a Naxos American Classics CD. Other Naxos albums include The Time Gallery, recorded by eighth blackbird, Cool Fire, with the Bridgehampton Festival Chamber Players, and Useful Knowledge, with Amy Burton, soprano, Randall Scarlata, baritone, Trio Solisti, and La Fenice Quintet.
Moravec's most recent works include The Letter, for Santa Fe Opera, Piano Quintet, for pianist Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet, Wind Symphony, a consortium commission for the Southeastern Band Conference, The Blizzard Voices, for Opera Omaha, Brandenburg Gate, for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and Blue Fiddle, for violinist Hilary Hahn.
Grosse Fuge Fantasy
Composer’s notes: Grosse Fuge Fantasy is a four-minute riff on Beethoven's principal fugue theme, and especially on the first four notes, G-G#-F-E. Among its many interesting properties, this opening tetrachord happens to be a transposition of Dmitri Shostakovich's signature-motive, D-S-C-H (D-E-flat-C-B), especially recognizable when the third and fourth notes are placed registrally below the opening two notes. This connection strikes me as particularly apt in that the Grosse Fuge itself uncannily prefigures so much in the world of 20th Century music. This Fantasy is, in part, a tribute to the continuous - and continuing - influence of Beethoven's magisterial achievement and adventurous spirit.
Composer XI WANG (Xi-family name, Wang-first name, pronounced "Shee Wong") has been considered as one of the most talented and active composers of her generation. Her music has been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä, the American Composers Orchestra under José Serebrier, the Atlanta Symphony under Mei-Ann Chen, the Shanghai Philharmonic under Yongyan Hu, the Spokane Symphony under Morihiko Nakahara, the Proteus Ensemble under Sydney Hodkinson, the Voices of Change, the Tippet String Quartet, the Mark Pekarsky's percussion ensemble, the Pacific Music Festival Academy Percussion Ensemble, Maya Trio, and the DoublePlay, among others.
Xi Wang has received six prizes from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Her music has been spotlighted on Minnesota Public Radio, Aspen Public Radio and Radio-China. She was the sole recipient of the 2006-2007 Robbins Family Prize in Music Composition for her exceptional merit and promise as a composer at Cornell University. Xi Wang was also one of the eight young composers featured in the project, New Voices from China, at the Bard College. Her other awards include: the first prize of the Fourth International Jurgenson Competition for Young Composers; the Tsang-Houei Hsu International Music Composition Award; the fifth edition of Northridge Composition Prize; the first prize of the "Music from China" International Composition Competition; the first prize of the "Ensemble X" competition. As a conductor, Xi Wang has conducted a number of premieres of her own compositions as well as the music by her colleagues. She performs as a solo pianist as well as a chamber music player. Xi Wang's music education started at the age of five, She received her B.M from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, M.M from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and D.M.A. from Cornell University. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at the Meadow School of Arts of Southern Methodist University.
Critic Royal S. Brown, writing in High Fidelity magazine in 1974, called DAN WELCHER “one of the most promising American composers I have heard”. Welcher has been steadily fulfilling that promise ever since. With over one hundred works to his credit, more than half of which are published and recorded, Welcher has written in virtually every medium, including opera, concerto, symphony, wind ensemble, vocal literature, piano solos, and various kinds of chamber music.
Dan Welcher has won numerous awards and prizes from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, The Reader's Digest/Lila Wallace Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Meet The Composer, the MacDowell Colony, the Camargo Foundation, the Corporation at Yaddo, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the American Music Center, and ASCAP. From 1990 to 1993, he was Composer in Residence with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra (Donald Johanos, Music Director). His orchestral music has been performed by more than sixty orchestras, including the BBC Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony. His Symphony #5, commissioned for the Austin Symphony Orchestra to inaugurate its new concert hall, premiered on May 1 and 2 of 2009.
A much sought-after speaker who is known for making contemporary music intelligible to lay listeners, Welcher hosted a weekly radio program called "Knowing The Score" on KMFA-FM in Austin from 1999 to 2009. This program won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Classical Broadcasting. He now hosts the weekly program “From The Butler School of Music” on Saturday evenings at 8:00 on KMFA. Dan Welcher holds the Lee Hage Jamail Regents Professorship in Fine Arts at the Butler School of Music (The University of Texas at Austin), where he directs the New Music Ensemble.
For further information about Dan Welcher, please visit www.danwelcher.com.
Beethoven/Brian Bondari (1770-1827/ b. 1979)
Grosse Fuge, op. 133 (2011)
for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano
Commissioned for SOLI by Linn and Marjorie Mollenauer.
Doug Balliett (b. 1982)
for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano
Commissioned for SOLI by George A. Winters.
Dan Welcher (b. 1948)
Romanza (Duettino) (2011)
for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano
Commissioned for SOLI by Jim and Agnes Lowe.
Xi Wang (b. 1978)
for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano
Commissioned for SOLI by Carolyn A. Seale and Carol Lee Klose.
Paul Moravec (b. 1957)
for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano
Commissioned for SOLI by Jana Olson Baker in honor of her husband Quentin Baker, and Jane Key.