About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

February 7, 2014

Monster of the Steinway: Ives' "Concord"

Essays Before Sonatas 
(program notes for our March 15 concert by Gilles Vonsattel)

Beethoven, Sonata “Moonlight” 
No. 13 in C# minor (op. 27, #2)

“Quasi una fantasia” means, though not in a simple and direct sense, “in the manner of an improvisation.” It also means that this work shares an important feature of fantasias by Mozart, Haydn, and others, an unpredictable number of sections that use different kinds of figuration patterns. The sections are played without pause. One result is to blur the impression that each movement is an autonomous whole with a full cadence at the end, and so it blurs the notion that individual movements are the main units of organization.... the first movement passes directly on to the second and the second to the third. 

The hypnotic first movement, a world classic from the day of its publication, seems like an immense slow improvisation. The Berlin critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) applied the label “Moonlight,” because the first movement suggested to him "a boat visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne." Above the notes of the opening Adagio Beethoven wrote that it should be “played with extreme delicacy.” The sonata progresses from the dreamlike C-sharp-minor Adagio sostenuto to the graceful D-flat Allegretto and on to the tragic and powerful Presto finale with crackling arpeggios and exploding fortissimo chords. The sonata-form Presto agitato finale completes the formal architecture of the cycle with enormous energy. The emotional crescendo of the three movements is unlike any other early Beethoven sonata, the percussive element being essential.

Rzewski, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues

When the Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the segregated South during the 1960s, they were beaten and arrested in Winnsboro, SC. Lead Belly, the late Pete Seeger, and others sang the traditional blues song, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Rzewski reworked it for the piano. On January 20, 2014 the town of Winnsboro, called by residents, "the Charleston of the upcountry," "closed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King."

Frederic Rzewski (zheff-skee) began playing piano at age 5. He attended Phillips Academy, Harvard and Princeton. His teachers included Randall Thompson, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Milton Babbitt. During a formative trip to Italy in 1960 he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola he began a career as a performer of new improvisatory piano music. Later he co-founded Musica Elettronica Viva that conceived music as a collective, collaborative process, with improvisation and live electronic instruments.

Ives, Concord Sonata
One of the most curious, wonderful things about the “Concord” Sonata is the obsessive assault it mounts on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Da-da-da-dum has become such an emblem, an audible logo, of classical music; the four notes express our whole tuxedoed, staid obsolescence, our desire to perpetuate ourselves. The sternness, the immediate minor-key attitude, the inescapable upbeat leading to downbeat, the timbre of the sustaining strings, full throttle... all of this captures perfectly the terminally uncool, that which in classical music takes itself too seriously, refuses to relax.
--Jeremy Denk, from the liner notes of his recording, Jeremy Denk plays Ives. I highly recommend it.
When Ives was a student at Yale in the eighteen-nineties, son of a Danbury CT bandmaster with an experimentalist streak, he knew that he wanted to devote his life to writing music, but he also knew that the kind of music he wanted to write would not be understood by most people. Prudently, he founded an honest, ethical, but highly profitable insurance company in New York City, ran it responsibly, treated his employees well, and became a multimillionaire. 

But Ives lived a double life. His other passion was writing music, not the traditional, “proper” Europhilic music he learned in composition classes. He knew very few listeners would like it, but was determined to write what he wanted regardless of its popular appeal. He wanted to “stretch ears.”

When Ives published the Concord in 1921, he accompanied it with a thirty-thousand word Essays Before a Sonata: 

"These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can't stand his music--and the music for those who can't stand his essays; to those who can't stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated." 

"The following pages were written primarily as a preface or reason for the [writer's] second Pianoforte Sonata--"Concord, Mass., 1845,"--a group of four pieces, called a sonata for want of a more exact name, as the form, perhaps substance, does not justify it.... The whole is an attempt to present [one person's] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago.... The first and last movements do not aim to give any programs of the life or of any particular work of either Emerson or Thoreau but rather composite pictures or impressions. They are, however, so general in outline that, from some viewpoints, they may be as far from accepted impressions (from true conceptions, for that matter) as the valuation which they purport to be of the influence of the life, thought, and character of Emerson and Thoreau is inadequate.The four movements are, “impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a Scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”

Only the most intrepid readers will continue on from this point. Warning: the music you will hear on March 15 comes from the same brain as the prose....

It has seemed to the writer, that Emerson is greater--his identity more complete perhaps--in the realms of revelation--natural disclosure--than in those of poetry, philosophy, or prophecy. Though a great poet and prophet, he is greater, possibly, as an invader of the unknown,--America's deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities,--a seer painting his discoveries in masses and with any color that may lie at hand--cosmic, religious, human, even sensuous; a recorder, freely describing the inevitable struggle in the soul's uprise--perceiving from this inward source alone, that every "ultimate fact is only the first of a new series"; a discoverer, whose heart knows, with Voltaire, "that man seriously reflects when left alone," and would then discover, if he can, that "wondrous chain which links the heavens with earth--the world of beings subject to one law." In his reflections Emerson, unlike Plato, is not afraid to ride Arion's Dolphin, and to go wherever he is carried--to Parnassus or to "Musketaquid”....

The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical--so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they--but a greater artist. Not only the character of his substance, but the care in his manner throws his workmanship, in contrast to theirs, into a kind of bas-relief. Like Poe he quite naturally and unconsciously reaches out over his subject to his reader. His mesmerism seeks to mesmerize us--beyond Zenobia's sister. But he is too great an artist to show his hand "in getting his audience," as Poe and Tschaikowsky occasionally do. His intellectual muscles are too strong to let him become over-influenced, as Ravel and Stravinsky seem to be by the morbidly fascinating--a kind of false beauty obtained by artistic monotony. However, we cannot but feel that he would weave his spell over us--as would the Grimms and Aesop. We feel as much under magic as the "Enchanted Frog." This is part of the artist's business....

The Alcotts  
If the dictagraph had been perfected in Bronson Alcott's time, he might now be a great writer. As it is, he goes down as Concord's greatest talker. "Great expecter," says Thoreau; "great feller," says Sam Staples, "for talkin' big ... but his daughters is the gals though--always DOIN' somethin'." Old Man Alcott, however, was usually "doin' somethin'" within. An internal grandiloquence made him melodious without; an exuberant, irrepressible, visionary absorbed with philosophy AS such; to him it was a kind of transcendental business, the profits of which supported his inner man rather than his family. Apparently his deep interest in spiritual physics, rather than metaphysics, gave a kind of hypnotic mellifluous effect to his voice when he sang his oracles; a manner something of a cross between an inside pompous self-assertion and an outside serious benevolence. But he was sincere and kindly intentioned in his eagerness to extend what he could of the better influence of the philosophic world as he saw it. In fact, there is a strong didactic streak in both father and daughter. Louisa May seldom misses a chance to bring out the moral of a homely virtue. The power of repetition was to them a natural means of illustration. It is said that the elder Alcott, while teaching school, would frequently whip himself when the scholars misbehaved, to show that the Divine Teacher-God-was pained when his children of the earth were bad. Quite often the boy next to the bad boy was punished, to show how sin involved the guiltless. And Miss Alcott is fond of working her story around, so that she can better rub in a moral precept--and the moral sometimes browbeats the story....


Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear "the Symphony." The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity--a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results.

Go to Gretnamusic.org or call 717-361-1508 for tickets to the concert by pianist Gilles Vonsattel, Saturday March 15, 2014, 7:30 pm in Elizabethtown College's Leffler Center for the Performing Arts. Dinner buffet reservations are due on Monday before the concert.

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