Reformation and Mendelssohn and Bach

Detail of the door of the Castle Church, Wittenburg

Anniversaries bump into each other on this Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5 pm on WRTI. It’s year 500 since the beginning of the Reformation, almost to the day, when Martin Luther posted 95 theological and ecclesiastical points he wished to debate with all comers. Nobody dared to take him up on it, but from the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 a revolution in religion, humanism, freedom, and language swept across the world. And it was accompanied by music.

The dust was far from settling in 1530 when the “Lutherans,” as they were being called, put together a meticulously reasoned defense of what they believed, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. They wrote it in Augsburg, so this Augsburg Confession became a founding document of Lutheranism, and by extension, a pivotal moment for what would become Germany. In 1830, the 300th anniversary of that Confession, celebrations took place throughout Germany, particularly in Augsburg itself.

Felix Mendelssohn had already begun composing a celebratory symphony for this in 1829. But because of illness and touring, he missed the deadline. He had offered a version of it to Augsburg, but the city turned it down. A Paris orchestra also demurred. Mendelssohn finally completed it and conducted the premiere in 1832, in Berlin.

He placed into the symphony’s beginning what is known as the “Dresden Amen,” a bit of liturgical music known well in both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Wagner would later quote it in Parsifal and elsewhere. But Mendelssohn put the big statement of the Reformation—its national anthem, you might say—in the last movement. Martin Luther’s music for his own versification of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) receives a grand treatment from Mendelssohn. He later didn’t care for the youthful work, but after his death this second symphony of his was discovered and listed as No. 5.

The 80th in the catalog of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach uses the same Luther tune, but it took a while to reach the form we now know. This “Ein’ feste Burg” Cantata was used in Leipzig, where Bach lived from 1723 until his death in 1750. But he actually wrote much of the music when he was in Weimar, mostly from 1708 until 1717. It was for Lent, but Leipzig would not permit extravagant cantatas during this penitential season, so Bach rewrote it for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31st, and revised it again, sometime in the late 1720s and early ’30s.

What a work this is. Many of the Bach cantatas are intimate and jewel-like, but this is a huge outpouring of jubilant praise and musical explosion. The expansive opening choral fantasia is one of the most elaborate motets ever written. This is the Bach that astounds us just he did Felix Mendelssohn, when the 20 year old revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for its 100th anniversary—in 1829, the same year he began composing the Reformation Symphony.

PROGRAM:
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Symphony No. 5, ”Reformation”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Cantata No. 80, ”Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg. Two versions. A. For 7 Renaissance instruments: 2 Soprano Shawms, Alto Shawm, 2 Sackbuts, Quartbass Dulcian, large Tabor. B. Brass Quintet with optional large Drum. 1:30.

Commissioned and Premiered 20 Oct 2017 by Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Brass Quintet version premiered 29 Oct 2017 by Musica Concordia, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Smith’s piece exploded into life…. A slew of heavy thwacks on a tabor (a Renaissance snare drum) launched Smith’s Fanfare, mimicking the bang of hammer on nail in Wittenberg. The rasp of shawms and the splendid snort of a quartbass dulcian (a bassoon-like instrument) intoned Luther’s great hymn melody as Smith worked bristling variations on it. It was a bracing opening gesture…”

My Broad Street Review essay on the composing this is here. The first pages of both versions are below. Here’s a quick, live run-through of the brass & percussion version:

The Oak Tree and the Bird

First published in Broad Street Review 1 Oct 2017 as Following a road to “home.”

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

In the few days and in the half-dozen times we had traveled the road from Hartenstein to Zwickau, he only now mentioned it.

“I have always admired that single-standing tree,” he said as he looked out the window.

It is an elegant road, leaning into its curves, bracing its villages, skirting pastures. Many roads here are purposely lined with trees but on this stretch there are no trees. Here there is only this tree, standing by itself in a large, worked field, 50 yards from the road.

“It is almost perfect. Like a ball.”

He is 85 and comes back to this corner of Saxony every year. It is part of the old East Germany, tucked between Thuringia and the Czech border. With his wife now three years gone he travels by himself or asks others to come with him. He visits family here, cousins close and far removed and a brother.

He grew up two miles from this spot. When he was seven, war started. When he was 12, the Allied planes would fly over his family’s farm. He saw two soldiers dead in a car in the village from the strafing. After the war, the soldiers kept coming, East Germans, Russians, sullen and hungry.

In 1953 he boarded a train to Berlin for a job. The Russians drove tanks into Berlin three weeks after he arrived. He bought a round-trip subway ticket. You could not buy one-way tickets to West Berlin after the war, even before the wall, and there were guards and wire barriers, but the U-Bahn under the entire city still operated. After the tanks came he decided it was time. He walked to the subway, carrying a suitcase filled only with dirty laundry in case he was stopped. He could say he was taking laundry home. He stepped out in West Berlin. No one checked his ticket and he kept walking.

He wrote to an aunt in America and declared himself to the American embassy. They put him on another train, to a West German detention camp. A farmer picked the strong 21-year-old out of a line, and for the next few months he worked with fruit trees near Heidelberg. Then the aunt arranged his immigration, and he came to Philadelphia. When he tells his story, other Germans nod. They know these stories.

I asked him if the tree was here when he was growing up. He laughed quickly. “Oh, no, it is only 40 years old. Maybe. But every year it gets bigger, I see it every year,” he said. “It is an oak.” Yes, it looks like an oak at a glance as I drive. “You can tell by the trunk. If nothing happens around it, it will live another 200 years, more.”

This tree says home to him. It speaks to me, now, in the same way. Music speaks like this. Schubert gives us a home in “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.” The beginning and the ending are the same music, so at the end we recognize the road.

Sometimes, though, as at the incomparable end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we have traveled far and the road is different. But if the music is good, we will have come home, the home we didn’t know was already ours.

This foreign thing that is home, I experienced on this trip, a day after the tree. I was standing on the steps of a restaurant when it happened.

I was looking at people eating at tables on the wide porch of a large stone inn surrounded by forest. The day’s grayish sky had just begun to clear as the sun set. This far north, even in August the daylight would soon disappear, so the newly bright clouds were beginning to soften into a darkening slate-blue sky. The tablecloths were white. People were smiling and talking softly under iron and glass wall sconces and lamps suspended from the ceiling and lifting forks and holding glasses in mid-air while they talked as people in restaurants will smile and talk. Then from not too far into the forest a bird called. It was a call I had never heard. My head swerved up and to the right, toward the trees, toward the sound. It was a liquid, intense, remote sound. It sounded like a whistle or a child far away.

That’s when I knew I was in a foreign land. For three days it wasn’t the language or the road signs that did it but it was this. I had never heard this. But I have heard whistles and children and I have seen tablecloths and lamps and darkening skies. So, this, too, could be home. The strangeness somehow made it feel like home.

Music ought to take you to a foreign place and then bring you home. But, like some dreams, you already know the foreign place and the home is new. The end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does this. The spinning wheel, even, does this. The end is the same as the beginning, but after Gretchen’s despair from love forever lost, the new shocks itself back into the old, changes the old. Home is an oak tree you have never seen in a place you escaped long ago, and a new bird call is something you have always known.

Music is both foreign and home. You may have escaped it, like a war, or you may not recognize it at first. But you will know that strange feeling of home, that dream of remembrance, when a bird calls to you like a child, or a road takes you by a field with a single-standing tree, almost perfect, like a ball.

The Symphony’s Declaration of Independence

The palace at Mannheim

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, Oct. 7th, 5 to 6 pm… Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) is the “Father of the Symphony” in the same way that George Washington (born the same year) is the “Father of our Country.” Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he and others generated the Constitution and other central documents, but Washington’s leadership was the foundation on which the country was built. Similarly, the symphony owes its early growth to Haydn.

But was there a Thomas Jefferson? Of those who composed symphonies before Haydn, the most innovative was Johann Stamitz (1717–1757), born 300 years ago and a generation before Haydn. The Czech (Bohemian) Jan Václav Antonín Stamic dropped out of the University of Prague after only a year to be a violin soloist. Six years later he was in the German court of Mannheim as a first violinist. In two years he was concertmaster, and a few years after that he was appointed director of all instrumental music, his name now Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz.

The year was 1750, and how neatly this fits into music history. Stamitz, a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical periods, becomes leader of the most influential orchestra of the time the very year the curtain drops on the Baroque period with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. But what does a transition sound like?

Baroque is all curlicue lines, as in architecture and painting; Classical is balanced phrasing among similarly voiced instruments. Think string quartet, which the early symphony was a glorified version of. Baroque juxtaposes soft and loud; Classical blends dynamics and other elements and whips them into larger and larger forms.

Stamitz did things with an orchestra nobody had ever done before. People named his innovations after the place he worked. The Mannheim Rocket is a quick crescendo by all the instruments playing triads up and up. Everybody getting louder without triads is called a Mannheim Crescendo (simple, but nobody had thought of it before). The Mannheim Sigh is two lamenting notes, the second one falling—which is as old as music—but Stamitz dropped the second note farther for more emotion. The Mannheim Roller (not Steamroller) is an orchestral tremolo, a shaking, rattling, and rolling no one had ever heard, outside of opera.

And that’s another clue.

Italian opera influenced Stamitz’s symphonies by these and other devices. To the strings he added horns and oboes, instruments not fit for gentility but that expanded the dramatic palette. He added a fourth movement. His ensemble crescendos and fireball orchestrations worked because his employers hired the best players in Europe. Royal listeners approved, and as those players—many of whom were also composers—moved to other orchestras, the effects spread. His sons Carl and Anton continued it. Haydn heard it. Mozart and Beethoven picked up on it.

The symphony declared its independence and was off and running.

PROGRAM:
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). Symphony in B-flat for Strings
Stamitz. Concerto for Flute (Oboe) and Orchestra in C
Stamitz. Symphony in A for Strings
Stamitz. Symphony in D for 11 voices, Op. 3. No. 2

The Connections of Niels Gade

Coming up on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 2nd, 5 to 6 pm: Part of the joy of producing Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection is in the finding of connections. We’ve seen, for instance, how the German-English Frederick Delius became a real composer in 1884 by living in Florida, and we idly notice that this is the same year Niels Gade wrote Holbergiana, his tribute to the great writer Ludvig Holberg. This of course reminds us of the famous Holberg Suite of Edvard Grieg. We see that it, too, was written in 1884, and we wonder why.

Grieg would soon become a friend of and a musical influence on Delius when they met in Leipzig. But what is the Holberg 1884 connection, and why would the Danish Gade and the Norwegian Grieg both write Holberg pieces that year? Well, it turns out that Holberg was born in 1684, and the 200th anniversary of the man who has been called the inventor of Danish and Norwegian literature was well celebrated. Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway, but worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, and this was during the time when the two countries were united as one kingdom.

The Denmark-Norway union existed, with Sweden entering and leaving occasionally, until 1814, just three years before Gade was born, which reminds us of another connection: This year, 2017, is the 200th anniversary of Gade’s birth.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was the greatest Danish composer until Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, in fact, studied with Gade in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, as did Grieg for a time. Gade took the long way around, however, to end up back in the city of his birth. When he was 24 and playing in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s violin section, they performed his opus 1, Echoes of Ossian. Gade started to be noticed. But they demurred the next year, choosing not to play his opus 5, his first symphony.

One thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.
Undaunted, he sent the score to Felix Mendelssohn, dedicating it to him. We know him today as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, but Mendelssohn was also the intrepid director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He liked what he saw in the young man’s music, and so the premiere of the Gade Symphony No. 1 took place in Leipzig in 1842. Gade impressed Mendelssohn personally, too. He became assistant conductor at Leipzig, and upon Mendelssohn’s too-young death in 1847, Gade was appointed the new director of the Gewandhaus.

Unfortunately, 1848 was a roiling year politically. Revolutions against the old order broke out all around the confederacy of states we now know as Germany. Wagner was caught up in it; many fled; many, in fact, came to the U.S. in 1848. The revolutions wouldn’t necessarily have affected Gade, but something else happened that year: Germany and Denmark went to war. It was over who owned the border area of Schleswig-Holstein, and while Denmark won out in the short term and Germany in the long, in this complicated business one thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.

He went back to Copenhagen and began to construct a prominent career of composing and teaching. He influenced the next generations of Scandinavian musicians, including the next great Danish composer, Nielsen, and that greatest of Norwegian composers, Grieg, who knew Delius when they were in Leipzig, which was where… well, we just love all the connections we find through Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection.

PROGRAM:

Niels Gade (1817–1890). Holbergiana (1884)

Gade. Symphony No. 1 (1842)

The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

We heard Charles Ives by way of William Schuman last month on Discoveries, so it’s appropriate that we should hear Schuman on his own this month. You may remember that Ives had composed Variations on “America” for organ in 1891; William Schuman orchestrated it in 1964 and it’s been in the repertory ever since.

Ives is the epitome of an American-ness flowing through American music, but we could go back another century to a composer who is really the fountainhead, William Billings (1746–1800). Schuman’s 1956 homage to the shape-note composer, New England Triptych, uses three Billings tunes, “Be Glad then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the hymn-turned-marching-song, “Chester.” These are strong and beautiful melodies, fresh with the spirit of a new country. Schuman’s treatment of them is brilliant.

But William Schuman was also a symphonist of great originality. His Seventh out of ten (he withdrew the first two) is from 1960, a commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Here Schuman is at the height of his power, composing music that is both aggressively rhythmic and deeply romantic. It is a large-hearted American symphony.

There is an irony: William Schuman is known mostly as a composer for his Billings and Ives forays into Americana. But this president of Juilliard, this president of Lincoln Center, this winner of Pulitzers and multiple awards also composed music inspired by the Sears-Roebuck catalog, wrote dozens of pop songs, and as a teenager played bass in his own wedding and bar mitzvah band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. And he was, like Ives, a huge fan of baseball, even writing an opera called The Mighty Casey.

Prague-born Jaromir Weinberger studied composition with Vítězslav Novák and counterpoint with Max Reger, but his many works overflow with a love for folk music. His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was an immediate and huge hit in 1926; the Polka and Fugue from it was introduced in concert four years later. The opera and the concert piece are still played today and are why most know Weinberger’s name. He taught at Cornell and at what is now Ithaca College, returned to Czecho-slovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received American citizenship in 1948.

Schwanda and its Polka and Fugue were something of a curse for Weinberger, haunting him with the fact that nothing else rose to that level of popularity. Weinberger’s music, like Schuman’s, could be as strict and sober as might be expected of honored composers. As exciting and profound as their output could be, though, it was the populism that stuck. That bothers some composers more than others. For us listeners at this remove (Schuman died 25 years ago; Weinberger, 50), we’re happy that they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

PROGRAM:

William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)

Schuman. Symphony No. 7 (1960)

Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

 

Hitting a Brick Wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]

Bricks.jpg

This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhhdahhhdahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.