Olivier Messiaen – Fantaisie 1933
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin, Roderick Chadwick
Shoe Factory, Nikosia 6th October 2015
Concert Day Tuesday 6th
…should be as relaxed as possible, and the rehearsal this morning certainly was. Carly found a perfect eyrie to launch Messiaen’s ‘Appel Interstellaire’.
After my colleagues had left, I spent a long time exploring the possibilities of the space for Nono and David Gorton’s caprices.
Young Imaginations Monday 5th
The day began well-after practice and yoga, coffee, as it should be drunk.
I have been captivated by flora this week and today was no exception.
Horn player Carly Lake arrived today, and was entranced by the ambience and acoustic of the Shoe Factory.
We then gave a workshop with some lovely high school students, who responded with great imagination and wit to Ligeti and Brahms. They decided that Brahms’ Horn Trio Adagio, took place in a dark, misty forest, which really fired my imagination. And then I worked with two violin students on Mozart.
After our talk in the evening, I found myself entranced by the nocturnal landscape of the old city, with a stage set, but open doors and windows revealing city pusling with life-a crowded dance class, practising tango, singing, indoors and out, a bohemian apartment filled with fabulous clutter and bicycles, a couple kissing in the shadows of a church, a cat with a cockroach.
I supposed that it was inevitable, but the atmosphere has become indelibly imprinted on the music of Ligeti which we have inhabited for the past few days. Or perhaps it was Ligeti guiding my feet and my eyes.
A morning hunting French Gothic, and Messiaen Sunday 4th
Another day, and more histories washing over me. I was woken at 730, as always on a Sunday, by the singing of the priest at the mass at the nearby Agios Kassianos church. Before meeting Roderick to work, I had determined to resume my exploration of the French gothic architecture that fascinates me.
The guiding light for all our work here in Cyprus is Garo Keheyan. There’s now way to describe the breadth of what he achieves, bringing people together under the guiding light of Pharos, in the extraordinary ambience, for concerts, conversation, for art, of the Shoe Factory. Today, he has been telling me more of his inspiring plans for the Olive Grove, as arts centre, creative retreat, concert hall, place of inspiration.
Roderick and I have been luxuriating in Messiaen today. The work for violin and piano which we are playing is one of two free standing works which he wrote for this combination. It is, without doubt, a Cyprus premiere. Although it dates from 1933, the same period as the frequently played ‘Theme and Variations’, it was not given a public premier until 2007. Talking with Roderick Chadwick about this piece over the past few days, we have been thinking about why Messiaen might have held this highly original work back, whilst allowing the more conventionally structured Themes and Variations to be played. Roderick’s answer to this question is fascinating, and it fits very well with the subject of this talk and our concert. It’s all about how Beethoven felt about the past. Roderick notes that when he first played this piece, with me, he felt that the recapitulation was too conventional, a little embarrassing, even (I am paraphrasing). Since that time his opinion has changed-and now he loves it. However, he speculates that this apparently conventional sonata form ‘moment’ was just impossible for Messiaen to stomach in the middle of a piece which is built from spectacular tableaux. It’s a little ironic-this music of the future, as I see it, gains much of its power from a dialogue with a variety of earlier musics, but that it is the open use of an 18th/19th Century idiom which might have been too much for him to stomach-ironically, this might well have been because there was a sense that the audience might, quite suddenly, be too familiar with what he was doing.
One my fascinations is the layer nature of Nikosia, and recently, I have become absorbed by the three centuries of French rule, after Richard Coeur de Lion gave the island to the somewhat disgraced Guy de Lusignan. Today, perhaps inspired by Messiaen, it was flora and fauna,which I found, on nearly every stone that that they touched, from 1192 to 1489.
I had not noticed the bird life, in door arches particularly, in such profusion, before today.
After the afternoon rehearsal, I went up to the roof to practice. This has to be one of the most idyllic spots to work.
Brahms and Ligeti-Time at the airport, time on the plane, tea at the Shoe Factory 3 10 15
I have written the beginning of this a number of times over recent weeks. On Friday I thought that, yes, I have it, but then, I lost the (mercifully) new notebook which I was using, and with it, all the jotting and the full text. So it’s gone. Up to a point: I have come to the Pollyanna-ish conclusion that this is a ‘good thing’ (‘this was a good thing’), that its disappearance (I am luxuriating in Iain Sinclair’s eponymous collection of ‘London Disappearances’ at the moment) might even be beneficial. It’s certainly analogue to the topic.
For any creative effort, the, relationship between past and present is a balancing act, between memory and forgetting. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as memento, that remembering and forgetting are not, or perhaps is not, contradictory, not even corollary, but are, is, one and the same thing. Think of it like this for a moment, that the way that we constantly negotiate the uneasy détente, between the apparent fixity of what has happened, was happening, used to happen, and what we perceive of what is, is happening, might be happening, and the apparently insecurity, unfixity, unsureness of what will, will not, might, might not, would, would not (you get my drift) take place in that ‘place’ we call future is though many filters of remembering, forgetting, and fabulation.
Any creation, seen thus, has something to of the quality of: ‘I have a memory of the future’. And it’s far from ridiculous, indeed usefully describes what an artwork, a piece of music, did, does, will do. For the artist, and here the definition of artist stretches all the way from creator through interpreter, it’s often just a question of where, provisionally, we might choose to begin to tell the our stories, of past present and future. This storytelling happens as a matter of course, in the rehearsal room, that is, when the rehearsals have time and space to get beyond the specious niceties of ‘getting it together’. But once that point has been passed, the narratives begin. Some of it, is of course, practical, a vital tool in getting a piece of music to ‘work’. A piece of music can be seen as an assemblage of archetypes, and each group of player’s approach to and negotiation with these archetypes will be different. A rehearsal will often consist of counterpointing, webbing, these which can been used to illuminate the nature of, the characters drawn by the work being explored, and is by definition, analogous to the cluster of archetype which the composer will have agglomerated into the piece, although enjoying a certain distance from it. That’s important. I will say it again; the means which we use to understand, interpret and communicate an artwork are related to the means and material which the composer or artists has used to construct it. Some of these means will emerge from the collective of the players’ shared experiences, playing, studying, and rehearsing other works by the composer in question. Some of these means reach to and from other composers’ work. Some, but certainly not all this ‘reaching out’ will be to musics which the composer themself had in mind, or even was trying to forget whilst the piece was emerging. Some of this reaching out will be to material which has absolutely no direct relevance; but becomes relevant because it is part of the players’ working on the piece.
I won’t follow this through, but the same model applies, to the shared ‘non-artistic’ experiences of performers, their colloquy, and their relationship to the experiences of, and touched on, by the composer. Everything is relevant, and nothing is.
I have over-egged this particular pudding, in order to provide a context, framework, or even an excuse for some of the elements which come into play, with Brahms and Ligeti. For the purposes of this disquisition, I wish to present them, seen through the lens of the two Horn trios, as being excitingly, maybe even uniquely, laden, fraught, with baggages of the their pasts and presents, and futures, and ours too. I find it easier to look into their respective lumber rooms non-hierarchically, with no agenda, and with no real discrimination, historically speaking. What do we find?
Brahms’s trio is dominated by pastoral – three movements effectively. Dark and Light, sacred and profane, heartfelt and flippant, C Look closely into the shadows of a Claude Lorrain, and beneath the azure empyrean, the radiant vistas, there’s a youth being bitten by a snake. The Shepherds dance home from Bethlehem in joy, the nymphs and swains dance, satyrs lurk. Corelli, Vivaldi, Watteau, Fuseli, Mahler, Anselm Kiefer. The rhythms of riding, hunting, harvesting, a career which began with travel in coaches, would be dominated by the train, after the first German passenger railway was opened, comparatively late, in 1845. For us, there’s nostalgia here, which is perhaps, disproportionate; we look back at this with a sense of almost total loss; Tennyson’s ‘Ringing grooves of change’ have truly done their worst.
Ligeti’s Trio begins in the forest, or perhaps a memory of a forest, just as it begins with a memory of hunting horns. The very first, idealised, silvery cadence, hanging in the still air is a pair of horns, but played on the violin, recalling Beethoven’s ‘Lebewohl’, the violin concerto, and preparing us for others. But the forest which was remembered, which Ligeti is remembering Brahms remembering Beethoven remembering Ossian remembering, was lost to war and industry, its oak glades gone, replaced by something more sinister, more measured, and lightless, dead floored pine and larch woods. Botticelli’s hunters race away into the dark wood, drawn down Dante’s path, pursuing love, but only finding death, or Ariosto’s horror, Artemis’s murderous hounds, no echo of Varus’s legions, the Beechwood … Playing or listening to this, we have to ask what catastrophe or whose tragedy, is being memorialised. We feel certainly tragedies very keenly-the one being played out in the seas around us, perhaps not keenly enough; Ligeti forces us to look back, to look at his lifetime, then look at our own, and ask ‘what did we do?’, ‘what will we do?’. Nostalgia, regret, wistfulness, simply is not enough.
Virtuosity. Brahms and Ligeti were both profoundly affected by the shades of Paganini and Liszt. Neither of them heard Paganini, although, of course, Brahms was surrounded by colleagues and friends who had; both of them produced work which simply could not have happened without Paganini, nor without Paganini’s impact on Liszt, on Schumann. They both produced piano studies and variations which are direct responses to Paganini’s virtuosities.
But the past is no longer there, or if it is, is perpetually scraped clean, rubbed out; graves and memorials disappear; are confined to airspace, to memory. In my invisible city, I walk with my wife to the mound of St Pancras Old Church. We have different agendas; she find’s Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, but it is empty. Thomas Hardy was here, but very much alive-as is his handiwork, the sunburst of grave slabs around ‘his’ tree. Johan Christian Bach and Thomas Abel have complexly gone, or have they; it’s rumoured that the graves were jut covered over and which would mean that millions of train travellers roaring north out of Kings Cross, are a few metres above Bach’s Viola da Gamba, which I dream of. Bach in the church, I photograph the Augustinian cross, and remember the abandoned hover port at Pevensey Bay, where landed, though far inland of where today’s shoreline runs, Ramsgate Sandwich, Deal. I know, it’s a ‘dead certainties’ question. IN 19921, my lovely friend Eve Molesworth had me read the Schama out loud to her, and I learnt my lesson, by way of General Wolfe and Benjamin West. Nothing happens more than what is perceived as happening; West died under a bush, alone; there was no flash of lightning, echoing David’s ‘Tennis Court Oath’. But it did not matter; 100.000s saw the painting, and then he painted another, Nelson dying on the orlop deck of Victory, apparently now spacious enough to stand straight up in: ‘Kiss Me Hardy’. It doesn’t matter: ‘You give me the pictures and I’ll give you the war…’
So it is with our models of musical pasts. We each bring our personal rattlebags, prejudiced and limited as they necessarily must be, to each piece that we play. In Ligeti, I hear Robert Saxton, Matteis, Bach, Bartok, Sibelius, Paganini, Debussy, Beethoven, Nancarrow, Ellington, Wayne Shorter, and Clara Schumann … which is utterly wrong. But.Brahms saw the future. Or he certainly inspired it. Rehearsing the Slow movement of the Horn Trio, I was moved by his willingness to bring the texture down to just a thread. Just skeins of ilk, prefiguring, in my mind, nothing more than In der Nacht from Mahler’s’ 7th Symphony. A vision of orchestral genius, found in the most intimate moment of a chamber work. But it’s also worth seeing, or, at least, acknowledging the rhythmic debt composers of the 20th and 21st century owe him. Again and again in the horn trio, he disrupts our sense of beat, of Taktus. Are we listening to ¾ or 6/8, or both? This was something which had been the very foundation of the instrumental music of the early 18th Century-the Hemiola. When we listen to Bach’s G minor Presto (BWV1001), is it in 3/8 or 6/16. I play this piece, a lot, and I can’t tell. You will notice a simple version of this in the Scherzo of Brahms’s Trio-where two 6/8 bars are followed by two ¾. And of course, repeatedly in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas the composer completely pulls the rug out from under our feet- in the E Major Prelude BWV1001, he sets up a mechanism which moves the listeners’ sense of ‘downbeat’ one 16th note late. Of course, I am a violinist so I choose violinistic examples of this. But listen to the opening of Brahms’s Horn Trio; where do you hear the down beat? I know of two professors who nearly came to blows on this subject.
Brahms-Violin Sonata Op 78 (Vivace non troppo)
Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Daniel Ben Pienaar
In Brahms’s First Violin Sonata Brahms offers a foretaste of the rhythmic play which would characterise much of Ligeti’s chamber music (though not his orchestral works). The movement is in a ‘pastorale’ 6/8. The second subject of this movement pits the violin and piano against each other in a manner which would become familiar with the rising popularity of Latin-American music in the 20th Century, and of course, from its use in the music of composers such as John Adams and Bernstein. Both instruments work a 2 bar Taktus. The violin plays a subdivision of 2(3:1) 2(3:1) 2(3:1) 3(4:2) (a true 9/4). The piano plays 3(6) 3(6), 3 (3:3). This has both a rhythmic and a textural effect. This was a legacy which Ligeti, more than any composer (after Brahms) before, understood and used. In Brahms’s late chamber music, we encounter some of his most delicate textures, and these are more often than not (see the slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet Op 115) constructed from the most intricate over layering and shifting pulses. You will notice a simple version of this in the Scherzo of the Trio-where two 6/8 bars are followed by two ¾.
Ligeti demonstrates this technique again and again in the Horn Trio. In the first movement, the fragility and apparent rubato is constructed from there being no audible pulse, although most of the movement is erected on a ‘common time’ staffage. This has no function, except an armature, and to enable the players to coordinate easily, and around which, layers of syncopations based on semiquavers and triplet quavers is hung. The listeners hear no rhythm, but are witness to an apparent freedom and intricate textural subtleties.
The second movement, on the surface, brings pulse, groove even, to the fore. It begins with the violin playing a repetitive figure, apparently in an uneasy three in a bar, joined by the piano. However, when the piano fills in the gaps, this is revealed to be 8/8 (3:3:2). This brilliant figuration permeates the entire movement until the coda. Around it, a series of duos and trios, which apparently eschew an agogic relationship to this figuration. The effect is of a terrifying mechanism (a word very important to Ligeti) with rhapsodic, free brilliance around it. It’s very far from free, of course.
Ligeti’s relationship to Brahms is not unlike Brahms’s to Mendelssohn. A simple example of Mendelssohn’s structural impact on Brahms can be heard in the development section of the Finale of the Trio. This perorates with a shared cadenza for the horn and piano. The Violin is silent, enabling these two powerful instruments to ‘play out’ at this pivotal moment. The placing of the cadenza here is directly sourced in the architecture of Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto which had achieved almost immediate popularity prior to Mendelssohn’s premature death. The extraordinary cadenza in the first movement turns into a fantastic accompaniment to the recapitulation-a gambit which inspired Tchaikovsky to the same placing in his Concerto Op 77 and here, the tumultuous return of the hunting theme in Brahms’s Trio.
Beethoven-F Major Sonata for Piano with Violin Op 24 (Dedicated to Graf von Fries)
Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Aaron Shorr
The idea of the ‘scherzo’ is at the heart of both trios. This is as Beethovenian as we can imagine being – and both composers are unable to escape the almost magnetic pull of the ‘Eroica’ symphony, which of course is all about the horns-three of them, particularly the brilliant trio, the middle section of this structure. Ligeti is unable to escape another ‘pull’. That being, the ‘TSIAJ’ from Charles Ives Piano Trio. ‘This Scherzo is a joke’, Ives’s tautologous title, is something which Ligeti clearly took very seriously. In this case, the joke (stolen from Beethoven’s Spring Sonata) that the violinist can’t play in time with the violin. In Beethoven’s case, the leg-pulling lasts 10-15 seconds. Ligeti extends the ribbing, with joyful cruelty; the more the violinist plays correctly, the wrong-er they should sound. It’s not comfortable, but I suspect, fun to watch!
I will return to this later. But for now, I have arrived, and have sat with a welcome cup of tea, with Garo Keheyan, and am now letting the calm of this wonderful space wash over me. More tomorrow.