Nakamatsu Plays Chopin
Le boeuf sur la toit (1920)
Deemed physically unfit for military service, Darius Milhaud, in 1917, accepted an invitation to join his friend (and sometimes collaborator) Paul Claudel, at that time the French ambassador to Brazil, as secretary. Back in France two years later, Milhaud began to compose a divertissement on South American “airs” named after a then-popular tango, O boi no telhado, literally The Ox on the Roof, as an imagined accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film. Milhaud later wrote that he had “assembled a few popular melodies, tangos, maxixes, sambas, and even a Portuguese fado, and transcribed them with a rondo-like theme recurring between each successive pair.” When Jean Cocteau got wind of the piece, he immediately promoted it as a theatrical spectacle and concocted a dadaesque pantomime inspired by the American speakeasies that continued serving alcohol in spite of the just-approved Prohibition amendment. (At its 1920 premiere, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Le boeuf was nicknamed The Nothing Happens Bar, later changed to The Nothing Doing Bar.)
Like many great 20th century ballets, the music has long since eclipsed its introductory choreographic affectation. Cheeky as it is, the score is brilliantly crafted. Scholars will discover that the composer cobbled together procedures from the French chaconne (basso ostinato) and harmonic schemes found in Bach’s preludes and fugues. All twelve tones of the chromatic scale get a chance as the tonic key.
Milhaud composed his own rondo theme, an energetic and dance-like fanfare that appears no fewer than fifteen times, interspersing some thirty popular tunes of the day. The composer obviously favored the first of these, São Paulo futuro, since he used it again at least twice in the latter stages of the piece. Three minutes after the start, and heard only once, the title tune gets a virtuoso trumpet solo. Such melodies as Seu amaro quer, Sertanejo and Para todos, easily recognizable to Brazilians and Argentines of that generation, are woven together with sizzling counterpoint.
Among the group of talented young composers who took inspiration from the iconoclastic Erik Satie (1866-1925), Milhaud indulged peculiar delight in polytonality, weaving two or more keys together in the same texture. “A polytonal chord,” he said, “is more subtle in its sweetness and more violent in its power.” While Le boeuf is heavily freighted with polytonality, listen for a soft-toned, discrete example found halfway through a performance of the c. 20 minute work, in which a sad little waltz is heard simultaneously in F sharp Major on flute, clarinet and bassoon, in D Major on the strings and in B flat Major on trumpet, trombone and horn.
(For more on Le boeuf and its musical sources, find the detailed and thoroughgoing material by Daniella Thompson, on line.)
Dances of Galánta (1933)
Zoltán Kodály spent a happy childhood in and around Galánta, a Hungarian crossroads town on the fertile floodplain of the Vah River, now contained within the borders of Slovakia. Kodály’s Galántai táncok (Dances of Galánta) was commissioned to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society and premiered there in October 1933, with Ernst von Dohnányi conducting the celebrated orchestra.
As the military march had, in the mid-19th century, been embraced in the salon and concert hall, the 18th century Austro-Hungarian verbunkos�"recruitment dances intended to fire nationalist ardor in small towns and rural villages �"likewise had spawned its own cultural tradition. After Austrian conscription was implemented, the verbunkos�"now generally called ‘Hungarian dances’�"increasingly entered 19th century art music. (The czárdás is a latter day, gypsy-inflected descendent.) But where marches are played in strict time, verbunkos are famous for their elastic tempo changes, often with slow seductive beginnings that lead to fast and furious conclusions. (Think of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody rhapsodies, Brahms’s Hungarian dances and Bartók’s violin rhapsodies.)
Although Kodály based his suite of dances on a Viennese published edition of 1804, he had to reach no further than his own boyhood memories of folksongs and dances of Galánta, and its famous gypsy band, for affect and character. His deft use of color owes much to Debussy, whose music made an indelible impression on the youthful Hungarian during his studies in Paris. In writing his preface to the published score, Kodály pointedly recalled the gypsy music of his boyhood and hoped his “modest composition” would “serve to continue the old traditions.”
In form, Dances of Galánta starts out as a rondo whose opening theme returns to link five orchestral dances, yet the work’s second half takes on a restless rhapsodic character. A haunting cello theme opens the work, while the other strings spin about them, echoed by solo horn and elaborated by oboe. A clarinet cadenza passage leads to a full expansion of the opening theme in the first dance. The second rhythmically charged dance begins on flute and winds. The first dance is lushly recalled before an oboe introduces the third dance with winds and sparkling percussion, until the restless strings provoke the orchestra into an outburst just before the pace slackens. Syncopated rhythms infect the broadly expansive fourth dance, which reaches a rowdy climax before being abruptly cut off. Slowly at first, the flute sets up the accelerating pageant of new tunes for the fifth dance, with its syncopated short-long-short figure from the fourth dance. Again, full stop. Flute, oboe, then clarinet creep haltingly forward, until the orchestra takes flight into its swirling conclusion.
Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Thanks to Arturo Márquez, the venerable and distinctive Veracruz danzón has been revived with startling impact. Born to musical parents in Álamos, a colonial town hugging the western foothills of the Sierra Madre of Sonora, the boy soon migrated with his family to Los Angeles where Márquez spent his teen years and began his musical education in earnest. Eventually, his studies took him to Mexico City, Paris (under a scholarship) and, with a Fulbright now to his credit, he collected an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (where his teachers included Morton Subotnik and Mel Powell.)
While the range and variety of his music have elevated his stature as one of the most important Mexican composers of his generation, his use of traditional and popular idioms has inevitably been gauged against that giant of the mid-20th century, Carlos Chávez, a visionary whose works have been compared to the uncompromising political art of Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera. Márquez’s most popular works have, indeed, played off his use of familiar and traditional idioms, as attested by the many awards he has accumulated. Purists may prefer the edgy avant-garde, yet all over the Americas, especially today, serious composers who acknowledge their populist cultural roots have won increasing acknowledgment in return from hungry followers fans. Danzón No. 2 and Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango have been embraced as unofficial national anthems of Mexico.
Márquez relates the inspiration behind his Danzón No. 2, when in 1993 he traveled to Malinalco (near Toluca) with the painter Andrés Fonseca and the dancer Irene Martínez, “both of whom are experts in salon dances with a special passion for the danzón.” That experience, plus later visits to Veracruz and the Colonia Danzón in Mexico City led him “to learn the danzón’s rhythms, its form, its melodic outline” and “to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness…which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape toward their own emotional world.” While the composer says he tried “to get as close as possible to the dance, its melodies and its wild rhythms,” he acknowledges that his symphonic setting “violates” its intimacy, form and harmonic language.
The traditional danzón, a salon dance for couples, uses rondo form and is derived from the 19th century contredanse and the Cuban habanera. One of at least eight danzónes by Márquez so far, this one was commissioned by Mexico’s National Autonomous University, whose symphony orchestra premiered it in 1994. It remains a staple of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which, under Gustavo Dudamel, toured the U.S. and Europe in 2007.
Piano Concerto in E Minor, Opus 11 (1830)
Before the age of twenty, Chopin had completed three of his five works for piano with orchestra, in order, Variations on Mozart’s La ci darem la mano, Fantasy on Polish Airs, Krakowiak (rondo) and the Concerto in F Minor (now known as No. 2). He would complete the Concerto in E Minor (now called No. 1) and Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise before his twenty-first birthday. Chopin was already being called a genius in 1829, when he finished his studies at Josef Elsner’s conservatory in Warsaw and made his Vienna debut to cheers and ovations. Full of confidence, he matched pianistic brilliance and compositional facility with, in his own word, “queer” inventions of form and harmony. (He had already played many concertos by other composers and quickly absorbed the lessons of more as an audience member.) After critics negatively judged Chopin’s command of classical sonata form, à la Mozart and Beethoven, Elsner would write, “If his method is out of the ordinary, so is his talent. What need has he of adhering rigorously to the usual rules? He follows rules of his own.”
In September 1830, Chopin wrote to a childhood friend “I have just finished my second concerto [known as No. 1.] It is far too original and I shall end up by not being able to learn it myself.” From the outset, it is masterful, as quick a quick study of form, content and caprice as can be imagined. (It has often been suggested, even observed, that Chopin’s solo works were essentially improvised and that he struggled greatly to recapture those spontaneous impulses in the process of committing them to manuscript.)
The early critics took affront less from Chopin’s use of sonata form than from his unorthodox harmonic scheme. The orchestral opening movement introduces two theme groups in the tonic E Minor, and a third in E Major. (Chopin modeled his concertos on those of Hummel and Moscheles, relegating the orchestra to a largely accompaniment role.) In the second exposition, the piano reintroduces the three themes, affording the soloist great latitude for personal expression. Beginning in the major, the thoughtful development soon grows restless, then turbulent, on its way to the recapitulation on the orchestra. But this time, the second theme appears (on the piano) in an unpredictable G Major. An accompanied cadenza built on the third theme leads swifly to the movement’s conclusion
Chopin wrote of the second movement, “It is a romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently toward a spot which calls to mind a thousand happy memories; it is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” With muted violins, it follows rondo form, with B and C sections sandwiched within the opening, middle and closing A sections. The finale, also in rondo form, engages the famous dance from Krakow that Chopin had so successfully visited in the earlier, stand-alone Krakowiak.
Chopin premiered the concerto at Warsaw to a sold-out house in October 1830, winning “furious applause.”
Program Notes by Michael Scott MacClelland