Verbunkos

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

In 1938, as the year kicked off in January, Benny Goodman, jazz clarinetist and the so-called “King of Swing,” stepped on stage with his band at Carnegie Hall. It was considered a turning point for the genre, a moment when it went from being a dance hall pleasure to an art form worthy of taking a seat and savoring, just as much as a Beethoven symphony. That year, 1938, also marks the point when Goodman began to explore “classical” music more deeply. He recorded Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581, and (along with Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, a friend of Bartók’s who, like Bartók, fled war torn Europe and landed in California) commissioned Bartók for a chamber work. The result was Contrasts. Goodman’s foray into the genre was not short lived. He studied classical clarinet technique with Reginald Kell, and embarked on many classical projects: commissions for works by Malcolm Arnold, Morton Gould, Copland, and Bernstein, as well as recordings of Stravinsky, Brahms, Debussy, and more Mozart, amongst others.

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Béla Bartók

Contrasts is a three-movement work, with the two outer movements, Verbunkos and Sebes, based on Hungarian military recruiting (hussar regiments) dances, and the foreboding slow middle movement, Pihenö rest. Drawing on ancient classical techniques, Sebes, the final movement, requires scordatura tuning for the violin, or, a re-tuning of the strings to facilitate different tonal possibilities. The result is a fantastic amalgamation of old European folk traditions and jazz, which is in some ways the modern take on the folk music of the United States. Both have structures but much improvisational space, an emphasis on syncopated rhythms with winding melodies.

 

From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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Wind

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Chen Yi

Amalgamations of musical traditions from differing cultures are not new, though they may strike our ear as such each time we hear another iteration. As far as the European classical tradition goes, it has long drawn influence from the East. Brief examples include Mozart and Beethoven employing Turkish elements, Debussy famously weaving in different scales and tonal structures after encountering Javanese gamelan music at the 1889 Exposition (“beside which Palestrina’s [counterpoint] is child’s play,” he observed), and John Cage’s brand of minimalism.

The road of cultural exchange is two-way, and many Eastern composers utilize the soundscape of Western instruments to transmute their musical ideas. Among them is Chen Yi, the first woman in China to receive a master’s degree in composition (1986). Of her work Feng, she writes: “The Chinese character pronounced feng…can mean wind, or the winds, and can also mean view, folk songs, style, and manner…I use a Western wind ensemble to sound the Eastern feeling of the winds in this work, which consists of two movements: Introduction and Rondo.”

 

From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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Mozart’s flute

mozartComposers have long sought distinction;  a recognition of their talents by way of promotion into positions that provided access to highly skilled musicians, and higher salaries for their labor. Perhaps what was distinct about Mozart’s desire for success as he entered his young adulthood was that he had a unique experience (as well as pressure) for that time in history of having been a child star. There was nowhere to go but down. Instilled in him from an extremely early age was the knowledge that he was immensely talented, and the expectation that the trinket gifts he received from amused nobles and aristocrats when he was a child would eventually flourish into substantial prestige and financial gain.

Unhappy with his position in his less than glamorous hometown of Salzburg, Mozart made the decision to attempt securing a more impressive court appointment elsewhere. He and his mother set off on a journey, stopping along the way in a handful of cities to essentially scope out the job markets. The ultimate destination was Paris, but one of the stops along the way was in Mannheim, which was one of the most exciting musical hubs in Europe, with its well-organized ensembles, and plethora of talent.

During his several months there, Mozart picked up freelance jobs composing and teaching keyboard lessons. Ferdinand Dejean, “that true friend of humanity,” as Mozart described him in a letter, was a wealthy Dutchman and one of many amateur musicians seeking new music to play; in this case “three short, simple concertos and a couple of quartets” for his instrument, the flute (Mozart never quite got around to fulfilling the commission in total, and took a pay cut as a result).

The quartet K. 285 is charming, and prominently displays the flute, which dominates the melodic content. Housed between the cheerful outer movements is a remarkable, sublimely shadowed, slow movement that seems to hover above melancholy in a more delicate space of mild disappointment, as if the Blessed Spirits of Gluck’s opera have suddenly realized that while Elysium is nice, it’s not Dante’s heaven.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the quartet is not the music itself, but what it represents, which is a unique era when symphonic music was defining its dramatic potential, and chamber music was still a private genre for light entertainment, yet to approach inheriting symphonic grandeur. In a short period of time, as the nineteenth-century approached, chamber music would slowly move outside of personal salons and home music rooms, and explore its own parameters.

 

From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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