Updated: Sep 8, 2019
Let me begin by welcoming you to the Offstage blog. This new space on our website is designed to provide behind-the-scenes insights into the Verreaux Collective’s programs and artists, and ultimately make the experience of attending a concert a more inclusive experience. I firmly believe that what sets ‘classical music’ apart is not some elitist measure of intrinsic quality or importance, but rather its rich history and complex webs of influences and meanings. When it comes to this music, the more you put into it, the more you get out. This is the reason a casual concert-goer might be stymied by an experienced listener chuckling to themselves during an apparently serious moment in a Beethoven trio – the ‘joke’ may have to do with a certain expectation of form or harmony, and subsequent denial or subversion of that expectation. To laugh at Beethoven’s comedy, a listener has to be aware of the conventions of Haydn and his other predecessors, just like a parody film gets funnier the more familiar you are with the source material. That’s one small example, but I just want to illustrate how different a performance can be based on experience and listening habits. This blog isn’t meant to be a history lesson or a treatise on theory, but if I can enrich a concert experience in some way for even one audience member, I think it’s a job worth doing.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the context surrounding the music on our October 20th concert. I won’t speak in too much detail about the pieces themselves, since you’ll get to hear the performers speak about each of them specifically, but I do want to highlight some other pieces you can listen to which can broaden your understanding of each composer you’ll hear. We began to think about the program as a series of pieces orbiting around the star of the night, Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. This piece stands on its own among the great pieces of chamber music because of its unique instrumentation. While flute and harp are a natural combination, the use of the viola with either instrument is extremely unusual, let alone with both! In fact, Debussy originally intended for the third instrument to be the oboe, until he realized that a bowed string instrument could provide a much broader spectrum of colors and techniques. He often asks the violist to play on the bridge of the instrument, which creates a hoarse, squeaky sound, and calls for plucking of the strings in imitation of the harp. This piece is one of Debussy’s finest exhibitions of textural creativity and demonstrates the same kind of skill in instrumentation as his famous orchestral piece La mer. To get a sense of Debussy’s harmonic language, I’d recommend listening to his Suite bergamesque. This work contains the well-known Clair de lune, as well as a Menuet that reminds me very much of the character of the second movement of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. (I’ll include Youtube links to recordings of the pieces I’ve mentioned at the bottom of this article.) On the program, you’ll also hear a solo flute piece by Debussy, Syrinx, which was written just two years before the Sonata and demonstrates his skill in flute writing.
We will also hear two pieces by the German composer Paul Hindemith on the program. Hindemith was a prodigiously talented performer before he was a composer, beginning on violin and then mastering the viola, piano, and clarinet. At just the age of 19, he served as the concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera’s orchestra. Even at this young age, he grew passionate about wrestling with the central musical dilemma of the time: the perceived dichotomy between the old and the new. As the Great War turned Europe upside down and Hindemith served near the front lines, most artists began to look away from prewar musical thought and towards a huge variety of novel ideas. While Hindemith and Debussy may have written music that sounds very different, they both exemplified this ongoing splintering of the common practice that had bound almost all of Western art music before the twentieth century. Hindemith was a great admirer of Debussy and even was playing in a performance of the latter’s string quartet when news reached the front that he had died. Hindemith wrote “We realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique and the expression of personal feelings. Music stretched beyond political boundaries, national hatreds and the horrors of war. I have never understood so clearly as then what direction music must take.”
Like Debussy, Hindemith believed strongly in the exploration of nonstandard instruments and colors. Throughout his career, he managed to write at least one sonata for every instrument conceivable, from organ to euphonium. He also imitated the Frenchman in writing pieces for unusual combinations of instruments, such as a sonata for viola, heckelphone and piano or a concert for trumpet, bassoon, and orchestra. One of the pieces on our program is the Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1. This is a unique and yet surprisingly accessible work that I think you all will be intrigued by. To get a taste of some immediately enjoyable and often Debussy-inspired music that Hindemith wrote for the viola, I’d recommend listening to his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4 (link will once again be at the bottom!)
The final composer we will be featuring is unquestionably the greatest British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten. He may be familiar to you as the composer of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was written for a documentary film and is still used today to introduce children to the astonishing variety of colors an orchestra can produce. On this program, we will hear his Suite for Harp, a five-movement work of contrasting characters and techniques that has become an important part of the harp repertoire. For me, Britten’s music is above all extremely evocative of place and time. The Harp Suite, and especially the last movement, which quotes a Welsh hymn tune, reminds me of an ancient storyteller singing and plucking their lyre. Perhaps his masterwork, Britten’s opera Peter Grimes is a good example of how he can use sound to conjure up a visual scene. Listen to the Four Sea Interludes from that opera and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. The first, Dawn, raises the curtain on the austerely beautiful beaches of northern England, alternating between the stoicism of the immovable cliffs and the gusts of wind in the sea air. The bustle of Sunday morning church bells in the second movement and the vicious sea storm of the fourth are self-evident, and the haunting beauty of the third movement, Moonlight, brings to mind a lonely boat adrift among the waves at night.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for what promises to be an exciting concert. I’ve really enjoyed bringing these performers and pieces together, and I think you will appreciate very much the fruits of our labor. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned here or found this writing helpful. Ultimately, this is a space designed to benefit you, our audience, so I’ll be taking all of your suggestions into account. I look forward to seeing you on October 20th!
Debussy Suite bergamasque: https://youtu.be/dBVLdqSK2Ns
Hindemith Op. 11 No. 4 https://youtu.be/HWMWFWNWeKc
Britten Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’ https://youtu.be/VTd2aXLTA84