Disruptions and Discoveries
The Juxtaposition of Traditional and Modern in Works by Adès, Mozart and Stravinsky
Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face Suite
Thomas Adès was born in London in 1971, the same year in which Igor Stravinsky died at the age of 88. He is among those contemporary composers who can integrate the European musical tradition into their works and tend to distance themselves from the avant-garde’s deliberate rejection of its cultural legacy. Stravinsky can be viewed as both the authority figure and point of departure for the naturalness with which different musical styles can be comprehensively juxtaposed.
Powder Her Face Suite,commissioned for and premiered in these concerts, is an offshoot of Adès’s chamber opera first performed in 1995 at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Based on true events taken from the tabloids, Powder Her Face recounts the proceedings of a spectacular divorce case, including the introduction of scandalous sex photos of the eponymous heroine, Margaret Whigham, as evidence. In a hotel room, the Duchess of Argyll (her title acquired through marriage) reflects on the couple’s extravagant and profligate life together. The eight movements of the instrumental suite take us on a musical journey through various stages of the opera, which takes place in the 1930s, 50s and 90s. Along with three excerpted dance movements, Adès has newly orchestrated the Wedding March and other scenes and arias by transcribing vocal lines as instrumental parts.
“Se vuol ballare, signor contino?” – Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503
In 1784, perhaps Mozart’s most successful year, the star of the Vienna that he described as a “piano-land” composed a total of six concertos for performance at his so-called academies – subscription concerts he organized at his own risk featuring himself as soloist. Two years later, he had written only two more: the dark, tragic C minor, K. 491, was completed in the spring of 1786 and followed half a year later by its largely humorous and lyrical opposite, the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503. Mozart entered the works in his own thematic catalogue on 4 December, but public interest in his music had apparently waned in the meantime, prompting him to cancel the performances and wait to premiere the concertos until after his journey to Prague (for a revival of TheMarriage of Figaro).
Was it Figaro’s success that inspired Mozart to leave behind the predominant darkness of the C minor Concerto in his next contribution to the genre? The opulent, rhythmically majestic Baroque opening rather suggests a reinforcement of the old aristocratic order: there is unmistakable grandeur in the thematic fanfares and rocket-like ascents. However, a hammering motif ushers in a simple song-like (second) theme that seems to burst the stiff old world of counts and servants, glimmering briefly in the minor before turning to major and letting its full dance-like effect emerge. Piano and orchestra spin out the ballad-like melodies in a seemingly effortless dialogue of shifting timbral combinations. Episodes in minor cast only brief shadows on the closing Rondo’s light-filled soundscape.
A serious loss and a sensational find – Igor Stravinsky’s Chant funèbre
It comes as a great shock to the 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky to learn of the death of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in June 1908. It takes him more than two days to travel by train from the west Ukrainian town of Ustilug, where Stravinsky had settled with his wife after the birth of their first son, arriving in St. Petersburg just in time to attend the funeral of his composition teacher and father figure. Shortly after his graveside personal farewell, within some four weeks following his return to Ustilug, Stravinsky writes a funeral dirge for the deceased, Chant funèbre, op. 5. The composer apparently hears the work only once – at its premiere in January 1909.
“The score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution,” recalled Stravinsky in 1936. Although he could no longer summon up the composition, he did recollect the twelve-minute piece’s structure: “I can no longer remember the music, but I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.”
Stravinsky seemed certain that the orchestral parts at least could still be in one or another of the St. Petersburg orchestral libraries, and this encouraged musicologists repeatedly to search for them. But it was only by chance – in the course of moving the contents of a tiny, crammed storage room at the very conservatory where Rimsky-Korsakov had taught – that the work was rediscovered at the beginning of 2015. Following its revival after 107 years by Valery Gergiev, on 2 December 2016, Stravinsky’s Funeral Dirge is now making the rounds at international concert halls.
The beginning of modern music – Le Sacre du printemps
While Stravinsky was composing his Chant funèbre in 1908, Arnold Schoenberg was just starting to stray from the paths of tonal music. Not even five years later, Stravinsky too broke with tradition. The premiere in Paris on 29 May 1913 of the ballet Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”), with his music danced by the Ballets Russes to Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, is still considered one of the great scandals of all time. The pagan spring offering depicted in the ballet connects with mankind’s primitive roots. What begins innocently as the tender blossoming of spring in the bassoon’s folklike melody ends in death with the Chosen Victim’s Sacrificial Dance.
The music’s rhythmic description of ritual body movements is astonishingly concrete. The group of dancers marking time becomes the first regular pulsation of the earth’s spring awakening, while the full orchestra’s wildly ecstatic stomping turns it into a colossal percussion instrument, raging and twitching. The group round and processional dances in the first part of the Adoration of the Earth are transformed into the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen Victim. Abrupt pauses, stark accents, fierce orchestral blows and irregular rhythms accompany the shocking moments before the catastrophe enacted on stage. The unleashed collective savagery is forged against a background of aggressively repeated dissonant chords. The Chosen Victim begins her final dance with grotesque leaps and ecstatic convulsions. With outstretched arms, she is lifted up and offered to the sun god. Spring’s power returns, and the natural cycle of growth and decay is completed.