Orchestral music by Joseph Haydn, Béla Bartók and Edgard Varèse
Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 59
In the exposition of his Symphony in A major, his 59th contribution to the genre, Joseph Haydn already puts on a sparkling display of ideas: an octave leap is followed by an insistently repeated A in the first violins, imitated by the oboes when they enter and supported by ascending and descending scales in the lower strings. The tempo of the repeated notes briefly doubles from quavers to semiquavers before the cheerily abrupt tone of this extremely simple opening idea is arrested in bar 5 by a cadential progression in long note values, marked piano. The second subject enriches the rhythmic profile with triplets; the development varies the simple motifs, deploying surprising twists and modulations. And where, at the end, one might expect a reaffirmation, forte, of the material that has been heard, Haydn has the movement end quietly, as he already has done the first subject and the exposition. This is music for an attentive audience – or at least for one which has woken up by this point in the proceedings.
The history of the Classical symphony is often treated as though the starting point for the development of the genre was an existing model, whereas in actual fact this model had first to be created. And with Haydn in particular, one often finds, to one’s surprise, that practices generally assumed not to have been employed until much later are already present in his work. For example, deploying themes beyond the confines of an individual movement is only considered standard practice in Beethoven and his successors. Haydn already uses this technique almost in passing in his A major Symphony when he reprises the theme of the Andante in the third movement, albeit altered from minor to major. The contrast between the slow movement and the Minuet is thus changed from being primarily thematic to being shaped by the major-minor contrast and the tempo. Haydn’s effective use of orchestral colour is also evident in this early symphony when the wind instruments, which are silent for much of the Andante, unexpectedly colour the second subject, marked “cantabile”, in the new key. By contrast, the wind instruments open the Finale on their own with fifths in the horns and sequences of thirds in the oboes, before the strings enter.
Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto
When Haydn died in 1809, Vienna had just been taken by French troops. Napoleon stationed a guard of honour outside the home of the composer, who was also admired in France. Haydn, the oldest of the major Viennese Classical composers, was just spared having to witness the fulfilment of the French general’s legendary saying that, henceforth, “Politics is fate”. This was already less true for Beethoven, who had been Haydn’s pupil for a short time, and did not remotely apply to the generation born around 1880 to which Béla Bartók belonged. The Hungarian composer displayed exceptional integrity and uncompromisingness in confronting the man-made politics he was fated to encounter. After an early patriotic phase, he reacted increasingly vehemently against the nationalism sweeping through Europe. He openly described National Socialism as a “system of robbery and murder”. When, in 1938, none of his scores were included in the “Degenerate Music” exhibition in Düsseldorf, he sent a letter of protest to the German Foreign Office. And in his will, he stipulated that “as long as there is in Hungary any square or street named for these two, then neither square nor street nor public building in Hungary is to be named for me”, “these two” being Hitler and Mussolini, whose names Bartók avoided spelling out. Even though he was not directly forced to do so, Bartók had been considering emigrating to America since the late 1930s. In March 1940 he went on a US concert tour, not least in order explore professional opportunities in situ. A few months later, he embarked for New York with his second wife, Ditta Pásztory.
Life as a migrant was overshadowed by financial difficulties, problems adapting to the noise of the city, homesickness and a serious illness that was only diagnosed as leukaemia after an extended period, but it nevertheless yielded a rich compositional harvest. Bartók was not, however, destined to complete his final Piano Concerto, whose premiere was already scheduled. His friend Tibor Serly had to complete the last 17 bars based on available sketches. Unlike the Concerto for Orchestra, which had been premiered to great acclaim, this was not a commission; it had been intended as a birthday present for Bartók’s wife and was written during a stay at the health resort of Saranac Lake in New York State, where the couple sought recovery from the composer’s illness and the hostile urbanism of the city. Their surroundings probably contributed to the bright sound of the piece, in which vitality and melancholy are touchingly combined.
Bartók’s Dance Suite
1923 marked not only Bartók’s marriage to his former piano student in Budapest, but the genesis of his Dance Suite. This was commissioned for a national celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the union of the towns of Buda, Pest and Óbuda to form Budapest. However, alongside Hungarian folk music, Bartók includes Romanian, Slovak and Arabic folk music in the six-movement work – and moreover, he repeatedly combines them. Bartók did not usually quote the tunes he collected during his field research directly, but instead used their harmonic and rhythmic characteristics as a springboard for his own writing. Despite its accessibility and effectiveness, even this work does not lack constructive features. For example, in the Finale Bartók makes the various themes from the previous movements pass in review.
Arcana by Edgard Varèse
Among the few guests at Bartók’s funeral in New York was the French-born composer Edgard Varèse, who had become a naturalized US citizen. When he himself died in the same city 20 years later, Pierre Boulez wrote an obituary that ended with the parting words “Adieu, Varèse, Adieu! Your time is over, and it is beginning.” His prophecy was to be fulfilled; the composer had long been established as a central and independent figure in modern music.
Varèse’s composition Arcana takes us up into space. As an epigraph it carries a quotation from Paracelsus in which the 16th-century Swiss doctor and philosopher speaks of seven stars, the last of which bears the name “Imagination” and begets a new heaven with new stars. This is a figuration of infinity – as well as creating the other stars, the star of the imagination replicates itself, so that the process can start all over again. Paracelsus’ alchemical research also seem to have suggested the work’s title: he understands an arcanum as a mysterious substance. For Varèse, this could only be a sound. Arcana begins with a simple motif in the lower register of the orchestra comprising the intervals of a tone and a semitone. It is soon rhythmically varied in bars of 7/4 and 5/4. Soon after, in maximum contrast and as a further defining element of the composition a first fanfare motif is heard. What exactly these signals of proclamation are intended to tell us remains uncertain – Arcana is all about imagination.And as Varèse declared in an aphorism, “Imagination … gives shape to our dreams”.