Monday, April 28, 2008

Ashland theater season, 2: Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter; Fences

I ADMIT IT: I didn't have high expectations for Julie Marie Myatt's new play Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, which we saw in Ashland last Wednesday, the third of four plays we saw that week. And in not looking forward to the production I suppose I'm part of that majority of the public that seems fatigued by Iraq and war: it was shamefully wrong to begin with; it's been dragging on too long; there seems to be nothing right that can be done about it. I believe there are historical inevitabilities; Iraq is certainly one of them.

And another lament about the human damage the war is causing didn't promise an evening's entertainment. So why see it? Well, first of all, we've formed the habit of seeing everything the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers each season. I was brought up to eat one piece of toast without jam before getting one with: you take things as they come. And the point of OSF is that its artistic direction (which passed from Libby Appel to Bill Rauch this year) balances the seasons carefully, offering about fifty percent Shakespeare, the balance well distributed between standard repertoire and new plays, all set on a fairly stable cast of actors, nearly all chosen with an eye for the developing conversation a season's repertoire will generate, among the audiences and among the plays themselves.

Even while watching it, and thinking about it immediately afterward, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutters seemed less a play than a set of character sketches. But the characters are interesting and often extremely entertaining (funny as hell, in fact); and the lack of purpose of course characterizes the entire American adventure in Iraq: purposeless (and mindless, which this play is not) from the start.

Then too, on reflection Welcome Home is an intelligent response to The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, seen earlier (and commented on briefly a few days ago). I suppose the common ancestor is Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by way of William Inge's Bus Stop, both plays about the dynamics that evolve among strangers tossed together in some overwhelming whim of the Fates — and, come to think of it, isn't that Purposeful Plot enough?

In any case Jenny comes home with a prosthetic leg, but in fact doesn't go home immediately. She winds up in an encampment of dropouts and rejects somewhere in the desert, not far I suppose from where Lindsey and I were stalking wildflowers last month. She responds to a gently dazed preacher who lacks a church, a cynical sociopath who lacks cruelty, an aging flower-child still seeking the right man, and a well-intentioned self-appointed shrink. In the end, perhaps, their examples persuade Jenny she has better opportunities at home with her own little kids, whose potential rejection has kept her from returning. At least I think that's what will happen to her next: whatever, she has the strength and resilience and good humor to survive.

If it's a series of character sketches, the play gives its actors a lot to deal with. The acting was in fact superb, the title role brilliantly captured by Gwendolyn Mulamba; Kate Mulligan and David Kelly on the mark as Lou the hippie and Buddy the preacher, and Gregory Linington superb as the laconic Donald. Jessica Thebus directed with accuracy and resourcefulness, and Richard Hay's scenic design was evocative.

The next afternoon, last Thursday, we saw August Wilson's Fences, one of the ten plays in Wilson's portrayal of the Black American experience throughout the 20th Century. A play per decade: Fences looking at life in Pittsburgh, PA, in the 1950s.

OSF is right to have engaged this keen cycle of plays, and perhaps right to compare it, if only implicitly, as parallel to other such cycles — Shakespeare's history plays; the Oedipus cycle. I'm not suggesting Wilson's a playwright of that caliber, or even that it's useful or even proper to consider whether he is: it's far too soon. But Fences, like the two other Wilson plays we've seen in Ashland (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Gem of the Ocean) is a very strong, very rich play, one I'd want to see again a few times, in this production and in others.

August Wilson was a fascinating figure, to judge by his Wikipedia entry: the son of a German immigrant baker and an African-American cleaning woman, he's an interesting man to consider while reading (as I am at the moment) Barack Obama's first book Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance . It is very sad to contemplate the human and societal cost of America's continued "racial" prejudice and bigotry in the century and a half since slavery. Wilson and Obama have a common purpose in their literary work: to convey to the "white" American, and examine with the "black," both the damage this American vice produces and the lie that it is.

What makes Wilson's plays superb is their simultaneous depiction of social and historical issues on the one hand and their interpenetration of an individual's ability to survive and perhaps even flourish within them. Century, country, community, family, self: and then the same in reverse order, continually redistributing the ageless and irreducible qualities of sympathy, intelligence, experience, adaptability.

Fences focuses on a man in his fifties, his longsuffering wife, his two sons (by different women), his damaged brother, and a drinking buddy from his garbage-collection job. Troy Maxson is no Lear, whatever OSF's notes may say, but he's a towering figure, and it didn't hurt my own individual response to the play that he so reminded me of my own father, only a few years younger, similarly damaged by lack of schooling, hatred of cruel father, consequent diminished self-esteem and inability to father his own children. The man is of course analogue of the "race," and the deeper issues of psychology and what I call "mentality" (meaning an individual's more-or-less consideredly evolved address to the context of his life and activity) resonate throughout the play on both the individual and the sociohistorical level.

I can't be too enthusiastic about this production, which left the audience stunned and shaken. Charles Robinson was a magnificent Maxson; ;Shona Tucker grew through her enactment of his wife Rose. Josiah Phillips was a very sympathetic Bono (the buddy). The oracular defective brother Gabriel was played by G. Valmont Thomas with subtlety and finesse. The sons were Kevin Kenerly (the jazz saxophonist) and Cameron Knight (Cory, who escapes his father's cruelty and with his mother offers some hope for the future). Leah Gardiner directed; Scott Bradley designed yet another evocative set; Michael Keck provided the sound and music design.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ashland theater season, 1: Hedda Gabler's Further Adventures; The Clay Cart

OUR VISIT TO ASHLAND this spring brings us to four plays; we'll see the rest of the season in September. Every year three or four plays run only half the season, so you have to make to trips to see the whole thing — and it's generally a worthwhile thing to do.

Certainly it started out well on this trip, with two plays that gave us plenty to think about. The first was new, having debuted last year: Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. The idea of the play sounds pretty thin: between her suicide at the end of Ibsen's play and her first-act entrance at its next performance, Hedda Gabler finds herself in a kind of Purgatory reserved for dramatic characters so vivid as to have attained immortality. She befriends Medea, is attended by Scarlett's Mammy, dodges a falling Tosca — and is unfortunately still bored by her husband Tesman, apparently as immortal as she.

But Whitty's play, Bill Rauch's direction, and a fine cast make much more of this idea than a succession of joking allusions to Great Moments in Theatrical History. Free Will and Determination are the framework, but strength of character and make-the-best-of-it are the vital signs. And while there's plenty to laugh at, there's more to admire. I came away fonder than ever of Hedda Gabler the woman, having lost none of my respect for Henrik Ibsen her creator. And in the midst of reading Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, Mammy's soliloquies, after finding herself conversing with late 20th-century black women, summon considerable respect for her point of view — and throw plenty of suspicion on revisionist, politically correcting views of history.

This afternoon's play was considerably older: The Clay Cart dates from the third century CE or so, a Sanskrit play full of sight gags, music, tenderness, young lovers, flatfoot cops, sententiousness, and all the other standbys of Roman comedy, Shakespeare, Commedia dell'arte, and all the rest of it. (Sitcoms included.)

The result was enchanting, colorful, fragrant, diverting. A three-man band (flute, percussion, plucked strings) sat upstage center behind an all-purpose disc-arena; the large ensemble often sat as audience while providing shifts of scene. Stylized gesture and minimal dance, along with occasional song and frequent poetic declamation, curiously mediated between a respectfully ritualistic view of the vehicle and a perfectly straightforward enactment: this play is exotic and distant, but familiar and gripping at the same time.

It too was directed by Bill Rauch: good news, as he is the new artistic director of the entire Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I want to see this production again: perhaps I'll have another chance in September.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Silver Screen

SO, WHICH TEN MOVIES would you preserve for your old age? Off the top of your head, mind you; and no researching; and list only movies you've actually seen; this isn't a wish list.

In no particular order:

• Last Year at Marienbad
• Beat the Devil
• The Lady Eve
• Scenes from a Marriage
• L'Avventura
• The Ghost and Mrs Muir
• Rope
• Rashomon
• Les Enfants du paradis
• Chelsea Girls
We're just back from seeing Last Year at Marienbad on a big screen in a Portland neighborhood theater: the movie still holds up beautifully. I'm closer to knowing what the hell it's about now than I was in 1962, and I've seen those halls and gardens, and had a few ennuis of my own (none recently, thankfully), so now I can relax and enjoy the sound of the film, the pace, the architecture. It's still an avant-garde thing, I suppose, but its connection to the French Baroque is a perfectly straight line.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A critic migrates further

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES, perhaps when my state of mind was more confused than usual, when I wasn't sure Phil Elwood and Alan Rich were in fact two separate people. I don't know that both were ever seen in the same place at the same time. I knew of them at the same time, over fifty years ago, in Berkeley; they were voices, commenting on their favorite musics over the radio from KPFA, Phil favoring jazz, Alan The Romantic Art Song.

And I knew of Alan as a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, where Lindsey took a music-appreciation class largely from him; one of her many attractions was her annotated pocket score of an F-major string quartet, Op. 59 no. 1, by a German composer considered important in the course. She was fond of Rich as an instructor, and I think I know why: as well as really knowing his stuff, he was very enthusiastic.

Is enthusiastic; is enthusiastic still. In the years since he's continued in what Virgil Thomson called "the music-appreciation racket" in the same way Virgil himself did, by writing freshly voiced, solidly considered, often memorably expressed commentary on the music he confronted. In the popular use of the word, "criticism": but I prefer the term commentary; I don't see why writing on politics and writing on the arts, when it stems from similar urges and expresses similar commitment to "values," need be called by different names.

For some time I've been putting off commenting here on Alan's book So I've Heard (Pompton Plains: Amadeus Press, 2006) . I meant to write about it together with Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, but my discussion of that book ran away from me last December; there wasn't room to bring the two AR's together. (I find a note I'd written at the time: Ross writes for an audience of himselves; Rich, for the rest of us.) And now I read in Daniel Wolf's blog Renewable Music that Alan Rich has been dropped from the L.A. Weekly, where he's written forever. (More background on this here and here.)

The L.A. Weekly is owned by Village Voice Media; they also own the (New York) Village Voice, which has also dismissed their staff music critic. The good news is, as I read on blogs, that Rich will continue to write on a blog. The bad news is that the print media and specifically newspapers, so handy to read on streetcars and at breakfast tables, continues to turn from engaged discussion of interesting and even significant subjects — the arts, for example — and opt instead for capsule reprints of news-service coverage of political issues, celebrations of the ongoing business of commercial athletics, and intricate wonder at the persistence of crime.

I continue to hear in my mind's ear a comment of Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, the American patron who did so much for chamber music in the first half of the Twentieth Century: "My plea for modern music is not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document." She was right on target with that remark: the arts are significant; they are the record of the most penetrating and far-reaching human activity, and the society — I started to write "culture," but forgo it — that ignores the arts demeans itself, like a smart well-to-do man who lounges around in rumpled clothes. (Are you listening, Charles?)

Alan, who I know well enough to have trouble calling him Rich, continually "exhibits" the music he runs across: and he runs across a great deal of it. He "understands" it, to the extent that it can be understood, whether it's conventionally analyzable, like that F-major quartet, or is best comprehended simply by considering it in its greater immediate cultural context, like the music of, say, John Cage.

And he likes it. When he gets worked up about something in what might be called a negative mood — which is less often than the contrary — it is because he cares so much about music that he can't bear some momentary stupidity he's run into. He cares about prose, too, as you can see in a review he published back in September 2006.)

A century ago the popular press, as we academics call newspapers, was full of contention and partisanship when it came to coverage of the arts. Newspapers published poetry, of all things, and confronted the arts. (It was the Boston Herald that published, in 1924, the anonymous
Who wrote this fiendish "Rite of Spring"?

What right had he to write the thing?

Against our helpless ears to fling

Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?

And the to call it "Rite of SPRING,"

The season when on joyous wing

The birds melodious carols sing

And harmony's in every thing!

He who could write the "Rite of Spring,"

If I be right by right should swing!
But I digress, as usual.)

Today, when big-city dailies have often only one music critic, and big cities only one daily, the little commentary that passes for criticism is often pallid and reserved, afraid of being wrong, afraid even of being right, and the fun's gone out of the thing.

For Alan Rich the fun never goes out of it. I hope he continues to write; even as he approaches his middle eighties his voice is fresh and wondering; he retains his youthful enthusiasms for even such as Brahms in a way that almost makes you want to listen to them again, and certainly listen to them if you can borrow Alan's ears. His title, So I've Heard, is resonant; that So means a great deal.

In recent times, apart from his book I've read Alan only by way of forwards from a London friend; I don't know whether Alan will in fact blog his writings; I hope so. If so, another blog to read daily. And I respect the blog; it's a fine and useful thing. (And Clio knows without the resources of the Web, and such other blogs as Wolf's (cited above), my own musings would be much the worse informed.)

But the printed page, the pungent ink on its crisp newsprint, has an in-your-face immediacy no blog can touch; blogs are personally addressed, where the newspaper is inarguably Public Comment. Retiring a writer like Alan Rich — not that there are many such — amounts to stealing public property, and I'm sorry to see it happen. Oh well. Buy his book. He has a nice thing to say about me in it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Milhaud: Quartets, part four

AFTER THE TERRIBLE BRAZILIAN WINTER — terrible for the thousands of deaths from influenza — came the joy of the Armistice, Nov. 11, ending World War I. Paul Claudel was sent to Washington on a mission; Milhaud went with him. The voyage was on a German vessel that had been sabotaged before its capture, and Milhaud describes a hilarious trip in his memoir Notes Without Music: the trip took eight weeks, and introduced Milhaud, who composed the entire time, to backwoods towns (and their dance and music) in Brazil and the West Indies. After a brief stay in New York he finally reached Paris again, and it was there and then that he composed one if his best-known scores, Le Bœuf sur le tôit, a collage of a number of Brazilian popular tunes. (The piece and its origins are discussed in a fascinating article by Daniella Thompson, "The Bœuf Chronicles.")

Such pieces did not distract him completely from more "serious" composition, and in 1920, shortly after finishing Le Bœuf sur le tôit he composed his Fifth Quartet, Op. 64:
  • i: Chantant : Much more so than anywhere in the four earlier quartets, Milhaud writes polytonal music here, each instrument in its own key, but the music is so clearly outlined and the instruments kept so far apart in terms of high-to-low voicing, that the result is quite clear, at the same time both "modern" in its discord and "classical" in its balance and clarity. (very polyphonic, fugal)
  • ii: Vif et léger : frisky but compulsive, in a Schoenberggy rhythm, punctuated at key articulation points by heavy repeated chords.
  • iii: Lent : here the slower tempo displays intricacies already present in earlier movements. Introspective, the music suggests the studio more often than is usually the case chez Milhaud, and as the movement unfolds the expression is always more innig.
  • iv: Trés animé : heavy, rhythmic, busily imitative, the finale returns to the mood of the opening movement, thus making this the most conventional of Milhaud's quartets to date in point of form, however progressive it undoubtedly is in terms of its harmonic language.

  • Milhaud dedicated this Fifth Quartet to Arnold Schoenberg, of all people; I don't know what Schoenberg may have thought of it, but he writes interestingly about Milhaud in a letter to Zemlinsky:
    …as to the 'insignificant' Milhaud. I don't agree. Milhaud strikes me as the most important representative of the contemporary movement in all Latin countries: polytonality. Whether I like him is not to the point. But I consider him very talented.
    Arnold Schoenberg: Letters (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965, p. 80)

    (Between the Fifth and Sixth Quartets Milhaud found time for, among other things, rehearsing (25 rehearsals!) and conducting the French premiere of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: Schoenberg had reason to "consider him talented." Not long after, Alma Mahler suggested a double performance in Vienna, with Schoenberg conducting a performance with the Sprechstimme in the original German, Milhaud conducting the same instrumentalists — different vocalist — in the French translation he had had prepared.)

    Two years later, in the spring of 1922 — there had been a new string quartet every other year for a decade — Milhaud composed the Sixth Quartet, op. 77:
  • i: Souple et animé : opening in a rustic, lyrical solo in the viola, Milhaud immediately announces he is done with the German intellectuality of the previous quartet. The movement's barely two and a half minutes long, fresh in spite of the dark colors of viola and cello, placid in spite of the constant motion and overlapping contrapuntal lines.
  • ii: Très lent : like the preceding movement, this individuates the four instruments, at first assigning quite different kinds of music to cello, viola, and violins, with slow ostinati, trills, simultaneous discords, and altered timbres (pizzicato, sul tasto, harmonics) occasionally suggesting Milhaud had listened carefully to Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) — without, however, leaning on them in the least.
  • iii: Très vif et rythmé : Five-beat rhythm, unusual for Milhaud (I wonder if he demonstrated this to his best-known student, Dave Brubeck, whose "Take Five" sounds occasionally derivative of it). And even shorter than the first movement, making this one of Milhaud's most concise pieces to date — a quality that no doubt infuenced those critics who found such music somehow less consequential: a pity.

  • Milhaud dedicated the Sixth, appropriately, to his friend and fellow-member of the celebrated "Les Six" "modern" French composers Poulenc, and the contrast between this concise, lyrical, Gallic quartet and its predecessor couldn't be more marked.

    It would be not two but three years before Milhaud would get to the Seventh Quartet, op. 87, which he wrote while on extended honeymoon with his bride (and cousin) Madeleine. They had taken ship via Naples, Malta, Athens, and Constantinople to Lebanon, where Milhaud fell so ill with amoebic dysentery they to give up their planned visit to Palestine. He recovered in Cairo, and planned to settle for a while with friends in a castle in Balsorano, a ruined village in the Abruzzi, but
    I fell ill again during my stay in Balsorano. The peasant woman who brought me my meals carried up on her head all the furniture we required for our installation. She would come near my bed every day with a murmur of: "Speriamo, speriamo!" It was then that I began to write my Seventh Quartet. For us it will always be bound up with our memories of that journey. As soon as I felt a little better, my friends drove us to Rome, where we were to take the train for Paris. When we stopped at a little village to fill up with gasoline, we saw a lot of ancient bottles in the window of a cafe. Our collector's fever made us buy the lot: Garibaldis, Queens of Italy, Angels, Clocks, and Acrobats. When we got to the Hotel Flora, we had them all taken up to our room, to the great dismay of the porter. He was somewhat mollified when we offered him the contents of the bottles. He soon returned with a large empty vase, into which he poured all the contents of the bottles, regardless of the type of liqueur they contained. "This will be a treat for the kids," he said with a smile.
    I quote this at some length, from Notes Without Music (whose online presence I have found again), because the overlapping moods, emotions, locales, languages, and sensibilities seem to me to illuminate, somewhat, the otherwise sometimes bewildering overlappings in Milhaud's music. I have quoted at greater length, in fact, you might complain, than this quite brief quartet itself can convey.

    Quartet 7, op. 87, 1925
  • i: Modérément animé : The close of the opening section recalls the Brazilian rhythms of Le Bœuf sur le tôit, and the center section, in its slower tempo, fades out on a nostalgic note, unwilling to allow the conventional return to the opening tempo.
  • ii: Doux et sans hâte : The first appearance in his quartets of a trademark Milhaud mood, one I always think of as Domestic, somehow expressing simplicity, tenderness, douceur. (Also the first appearance of doux as a descriptive heading, and looking forward to the more sugary, more excitable sweetnesses that would come ten or fifteen years later in the music of Olivier Messiaën.)
  • iii: Lent : The mood of the second movement continues, in a different musical language, a berceuse or lullaby, not inappropriate to honeymoon sickbed, perhaps.
  • iv: Vif e gai : Frisky, again, like the second movement of the Fifth, but entirely Mediterranean to my ear in spite of an occasional irruption from Stravinsky's pungent chordal imagination, or Schoenberg's Germanic cerebration.

  • Milhaud dedicated the Seventh to the Pro Arte Quartet, who no doubt played its premiere not long after its composition. Interestingly, he had heard them play quartets by Anton Webern in Vienna; he had found them "grippingly interesting." Perhaps they influenced, or at any rate confirmed, Milhaud's tendency toward conciseness in these string quartets of 1922 and 1925.

    Milhaud had composed seven quartets in thirteen years; he was now thirty-two years old. For whatever reason, he was not to return to the medium for another seven years.

    Sunday, April 06, 2008

    Milhaud: Quartets, part three

    FROM NOTES WITHOUT MUSIC, Darius Milhaud's memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953):
    On September 27, 1915, as I was going across the Place de Villiers, I felt an exceedingly acute physical pang, which lasted several seconds. I immediately thought of Leo and feared that some disaster had befallen him. Later I was to learn that I had felt this pain at the very moment of his death. It was at the height of an offensive in Champagne; he had been wounded, but though no longer able to handle a rifle, he refused to be evacuated, so that he might take part in the attack with his comrades. He was mown down by the German machine guns at the head of his company while encouraging his men. His family sent me a copy of his will; he had left me his diary. He had deposited it, together with my letters, in an old wooden chest, an eighteenth-century sailor's trunk; I added the letters I had received from him. Subsequently Dr. Latil [Léo's father] had a selection of his letters and extracts from his diary published by Plon. This supreme testimony of his pure Christian faith and spirit of self-sacrifice was singled out for mention by Barres on account of the nobility of its thought. While I was in Brazil I had a hundred copies of Leo's poems privately printed. A few months after his death, I wrote my Third String Quartet, dedicated to his memory. This consists of two very slow movements, in the second of which I introduced a soprano voice singing a page from Leo's diary, ending: "What is this longing for death, and which death does it mean?" This sentence had haunted my imagination ever since I had read it.
    Milhaud's Third Quartet, op. 32, is indeed a very slow, very elegiac piece, and an extraordinary one for its form. The opening movement, Très lent, is slow indeed, in the Quatuor Arcana recording lasting just over seventeen minutes; the second movement, also marked Très lent, runs over seven minutes. The second movement is unusual for including the soprano voice: Arnold Schoenberg had done the same in his Second Quartet, completed in 1910; I've read somewhere that Milhaud hadn't known of that piece when he wrote his Third, but he says nothing about it in Notes Without Music.
  • i: Très lent : The quartet opens in the lower strings, in low range; when the violins enter they too are low-pitched. The meter is a very slow six-eight, a funereal barcarolle whose overlapping imitations convey slow, regretful, and inexorable motion; yet this is no lamentation: the mood is dignified, sorrowful, but not plaintive. And the music is curiously consonant in spite of considerable use of minor seconds, not always arising as passing discords in a contrapuntal texture.
         Two-thirds of the way through the movement there's a subtle shift of mood, as if regret gives way to resignation: but from there the two moods alternate, and the movement ends — at least in the Arcana recording — in an ineffably slow, quiet, section whose use of harmonics in the violins, over the low-pitched cello, bring Morton Feldman and even John Cage to mind.
  • ii: Très lent (Poème de Latil) : The voice enters soon, after a short, extremely quiet introduction in the strings, floating out of their texture in a melodic but measured recitative, reminiscent of the quiet declamation Erik Satie used a few months later in his Socrate, and similar to that of Milhaud's own Les Choephores , completed just before this quartet was begun.

  • THE FOURTH QUARTET, Op. 48, is a very different matter, composed in Rio de Janeiro where Milhaud was posted in 1917 to serve as secretary to the poet Paul Claudel, who had been appointed Minister to Brazil. Milhaud was now twenty-five; his compositional technique had fully developed (partly from intense personal study of harmonic possibilities, partly through sheer quantity of product and lessons learned from repeated hearings of most of his music); and he was intrigued by the new sounds of this exotic country. After the five-movement Second Quartet, and the unique Third composed of its two very slow movements, the Fourth returns to a more conventional form: two quick movements, quite short, surrounding a longer slow one. But the headings of these movements suggest that life and death are still on Milhaud's mind:
  • i: Vif : Dancelike and rustic, but giving way toward slower, more pensive moods.
  • ii:Funèbre : The mood of the opening movement of the Third Quartet, somewhat more hectoring in the lower strings' march, lightened occasionally by high harmonics in the violins, but often insistently returning to the funeral. (It is possible this movement was composed during the horrors of the Spanish flu epidemic, when, in Milhaud's words,
    …four thousand deaths were recorded daily. The authorities were overwhelmed. In the hospitals the dead were removed from the beds before they were cold, in order to make way for the dying. The supply of coffins gave out, and you constantly saw cartloads of corpses that were thrown into common graves in the cemeteries.
  • iii: Trés animé : Barely two minutes long, moving forward over a nervous ostinato in the lower strings, this finale doesn't really lighten the mood. It's nervous and intense, ending almost abruptly. The Fourth Quartet may be formally a return to tradition, but it concludes in quite a self-aware manner Milhaud's string-quartet survey of the wartime years.
  • Friday, April 04, 2008

    Milhaud: Quartets, part two

    SINCE BEGINNING THIS SURVEY of Darius Milhaud's string quartets a few days ago, I ran across the full text of his memoir Notes Without Music online — but where, I can't say; I copied the text to my computer but clipped the online reference. Before, I was relying on liner notes to the Cybelle LP recordings and my ears; now I'll be adding things found in the memoir. To begin with, in 1904, when Milhaud was twelve years old and already a good violinist, he was asked to join his violin teacher, a professional cellist who taught at the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, and a local carpenter who played viola, to read through quartets. The next year, 1905, they studied the Debussy Quartet, which resounds throughout Milhaud's first, composed seven years later in 1912.
    That year at L'Enclos I finished my first string quartet. When I played it over with the Bruguier Quartet, only my beloved teacher understood what I was trying to say. His wife could not help blurting out: "It sounds just like Arab music!" and Segalas, the carpenter violinist, declared with his heavy Marseille accent: "Good God! This is hot stuff!"
    [Notes Without Music, p. 34]
    The First Quartet was performed in 1913 in Paris, on a contemporary-music concert:
    I played in it, with Robert Soetens, Robert Siohan, and Felix Delgrange. After the concert, at the Salle Pleyel, while I was putting my instrument away and gazing at the old programs adorning the walls of the foyer, bearing witness to so many glorious performances and famous visits one of them even referred to a concert given by Chopin and Mendelssohn I was jerked out of my reverie by a gentleman with a white mustache and goatee who said to me: "I am Jacques Durand, I should like to publish your quartet. Come to see me tomorrow." Next day I signed my first contract.
    [Notes Without Music, p. 47. And yet this quartet is not Opus 1, but op. 5.]
    And at this point I refer you back to my last post, about that First Quartet, and now get on with it.

    Milhaud compose a string quartet every other year from his First, in 1912, to his Sixth, in 1922; and he delayed only three years before getting to the Seventh, in 1925. But the three quartets that followed the First were special. They were composed during the First World War, a terrible irruption into la vie quotidienne in France (and elsewhere); they were composed in the deceptive quiet days before the German march on Paris, during the bleakest days, and during the last months, when the composer himself was safely (and fascinatedly) away from the action in Rio de Janeiro. And they reveal, I think, an absorbing change, within Milhaud's approach to the composition of music, from the fairly derivative, surely influenced youthful work in the First, through a series of intensely and revealingly personal statements in music composed for this most perfect of musical media, the string quartet, poised between the completely soloistic and personal world of the solo sonata and the quite public and audience-oriented world of the Symphony.

    In the Second Quartet, op. 18, Milhaud celebrates his friend Léo Latil, and their mutual friendship. There's a friendship here that's hardly understood these days, nearly a century later, when we look for sexual "coding" everywhere. Let Milhaud describe his friend:
    Leo… attended the Catholic school [recall that Milhaud was a Jew] and also studied music under Bruguier. We became firm friends. He worshipped music and admired my early efforts with passionate conviction; he made me share his admiration for Maurice de Guerin, and we loved to discover contemporary poets together. I think Leo would probably have become a country priest. The infinite tenderness in his gaze betrayed a tendency to melancholy and a tormented sense of anxiety. He kept a diary that was one long lamenta tion in which spiritual weariness and painfully intense reli gious feeling, dominated ever by a deep spirit of sacrifice and absolute resignation, were interwoven with a passionate love of nature, of flowers, and of the exquisite blue lines of the horizon at Aix. He was a dreamer, in love with solitary brooding, but he accepted my presence. We often went for walks together; he would always take the same direction, toward the Étang de Berre, west of the town, where the softly curving hills merge into the immensity of the plain, on the edge of which stood Cezanne's property, Jas de Bouffan, with its famous row of poplars gently suffused with the colors of the setting sun. We never wearied of walking along between the fields of wheat, blue-green in spring, bordered with almond trees in bloom, dwarf oaks, and pines, through exquisite landscapes, some of which, like the Chateau de l'Horloge, evoked historical memories : according to Chateaubriand, it was in this solid, roomy farmhouse that Napoleon spent the night on his return from Elba. Sometimes we went as far as Malvalat, the Latils' estate near Granettes, a village that took its name from the painter Granet, who lived there; one of his pictures, representing the death of his wife, hangs on a wall of its little chapel…
    I quote at length for more reasons than one. First, to display Milhaud's fine prose style. Second, to underline the significance of landscape to his sensibility: the awareness of humanity in its natural context, in the environment, has much to do with the effectiveness, the persuasiveness of his music. Third, of course, to attempt to convey the quality of the friendship between these two boys, alert to Nature, aware of their intelligence and sensitivity, open to their world.


    I haven't looked into it in any depth, but it strikes me there's a theme running through French music from Rameau and Couperin down to Satie (and, of course, through Satie to Virgil Thomson). Of course there were German baroque composers who depicted; and Schubert, I think, and Schumann and Alban Berg, certainly, took pleasure (and inspiration) from translating their impressions of friends and lovers into musical terms. But the durable tradition of musical portraiture is, I think, French; and Milhaud took to it readily: in 1914, after Léo had already been mobilized into the war, while Milhaud was waiting
    to receive notice calling me up, I remained in Aix and … started on my Second String Quartet. Léo was stationed at Briançon in the Chasseurs Alpins. He looked on the war as a mission, a solution to his personal problems, and got himself sent to the front as soon as he could. Gradually the first bad news filtered through to us: Alberic Magnard shot by the Germans and his house burned down; my cousin Daniel Palm killed before Lunéville his parents were notified the very day their youngest daughter, Suzanne, was repatri ated from Germany, where she had been spending her vacation perfecting her German. When Etienne was called up with the 1915 class, Madeleine and I went with him in the streetcar as far as Pont de l'Arc, the first stop after Aix. We came back on foot along the little river, dark with shadows and lined with richly hued trees. It was the first autumn I had spent in Aix since 1908.

    By the next year, 1915, Milhaud had completed the Second Quartet, whose five movements can be taken as a portrait of his friend Léo. It's an engaging piece, open and winning; you'd hardly suspect a war was on.

  • i: Modérément animé -Très animé : Lively, meaning full of life: animé , as so many of Milhaud's quartet movements would be marked; animated. And there's much busy-work here, expressive of the energy and constant outward-looking curiosity these boys must have had in common. Sweetness, too. Nothing terribly original, or worked-out: Milhaud depends on lyricism and symmetry; perhaps a record of the innocence of his boyhood — the movement ends in a slower, appreciative moment…
  • ii: Très lent Something prescient here? The rhythm, in the lower strings, is somewhat dirgelike. Très lent is a marking — stipulating not so much tempo as mentalité, state of mind — that will recur often among the quartets to come. I could speculate about the extent to which Milhaud, pastoral, Provençal, was prescient in a Surrealist way avant la lettre, sensitive, through his sensitivity to the present moment and locale, to what is to come. So many things I wish I'd had the wits to ask him!
  • iii: Très vif Complete innocence, again: a record of those rambles together through the "softly curving hills," the garrigue surrounding Aix-en-Provence. Busy and uncaring: but the four instruments divide cannily the business of this musical energy, even if there is a bit of repetitiveness…
  • iv: Souple et sans hâte, assez animé et graçieux Supple; without haste; rather animated, and graceful. Enough said.
  • v: Très rythmé: Pure energy and intentionality; direction always forward. But the close, suddenly, is slower, reflective. Again, there's a presentiment here: I'll continue with this in a day or two.

    Be advised: Milhaud's Third Quartet is an amazing leap, looking forward to Morton Feldman.
  • Wednesday, April 02, 2008

    Darius Milhaud: the string quartets (1)

    A FEW WEEKS AGO I ran across a lucky find on Ebay: the complete Milhaud quartets, on six LPs, recorded by two French string quartets. (Of course what I'd really like to have is the integral edition performed by the Quatuor Parisii, released some time ago on CDs on the Naive label, but I can't find a copy for love nor money.)

    Yesterday a package arrived, a foam-plastic slab with the LPs carefully packed inside. Curiously, the LPs were in their protective envelopes but outside their jackets; each jacket with its LPs was sealed in its own heavy plastic envelope. I think perhaps the LPs are new and were never repackaged for retail on their being received from the factory. The sound engineering is dated, to say the least, and some recordings appear to be monaural: but what a joy to hear this music — it reminds me that the true descending priorities of music-listening are
  • Composer
  • Composition
  • Performance
  • Sound (whether live acoustics or recorded engineering)
  • and it's interesting to think whether such scales apply to the reading of books, or the viewing of paintings or sculpture.

    In any case, to the matter at hand, the Milhaud quartets. Ever since the dawn of the string quartet we've been accustomed to think of them as cycles: within European concert music, the string quartet is one of the major cordilleras; within the oeuvre of every composer who has dealt with the form — and that includes most of the most significant — his own cycle of quartets is another major range. So through the history of post-Baroque European concert music we have Haydn, Mozart, B**th*v*n, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich; apologies to those I've forgotten; this is blog, not book.

    (There is of course a fascinating category of European composers with only one quartet to their credit: Puccini, SIbelius, Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Lutoslawski; apologies to those I've forgotten; this is blog, not book. And note I'm not considering extraEuropean composers at the moment: if I were, Carter's name would be prominent in the previous paragraph, and Cage's in this one.)

    Of those great "cordilleras," I suppose the Milhaud is the most neglected, certainly the most unjustly neglected. In 1920, twenty-eight years old, when he had composed his fifth quartet, he told a journalist (for Le Coq Parisien) that he wanted to compose eighteen quartets (one more than Beethoven had managed); in 1951 he completed the eighteenth, quoting his first quartet in its closing measures, and noting on the manuscript "eighteen quartets, as promised." It's an impressive sequence of quartets, whatever you think of the implied competition with B**th*v*n. It was his very facility that led to Milhaud's neglect, I think; people forget that facility does not inevitably equate with the facile. Mozart, Picasso, and Henry James were blessed with facility, leading to impressive quantity which rarely slip when quality is considered, whatever the benchmark.

    Milhaud's own a attitude to chamber music, as a medium:
    C'est une forme, le quatuor surtout, qui porte à exprimer le plus profond de soi, et avec des moyens limités à quatre archets… C'est à la fois une discipline intellectuelle et le creuset de l'émotion la plus intense…

    [It's a form, the quartet above all, that induces expression of the innermost of one's self, and with means limited to only four bows… it's at the same time an intellectual discipline and the crucible of the most intense emotion…]

    But to the matter at hand. I've listened so far to three or four of these performances, in the course of digitizing them for my iPod, in the order in which they appear on the LPs — presumably an order determined by durations and, perhaps, a kind of logic that prefers to ignore chronological sequence. I prefer to consider them here, however, in the order in which they were composed: it's fascinating to hear the "development" (by no means logical or necessarily even linear) of Milhaud's interests in the forty-one years he spent on the medium.

    The First Quartet, op. 5, was composed in 1912, at the age of twenty. It's dedicated "to the memory of Paul Cézanne," Milhaud's older concitoyen from Aix-en-Provence

  • The first movement, Rythmique, opens with a simple unison declaration, lively and forthright, brisk and open, occasionally letting up for more lyrical phrases. There's a reference to the opening of the Debussy quartet: the best way to confront influence is to face it openly. A central episode in a slower tempo transforms the declaration into a speculation, expanding on motifs from the basic themes; then a three-beat march heavily gives way to a waltzlike return to the opening theme.
  • The second movement, Intime, contenu, lyrical and graceful, on muted strings, continues the Debussy mood in a supple , plein-aire piece — so often French music, and Milhaud especially, seems to evoke the out-of-doors, where German music sings of the studio.
  • The original third movement, Grave, soutenu, is not recorded: in the revised corrected edition of his quartets Milhaud let it stand, but specified that it was there only "pour mémoire," as a memory.
  • The finale, Vif, très rythmé, is unfortunately perhaps the least persuasive movement of the quartet, a bit repetitive and, in the present performance, hectoring — but, again in a center section, giving way to a more reflective, graceful voice.

  • Not bad for a first quartet by a twenty-year-old from the provinces working in the shadow of such giants as Debussy and Ravel; and still a pleasant thing to hear today. To composers and string-players much of its effect lies in its skill: Milhaud played in a quartet himself in his youth, and clearly knew the conversational and contrapuntal nature of the medium as well as the fluencies of the instruments. But even more pleasurable in this First Quartet is its role of Janus to the seventeen that followed. I'll write next of the three remarkable quartets that came next, composed during the First World War, and beginning Milhaud's fascinating and complex development of a style that unites personal expression, response to friendships and poetry, and technical discovery.