February 10, 2017, 7:30PM Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato
- Britain: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (1936)
- France: André Caplet (1878-1925) Suite Persane (Persian Suite) (1900)
- Germany: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) (1887/88)
Imagine traveling in a great arc from Yorkshire to London, across the Channel to Le Havre and Paris, then taking a northeasterly jog to Hamburg, rejoining the trajectory of the arc in Vienna and going on through Hungary and Romania, crossing the Black Sea to Iran, and finally passing through Pakistan to the Punjab. It would take this journey of over 6,000 miles to visit all the birthplaces of this evening’s music.
At the western end of the arc are the native countries of tonight’s three composers. But André Caplet was a Frenchman who wrote Persian-sounding music, and Brahms was a German who lived in Austria and wrote Hungarian-inflected music with the label “Gypsy” tacked onto it. Only Vaughan Williams stuck to musical sources solely from his homeland.
The melodies upon which he based the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes were “Eventide,” composed in 1861 by William Henry Monk, a Londoner, and “Dominus Regit Me,” written in 1868 by John Bacchus Dykes, who was born in Yorkshire. Protestants know these hymns as “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide” and as one of the settings for “The King of love my Shepherd is.” “Abide with me” is frequently sung at vespers services and at funerals. Both tunes appeared originally in Hymns Ancient and Modern, which, with numerous revisions and supplements, was the standard hymnal of the Church of England for 150 years.
Listen to this arrangement of “Abide With Me” sung by the King’s College Choir:
Here is a video of “The King of Love” sung by the choir and congregation in Westminster Abbey at Princess Diana’s funeral:
For an agnostic, Vaughan Williams was very involved with religious music. He composed many pieces for liturgical use, and some of his finest concert works for chorus use sacred texts. He began his career in 1895 as organist and choir director at St. Barnabas church in London, a job which he disliked but from which he later admitted he had learned a great deal, especially about what constitutes successful music for voices. He resigned four years later when a new vicar insisted that he take Communion, which, as a nonbeliever, he could not in good conscience do. In 1904, when he was not yet a household name but was known in musical circles for his field work in collecting English folk songs, he was recruited to be the musical editor in charge of revising the Anglican hymnal. Vaughan Williams didn’t particularly want that job, either, but he accepted it because he saw it as a way of helping to return one important strand of English music to its native roots. Like the other editors of the new hymnal, he felt very strongly that “the miasma of the languishing and sentimental” accretions of Victorian hymnody needed to be dispelled from Anglican worship music. He and his contemporaries in the English Musical Renaissance aimed to create a purely English musical idiom to rival those of the Continent, particularly of Germany. The Royal College of Music, where Vaughan Williams had trained, was the center of this movement.
In a nation with an Established Church, a new hymnal is a Very Big Deal, carrying with it an aura of ecclesiastical and royal authority. In an era before broadcast music, the average citizen was likely to encounter and participate in serious music only in church. Vaughan Williams felt very keenly the responsibility of artists to work for the benefit of the larger society, so he labored on and off for thirty years on the English Hymnal and its successors and offshoots that were intended for use in schools and colleges. His reasons were aesthetic and cultural, not religious: as one music historian put it, “Vaughan Williams had more of a mind to put Anglicans in touch with the English Musical Renaissance than with the Almighty.”
His agnosticism notwithstanding, Vaughan Williams’ lifelong admiration and love for the liturgy and musical traditions of the Church of England were vital in his compositional thinking, and the music of the hymn-book runs like an ever-present stream through his creative life. The Two Hymn-tune Preludes are only two of several dozen smaller works partly or entirely based on English hymns and carols, and many phrases from hymn melodies found their way into his major works as well. In movement one, “Eventide,” listen for the hymn melody in the oboe, joined by the high strings. In movement two, “Dominus Regit Me,” you will hear the melody first in the high strings and then the flute. The limited instrumentation (single winds, horn, and strings) is entirely in keeping with the peaceful feeling of these preludes.
It’s only a short trip eastward across the English Channel from London to Le Havre, André Caplet’s early home. He is said to have been born on a boat sailing across the estuary of the Seine. (One hopes it was calm weather.) He was the seventh child in a family of very modest means. To help make ends meet, by age twelve he was working as a rehearsal pianist at the Folies-Bergère in his hometown. He began studies at the Paris Conservatoire when he was eighteen and began conducting professionally while he was still a student. He won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship in 1901, besting Maurice Ravel in this competition for young composers. That same year, his Suite Persane (Persian Suite) was performed, in a concert dedicated solely to his music. After he returned to Paris at the end of his Prix de Rome studies, Caplet met Debussy, and the two became close friends.
Caplet assisted Debussy as a transcriber, orchestrator, and proofreader. He was so assiduous in this last role that Debussy declared him “le tombeau des fautes” – “the graveyard for errors.” It is for his collaboration with Debussy that Caplet is most remembered: his orchestration of Debussy’s piano piece Clair de Lune is the most widely performed example of Caplet’s work. Caplet is not known to have traveled any farther east than Germany, but, like many of his contemporaries and Debussy in particular, he was much influenced by sights and sounds brought to Paris by the International Expositions of 1889 and 1900. The Middle Eastern and Asian pavilions had kindled a rage for all things “Oriental,” and Caplet followed the fashion by using Persian-inflected scales for his suite. It is an example of Caplet’s Romantic early style. In his words, the first movement, entitled “Scharki,” “is an erotic nocturne, whilst in the second, as in a misty distance, darting ghosts approach and take on human form to laugh in the sweet joys of love…they bloom in postures of grace and pleasure…becoming human, they seem to diffuse the odours of flowers and sunbeams. In the third movement dancing fakirs fall in weariness, ecstasize, and then leap all the more furiously.”
Caplet’s suite was chosen for performance at America’s first chamber musical festival in 1918. The journal Musical America reported that the first movement was “a weird native air, in unison, and developed in a scintillating style. ‘Scharki’ is a Persian word meaning ‘anything done in an Eastern style,’ a song or ballad in this instance. The second section is entitled ‘Nikawind’ [a name that is transliterated in a bewildering variety of ways], after the name of a place in Persia.” This is Nahavand on today’s maps, a small city in northwestern Iran. There is a family of scales named Nahawand that are used in Arabic music. One of them uses the following intervals: 1-2-flatted 3d-4-flatted 5th- 6-flatted 7th. (Beginning on C, this would be C D E-flat F G-flat A B-flat C.) Caplet used this scale in his Suite. The exact translation of the third-movement title, “Iskia Samaisi,” has eluded me, but “Sama” is a Sufi religious ceremony, part of which is the ritualized spinning of whirling dervishes (Caplet’s “dancing fakirs”).
Here is a video of this ceremony:
The Suite Persane is scored for double wind quintet, an instrumental group that many of us have never before seen or heard. There are two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. To the question of why the French horn, a brass instrument, is included in a woodwind quintet, one wag has answered, “Because it got lucky.” A more serious answer is that its warm, mellow sound blends very well with the timbres of the woodwinds. There is a fairly substantial literature for double wind quintet: 360 compositions are listed in one recent bibliography. However, a very large number of them are arrangements or transcriptions rather than works, like Caplet’s, composed specifically for this ensemble of instruments.
The sources of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder are the most widely dispersed of all the pieces on tonight’s program, ranging from Germany through Eastern Europe and the Balkans and still farther eastward, possibly all the way to India. In 1853, when Brahms was 20, he went on tour as accompanist to the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi.
They performed in villages and byways, with Brahms improvising piano accompaniments as Reményi dazzled audiences with his fiery playing of traditional Magyar melodies. They picked up songs from peasants they met along the way and added these to their repertoire. This three-month tour was one of the formative experiences of Brahms’s early years. For the rest of his life he would return repeatedly to music “alla zingarese” (“in Gypsy style”). It can be heard in his Hungarian Dances and in certain movements of his chamber and orchestral works.
The Hungarian Dances (which were originally piano duets) and his earlier song cycles for vocal quartet and piano, the Liebeslieder Waltzes, had been extremely successful. This was an era when home entertainment centered about the piano, with family members and friends singing and playing for each other. Brahms must have had an inkling in 1887 when he began composing the Zigeunerlieder that the combination of “Gypsy” style and piano/vocal format would be another commercial success. He made sure of it by insisting on publication before Christmas to capture the gift-buying market, and this opus netted him a small fortune.
The source material was an anthology of 25 Hungarian folksongs with piano accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. Brahms used very little of the melodic material; when he did, he modified the tunes such that none of them uses a traditional Gypsy scale. The rhyming German translations were made by Brahms’s friend Hugo Conrat, based on literal versions provided by the Conrats’ Hungarian-born governess, Fräulein Witzl. The first performance was at one of Conrat’s household musical soirées, with the Fräulein as honored guest. The song cycle begins with an invocation: “Ho, Gypsy, strike your strings and sing of my faithless maiden!” The songs that follow are about flirtation and desire, rejection and parting – love in all its moods.
Granted that the words came from traditional sources, what makes these “Gypsy” songs, if Brahms used little of their original music?
- The 2/4 meter and the dotted rhythms typical of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance.
- The lack of upbeats: all vocal phrases begin on the downbeat, because in Hungarian there are no unaccented first syllables.
- In the tremolando and arpeggiated passages of the accompaniment, imitation of the cimbalom, a large hammered dulcimer common in Hungarian bands.
- Widely-spaced melodies, often moving downward.
In this old film of csárdás dancers, see if you can spot the cimbalom player, in white shirt and dark tie, behind the violinists in the band. And catch the flamenco-style heels on the men’s dancing shoes:
Here’s a close-up view of an atmospheric performance by a cimbalom soloist, backed by bass and violin:
What is or is not authentic “Gypsy” music (i.e., music of the formerly nomadic Romani people) and what is traditional Magyar (i.e., ethnic Hungarian) music, and whether or how the two are related is a matter of ongoing debate. In Brahms’s day, apparently no distinction was made: the music of Hungarian peasants was “Gypsy” music regardless of who was making it. “Gypsy,” incidentally, is a somewhat derogatory nickname attached to the dark-skinned Roma, who at one time were thought to have come from Egypt. Recent DNA research shows that the Roma actually migrated out of the Punjab regions of Afghanistan and northwestern India about 1500 years ago, eventually reaching Europe, where today they are the largest minority group. Traditionally, many Roma made a living as itinerant musicians, influencing and being influenced by the indigenous music of their surroundings. For instance, Spanish flamenco music is of Romani origin. “Original” Romani music, uninflected by the musics of the countries the Roma have passed through, is quite rare.
Here is the Romani anthem, which uses a traditional melody:
It is clear that Brahms intended the Zigeunerlieder for a solo quartet. The sonority of today’s concert pianos makes it practicable for small choruses to perform the songs, remain in balance with the accompaniment, and yet retain the intimate feel of “Hausmusik.”