Born in France to Swiss parents, Honegger studied at both the Zurich and Paris conservatories. No wonder, then, that he described himself as “a mixture of Frenchman and Swiss.” An influential article, published in 1920 by the French music critic Henri Collet, gave the name “Les Six” to Honegger and five of his contemporaries—Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre, and Durey—by analogy with the Russian “Five,” but as Honegger later explained, their bond was one of friendship rather than a shared “group aesthetic.” “Each of us works freely,” he commented, “without taking orders.” Writing in 1920 to the French musicologist and music critic Paul Landormy, Honegger explained his aesthetic priorities: “The musical direction I have taken is a reaction against what is called musical Impressionism [i.e., Debussy] and which is, in my opinion, a return to linear contrapuntal construction as opposed to harmonic construction. I also attach great importance to musical architecture, which I would never like to see sacrificed for literary or pictorial reasons. I also perhaps have an exaggerated tendency to seek out contrapuntal complexity. My primary model is J.S. Bach.”
It is perhaps useful to keep these remarks in mind—Honegger’s expressed interest in architecture and counterpoint, even in the context of pictorial program music—when listening to his brief and unpretentious symphonic poem, Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastorale). He composed it in August 1920 during a visit to Wengen, a resort village beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains in the Bernese Alps, and he evidently drew inspiration from these surroundings. A quote from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud heads the score: “J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été” (“I embraced the summer dawn”). Honneger submitted the work for the Verley Prize, worth 1500 francs, and it was among the four works chosen for performance, the winner to be selected by the audience, with the ballots counted in public. Pastorale d’été won the prize, receiving 347 of the 700 votes cast, and it has remained popular with audiences ever since.
If one is inclined to discern in this idyll the occasional bird song in the flute and clarinet during the calm and lyrical opening or, in the more animated middle section, hear snatches of folk songs or imagine peasant festivities, it is in the spirit of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feelings than a painting. The form is A-B-A’, with material from the first two sections superimposed in the third, masterful in both its architectural clarity and contrapuntal ingenuity.
David Grayson ©2013
Grażyna Bacewicz ranks among Poland’s leading twentieth-century musical figures. An artist of diverse talents, she served as concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra from 1936 to 1938 and was active as a concert violinist into the mid-1950s; she was additionally a pianist of formidable skill, equal to the demands of her own Second Piano Sonata. She was also an accomplished novelist and short storywriter.
But it was as a composer that Bacewicz made her most lasting contributions. Her achievements in this arena have steadily attracted greater recognition in the decades following her death. That she made her career as a woman in postwar Europe is not insignificant. On hearing the premiere of her Concerto for Strings in 1950, the Polish writer and composer Stefan Kisielewski noted:
"[T]he dignity of Polish composers was saved by a woman… [Bacewicz’s] Concerto for Strings, written with gusto and energy, brimming with fluid inventiveness and excellent instrumentation ideas, has finally woken us up from lethargy. … Here we have at last tasted a ‘red-blooded piece’ of healthy and tasty music written with male-like creative power."
The American critic Milton Berliner praised the Concerto in equally outdated parlance, finding “nothing feminine about Miss Bacewicz’s piece. It was vigorous, even virile, with… a pulsing, throbbing rhythm and bold thematic material.” Well-intentioned though they may be, these problematic accolades illustrate another important facet of Bacewicz’s legacy: as a model for subsequent generations of Polish women composers.
The Concerto for Strings reflects Bacewicz’s artistic maturity, in which, writes scholar Adrian Thomas, her music “became increasingly personal, casting off any remaining Parisian chic”—Bacewicz had studied for two years with Nadia Boulanger—“and becoming distinctively resilient.” The Allegro begins with an insistent urgency. Following a brief dialogue between solo violin and cello, an ebullient six-note figure appears. This motif recurs throughout the movement, ultimately arriving at a reprise of the urgent introduction. Along the way, we encounter sharp pizzicati, evocative tremolandi, a rumor of folk music.
An emotive ambiguity permeates this movement—is it playfulness, or agitation? Likewise, the Andante is tender and morose in equal measure. Here, Bacewicz displays her textural inventiveness, setting an enigmatic cello solo against muted violins, half playing sul ponticello. The effervescent finale offers further textural variety: surging tutti runs, glimmering trills, and solo lines buoyed by rolling waves of sound, peppered by piquant ricochets. This is vigorous, virile music indeed, demanding greater attention to one of the most original, and under-recognized, musical voices of her generation.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
Schubert enjoyed a childhood rich with music—singing in the court choir, playing string quartets with his family, and participating in the school orchestra—but he only began composing around the age of twelve or thirteen. Like his father and brothers, he trained as a teacher, and at seventeen he began working as a teaching assistant at an elite Viennese school, while also keeping up twice-weekly composition lessons with the local Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri.
Schubert’s accomplishments in the next two years must rank as the greatest growth spurt in musical history: he composed some 300 songs, plus four symphonies, three masses, five musical dramas, three string quartets, three violin sonatas and dozens of other works. This flurry all came before Schubert reached his twentieth birthday, while he was working full-time, and before the Viennese public had seen or heard a single note of his music.
HAYDN-ERA ORCHESTRATION Schubert completed the Symphony in B-flat Major on October 3, 1816. Aside from a private reading that fall, the symphony sat dormant until long after his death; the first public performance came in 1841, and the score was not published until 1885. Of all of Schubert’s symphonies, finished and unfinished, this is the only one that omits clarinets, trumpets and timpani from the orchestration, essentially turning back the clock to the symphonic customs of the 1780s. (Haydn composed 15 symphonies between 1781 and 1786 with instrumentation identical to Schubert’s, while Mozart used the same array for the first version of his Symphony No. 40, in 1788.) Schubert’s crisp musical material matches the economical scoring, with a first theme built out of a two-measure cell, and a second theme that incorporates the same distinctive rhythm from the earlier motive.
The slow movement becomes more expansive in its melodies, and a contrasting section that moves to a surprising key has Schubert’s clear stamp, with singing themes set over pulsing accompaniments, as found in many of his songs. The Menuetto is quick and boisterous enough to qualify as a scherzo, Beethoven’s rowdy answer to Haydn’s more polite minuets, while the key of G minor recalls Mozart’s stormy Symphony No. 40. The finale closes the symphony on a lively note, honoring Schubert’s debt to the masters of the previous generation.
Aaron Grad ©2016