Week Three - Connections: Mozart, Prokofieff, Jacob and Elgar

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This week’s Fran’s Corner will look at musical connections. What on earth do I mean? Connecting Mozart with Prokofieff? No way, you think. Connect Elgar with Gordon Jacob, maybe. How about a Mozart and Elgar connection? I can certainly make one there. Are you looking at the order of the program for the 25th of July and seeing the Mozart Quartet No. l, in G minor, K. 478 followed by the Prokofieff's Sonata in D Major for Flute and Piano, Op. 94 and wondering why the Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84 isn’t right after the Mozart? The answer is chronology is not the most important connection when it comes to discussing music. What is important? Let’s see what Prokofieff said. In 1943 while living in the remote countryside to escape the turmoil of war in the city and busy composing the score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Ivan the Terrible, Prokofieff found some spare time and went about composing a Sonata for Flute and Piano. He wrote this about the work. See if you find any words suggesting a connection with Mozart in his comment.

"[The flute] had for a long time attracted me, and it seemed to me that it had been made little use of in musical literature. I wanted this sonata to have classical, clear transparent sonority.”

Prokofieff playing chess

Prokofieff playing chess

Did you hit on the words, sonata, classical, and clear? What is the music of Mozart if not described by these words? The sonata form was amazingly enhanced and developed by the Classical period composer, and certainly his materials were clearly presented. Was Prokofieff possibly inviting his listeners to make the same connection? Or am I hearing this alone? You be the judge when you listen to the Flute Sonata immediately after the Mozart. Surely the musical language is often a world apart. A lyrical Mozartian melodic phrase opens the work couched in rapidly shifting tonalities. The tempo is marked Moderato. The second theme is march-like. The sonata form is true to course in the First Movement and the thematic materials clearly presented and ingeniously developed. The Scherzo with its contrasting Trio is filled with leaps and chromaticism for both the flute and the piano and changes of register (that is the range of an instrument) for the flute. An “ostinato”; persistently repeated rhythmic notes in short phrases is called for from the piano beneath the tuneful flute pronouncements. Perhaps you will hear gypsy music. And now for the amazingly lyrical Andante so surprisingly tender. Do you recognize a somewhat bluesy element in the music and an impressionistic texture to it as well? Just feel it and enjoy the two instruments in concert with each other. They are so different in timbre, yet blend so well. The final Allegro con Brio is just that; spirited, vivacious. It is a joyous intense Rondo. In this form, the opening theme of the movement returns after each new short thematic passage. Think ABACA: runs and scales in the opening theme, leaps in the next, the repeat followed by a lyrical third passage in a lower register for the flute, and a final rush to close that is stupendous. The flute score is extremely difficult. It is a music that fully explores the colors and voice of the flute. The tonguing and articulations are technically very challenging. The piano is a full partner not an accompaniment to the flute. The rhythmic thrust and percussive texture of the piano give enormous vitality to the whole of the work.

Do you know another work by Prokofieff that highlights the flute? How about the Bird in Peter and the Wolf.

(NB: Do go to the website FluteHistory.com: it is a terrific source of information about the flute.) 

I think the work is close in feeling to the general definition of neoclassicism in the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and MusiciansThe lexicon states that neoclassic material

“preserves a degree of tonal centricity as well as characteristics of clarity…and an affinity to traditional forms.”

Prokofieff wrote,

“Of course I have used dissonance in my line but there has been too much dissonance. Bach used it as good salt for his music….”

He continues by saying that others apply pepper and over season.

A young Prokofieff at the piano

A young Prokofieff at the piano

Prokofieff as a young precocious student at St. Petersburg University, was called the “enfant terrible” by Rimsky-Korsakov, his composition teacher. The young composer was all for casting off any vestiges of the past and forging new paths in his own, then considered, radical style. He was rude and opinionated and thoroughly disrespectful of his teachers and mentors. He was taught by Tchaikovsky’s friend Tanayev (remember you heard his chamber work last season?) when he was older, but reacted badly to any criticism offered by the composer and quit working with him. His disposition evidently did not change much as he matured, but he gained an appreciation of the musical past that became quite central to his compositional style. “Accessible” is a keyword to describe Prokofieff’s works. He has been quoted as saying;

“What is wrong with music for the masses?”

Most of you know that Prokofieff suffered under the Stalin Regime as did many other Russian composers and artists. He realized after the Revolution of 1918 that the political climate was not going to be good for the arts and came here to the States thinking he would only stay briefly. He felt he was not appreciated musically in the USA. He said,

“I thought with fury of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music.”

and moved to Paris. He finally returned to live in Russia in 1936. Was he homesick or did he feel his career would flourish in his native country? Life during the Stalin years meant adhering to the party line that demanded music and art had to be free of all Western decadent influences; no impressionism, no formalism; only “social realism” was allowed. One could only compose works to glorify the nationalistic tenets of the USSR honoring the proletariat struggle. Prokofieff was given some special treatment as a well-known composer off and on during the rest of his life; alternating with times when he was forced to write letters apologizing for his compositional errors. He, like many others, thought that the end of WWII might make life easier for artists of his homeland, but those years only brought him more distress as his style continued to be outside the rules of conformity imposed by the Soviet Musicians Union. A statement he defended throughout his career was;

“I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form which contains everything necessary for my structural form.”

Surely this was not a decadent ideal! He became physically weak and was ordered not to compose by his doctors. Personally, he was at odds with Shostakovich at times, who was most certainly beleaguered by the constraints imposed by the regime. He maintained a lasting friendship with Stravinsky, although they did not always appreciate each other’s works. Prokofieff died on the same day as Stalin, March 5th, 1953. His body could not be moved from his home for three days while the nation saluted and publicly mourned the dictator. When he was finally buried, there were no flowers left in Moscow to cover his grave.

Perhaps at another time, I shall write more about this prolific composer and his place among the great 20th Century Musicians; for that matter among musicians of all time.

Elgar in the countryside

Elgar in the countryside

Now let us look at the connection I find between Sir Edward Elgar and Mozart. Elgar gave some lectures at the University of Birmingham analyzing Mozart’s orchestration and formal devices in his Symphony in G minor, No. 40, K. 550. In these lectures, he pointed out the clarity and the formal construction and the instrumental textures that Mozart achieved. Elgar’s admiration for this clarity and understanding of instrumental voicing was huge. Mozart felt that every…

"part of a work must be coherent and consistent from beginning to end.”

…This was indeed Elgar’s belief: Classical restraint within a form and a stalwart defense of absolute music.

Mozart’s was the first quartet that included a piano. It has been a model and inspiration for generations of composers, Elgar included! By the way, this Quartet is in G minor, Mozart’s favorite key. He favored its tonality for emotional impact. Interesting that Elgar did not write his Piano Quintet in that key; rather it is in A minor. Close!

Cartoon from the New Yorker by Mick Stevens

Cartoon from the New Yorker by Mick Stevens

While I am at it, here is a little about the early history of Mozart’s new chamber ensemble. Mozart’s publisher canceled his commission for three chamber pieces as he found this first one much too difficult, and he said, “progressive”. What I read is too “sophisticated”, for the amateur public to perform at home. The bottom line was it would not sell. Providing music for home performance was a primary impetus for composing chamber works in the late 18th Century. Amateur musicians abounded. Music was played at home all over Europe. The fees paid for these works were good. This fact certainly spurred Mozart, so often financially strapped, on to work. Despite the setback, and lack of a paycheck, Mozart went ahead and composed two of the works and they were picked up by another publisher. Although the Quartet was indeed found difficult and badly performed, even by professional musicians, contemporary critics applauded the music itself. As you will also! Most certainly performed here by superb musicians! 

Now back to Elgar who said he regarded himself a “descendant” of Mozart as his own father had been a pupil of a teacher who in turn had been taught by a friend of Mozart’s. Thus, Elgar felt he knew the classicist’s performance traditions. Further, Elgar wrote:

“Mozart is the musician from whom everyone should learn form.”

He goes on to say that having written a symphony…

“in the same key and the same outline in the themes and modulation…..looking back after thirty years I don’t know any discipline from which I learned so much.”

Elgar with one of his favorite dogs

Elgar with one of his favorite dogs

So what of the Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84? I just scrapped everything I had written yesterday about the work! Why? Rambling on about the magnificent work seems insignificant. I want you to feel this piece, not analyze it! I went on about its thematic structure in the First Movement. Yes, there is almost a catalogue of themes, but what is important is the emotional impact of the varied melodic passages, the harmonic intrigues and rhythmic patterns, not the order of them. The form is indeed a marvelously conceived sonata. You will hear the piano open the exposition with dry, impatient, maybe even otherworldly phrases. This “ghostly stuff”, (Elgar’s words, not mine) reflects the composer’s fascination with the strange trees in the Flexham Park near his Sussex cottage. A legend told in the town was that evil Spanish monks’ remains were actually the trees in this woodland. (Spanish settlement in England?) The music seems to be related to plainsong (chant) sung by monks. The strings punctuate the melody with a rhythmic pattern. Listen to the cello cry out. Elgar uses a cyclical approach in the work, so you will hear all the materials once again in the final movement. What I hope is you will be intrigued by the shifting moods, a sombre section, a short outburst of Spanish flavor, and an intense violin duet. Is there Viennese café music? There is certainly a chorale (hymn) heard in the piano score followed by some fugal passages. There is a bit of everything all neatly packaged in a brilliantly conceived sonata. Try to identify each theme in the intricate development. There, I most certainly hear Spanish flavor. The full recapitulation is masterful. BUT please do not over-analyze or dissect the movement. Please do sit back and be swept away by the vigor and emotion of it all. The Andante defies description. It is “heart on one’s sleeve” music. I hear Elgar deeply rooted in Schumann and Brahms. Will you? Remember the word, connections! The viola emotes and the cello converses with it. The violins enter to reiterate the magical melodic phrases. Brahmsian ambivalent harmony, while warm honey-like textures support the emotional melodic lines. Many listeners, including me, hear the Nimrod Variation from Elgar’s earlier beloved work, the Enigma Variations, in this movement. If you are familiar with this piece, I think you will catch the references. If the piece is not known to you as yet, do make a point of getting to know it! The Third Movement arrives looking back at the opening movement. Elgar liked the description, “Noblimente” and this is the perfect word applied to the section. There is some strange almost humorous rhythmic interest that critics called, “galumphing” while a slew of tonal effects pass by. As I wrote above, the plainsong and chorale, the violins’ conversation, and the dance tune return. They lead to a huge Coda ( It., remember the literal meaning is tail) and the bravura close.

Feel it, be moved by it! As Elgar asserted,

“…it runs gigantically and in a large mood.”

…A perfect description!

The work was written in 1918-1919 just after the end of the Great War. Elgar’s biggest and most famous works were behind him. What a pity that Elgar was filled with self-doubt. He felt hindered by his lack of musical education, his middle-class position, his Catholic faith in a Protestant country, inadequate in his marriage to a wealthy, accomplished, well-educated woman. He despaired over the effects of the war and the end of Victorian morality. He had lost many friends in the war. Alice, his adored wife was ill and his music was beginning to be looked upon as old fashioned even by his fellow countrymen. Delius was a new favorite in British music. When Alice died in 1920, Elgar was devastated. His interest in composing died as well. Romanticism, as he expressed, was “out”. Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff were the voices of “modern” romanticism. Mahler and Sibelius attracted admiration for their serious large works. Elgar’s affinity for Mozart’s clarity, Arthur Sullivan’s light approach, Wagner’s chromaticism, and his ardent love of Brahms and Schumann were not in vogue.

Elgar and Harrison recording the  Cello Concerto

Elgar and Harrison recording the Cello Concerto

Having written all this, you may have noticed I have not mentioned one of Elgar’s works, so appreciated today; his Cello Concerto. It was written in 1919 as was the Piano Quintet. The two masterpieces were born out of the same despair and longing, rather mourning, for times past. The Concerto was first recorded by British cellist Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting. She was the first female cellist to perform at Carnegie Hall. But it was the sensational Jaqueline Du Pré’s performance and recording years later that propelled the piece to fame. It spurred a renewed interest in Elgar. We are most assuredly better for this revived assessment of the Victorian composer.

What popular well-known pieces by the Englishman have I not mentioned?  Salut D’Amour, the sweet very old-fashioned song he wrote as an engagement gift to Alice is one. The other? Oh, you surely know it. You walked into your High School and/or College Graduation to the strains of this work. Ah, you remember now; Pomp and Circumstance. It was the first of a set of five marches, that Elgar composed. It was used as part of the Coronation Ode for Edward Vll and words were written to it as a patriotic song, known as “Land of Hope and Glory”. It is sung at the final Proms Concert every year in Royal Albert Hall in London. It was first played at a graduation at Yale University in 1905 when Elgar was awarded an honorary degree. The entire group or Professors and honored guests left the stage to the march music.

There is so much more to be learned about Sir Edgar Elgar. Go to www.elgarfoundation.org, or Boosey & Hawkes, or Elgar in a Nutshell at www.52composers.com to read at length about this composer. You will be glad you did.

Gordon Jacob composing

Gordon Jacob composing

One last connection paragraph about this concert. The English connection to Gordon Jacob is pretty clear. Elgar was considered the English voice of late Romanticism and Jacob carried the musical traditions of Britain forward. He wrote several excellent books about music and was a well respected Professor. He composed over 700 pieces as well as arrangements and orchestrations of other composers’ works, including some of Elgar’s. For further information about Jacob go to www.gordonjacob.net or the home page at Boosey & Hawkes and select Jacob. He is a most interesting musician, not very well-known outside of Britain and his works are delightful. By the way, the piece we will hear is called Four Fancies. Do you know what a Fancy is in musical terms? I won’t tell you. Good old Google, here you come! While you are “Googling”, look up Prokofieff, and Elgar, and of course, Wolfgang!

So my connections are made. I hope you hear them. I hope you find them interesting. It is a program of such varied music; music of three centuries. All indebted to the past but pointing to the future. Here is a thought for the week.

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

….Sir Edward Elgar

Write to me at fran@mmfvt.org with comments or questions. I would love some feedback.  Enjoy the concert on the 25th of July!

-Fran, from my seat in my Corner.

Further Listening: