Classical Music with James David Jacobs

Intuition, Paranoia, and Berlioz

By James David Jacobs   |   Friday, October 29, 2010
2 Comments   2 comments.

It's Halloween, so it seems appropriate to consider the subject of fear. In my case, it comes down to trying to detect the difference between intuition and paranoia. You think something bad is going to happen - how do you know if that's a feeling you should listen to? Perhaps there was that one time when your prediction of doom was correct, so you think the voice that gave you that prediction is an accurate barometer, but maybe it was just a fluke. People are divided in how seriously to take gut reactions. After all, what you think may be your deep inner wisdom may just be a learned survival mechanism that you may no longer need and may even be hindering you. But how do you know?

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about "the power of thin slicing," meaning that humans are capable of accurately assessing situations based on the "thinnest slice" of experience. This is the theory that holds that you know everything you need to know about a person within seconds of meeting them, or that your instant "gut" reactions concerning major decisions are usually valid. I don't really hold with that theory. But then, I'm not really one of those "first thought, best thought" people. When I work on a project, I'm less like Mozart, whose compositions just flowed from his spirit to his brain to his pen, and more like Beethoven, who constantly crossed things out and reconsidered every choice and made a mess of everything and drove everyone crazy and finally came up with the perfect composition years after everyone forgot he was working on anything at all.

One way to counter fear is to not be afraid of repeating yourself. One of the things one learns as both a radio host and as a musician is that people really don't mind hearing the same thing multiple times. Variety is not in itself as compelling as seeing a train of thought through to its natural conclusion. Furthermore, the best pieces of music reveal new meanings every time you listen to them. As a composer, revisiting the same idea may lead down a new path, or a variation of an old one, and for the listener following those just-slightly divergent paths can be a fascinating window into the creative process.

Speaking of repeating oneself, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a host note about Vivaldi concertos, and am now doing so again. The joke about Vivaldi is that he wrote the same concerto 500 times. Legend has it that a scholar at Yale back in the 1960s applied for a grant to go to Italy to burn all the undiscovered Vivaldi manuscripts to save the world from more concertos. This attitude is usually countered by musicians who enthusiastically talk about the breathtaking variety among the hundreds of concertos. Well, on Saturday's program I will be enthusiastically celebrating Vivaldi's LACK of variety. Among his many works are three concertos all entitled "La notte" - one for transverse flute, one for alto recorder and bassoon, and one for solo bassoon. There are many similarities among the three concertos, but there are subtle differences. They all seem to be portraying a nightmare - the first movements of all three are labeled "Fantasmi" - with these halting, portentous phrases followed by ominous silences. (You might consider using one of these for haunted house music Sunday night.) These are all followed by wild Presto movements that sound like Baroque versions of Night on Bald Mountain -- rocketing scales that seem to represent phantoms and demons. After this there is a movement titled Il Sonno (sleep) - a movement of eerie stillness that you may find familiar since he used in yet a fourth concerto, one of his most popular - "Autumn" from the Four Seasons. However, in that concerto the harpsichordist is instructed to improvise slow-moving arpeggios throughout the movement, while in the La notte concertos the harpsichord is told to be silent in this movement, giving the stark, slow chordal changes in the strings a much more unsettling, less comforting effect. It's in the last movements that the concertos diverge. While the flute and recorder concertos end in a minor-key Allegro that is the most fully developed of the movements and seem to denote a tragic denouement for the nightmare scenario, the bassoon concerto ends in a movement called "Sorge l'aurora" - a happy, comforting breaking of dawn, in which we wake up from our nightmare and cheerfully face a sunny day populated by happy bassoons. (That would make a great Twilight Zone episode, wouldn't it?)

(Incidentally, the best Halloween costume I've ever seen was someone who covered herself from head to toe in sponges. When asked what her costume represented, she replied "I'm self-absorbed.")

Someone who managed to be self-absorbed, paranoid and intuitive all at once was Berlioz, who turned his obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson into a self-mythologizing epic worthy of his namesake Homer. His Symphonie Fantastique charts his inner journey toward his artistic and romantic goals through the work's five movements. Since he declared that the program to his symphony is "indispensable to the full understanding of the dramatic plan of the work," here it is:

Part one
Daydreams, passions

    The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.

    This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two
A ball

    The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three
Scene in the countryside

    One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold

    Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath

    He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

It should be noted that Berlioz' infatuation with the actress paid off - he and Harriet were married three years after he wrote this work. So perhaps he should be considered more intuitive than deluded.

On Saturday morning between 7 and 9 am you will hear all three versions of Vivaldi's "La notte," and at 10 am, following Kid's Classical Hour, we'll hear an extraordinary performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique as performed by the prodigiously talented young musicians of the New England Conservatory Philharmonia conducted by Hugh Wolff, as performed live in concert exactly one month ago, September 29 at Jordan Hall.

On Sunday, continuing our theme of intuition, we'll hear Harvard's Robert Levin perform Mozart's Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271, in which he improvised the cadenzas in the recording studio. I was very privileged to be present at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1989 in which he first declared his intention to perform Mozart's concertos the way Mozart himself did, that is, with elaborations, ornamentation and cadenzas all improvised on the spot, even in the concertos for which Mozart wrote cadenzas. He was taken to task for this by Eva Badura-Skoda, who from her seat in the audience directly behind mine scolded Levin, saying that, regardless of how deeply you steep yourself in Mozart’s language, it was impossible to completely put yourself in the proper mindset to improvise in an authentic enough manner because “your ears have been polluted by all the modern sounds, like that rap music.” Levin replied that, whether we like it or not, both the performers and the audience are experiencing the music now and not in the 18th century, that modern influences like rap music can subtly affect even a non-improvised performance, and that the element missing from the most historically accurate note-perfect performance is the sense of danger and excitement of knowing that the performer was composing on the fly. He also mentioned that Mozart himself intentionally left some pieces incomplete to leave room for spontaneous invention and elaboration in performance. The exclamation point was a breathtaking, improvised cadenza to a concerto that Levin would perform again that night, playing completely different but equally brilliant music.

And in the 10:00 hour we'll celebrate a day in which people don costumes, disguises and alternate identities by playing Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. The idea of identity is particularly confused here because he based the piece on works that he thought was by Pergolesi, but turned out to be by a variety of Italian Baroque composers. We'll also hear some of the original works Stravinsky incorporated into the ballet.

Happy Halloween!

Oct. 16 & 17: The Man Who Invented Brunch

By James David Jacobs   |   Friday, October 15, 2010
1 Comments   1 comments.

It was in the last week of 1947 that Louis Kaufman (photo:  Man Ray), a violinist who made most of his living playing for Hollywood film soundtracks, commandeered Carnegie Hall with a group of other freelance string players for a series of late-night recording sessions. They were the very first people to record a cycle of four violin concertos by a then-obscure Italian Baroque composer named Antonio Vivaldi. Each of the concertos was named for one of the seasons. They thought they were being musicological adventurers, hobbyists in a sense; they had no idea they were changing the culture. It's hard to overestimate the impact of that first recording of "The Four Seasons." Not only was it a tremendous hit in its own right, becoming a huge seller and winning the Grand Prix du Disque, but its success helped standardize the then-brand new LP format (two seasons per side!) and created an entirely new market and audience. The late 1940s was an interesting time in the United States. A lot of GIs had developed a taste for Continental food and art while fighting in the European theater, and wanted to experience those things at home: voilá!  American cafe society was born. Culture was thriving: regional symphony orchestras started springing up everywhere, arts funding in the schools was no problem, popular culture was full of references to "highbrow" art that it assumed the average American would be familiar with. The Four Seasons was the perfect music for this moment: simultaneously new and old, fresh and familiar, exotic and comforting. The secular, almost pagan theme of the seasons, and the sound of a small string ensemble that differentiated it from a standard symphony orchestra, freed this music of the class and cultural baggage of most other music of the time, making it acceptable for anyone to like it and claim it as their own -- the very definition of crossover appeal. What's more, despite its popularity, you could still convince yourself and others that this music was your own special "discovery" -- sort of like Mahler in the sixties, or Pachelbel in the seventies, or the Bulgarian women's chorus in the eighties, or that "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack...you get the idea.

I suppose you could say that, by recording The Four Seasons, Louis Kaufman invented brunch. And having to decide whether to see that Bergman retrospective at the Brattle or that cutting-edge exhibit at ICM. Or figuring out what kind of balsamic vinegar to get. Or whether you have time to go to the farmer's market before taking your yoga class.

Don't get me wrong; I love the Four Seasons (and I like Bergman and balsamic vinegar too.) Today's Kid's Classical Hour will feature the complete cycle, and in the 10:00 hour we'll hear Spring from that original recording by Louis Kaufman that forever changed our relationship to classical music.

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Tonight's Boston Symphony concert will feature the Third Symphony by John Harbison, the first installment in a complete cycle James Levine and the BSO will traverse over this season and next, culminating in the BSO commissioned world premiere of Harbison's Sixth Symphony. After the Vivaldi we'll hear Harbison's 2002 composition Six American Painters, a quartet for flute and strings in six movements, each of which, in the composer's words, "was begun as a musical description of six paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually they ranged further and it seemed more helpful to name them for the painters rather than for the specific paintings. I wanted to evoke the artists' after-images, rather than any of the individual paintings. When I look at a picture, I take away a general impression, a mood or color, that dominates the details; in music, on the other hand, I am apt to remember the details, a tune or a harmony. I wanted these movements to be a perceivable whole, an act of seeing. Like many musicians, I have always felt that looking at art has been the least alert of the things I do. I was hoping to develop my visual sense. The movements tend toward brevity. I had two intentions: not too slow, not too long."

The six American painters represented, in order of the movements, are:
George Caleb Bingham
Thomas Eakins
Martin Johnson Heade
Winslow Homer
Hans Hofmann
Richard Diebenkorn

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There will be two performances of works by the 20th century Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinu Sunday afternoon. The Boston Chamber Music Society will present Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by Harumi Rhodes and Roger Tapping, on a program that also includes works by Beethoven and Saint-Saëns; while over at Jordan Hall the Boston Symphony Chamber Players will open their concert with Les Madrigaux (presumably different madrigals!) as played by John Ferrillo, oboe, William H. Hudgins, clarinet and Richard Svoboda, bassoon, on a program that also includes works by Milhaud, Mozart, and Andre Previn, who will conduct the world premiere of his Octet for Eleven (yes, another BSO commission) and play piano in the Mozart Piano Quartet in G minor. In honor of this local profusion of Martinu we will hear his La revue de cuisine on Saturday morning and his Nonet on Sunday Brunch.

La revue de cuisine is a one-act ballet written in Paris in 1927 and is very much in line with the Dada spirit of that time and place. The plot concerns a wedding between a cooking pot and a saucepan lid. As they make their plans to be married in the kitchen the whisk gets jealous and tries to make the lid look on the the dishcloth with lust, but the broom intervenes, and the lid rolls away and gets stuck in a corner. A gigantic foot, in one of the few pre-Monty Python examples of pedus ex machina, kicks the saucepan lid back to its rightful place, and all ends happily.

And as you enjoy all this musico-gastro frivolity, I hope you'll also spare a moment to consider the more serious issue of food and its role in the daily life of every person on the planet, which is brought to our attention on October 16, World Food Day.

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Sometimes Ray Brown gets a 4:00 request that just doesn't seem quite right for that time slot, so I've agreed to help him out by honoring them occasionally in the 9:00 hour on Sundays. This week Ruth of Bedford, MA, requested Tenebrae for string quartet by Osvaldo Golijov. In making the request, Ruth wrote: "When I first heard it at Jordan Hall, I was transported to the water's edge at dawn watching the sun spread its glow as it came up over the ocean. It was well into supper after the performance before either I or the friend with whom I attended the concert was able to come out of the profound reverie the work invoked." For his part, the composer wrote "I wrote it as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of a new wave of violence...and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives....the compositional challenge was to sound like an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground...the work is about pain, but pain seen from inside and from a distance." Golijov was influenced by the settings of Lamentations for the Tenebrae service in Holy Week by the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin. We'll precede the Golijov with the third of these "lessons" as Couperin calls them. One of the striking aspects of Lamentation settings is that it was traditional to not only set the text to music, but also have the Hebrew letters that serve as a numbering system for the verses be set to music as well. Therefore the first word you will hear sung is YOD, the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet - basically a very beautiful way of saying "Number Ten."

JOD
The enemy has put out his hand
to everything Jerusalem considers precious;
she has seen the gentiles
enter her sanctuary;
you commanded
that they should not enter your church.

CAPH
All her people sigh
and seek bread,
they have given all their precious things
for food to relieve their souls.
See, O Lord, and consider,
for I have become vile.

LAMED
O, all you who pass by,
stop and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow;
for the Lord has ruined me,
as he said he would,
in the day of his raging fury.

MEM
From above he has sent fire
into my bones,
and has chastised me.
Ha has made a net under my feet,
and turned me back;
he has made me desolate
and faint all day long.

NUN
The yoke of my iniquities weighs me down;
they are folded together in his hand
and made into a collar;
my strength is weakened.
The Lord has delivered me into the hands
of those from whom I cannot rise up.

Jerusalem,
turn to the Lord your God.

Sir Colin Davis: A True Giant in Music

By James Jacobs   |   Thursday, April 18, 2013
0 Comments   0 comments.


title
Sir Collin Davis (Photo: Alberto Venzago)

That's another game which music has, between time and space...Every time you play a piece of music you're rehearsing your own life...there's a beginning, a middle, a double bar when you're top cat... and then death puts his hand on your shoulder.
 
Fresh off his 80th birthday, Sir Colin Davis made those remarks in an interview with WNYC's John Schaefer on October 17, 2007. The great maestro was in New York to conduct an all-Mozart program with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Avery Fisher Hall, the centerpiece of which was a performance of one of his signature pieces: Mozart's Requiem.  
 
The evening was all about Sir Colin, to the extent that at intermission a huge cake was rolled out on the Avery Fisher stage and the entire audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him.   After the concert I was in the Green Room, and at one point I found myself next to "Colin," as everyone there called him. My work (a broadcast production assistant for the radio), and even my name were unknown to him, but it didn't seem to matter.  Nevertheless, assuming that the last thing Sir Colin Davis needed was to have to engage in banter with yet another wide-eyed admirer, I kept silent and tried to gracefully negotiate my way back into the crowd.  
 
But then, unprompted, Colin struck up a conversation with anonymous production assistant.   A good half hour had passed since he had conducted the final notes of his umpteenth performance of the Requiem,  but the conductor was still very much in the world of Mozart's last work.  Sir Colin mentioned that the work was getting more frightening to him, more devastating, and he particularly seemed to be taken with that moment at the end of the Confutatis section. Davis then proceeded to guide me through the entire movement, describing its harmonic structure and how Mozart used it to underscore the text, and how it has parallels in the other sections of the work. Remember, this was his American birthday party in Lincoln Center,  and he had already earned his keep by conducting his concert, and by all rights he should by this time be indulging his Dionysian appetites. Instead, he was discussing Mozart with a total stranger. 
 
But that's entirely who this man was: an incredibly generous soul who was in it for the music. The London Symphony Orchestra is notorious for the hard time it can give conductors, and, at the start of his career Colin Davis was no exception. In an appreciation published in London's Guardian an LSO member describes the Colin Davis of the late 1950's (when his name was circulated as their next chief conductor) "not grown up as a human being. He often behaved as an overgrown schoolboy might behave." Later, however, Davis would achieve some of his greatest successes as the LSO's Principal Conductor from 1995-2006.  And when he stepped down from that role, the LSO musicians elected him their President.  
 
The Boston Symphony Orchestra was prominent among the many orchestras that had a close relationship with Colin Davis.  He spent much of the 1970s shuttling back and forth between London, where he was Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (with whom he made landmark recordings of Berlioz and Mozart operas) and his post as Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,  for which he made a landmark series of Sibelius recordings.   Colin Davis also made landmark recordings of Handel (to my mind, the first listenable Messiah, in 1966, which still holds up very well); Haydn Symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; an amazing "Great" C Major Symphony by Schubert with the Boston; and Grammy-winning accounts of Les Troyens by Berlioz and Verdi's opera Falstaff with the London Symphony Orchestra.  
 
The list of great Colin Davis recordings goes on and on, and will doubtless be discussed at length in the coming weeks. Sir Colin was a true giant in the music world, and will be greatly missed. 

The Most Ridiculous Gigs in the History of Music, MacDowell, and Janacek

By James David Jacobs   |   Friday, December 17, 2010
1 Comments   1 comments.

Dec. 18

Before I get into discussing this weekend's programming, I just have a little something to say about Christmas music. I love it. I associate it with being a working musician in community with other working musicians, and with singing and playing in cold weather, and with some of the most ridiculous gigs in the history of music.

For a couple of years I played cello and recorder on top of a display case in a Nordstrom's in Walnut Creek, California. Whenever one of us did something in a non-performing capacity - like sneeze or turn a page of music - I would hear someone on the floor whisper "oh wow - they're REAL." Another time I was part of a trio of singing oversized elves strolling through a corporate holiday party at New York's Tavern on the Green. One of my fondest memories was singing in a caroling quartet, dressed in shabby pseudo-Victorian garb, through an office park somewhere in New Jersey - I wasn't driving, so I can't tell you where it was, since it all looks the same about ten exits out. Anyway, at one point we stopped in front of some administrative assistant's desk and sang "Silent Night." As we sang, the audience of twenty office workers was rapt. I realized that, for many of them, those two minutes of Silent Night were the most peaceful two minutes of their entire year. They didn't normally listen to classical music, they led chaotic lives, and we invited them to listen to something meaningful for a moment of their day. That kind of connection means more to me than playing Carnegie Hall.

Music does very well by Christmas. I have read articles in which critics bemoan the use of Messiah and The Nutcracker as "cash cows" for performing organizations. I don't see the problem, frankly. Sometimes the public gets it right. Messiah is Handel's greatest oratorio, and The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky's greatest ballet score. Every year we get to rediscover these works and never get tired of them. As cash cows go, we could do far worse -- look at what the film and publishing industries have to rely on for their paydays. Of course it'd be nice if more companies and audience members were more adventurous and took more risks, but this is not a problem unique to our time and our culture. I love a great variety of music, and can listen to Ligeti and Delta blues with the same excitement that I listen to Brahms, but I have no problem having Tchaikovsky and Handel providing the soundtrack every December.

We've heard The Nutcracker in whole and part in the last couple of weeks here at 99.5, and this Sunday afternoon we'll be hearing Messiah, in a concert performance from just a couple of weeks ago by the superb Handel and Haydn Society (who, by the way, are performing A Bach Christmas on Sunday at 3pm).  I have the joy and privilege of providing the soundtrack for your Christmas morning this year, and will also be playing holiday music through the weekend. On Sunday we'll hear a favorite piece of mine, "The Christmas Story" by Heinrich Schütz, as well as carols spanning the last seven centuries.

This has been a big year for anniversaries and celebrations in the classical world, and on Saturday we'll have another one: the 150th birthday of the American composer Edward MacDowell (left). Someone who was a great champion of his music was the late pianist James Barbagallo, who recorded several albums of MacDowell's music for the Naxos label. I knew Jim; he was a frequent guest at my cello teacher's house and was the greatest sight reader I have ever heard. He came to the first rehearsal of the Brahms B major Piano Trio having never looked at the music (for which he incurred my teacher Millie Rosner's wrath - his excuse, that it was out of stock at the music store, did not go over well), and he then proceeded to play it flawlessly, off of Millie's dog-eared copy of the score. As a result he was much in demand as an accompanist and chamber musician. He was so generous with his time that some people tended to take him for granted and seemed annoyed when he expressed his ambitions to be a soloist. Winning the Bronze Medal at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow shut these people up. Even then he did things with a sense of urgency, always opting for the most musically interesting projects and labors of love instead of making the most astute career choices. He died of a heart attack at the age of 43 without completing his MacDowell project. Saturday morning we'll hear his performance of MacDowell's "New England Idyls."

MacDowell was a native New Yorker, but his music is decidedly non-urban, as one can tell from the titles of his compositions: "Woodland Sketches," "An Old Garden," "From a Log Cabin."  His contribution to music consists of translating the lyric style of Chopin and Grieg in the service of extolling a pastoral vision of the American landscape, and by so doing was one of the first architects of an "American" style that later composers either built upon or rebelled against, sometimes both at the same time (I would put Ives in the last category.) This morning, in addition to "New England Idyls," we'll also hear his first Orchestral Suite and his two most enduring works, the imposing Piano Concerto No. 2 and the timeless miniature "To a Wild Rose."

Saturday we'll also continue the thread started by Laura Carlo earlier this week:  for Beethoven's birthday she posted a great Host Note about the Heiligenstadt Testament, and yesterday Ray Brown fulfilled a 4 O'Clock Request for the piece Beethoven was working on when he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, the Kreutzer Sonata.  That piece inspired Tolstoy to write his novella of the same name, which in turn inspired Leos Janacek to write his First String Quartet - an extraordinary translation of the story into musical terms, which we'll hear performed by the (recently Grammy-nominated!) Parker Quartet as recorded in our own Fraser Performance Studio back on June 6, 2008.

Back in 1993, I played cello in a string quartet that performed the Janacek at a Tolstoy conference at Yale University to help illustrate a paper called "Under the Sign of Leo: Janacek's Kreutzer Quartet," by the Russian literature scholar P. Rachael Wilson. Throughout his life Janacek explored ways of finding the musical equivalent of speech, of expanding the communicative possibilities of music. In her paper, Wilson makes a compelling case for Janacek's assigning the four major characters of the story to the four instruments: 

The first violinist is Posdnicheff, the man driven to a murderous, jealous rage, who, by the end, feels overwhelming grief and remorse. 

The second violin, with the busiest part, is his wife, torn in her passions and frightened for her life, with accurate premonitions of doom.

The viola is the handsome violinist who successfully seduces the wife but by the end is reduced to being a bystander to the tragedy.

And the cello is the narrator of Tolstoy's novella, the stranger on the train to whom Posdnicheff tells/confesses his tale, trying to make sense of the story he's hearing and the disintegration of the man before him.

If you haven't made plans for your weekend reading yet, you can read the entire story by visiting Project Gutenberg

(image:  Wikimedia Commons)

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