This programme is made up of some very old music, and some relatively new music.
Representing the "old music" end of the spectrum, we have Quemadmodum by John Taverner (believed to have been written in the 1520s), Battalia à 10 by Heinrich Biber (1673), and The Fairy-Queen by Henry Purcell (composed in 1692).
On the "new music", (or "less-old music") end, we have two works: Transfigured Night by Arnold Schoenberg (1899), and Quartet in Four Parts by John Cage (1950). We'll get into these works and the differences between them a little later, in our listening guide.
One last thing before we get started:
"Transfigured Night" is not just the first programme in Manchester Collective's 2017 season. It's actually the first large scale concert project we have ever produced.
We're so glad that you can be here with us tonight. Thank you for coming, and being part of something new and exciting.
Let's see how it goes.
biber: battalia à 10 (10 mins)
Battalia à 10 by Heinrich Biber is a work of programme music - that is, music that tells a story. In this case, the story is of the life of a military man in the 17th century.
This piece is split up into eight short parts, each telling a different part of the story. Listen out for the following highlights:
- Movement Two: This part depicts a bunch of rowdy soldiers having a drink at the local pub. First, one solider starts singing his favourite tune, then, another cuts in with his favourite. Soon enough, all seven "soldiers" on stage are singing entirely different songs, at different pitches, all at the same time. What a glorious sound.
- Movement Four: In this part, Biber instructs the two cellists to slide a piece of paper underneath their strings, so as to simulate the sound of a snare drum. This kind of "extended technique" is extremely commonplace in music written today - composers are always asking us to do crazy things with our instruments. In Biber's time though... this was a first. Alongside the snare drums, Rakhi, our Music Director, plays the role of the fife, spurring the soldiers on to battle.
- Movement Six: A simple song, sung to the soldier by his sweetheart. Listen out for the repeat - you won't hear this at every performance of the Battalia.
- Movement Eight: A Lament. The battle is done, and the soldiers lives have been spent. Biber finishes his work with this beautiful tribute to the fallen.
Cellist Will Hewer on Battalia à 10:
I am very much looking forward to the performance of the Biber Battalia! In light of the fact that the Battalia pre-dates Mozart by over 100 years, it is shockingly avant-garde. Biber was one of the first composers to incorporate extended techniques in his composition, and tonight we will be imitating cannon fire with col legno (playing on the wood of the bow) under sufferance. These bows are rather valuable you see--watch for the cringes!
cage: string quartet in four parts (20 mins)
I. Quietly Flowing Along
II. Slowly Rocking
III. Nearly Stationary
Every so often a curious artist comes along, breaks the existing rules, creates their own, and subsequently influences the future course of that art form. American composer, music theorist, writer and philosopher John Cage was one of these influential figures.
Cage studied under Arnold Schoenberg (of "Transfigured Night" fame) and Henry Cowell but was also heavily influenced by East and South Asian cultures - in particular zen buddhism and Indian philosophy.
Cage started writing this quartet in Paris in 1949. The work is inspired by two notions - the Indian view of the four seasons and the wish to praise and celebrate actual silence without ever using it.
In this work, each player has a fixed number of sounds that Cage then uses to build up the entire piece. Since 1946, Cage's interest was in composing music to "sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences". He said of this work: “this piece is like the opening of another door; the possibilities implied are unlimited.”
Music Director Rakhi Singh on the Cage:
When I first encountered this piece, what struck me was the sense of it being suspended in time. It made me feel simultaneously calm and inquisitive….. After doing some digging, it was so interesting to read Cage’s own words about silence and the opening of doors. It's exactly how I felt after hearing this work! In fact, it made me feel inquisitive enough to want to pair each movement with something completely different - something also full of colour, dance, and free thought - Henry Purcell.
I hope tonight we manage to transport you to a place of imagination. This work is something of a meditation - your mind can wander or be focused, and you can listen intently to the precisely crafted sounds or just let them hover in the air around you.
Purcell: excerpts from The fairy-queen (6 mins)
I. Second Musick: Air
II. Symphony (Act 4): Largo
III. Act 5: Prelude
IV. First Musick: Hornpipe
Henry Purcell is acknowledged as one of the greatest English composers. He was very famous during his lifetime, living in London and getting the job of organist at Westminster Abbey at the age of 20, meaning he wrote and performed often for the monarchy.
Even some 350 years later, his influence stretches as far as The Who, Sting and the Pet Shop Boys. So what is it about him that made him so famous?
Purcell had a natural ability to be able to express all facets of life and humanity through his writing. His music could be grand, comically uncouth, or just moments later, tender and enchanting. He juxtaposes humour and magic in his music and he wasn't afraid to adopt European musical influences.
The Fairy Queen is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’. We have chosen just four orchestral numbers from this operetta to serve as palate cleansers between the movements of the String Quartet in Four Parts by John Cage. It’s wonderful to hear the affinity between these composers in pieces written 300 years apart.
Violist Kay Stephen on Purcell:
Purcell was only 46 when he died, but his short life covered what is probably one of the most tumultuous is English history. Christmas was still banned by Cromwell when he was a child, but by the time he came to write the music for the Fairy Queen, the hedonistic reign of Charles II, the 'Merry Monarch', had come and gone.
I think what excites me most about Purcell's music is this crazy marriage of the sublime and the gleefully, earthily human. It's a perfect partner to the Cage which, in its own way does exactly the same thing.
taverner: quemadmodum (6 mins)
For a work a little over six minutes long, Taverner packs a remarkable amount of music into Quemadmodum.
This work is something of an outlier in Taverner's output - it doesn't belong to any of the sets of music that he published during his lifetime, and he doesn't actually specify what instruments should be playing his piece. For a long time, scholars believed that Quemadmodum was composed for a set of viols (a viol was a sort of renaissance stringed instrument, and they came in a range of sizes so that performers could reach both low and high notes).
The current thinking is that Taverner actually intended this work to be sung by a small choir of six. Today, you will hear it performed by a string sextet.
When the piece starts, listen to how the music builds up. The first cello begins the piece with a very simple, slow, four note scale. This scale, and the subsequent musical material is then passed around the ensemble and imitated, first by the second cello, then by the second viola and violin, and finally by the first viola and first violin.
Over the course of the work, Taverner takes this first musical cell and plays with it, turning it inside out and contorting it in any number of ways. The whole work is based on this simple scale - it's an incredibly efficient and resourceful way of writing music.
Listen out for the false ending almost exactly half way through. Incredibly, Taverner writes the whole work as a mirror, and at the beginning of the second section, we hear the same four note scale, but backwards. From there, the music proceeds to unwind itself, until it finishes with an unresolved dominant chord.
Artistic Director Adam Szabo on Quemadmodum:
I love this piece. There is something really special about the harmonies that Taverner uses; they are so spare, and yet they that feel totally cleansing to me, and almost holy.
As a string player, performing this kind of early music is great fun - it gives us a chance to play with very little vibrato, and to luxuriate in the incredibly pure sound of the ensemble. Although the chords that Taverner uses are very simple when compared with Schoenberg's, often this simplicity actually means that a work can be much more difficult to play convincingly. When there is very little going on in the music, there are some steep demands placed on the performer - it's a little like being naked in front of a crowd of people. There is absolutely nowhere to hide.
The startling emotional honestly in this work is something that Rakhi and I also felt very strongly in the Schoenberg - it's why we paired these two works in the concert. You will notice that the works run almost seamlessly into each other, and it can actually be quite tricky to tell where the Taverner ends and where the Schoenberg begins. This is partly due to some tricky segueing on our part, but also because Taverner rather interestingly leaves his piece harmonically unresolved - a question without an answer.
schoenberg: transfigured night (27 mins)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer, music theorist and painter. He is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century and whilst three generations of European and American musicians have consciously extended his thinking, many have reacted passionately against it. Schoenberg moved to the USA in 1934 and initially took up a teaching post in Boston before moving to LA. In light of our programme tonight, it’s interesting to note that one of Schoenberg’s students was none other than the young John Cage.
Verklarte Nacht was written in three weeks in 1899, when Schoenberg was only 25 years old.
The piece takes its title from the poem by Richard Dehmel in which a man and woman are walking through a moonlit forest. Over the course of 5 verses Dehmel describes how she shares a secret with him, that she is carrying the child of another man and he therefore has to decide whether to accept her with child or not.
At the time of writing, the adulterous subject matter of this poem was taboo, and this fact combined with Schoenberg’s progressive music meant that the premiere received rather more mixed reviews than might have been hoped for.
Like the Biber this is a programmatic piece and you will probably hear the progression of the story in the music. It is a very atmospheric piece and at moments emotionally highly charged. Fasten your seatbelts folks!
Music Director Rakhi Singh on Transfigured Night:
Verklärte Nacht is one of the truly great works of the chamber music repertoire, so we’re thrilled to be presenting it to you here in our first concert. You will hear and see that it’s a complex and detailed piece - in our preparation, it has made great demands on us, both technically, and musically. All week we have stretched our imaginations - what sounds can we push our instruments to make? How do we make a violin sound like the black of the night? How can you conjure up the music of universal love and acceptance?
Violist Ali Vennart on Transfigured Night:
When you listen to almost any piece of music; Bieber, Biber, Bohemian Rhapsody or Bartok, I guarantee you will, almost every time, hear the same notes at the beginning of song as you will at the end. There is an inherent homeliness to this aspect of music; we feel comforted that, whatever journey we took during the song - however tumultuous, reflective, impassioned - we still arrive back where we started, albeit somewhat changed.
Fear not, while you may feel that your journey within Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night" includes your insides being wrenched apart by Wagnerian harmonies, an almost insulting lack of resolution, and yet within this, somehow, peaceful otherworldly sublimity, by the end of the masterpiece we return back home, relatively unscathed...
If you've never consciously heard a 'diminished chord', Verklarte Nacht will educate you thoroughly. For the chord lovers out there, indulge in hearing what we decided is a (sort of) Ab chord in its 4th inversion among an incredibly dense tonal palate. It's not surprising that Schoenberg is more well known for his Atonal music: Verklarte Nacht was obviously a walk in the park for him. I still can't believe he wrote it in only 3 weeks!
transfigured night, by richard dehmel
Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach.
A woman’s voice speaks:
I’m carrying a child, and not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have committed a great offense against myself.
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery,
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man,
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it.
Now life has taken its revenge:
Now I have met you, oh, you.
She walks with a clumsy gait,
She looks up; the moon is racing along.
Her dark gaze is drowned in light.
A man’s voice speaks:
May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul;
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming!
There’s a glow around everything;
You are floating with me on a cold ocean,
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you.
It will transfigure the strange man’s child.
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine;
You have brought the glow into me,
You have made me like a child myself.
He grasps her around her ample hips.
Their breath kisses in the breeze.
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.
The wikipedia bit
If your appetite for information has not yet been satiated, we have some Wikipedia goodness for you in the section below. Check it out.