Winter 2014 —
Sunday, May 5, 2014 at 4 p.m.
Josh Lawton, piano and organ
Concert Notes for "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Written by Michael Barrett
Most of us here today were born into a world, or so we were told, of two Europes: the free
West, our ally, and the enemy East, under the thumb of the Soviet empire and devoted to a
political system for which the West had little sympathy. Dividing Europe was the great metaphorical drapery of the 20th century, the Iron Curtain. That, at least, was the Reader’s
It is by no means my mission to paint here a more nuanced picture of 20th century political history, but rather to remind us that none of this was true in the days of Schubert, Brahms, Dvorák, or Bartók. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is but the most obvious example of the connections between what only later became East and West: people, things, and ideas poured across borders in central Europe, with influences of all sorts in both directions.
What relevance is all this to a choral music concert? I sense that late 20th century political realities, the world in which most of us grew up, can still color our (or at least my) perceptions of how music and musicians were connected in earlier historical periods, in subtle but meaningful ways. Do we, for example, equate the music from the future Soviet bloc with a certain “otherness”? While 21st century concert programming is far more pluralistic than it was, say, 50 years ago, there remains the sense that Austro-German composers are still somehow part of “our” tradition, and I wonder whether there is any connection between this line of thinking and the marginalizing of the Eastern Bloc in the later 20th century.
In the case of this particular concert, I admit, we are comparing apples to oranges when hearing Mendelssohn in the same evening as Kodály. But the aesthetic world in which composers like Bartók and Kodály operated are a reflection more of the decades in which they lived, and the particular attention they paid to local folk music traditions, than their “Eastern-ness” as such. We should not forget, moreover, that to some degree or other all the composers on tonight’s program made some connection in their compositional work between folk music traditions and “art” music.
It turns out that the reasons we have equal-voice music from this set of composers are not the same across the board. Bartók, for example, compiled his set of songs in two and three parts for treble (child) voices, though, staunch pedagogue that he was, this does not imply that they are not challenging songs to execute well. (Think of the suffering trebles of the Thomasschule in Leipzig under Bach’s direction!) Brahms, by contrast, was director of a women’s chorus in Hamburg in his early adulthood, a job which afforded him the opportunity to hone his skills as a contrapuntist in close harmony.
A few words on singing in translation, which we do tonight for Bartók’s and Dvorák’s music: fashions have changed over the years about whether to present vocal works in the original language or in translation. Opera in Italian reigned outside Italy, at least for a time, and for part of the 20th century one could easily attend a performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion in English, a practice regarded by some as sacrilege today. Marketing could also play a role: Simrock published Dvorák’s songs in German for Austrian and German audiences, but later they appeared in Czech and English. There are pros and cons to singing in translation, too numerous to list here; it must suffice to say that why we react one way or another to hearing music in, or not in, our native language can go a long way to understanding the peculiar power and appeal of vocal music.