Encores & Curtain Calls: Brothers in spirit
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
— Clarence, guardian angel to the suicidal George Bailey in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Influence is an amazing thing; where would any of us be without it?
Someone once said that we are always either being influenced by or casting our influence over the world and its people. Both are almost certainly true and the process is always working two ways.
Yet there are many things which don’t seem to influence us at all, while certain other things have huge sway over us.
For example, like you, there are many composers I would do just about anything to hear and many others —– some, admittedly, forces to be reckoned with — whom I don’t especially care to hang out with; certain voices and sounds cast an irresistible spell, while others leave us cold.
These “spell casters” eventually become a goodly portion of our major influences. But, conversely, it’s only fair to point out that if there are any lingering artistic insecurities and self-doubts, we can also easily impose upon ourselves the influence of creators whose art we secretly don’t at all enjoy or admire, but whom the world deems to be heavy-hitters, in an effort to appear artistically ‘cool.’
Indeed, I’m willing to argue that well more than half of all active composers in the 20th century — a great majority of them nested in academia — have suffered this “In-the-Shadow-of-the-Mighty” (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc.) fate. Their very forgettable, never-to-be-resurrected creations prove eloquent testimony to this inauthenticity.
But this has probably been the case since humans first started writing music and getting attention for it.
I mean, where would Bach have been without Vivaldi, or Mozart without Bach, Beethoven without Mozart – or Brahms without Beethoven?
Nowhere; or, at least, nowhere near as rich and wonderful.
Pull Vivaldi out from the musical scaffolding and half of Bach’s world collapses; pull Buxtehude out and even more bites the dust. Leave Mozart on the cutting room floor and Beethoven’s musical life is full of sound and fury and signifying much less. Even more unthinkable: yank the unruly Beethoven off the musical stage and into the wings as if he’d never existed and this one-man emotional explosion that paved the vast highway to the Romantic era, with its own opulent freight of geniuses — Chopin, Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikowsky, Mahler and so many more — would have been but so much dust in the wind.
We all really do stand on each other’s shoulders, share in each other’s musical and spiritual DNA and draw sustenance and certainty from the path and all the many known and unknown travelers that have brought us this far.
The trick, then, as I see it, is to experience all the glowing admiration for one’s artistic gods and then, as if having had a wonderful meal, to rise from the table, satisfied, thank one’s hosts, return home and live one’s life without constantly looking back over one’s musical shoulder to see how one is stacking up.
What puts me in mind of all this musical interdependency is the upcoming Music In Deerfield and Smith College Music Department concert by the Talich String Quartet on Saturday, March 2, at Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College, at 8 p.m.
The crack Czech ensemble’s program — so wonderfully inter-resonant — is hardly short of exquisite: “La Oración del Torero” (“The Bullfighter’s Prayer), “a brief and sumptuous work by the Spanish impressionist Joaquín Turina,” followed by the to-die-for epiphany of all string quartets, that of Maurice Ravel, in F Major. This is a work of such sublime subtlety that one is virtually unaware from the first moment bows touch strings that one is listening to violins, viola or cello — or, for that matter, instruments of any kind — so luminous is its musical content.
Edvard Grieg’s chaste, sublime quartet in G minor finalizes the evening, a work inspired by the artist’s yearning for his absent beloved and based, in part, on Grieg’s setting of a poem by Henrik Ibsen.
And speaking of influence, anyone familiar with the Ravel quartet will immediately hear, beneath the feverish shimmerings of Turina’s “Orancion,” an almost adoring devotion to Ravel and Debussy. Indeed, it is only by the skin of its ravishing teeth that the Turina music manages to steer clear of outright theme stealing. Nevertheless, the music is forged by an authentic creator, who, though clearly smitten by his gods, has the integrity to allow his own voice to carry through the adoration that is everywhere apparent. The piece cuts a dramatic scarlet slash across one’s consciousness.
Likewise, though distinctly Nordic in ethos, the transparency of Grieg’s art was deeply attractive to the ever clarity-loving Frenchman Ravel, along with its modal — or ancient scale-patterned — harmonic spectrum. If one looks at the earliest harmony sketchbooks from Ravel’s childhood, one will see a lovely chorale that might well have been admired by Grieg as worthy of his own hand.
Neither Ravel nor Grieg were artists to repeat themselves, to do, in a dozen different ways, what they had done before or to write clones of any of their (master) pieces, as previous eras from the Baroque to the Classical had been so fond of doing ( ... was that the minuet from Haydn’s opus 71 or opus 74 quartet?)
Yet, it is to the sole, stand-alone gems of Grieg, Debussy and Ravel that these ears have found themselves returning to listening after listening, through the decades, rather than the well-stocked archives of Mozart or Beethoven quartets, which can at times commence to sound uncomfortably similar.
In all three of these clarion masterworks, the air remains clean and uncluttered, the sound brilliant and sparkling, the music irrepressibly attractive. For those who have ears, let them listen!
I have no doubt that these three masters — Edvard Grieg of Norway, Maurice Ravel of France/Basqueland and Joaquin Turina of Spain — are now the best and closest of celestial companions.
A “Concert Conversations,” with quartet members speaking with WFCR’s John Montanari, will precede the performance, at 7 p.m. in Earle Recital Hall.
Tickets purchased in advance are $28 for adults, $5 for students under 18, $10 for accompanying adults and students 18 and over. At the door: $32, $5 for students under 18, $10 for accompanying adults and students 18 and over.
Tickets may be ordered at 413-774-4200, or by mail, 91 Main St., second floor, Greenfield, MA 01301; or at www.musicindeerfield.org.
The venues are handicapped accessible.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.