From its very beginnings, Art has always striven to come to grips with transcendental issues. It may be that the concept of Art, like Philosophy and Religion, arose from the need to confront the inexplicable, which cannot be dealt with through ordinary means. Literature and the visual arts can describe the world around us in readily understood terms, by using the language of everyday life. But art forms that do not communicate so directly - poetry and dance as well as music - have always needed to operate primarily through association and metaphor.
Our humanity is rooted in a search for meaning. We look for meaning in our surroundings, in our triumphs and failures, in our lives, and in our deaths. We seek to know where we come from in order to understand where we may be going. The instinct for life creates our need to transcend death, to be redeemed from loss. A fundamental human goal, therefore, is to understand the nature, the cause, and the meaning of loss. And so it is not surprising that the issue of loss and what might be gained or at least learned from it has trough the centuries been a prime generator of Art.
This evening's programme presents three very different musical works, which have in common a preoccupation with issues of loss and what can be salvaged from it. Death is only one type of loss and, at least in terms of the history of art, not necessarily the greatest - for example, the theme of the poem upon which Arnold Schoenberg based his sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is redemption from the loss of innocence.
Elegy in Amber (In Memoriam Leonard Bernstein) is scored for string orchestra. As its title directly states, the piece is a memorial to the late composer, conductor, pianist and educator. The title bears an additional significance: the German (or Yiddish) name "Bernstein" means "Amber" in English. Throughout the piece, brief phrases from several Bernstein compositions are embedded into the musical texture. Begun shortly after Bernstein's death in October 1990, Elegy in Amber was completed in 1993.
The composer notes that most of the quoted musical phrases are intentionally brief. "I wanted them subtly woven into the score like bits of thread in a piece of cloth - or, if you happen to be an Al Hirschfeld fan, something akin to way Hirschfeld covertly incorporates the letters of his daughter's name, 'Nina', into his caricatures." But just as recognition of Hirschfeld's concealed salute to his beloved daughter is not required for an appreciation of his drawings, the citations from Bernstein's Mass, West Side Story and the opera Trouble in Tahiti do not demand the listener's notice in order for Pizer's Elegy to seem coherent. Such tributes, in music (for example, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin or Stravinsky's Monumentum pro Gesualdo), have long been one way in which composers pay homage to the past, a past that is not lost as long as it is allowed to regenerate itself within the living continuum of memory.
Now residing in Northern New York State, Elizabeth Hayden Pizer is active as a composer, keyboardist, and freelance music journalist. Her compositions have been performed and broadcast throughout the United States and abroad, and have received numerous awards and prizes.
Pizer's works have been heard at New York's Lincoln Center and London's Wigmore Hall, at the Delius Festival, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the GEDOK Festival of Music by Women (Germany), the Charles Ives Center for American Music, the International Congress on Women in Music, and national conferences of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. Two of Pizer's solo piano compositions - Expressions Intimes and Strains and Restraints - were recorded by pianist Max Lifchitz for North/South Recordings; her Elegy in Amber (In Memoriam Leonard Bernstein) was recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony for MMC Recordings; and Strains and Restraints was recently recorded by pianist Teresa McCollough for release on a CD which will feature solo piano music by American composers.
Johannes Brahms' close friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, used as a personal motto the phrase Frei, aber Einsam (Free but Lonely). In response and challenge, Brahms adopted the words Frei, aber Froh (Free but Glad), an expression he celebrated in his Third Symphony, whose principal theme is based on the notes F-A-F. (That Brahms was not completely convinced by his wishful assertion of joy in the absence of personal entanglements is suggested by the choice of A-flat rather that A-natural in that theme - a minor rather than major third, an introverted rather than extroverted interval.) Theirs was a life-long debate about the value of personal freedom: Joachim's motto puts the exchange in terms of the cost of one's autonomy. Brahms, on the other hand, prefers to think solely about its benefits. By choosing to set Schiller's poem Nänie, Brahms places the question of loss and gain - a central philosophic issue in his life - squarely at the centre of his artistic endeavour.
The poem, which begins "Even Beauty must die..." emphasises, by means of examples drawn from mythology, that despite the heights that may be reached by an individual, our ultimate end is dissolution. However, redemption is found in memory, through the fame that great actions bring - perhaps as opposed to celebrity, which dissipates rapidly. Underlying the surface of the poem is the idea that it is not Eurydice's or Adonis' beauty that makes them immortal, but the heroic adoration of Orpheus or Aphrodite (Venus), which led them to perform deeds of love so extraordinary that they can never be forgotten. Nänie, unlike both Elegy in Amber and Fauré's Requiem, is a dramatic work: an argument concerning loss and redemption.
Every symphony is a commentary on the concept of "Symphony". A composer who today assigns that name to a new work quite deliberately joins a historical procession that has at its head Haydn and the other Viennese Classics, and cannot be unconscious of the contributions to that from by the succession of composers, lasting until Mahler, who made it the quintessential model for orchestral music into the twentieth century. Jus so, every piece entitled Requiem is a commentary on the idea of the Requiem and its previous history in music.
Gabriel Fauré's Requiem is among the most unusual musical works to bear that title. Normative musical settings of the Roman Catholic funeral Mass - Mozart's, Berlioz's, Verdi's - emphasize the mortal danger facing our sinful souls by making the Sequence the work's centerpiece. This portion of the text, beginning with the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) happens also to be filled with spectacular dark imagery, particularly welcome to an operatically inclined composer seeking extremes of drama. Fauré's aim was entirely different. Leaving out the Dies irae entirely, he chose to focus on the consolatory portions of the text, orienting the piece more towards the living then the dead - after all, the dead have no more need of solace. His Requiem is more a reflection of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on The Cross than a typical Requiem. Like that too-little-known masterpiece, it is a meditation on the idea of consolation. As such, despite its text based in sacred liturgy, Fauré's Requiem, like the other two works in our programme, is a profoundly humanistic achievement.
- Jerome Hoberman -