Monday, March 26th, 2012
The Meiravi Quartet presented its most recent program: “Hope Survives”: The “Lost Generation” of Holocaust Composers at 3pm, March 25, 2012 in Amado Hall, UPENN. Together with musicologist Karen Uslin, who spoke about each composer and her research experience, I presented commentary on the four works performed: Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, Krasa’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet, Ullmann’s String Quartet No.3, Op. 46 and Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No.1 in A Major as follows:
Prelude: “The Other Side of the Coin”
The music of Ullmann, Schulhoff, Krasa, and Zemlinsky represents, as it were, the “other side’ of the musical coin that was European music in the first half of the twentieth century. Historically, while the far reaching atonal work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and the folk-inspired modernism of Stravinsky and Bartok was considered more musically significant, the music of our featured composers displays an under-appreciated more moderate course while still remaining open to such new developments as jazz. In style, their music often reminds one of such first generation Hollywood film composers as Max Steiner and Eric Wolfgang Korngold, most of whom themselves were Jews from the Czech-Hungarian-Austrian empire, who were lucky enough to have escaped to the United States before the Holocaust. Had these composers survived, I think that they might have had a moderating effect on the influence of more extreme composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage in the post World War II time period.
I) The Five Pieces for String Quartet by Schulhoff are either characteristic dances or otherwise folk-inspired musical vignettes which are offered filtered through an early 20th century musical lens: liberal use of dissonance, asymmetrical phrases, ostinatos and other complex rhythmic devices, and a harmonic language midway between Debussy, Stravinsky, and Jazz within a style that is energetic, forceful, satiric, and easily accessible. The term “characteristic dances” refers to a composer using dance forms to explore musical creativity. For instance, the opening “waltz” uses some of the rhythmic/melodic concepts associated with waltzes, but the listener soon senses that this was music never intended for dancing. The second piece, “Al la Serenade,” dwells on the grotesque in keeping with Schulhoff’s Dada roots, and is replete with strummings and pluckings. The third movement is a vigorous dance, evoking Czech folk music, reminiscent of Bartok. The fourth movement, the longest of the set, is a sexy, slinky Tango, reflective of his earthy personality. The final movement is a properly frenetic tarantella.
II) Krasa’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet displays the composer’s natural charm. The variations are based more on the theme’s melodic structure, rather than being derived from any of its harmonic or motivic elements. That is to say, the variations are based on the whole theme itself, rather than any of its individual parts. The theme is a gentle march tune which is slightly varied in the somewhat faster Variation I. Variation II is lively scherzo which is followed by the calmer Variation III, a quiet lullaby. Variation IV is a serenade and features a long transition in preparation for the complete change of character to follow. Variation V, Quasi Fantasia begins abstractly with hints of jazz and then builds to a majestic climax. The lively Finale, Variation IV, treats the theme in an energetic contrapuntal fashion. The work closes with a peaceful coda evocative of Hollywood film music
III) The String Quartet No. 3 by Viktor Ullmann is perhaps the “darkest” work on the program. Composed in 1943, while Ullmann was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, the work often reflects the ominous emotional undercurrent that undoubtedly pervaded the activities of this concentration camp that the Nazi masqueraded as a “Summer Camp” for Jews. Though composed in a single movement, it presents, somewhat reshuffled, all the elements of the traditional string quartet: Sonata-Allegro, slow movement, Scherzo, and concluding Rondo. Moments of warmth and energy give way to forceful anger, bitterness, and frustration. At other moments, one may hear a fleeting bird call, though giving way, ultimately, to the horrific nightmare that was Ullmann’s life at that time. Scheduled for premier at Theresienstadt in the fall of 1944, Ullman never heard his work performed, as he and three other prominent composers, including Krasa, were all transferred to Auschitwitz and gassed between October 14-16.
IV) Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No.1 dates from 1896. Though not as innovative as Debussy’s String Quartet composed three years earlier, it remains one of the more important chamber works written before the advent of the Second Vienna School and 12 tone music. In this work, some claim that Zemlinsky freed himself from much of Brahms’ influence. I would say rather, that Zemlinsky here followed exactly in Brahms path. In fact, I might also add that, given the work’s beauty and charm, that he “out-Brahmsed” Brahms, himself. The bright first movement, Allegro con fuoco, opens almost abruptly. Characterized by highly accented and syncopated rhythms, a more lyrical second theme smoothes some of the rough edges away. The second movement, Allegretto, begins with a simple folk-like melody. Suddenly, a stormy middle section full of excitement and interesting rhythms blossoms forth into a wild and ferocious gypsy dance. The third movement, Breit und Kraftig, commences with a ‘broad and powerful’ processional slowly progressing to the lovely and highly romantic second theme. The heroic and buoyant finale, Vivace e con fuoco, is one of the glories of late romantic chamber music, full of original thematic ideas, wonderfully executed.