An article about Roger’s Variations on a theme of Chopin for the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate magazine.
The Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition has just begun here in Melbourne, and I’m looking forward to listening to the first session in just under an hour’s time. Last night, after the hubbub of drinks, nibbles, introductions, shoulder-rubbing, speeches and gossip, we were treated to a performance by the energetic T’ang Quartet from Singapore, playing music by Bright Sheng, Peter Sculthorpe, Hu Xiao-Ou and Frangiz Ale Zadeh. Of these, I knew only the 8th string quartet by Sculthorpe, a powerful and fascinating work. I’d certainly be interested to delve into more of Sheng’s chamber music on the strength of his 3rd quartet, whose most appealing aspects were its capacity expansively to mould time and its elegaic and rather haunting conclusion, despite the torso of the work being a bit long and meandering, to my ears.
My felow jurors, chaired by the exquisite Wilma Smith, are an accomplished and pleasant bunch of fine human beings, representing our cousins over the water (Euan Murdoch, New Zealand), our Adelaide friends (Natsuko Yoshimoto), our brilliant expats (Li-Wei Qin) and a new friend from Shanghai, Professor Jensen Horn-Sin Lam.
Better get my tie straightened and head for where the action is. May the show commence!
All session details here
My clarinet quintet Songs from the Bush was given a beautiful performance in Kangaroo Valley at the ‘Valley Dreaming’ concert on May 5. I must thank clarinettist David Rowden for his care and attention in getting to know what I was attempting to do with this piece, especially as it is far from being an extrovert virtuoso vehicle for the soloist. He was sensitively supported, framed, chorused by four esteemed and wonderful colleagues, every one of them an exceptional soloist in their own right. My sincere thanks to Natsuko Yoshimoto and her husband Imants Larsens (violins), Roger Benedict (viola) and my old friend David Pereira (cello) for making me very happy, as well as reassured. You never quite believe that your music is any good until someone comes along and seems to believe in it more than you do.
Congratulations, too, to Belinda Webster and the team for another remarkable festival unlike any other.
2011 has been a fantastic year. I’ve heard more of my own music than ever before, and have had a great time, being flown around the country, meeting so many music lovers, making so many musical friends and enjoying the company of such talented colleagues. This is not in any way meant to be a carping blog but there is something curious about the coverage in one quarter that has puzzled me for some time and I think it is all right to share my thoughts, because it is an area that affects many artists and is very difficult to address without either becoming frustrated at one’s powerlessness or overreacting. Simply explaining it and inviting reflections from others seems a valid thing to do.
By 2008, I had noticed that a prominent reviewer in the Age newspaper in Melbourne seemed to have begun to ignore my performances. If I took part in a concert, my contribution would not be mentioned; if I gave a solo concert, it would be overlooked. I assumed I was simply being oversensitive. Anyway, arts reviews are hanging onto their place in our media by their fingernails, so it might well have been the result of quite reasonable sub editing. Then, by June 2009, I noticed that my compositions were receiving the same treatment, for reasons that remain unclear. Even when a concert including one of my works was reviewed, all works except mine would be addressed. Since my piece Black is the Night was played by the ACO in June that year, no mention of my work has been made. I noted this in my blog entry and included a link to the review by Clive O’Connell at the time. I did wonder what it meant, and began to be curious about how my year’s contribution to Musica Viva’s national programme in 2011 would be reported.
As it happens, it has been widely reported and I’m more than delighted by the opportunity, the wonderful performances, the chance to meet so many people, and of course just to hear so much of my music for the first time. The press coverage has been extensive, almost overwhelming, and generally very positive. In light of this, the continuing boycott by O’Connell is, I suppose, a minor thing, but it is still a mystery. The latest review is a good example. In May, the Brentano String Quartet played my first string quartet. This is what O’Connell had to say.
It has now been three years since I was mentioned in this particular column, and I have been involved in something like twenty Melbourne concerts during that time. Elsewhere, the coverage has been pretty much as one would expect. Melbourne is my home town. It’s a great city and a lot of superb art events happen there, supported by a music-loving, art-mad cultured community, who not only want to enjoy their art to the full, but are proud of their local artists and expect them at least to be given a look-in and critiqued by those in the local media who are paid to do that.
People are starting to ask me about it and I cannot tell them anything, except just to keep coming to the concerts and to enjoy them! The rest is beyond our control but we can, at least, remark on it, can’t we?
Relief. Quintet finished. I sip tea and reflect on notes and meaning.
It’s a haiku. Well not really, because there should be something about nature in it and also it’s laughably boring and solipsistic. But we are a musician after all, and self-reference is a big part of our daily ritual.
It is true: relief, the quintet is complete, in draft, and has been despatched to players for perusal and comment. Did I mention relief already?
Almost every questionnaire and interview I have entertained over the last year has posed a question about writers’ block, and I suppose it is the converse of that perennial fascination we have for ‘where artists get their ideas’. Where do the ideas go when artists are not getting them? Neither is easy to answer. Nor is the question, “What do composers do when it happens?” which, I suspect, is where the real interest lies. This year, although it might appear that the idea fairy has been kind to me, it is actually very much not the case. I don’t blame the fairy. I blame me. However embellished or romanticised the histories are, it is undeniable that Mozart and Beethoven, and a host of others, would simply not have written all they did if they waited until they were happy and well, and most great artists have a great talent for one thing before all others: hard work. Not sure my talent in this area is even in the ball park, but we shuffle along, don’t we? I have to say, this year has been helped along by some wonderful friends, and I am very grateful to them.
Elsewhere, I have said something about my first piano quintet, written in 2005 for my friends in the Flinders Quartet. It was intended for a tour we were to do together but a serious road accident in May 2006 put paid to that plan, and the lovely Caroline Almonte replaced me, on that and several other occasions. The work is a little unusual in its sequence of eight relatively brief movements, ordered so as to follow a day in the life of Erik Satie, from his waking and eating breakfast in the form of an egg and preparing for bed with a final cigar… In a way, I was thinking along the lines of a Graham Greene ‘entertainment’, like Travels with my Aunt: composers often like to write in serious and less serious modes.
The second quintet is a little less flippant. Well, not flippant at all. The piece has been formed from two earlier works, reworked and rearranged. The first movement is based on Dreams, my single-movement piano concerto from 2003, which featured at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. The second is more loosely built on Drought and Night Rain, a tone poem I wrote for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Both works, in their different ways, allude to Judith Wright, fast becoming my main musical inspiration, and ironic too, considering her well-known antipathy towards musical settings of her poetry. In Dreams, though, it is really more of a personal response to her poetic world than any ‘setting’ of particular poems, and the opening theme, which pervades the piece in various transformations, was actually suggested years ago when I first began sketches in London. My wife Helen was busy at the time, working as a repetiteur on the Royal Opera House’s ‘Garden Venture’, a scheme to promote newly composed miniature operas, and our friend Jeannie Marsh was staying with us, cramming for a performance of a striking example by the (then) young British composer Luke Stoneham. His interesting use of long melismas and false relations set me thinking, and in some ways, Dreams was what came of it.
Some years passed between the first sketches for Dreams and its premiere in Brussels, and a whole period of my life in Tasmania came and went in the interim. So, looking back, it constitutes quite a journey for me, and I learned much along the way. When I came to write Drought and Night Rain, I had mapped it out as part of a projected symphony, just as Dreams is intended, still, as the first movement of a piano concerto. Anthony Peluso, then AA at the TSO, invited me for a three-year residency and I leapt at the opportunity to wrote a great big symphony. Silly boy. Australian composers do not write symphonies! They write little overture-y bits and 13-minute Australia Council-funded first-half fillers. Obviously, some symphonies do get written, but very few, and if I sound sarcastic, I apologise. It matters not: when the fairy returns, I will try to finish both the concerto and the symphony, which exist in scattered sketches all over the house.
There are some questions about this quintet that will be answered in performance, I imagine. Dreams was such a breakthrough for me, in its language and its structure, that I consciously borrowed both aspects in writing Drought, not imagining that they would ever meet. Are they too alike, then? I don’t think so. They both begin and end quietly, with rocking, harmonically ambiguous figures and build to crisis-like climaxes. Not only that, but some of the orchestral sonorities, like the appearance of the frogs and crickets right at the end, are difficult to emulate with the restricted resources of a piano quintet, even with the application of frog guiros and a rainstick or two. We shall see. In other ways, there might be advantages. No matter how much I clarified the original score, and how careful the conductor Gilbert Varga was with dynamics, the piano solo part of Dreams does get almost completely swallowed up towards the end of the nightmarish toccata. To my satisfaction, I should add! Somehow, it stands as an emblem of the solo pianist’s role: heroically battling the tide; in the 19th century, conquering; in the 20th, something else.
Who will win in the quintet? Come along and find out.
Anna Goldsworthy’s haunting Piano Lessons is making a reappearance as a play. Wonderful. Limelight magazine is asking for short reminiscences from colleagues about their own first lessons and first teachers. Here is mine.
Mr Hurst, whose first name none of us can recall, came into our lives on the suburban fringe of Melbourne with his dapper suit and Valiant sedan when I was six years old. With his cultured Jewish ways and kindly manner, he coaxed my elder brother Chris and me to play duet versions of ‘Hot Cross Buns’ and ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ and patiently, if unenthusiastically, guided us through John Thompson’s lacklustre and old-fashioned Piano Course. Although he taught me exactly the wrong way to play octaves*, he did the one thing that all good teachers ought to remember to do: he encouraged. And along the way he introduced me to one of my lifelong loves, the sublime and gnostic musical world of Robert Schumann. Soon afterwards, I was sent to learn with a rather formidable lady, Marta Rostas, a Hungarian emigrée who had trained at the Liszt Academy and who brooked no nonsense from rough boys. I cried at my very first lesson, not because of any harshness of hers but because of the standard she embodied, which I instantly sensed was beyond me. She was best friends with Mr Hurst’s first wife, Hedy, who would teach me German and meet me in Vienna while I was a student there, many years later. But that’s another story.
*”Put your thumb on C; now, put your fifth finger on the C above. Clench your hand. All you have to do now is to hold your hand stiff and go up and down the keyboard.’ Do not try this at home, folks.
For a while, I was utterly fascinated by the idea of Erik Satie, the eccentric French composer of the once ubiquitous Gymnopédies. In fact, he has figured in my writing twice, and may well again. The piano quintet I wrote for the Flinders Quartet a few years ago was based on an imagined day in his life, but that work was in turn based on an earlier arrangement I made for the Australia Ensemble of his brilliant set of twenty-one pieces for piano known as Sports et Divertissements, which was in turn quite probably based on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which was based on… I can’t remember, you probably do. As I wrote almost a chapter of my Masters thesis on these pieces, I thought it might be of interest to post some of that here.
Satie’s pieces have interpolated comments, the oration of which was expressly forbidden by the composer. However, they are so piquant, and so integral to the experience of the pieces — in fact, to virtually any of Satie’s pieces — that I ensured that they were not only included, but featured. For the Australia Ensemble concert, my father-in-law Gerald English provided the declaimed texts, quite brilliantly, as you can hear.
In 1934 Constant Lambert said of Satie that “English critics have been unanimous in their disapproval, and one has yet to see that their contempt is based on any knowledge of his work as a whole. Satie is looked upon (…) as a farceur and an incompetent dilettante.” Bearing this out, fifty-five years later Gerald Abraham obligingly wrote of Satie as “an amusing blagueur of miniscule talent”. It would be hard to argue that Emmanuel Chabrier and Gabriel Fauré were also merely the possessors of such mediocre gifts and yet their music is similarly neglected in the Anglo-Saxon musical world, although perhaps not so regularly maligned. Which just goes to show that Lambert was right when he said: “The theory that music is an international language may be compared to the statement that blood is thicker than water. They are both so obviously untrue that no one worries about them any longer or is likely to protest at their frequent occurrences in public speeches.”
It should not be forgotten, of course, that the criticisms were not limited to the English. Like Ravel, Debussy and the Russian émigré Stravinsky, Satie enjoyed his share of succès de scandale, particularly when his ballet Parade was performed in 1917 to hoots of derision and in the midst of the Dada movement. Whatever reaction his works caused at that time, and whatever one may make of them now, the idea that Satie was a naïve and unskilled artist is demonstrably false. Stravinsky, writing in his autobiography, declared “I liked him at once. He was a quick-witted fellow, shrewd, clever, and mordant. Of his compositions I prefer above all his ‘Socrate’ and certain pages of his ‘Parade’.” Ravel was interested enough to play Satie’s piano pieces on occasion but it was Debussy who was genuinely and significantly influenced by Satie’s unconventional ideas and what Debussy inferred as his musical “medievalism”. Opinions will probably remain divided, however, between those who view the egregiously eccentric and experimental nature of his work as just so much empty self-absorption and those for whom he represents a welcome way out of German Romanticism (and who simply like the music, it must be said).
Three years before the first performance of Parade, one of its precursors and one of Satie’s most exquisitely crafted works was made. The story of how the twenty-one pieces for piano solo that comprise Sports et Divertissements came to be composed in 1914 is fairly well-known, if only for the slightly apocryphal account of the financial arrangements involved. Lucien Vogel, publisher of magazines and occasional one-off art and music books, approached Stravinsky with a commission to write short piano pieces to accompany a collection of drawings by one of Vogel’s house artists, Charles Martin. Stravinsky declined, finding the proposed fee too low. It was one of Vogel’s designers, Valentine Gross, who next suggested that Vogel ask Satie. When the same fee was offered to Satie, he was inexplicably offended and, so the customary version goes, only agreed to the commission if the fee were reduced. In fact, as Volta argues, Satie, who was a rather touchy individual, may have been reacting to the advice of Roland-Manuel, then a friend but later a bitter enemy, to push for too much and so risk losing the commission altogether.
To the twenty drawings by Martin, Satie appended a chorale at the beginning, as he remarked in his own printed introduction. In doing so, was he deliberately making reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire of 1912? Pierrot was arguably a parody of the German melodrama, an 18th- and 19th-century form comprising declamation and music, a typical example of which is Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden op.38, on an epic poem by Tennyson. Schoenberg’s setting took twenty-one of Giraud’s poems (translated into German) concerning the commedia dell’arte character Pierrot, and famously notated the declamation in Sprechstimme, musically alluding to the cabaret forms so familiar to Satie, as well as a multitude of others. It is no coincidence, then, to find Satie alluding to Scaramouche (“La Comédie Italienne”), Pierrot (“Carnaval”) and the moon (“Le Flirt”, accompanied by a musical quotation from the folk song “Au clair de lune”).
The publication of the book was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and the liquidation of Vogel’s publishing company. By the end of the war, however, Vogel had reconstituted his company and finally printed the collection in 1923, only two years before Satie’s death and six years after the appearance of Parade. Times had changed, meanwhile, and even if there hadn’t been a Great War Vogel’s fashion magazines would have reflected the one truth concerning their subject: constant change. Consequently, Martin, who had by this time come under the influence of Cubism, had replaced all of his drawings of 1914 and it is these new illustrations that were published alongside Satie’s music and text in three versions of the original deluxe edition: one with all twenty plates by Martin, one with only plates 1—10 and one with only one plate, chosen at random. The Vogel edition has never been republished in its original configuration, so that the full effect of the work as a synthesis of music, text and art can only be imagined. For this purpose, the Dover edition of 1962 is probably the most useful, reproducing the second (1922) set of Martin pictures with Satie’s original calligraphy, which is very distinctive. What is missing, and which can be inferred from Satie’s preface, is colour: apart from the coloured plates, Satie’s score featured black notes and red staves. What is also missing is the opportunity to compare the first and second versions of Martin’s illustrations and examine their correspondences with Satie’s music; in many instances, it is in the first version that the interplay between picture and music is most meaningful.
Both Davis and Volta demonstrate the extent to which Satie involved himself with the popular culture of the day, embedding Sports with references to music-hall and café life, of which he was an enthusiastic participant, and more specifically to the fashionable world of Vogel’s magazines Fémina and La gazette du bon ton. Sports et divertissements itself was in prominent current usage as an advertising catch phrase promoting the modern fad of the moneyed classes to travel to places like Dieppe and the Riviera to take invigorating holidays full of sport and amusements. A comparison between the contents pages of the spring issue of Fémina in 1913 and Satie’s collection is striking. It is a catalogue of contemporary pastimes that is, not surprisingly, caricatured and lampooned by Satie, along with the magazine illustrations’ captions, parodies of which form the basis for Satie’s inimitable “stream-of-consciousness” text inserts. Many of the associations that would have been immediately obvious to musically-minded readers of Vogel’s magazines are not at all obvious today, of course — who is familiar with the monthly Parisian magazines of 1913 and 1922? Some of Satie’s other musical references may not have been quite so easily recognised at the time of publication, though. Davis draws plausible conclusions regarding Satie’s subtle borrowing of material from a range of composers including Bizet, Widor and Debussy and shows that Satie did so knowingly and with considerable technical skill.
This arrangement of Sports was made for the Australia Ensemble, both in the conviction that the instrumentation of the ensemble (flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano) afforded a wealth of colouristic opportunities for creative arrangement, and that the work itself was full of potential for meaningful instrumental colour. Another consideration was the similarity with the instrumentation of Pierrot lunaire (narrator, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, ‘cello and piano), with which it is connected. The existence of fine music that is rarely if ever played and heard in its original form, by virtue of idiosyncratic instrumentation (Grainger’s settings of Kipling’s verse, for example), by the use of obsolete instruments (Schubert’s sonata for arpeggione; Schumann’s pieces for pedal piano) or because the genre is no longer widely practised (piano duet repertoire and, to a lesser extent, organ repertoire), has always been the reason and justification for many arrangements and transcriptions.
Sports was published in a short print run of about 900 copies in 1923. It was known to a small circle of Satie’s friends and acquaintances and to the mainly dilettante clientele of Vogel’s magazines. By its nature, it has never been comfortable in the concert hall; it was almost certainly not envisaged by Satie to be comfortable or, in all likelihood, to be heard there at all. In any case, he is reported on several occasions to have warned against declaiming the words during the performance of any of his pieces, so that the complete experience of Satie’s world is removed one step further away if the the injunction is heeded in public performance. For this arrangement, texts were declaimed, against Satie’s instruction, after considering the alternative. Although declamation and piano mutually interfere in performing the original in this way, the transparency and spread of colours gained by transcription to a small mixed ensemble were found to complement the voice in a way that neither obscured the spoken words nor was obscured by them. To complement the aural performance, in which the original French texts were declaimed, slides comprising Martin’s and other illustrations, photos and translations of the texts were projected with each number.
When Satie entered the Scola Cantorum in Paris as a mature-age student in 1905, it was in order to remedy a perceived lack of technical grounding that had undermined his confidence for years. Part of his studies involved the traditional discipline of counterpoint, which he found that he greatly enjoyed, especially the emulation of Bach’s chorale settings for four voices. In his introduction he mentions the reason for the inclusion of the extra, unillustrated piece, “Choral inappétissant”, dedicating it to “those who dislike me” and written for the “shrivelled up and stupefied”. In it, he writes, “I have included all I know of boredom”. Yet the piece, without such a caption, is not dissimilar to the Douze petits chorals (1906) or the single chorale-like pieces such as an unnamed one included in the Carnet d’esquisses et de croquis (1899—1913), none of which betrays anything more ironic than a careful and inventive regard for voice-leading. It is characteristic that Satie’s words and music form such a counterpoint, which would have to be viewed as deliberate and suggestive. In performance, of course, such music can acquire irony, both by reference to the text and by exaggeration.
The piece is crammed full of eleven syntactically correct appoggiaturas that might have satisfied d’Indy. The clarinet contributes sparingly and slightly incongruously to accentuate the fourth, eighth and last appoggiatura resolutions, the last emerging as violin II fades.
Davis draws attention to the parallels between Satie’s swing (“La Balançoire”) and the slide (“L’Escarpolette”) by Georges Bizet in his suite for piano duet Jeux d’Enfants (1871). Set for clarinet solo and pizzicato violin II and ‘cello, the only addition in the arrangements is a free vamp at the beginning and end; at either end of the piece the music emerges from, and regresses to, silence.
“La Chasse” and “La Comédie Italienne” are both arranged straightforwardly, using the distinct colour combinations available within the ensemble. The penultimate phrase of “Comédie…” is lengthened and the voicing modified so as to accentuate the comic and dramatic effect of the scale to top F corresponding to the text “Et le reste!”
“Le Réveil de la Mariée” is similarly lengthened by one bar in order for the words “Un chien danse avec sa fiançée” to be absorbed at leisure, while the pianistic figure in “Colin-Maillard” that complements the words “Comme il est pâle” is likewise expanded.
“Le Yachting” is subjected to more extensive arrangement. Repeating the piece allows some of Satie’s figuration to be elaborated in two ways. The original piano accompaniment to the text “Pourvu qu’elle ne se brise pas sur un rocher” is treated imitatively and extended at first hearing in the arranged version and further imitated by a third voice upon repetition.
The unfortunate Colonel whose club splinters as soon as he hits the ball is personified by a clarinet solo in “Le Golf”. Notably, the opening phrase predates the popular song “Tea for Two”. “La Pieuvre” is unaltered from Satie’s original, like “Le Traîneau”, as part of the overall scheme to spread the arrangement across a variety of instrumental solos and sub-groupings.
Like “Le Yachting”, “Les Courses” is repeated, so that two phrases, those corresponding to the texts “Achat du programme” and “Départ… Ceux qui se dérobent”, might be extended and developed, again polyphonically.
Davis remarks that Satie’s quotation of “La Marseillaise” near the end is remarkably similar to Debussy’s own quotation in “Feux d’artifice”, the last of the second book of his Préludes (1913).
Prokofiev’s cat-clarinet visits “Les Quatre Coins”, in which the four mice appear as string pizzicati. Actually, they are all children: “puss-in-the-corner” is a children’s game, and is featured as such in Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants, whose material is again quoted by Satie (Davis: pp.458—9).
Davis perceives a similarity with the opening of “Le Pique-nique” and the folk tune “Keel Row”, which may or may not be intended, as well as a snippet of cakewalk, which almost certainly is. Debussy’s cakewalk parodies, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from the Children’s Corner suite and Le petit Nigar, would doubtless have been well known to Satie, whose own popular song “La Diva de l’Empire” is written in the same style. The brewing storm that threatens to ruin the picnic is doubled in length in the arrangement, for exaggerated dramatic effect.
Satie’s few financially rewarding compositions included the waltzes and waltz-songs “Poudre d’Or”, “Je te veux” and the two early pieces “Valse ballet” and “Fantaisie-valse”. “Le Water-chute” parodies such waltzes, Satie’s stock-in-trade as pianist at the Chat Noir and other cabaret-cafés in Montmartre.
In a similarly light vein, “Le Tango” parodies the dance that was the craze of Paris just before the war. Evidently the charms of the tango were lost on Erik, whose performance direction “Modéré et très ennuyé” signals his evident antipathy, as does his subtitle “endless” (perpétuel), as the trend may have seemed at the time. For anyone wishing to take him at his word (like those misguided enough to take his comments regarding Vexations at their face value…), there is an innocuous repeat sign, with no obvious way of ending. For the purpose of clarity, the arrangement makes the one repeat explicit and makes a coda of the third hearing of the first clarinet phrase.
In “Le Flirt” Davis again discovers musical quotations, this time from a less well-known source, “Le Flirt” from Le Carnaval op.61 by the French organist Charles Marie Widor.
While some of Widor’s fine organ symphonies are known today, his piano music has largely fallen by the wayside. In 1914, though, Le Carnaval may well have enjoyed greater appreciation. Significantly, Widor was the composer of another piano collection, Vieilles chansons et rondes pour les petits enfants, published in 1912 in a lavish production that included colour illustrations by the fashion artist Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel. More than any other, perhaps, Widor’s collection provides the model for Satie and Vogel’s decidedly more sarcastic work for adults.
And finally, “Le Tennis”. Game!