Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 10

INTIMATE VOICES: SOLO AND ENSEMBLE MUSIC OF JEWISH SPIRIT

By Neil W. Levin

 

THE INTIMACY OF THE HUMAN AND INSTRUMENTAL VOICES in the music of this volume resides in great measure in its offerings of conventionally as well as experimentally structured chamber music and miniature solo pieces. These works represent a broad range of styles, techniques, sensibilities, instrumental and vocal combinations, and artistic approaches, all nonetheless seeking to communicate on a more intimate level than, for example, more grandiose, sumptuous, less interior music of the symphony hall or opera house.

The very term “chamber music” can be fraught with confusion. Its original association with performance in a room less spacious (and at one time less public) than a large concert hall is confirmed by its modern German (Kammermusik), French (musique de chambre), and Italian (musica da camera) equivalents, and it has connoted different things at different periods in the course of Western music culture. In general, however, whether aimed from its genesis at public audiences or intended for the players’ own experience with or without listeners, chamber music as a genre, in the common usage of the 20th century, came to signify music for small ensembles. The potentially troublesome relativity of the specification “small” is usually clarified by the assumption of a single player per part, as opposed to orchestral sections. With the exception of lieder, or solo art songs for voice and piano (Kunstlieder), chamber music is also primarily instrumental. This does not preclude one or more solo voices conceived as integral parts of the instrumental ensemble or in organic combination with it. Examples in this volume are Samuel Adler’s Nuptial Scene, Meyer Kupferman’s The Shadows of Jerusalem, Richard Wernick's Oracle II, and Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs.

Until the late 18th century, prior to the growth of the public concert as a middle-class forum outside the church, royal courts, or venues of the nobility, cultivated art (read “classical”) music could belong for the most part—though not always neatly—to one of three categories: church music (including church concert as well as worship formats); theatrical or staged works (operas, for example, or incidental music for other stage productions); or chamber music, which indicated secular music suitable for performance in private residences or courts. But at that time such chamber music was still either a quasi-concert genre or a functional art in terms of background or dance music. Around the beginning of the 19th century, Charles Burney, the prolific music historian as well as observer and chronicler of the European music scene, described chamber music in his entry in Rees’s Cyclopaedia as

compositions for a small concert room, a small band and a small audience; opposed to music for the church, the theatre, or a public concert room.

Such distinctions—especially in practice—were nonetheless often blurred. Burney had also referred in previous writings to certain instrumental music as being either da camera or da chiesa. Yet those designations could pertain as much to style, form, and technical procedure (fugal counterpoint, for example) as to the nature of the actual or intended performance space—certainly as early as the high Baroque. Theater-born instrumental pieces could be performed in residential court settings, just as similar music composed for domestic or court performance could also be heard in theatrical venues for various purposes—including the punctuation of staged productions and pauses between acts. Then, as now, therefore, neither the type (or even size) of performance venue (even in terms of ideal suitability or the composer’s original intention) nor original function could themselves be limiting definitions of chamber music.

Meanwhile, the increasing focus on purely secular music leading up to the Classical era spawned a proliferation of decidedly instrumental forms and repertoires. Until at least the mid-18th century, however, there was often little difference between chamber and orchestral ensembles; the latter could be only a bit larger than the former; and the musical substance embraced by both was not always distinguishable. Indeed, some of their repertoires could be interchangeable.

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the public concert continued to become entrenched as a European cultural institution, chamber music and its dissemination benefited accordingly. But it still remained a vehicle for amateurs who could indulge in this activity for their own enjoyment and elevation.

Although Haydn wrote chamber pieces for a variety of instrumental combinations, it is his string quartets of the 18th century—followed by those of Mozart and Beethoven—that are generally considered a permanent turning point in our very perception of this music. And that perception—based on those classical underpinnings and reinforced a bit later in the 19th century by such composers as Schubert and Mendelssohn and, still later, Schumann and Brahms—has continued in large measure to inform both the formal structures and our aesthetic understanding of what constitutes chamber music. The connotation is not necessarily changed by the variety of subsequent individual styles, musical languages, and artistic approaches.

With the increase in music publishing in the early 19th century and the resulting growth in performance activity by professional musicians of chamber works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, the genre as a whole came to new, wider levels of public attention. Both professional concert performers and amateur players could now avail themselves of the greater access to scores. Eventually, especially following the exposure to Beethoven’s middle and late quartets (the latter did not receive public performances until about twenty-five years after his death), chamber music—with the string quartet in particular as its most ubiquitous emblem—came to be perceived in some circles of serious music aficionados as the highest, most profound form of music (if not all artistic) expression. For some, it has represented classical music’s ultimate and, at the same time, most spiritual dimension. When Albert Einstein wanted to refer to art on its greatest and most sublime level, in the context of the indispensability of artists, he referred to Beethoven’s string quartets. Had he not been born, Einstein is reported to have commented, sooner or later the theory of relativity would have been discovered by someone else—implying that its existence in nature and in the order of the universe would always be there to uncover. But had Beethoven never been born—so Einstein is said to have observed—the world would, for all eternity, be without “the late quartets.”

The classical tradition of chamber music established and featured not only the string quartets, but also a number of other specific combinations that came to be standard: the piano trio (violin, cello, and piano); the string trio (violin, viola, and cello); the piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, and cello); the piano quintet (essentially string quartet and piano); and the woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn). Composers also have devised numerous other combinations with the addition (or substitution) of specific instruments. And fresh formal structures have been created in the 20th century and its immediately succeeding years. Yet much of the chamber music of this past century, even in the so-called postmodern era, has remained grounded to one degree or another in the classical Viennese-German cultural tradition that dates to Haydn. Its basic forms and formal conceptions have underlain even some of the most adventurous 20th-century and contemporary chamber pieces; and the principle of inventive exploitation of instrumental capabilities and sonorities—soloistically and in imaginative blends, juxtapositions, and subtle interactions with other instruments—has remained a signature feature.

Throughout much of the 19th century, the German and Viennese cultural-geographic orbit persisted as the principal host of chamber music composition. Later in the century it spread to the French Impressionists (Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel, for example, and the Belgian Franck) and to the opera of Russian, Central European Slavic, and other east Central European composers, who, in their focus on native folk materials, were to inspire some of the pioneer Jewish composers in Russia during the first decade of the 20th century. Early American composers of chamber music who adhered conservatively to the German and Central European models included George Chadwick, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Charles Loeffler, and, in many respects departing from the received European tradition, the more imaginative and more individualistic Charles Ives.

The conventional forms of chamber music have survived and flourished remarkably well throughout the 20th century and beyond, even in the inevitable ebb and flow of interest. There has also been a considerable expansion of timbres, textures, and harmonic adventure—as well as nontonal procedures and approaches of virtually all conceivable stripes among the avant-garde. Contemporary explorations have involved combinations that would have been considered highly unusual at one time, including voice, percussion, and even electronic media. Yet these works are still within the generic boundaries of chamber music. Much if not most of the repertoire dating to the second half of the 20th century has been written with skilled professional—and sometimes highly specialized—performers in mind, and is neither intended nor technically suitable for domestic chamber music activity in a private social context. Indeed, rarely in recent decades have first-rank sophisticated composers aimed serious chamber ensemble works at proficient amateur musicians or traditional informal settings, whether as their primary target or at least in equal measure with regard to professional concert artists, as was once the case. This has contributed to the present situation, where much chamber music in general—especially that which we label contemporary, for want of a better term—has migrated to the concert hall as its primary public forum. Even so, a space far smaller and more intimate than the symphony hall is still appropriately considered the desiderata. Presentations of Haydn or Beethoven quartets on the stages of the same large halls that typically host symphony concerts and oratorios—which would no doubt have been unimaginable to those composers—are born of commercial considerations and bemoaned by nearly every chamber music devotee, but—like overly large acoustically wanting opera houses or amplified Shakespeare—are accepted with resignation as a fact of musical life.

That circumstance is also true of classical or art song recitals, whose originally conceived setting calls for an intimate lieder abend in a drawing room or salon, or perhaps a spacious music room, not Carnegie Hall. Of course, we can point easily to parallel compromises in the popular music and especially the jazz realms, where the intimacy of clubs and cabarets has given way to mega-arenas and amphitheatres.

Fortunately, however, there are still frequent chamber music concerts presented in more appropriately sized and more modest performance spaces, especially at colleges, universities, and conservatories, but also in deliberately chosen smaller recital halls in civic arts complexes. On the other hand, the so-called standard chamber music repertoire continues to enjoy a healthy, vibrant life of personal participation in amateur music making in private settings—not only throughout North America and Europe, but even in non-Western cultures enamored of the Western classical music tradition, such as Japan, China, and South Korea. On any given evening or Sunday afternoon, hundreds if not thousands of amateur musicians get together in homes to read through quartets, trios, and quintets purely for their personal and spiritual pleasure—even if family members or guests derive secondary benefit as listeners—and many of them also relish periodic residencies at chamber music retreats, amateur festivals, and weekend or weeklong institutes and adult “music camps,” where they broaden their experience and expand their familiarity with the repertoire. This repertoire, particularly in the fingers and instruments of advanced amateurs, can now be said to have transcended the 18th and 19th centuries to embrace works for standard instrumental combinations by such 20th-century composers as Hindemith, Bartók, and Shostakovich.

The designation “amateur” in this context is relative and must be appreciated in its original sense, shorn of its unfortunately acquired American belittling, if not derogatory, connotation, and referring only to status—not to skill, ability, or talent. Amateur chamber music players are those who play for their own enjoyment without remuneration as performers for audiences. Like the chamber music nomenclature itself, however, that label can have a range of meanings and implications in popular perception. The amateur status traverses a wide spectrum of levels of technical facility, innate musicianship, and experience. It includes not only those whose musical studies may have concluded in their youth and who have merely “kept up” their playing, but also musicians who might earlier have had career-oriented conservatory training and professional ambitions—and might even at one time have played professionally.

During the first decade of the 20th century, composers in Russia associated with the New National School in Jewish music (a.k.a. the New Jewish School in music) and the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) began focusing on Jewish secular folk and sometimes liturgical themes for chamber music and solo instrumental pieces. A number of composers in modern Israel, beginning in the late 1920s, embarked on analogous paths and incorporated Near Eastern elements as well. From about the 1940s on and into the new millennium, American Jewish composers have turned frequently to solo and chamber music for Jewish expression. Writing for conventional and for newly imagined combinations, they have addressed in these genres an array of Jewish folk and national as well as religiously Judaic themes, ideas, historical subjects and incidents, legends, profiles, celebrations, and moods. Some have relied on historically or traditionally based Jewish melodic material, embracing Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino folk tunes, synagogue chants, biblical cantillations, prayer modes, and Hassidic dance melodies. Compositional styles and techniques have ranged from classical, neoclassical, and neo-Romantic to rigorously chromatic and nontonal works.

Some of the pieces in this volume, though not yet known either to amateur or to professional chamber musicians, are technically suitable for amateur enthusiasts and could easily complement standard repertoire readings. Other works will require fully professional ensembles or solo performers to bring them to the public concert stage, where they will work more effectively. Still others, especially some of the solo pieces, can serve well as encore numbers, engaging audiences with their decidedly virtuoso characteristics.

Yet these works all share an aura of intimacy on one level or another: in their directness of communication, in the compactness of their forces, in their subtlety of detail, in cooperative interactions, in the harmonious interplay among the various parts—even at the most dissonant moments—and in overall effect.

Go to Volume 10 >>

Login

×