Skip links

Composing Bach, Remembering Bloch, Defining Dvořák

Please enjoy the program notes for tonight’s Mosher Guest Artist Recital with Stephen Isserlis. These program notes were created as part of Project Resonance, the Music Academy’s unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UC Santa Barbara are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival. *** Performer as Composer: Creating Bach In the Cello Suites, Johann Sebastian Bach creates a thin line between performer and composer. He writes for cello as if it is a miniature stringed organ, as if he is bringing his day job as a church organist into his other compositions. The performer is also tasked with completing the composition, as the score does not include the phrasing instructions that modern performers expect. Although a successful performance comes off as effortless, there are countless intricacies in the piece which earn the suites the respect they are given in the musical community. The primary organ-like detail throughout the work is the use of different voices within one continuous line, creating the effect that there are two or more instruments playing. These different voices could be high followed by low-register, or arpeggiated followed by scalar motion, like in the opening of the Courante. The seamless transition between voices in all the movements makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins, but an advanced performer uses their ears and music theory to determine which voice to bring out at any given measure.
Another organistic detail is the use of pedal points, where one low-register note is repeated amongst the other frills of the music to create the illusion of sustain. This is particularly prominent in the Prelude, where the same note is repeated at the start of each phrase grouping. If you imagine this movement as an organ composition, these notes would be held for measures at a time while the upper register continued to dance. Apart from deciphering different voicings in the music, performers must determine their own bowings. There is no surviving manuscript in Bach’s handwriting, so performers seeking to create a historically informed performance consult the bowings written out by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdelena. Due to changes in performance practice and instrument construction since the eighteenth-century, many of these bowings are counterintuitive for the modern cellist, creating an internal struggle of historical accuracy versus ease of modern playing. Choosing dynamics and articulations is another tricky part of the decision-making process. Since all the movements except the Prelude consist of two lengthy, repeated sections, performers must determine how to make each repeat sound slightly different. Should a note be loud the first time, and soft on the repeat? Or short the first time, long the second? Ultimately, performers must choose what works best for their own style and instrument. Bach’s cello suites are universally beloved and frequently heard as background music in movies or cafes. But because the performer plays such an active role in the music making, Bach’s cello suites have also received a cult following from violists, bassists, and even some wind, brass, and percussion instruments. These pieces are staples in solo competitions and auditions for professional orchestras, summer programs, and colleges, showcasing the performer’s musical prowess and ability through creating Bach. – Lillian Young Academy fellow, double bass
Ernest Bloch and the Longing for Remembrance It is late July, 1959, and the cool waves of Agate Beach, Oregon glisten in the sunlight as a warm breeze rolls over the home of the late Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). His family is gathered to perform a familiar commemorative ritual, and as his ashes are swallowed up into the inviting maw of nature, Bloch’s remains are put to rest. Bloch was known as a composer, first and foremost, but also a teacher, conductor, and philosopher. His music is still performed in concert halls, and a historical society continues to preserve his life’s work.
The fact that Bloch’s memory lives on with more than just his family is not the result of some divine hand deciding who is great and who is not, but rather the culmination of a lifetime of preparation. Ernest Bloch achieved what many before and since have tried to do: his music is remembered. But how did this happen? What did Bloch do to cement his music’s legacy in the concert hall? The tricky thing about music is that it’s fleeting. The labor of other artists is often preserved in canvas or print, but the score that a composer produces isn’t music—it is a lovingly crafted recipe that a performer follows to make the music. Composers have reckoned with the ephemerality of performance throughout history, and for hundreds of years composers have sought to carve a lasting place for themselves and their works. But how do you secure your legacy after you’ve gone? How do you ensure that the notes you’ve inscribed on the page are never silenced? These questions were on Ernest Bloch’s mind, as many of the activities with which he filled his final years speak to a need to be remembered. Many who know of Bloch associate him with his incorporation of Jewish musical traditions into pieces like Schelomo (1917) or Suite Hébraïque (1951), which exhibit an apparent yearning to contribute to a larger musical tradition, and beyond these works, Bloch often wrote pieces as indirect homages to his musical predecessors.
One such work is his First Unaccompanied Cello Suite, written in 1956 shortly before his death. What immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a cello suite is likely J.S. Bach, and this was intentional on Bloch’s part. Besides the coincidental similarities in their name, Bloch aspired to connect himself to Bach through this particular niche of solo repertoire, adapting the genre with a modern sensibility. Beyond connecting his work to an existing musical lineage, Bloch also sought to cement a real-life relationship within the musical fabric of the First Cello Suite. The piece was written specifically for Zara Nelsova, a renowned cellist who had once traveled to Agate Beach to study with Bloch. At one point, Bloch stated that “Zara Nelsova is my music.” By dedicating a piece to his student, Bloch ensured that their relationship would endure through an act of companionship made musical.  The dedication to Nelsova and the musical homage to Bach serves to sonically connect the First Cello Suite to the musical past and a real, tangible relationship in the present. Besides his compositional activities, Bloch took other concrete steps to ensure his remembrance. Bloch requested a particularly unusual practice after his death: the creation of a death mask. Once a common practice, these casts of a recently deceased person’s face originally served as references for sculptors to create new likenesses, although in the 19th-century the death mask took on its own aesthetic value (as with the famous death masks of Beethoven and Lincoln). By Bloch’s death in 1959 this practice had fallen out of favor, so the fact that he requested it is noteworthy and places him in line with many 19th-century composers before him. What makes this doubly odd is that he asked that his daughter Lucienne cast the mask, despite the fact that family members were not typically responsible for making these castings. In a slightly macabre sense, Bloch’s death mask can thus be seen as a kind of double-commemoration: one connects to an ancient lineage, the other to the next generation of his family.
Unsettling though it may be, the musical act of remembrance in the First Cello Suite is not unlike the physical act of remembrance in Bloch’s death mask. His many activities – whether musical or not – have all contributed to the memory we have of him, an impression kept alive through the performance of his music. But why Ernest Bloch? There’s no clear answer, and undeniably a certain degree of luck is necessary in who is remembered and who is not. Bloch was well aware of that, and he worked in the shadow of history to create a legacy tying himself not only to the idealized past but also to the near future. Bloch was lucky, yes, but his efforts reveal a man desperate to be remembered. On his deathbed, Bloch asked his daughter Suzanne to show him pictures of the Milky Way. As if on the precipice of eternity, Bloch spent his final moments gazing into the vast expanse of the stars. Comfortable at last with his own efforts at historical preservation, Bloch could look towards the beyond in his final moments. As Suzanne put it, in the end “his death was simple…each thing falling into place, in the ultimate peace [he] so much desired.” – Tanner Cassidy PhD Candidate, Music Theory, UC Santa Barbara
Who Was Dvořák, and What is Op. 75? Antonín Dvořák has a fascinating legacy in the modern listener’s memory. Perhaps his most enduring work, especially in American concert halls, is his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, which Dvořák gave the byline “From the New World” (albeit in his native Czech). The symphony builds on the sounds he heard in America – hence the title – after first arriving in 1892, and is a staple of the orchestral repertoire and the origin of several famous passages of music. However, if this is the piece that comes to mind when thinking of Dvořák (as is probably the case for many), this paints an incomplete picture. While tying the Czech composer to his American years isn’t completely without merit, the shorthand associations of Dvořák’s most famous piece with the composer’s life writ large illustrates a central problem with thinking about both Dvořák and his music: who exactly was Dvořák?
Dvořák’s life before 1892 – the year he first visited America – makes answering this question complicated. While his most famous symphonic work has led to Dvořák’s musical association with America, this isn’t his only important national tie. Dvořák is notably a pillar of Czech music, the middle face of a Czech Mount Rushmore with composers Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček on either side. Dvořák’s native tongue was Czech, and he infused his rhythmic and melodic compositional sense with echoes of the music of Bohemia, bringing a Czech national identity to the familiar genres and practices of late-19th century Western art music. This solution of recontextualizing Dvořák within his Czech nationalism isn’t so simple, though. He didn’t operate in a vacuum, and becoming a composer of status involved appealing to foreign interests as well, most notably through the dominant German-speaking musical establishment embodied through critic Eduard Hanslick and composer Johannes Brahms. Hanslick and Brahms were both supporters of Dvořák, as the kinds of music he was writing fit in their ideal mold. Hanslick and Brahms’s blessing of Dvořák gave him an in with the Berlin-based publisher who would release many of his works, and they continued to support him even as he journeyed to America. In a sense, Dvořák had to appeal to German sensibilities and the German musical elite as a professional composer, and it’s arguable that his enduring legacy today can be traced to his interactions with the Germans. If the tripartite dynamic of Bohemia-Germany-America serves as a lens through which to try and understand exactly who Dvořák was, the question remains: what role does music play within these issues of national identity? Four Romantic Pieces, op. 75 (1887) serves as a microcosm of these issues with Dvořák-the-man. At first brush, these four short works published initially for violin and piano seem like a perfectly lovely example of Dvořák’s skill at writing melody and scoring chamber music, albeit with none of the apparent allusions to his Czech musical culture that can be found in other of his pieces. However, defining what exactly should constitute Op. 75 is another matter, as the piece as published is not the same piece as written or initially intended.
Dvořák was living in Prague at the time near a young amateur violinist and chemistry student named Josef Kruis, who would play violin duets in his free time with a professional violinist named Jan Pelikán. Overhearing their playing, Dvořák got the idea to write a trio for the three of them, with himself playing viola. This piece became the Terzetto in C Major, op. 74, but the work proved too difficult for Kruis. Dvořák began writing a second, easier trio, which he completed under the original title of Miniatures. The three musicians played the piece, and Dvořák was apparently satisfied with it. Still, he immediately began rearranging the work for violin and piano, and it is this one that was eventually published. The new version was released with the title Four Romantic Pieces, and while the original trio version did resurface in the mid-20th century, the dominant identity of op. 75 is the rearrangement for violin and piano. What, then, is the identity of this piece? After so much revision and rearrangement, and with such a scattered legacy in performance and print, defining what the actual work is can be surprisingly difficult. The obvious and typical solution to this problem is to privilege the published work, which would cement the version for violin and piano as the definitive one. However, the first iteration that was completed and performed was the trio version, written with specific performers in mind and connected to a place of importance for Dvořák. Dvořák himself complicates things, however, as later in life he seems to have completely forgotten that the original trio version existed, noting in 1901 in a discussion with his publisher that “what is supposed to be a trio…cannot be the Romantic Pieces.” It seems fittingly ironic that the double life Dvořák led between his national activities in Bohemia and his work abroad in Germany and America is reflected in some ways in the Four Romantic Pieces, as this Prague composition found ink and distribution from abroad in Germany. Just as the man was torn between many nations, the music was torn between editions. But being true to Dvořák’s intentions isn’t the goal of performance, and works change and evolve over time. One need only to look at different recordings by different conductors or orchestras to see how the same piece can vary wildly from time to time and place to place. However, considering what exactly the piece is and who exactly the composer was is an undeniable part of the concert-going experience, a process that is active and eternal as long as works like Dvořák’s continue to be programmed. – Tanner Cassidy

Leave a comment

Successfully Logged In