“I have been obliged to publish Some of the following Lessons, because Surrepticious and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad. I have added several new ones to make the Work more usefull*, which if it meets with a favourable Reception; I will Still proceed to publish more, reckoning it my duty, with my Small Talent, to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a Protection.”
*Today’s movements come from the Suite in D Minor HWV 428, one of suites newly composed for the 1720 publication.– Henry Michaels
BACH (1685-1750) The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E Major, BWV 854 Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp Major, BWV 858 In 1893, the German theorist Hugo Riemann undertook a somewhat surprising task—analyzing the affective qualities of all forty-eight preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. While this seems like a strange practice, it was actually rooted in a long history. In ancient Greece, many scholars believed that the different musical modes (scales) contained special properties that could influence the body’s humors and result in certain behavioral or moral effects. As time went on, though, more scientific and observational approaches of thinking became predominant and the workings of music were solidified into a concrete set of rules and practices. Still, some eighteenth and nineteenth-century theorists attempted to preserve a connection to past ideals.
“But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these “shades of abstraction”—these attributes paralleled by “artistic intuitions” (call them what you will)—is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.”Two words lie at the heart of both the essays and the music: intuition and transcendental. The Concord Sonata is Ives’s musical representation of New England transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that was personally impactful for Ives. Each movement of the work represents a transcendentalist figure, the third focusing on Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott (the other movements are named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, respectively). These transcendentalist thinkers believed in the inherent good of all things and the divinity of individual instinct. It was, as the movement’s official historian Octavius B. Frothingham wrote, “an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind that caught up such as were prepared to receive it, elated them, transported them, and passed on.” Ives was a man caught up by this wave of sentiment, and through his music he meant to do the same for his listeners. One way he did this was through quotation. His works are often shot through with snippets of popular songs, hymns, and other music, much of it associated with Ives’s personal memories. In the Concord Sonata, he references throughout the famous opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which has been often described as the knocking of fate. “There is an ‘oracle’ at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in the Essays:
“In those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater message of destiny and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations, even to the ‘common heart’ of Concord—the soul of humanity knocking at the door to the divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened—and the human become the divine!”
WILLIAM BOLCOM (b. 1938) Graceful Ghost Rag Grappling with the persistent divide between “serious” and “popular” music has always been one of the biggest creative dilemmas for a composer. Some embrace it and strive to write music of the utmost seriousness. Others find ways—either subtly or blatantly—to rupture the divide. William Bolcom’s career is one illustration of the latter. After studying under the tutelage of Milhaud and Messiaen, Bolcom quickly became entranced by Boulez and Stockhausen, mirroring their thorny musical language in his early compositions. However, other concerns kept lingering in the back of his mind. Bolcom later reflected, “I was trained as a classical musician all my life, but I was always interested in popular music. According to my teachers it wasn’t as good, but I loved it anyway.” In the 1960s, Bolcom received a score of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha and his interest in popular music hit with a renewed force. He began championing Joplin’s rags on recordings and in concert, all at a time when Joplin had yet to be taken seriously by the classical music industry. Many scholars and performers now recognize Bolcom as one of the major figures in the twentieth-century ragtime revival, which arguably culminated when the Joplin-infused score for The Sting won the Oscar for Best Adapted Score in 1974. Bolcom also began infusing popular elements into his own compositions, encompassing everything from jazz to Broadway show tunes and, not surprisingly, ragtime. He even composed several original rags. One of these, the Graceful Ghost Rag from 1970, showcases the convergence of Bolcom’s creative interests and his exploration of a new, more accessible musical language. The connotation of the titular “ghost” is also much different than most modern-day depictions of the paranormal lead one to believe. Bolcom wrote this rag in memory of his late father—a “graceful spirit,” according to the composer—and as such, intended the title to align more closely with the softer, seventeenth-century implications of the word. The charmingly mellow temperament of the rag itself confirms this sweet homage to Bolcom Sr., which, at roughly four-and-a-half minutes long, is over much too quickly. Perhaps this “ghost” is a bit of a trickster after all… – Kevin McBrien