Milhaud’s Creation du Monde

Darius Milhaud, 1892-1974, was born in Aix-en-Provence to a wealthy Jewish family – his father was an almond importer.  Both of his parents were music enthusiasts, indeed his mother had studied voice before her marriage.  Darius showed an early talent for the piano, playing well even at the age of four, and he also began violin lessons before he was ten.  During his youth he performed with a local string quartet, and knew from a young age that he would like to pursue a musical career path.

In 1909 Milhaud travelled to Paris to study at the Conservatoire, where his teachers included Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy.  His studies coincided with the rise of Impressionism in music (the music of Debussy, for example), German Romanticism (think Wagner and Richard Strauss), as well as with the popularity of the Big Five Russian composers – Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Cui.

Milhaud rallied against all of these trends, however, and his music is a strong reflection of this rejection.  In his own words, his aversion was to what he referred to as, ‘shimmering finery, vapours and wistfulness’[1].  Milhaud wasn’t the only French composer to feel this way at the time; indeed, he was grouped artificially by a French journalist (Henri Collet) into a group of likeminded composers, referred to as Les Six.  The others in this group were Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre.

During the war, Milhaud was exempted on medical grounds and so he worked for the propaganda department of the foreign ministry.  His friend, the French Catholic poet Paul Claudel, was appointed minister to Brazil and in 1917 asked Milhaud to accompany his as his secretary.  Milhaud was deeply affected by the music he heard on his journey and some of his subsequent compositions reflect this, for example his 1920 work, Saudades do Brasil (Longings for Brazil).

In 1922 Milhaud visited the United States of America, and again his travels deeply influenced his subsequent works.  This time, in addition to the heady Latin influences of South America, the jazz sound of Harlem was added to the melting pot.  The blend of sounds can all clearly be heard in the ballet La Creation du Monde of 1923, Opus 81, a setting of Blaise Cendrars’s scenario.  The piece was first performed on 25 October of 1923 by the Ballets Suédois at the Théâtre des Champs Élysée and is around 16 minutes long.

It was Cendrars’s proposal to use African creation myths as the subject of the ballet; the scenario is taken from his The African Saga, which was written in 1919 and is a collection of tales recalled by missionaries and other travellers to Africa.  French society’s tastes at the time were for jazz, but with an additional fascination with African sounds and culture thrown in for good measure and so the work tapped into this enthusiasm perfectly.

The music is heady and exotic and it blends American jazz with the more rigid compositional form of the western classical style in a way that had never been heard before.  Importantly, the jazz harmonies and rhythms are not included simply for the sake of being novel and daring: they are used purposefully, artistically and ultimately, effectively.  The ballet is split into six parts:

  • Overture;
  • Chaos before creation;
  • The birth of plants, trees and beasts;
  • The birth of man and woman;
  • The desire of man and woman;

The overture mixes minor and major modes and utilises the saxophone for its main theme, playing over the rhythmic pulse of strings and piano.  A fugue led by double bass and accompanied by percussion and piano forms the beginning of the first movement, which leads into a bluesy reverie for oboe.  Man and woman are created to the backdrop of an energetic and rhythmic dance to which the blues theme is joined.  Representing the desire, a Latin American inspired dance is combined with the theme of the overture, together with a recalling of the fugue.  Finally, calm is created with a coda which includes fluttertongue flutes, clarinets and trumpets playing over quietly pounding timpani; the saxophone has the last say, however, softly playing over the strings once more.


MaryAnn Davison
@madavison
www.maryanndavison.com

Hummel’s Arrangements of Mozart’s Piano Concertos

It was around 1823 that Hummel first began work on a commission from English music publisher JR Schultz, to produce a series of Mozart piano concerto editions.  Hummel was of course ideally suited to this work: he had been a pupil of Mozart’s, he would undoubtedly have heard Mozart himself play the pieces, and he was deeply in tune with Mozart’s methods.  A level of authenticity was thus most likely from Hummel, although at the same time Schultz desired some degree of modernisation of the pieces.

Hummel in time completed 7 adaptations, for piano quartet (flute, violin, cello and piano): K365, K456, K466, K482, K491, K503 and K537.  The first piece to appear was the arrangement of the Piano Concerto in D minor, K466, which was published in 1827.  The Repository of Arts in 1827 noted, “Genuine melody of the sweetest kind, simple, clear, and perfect in its rhythm… The ‘Romanza’ for instance – what softness, what intensity of musical feeling!  And all this is achieved at the least possible expense of notes.  As Mozart himself once said, there is not one too many!”[1]

The arrangements were written when the classical style was all but replaced by its romantic successor.  Indeed, Hummel was considered amongst his contemporaries as the last remaining ‘true’ classicist and so who better to complete such arrangements than he?  He enriched the concertos with the flavour of romanticism, including extra ornamentation and decorative amendments, but he also allowed for the development of the piano as an instrument in itself.  Thus, he included the full range of additional keys available to him – a full octave more than what Mozart would have had.  In each case, however, he retained Mozart’s style and his spirit.

The arrangements are important for a number of reasons.  Firstly, as mentioned, they represent the workings of one of the last exponents of the classical era as he interpreted the compositions of one of the greatest.  Secondly, they are historically important as they help us to understand the development of music through these years, both stylistically but also practically in the development of the very instruments used to play the pieces.  Finally, they are important because many of Mozart’s works were not in fact published with his direct involvement as they were published posthumously owing to financial necessity by his widow, Constanze.  Thus, it was from Mozart’s often very sparse manuscripts that sense had to be made of the works and of the music which Mozart had formed in his head but not translated onto paper.  Who better, then, than to undertake this work than Hummel, who had not only studied with Mozart, but who had lived with him and immersed himself in the life and work of this creative genius?


MaryAnn Davison
@madavison
www.maryanndavison.com

 

Honouring Hummel

The pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel is something of a puzzle – a child prodigy who was highly celebrated and lauded during his lifetime, however his music has not thrived in popularity over time. Yet, with a catalogue of over 175 compositions, many of which were highly influential to Hummel’s classical contemporaries and Romantic successors including Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt, there is surely more to Hummel than perhaps modern audiences realise?

Child prodigy

Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg, then part of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy but now in Bratislava. His father, Director of the Imperial School of Military Music and Conductor of the Theatre Orchestra, was himself a string player and organised Johann’s first lessons. Johann became proficient on violin by the age of 5. He favoured the piano, however, and demonstrated a highly accomplished technique at the age of just 6. When he was 8 he was given the opportunity to live and study with Mozart in Vienna for two years. Hummel travelled with his father in 1787 and gave numerous concerts throughout Europe at the age of only 9 before settling for a short time in London. Haydn was in London at the same time and, having met Hummel, composed a sonata for him. Hummel performed the piece in Hanover Square Rooms in Haydn’s presence and when the performance was over Haydn reportedly thanked Hummel and gave him a guinea.

Education/Career

Returning to Vienna in 1793, Hummel received tuition in counterpoint and composition with Salieri and Clementi and he also had the opportunity to study the organ with Haydn; in addition, he studied with the Austrian musician and composer, Albrechtsberger. Around the same time, Beethoven also arrived in Vienna and studied with Haydn and Albrechtsberger; so began a friendship (and rivalry) which would last until Beethoven’s death in 1827.

In 1804, Hummel became Konzertmeister at the court of Prince Esterházy. He had in fact taken over many of the duties of the Kapellmeister, Haydn, owing to Haydn’s ill health, but out of respect to Haydn, Hummel assumed the title of Konzertmeister. On Haydn’s death in 1809 Hummel received the title Kapellmeister; he remained in this post until 1811 when he was dismissed for neglecting his duties. Over the next two years Hummel devoted his time to composition, and married the opera singer Elisabeth Röckel in 1813.

Latterly, Hummel held the position of Kapellmeister in Stuttgart from 1816 to 1819 and then in Weimar from 1819 until his death in 1837.

Selected Works/Recordings

With such a vast repertoire to choose from, this is a necessarily concise selection!

Piano Works

  • Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 81 (published 1819)
  • Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 89 (1827)
  • Theme and Variations, Op. 97 (1820)
  • Bagatelles, No. 3, ‘La contemplazione’, Op. 107 (1826)

Choral

  • The Mass in D Minor (1805)
  • Mass in E flat, Op. 80
  • Missa Solemnis in C (1806)
  • Mass in D, Op. 111 (1808)

Chamber Music

  • Piano Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 22 (1799)
  • Piano Quintet, Op. 87 (1802)
  • Cello Sonata, Op. 104
  • Military Septet (1829)

Opera

  • Mathilde von Guise (first performed 1810)

If you get to listen to some of the compositions above, then surely you’ll agree with me that Hummel deserves the attention & enjoyment of a modern audience.

MaryAnn Davison

@Madavison

PS I can thoroughly recommend a listen to Hummel’s arrangement of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture by Pocket Sinfonia by CLICKING HERE.

Celebrating Szymanowski

Life

Karol Szymanowski was born into a wealthy family in Tymoszówka, Ukraine, in 1882, and received his first musical tuition from his father (who played piano and cello).  He entered the Elizavetgrad School of Music at the age of 7, where he studied under Gustav Neuhaus before going on to study harmony, counterpoint and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory between 1901 and 1904.  During his time in Warsaw he came into contact with prominent musicians such as Artur Rubinstein and Pawel Kochański as well as the writer, photographer, painter and playwright Ignacy Witkiewicz (affectionately known as Witkacy).  It was with Witkacy that Szymanowski first travelled to Italy in 1905, the first of many international trips which would heavily influence his works.  1905 was a significant year for him, as it was also in this year that he established the modernist movement group that became known as ‘Young Poland’, a group which thrived in the years leading up to the First World War.

The onset of the War did not hamper Szymanowski and he travelled extensively – to Italy, Sicily, South Africa, Paris and London in 1914, and in 1915-16 he visited Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg.  It was the Bolshevik’s October Revolution in 1917 which caused major disruption to Szymanowski as he was forced leave Tymoszówka after the family lost their estates; he never returned, instead settling in Warsaw in 1919.

When the independent state of Poland was created in 1918, Szymanowski became increasingly interested in and influenced by Polish culture and folk tradition. In the early 1920s he successfully performed his works throughout the world, including in the United States and Paris.  He continued to travel and perform into the 1930s, even after accepting the position of Director of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927.  He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928, a disease which affected his work and life in the ensuing years.

Widely considered one of the foremost Polish composers of the 20th century, during his lifetime Szymanowski received many national honours, including the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.  He died in 1937, at a sanitorium in Lausanne.

Influences

There are generally considered three key periods in Szymanowski’s career:

The first covers the period 1899-1913 and is marked by his general maturation.  At this stage he was heavily influenced by the late Romantic period, closely following the model of Chopin.  Coupled with this, however, was a nod towards modernity with elements of Scriabin present.

In the second stage of his career (1914-1919) he demonstrated great originality, possibly aided by his extensive studies of Islamic culture and Greek drama and philosophy.

The final stage (1920-1937) sees a re-evaluation of earlier ideas coupled with the influences of his newly acquired nationalism and interest in Polish folklore.

Selected Chronology 

Preludes for piano, Op. 1 (1899-1900)

The Swan, Op. 7 (1904)

Hagith, Op. 25 (1912-1913)

King Roger, Op. 46 (1918-1924)

Twenty Mazurkas, Op. 50 (1924-1925)

Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie Concertante), Op. 60 (1932)

PS Worth listening to: http://eleanorcorr.com/szymanowski-mythes-i-la-fountaine-darethuse/


MaryAnn Davison
www.maryanndavison.com
@madavison