A dance to the music of time
Saudades do Brazil, Dance Suite for Piano by Darius Milhaud
During World War I, the French writer and diplomat, Paul Claudel was assigned to ministry in Brazil. It was at that time that Claudel offered an accompanying staff position to his compatriot and good friend, Darius Milhaud, a young French composer. Milhaud accepted, and thus embarked on two years of Brazilian cultural immersion, the influence of which would find its way into a number of Milhaud’s compositions, including his Op. 67, the Saudades do Brasil.
Published in 1922, the Saudades are a suite of twelve dances, originally offered in two volumes. Each dance bears the name of a town, neighborhood, or street in Brazil, and each carries a dedication to a friend whom Milhaud knew while he was there. I have selected six of the set to present today:
I. Sorocaba, pour Madam Regis de Oliveira
IV. Copacabana, pour Madame Regis de Oliveira
VII. Corcovado, pour Madam Henri Hoppenot
IX. Sumare, pour Henri Hoppenot
X. Paineras, pour la Baronne Frachone
XII. Paysandu, pour Paul Claudel
The suite is opened with a setting of the city, Sorocaba. It appears basic, belying the fact that Milhaud is here working with four distinct voice parts (with a fifth occasionally thrown in for extra color): there is a bass drone, and the bass samba rhythm; above these are punctuating chords that shift occasionally to brief, underlying melodies; with a bonny tune sitting on top. Thus, a lot is going on, though the score, at first glance, appears rudimentary. This sophistication and economy of means is found throughout the set.
Following Sorocaba are a series of dances celebrating Rio de Janeiro, including the fourth dance, on Copacabana. While in Rio, Milhaud would sometimes go to the Copacabana beach. He spoke of how he admired one of the houses there, designed by the Italo-Brazilian architect, Antonio Virzi. One will find Virzi’s Villa Smith de Vasconcellos (1915), still standing by the beach in Copacabana.
VII. Corcovado – also in Rio – is a mountain at the summit of which one will presently find one of the New7Wonders of the world, Christ the Redeemer. This landmark had not yet been erected at the time of Milhaud’s visit, and one can see here an early photo of the mountain, statueless at its peak.
Milhaud enjoyed spending his evenings hiking the Tijuca forrest – where Corcovado mountain can be found – and enjoying the views of Rio below: “I loved to see the panorama of Rio gradually spread out before me, with the bay clearly outlined in glittering lights.”
Milhaud is famous for his extensive use of polytonality. Harvard’s Dictionary defines “polytonality” as “the simultaneous use of two (occasionally three or four) different keys in different parts of the musical fabric.” Parts of dance IX Sumare and dance X Paineras pair Ab harmonies in the left hand, with C harmonies in the right. Depending on how the harmonies are voiced, the quality of sound can be misty or jarring. In Sumare, chordal, polytonal pairings are found everywhere, but not everywhere expressed jarringly. Some of the chord pairings are accented, occasionally heightening the jar, but, for the most part, Milhaud achieves a more subtle coloring, through the employment of varying shades of piano. Paineras has a similar dynamic softness, though Milhaud use of polytonality here creates a strange pungence to the melody. The high E’s sprinkled throughout the soprano are especially powerful against the simultaneous, repeated Eb’s in the bass register, creating a sharpness that’ll make you ask, “Is the piano out of tune?”
The final dance of the set, and the last that I will be presenting today, is Paysandu, dedicated to Milhaud’s great friend, Paul Claudel, without whom Milhaud’s love affair with the Brazilian rhythms would not have been possible. In his autobiography, Notes Without Music, Milhaud provides the following colorful account of his and Claudel’s first landing in Rio:
“We reached Rio on February 1st, 1917, on a blazing hot day like midsummer. Claudel found quarters for me with him at the French legation; magnificently situated in the Rua Paysandu, a street bordered with royal palms from the isle of Reunion sometimes more than two hundred feet in height and crowned with swaying fronds over twenty feet long.”
I think these are the best kinds of souvenirs: “Saudades,” or fond remembrances. But the meaning of “saudades” does also connote a tinge of painfulness. Perhaps the polytonal dissonances represent that tinge.
Mephisto Walzer I, Episode: Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke aus Lenaus ‘Faust’ by Franz Liszt
Faust is a German legend about a scholar who makes a pact with the Devil. Many writers have used this legend as fodder for their work, most notably Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s Faust, first published in 1808, gained widespread popularity and inspired many others to produce Fausts of their own. Nikolaus Lenau was one such writer. Lenau’s Faust, of 1836, is a much racier telling of the tale than Goethe’s, and contains a particularly lascivious scene set in a village tavern. This scene inspired the Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, to compose his Mephisto Waltz, inspired by an Episode from Lenau’s Faust: The Dance in the Village Tavern.
In typical Lisztian fashion, there are many versions of the Mephisto Waltz. In fact, Liszt originally submitted three versions to his publisher – an orchestral score, a piano duet, and a piano solo – all at once. Though Liszt had expressed a wish to have all three versions released at the same time, the piano versions were published first, with the orchestral publication ultimately lagging a few years behind.
In addition to the three versions above, Liszt also provided another arrangement of the piano solo version for Baroness Olga von Meyendorff. In it, much material is deleted, simplified, and reworked, plus entirely new introductory and concluding material are inserted. The Baroness version of the waltz is rather insubstantial as a showpiece, but a number of its ideas are very effective and worth considering, so I have modified parts of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz to incorporate some of the these “Baroness” ideas. Admittedly, the incorporation of these ideas changes the the story quite a bit. However, in truth, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz is already a rather poor depiction of Lenau’s Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke. It’s just too cheery to represent the debauchery of the scene; there is not enough disturbance in Liszt’s use of harmony to make the connection substantial. But, as a piece on its own, the Mephisto Waltz is quite delightful. No wonder it has the privilege of being one of those pieces that is played to death.
Now, in the score for the Mephisto Walz, by the title, you will see a “I,” indicating that it must be the first of a series. There are, in fact, FOUR Mephisto Waltzes, but the first one is more commonly known as THE Mephisto Waltz. So if someone says “The Mephisto Waltz,” or “Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz,” there is no reason to ask which one. The others followed mostly in hopes of capitalizing on the surprise popularity of the first Mephisto Waltz. Unfortunately, the subsequent Mephisto Waltzes ultimately failed to become as popular as the first.
Around 1860, Liszt’s life sort of fell apart. His son Daniel died in 1859, then his daughter Blandine in 1862. He was unable to secure a marriage license with the then “love-of-his-life,” Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. And his work at the Weimar court turned out to be not as utopian as he had first imagined it. It was at this time that Liszt’s compositions began to turn to darker fare, and would remain on this course until his death. His music would gradually become more stark and austere, with harmonies losing definition.
The Mephisto Waltz is an rather cheery example from this period, though there are hints at the strangeness that would later become Liszt’s harmonic language. The Presto twitters which have been likened to Mephisto’s laughter are moments of tonal ambiguity, with natural and simultaneously flatted or sharped notes in opposition to each other between the hands. Though we identify Milhaud as The Polytonality Guy, Milhaud was not the first to employ polytonal devices, and here we find an example of one of Liszt’s first flirtations with the concept.
A dance to the music of time by Josephine Chang
Earlier this year I had decided that I wanted to compose a Dance Suite, a la Baroque, to include an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. I did complete the suite, but didn’t like much of what I wrote and ended up scrapping material, rewriting material, starting all over, revising revising revising.. and eventually my composition mutated into this multi-media collage that I am closing today’s music salon with. Though I’m still not completely satisfied with it, at some point you just go with it. The title is taken from the painting, A Dance to the Music of Time. The audio is sampled and generated by me. The video is a collage that I created from other people’s work: so, I must thank Colin Rich, Daniel Giles Helm, and Flock Dance whose Vimeo videos I took without asking their permission first =p This piece was inspired by a book whose title references another epic tale, Richard Powers’s Orfeo.