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 ministerial work in Brazil. It was at that time that Claudel offered an accompanying staff position to his compatriot and good friend, Darius Milhaud, who was, at that time, a young French composer. Milhaud accepted the position, 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, each bearing the name of a town, neighborhood, or street that Milhaud had visited while he was in Brazil. Each also 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 opens with a setting of the city, Sorocaba. At first glance, the score appears basic, belying the fact that Milhaud is here working with four distinct voice parts: there is a bass drone, from which comes a bass samba rhythm; above these are punctuating chords that shift occasionally to brief, underlying melodies; with a bonny tune sitting on top. Thus, though the score at first glance appears rudimentary, there is actually a lot going on, and actually many layers of activity. This sophistication and economy of means is a characteristic 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. Virzi was the architect for a number of buildings in and around Copacabana beach, so it is hard to say which one Milhaud may have been referring to, and if it is even still standing today. Virzi’s Villa Smith de Vasconcelos, erected in 1915, would have been on the beach during Milhaud sojourn there, and may be the very same home that Milhaud is known to have referred to as the “delightfully amusing” structure that he delighted in adoring while visiting there. Unfortunately, photographs are all that remain of the Villa, which was demolished in 1964.
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.”
The following is a modern photograph taken from the summit of Corcovado, with the lights of the bay below. It likely would not have been quite so lit up in Milhaud’s time, but still gives a sense of the grandeur of the view.
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.” The “different parts of the musical fabric” is a very important distinction, because one can have multiple keys occurring at the same time that are woven into each other, giving the effect of atonality. Polytonality is distinguished by the fact that the keys are more distinct and discernable.
Parts of dance IX Sumare and X Paineras exhibit polytonal characteristics, with Ab harmonies in the left hand and 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 effect, through the employment of varying shades of piano.
Interestingly, in Sumare, Milhaud also uses quartal chords versus traditional chords built of thirds. Quartal chords have pitches that are spaced a bit wider than traditional chords. That little bit of extra width gives the chords a completely foreign, other-worldly effect. Thus, Sumare has a particularly sophisticated and mysterious quality about it, with quartal chords in polytonal chord pairings !
Unlike Sumare, Paineras is less chordal and more songlike. However, like Sumare, Paineras is also dynamically subdued, though Milhaud’s use of polytonality here doesn’t so much give a misty effect as it does a strange pungence. The E’s sprinkled throughout the soprano melody are especially powerful against the simultaneous, repeated Eb’s in the bass accompaniment, creating a sharpness that’ll make you wonder, “Is the piano out of tune?” Well, it may be, but, even with an in-tune piano, Paineras will sound 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: these “Saudades,” or fond remembrances. Milhaud has left us with a wonderful musical portrait of the Brazilian landscape, infused with his special take on harmonic language. The dances, which have rhythms and melodies that are so cheery and fun, also have an additional spiciness through Milhaud’s harmonic manipulations. It is a delightful and fantastic marriage of ideas.
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 is a tragedy in two parts, with the first part first published in 1808. It gained widespread popularity and inspired many other writers to produce Fausts of their own, including the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, whose version of Faust further inspired the Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, to compose the Mephisto Waltz.
Liszt originally submitted three versions of the Mephisto Waltz 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.
Interestingly, in addition to these three, publicly published versions, Liszt also provided another arrangement of the piano solo version for Baroness Olga von Meyendorff’s private library. This version is now included as an appendix to the Henle edition of the piece, so it is now yet another publicly published version of the Mephisto Waltz! In the Meyendorff version, much material is deleted, simplified, and reworked, plus entirely new introductory and concluding material are inserted. A number of these”Baroness” ideas are very effective and worth considering, so I have created a special Baroness-Mephisto mashup of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, which I am presenting today.
Now, I must admit that I question the strength of the relationship between Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and Lenau’s Faust. Though the title page to Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz very clearly references not only Lenau’s Faust, but also specifically the Episode: The Dance in the Village Tavern as a point of inspiration – and though Liszt did specifically request that the text to the Episode be printed as a preface to the score – a reading of the text followed by a reading of the score does not compute for me. I hear playfulness in the music, that I don’t sense from a reading of the scene. I hear tenderness in the music, that I don’t sense from a reading of the scene. And I hear – at times – anger in the music, that I don’t sense from a reading of the scene. The only sense I get from the scene is a lasciviousness that would make any modest person blush!
If the music is unable to translate the raciness of the scene, then I don’t think that it is a very successful depiction. I wonder if Liszt was trying to capitalize on an association with a sensational book, without having truly, successfully created a musical version of its sentiments. Liszt was known to have been surprised by the success of the Mephisto Waltz. Perhaps he was aware of the stretch in drawing the connection?
Ignoring the relationship with Lenau’s Faust boosts the musical merits of the work. Because the Mephisto Waltz, on its own, is excellent music. It is crowd-pleasing to the point that it is one of those pieces that we all love to hate, because it is played to death!
The Mephisto Waltz was composed around 1860, about the time when Liszt’s life sort of fell apart. He became disillusioned with his work at the Weimar court, which had begun with the promise of utopian ideals and ended in petty politics. He was unable to secure a marriage license with the then “love-of-his-life,” Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, despite much struggle and effort. I say “the then ‘love-of-his-life'”, because he had another “love-of-his-life” before, Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had three children. In the years surrounding 1860, he would lose two of these children: his son Daniel, a promising pianist who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1859; and then his daughter Blandine, from childbirth in 1862. All of this took its toll, and it was at this time that Liszt’s compositions began to turn to darker fare. While he was previously known as a virtuoso pianist, whose compositions contained notes galore, towards the final decades of his life, his music would gradually become more stark and austere, with harmonies losing definition.
The Mephisto Waltz was composed just on the cusp of the beginning of Liszt’s “descent”, so it is still a rather cheery piece, but Liszt has included some moments of harmonic ambiguity. With the piece being about Mephisto – or the Devil – there would naturally be some harmonic strangeness. The Presto twitters which have been likened to Mephisto’s laughter are moments of this harmonic peculiarity, where natural and simultaneously flatted or sharped notes are found in opposition to each other between the hands. This is not polytonality, though it is a similarly amorphous language. In later pieces, Liszt would experiment with polytonal and even atonal techniques. Thus, though Milhaud has become known as The Polytonality Guy, composers were already experimenting with polytonal techniques even before Milhaud was born. Here, in the Mephisto Waltz, one finds inklings of harmonic dissolution.
A dance to the music of time by Josephine Chang
I wanted to challenge myself to try to compose something, and, unfortunately, this was all that I could come up with. A dance to the music of time is a multi-media collage. The title is taken from the painting of the same name. 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 videos I used in my collage. This piece was inspired by a book whose title references another epic tale, Richard Powers’s Orfeo.