MICHAEL COLGRASS: Born in Chicago, April 22, 1932; now living in Toronto

There is often a programmatic element to compositions by Michael Colgrass. He expects the listener to take an active role in the musical experience. In the case of Letter from Mozart, he or she is invited to experience how a late-twentieth-century composer filters an imaginary tune by Mozart through the alembic of his modernistic compositional processes. It’s fun, it’s intriguing, it’s the meeting of two great musical minds.

Letter from Mozart was commissioned by the Musica Aeterna Orchestra in New York and first performed by that orchestra in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on December 1, 1976 with Frederic Waldman conducting.

In Letter from Mozart, we are to imagine a fictional letter from the voluminous Mozart (his letters number well over a thousand) to the composer (“Michael”) imploring him to write a piece using one of Mozart’s themes as a point of departure. Here is the Read More
MICHAEL COLGRASS: Born in Chicago, April 22, 1932; now living in Toronto

There is often a programmatic element to compositions by Michael Colgrass. He expects the listener to take an active role in the musical experience. In the case of Letter from Mozart, he or she is invited to experience how a late-twentieth-century composer filters an imaginary tune by Mozart through the alembic of his modernistic compositional processes. It’s fun, it’s intriguing, it’s the meeting of two great musical minds.

Letter from Mozart was commissioned by the Musica Aeterna Orchestra in New York and first performed by that orchestra in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on December 1, 1976 with Frederic Waldman conducting.

In Letter from Mozart, we are to imagine a fictional letter from the voluminous Mozart (his letters number well over a thousand) to the composer (“Michael”) imploring him to write a piece using one of Mozart’s themes as a point of departure. Here is the letter (the composer’s invention):

Dear Michael,
I would like to be your inspiration for a piece of music. I have been watching the development of music since my time and am especially interested to see how an idea of mine would come out when filtered through the mind of a twentieth-century composer. Let me give you a typical Austrian-type folk melody (I’ll think up an original one) and you apply to it the techniques of contemporary music in any way you like.

Now, you may wonder why I chose you for this task. First, I know I’m your favourite composer, and that counts a great deal with me. Second, you are a percussionist, and one of my secret dreams has always been to write something for percussion – but in my day it wasn’t dignified. But perhaps my primary reason for choosing you is that your name would have been Michele Colgrassi had you been born in Italy like your father. I loved Italy more than any other country.

Getting back to this new piece, may I suggest that it be a work of light quality – not superficial. Mozartian! Many artists today seem to feel their work must “express the age they live in,” and cite war, corruption and crime as reason for creating bitter and angry work. My God, if only you could have experienced some of the miseries of the age I lived in: disease, oppression, poverty and corruption! Life wasn’t all bad, of course, and there was much beauty in my age. But so there is in yours, and why not try to capture that spirit too?

One last word: don’t quote any of my existing music – just use this melody I send you (Goodness, I’ve written so many pieces I hope I didn’t use this tune and forget having done so!).

Good luck to you, and I hope you have fun with it.

Your friend,
Mozart

Willa Conrad, reviewing a performance of this fifteen-minute composition for the Toledo Blade, called it “a delightful contemporary work. …Colgrass creates a kaleidoscope effect by embedding a straightforward eight-bar theme on a constantly shifting aural background. The theme passes from piano to viola to woodwind, but never in its entirety, and always mocked by the orchestra with frigid sustained chords in the strings, or the virulent sound of an oompah band, or a sudden explosion of accordion. The effect is like watching a Federico Fellini movie set in a freak carnival, faces leering in and out of focus in the camera, the feral sound of a calliope and human screeches penetrating your ears. Colgrass deliberately creates an unstable listening experience, so complex it takes two conductors to lead various instrumental groups in simultaneous but slightly out of kilter tempos.”

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

OSKAR MORAWETZ: Born in Svetlá nad Sázavou, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic), January 17, 1917; died in Toronto, June 13, 2007

An episode from the famous Diary of Anne Frank serves as the inspiration for this composition, in which the singer narrates the troubled thoughts of Anne, set to some of Morawetz’ most deeply moving music.

Oscar Morawetz was deeply moved by human suffering and tragic events. His best known works are Memorial to Martin Luther King (1968) and From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970). Morawetz could well empathize with the plight of Anne Frank as he too had felt the fetid breath of the Nazi war machine on his back. Anne Frank’s diary was published in 1947, but it was twenty years before Morawetz could bring himself to read it, so vivid and painful were his own memories of the war. “When the war was over,” the composer related in an interview for Maclean’s magazine in 1980, “I found the same thing as many other Jewish people, that 90 per cent of all their relatives Read More
OSKAR MORAWETZ: Born in Svetlá nad Sázavou, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic), January 17, 1917; died in Toronto, June 13, 2007

An episode from the famous Diary of Anne Frank serves as the inspiration for this composition, in which the singer narrates the troubled thoughts of Anne, set to some of Morawetz’ most deeply moving music.

Oscar Morawetz was deeply moved by human suffering and tragic events. His best known works are Memorial to Martin Luther King (1968) and From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970). Morawetz could well empathize with the plight of Anne Frank as he too had felt the fetid breath of the Nazi war machine on his back. Anne Frank’s diary was published in 1947, but it was twenty years before Morawetz could bring himself to read it, so vivid and painful were his own memories of the war. “When the war was over,” the composer related in an interview for Maclean’s magazine in 1980, “I found the same thing as many other Jewish people, that 90 per cent of all their relatives and friends died in concentration camps, and I felt almost guilty that I was safe in Canada. The tragedy was so indescribable that whenever anyone spoke of Anne Frank’s diary, I didn’t want to hear about it.”

Anne’s plight is well-known through publication of the diary she had kept while she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam for two years. They were eventually discovered (probably through the “services” of an informing neighbour) and taken to the camps. One episode in the diary, one that did not get into the television and stage productions, concerned the girl’s anguish over the fate of her school friend Lies Goosens, who had already been captured and taken away. Anne’s words about Lies made a particularly deep impression on Morawetz. To set them to music, he approached Anne’s father, still alive in 1969 and living in Switzerland, for approval and the two became close friends. (Otto Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91.) Morawetz further learned that Lies too had survived the camps and was married and living in Jerusalem, while the man who had sheltered Anne’s family in Amsterdam was living in Toronto. Anne perished just seven weeks before the war ended. But in the music that her diary inspired her spirit lives on, testament to an iron will and a symbol of hope for a better world.

The first performance took place on May 26, 1970 with Lawrence Leonard conducting the Toronto Symphony and Canadian soprano Lois Marshall as soloist. The event was important enough to rate a full-page review in Time magazine. In recognition of “the most important contribution to Jewish culture and music in Canada,” Morawetz received a special award from the J. I. Segal Fund for Jewish Culture in Canada in 1971. When Israel’s former Prime Minister Golda Meir visited Toronto in 1974, she requested a meeting with Morawetz, who presented her with a copy of the published score.

Two years after its premiere in Canada, From the Diary of Anne Frank was presented in Carnegie Hall. Reporting in The New Yorker, critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote that “Morawetz is a master of orchestration, and his treatment of the underlying orchestral fabric is highly original, being quite light and translucent, and quite distinct from the vocal part. I do not know whether any setting can improve on the simple words of the diary. They speak so much for themselves. But the Morawetz composition has a certain claim to distinction.” Further performances were given by the Czech Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic and the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Anne’s first words are as follows: “Yesterday evening, before I fell asleep who should suddenly appear before my eyes but Lies.” Immediately afterward the oboe and muted trumpet play a descending, mournful motif that will play a significant role in the composition. “I saw her in front of me, clothed in rags,” the text continues. “Oh Anne [Lies cries out], why have you deserted me? Help, oh help me, rescue me from this hell!” Anne’s guilt over being safe, at least for the time being, while her dear friend was in such dire need, is expressed in these words: “Oh God, why should I have all I could wish for and why should she be seized by such a terrible fate? I am not more virtuous than she. She too wanted to do what was right. Why should I be chosen to live and she probably to die? … Oh Lies, are you still alive?” Anne prays desperately for God to “defend her, protect her, save her, and bring her back to us!” Yet despite all the grief and desperation, the music ends peacefully on a note of hope: “And when I pray for her, I pray for all the Jews and all those in need.”

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

BARBARA PENTLAND: Born in Winnipeg, January 2, 1912; died in Vancouver, February 5, 2000

News is one composer’s expression of outrage and horror over the daily newscasts to which listeners were exposed during the late 1960s and early ’70s. To Pentland, war is something so awful that it cannot be discussed in “normal” speech, song or music. Her 25- minute composition incorporating a wide variety of vocal effects makes this abundantly clear.

“War horrifies Pentland.”

With these three bald words biographer Sheila Eastman throws into relief the essence of the composer’s News. Pentland had given expression to her revulsion to war in previous compositions (two Laments, Ruins and Rhapsody 1939 (The World on the March to War Again), but in News she took this sentiment to a new level of intensity. In 1968, when she began working on News Read More
BARBARA PENTLAND: Born in Winnipeg, January 2, 1912; died in Vancouver, February 5, 2000

News is one composer’s expression of outrage and horror over the daily newscasts to which listeners were exposed during the late 1960s and early ’70s. To Pentland, war is something so awful that it cannot be discussed in “normal” speech, song or music. Her 25- minute composition incorporating a wide variety of vocal effects makes this abundantly clear.

“War horrifies Pentland.”

With these three bald words biographer Sheila Eastman throws into relief the essence of the composer’s News. Pentland had given expression to her revulsion to war in previous compositions (two Laments, Ruins and Rhapsody 1939 (The World on the March to War Again), but in News she took this sentiment to a new level of intensity. In 1968, when she began working on News, the Vietnam War was raging with no end in sight. There were racial conflicts and riots across the U.S. Violence and death were everywhere. “To Pentland,” writes Eastman, “it seemed that North America was intent on self-destruction, and what was worse, the newspapers, news magazines, and radio and television newscasts all reported the events as indifferently as they would a garden party.” After writing about a third of the piece, Pentland put News aside, too depressed to go on. Only in 1970, with the stimulus of a commission from the CBC, did she pick up where she had left off and complete the work. Soprano Phyllis Mailing and the NAC Orchestra conducted by Mario Bernardi gave the world premiere in July of 1971.

For her texts, Pentland drew on actual reports from the CBC, the BBC, the Montreal Gazette, the New York Times and the Manchester Guardian, which she “pieced together for their contrast and dramatic effect” (Eastman). Pentland says of her work:

“It is an expression of disgust and protest against man’s endless violence to himself and the environment. …The only way I could react musically [to the news] was by facing these now frequent reports with satire, scorn and, in some cases, flippancy. Some were so repetitive as to merit treatment in plainchant. Some sounded as unbelievable as a child’s nursery rhyme, or a carol, which may be recognized in its distortion. Other reports used short musical quotations contrapuntally. For instance, in reporting the utter misery inflicted on people, the Dies irae from the Requiem chant is heard in the background, and “We shall overcome” is used similarly.”

The solo voice is used in a virtuosic manner and incorporates quarter-tones, Sprechstimme (a cross between singing and speaking), aleatoric passages (chance music), stuttering, slides, foreign words (Latin and French) and words pronounced backwards (news = swen). For the principal musical motif Pentland uses a sharp, irregular rhythmic pattern on a single pitch. This she exploits in a variety of imaginative ways: to suggest the unfeeling, mechanical world of the teletype machine, for fanfares and for imitative and mocking effects, among others.

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

ANDRÉ PRÉVOST: Born in Hawkesbury, Ontario, July 30, 1934; died in Montreal, January 27, 2001

Célébration does indeed celebrate a national monument, The Fathers of Confederation Memorial Building in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, which opened in 1964 as a tribute to the men who had met in that city one hundred years ago for the Charlottetown Conference. This building is also the site each summer of the annual Charlottetown Festival, which continues to present Canada’s longest-running musical, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, every year since it first opened in 1965.

In his speech at the Opening Ceremonies for the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, on October 6, 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stated that the building was “a tribute to those famous men who founded our Confederation. But it is also dedicated to the fostering of those things that enrich the mind and delight the heart, those intangible but precious things that give meaning to a society and help create from it a civilization and a culture.” Two years later, in the main hall of the Read More
ANDRÉ PRÉVOST: Born in Hawkesbury, Ontario, July 30, 1934; died in Montreal, January 27, 2001

Célébration does indeed celebrate a national monument, The Fathers of Confederation Memorial Building in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, which opened in 1964 as a tribute to the men who had met in that city one hundred years ago for the Charlottetown Conference. This building is also the site each summer of the annual Charlottetown Festival, which continues to present Canada’s longest-running musical, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, every year since it first opened in 1965.

In his speech at the Opening Ceremonies for the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, on October 6, 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stated that the building was “a tribute to those famous men who founded our Confederation. But it is also dedicated to the fostering of those things that enrich the mind and delight the heart, those intangible but precious things that give meaning to a society and help create from it a civilization and a culture.” Two years later, in the main hall of the Confederation Centre on July 30, 1966, the Halifax Symphony conducted by John Fenwick gave the first performance of André Prévost’s Célébration, written on commission from the Charlottetown Festival, to mark this proud event in Canadian history.

The eight-minute work opens and closes with appropriately boisterous fanfares by brass and percussion, but this soon settles down to allow for more contemplative, even nostalgic images to surface as heard initially in the long, lyrical oboe solo, which is followed by similar writing for other instruments. When the opening material returns, it is even more amply orchestrated and set to what vaguely resembles a waltz rhythm. The music seems destined for a quiet conclusion until one final fragment of the fanfare music erupts, bringing Célébration to an abrupt end.

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

CLAUDE VIVIER: Born in Montreal, April 14, 1948; died in Paris, March 7, 1983

Wo bist du Licht! (Light, where are you?) is Vivier’s searing portrayal in sound of man’s desperate search for a ray of light and understanding in a world of darkness and evil. A solo voice delivers the text of a poem, accompanied by a string orchestra and percussion, and superimposed on which are spoken texts of relevant import.

Wo bist du Licht! (Light, Where Are You!) was composed in 1981 on commission from Société Radio-Canada. Written for mezzo-soprano, twenty strings, percussion and tape, it was first performed on April 26, 1984 in Montreal with Serge Garant conducting an SMCQ concert and mezzo-soprano Jocelyn Fleury Coutu. The composer Michel Gonneville describes the twenty-minute work as “a long and continuous melody and a meditation on human sorrow.” In it, Vivier superimposes the sung text of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Der blinde Sänger” (The blind singer) onto three types of spoken texts (on tape), described by Vivier as foll Read More
CLAUDE VIVIER: Born in Montreal, April 14, 1948; died in Paris, March 7, 1983

Wo bist du Licht! (Light, where are you?) is Vivier’s searing portrayal in sound of man’s desperate search for a ray of light and understanding in a world of darkness and evil. A solo voice delivers the text of a poem, accompanied by a string orchestra and percussion, and superimposed on which are spoken texts of relevant import.

Wo bist du Licht! (Light, Where Are You!) was composed in 1981 on commission from Société Radio-Canada. Written for mezzo-soprano, twenty strings, percussion and tape, it was first performed on April 26, 1984 in Montreal with Serge Garant conducting an SMCQ concert and mezzo-soprano Jocelyn Fleury Coutu. The composer Michel Gonneville describes the twenty-minute work as “a long and continuous melody and a meditation on human sorrow.” In it, Vivier superimposes the sung text of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Der blinde Sänger” (The blind singer) onto three types of spoken texts (on tape), described by Vivier as follows:

(1) “An emotional one that is extremely significant for America: Martin Luther King’s last speech and a recording in situ or Robert Kennedy’s assassination. (2) Abstract text, with no meaning [invented language]. (3) Finally, a descriptive text about torture. This text has an enormous emotional power due, in part, to the almost neutral tone [of the two radio speakers]. Hölderlin’s text ‘Der blinde Sänger’ holds the key to understanding my composition. A blind old man remembers his past: beautiful picturesque scenery; greenery, clouds, etc. The present is evoked by harsh sound images: thunder, earthquakes. He longs for light, freedom, death, perhaps.”

The mezzo-soprano operates in two vocal realms: live, where she sings a kind of ornamented monody, or recitative, and on tape. In the outer parts of the composition she reiterates over and over the words “Wo bist du Licht!” – a desperate plea for light, or perhaps enlightenment, in a world of darkness and evil.

Vivier’s close friend, the composer Robert Boudreau, call Wo bist du Licht! “one of Vivier’s most extraordinary works. He was very preoccupied with death, torture and the evil man has brought upon his brothers. This is a very, very powerful and gloomy piece of music. In the opening, the bows are pressed as hard as possible against the strings to produce that horrible screeching sound. When the bass drum comes in it knocks you off your feet. This is the pure Vivier at his best. Later, the vocal line is absolutely gorgeous.”

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

JOHN WEINZWEIG: Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913; died in Toronto, August 24, 2006

Can silence be portrayed in sound? That is the challenge in Dummiyah, the Hebrew word for silence. To Weinzweig, silence was the only possible response to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in the death camps. In this ultra-quiet work, he attempts to deal with this issue using timbre and tone colour rather than themes and harmony.

Dummiyah is the Hebrew word for silence, and silence is the binding element of Weinzweig’s eponymous 15-minute composition. Aside from John Cage’s (in)famous 4:33, there is no such thing as music created entirely from silence. But in Dummiyah Weinzweig uses silence in dramatic ways to set off important material. To him, silence is the only response to the horrors perpetrated on the Jews in the Nazi death camps. Inspiration for his composition came from reading a book about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the evidence given by survivors. Weinzweig also drew inspiration from Read More
JOHN WEINZWEIG: Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913; died in Toronto, August 24, 2006

Can silence be portrayed in sound? That is the challenge in Dummiyah, the Hebrew word for silence. To Weinzweig, silence was the only possible response to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in the death camps. In this ultra-quiet work, he attempts to deal with this issue using timbre and tone colour rather than themes and harmony.

Dummiyah is the Hebrew word for silence, and silence is the binding element of Weinzweig’s eponymous 15-minute composition. Aside from John Cage’s (in)famous 4:33, there is no such thing as music created entirely from silence. But in Dummiyah Weinzweig uses silence in dramatic ways to set off important material. To him, silence is the only response to the horrors perpetrated on the Jews in the Nazi death camps. Inspiration for his composition came from reading a book about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the evidence given by survivors. Weinzweig also drew inspiration from Psalm 39 (“I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. / I was dumb with silence, I held my peace ...”) A third source of inspiration came from the brooding presence of a dormant volcano, Popocatepetl, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that Weinzweig contemplated while composing Dummiyah. The work was written during the winter months of 1969 while the composer was in Mexico on sabbatical from the University of Toronto. The first performance was given on July 4 of that year at the MacMillan Theatre at the University of Toronto by the CBC Festival Orchestra conducted by Victor Feldbrill.

“In [Dummiyah],” writes Weinzweig, “I wanted to explore the shape and vitality of silence - how do you turn silence into a kind of rhythm? Well, it opens up with several beats of silence ... The conductor is giving beats, but there is no sound. ... In the course of the work there is [sic] approximately thirty seconds of silence in which the players are holding their instruments but there is no sound ... Silence is the unspoken word. A shadow of something heard. Silence is the final sound of the Nazi Holocaust.”

There are no “themes” in Dummiyah. Instead, Weinzweig conveys his artistic intent with timbre, colour and the dramatic gesture. The music remains on the quiet side of the dynamic spectrum throughout the work’s seventeen-minute length, rising above mezzo-piano for only a few isolated shrieks of horror from the woodwinds. Strings provide a soft, dense mass of sound interrupted four times by brief, rhythmically excited episodes from the woodwinds: first flutes and piccolo, next oboes and English horn, then clarinets and bass clarinet, and finally bassoons and contrabassoon. Each “trio” is followed by commentary from the harp and percussion. The full orchestra is used only at the end, where the dynamic level remains ppp. One feature of Dummiyah, not detectable from a recording, is the theatrical gesture of the conductor beating several measures of “silence” at both the beginning and the end.

© 2010, Robert Markow. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The Spirit of the Age: Composers Responding to Historical Influences is designed for students and educators to meet the following objectives:

• Learn about the strategies composers use to create music about the real world.
• Consider the role of music as a way both to celebrate the achievements of the times and to reflect upon its darker realities.
• Make a personal connection with issues of social justice or great human achievements, and use some of the strategies they have learned to compose music about our own era.

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