The two articles below are reposted from the newsletter of Maestro Musicians called "Finding Meaning in Music". You may subscribe by visiting my blog HERE . The blog is updated weekly and the newsletter is updated bi-monthly and delivered by e mail.
An Exploration of Aleksandr Kreyn and his Music
On December 3 and December 17, the Nagila Ensemble,, the newest division of Maestro Musicians, performed the String Quartet-Poème, Op. 9 by Aleksandr Kreyn at the Young Israel of Brookline and the Adams Street Synagogue, in Newton, MA, respectively. The work was well received and the ensemble looks forward to many more opportunities to perform this fascinating work!
Aleksandr Abramovitch Kreyn (1883-1951) was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, on October 20, 1883. His father was a Klezmer violinist and six of his siblings became musicians. During his childhood, Aleksandr performed in his father’s band. At the age of 13, he entered the Moscow Conversatory as a cellist, studying with Von-Glen. He later studied composition with B. L. Yavorski and L. B. Nikolayev. Soon after, Kreyn developed a personal, vocal style.
Kreyn’s early influences were Scriabin, Ravel, and Debussy. Yet, his immersion in Hebrew folk-music and traditional melody had a profound emotional appeal to the composer. Some examples of Hebraic-influenced works are the opera Salome (1929), Jewish Sketches (1909-1910) for string quartet and clarinet, and the cantata Kadish, opus 33 (1921).
In the 1920s and 1930s as the Communists put a stranglehold on Jewish expression, Kreyn found it increasingly difficult to develop his uniquely personal idiom. In an attempt to appear sympathetic to the Soviet cause, he composed works such as Funeral Ode in Memory of Lenin (1926) and the symphonic oratorio The U.S.S.R.—Shock Brigade of the World Proletariat(1932). Yet, the composer bravely continued to write Jewish works well into the 1940s, such as the Second Symphony, dedicated to Jewish victims of persecution.
The opus 9 string quartet was written in 1909. Its nervous energy and complex harmonies are reminiscent of Scriabin and the French Impressionist composers. The Russian music scholar Leonid Sabaneiev describes the Poéme as follows: "It has a straight-forward, simple melodic line which Kreyn combines with pungent harmonies. This is a grateful work…by reason of its frank and unadorned, but lyrical melodies.”
Interpreting Kreyn's Quartet-Poème, Op. 9
How to listen to this 20th Century Work
After the Nagila Ensemble’s inaugural concert on December 3 at the Young Israel of Brookline, we received comments and questions from a number of interested audience members about our rendition of the underplayed Quartet-Poème by Aleksandr Kreyn. Because of these questions and its unique tonal language, I found it helpful to expand on the importance of listening to the work within the proper historical context.
Kreyn’s work presents a conundrum. For the most part, the first violin part plays primarily melodic, lyrical lines. On the other hand, the rest of the string quartet is playing haunting harmonies, sometimes (and often) lacking a feeling of stability. What are we to make of this?
Kreyn’s opus 9 quartet was written in 1909, a time when composers were exploring new musical languages through the use of intense chromaticism. In other words, they were trying to break away from the regular scales that we all are familiar with in the Western tradition through the use of “foreign” notes. While these “foreign” notes might have been discordant to the ear, it was the hope of the composers that their ever expanding harmonic languages would eventually gain acceptance in the vernacular of sound, causing the next generation to consider their music as normal.
Kreyn was heavily influenced by the French Impressionist school of composing – a style championed by Ravel, Debussy, and Scriabin, which attempted to capture atmospheric feelings and abstract ideas in music. In Kreyn’s quartet, this is especially accomplished through the use of tremolos (quick vigorous repeating notes), and soft, “breathy” figures that alternate between two notes. As mentioned above, because of Kreyn’s breaking out of the traditional harmonic mold, one could argue that the expansion of his tonal language would fit perfectly into the Impressionist genre of vague abstraction.
Although, Kreyn was evolutionary in his music, he was not revolutionary. Staying true to the form of the masters of the past (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven), his quartet contains an introduction, exposition, development, and recapitulation, followed by a coda (an appendix). This is called Sonata Form.
After the long, slow mournful introduction, there are two main lyrical themes in the exposition which are continuously developed throughout the piece. The development is a playful interchange of short-long rhythmic figures between the instruments and an expansion on the themes of the exposition. The recapitulation brings back our opening material, seemingly verbatim. Yet, we later discover that it has been transposed higher so that the themes start on different notes. The piece ends on a C Major chord, affirming a sense of closure within the tonal system that we are all familiar with.
After reading Mr. Daniel Wakin’s article in the New York Times entitled High Notes and Low Points for Classical Music (12/22/2011), I felt it necessary to comment on this state of affairs. In his editorial, the writer lists the top news stories from the Classical music world. Unfortunately, one cannot miss the terrible financial distresses in which many orchestras find themselves today. Mr. Wakin particularly mentions the disasters that befell the Syracuse, New Mexico, Louisville, Utica, and even the Philadelphia orchestras. Then, there is also the Detroit Symphony, which only recently has been struggling to regain its footing.
For years, naysayers have been predicting the death of classical music. Many cite graying audiences, “expensive” tickets (never mind that pop concerts and sports games can cost much more), and a general lack of interest among the public in quality music.
It is also certainly easy and comfortable for us to put up our hands, shrug, and blame the difficult economy for the woes of the above orchestras. Yet, I find it necessary to dig deeper as we examine why this has happened.
Let me first state that I am not a pessimist by nature. Nor do I believe that classical music is dead. In fact, I would not have pursued my dream of becoming a violinist had this been the case.
As musicians, it is my belief that we have voluntarily placed ourselves out of touch with the mainstream society. There are many reasons for this and my conclusions might not agree with my colleagues’. Yet, I believe that our fixation on perfection and purity at the expense of substance has done us a great disservice. Before I can examine this problem, I need to explain the atmosphere in which we musicians find ourselves. This will give you an idea as to why this has happened.
Most musicians go through years and years of education, accumulate massive student loan bills, and then take whatever job comes their way. Many “struggling musicians” in expensive cities will then work horribly long hours for little pay in seasonal orchestras and music schools. Many are content with this lifestyle but others, who want a family realize that the money isn’t there. Then there are those who were always ok with this fact, as music is their passion, and money was never meant to be in the cards. Some quit and pursue other goals. For those who try to climb the musical ladder, after taking grueling auditions for top orchestras two handfuls of very lucky people will be accepted every year for a job that pays a semi-decent (but too often not comfortable) wage. One handful will make it into orchestras that pay really well (but are most likely in cities with high costs of living).
As you can see, competition is fierce. It is not uncommon for 300 musicians to audition for 1 seat which was given up when someone passed away in the orchestra.
Against this backdrop, the music schools cannot but help stress that perfection in playing is the only way to “make it” in music. Coupled with an audience of CD-buyers who expect note-perfect CD’s due to modern editing techniques, musicians who fall short of an extremely high level of musicianship simply will not make the cut.
It is my belief that as musicians, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Due to no fault of our own, we have tried so hard to become perfect (ie: god-like) that society has left us behind. As we have attempted to play the same repertoire over and over again in order to emulate the great master conductors and performers, we have not brought anything new or of value to the majority of society. It is for THIS reason, that we have been accused of being “elitist”. After all, one must be quite dedicated or even infatuated with music in order to buy contrasting recordings out of a passion for varying interpretations of a piece that has been recorded 20 times.
One might ask the following question: “How come great violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein could become world class soloists AND fixate on perfection?” Obvious talent and very hard work aside, it is my observation that they were products of a different time. Rather than lamenting a change in societal attitude toward classical music, what I mean to say is that these greats were providing something of VALUE to the general public. If we put ourselves in their shoes, we come to realize that audio technology was still developing. New interpretations of a violin concerto were being disseminated (often for the first time) to the general public en masse via a new medium – the LP record. Today, due to the immense success of the recording industry, we take it for granted that music can be recorded. In other words, great musicians have “been there and done that” when it comes to recording phenomenal masterworks.
What can we learn from this? Today, as musicians, we must think outside the box. A performer is not just a parrot, perfectly repeating sounds from a page of music as we might believe the composer intended.
What I am proposing is a radical shift in music education that focuses on the individual and his or her relationship with the audience. Every musician has a story to tell. Whether old or new, there is special meaningful music for every performer. There are also unique listeners out there for every musician. We simply have to find the message and the medium. Why shouldn’t conservatories be able to teach in this way while still maintaining technical excellence?
New England Conservatory has recently awakened to the call with their focus on “Entrepreneurial Musicianship”. Schools all around the country should be encouraging students to find their own voice. Rather than subjugating individual expression, as is often done, empowering the uniqueness of the student will ultimately result in a stronger, self-supporting musician. It’s a scary prospect for a school, but the alternative of “business as usual” is a dead cause.
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