A sheet from old book and memories of the past

Herbstblatt. © Charles Thibo

“It is as if we took a yellowish sheet out of an old, lost book, a sheet that reminds us of a time long ago and lets this time shine brightly, so that we forget the present. In a similar way, the fantasies of the master may have illuminated his beloved memories when he found these old melodies, sung in lovely Italy, and wrote this delicate painting of sounds.” Robert Schumann was enthusiastic when he commented in 1843 on Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony in A major, Op. 90. I can understand him. Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major (Op. 41/2) made me feel something akin to his experience. I returned to the time when I read the novels Schumann loved so dearly, the time I first explored in-depth Schumann’s music. I should listen more often to Schumann. There can be no doubt.

The string quartet he wrote during the summer of 1842 is beautiful, well-balanced, thematically coherent, full of ingenious surprises, a wonderful arrangement of harmonic moments, expressing joy, drama, nostalgia. Ludwig van Beethoven and Mendelssohn were Schumann’s explicit paragons. Just like the other two quartets of Op. 41, the one in F major was dedicated to Mendelssohn.

After Robert had completed the quartets, he and his wife Clara traveled to Bohemia for a short vacation. They celebrated among other things the fifth anniversary of their secret engagement and – thanks to Clara’s reputation as a pianist – they enjoyed an audience with Count Metternich, the Austrian architect of the balance of power in Europe after Napoleon’s fall and the symbol of Austria’s restoration and police state. Dieter Kühn, author of a biography of Clara Wieck, writes that the young composer was blinded by the splendor of the powerful diplomat, that made Schumann forget for a moment that it was Metternich’s aide at the censorship office that had denied him a licence for the music magazine he edited.

Schumann’s ambition in 1842 was to compose a new genre of chamber music, poetic music. Music like the late Beethoven quartets. Pieces for the piano alone did not satisfy him anymore, as he complained to his wife. One of the result is the string quartet in F major. Spring! Chords! Sturm und Drang! And the mysterious story told by this poetic music may well be compared to Schumann’s favourite novels by Jean Paul and “Gespenster Hoffmann.”

The quartet has been recorded by the Hagen Quartett.

© Charles Thibo

Harmony and dark chaos from Debussy’s pen

Debussy cello sonata
Art has no age. © Charles Thibo

Children made this piece of art. It immediately caught my attention. Cones painted in dazzling colours. The contrast between natural and artificial. Here’s a piece of music that has such contrasts too. And it retained my attention for a much longer time span than those cones, even if they get an honorary mention on this blog: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor (L. 135), written by Claude Debussy and recorded by Sol Gabetta and Hélène Grimaud. Brace yourself, for you are in for a wild ride through the realm of chords and harmonies.

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Counterpoint at the service of modern-day mysticism

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Beginning and end. © Charles Thibo

Mysticism. If you are tempted by mystic experiences, Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (BB 114/SZ 106) should enchant you. It certainly did enchant me and the audience in the 1930s. In a time of disenchantment, when frivolity and hate rule, Bartok’s music hints at man’s desire to retrieve a state of internal purity, that does not change over time and that alone allows creativity, the French writer Pierre Jean Jouve once opined. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a landmark in the history of 20th-century classical music and one of Bartok’s best known works.

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Inspired as a child by a gypsy band

The colour of tradition. © Charles Thibo

In 1933 Zoltan Kodaly wrote a symphonic poem called “The Dances of Galanta”. Galanta is a small town in what is today Slovakia. It used to be part of Hungary, and Kodaly spent several years here when he was a young. A well-known gypsy band stimulated the boy’s interest in music and gave him a first idea of harmony and melody. “The Dances of Galanta”, written to mark the 80th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Budapest, take up material form 18th-century verbunkos dances, and became Kodaly’s most popular work.

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