“ Interestingly, the work that tried to please the least was the most compelling. Hayes Biggs’ piece Ave Formosissima harkens back to the dance-mad, melismatic and slightly raucous music of the Middle Ages. But the score, with its zig-zagging lines and pungent dissonances, is genuinely contemporary.”—New York Times
“ A Consuming Fire, a short, zesty trio by Hayes Biggs, led off the evening. The piece is framed by some engagingly angular rhythmic writing, with a lyrical nougat at the center.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“ [The] most convincing and coherent performance [was] Hayes Biggs’ homage to his composer/pianist colleague Eric Moe, E.M. am Flügel, a short piece with romantic gestures and echoes of Berg and Stravinsky.”—Aufbau
“ The Mass for All Saints would be an exciting challenge for those choirs skilled in precise intonation and rhythmic agility. Biggs writes with knowledge of and respect for the expressive capabilities of the human voice.”—Choral Journal
“ Hayes Biggs’s wedding motet Tota Pulchra Es, here being sung for the first time, impressed by its quiet solemnity and neat working of its expressive opening motif: not empty fanfares but a reminder of the seriousness and privacy of love.”—New York Times
“ Mass for All Saints by composer Hayes Biggs releases shadows transformed into tendrils of light by the arabesque of the vocal line. Contrapuntal procedures are used to their utmost expressive effect. [It] is a work of a melodist of talent in the manner of Puccini, or better yet, Respighi.”—La Liberté
“ The Biggs song, Northeast Reservation Lines, is a real party piece... the sneakiness of the changes, the liveliness of the music and the verve of the performance worked handily... a potential recital hit in the vein of Bernstein’s I Hate Music cycle.”—The Village Voice
“ All the works tried a return to tonality typical of the decade; the most successful made the return oblique and ambiguous. Hayes Biggs’ O Sacrum Convivium took off from the motet of Tallis, yet it handsomely reconfigured early modes in a modernistic scheme of free tonality.”—New York Times
“ Hayes Biggs’ To Becalme His Fever... is a vivid evocation of anxiety, fits and repose. The language embraces pointillistic colors, romantic lines and prickly episodes when the demons hover. Biggs claims a forceful and subtle dramatic hand, along with a keen command of instrumental resources.”—The Plain Dealer
My apologies for the lengthy hiatus since my last post, but with teaching, midterm exams, the refinancing of Susan’s and my mortgage, trying to complete a solo tenor sax piece in time for an April premiere, concerts and recording sessions with C4, and final exams and grading at MSM, things have been, to say the least, quite busy. Add to that the fact that I also was gearing up for a two-month European sojourn (which I began on June 16, and about which I plan to share more in subsequent posts), and I’m sure you get the picture. First, however, I will take care of some old business and weigh in on one of several historic commemorations that the musical world is
hyping observing this year. In addition to the Benjamin Britten centennial and bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, many of you are no doubt aware that there also is another significant anniversary, not of the birth of a composer, but of the birthing of a musical work.
At least as much has been said as needs to be about the hoopla surrounding the centenary of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, and I realize it is by now well past the expiration date for anyone to care much anymore, but thought I would add my reaction to a very fine appreciation of the work by the distinguished and accomplished British composer George Benjamin. I find myself in agreement with most of what he writes, but take slight exception to the following:
The huge wind and brass sections steal the foreground from the habitually warmer sonority of the strings, and the percussion section dominates over everything.
What he says about the woodwinds and brass is, of course, absolutely true, but as for the domination of the percussion section over everything — well, yes and no.
Yes, certainly, because who can possibly deny the sheer visceral impact of the timpani and bass drum parts that lord it over the rest of the batterie, or the complexity of the interplay between the two timpanists? One need only recall the eleven bass drum thwacks that usher in Glorification de l’élue, and there are plenty of other passages as well.
No, because what has increasingly intrigued me (I’m trying really hard to avoid the word “struck” here) over the years about the Rite since I came to know it in my early teens is how little — relatively — the percussion actually plays, considering the reputation of the piece for powerful, violent and unpredictable rhythmic energy. First, in terms of what actually is deployed — even given the extra timpani, including the timpano piccolo — it isn’t the most extensive collection of percussion instruments ever assembled in an orchestral composition, not by a long shot. It is of course true that six players, including the two timpanists are needed in Le sacre to cover the parts. But plenty of Stravinsky’s contemporaries, among them, to name but a few, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Respighi, Schoenberg, Messaien, Varèse and even Janáček (in the original version of his Missa Glagolitica of 1926, which demands something on the order of 14 timpani), have him beat in that department. In fact, a quick survey of Stravinsky’s orchestral music will show that, as a rule, he doesn’t demand anything remotely resembling a huge complement of percussion. Neither can it be claimed that Stravinsky’s chosen array of instruments in this ballet is a particularly exotic one, most of them having long since become standard in orchestral literature, particularly in dramatic works such as operas and ballets. The triangle, along with the bass drum, became a steadily more significant presence in the orchestra in the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, having been used by Haydn and Mozart (and other Turkish-inspired Viennese composers) on more than one occasion, as well as by Beethoven in the finale of his Ninth Symphony. As for the tam-tam, the next most frequently heard percussion instrument in the Rite after the timpani and bass drum, it has a quite prominent if not particularly lengthy role in the Dies irae of Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor (1815). The tambourine was frequently called upon by composers in the nineteenth century as a source of local color (e.g. Bizet’s Carmen, 1875). The use of more than one timpani player also was nothing new in 1913, and can be traced back at least as far as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830).The crotales (antique cymbals) already had been used famously (and exquisitely) in Debussy’s Prélude á l’aprés-midi d’une faune in 1894. Perhaps the most noteworthy features of Stravinsky’s percussion writing, besides the extraordinarily intricate writing for the timpanists, are his use of the güiro (gourd and scraper), most often associated with Latin American music, as well as the (then) unusual playing technique of scraping the tam-tam with the triangle beater.
One of the most audacious passages in the entire ballet —indeed in all of Western musical literature —, Les augures printanières (Danse des adolescentes), is heard here in a fascinating and rather amusing mashup, taken from 46 recorded performances. (Special thanks to my colleagues Christian Carey and James Primosch, who separately posted this item a month or so ago.) This portion occurs near the end of the first six minutes or so of the piece, during which time no percussion whatsoever has yet been heard. It contains the first clearly pulse-driven music in the work, and includes the well-known obsessively repeated chord that so worried Diaghilev when Stravinsky first played the passage for him. (The great impresario seems to have had concerns about the sheer number of iterations of this harmony.) What orchestrational sorcery accounts for these hammer blows? Certainly not the employment of idio- or membranophones, but rather the irregularly occurring, gut-punching accents provided solely by eight horns, one for each pitch in the chord, against unrelenting, heavily marked eighth notes in the strings. I can remember attending a live performance in Caracas years ago, in which I was sitting fairly close to the stage, and I can testify to the considerable wallop those horns were packing. It is critically important as well to understand that no amount of fancy orchestration could create this effect if the structure and voicing of the chord itself were in any way wanting. The inherent crunchiness of the harmony is part and parcel of the experience, as is the rhythmic structure of the music, quite apart from its instrumentation. (It should not be forgotten that Le sacre can and often has been played in its piano duet version, and can be surprisingly effective in this form.) In any case, I can’t imagine any extra percussion improving upon what Stravinsky accomplishes in these bars. It is indeed his restraint and patience as he delays the first entry of the percussion (initially the timpani, followed in due course by the remainder of the instruments) that is remarkable here. That restraint also is amply rewarded as the percussion thereby makes much more of an impact whenever it does play. Perhaps, paradoxically, the extent to which the percussion section seems to “dominate” is greater precisely because of how comparatively rarely it is heard, and how strongly its presence is felt when it is.
Those whose curiosity has been piqued by the 46 versions of this passage in the above compilation might also enjoy checking out Russell Platt’s post in The New Yorker about the Decca boxed set of 35 recordings of Le sacre, spanning 6 decades (1946-2006), released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary.