Program Notes

February 26th, 2016
American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Amy Lieberman, conductor


Guillaume de Machaut: Ma fin est mon commencement
Arvo Pärt:Solfeggio
Clément Janequin: Toutes les nuictz
Luciano Berio: Cries of London
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Romancero Gitano, for guitar and chorus
Clément Janequin: Le Rossignol
Guillaume de Machaut: Ma fin est ma commencement

Notes by Amy Lieberman

Guillaume de Machaut: Ma fin est mon commencement
Guillaume de Machaut, born around 1300 in Rheims, France, was well-known during his lifetime. He has remained famous for 800 years of music history for having composed the first complete polyphonic setting of the ordinary of the Mass, Messe de Nostre Dame, but even more for the overall sophistication of his music. Machaut was also a distinguished poet—someone who influenced even Geoffrey Chaucer—and he wrote the lyrics for much of his secular music, including Ma fin est mon commencement.

We are uncertain how Ma fin est mon commencement might have been performed, but it is likely that only one of the voices, Triplum, Cantus, or Tenor, sang the complete text, and the other two voices sustained only the initial syllable of each phrase and then moved to the text’s final syllable at the section’s end. We know that vocal music of this period was performed in a wide variety of ways, including with a mix of singers and instrumentalists, and even with instruments alone. The two versions in this program present two of the many possible approaches.

Embedded in Ma fin est mon commencement is an elaborate scheme, some of it audible and some of it less so. The text, “My end is my beginning and my beginning my end,” is the clue: it both reveals the music’s structure and instructs the listener on how to hear it. The composition is in two equal sections; at the first section’s end, the music simply turns around and goes backwards, note-for-note, rhythm-for-rhythm. This remarkable palindrome is easy to see but, like all musical palindromes, more difficult to hear. The sequence of the two musical sections’ repeats (more complex than simply AABB, or ABAB) further obscures the palindrome. Moreover, the text sometimes differs on the music’s repeats, and sometimes it does not. Lastly, at the mid-point, the two top voices, Triplum and Cantus, exchange their parts; consequently, one voice is singing the tune when the music is going forward, but another, when it goes backwards. Although the scheme of this little piece is complex, its form follows the common 13th to 15th-century poetic form, the Rondeau: ABaAabAB. In this particular piece, the upper and lower case A’s represent the forward moving music, and the B’s, the music moving in reverse; and the upper case A’s and B’s, respectively, represent exact repeats of their initial texts.

However challenging it may be for the ear to pick up the scheme while it is happening, it is even more difficult to compose music that convincingly goes both forward and backward. Many composers have attempted, but very few—perhaps Bach, Haydn, Schoenberg, Webern—have managed to do it as convincingly as Machaut. Even fewer have found a way to make the intersection of the words’ meaning and the music’s structure as complete and intimate. Ma fin est mon commencement, at once, embraces the rhetorical, dialectical, spiritual, existential, and musical. The music is the construct’s own creation, and the result is hypnotic, timeless.

Clément Janequin: Le chant du rossignol and Toutes les nuictz
Janequin was born in 1458, more than 150 years after Machaut. He held a staggering series of appointments in government and church offices, including clerk, curate, singer, King’s composer, chaplain and, briefly, priest. Although Janequin’s compositions were known during his lifetime, largely through the auspices of the Parisian publisher Pierre Attaignant, who published several volumes of Janequin’s chansons in the early 1500s, he died a pauper, leaving what little he had to his housekeeper. Janequin’s music, like Machaut’s, was in many ways ahead of its day. Particularly bold, and often humorous, were his musical imitations of cityscapes (Les cris de Paris), of battles (La guerre), and of birds. Largest and most complex of his aviary pieces is Chant des oiseaux, but the more modest Le chant du rossignol also captures all of his colorful imagination, as if he were documenting nature and humanity more than 500 years before audio recordings.

Le chant du rossignol obsesses on the musical possibilities of onomatopoeia, extracting words like ainsy, parcy, mercy, and mardi, and emphasizing their chirping color. The harmony remains fairly static, and the words’ rhythms dominate and energize the music.

Toutes les nuictz shows a much calmer side of Janequin’s music, one more suggestive than concrete. Its soft-edged harmonic movement and elegant spaciousness perfectly capture the mystery of the night.

Arvo Pärt: Solfeggio
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt enjoys an almost unimaginable fame, especially unusual for a composer who is devoted almost exclusively to sacred—and therefore, vocal—music. A meditative surface that seems both old and new may be the music’s enormous appeal, but beneath lies a highly intellectual and musically sophisticated thinking, an aspect of his music that is difficult to grasp while the listener is in its sonic grip. The 1963 Solfeggio was Pärt’s first choral piece, a miniature predating his “tintinnabuli” style and method, music that would bring him great popularity.

The text of Solfeggio consists simply of the French syllables—solfège—that name the musical scale degrees (C=Do, D=Re, E=Mi, etc.). The piece unfolds in ten consecutive iterations of the C major scale, the scales broken up among the four voice parts, in varying registers, and with highly controlled dynamics and pacing. On the page, the music looks like little, yet the aural result is pristine, surprising in its timbres, beautiful in its simplicity, and even mystical. Like Machaut’s rondeau, Pärt’s Solfeggio explains the music with its text. And, like Machaut’s, it clothes a searching interior with a simple surface.

Luciano Berio: Cries of London
Composed for the King’s Singers in 1974, then reworked for the eight voices of Swingle II in 1976, Cries of London is in seven movements, the fifth a repeat of the first folksy setting that introduces the cries. This performance, in presenting the first five movements, emphasizes a symmetrical design that mirrors that of the Machaut.

The sounds of Cries of London are those of street vendors that date back to medieval times and were made familiar by the 17th and 18th centuries engravings of Marcellus Laroon, oil paintings by Francis Wheatley, and others. Berio’s own Cries of London traces its influences to Janequin’s vividly descriptive music, including Les cries de Paris.

Reaching back to the ancient street cries and forward to experimental and even electronic musical ideas of his own day, Berio juxtaposes singing, speaking, various noises, and extended vocal techniques, to create a mélange of musical and extra-musical sounds, often with complete thoughts fractured into phonemes and tossed around among the singers. The ancient street cries began as snippets, each with its own rhythmic and melodic character, and they evolved into catchy jingles that would have been familiar to Londoners as an early form of advertising. Memorable madrigalisms in Berio’s Cries of London include the chorus’s heaving breathing “good garlic,” the sounds of seagulls squawking, and the bass’s descent on “some go down,” until he can no longer make any sound but a frayed, sputtering cough. Like much of Janequin’s music, Berio’s is part music, part theater.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Romancero Gitano, op. 152, for mixed chorus and guitar
The Castilla Nueva family, prominent Spanish Jewish bankers in the fifteenth century, fled to Italy during the 1492 Expulsion. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was born in Florence in 1898, and he grew up in Tuscany. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he took his family to America to escape fascism. He lived in Hollywood and became a very successful film composer; among his composition students were André Previn, Henry Mancini, and John Williams. Castelnuovo-Tedesco lived in Beverly Hills until he died in 1968, and he is buried in Westwood, California.

In 1951, Castelnuovo-Tedesco chose seven poems from Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1921 collection Poema del canto jondo (Poems of the Deep Song) for his chorus and guitar cycle. The work’s title makes reference to a different Lorca cycle of poems with the name Romancero Gitano, gypsy ballads that are paeans to the hidden soul of Andalusian culture, its customs, archetypal characters, and spiritual symbols. “Cante jondo” refers not only to the heart of Andalusian folk songs—suffering, longing, the relationship to nature, the otherness of the gypsy soul—but also to the full-throated vocal technique of the flamenco singer. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Romancero Gitano is one of almost 100 compositions he composed for guitar, writing that reflects his long association with the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia.

In the first movement, “The Ballad of Three Rivers,” the guitar depicts the rushing waters of the Guadalquivir River, suggested by tremolos, rasgueado, a type of flamenco finger-strumming, and solo singers interrupt with outbursts about love lost. “The Guitar” intones the inexorable power of the instrument’s five strings—“five-swords”—to destroy the heart, and the brief, aggressive “Dagger” menaces with its dissonances.

The center of the cycle places us in a crowd witnessing a Holy Week procession; as it materializes before his eyes, a baritone solo describes the approaching mystical pageant. This movement flows directly into “Saeta,” a tender song honoring the Virgin Mary, who is dressed in her glittering finest and bathed in twinkling candlelight. “Paso” is a heartbreaking vision of the statue of the tortured Christ. The procession moves into the distance, and the chorus hums, “Look where he’s been! Look where he’s going!” “Memento” dances a breezy tango, swaying with dreams of death, and “Dance,” a quick, triple time seguidilla oozes with Carmen’s nocturnal seduction. With “Castanet,” the song cycle erupts in flames, and the hypnotic cross rhythms of a feverish jota fulfill the burning flamenco spirit.