Saturday, 3 December 2016

“What harmony is this? My good friends, hark!”
An introduction to the music of Paul Moravec…

Paul Moravec; courtesy of Subito Music Corporation

Note: Originally written for – and published on – the Orchestra of the Swan blog29 November 2016.

Marvellous sweet music!
A few weeks ago, I interviewed composer Paul Moravec, by email. My principal aim, as the Orchestra of the Swan’s (OOTS) Writer-in-Residence, was to learn more about Nocturne – which will be premièred by OOTS at the next ArtsHouse concert on 6 December 2016 – and gather enough material from our discussion to produce a programme note. However, until very recently, I hadn’t really known much about his music – or the man. So, in preparation, I spent many, many hours listening to all of the available recordings I could unearth of his music; and reading liner notes, previous appraisals, and previous dialogues.

This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
– Shakespeare: As You Like It (II.i.10-11)

I was so taken with his music – all of it… – that I thought, by way of introduction (if you too have not heard his compositions before), it would be worth reviewing (and noting my reactions to) a handful of the choicest examples. (These are works that immediately spoke to me, and to my condition as a human being: and the whole process therefore felt a little like falling in love! To be honest, I may therefore have become a little addicted to them: rendering it quite difficult to limit myself to just a few pieces – or a few words…!)

I can’t sum up Nocturne in one word, but I can say that I always try to make beautiful things, and this is no exception.
– Paul Moravec (personal correspondence)

What I took away from my many hours sat in my favourite chair, wearing my favourite headphones, notebook on my knee, is that it seems that Moravec doesn’t so much ‘write music’ as compose and communicate emotion. Part of the reason I say this is that I have always preferred music that moves me (as I hope do most): especially when it does so through what can (and should) feel like an almost empathic connection. Additionally, since I began to lose (then artificially regain) my hearing, I seem to have become a little less interested in the technical detail, and more interested in the overall effect (even though the act of listening is, now, for me, an immensely technical one). And, whether it is by conscious or unconscious means, I think the greatest composers have always had this ‘knack’ of being able to make their feelings known through their works – whatever the period, prevailing ‘norms’, or forces (although I admit that the following is an extremely personal selection…). For example: Bach’s slow movements (whether instrumental or choral); any Schubert chamber music (including the song-cycles); Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte; most Brahms; Berg’s and Webern’s piano music (particularly the former’s first sonata; and the latter’s Variations…); and a huge chunk of twentieth-century British music. (The latter may, of course, be genetic!)

All of my compositions, whether ‘programmatic’ or not, seem to have some sort of emotional narrative, however abstract. I try to make audible the workings of the central nervous system – presumably my own. On some level, Nocturne is a non-verbal narrative playing out in that realm.
– Paul Moravec (personal correspondence)

I also believe those “greatest composers” have an instantly identifiable ‘voice’. And – although admitting (reluctantly) that binge-listening may have contributed to such a diagnosis – I think this can genuinely be said of Moravec. (And I see a parallel, here, with the ‘honesty’ – the courage, almost – of conveying one’s emotions: that is, knowing yourself, and being true to yourself.) What that “voice” is, of course, is difficult to define: but there is – amongst other things – a ‘driven-ness’ (more than mere impetus); a dramatic lyricism that isn’t necessarily tonal; and an understanding of each instrument’s varying sounds and capabilities (whether alone; or combined, or contrasted, with others). There is also what I can only describe as an ‘humaneness’ inherent throughout. Oh, and seemingly never quite as far away as one may have initially imagined (especially with regards to dénouements), a wicked wittiness – or even witty wickedness (what he sometimes details in his scores as “impishness”) – of the Haydn/Shostakovich variety! (I think what surprised me most, though, is a lack of an evident American ‘accent’ – as articulated by Copland, Barber, Ives, Bernstein, etc. – or, at least, not one I’ve discerned yet. His music feels utterly ‘universal’.)

By the way, this is not to say that I find his music easy to listen to… – there are some wonderful technical currents flowing beneath the surface beauty; as well as intense feelings I struggle to describe. But it is listening. And it is rewarding. This is music that you can’t simply hear. It pulls you in; questions your soul; forces you to pay attention – and there aren’t many musicians who have that ability. Few contemporary composers – to me… – seem keen to expose their own hearts: in the way, say, Schumann, Elgar, or Britten did. The ones that come instantly to mind include the late Peter Maxwell Davies; Howard Skempton; Dobrinka Tabakova; and Arvo Pärt.

In essence, though, this is what makes Moravec’s oeuvre so very special. And I hope – having read the following – not only will you come to the concert to discover this for yourself; but you will come expecting – and finding – nothing other than a composer at the peak of his game.

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1992)
Even at his most tender (or even fragile…) – as in the central movement of this sonata: Singing, tender, rubato – one word that crops up again and again, listening to his music, is ‘passion’ (perhaps best exemplified by his compact Vita Brevis song-cycle). Moravec has a way of producing the most exciting, thrilling highs; and deep, heartrending lows – from a ferocity of feeling and desire; the poetic rages of ardour, fervour and enthusiasm; to driving movement and vigour… – often within a few bars of each other. And, although he is the master of instrumentation (from solo piano to opera) – his scores (as with the beauty they express) appear simply to flow directly from the heart. (His knowledge of the capabilities of each instrument – whether alone, or in combination with others – is, however, readily apparent in all his works; and yet, masterfully, also completely invisible.)

Additionally, there is soul-splitting intimacy – no matter the size of the forces (although he does, as here, seem to prefer smaller groups of musicians – perfect, therefore, for OOTS!) – as well as direct sincerity: both of which seem intrinsic to every note. Whether you wish, as some have done, to label him a ‘new tonalist’, or even a ‘romantic’, he is – like so many great composers – his own man. It also occurs to me that the reason so many find his music to be ‘accessible’ – as those two epithets imply – is because of its obvious origins in the greatest musical traditions: including the captivating drollery, of say Shostakovich – the final movement being labelled Impish, sprightly (the first word of which is to Moravec as Nobilmente is to Elgar); and ending with a flourish that Haydn would be proud of!

Characteristics (1995)
The titles of these seven short piano piecesBoisterous, Serene, Impish, Vivacious, Elegant, Humorous and Contemplative – although enshrining “tributes from the composer to seven musical friends: three pianists, two composers, a violinist and a countertenor, in the form of pithy piano commentaries” – also seem to reflect a self-awareness: capturing, as they do, traits of the composer himself. To me, they are also not that far removed from the surface moods of Holst’s The Planets, or Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’. However you wish to interpret them, they are indubitably a great introduction to the musical world Moravec inhabits and creates.

Tempest Fantasy (2003)
This is the work Moravec is most famous for; and the one that will always ensure that he is labelled a “Pulitzer Prize-winning composer” in any promotional material! Having recently seen the play (twice), it is obvious that there are strong literary connections and inspirations contained within. However – and perhaps the reason this work feels even more ‘personal’ (to me) than most of his others – there is another vital thread that binds the five movements together:

Moravec has also suggested that the piece was an allegory for his own struggle with depression, commenting: “Coming back from depression, I identified with Prospero and his melancholy and his downcast state. Through the power of imagination he improves his condition, and so that’s what I did as a composer.”

The work is thrilling from the outset: Ariel an almost moto perpetuo representation of the “airy spirit bound in service to Prospero and impatient for his release” – although there are some moments of impish introspection.

Tempest Fantasy is a musical meditation on various characters, moods, situations, and lines of text from my favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest. Rather than trying to depict these elements in programmatic terms, the music simply uses them as points of departure for flights of purely musical fancy.
     The first three movements spring from the nature and selected speeches of the three eponymous individuals. The fourth movement begins from Caliban’s uncharacteristically elegant speech from Act III, scene 2: “Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”
     The fifth movement is the most ‘fantastic’ flight of all, elaborating on the numerous musical strands of the previous movements and drawing them all together into a convivial finale.
– Paul Moravec (programme note)

The second movement, Prospero, is immensely beautiful and contemplative (leading me to infer that this and the first are two sides of Moravec’s own personality). It is almost pleading in nature, with undertones of darkness and sadness (and therefore a perfect portrait of “the deposed Duke of Milan”; as well as of – from my experience – that exacting battle with depression).

The instrumentation is quite wonderful: vividly portraying the complexity of the character; and producing some remarkable textural and atmospheric diversity – from that of loneliness; through gentle and shimmering; to impressions of tall, sunlit mountain peaks (and their deep foundations and reflections) – as well as everything in between. It is utterly heart-rending.

Caliban – “the savage son of the witch Sycorax” – is extremely discomfiting (as he should be). At times menacing, the music conjures up a creature of the dark; although one also senses states of longing, (again) of loneliness, of unrest (as with Prospero…). There is also – that word again! – impishness. And yet, somehow, this mischievousness feels ‘evil’ – especially when compared to the (misleading) ‘goodness’ one senses in Ariel.

Sweet Airs is “sweet”, indeed. One can feel Caliban’s craving (for beauty, for Miranda, for peace…). It is, in essence, a song without words: perfectly encapsulating some of Shakespeare’s most radiant poetry; and building to overwhelming passion… – passion that is never fully resolved. The textures are always clear, however: the cello, clarinet, violin and piano always, somehow, retaining their individuality (of line, of spirit).

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
– Shakespeare: The Tempest (III.ii.95-101)

The final Fantasia brings all the previous four movements together: as if the different characters were discoursing. Somehow, it feels as if it is a representation of the drama as a whole – although it concentrates more on the happy humour and resolutions than the darkness which forms the play’s twisted backbone.

Is this Moravec’s masterpiece? Honestly, I do not know; and cannot say. It is tremendous, though; and certainly, at the time of composition (and subsequent award), must have felt like the culmination of all that had gone before. It is also, without a doubt, a momentous pinnacle – albeit one scaled (by the listener) with ease – and, in its thirty minutes, perfectly embodies Moravec’s musical ethos. (Everything he produces feels so perfectly natural – so necessary – so ordained – so inevitable… – and yet so utterly original; so unmistakably ‘his’…!)

Clarinet Concerto (2008)
This is unlike any other clarinet concerto I can think of; and is evidently focused on the phenomenal talents of its dedicatee – also of the Tempest Fantasy… –David Krakauer [pdf]. At times, it feels a little retrospective – and yet it is clearly ground-breaking, too. (What is obvious – as I have said before – is that not only does Moravec understand both the capabilities and the requirements of each instrument or group… – but that he also quickly grasps the same of the individual players [pdf].)

The delicate soupçons of Klezmer and jazz that Krakauer brings to it (on the recording I listened to) may be partly responsible for its inimitable feel. But the string writing in the middle Expressive, melancholic movement somehow contains hints of twentieth-century English pastoral… (think of Finzi’s equivalent work, perhaps…) – a feeling that lingers on into the Slow introduction to the Quick final movement.

This is astonishing writing – whatever lens you view it through – and Moravec’s orchestration – plus his manifest trust in the musicians he writes for (and with) – produces something quite utterly gobsmacking. What he does with the simple, short phrase that is at the beating heart of the central movement is beyond remarkable….

Wind Quintet (2010)
Seven vastly different moods and soundscapes – each of the movements fitting beautifully together; and yet each demonstrating fresh ways of creating musical texture from the interplay of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon… – this is another breathtaking, intimate work: and yet somehow it feels ‘vast’ in compass (even in the dozen minutes or so it occupies). It wraps itself around you – not exactly comforting, as such – but generating warmth and companionship. It welcomes us to a new world of music – one that is as fresh as a spring breeze, and just as awe-inspiring… – but created from a vocabulary that is readily comprehended by all.

The final movement, labelled simply Quick – is Moravec at his most “impish”! There is something of both Haydn and Stravinsky in here: light feather-caresses of wit and sparkling conversation in the instrumental interplay; and extremely addictive!

Violin Concerto (2010)
For me, this is Moravec’s magnum opus. Everything he knows, that he has learned, experienced, become… pouring instinctively onto the stave and into our ears: challenging our perceptions from first note to last. It is so very intense a journey (the portrayal of a whole life lived, perhaps…) – and starts as it means to go on. There is no rest for the soloist; and, even though it may feel as if Moravec has played all his emotional cards within moments of the devastating, staggering opening, the last two minutes of the first movement are so gravity-defying; so hollowing; so harrowing; so gut-wrenchingly real (the absolute denotation of beauty and pain conjoined…) that I cannot imagine anyone within a thousand miles of its performance being left unscathed.

This sings so immediately to every sense; unswervingly fuses to your soul – pure, unadulterated truth… – and is the composer consistently, persistently at his very, very best: equalling, then surpassing, soaring above whatever wonders orchestras and solo violins have ever achieved before. Each time I listen, it shocks, it disturbs, it hurts… but it transfigures. What magic is it that can make a human being, a mere mortal, drill into their imagination, mark it on the page… so that this emerges…? As shattering to perform, I imagine, as it is to listen to. (But you will be left wanting more. I promise….)

The second movement brings a sort of respite – but no lesser radiance. This has a gentleness, though; a singing quality; a serenade which soothes, a little… – but that retains that ability to question; as well as to astonish. It seems to emerge naturally from the desolation that precedes it: creating something crystalline in its soaring lyricism and yearning…. Higher, ever higher. We are above the clouds, only the most slender of gossamer threads securing us…. But it is much, much too short.

The ever-expanding cadenza which constitutes the third movement is the most breathtaking compensation: tough, tough virtuosity – perhaps an antidote of a kind… – streaming seamlessly into the initially mysterious, alien – even dismaying – opening of the final movement. Any clarity that emerges has to fight hard for its existence: but beauty this true will always vanquish whatever is thrown in its path… – in this case, leaving behind only joy….

Piano Quintet (2011)
Although still fulfilling the extremely fluid, descriptive definition of ‘Moravecian’, this work, I feel, is evidence of a lifelong willingness to continue experimenting, learning…. There is no waning of the composer’s mastery – or impishness! What I’m starting to realize, however, is that every work is seen as an opportunity to start anew. Yes, there may be cross-fertilization of ideas and themes, occasionally; but it’s as if Moravec views each commission (or, simply, composition) as a fresh puzzle to be solved, completed; and that the result uses not only his accumulated expertise, but relies heavily on instinct, on innate ‘rightness’ – perhaps jointly fulfilling a current emotional need or state…? Obviously there is an evolution of ‘style’ (however difficult that is to pin down); but, frequently, this appears to be cyclical and iterative: spiralling upwards and outwards from youth to the present… – and, hopefully, continuing long into the future.

That this work prompted such thoughts is because it feels a little less ‘approachable’ than other recent, contemporary pieces – explicitly more ‘crafted’. (Craftsmanship that is usually, I feel, more easily worn… – and the virtuoso demonstrations of which, generally, are cunningly disguised by the beauty, the emotion, the truth, the impact… of the resulting music. And yet, somehow, it feels as if it fits, as if it belongs to the wider ‘contemporary classical music’ scene – to that more challenging landscape – somehow more readily than it does to Moravec’s own personal perspective….)

Perhaps it is an experiment (which is No Bad Thing); and perhaps in response to some internal or external factor or influence; or perhaps – as is so much of the compositional process and its mysteries – just happenstance. Or – perhaps – it is just that the composer wears his workings (his imagination, even), more openly – “upon my sleeve For daws to peck at”…? Whatever (slight) reservations I have, it definitely repays repeated listening – its intricacies begin to meld and form patterns, to engage emotionally as well as technically. There is another cracking ending to listen out for, as well!

Shakuhachi Quintet (2012)
Regular OOTS concert attendees will recognize this as the Shakuhachi Concerto – which was premièred with James Nyoraku Schlefer at Spring Sounds: Spring Seas in May 2013. This feels the most ‘classical’ of Moravec’s works – or, at least, those I have listened to… – its opening somewhat mournful: and thus reminding me of some of the more intense moments of Bartók’s string quartets; or even Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

This is a work which, above all others, demonstrates Moravec’s immediate understanding of an instrument’s (and its player’s) capabilities – his obvious generosity of spirit; his willingness to learn from, and work with, those who know those “capabilities” best – to produce something unique and radiantly beautiful. The third movement, incidentally, “is based on the six-note melody, C-D-G-A-E-F, which William Shakespeare [well, Holofernes: my loquacious doppelgänger] spelled out in his comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost” – so it seems appropriate that it was first performed, in its expanded form, in Stratford-upon-Avon!

Old Mantuan, old Mantuan! who understandeth thee not, loves thee not. Ut, re, sol, la, mi, fa. Under pardon, sir, what are the contents? or rather, as Horace says in his – What, my soul, verses?
– Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.ii.51)

Amorisms (2014)
I’m conscious of the fact that all the works I have reviewed so far have been purely instrumental: especially now that Moravec is becoming well-known for his recent, successful forays into opera – especially The Shining, based on “Stephen King’s 1977 bestselling novel” (not the film). He has also created a large body of choral work – from 1980’s a cappella Ave Verum Corpus to last year’s Music, Awake! (with orchestra) and Winter Songs (with piano) – and composed many pieces for solo voice: including the awesome (aforementioned) Vita Brevis (2002).

So, to conclude, I’d like to discuss Amorisms for SATB chorus, clarinet and string quartet: a “cycle of songs that chart a birth-to-death journey” – and which also has a direct Stratfordian connection:

The idea for this composition came to me while visiting Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon  [for the première of the above concerto]. Amorisms sets five Shakespearean aphorisms about love. As this is a dance-piece, I wanted to keep the texts short, simple and set repetitively so that once the audience gets the idea for each movement, they can focus more readily on the dancers themselves.

Although written as “a dance-piece”, this can definitely, easily be enjoyed as a standalone work – ‘as is’! However, there is certainly a balletic feeling to the five songs: stemming from the short, repeated texts – which the music fits immaculately. There is an almost ‘spiritual’ feeling to the first, Love is a spirit (taken from Venus & Adonis – “all compact of fire, Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire”). How quick and fresh, which follows (from Love’s Labour’s Lost again), though, somehow feels extremely Shakespearean – especially with the string quartet to the fore. The hushed singing towards the end is also quite mesmerizing.

The course of true love – uttered sadly by Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines; and Moravec takes advantage of the speaker’s sorrow, opening the song with a mournful, almost regretful, clarinet solo: containing more “hints of twentieth-century English pastoral” – but this time with an almost religious tinge. (Is this a result, I wonder, of the composer having been – like me – a church choirboy? It can certainly be a persuasive influence!) And yet this is where the instrumentation really shines. (There is also a version for SSATB soloists: which I feel would allow the textures – which Moravec is so expert at – to float yet more openly.)

Sweet lovers – an extract from It was a lover and his lass, from As You Like It – also builds from an almost church-like opening: this time, to a wonderful swinging rhythm. Despite the instrumental interjections, and catchy rhythmic accompaniment, the ‘spiritual’ feel of the first song returns only momentarily – until a repeat of the opening choral motif, under a high, sustained violin note, leads to a close of transcendent beauty.

When love speaks, however, is the perfect way to end such an intimate work: each instrumental line the equal of the vocal ones – in importance, meaning, and beauty… – the violin perhaps “the voice of all the gods” (Berowne’s long “O, ’tis more than need” speech from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act IV, scene iii, such a wonderful proclamation…). The a capella setting of “Make heaven drowsy” – followed by some transcendental instrumental writing – brought a lump to my throat. The last word – “harmony” – so apposite; and so utterly astonishing that I “melted into air, into thin air”.

Praise in departing.
Having spent some time with the score of Nocturne, I feel that it continues the journey outlined by the above works; and can easily be characterized by the most common words above: “truth”, “passion”, “intimacy”, “emotion”, “beauty”. It may not be as explicit a response to the Sinfonia Concertante that inspired it, as was Douglas J Cuomo’s to Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto (composed for the previous ArtsHouse concert); but it is still obviously – with “more than an element of the neo-classical” – as Moravec states, “an homage to Haydn: especially regarding his masterly sense of formal balance and proportion”. It is also, in many places, quite ravishing; fits OOTS like an exquisitely-tailored silken glove; and – as you may now expect – is replete with expression and feeling. You will not be disappointed….

I hope that the audience takes something useful away with them from hearing my music. I hope generally that my music is entertaining; but I’m not an entertainer. I’m after bigger game than entertainment. Entertainment takes us out of ourselves and returns us to ourselves pretty much unchanged – and that is an extremely important, probably indispensable, part of our human experience. No less indispensable is the function of art: to take us into ourselves and leave us subtly transformed in some positive, ineffable way.
– Paul Moravec (personal correspondence)

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