Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Dvořák, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Price, et al. composed pieces entitled Symphony. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, Stravinsky, Walker, et al. composed pieces entitled Sonata. Schumann, Gade, Kirchner, Poulenc, Coleridge-Taylor, and a very few others composed pieces entitled Novelletten. So, what is a Novelletten and why aren’t there many of them?
Novelletten (Novella in English) was first used as a musical title by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) for his Opus 21. (1838). One of the earliest Romantic composers, Schumann was also a writer and journalist, and his literary interests had a direct influence on his compositions. Many of his character pieces for piano—short works that express a specific moods or non-musical ideas—were inspired and named after his literary creations, such as Eusebius, Florestan, and the Davidsbündler or by things such as butterflies (Papillons, Op. 2). Unsurprisingly, Schumann wrote an entire piece in which each section contained an overt literary reference; that is, a series of novellas, hence Novelletten. Schumann’s poetic and personal approach was influential for generations. But few composers could pack so much into a musical miniature and the few that were not cowed by Schumann’s example were rarely as overt as Schumann with their music’s inner workings. One who did try was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
Coleridge-Taylor’s father, Daniel Taylor, met the Englishwoman Alice Martin when he came to London from Sierra Leone to study medicine. The two never married and Daniel returned to Africa to pursue his career not knowing Alice was pregnant. Naming her child Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (in honor of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), she went to live with her father’s family and raised her mixed-race child to be an Englishman. Growing up in a household that included professional musicians, Coleridge (as he was called), took violin lessons and sang in local church choirs. In 1890, his obvious talents gained the 15-year-old admission to the Royal College of Music where he took an interest in composition, studying beside fellow students Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams. The young composer received a thorough Germanic training and started to compose prolifically, writing a symphony, chamber music (a quartet, two quintets, and a nonet), and character pieces (Five Fantasiestücke, Op. 5), solid pieces that reflected his training and attracted the attention of the leaders of English music.
That began to change in the late 1890s. The Englishman Coleridge-Taylor became interested in exploring his African heritage and Pan-Africanism and started to use the materials and themes he discovered in compositions such as The Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30, Four African Dances, Op. 58, and Symphonic Variations on an African Air, Op. 63. These pieces made Coleridge-Taylor an international figure—there was a Coleridge-Taylor Society in Washington D.C., he toured the United States three times (during which he met W.E.B De Bois and President Theodore Roosevelt), and he was the youngest delegate at the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900.
So, when Coleridge-Taylor composed his Novelletten, Op. 52 for string orchestra and optional percussion in 1903, was he drawing from his European training or his African heritage discoveries? The short answer is both. The four movements are clearly character pieces derived from the Romantic tradition that Schumann epitomized, while their musical vocabulary clearly lives in the same space as Dvořák’s when he incorporated New World inspirations in his European music. (Case in point - Coleridge-Taylor later added an additional movement derived from his Symphony in a minor to his Novelletten and retitled the piece Haitian Dances) The vigorous fourth movement is a virtuosic display of string techniques from a composer who started his career as a violinist. Does the Novelletten No. 4 have a clear literary inspiration as do Schumann’s Novelletens? No. But it clearly has a story to tell.
Composers discover how to compose by composing; that is, they learn on their own how to express their unique musical identity using techniques they were taught. They learn those techniques by going to conservatory (Berlioz, Prokofiev), studying privately (Stravinsky, Copland), or being homeschooled (Mozart, Mendelssohn). But some composers are autodidacts (Telemann, Elgar) who learn both what they wanted to say and techniques to say it without a teacher, a tutor, or a trainer. One such composer is the virtuoso flutist Gary Schocker (b. 1959). The Easton, PA native studied with Julius Baker, soloed with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic when he was 15, went to the Juilliard School in New York, won numerous flute competitions, was a last-minute replacement for Jean-Pierre Rampal, and has performed and taught throughout the world.
Yet, for all his accomplishments as an instrumentalist, Schocker, when asked what he was proudest of, said “I am a self-taught composer. Nobody really encouraged that; I just had to do it.” He was 7 when he composed his first piece (Lollipop Waltz), 15 when wrote his first published piece (Scherzo), and, after taking time to focus on performance while attending Juilliard, began, in his late 20’s, to compose in earnest when he penned In Memoriam in 1982. Schocker has since published over 200 pieces (and counting), writing for a wide variety of genres while focusing on music for flute.
Schocker’s working method is as unique as his path to composing. After he finds an inspiration (Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Broadway, natural phenomenon, folk music from Greece, Taiwan, Japan, and Latin America, for starters), he waits. Schocker feels that “…writing is just a question of being patient. I try not to write anything down until I’m sure that’s what I want. And I don’t believe in doing multiple choice when I am composing. I wait until I hear where it should go and then I write it down.” He does this because “As soon as you think about something to write down – in a sense, it loses its electricity.” As a result, when he does commit notes to paper, Schocker writes with single-minded rapidity.
In 1992, Schocker, while writing a piece for flute and piano entitled Nightblooming, had a dinner guest, the Irish flutist James Galway. (“I overcooked the beef…I think I was nervous.”). After dinner, Schocker played Nightblooming for Galway, who was impressed. He “suggested I compose outer movements and orchestrate what I played him…. I am glad he did!” Galway premiered the expanded work, Green Places for solo flute and small orchestra, later that year. Dedicated to Galway, it now had three sections as Galway suggested—Topiary, Nightblooming, and Troll Garden—all inspired by the natural world. Schocker writes “Topiary (is) a formal maze punctuated by fantastic living tableaux. At the hidden center is a secret garden. ‘What is this strange place where blue flowers grow on the cinnamon trees?’ were the words in my head when I wrote that section. Nightblooming: Jasmine, queen of the night, orange blossoms all contribute to the intoxicating atmosphere. Troll Garden (is) a ride through craggy forest. Don’t fall off your horse!” At the American premiere with the New Jersey Symphony in 1993, the critic Michael Redmond wrote “The writing for flute could not be more fluent and attractive. Schocker’s is not a deep piece, true, but it does not aspire to be—the music’s appeal lies in its sincerity and imaginativeness.” Enjoy the ride.
Classical music honors its child prodigies. Mendelssohn, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Prokofiev were all seen as preternatural phenoms and were celebrated as composers at an age when most of us are trying to figure out how to ask someone out on a date. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) development as a composer, on the other hand, was quite different.
Vaughan Williams studied piano (which he disliked) and violin and participated in school musical activities before attending the Royal College of Music, (RCM, 1890-92) then Trinity College, Cambridge (1892-1895), then again, the RCM (1895-96). He received scant encouragement for becoming a musician. His family, thinking he couldn’t make it in music, scotched his ambition to be an orchestral player, pressured him to leave the RCM, and pushed him to attend Trinity for a broader education. At Trinity, behind his back, people referred to him as a “foolish young man” who “was so hopelessly bad at it (music).” But when Vaughan Williams talked shop with fellow students at the RCM, especially Gustav Holst, things clicked. "What one really learns from an Academy or College is not so much from one's official teachers as from one's fellow-students ... [we discussed] every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure.”
Leaving academia, Vaughan Williams studied privately with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel, and supplemented his private income with musical odd jobs—church organist (which he found a burden), editor (for the Purcell Society and of the English Hymnal), writer, and collector of English folk songs. He was the ripe old age of 39 when he produced his first compositions in his own voice (On Wenlock Edge (1909) and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)). While this may seem an unusually long apprenticeship, the odd jobs were seminal in the development of Vaughan Williams’ musical character. His studies with Bruch and Ravel sharpened his (in his words) “amateurish technique,” his time at Trinity sharpened his appreciation for English writers, his church activities sharpened his performance skills and his appreciation of the best (and worst) English church music, his editorial work sharpened his grasp of the English music from the Renaissance and the early Baroque, and his discovery of English folk song sharpened his awareness of musical possibilities beyond the Germanic influences that dominated English musical culture and education. Just as with his RCM classmate Coleridge-Taylor, Vaughan Williams needed to discard the conventions implicit in his training to find his own language. The melodic and harmonic procedures of English folk song and the heyday of early English music (Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons) gave him the means to find that language. The result—a flood of music (symphonies, operas, film and radio scores, cantatas, ballets—over 100 works) bearing his stamp for the rest of Vaughan Williams’ long life (whose sesquicentennial we celebrate this year). Possibly the most famous of those pieces is The Lark Ascending (Romance for Violin and Orchestra) dedicated to and premiered by the violinist Marie Hall in 1920/21. Composed in 1914 (its premiere delayed by Vaughan Williams’ service in WWI), it was inspired by a poem of the same name by the English writer George Meredith (1828-1909). Indeed, Vaughan Williams copied several lines of the poem at the beginning of the score:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake….
For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes….
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
While the piece is a brief fifteen minutes long, it captures all the facets of Vaughan Williams’ artistic outlook. It springs from his interest in English literature, its compositional technique is practical and sure (nothing amateurish about it), and the musical depiction of the lark and its flight over the English landscape uses the melodic and harmonic practices Vaughn Williams absorbed in his study of folk and early English music. Indeed, so complete was Vaughn Williams’ incorporation of those idioms into his musical vocabulary that some thought that the solo violin’s evocation of the high-flying lark, with its chirrup, whistle, slur and shake, was based on an actual folk song. That mistake may be the clearest recognition that Vaughan Williams was, after his long apprenticeship, speaking in his own voice.
In 1806, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a busy man. He was working on his Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 60, his Violin Concerto, Op. 61, his opera that eventually became Fidelio, Op. 72, his three Razumovsky string quartets, Op. 59, his Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, and his Symphony No. 6, Op. 68. Even with this workload (or maybe because of it), Beethoven took to the countryside in the spring and summer of 1806 as a guest at the Silesian summer castle of his patron, Prince Lichnowsky. The prince introduced Beethoven to his summer neighbor, Count Franz von Oppersdorf, an enthusiastic admirer of Beethoven’s music. The Count had his servants perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 36 for the composer (even the cooks in his establishment had to be proficient on an instrument) and then commissioned a new symphony from him.
Beethoven readily accepted, but what music he responded with is a question. Beethoven’s working method, in which he made copious sketches (there are 10,000 extant pages and many more have been lost) that he would incessantly rework before settling on a final version, was unusual in his day. As he was working on so many pieces at the same time, we know that he had buckets of raw material available to use for this new symphony. But we also know from his sketches that Beethoven did not use any of it; it was used in the Symphonies No. 5 and 6. Indeed, atypically for Beethoven, there are very few surviving sketches for what became the Symphony No. 4, Op. 60. During his stay at the prince’s castle, did Beethoven elect to compose a brand new work for the Count that became the Symphony No. 4? Or, as some letters to Beethoven’s publisher suggest, did Beethoven have part or all of the symphony finished when he went to Silesia? If that is the case, where are those sketches and how far along were they when Beethoven went to Silesia? We probably will never have definitive answers, but we do have the symphony itself.
The symphony premiered in Vienna in 1808. It confounded critics and musicians who, after experiencing the massive Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 Eroica, expected a grand piece in Beethoven’s heroic style. Instead, Beethoven had written a work of modest orchestration and length that seemed more like a stepping stop that should have preceded the Eroica rather than follow it. Beethoven then confounded them even more by following the Fourth with the groundbreaking Symphony No. 5, prompting Robert Schumann’s description of the Fourth symphony as “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” While Symphony No. 4 lacks the massive profile of the Eroica or the scorching intensity of Symphony No. 5 and therefore may seem modest in the shadow of its neighbors (just as your very tall brother would seem like a shrimp standing next to some players from the NBA), it holds its own, being utterly Beethovian in its character and innovations.
The symphony is in four movements, and, like Beethoven’s first two symphonies, the first movement starts with a slow introduction, here marked Adagio (slowly). This introduction is crucially unlike its predecessors. Like Symphony No. 1, Op. 21, it does not start in its home key (here, B-flat Major; it starts in b-flat minor). Like Symphony No. 2, it modulates to extremely remote keys (using a musical pun of rewriting the note G-flat as an F-sharp to get to the key of b minor) and, by avoiding any clear statement of the home key of B-flat Major, heightens the ambiguity and tension of the introduction. But this slow introduction, which ends with a tremendous release of energy, does not, as do its predecessors, arrive at the home key with the beginning of the movement proper, marked Allegro vivace. Rather, the first occurrence of the home chord of B-flat Major happens five measures after the start of the Allegro vivace, setting up a chain of ambiguities that is only resolved at the start of the final section (a coda). This fast section is in sonata form (in which a piece starts in a home key—often signaled with a specific set of tunes—before moving to a different key using different tunes, thereby setting up a tension that is only resolved later when all of the tunes are played in the home key) and uses the simplest materials to set up and resolve its oppositions. The material is so straightforward that the composer Carl Maria von Weber complained that “Every quarter of an hour, we hear three or four notes.” Perhaps. After all, the timpani solos consist of one sustained note. But the boisterous and muscular character of the movement is typical of much of Beethoven’s music of that period.
The lyrical second movement, marked Adagio, combines sonata form with a rondo (in which a recurring idea is sandwiched between a series of contrasting ideas), a rarity in a slow movement. The lively third movement scherzo (Italian for “joke”) creates excitement (and an occasional train wreck in performance) by masking the triple pulses of the meter with duple grouping in the melody and expands the A-B-A (Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo) scheme used in the first three symphonies to an A-B-A-B-A scheme. The last movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast), is a perpetual motion machine that features the bassoons in its lively and witty ending.
© 2022 Ubaldo Valli