Friday, 29 June 2007

...and now for something slightly different

Hummel, Variations on a theme by Gluck, Op. 57
Born in Pozsony (now Bratislava, the capital of modern-day Slovakia), Hummel hopped across the border to Austria at an early age. His parents sent him back to the country of their birth to study with Mozart, and it was in Vienna that he made his concert debut at the age of nine. Forty years later he was a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. His elegant piano writing was a great influence on Chopin, and several of his orchestral and chamber works are still in the repertoire today. His ten Variations sur un thème d’Armide de Gluck are in the Classical variation style; each one (aside from the finale) is the same length as the operatic theme and sticks closely to its harmonic shape. Despite, or because of, these stylistic contraints, they are full of invention and humour.

Janacek, Variations, Op. 1
Less than a hundred miles north of Bratislava is the region of Moravia, in the Czech Republic. (The ‘Czechoslovakia’ of my title is nothing more than a convenient shorthand for this culturally-rich region of Eastern Europe.) The small Moravian town of Hukvaldy was the birthplace of Leoš Janáček, one of the most important twentieth-century composers (though he appears to day in his Romantic guise). Unlike Hummel, Janáček was not able to win fame and fortune in Austria, so he returned to his native land aged 22. He composed prolifically while working as a teacher, soloist and critic in Brno, although his lasting fame rests on a handful of works written after 1903. In these later years Janáček turned against the Classical-Romantic music of his youth, destroying almost everything he had written, forging a new fragmentary and acerbic idiom derived from Moravian folklore. Fortunately for us, these variations (from 1880) had been dedicated to his fiancée, later wife, Zdenka Schulsová, so he wisely spared them! They perfectly exhibit the tension inherent to the form; always striving for something new, yet each time pulled back towards the contours of the yearning theme.

Bankole, Variations for Little Ayo
Of all the works on the programme today, this one exhibits the ‘cleanest’ variation form, almost akin to a Baroque Chaconne, in which each variation is exactly the same length as the theme (about 8 seconds). It is a deceptively simple work, driven relentlessly forward by the dance. ‘Little Ayo’, presumably the compser’s son, must have been a pretty decent pianist when he was little. Bankole himself was a virtuoso on piano and organ, a prolific composer, teacher and broadcaster, who received much of his training in the UK (London and Cambridge) and devoted his tragically short career to bringing Nigerian music back to the Nigerian people and to the world at large.

Bankole, Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun
As far as I can gather (and information about Bankole has not been easy to get hold of – there is not even a Wikipedia article about him!) Egun is an African opera, possibly by Bankole himself. The theme has two essential elements: a set of chords heard at the start, which almost hum with melancholy and mystery, and a haunting melody which overlays the chords. Each of the episodes of the work varies one or both of these elements. Occasionally the music goes off in an unusual direction, and many of the central passages are exciting and upbeat, but it closes as it began, in haunting simplicity. The pianist Glen Inanga has done much to popularise Bankole’s piano music around the world, and after a concert in Cambridge last year he generously posted several rare scores to me. The Rhapsody was never published and only exists today because of a transcription made of Bankole himself improvising at the keyboard.

While I'm thinking about music, I thought I'd post a few more programme notes. This recital I gave in February. (I was particularly pleased with the title!) The Round Church is a lovely venue for such things, even if the piano is a bit creaky. There is something wonderful about giving people pleasure through music - indescribable. I guess that's why we have music - 'it'/'they' simply can't be rendered in words.