Takemitsu, Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov

After un repas merveilleux at NOLA on the square (I had the Jambalaya and The Lovely Wife had the scallops) we made  it  through an annoyingly late-season cold snap to Heinz Hall with more than enough time to hear Andris Nelsons conduct the PSO.  I’d been looking forward to the concert for a while as Scheherazade has been one of my favorite pieces for a long time.  A former trumpeter, I try every now and then (when I think my chops are up to it) to make it through through the “Scheherazade” section of my old excerpt book.  And when I do, I quickly remember that those parts are just way beyond me.  Who can double tongue that quickly and that cleanly?  I can’t.  Vosburgh, of course, rattled them off like it was no one’s business.

Some non-musical considerations, one up-to-the-minute and geographical and the other historical and cultural, impacted the program of last night’s concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (a fine band having a fine night, to be sure).

In response to the current earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergencies hitting Japan, the first scheduled piece on last night’s program, The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 “Fingal’s Cave” by Felix Mendellsohn was replaced by the Requiem for Strings Toru Takemitsu.  That’s the up-to-the-minute consideration.

I am assuming that Scheherazade, Op. 35 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was included in last night’s program as a part of Women’s History month.  While obviously not composed by a woman, the story the piece tells the story of a smart determined woman overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles with nothing more than her words. That’s the historical and cultural consideration.

According to Peter Burt, author of The Music of Toru Takemitsu, the Requiem came to have two dedicatees: Composer Fumio Hayasaka and the Takemitsu himself (who passed away in 1996).  Burt writes:

Two years after the death of Hayasaka, Takemitsu himself was obliged to take to his sickbed, and it was in this incapacitated state that he worked on a commission he had received from the Tōkyō Symphony Orchestra, sometimes managing to complete only a single bar, or even half a bar, during the course of a day. The work that eventually emerged from these painstaking efforts, Requiem for Strings, received its first performance in June 1957, and the composer’s comments at the time certainly gave the impression that this intensely elegiac work was intended as a memorial to his departed mentor: while Takemitsu claimed he had not written the piece ‘grieving over the death of any specific person’, as he was writing it he ‘gradually came to think about Fumio Hayasaka, and mourn his passing’.

In subsequent years, however, Takemitsu was to give a slightly fuller account of the Requiem’s genesis, and hint at the presence of a second possible dedicatee. In one of his many conversations with Takashi Tachibana, for instance, he observed that ‘at that time especially I was seriously ill, and since I finally realised that I didn’t know when I myself was going to die, I ended up thinking that one way or another I’d like to create one piece before my death … I thought I ought to write my own requiem’.

Sombre and grave and tightly wound, it really is something you have to hear.  It squeezes sorrow.  Slowly.

A world or two away, Scheherazade fairly screams out for a feminist reading.  In Rimsky-Korsakov’s own introduction, he described the piece with this:

The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

Barbara Crosette,  writing in the New York Times in 1999 about how Scheherazade had become important for Muslim women across the Middle East, fills in some details with this from a translation of the work by Husain Haddawy:

Scheherazade was not only a fictional character, but also a literary device invented to fill the role of narrator of the ”frame” story around the tales, which include raucous, bawdy adventures as well as morality lessons and stories loved by children, like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor. In the frame story, Scheherazade was the daughter of the Vizier, or chief minister, to a king, Shahrayar, who had been betrayed by his queen and turned violently against all women. Every night he would summon a new young virgin to his bed for sex, and every morning he would ask his Vizier to have her put to death.

One day, Scheherazade told her father she wanted to volunteer to go to the king. The Vizier was distressed, but could not stop her. Scheherazade contrived with her sister, Dinarzad, to start a storytelling session in the king’s chamber before the first night ended. With her encyclopedic knowledge and narrative skills, Scheherazade established a pattern of spinning out an exciting tale, but stopping before it reached an end, sparking the imagination of Shahrayar. He decided to let her live another day to hear what happened next — and then another day, and another and another. At the end of three years, Scheherazade had borne the king several children and had taught him through her stories not only to trust her but also to understand that there were good and bad people everywhere. She had, moreover, saved the rest of the kingdom’s young women from slaughter.

While it’s good that Scheherazade saves the rest of the kingdom’s young women from slaughter, it should still be noted that at the end, the Sultan is still in power and that Scheherazade had borne him several children.  Whatever Scheherazade’s accomplishments, patriarchy is still the political framework.  She just fixed it a little.

In any event it’s a good topic of discussion for women’s history month.

Between the Takemitsu and the Rimsky-Korsakov was Jonathan Biss playing Beethoven Op 19.  A relatively early piece of Beethoven’s (he was only 25 at its premier) it still distanced itself from its Mozartean origins.  Biss (still a relatively young man of 30) played the virtuosic piece with great ease.

The Lovely Wife told me later she liked the piece and liked the clarity of his playing.  Can’t say I disagree.

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