Michael Hersch and the Romantic Continuum

December 2nd, 2012 Uncategorized

(a portion of the following essay appeared as program notes for Hersch’s Kaufmann Hall concert in May of 2007)

The Sonata No. 2 for unaccompanied cello (2000-1), The Vanishing Pavilions for piano (2005), Caelum Dedecoratum for unaccompanied contrabass (2006), and the Fourteen Pieces for unaccompanied violin (2007) link together in an unbroken (and perhaps still unfolding) succession of works for solo instruments that constitutes a substantial measure of Michael Hersch’s creative output. Does the romantic condition pertain: the soloist as virtuoso, the artist as a lonely figure da solo in society, the sensitive individual with no kindred soul to accompany him? As pianist and exponent of his own music, Michael attains an unmatchable degree of virtuosity. In this respect he fits the composer-pianist mold of Liszt, a distinction all the more appreciable in the post-MIDI age when fewer and fewer acquire the skills necessary to realize their music in live performance. Our friend and mentor George Rochberg could be heard frequently quoting Saul Bellow, saying that “it is sheer madness to want to make art in America.” Few who embark on a life of writing serious music can escape this, and Michael undoubtedly has felt the role of the wanderer searching for that solace, that place, that “geliebtes Land, gesucht, geahnt, und nie gekannt.” That even Schubert was seeking this too, while living in the cultural nexus of early 19th century Vienna, poses no irony, but rather demonstrates that the beloved land, sought, yearned for, and never known is as much a spiritual as physical region whose pursuit is somehow central to the creative personality. Equally hard to find are peers, comrades who will walk with you, commiserate with you, interact on levels deeper than decorum of collegial politeness. Michael is no stranger to exercising self-reliance. His music will not greet you like Morgenstimmung of Grieg, but Michael nonetheless exhibits the Romantic disposition all the same, tracing back to the very epiphany that caused his musical awakening: the transformative, life changing experience of watching Solti conduct the Beethoven Fifth Symphony (the scene could have been scripted by Rolland!). His solo works bring this nature into distinct focus.

Nostalgia is one facet of Romanticism, a fascination with the past, a curiosity about what came before. While Michael is fully conversant with trends of modern and contemporary intellectualism (Milosz, Middleton) and the musical avant garde (Rihm, Feldman), his interests look back from Hölderlin (born the same year as Beethoven) on the literary side to Josquin des Prez, on the musical axis, and Josquin’s elder and possible teacher Ockeghem (born some 30 years before the invention of the printing press). A framed print of the 500-year-old Laurana/Piero della Francesca “View of the Ideal City” adorns his living room wall. One hears that he has absorbed motifs even more archaic, and can clearly recognize early trecento resonances and fragments of Gregorian chant. Exactly what elements from which sources are to be discerned, and how they are integrated I will discuss in a moment. First, it seems significant to mention influences that one might expect to find in the music of an emerging composer in the U.S., but which appear deliberately to be excluded from Michael’s. Among these would be some distinctly “American” feature, for instance, a reference to a composer predecessor like Copland or Ives — but with the exception of what is likely an entirely incidental similarity to Carl Ruggles, I can identify none. A nod to jazz, or an acknowledgement of one or another vernacular or ethnic idiom – don’t see that either. No populist inclinations evident whatsoever in musical content, textual associations or titles (here he will sooner use French or Latin). He seems to eschew Americana of any kind. The only case that might be made is possibly in relation to George Rochberg — certainly one of the deans of American composition — if you admit to a fundamental compatibility between Michael’s procedures and Rochberg’s aesthetic of liberally siphoning from the past. Even that is a stretch. George was not exactly a flag waver, and in any case, the manners of execution of these two, even if rooted in the same premise, are quite different. George’s method so often involves quotation and juxtaposition, Michael’s is intuitively based on filtering and synthesis. The outward result is that George’s music sounds more eclectic, Michael’s more homogenous. Let me get into a bit of detail to explain what I mean about the works on the program tonight, with reference also to Pavilions.

As I became acquainted with The Vanishing Pavilions, I wrote to Michael:

Somehow the listening experience recalls aspects of Die Winterreise, Das Lied von der Erde, bravura passages in Debussy and Messiaen. The way dismembered vestiges of phrases once lived, echoes of nursery rhymes, the sound of a kid practicing his Bach invention, bob up and down in the unrelenting funereal procession of tolling is almost graphic. The canon is grim, the species exercise afflicted. No. 2 and its relatives are brilliant. One could hardly imagine a better ending…the inevitable ascent into the upper register.

As I continued to reflect on the work, I added:

In its place among other extended sets for solo piano, various things come to mind — the Opus Clavicembalisticum of Sorabji, Vingt Regards, the Etudes of Ligeti, and so on. How does Pavilions distinguish itself among them? Sorabji is the culmination of the composer’s singular approach to improvisation — one of your men at Peabody is an expert on this. The Messaien derives from his Catholic mysticism, ornithology and his peculiar synaesthesic harmonic system, not to mention all the rhythmic modes, etc. Ligeti’s work is genre defined — these are studies in one way or another, ricercari. Larry Read wrote an extended work which I think was nominated for a Pulitzer last year, but it is in my opinion a throw-back to Busoni. Baratello’s Malebolge which I’m scheduled to premiere is a dramaturgical, wry and very descriptive interpretation of a segment of the Inferno (strangely Mozartean it its way). My own Ciclo metamorfico is full of nostalgia and place, sometimes savage and sometimes humorous. What to me differentiates Pavilions from all of these is that it comes across almost as a photo-journalistic display. There is innocence and pathos, mercury and stasis in the narrative, yet in an ancient classical way, no tinge of sentiment from the omniscient. The work does not serve as a vehicle for the narrator’s feelings, nor does it function to advertise virtuosity or demonstrate style. The recurrences almost remind me of those formulas in Homer — “the goddess grey eyed Athena,” etc. For me this seems its most unique quality.

In form I still regard the Pavilions as a series of frame stories, like those of Wolfram or Chaucer or Boccaccio. Or perhaps it could be compared to a tapestry, like the ancient one in Bayeux, a pre-photographic visual documentary of the exploits of William the Conqueror, 230 feet in length and a foot and a half high. Lateral exposition is a principle that the pieces on the program tonight all share.

But of what are these forms made? When I first heard Pavilions, a surprising economy of basic musical ingredients could be distinguished, all of which are common to the string pieces. In the area of pitch, three principal harmonic preferences can be cited. The composer finds life in semi-tone groupings – Andrew Druckenbrod has already drawn attention to the C-sharp-D-E-flat cluster that begins movement V of the cello Sonata. We see this grouping within the first 8 bars of the bass piece, and on the first page of the Fourteen Pieces for violin, at various transposition levels, and recurring conspicuously. This type of chromatic sonority derives from the more contemporary vocabulary. However, it can be elaborated non-percussively in ways that recall 4th species countrapuntal practice or primitive organal style. Another building block is the combination of the perfect fifth with an acciaccatura tone a half step above the bottom note – for instance, E-F-B. The components – the perfect fifth, and the half-step or minor 9th – may also be separated. Of course within this grouping is contained the tritone, which occasionally comes to the fore, as in movement III of the cello Sonata. My initial reference point for this tri-chord, which is the union of a perfect consonance with maximal dissonance, was the left-hand figure of Der Leiermann, the final song of Schubert’s Die Winterreise. I still feel there is a connection, and not just for harmonic reasons. However, there are antique examples yet closer to this configuration, such as can be heard in the “et tibi reddetur” of the Ockeghem Missa pro defunctis, or the older pseudo-Neidhart chanson Winter dîner künfte. The mixture of these and other elements is facilitated because of the way they have been pruned of their respective contexts. In addition to these chord types, we can witness generous employment of plagal cadence patterns and half cadences, outlined in skeletal two-part texturing. It is in these moments primarily that the sounds of the imperfect consonances occur. A strong case can be made for the full tonal cadence in the final 16 or so measures movement V of the Sonata (although the very last bar would be subdominant chord – an aborted plagal resolution?). Triadic sounds appear infrequently, although when they do, it is sometimes with heroic struggle, major and minor often battling it out.

Resources for melodic construction other than the harmonic units described suggest a more modal origin than anything else. Often the archaic modes are evoked (the chant Kyrie Orbis Factor suggests itself in the cello piece), along with scalar passages whose pitch content seems to have been freely fashioned.

A prevalent technique for two-voice phrase construction is Stimmtausch, or voice exchange, one of the most ancient contrapuntal devices. When applied to intervals like the minor 9th, it produces successions in which a dyad with A-flat on top and G on the bottom moves to one with G on top and A-flat on the bottom, thus extending and developing the dissonance.

The tempo and rate of unfoldment of many sections is elongated – here one thinks perhaps of Pärt, or the “dynamic stasis” of Giya Kancheli, as well as the abundant antecedent examples in Wagner, Schubert and Beethoven. Somehow Der Abschied comes to mind, with its redundant trill figure over the low C drone. Much of Michael’s writing in the pieces we are hearing tonight is tethered to the open strings, and in fact even in passages that don’t sit upon a sustained tone he will make the indication “droning” or “drone like.” The use of silence is prominent, of withholding the next sound. On the other hand, the music can reinvigorate itself at any time with a dynamic or articulative catalyst, press forward in crescendo and accelerando, and cover a wide range within a matter of a few measures or beats. The timing of the static versus the disruptive/animated is critical to keeping the attention and creating drama. A judicious use of redundancy, repetition and recurrence demarcates structure and guides the listening experience.

Factors regarding performance style cannot go unmentioned. Michael’s attitude toward the challenge of writing for solo strings is, I think happily for most players and listeners alike, one again of exclusion. There are expectations still in effect from the ’60’s when it comes to doing a solo instrumental piece. Extended techniques are to be used, an effort to make the instrument sound as much unlike itself as possible is a requisite, etc. Michael in these pieces remains oblivious to these concerns. The writing is flattering and idiomatic for each instrument as it was originally meant to be played and heard. We have little more sul ponticello than we do in Mozart or Beethoven, very sparse pizzicato, an occasional snap pizz. He seldom uses col legno, and then only battuto. Count how many harmonics you hear throughout the evening. There is no scordatura. Really, it’s all about the bow. He is very fond of pp

I have touched upon the question of form, but not sufficiently to address the obvious fact that these are all very extended works, Pavilions by itself taking more than 142 minutes, exceeding Winterreise by half an hour. While such divina lunghezza can be attributed to the slow pace of some of the music, or likened to medieval frame stories by way of explanation, it might be useful to view the works within the continuum of Romanticism, which is where we began. Sonata No. 2 for cello has no extra-musical inspiration behind it, however, as a sonata, is more of a suite in the baroque sense, and thus a collection of short pieces. The idea of an extended structure being the sum of an agglomeration of smaller units becomes a modus operandi in the Romantic period, bolstered especially when the individual components are bound together by segue, cyclic musical elements, by a common extra-musical theme, or by two or more of the above. In the case of the Sonata, cyclical development most definitely takes place from movement to movement, inviting the work into the Romantic world. The score of Caelum Dedecoratum is prefaced with passages from Christopher Middleton (who inspired The Vanishing Pavilions). They cast an indelible aura over the work, and though it is not divided into smaller movements, the literary imagery brings it into the Romantic realm of program music. Eight of the Fourteen Pieces take texts of Primo Levi as their point of departure. These are interspersed with pieces designated by genre indication (intermezzo or nocturne) rather than literary reference, although the intention certainly is that the literary imagery resonate and carry over into the non-text movements. What we have then in each case is a newly imagined application of the Romantic concept that an assemblage of shorter musical segments leaning together can yield a unified discourse of macro proportion.

Michael and I have known each other going on three years now, and during our rather regular coffee sessions, the composers that Michael talks about are invariably those whom he most admires and whose achievement he strives to emulate: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, whose piano music he has studied to professional performance level. These Romantics are ever present in his mind. He also invokes the names of Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Mahler, and speaks of his study of Bach (on both keyboard and violin) and his fascination with Byrd, Josquin and Ockeghem. Some of this early music he has made his own piano versions of. (Two such transcriptions he makes a point to include on his 2004 Vanguard/Artemis Classics CD in performances that reveal much about his pianism and his compositional methods.) “Classical music” as it is broadly categorized today is Michael’s homeland, with the Romantics populating its capital. This will come as a surprise to those like Nicholas Dawidoff who, in writing about Michael, divorces him from the classical continuum, dismissing the whole tradition as “cool” in the uncomplimentary sense. (One wonders how well acquainted the author is with this repertoire so cherished by Michael. Has he never encountered, for instance, those pieces which took on subtitles like “Appassionata” and asked how they came to be assigned? What about the “Lisztomania” phenomenon? That was the product of tepid cerebration? I don’t think so.) The music of Michael Hersch is inextricably tied to this venerable heritage. Informed by western idioms of the past, it does not represent an effort to produce “modern antiques,” as Emerson called them, or a Romanticism of “paste jewels.” It is a thick-skinned Romanticism, transcendental, toughened by the twentieth century experience — a kind of writing that intends to ‘throw its body at the mark when its arrows are spent.’ Maybe it is American after all, in the singular sense in which Ralph Waldo might have responded to it: “Hard clouds, hard expressions, and hard manners, I love.”

— Curt Cacioppo