Originally published on July 7, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
When it comes to the analysis of music, there is a special place in my heart for Donald Francis Tovey. By today’s standards he is likely to be viewed as more gentleman than scholar, but he still took an interesting approach to his work that bears reflection. When others were trying to figure out the right magnifying glass for examining individual compositions, Tovey took a more evolutionary approach. Here is how I summarized his work recently on my blog:
Tovey, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the physiology of a particular species as he is with how that species evolved. This is most evident in the “Music” entry that he prepared for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Tracing the history of music from the Ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century, he saw an evolutionary progression through which composers expand their compositions to work with longer and longer durations of time.
Tovey probably would have enjoyed today’s recital by violinist Kay Stern and pianist Joan Nagano in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral as a real brain teaser. Each work on the program involved compositions of increasing duration, but the chronological ordering of those compositions was reversed!
Thus, the program began with a collection of four miniatures in the form of a suite from the incidental music that Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed for a staging of William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing. These compositions have more to do with setting the mood for episodes from the play, rather than depicting elements of the narrative, although the march movement is basically a character sketch of the “clown figures,” Dogberry and Verges. The suite was followed by Robert Schumann’s first violin sonata in A minor (Opus 105). As the high opus number suggests, this sonata was composed about two years before Schumann’s death; and, while the younger Schumann had put considerable effort into integrating the elements of a multiple-movement composition (such as his fourth symphony), each of the three movements of this sonata tend to stand as individual works.
This “progress” from the twentieth through the nineteenth century concluded with the longest offering coming from the Baroque period; or at least that is what we have been led to assume. The work in question was a chaconne in G minor by Tommaso Vitali, who preceded Johann Sebastian Bach by about twenty years. However, the authenticity of the work has been called into question by many musicologists, most notably Wolfgang Reich, who published a paper on the subject in 1965. Whether or not the work is authentic, it certainly reflects the Baroque style of an elaborate set of variations over a continuo ground bass. (The recording that Jascha Heifetz made of this chaconne used an organ, rather than a piano, for this continuo.) Since we know as little about when this work was composed as we do about who actually composed it, we have no idea if it was influenced by the “model” chaconne that concluded Bach’s D minor partita for solo violin (BWV 1004); but the “chaconne in question” lacks the larger architecture of Bach’s three-part structure, simply playing out a chain of technically challenging variations, rather in the same way that John Coltrane would play out his improvisations at great length.
All three “stations” on this “reverse path through history” were played with capability and understanding by Stern and Nagano. For both Korngold and Schumann the emphasis was on mood, even if the approach to achieving the mood by each of these composers was significantly different from that of the other. The chaconne, on the other hand, was presented with the display of virtuosity that it deserved, whatever its provenance may turn out to be once the musicologists have resolved their differences over it. The duo then offered an encore, which offered similar virtuosity in a more affable light, the czardas composed in the early twentieth century by Vittorio Monti. In spite of the fact that the composer was an Italian who spent much of his professional life in Paris, this has become the composition associated with “Hungarian gypsy” music; and Stern offered it with all the gypsy spirit that it required, sending us all back onto the streets of Chinatown with a bit of rhythm in our steps.