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Monday, May 20, 2013

Name: William Shakespeare/ Profession: uncertain

In the Bronze Age of the Internet – some ten years ago – blogging started to flourish, and I was tempted to start blogging about my music. However, I was always hesitant when it came to explaining music in words. As I feel that music should speak for itself in its own language, I only accompanied my releases with bare-bones comments. Not many years later, but in an era in which blogging as a form had lost all of its novelty, I added some more elaborate texts to my blog and saw it take off. Initially, I thought I would be writing only about music. In my latest post, however, I mentioned Shakespeare, and some readers then had a few questions regarding my stance on a popular subject—the authorship of his work. So, here we are now: not only am I blogging, but also, I do so about a subject that is out of the musical domain.
It seems that almost every great artist must have some weak point in the public consciousness, something that can taint their reputation, or even potentially turn it upside-down. The more time passes, and the greater the power, coherence, and independence of an artist’s work, the darker the shadows falling on the author.
In the case of William Shakespeare, the issues are next to irrational. On one side, for four centuries, his magnificent literary output has been consistently performed and published under the name of William Shakespeare. On the other side, the central question regarding that output nowadays seems to be, how to attribute it to someone else? William Shakespeare is referred to as “the man from Stratford,” a ghostwriter with a profession very different from poetry and drama. Someone else, thoroughly educated—unlike the supposedly semi-literate “man from Stratford”—had apparently written the famous canon.
Some avid readers of German tabloids at the turn of the century—killing time while commuting is always an acceptable excuse—may recall the fame that one of the first German reality show stars achieved. In an infamous display of ignorance about Shakespeare, he stated, “I know Shakespeare but am not sure if he wrote novels, or made films or documentaries.” One can find it funny or not, but is it not strange that the first question emerging out of utter ignorance is the question regarding William Shakespeare’s actual profession? It is like not being sure whether Achilles plays for FC Bayern or Real Madrid, but somehow recalling reading in the newspapers about his recent heel injury. William Shakespeare’s achievement seems to be questioned on a far deeper level – in the public subconscious!
The main question about the authorship of works published under the name of William Shakespeare could be formulated as follows:
Could a poorly educated man have written a magnificent literary work, displaying an in-depth knowledge available exclusively to academically educated people?
I would add here my two cents and wonder:
Would it have been too hard, for a person capable of writing the work of William Shakespeare, to gain all the knowledge needed in an alternative way (e.g., self-education or mingling with supportive, intelligent, and educated people-maybe the very ones whose works he supposedly ghostwrote)?
My answer would be that it was a hard part to write the works of William Shakespeare. Gaining knowledge, in contrast, was a piece of cake.
The society of illustrious men of letters lacking substantial formal education would not be small: Dante, Machaut, and Cervantes are the first that come to my mind. The period in which Shakespeare may have acquired his knowledge would have been adequate: there is almost a decade of unaccounted time before his first known mention as a dramatist in London. Although these years are known as “the lost years,” it is unlikely that a talent of Shakespeare’s proportions would have wasted time.
Among many candidates proposed to be authors of Shakespeare’s works, two are considered to be the most feasible: Christopher Marlowe, and especially Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Christopher Marlowe, like Shakespeare, came from a simple background, but he attended Cambridge University to make a career as a poet and playwright. His plays, presented by the theatre company competing with Shakespeare’s, were very popular. He was killed in a tavern brawl at the age of 30. The proponents of the Marlowe authorship theory suggest that his murder was actually staged, and that he went into hiding for the rest of his life.  Marlowe would indeed have had enough reasons to go underground. He supposedly continued to produce plays, which had to be attributed to someone else – the “man from Stratford.”
Marlowe was certainly a great talent, and he wrote some very powerful pieces. Echoes from his works are often found in Shakespeare’s; one can interpret these as hidden messages, but I believe such echoes should either be considered an homage from Shakespeare, or simply be attributed to the non-existence of copyright law in the Elizabethan era. And should there have been copyright law then, Shakespeare would have had a lot of legal trouble, but also amassed a greater fortune—but that is a different subject.
Even if one considers possible the theory that Marlowe was not killed and wrote Shakespeare’s works, and also takes into account that the best of Shakespeare’s works were written after Marlowe’s disappearance, there is one thing that cannot be ignored. It is the Shakespearean empathy with his characters, something unique in the literature. Marlowe was different. The distance he holds from his characters cannot be overseen, and one could usually not imagine them walking down from the “wooden O” stage, which he shared with Shakespeare.
The 17th Earl of Oxford is the hottest candidate at the moment. He was well traveled and educated, an aristocrat socially much closer to the profile of many characters that came to us as creations of Shakespeare. He was also a man of letters, writing poetry and supporting theatre. Many of the contemporary playwrights dedicated their plays to him, but – suspiciously enough – not the one in whom we are most interested. Also, many of the biographical details from Oxford ‘s life resemble events in Shakespeare’s works. Pirates captured Oxford on one occasion, which he barely survived, similarly to Hamlet. He had life-long problems with money, and he lost much of his estate to creditors, similar to Timon of Athens. The list of parallels is truly impressive. In addition, in the politically volatile times, dangerous enough for a fellow Earl of Essex to lose his head, or to suggest that Marlowe had to go underground, one can also speculate that there were enough reasons for people to hide things. Hence, the Earl of Oxford preferred to attribute his masterpieces to someone else and enjoy the results from the background.
With Oxford, an interesting man, however, there are some very basic things that don’t fit. First, he died before some of the major Shakespearean works could have been written.  Although the chronology of Shakespearean canon leaves a lot of room for interpretation, some works contain allusions to events that clearly happened after Oxford’s death. Secondly, the poetry that Oxford wrote doesn’t resemble anything ever published under the name of Shakespeare. It would truly require a superhuman effort to be able to write so distinctly differently under two different labels, and to keep it a secret during one’s lifetime and beyond.
There are certainly many open questions regarding the circumstances of William Shakespeare’s life and work. Interestingly, however, there are always assumptions and conditions when it comes to questioning his authorship – not a single piece of unequivocal evidence exists. I believe that it is the Shakespearean empathy, one of the author’s foremost qualities, that contributes to the confusion. Shakespeare was able to speak through his characters in so authentic a way, that many of their vivid statements, positions, or maxims are held to be his own points of view. It may be hard to believe that something so profound is not necessarily sincere, but that is one of an artist’s tasks. To make matters even more confusing, some readers interested in the authorship question may find significance in certain statements that characters make, which pass completely unnoticed by the others. Jorge Luis Borges found Iago’s “I am not what I am” to be significant. Whereas I hadn’t noticed it before I read Borges, I found something else significant. I will quote this passage now, because hopefully I have earned the right to this revelation by patiently taking into account all of the available theories, including the one with Marlowe in hiding for over 20 years. It is from Love’s Labour’s Lost and uttered by Berowne, a character of lower rank accompanying the king, who seems to hold him dear for his vigor and wit, rather than for immaculate educational credentials, as Berowne himself states:
Study is like the heaven's glorious sun,
That will not be search'd with sawcy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others' books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven's lights
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights,
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know, is to know nought: but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.
One can argue about the significance of this particular quotation, but a certain unacademic stance in Shakespeare’s work is hard to overlook. His friend, playwright Ben Jonson, didn’t fail to mention his “small Latin and less Greek” in his poem dedicated to Shakespeare (in which he also mentioned Marlowe), thus hinting more to the lack of university education, than to the knowledge of dead languages. The presence of the desert and the seacoast of Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in The Winter’s Tale is legendary, as are a plethora of anachronisms in Greek and Roman plays.  The vast erudition seems to have had some gaps, which may be explained by Shakespeare’s unsystematic process of learning.
Still, there are parallels between the Earl of Oxford’s biography, and plots and characters in Shakespearean canon that are hard to explain by the facts available. It is certain that the two men met, as Oxford was very involved in the theater. It is probable that there was mutual affection between them. It is possible that they were friends, and that Shakespeare sometimes paid tribute to this interesting man by translating the Earl’s character and experiences into characters and events in his works. Oxford may not have been the only friend to whom Shakespeare paid homage in this way. In As You Like It, he directly quoted Marlowe’s line from Hero and Leander: “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” In As You Like It, however, the full quote is as follows: "Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,/ 'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'" (III.v.80-81)
Marlowe’s most popular poem was “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love.” The controversy may be reiterated by reminding the reader that this poem was printed under Shakespeare’s name during his lifetime—but just for the length of this couplet. As Shakespeare almost never prepared or authorized the publication of his work, the brochure, The Passionate Pilgrim, in which it was printed, also belongs to the group of contemporary publications containing Shakespeare’s work of whose publication he was unaware before it became available. It purports to contain works by Shakespeare only, but undoubtedly there are also poems by Marlowe and several other authors. This shows one of the ways in which controversies emerge.
In the end, I am sure that no reader is richer after reading this, as I have been elaborating on my stance, well accepted for 400 years, that William Shakespeare wrote works by William Shakespeare. Maybe I could have added two more cents about some other controversies (his will, trip to Italy, aristocratic worldview, etc.,) but I thought that the assertion that the  “man from Stratford” wasn’t capable of writing Shakespeare’s work was the most interesting question. When some “controversies” cease to be controversial, I’ll be looking forward to films depicting the sensation: Shakespeare, the self-made provincial man who made a fortune writing classics!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Playing Subtilior

Plaidoyer For the Emancipation Of Early Music

Francesco Petrarca, a 14th century poet famous enough for his name to be Anglicized to “Petrarch,” is credited with giving a name to the “Dark Ages.” Meant were the centuries immediately following the fall of Rome, which were comparatively obscure and lacking in cultural achievements and historical artifacts. The time in which Petrarch lived was full of hardships; nevertheless, the arts and sciences flourished, and new ideas spread all over Europe. This age of humanism, however, is placed somewhere in the “dark ages” in the collective perception of our time, and its artistic works presented generally within strongly historical contexts. The artistic achievements of Petrarca’s age are generally of aesthetic interest exclusively to experts, and wider audiences (like regular classical music concert goers) are mostly unaware of the excitement that pre-Renaissance music and arts can provide.
There is much injustice in such a state of things, although maybe less drastic than  Dante’s placement of pre-Christian greats into the limbo - the suburb of Hell. Still, the fact that even some of today’s best-educated musicians would have to do some extra work to get the basic facts about the music of the “late medieval,” attests to some rejection by our time. On the other hand, some of the most eminent early music theorists report disappointment by modern audiences when presented with “historically informed” performances of such music. Modern performances are not many, my own “guitARS subtilior” being, rather, an exception to the rule. Such performances tend to raise the question of authenticity among early music experts, and for good reason, as the performance praxis has changed much since then. Also, there is a lot of discussion even among the early music experts about many features of what makes an authentic performance, and new standards are constantly being set as new evidence is evaluated.
I am myself convinced of the great aesthetic value of many works of the period starting with the ars antiqua (12th – 13th centuries), and especially of the ars subtilior period of the 14th century. I believe that classical music concerts—if not orchestral, then solo and chamber—should feature works from these times more often, and that inclusion and modern renditions would help this music become not only better known and understood, but also more widely performed by specialized performers.
All great works of art have some universal quality that appeals to people of any era. One could argue that Antigone, by Sophocles, cannot be perceived or understood properly today, since societies have changed so much, or after so much intervening history, or in a modern language, or outside of the amphitheatre. However, even if we put the great poet’s work aside, the conclusion must be made that the theme of Antigone is still relevant in our time, and that, unfortunately, the conflict would likely end tragically were it to occur today.
Although Shakespeare is by far not as old as Sophocles, and is also younger than the ars subtilior, his work is contemporary of the periods, which we label as “early music”. The unique success his work has enjoyed, is certainly based on its uniqueness. However, much of its success on stage is based on the fact that there have always been modern adaptations of his work. In fact, the performances that attempt to be authentic emerged only in the last century. Since the 18th century revival of Shakespeare’s work, every epoch has had its own Hamlet, or Lear, or Falstaff. Since the 19th century, many actors were photographed in some of their favorite scenes (usually involving the skull, or flowers), and we can mock the naiveté displayed in the same way in which Shakespeare himself mocked Petrarch’s legacy in Romeo and Juliet. We should, however, not forget that in their time, these “modern” performances were, well, modern, and also very often meant a lot to many cultured people. It is evident that modern performances are not always in complete congruence with the author’s intentions. However, the universal quality is what communicates, and makes the work of art live long after its author. This feature, which at the risk of it becoming something like a recipe, we can theoretically only try to describe, will come across undamaged by a good modern adaptation, be it musical or dramatic.
When I was preparing “guitARS subtilior”, I was influenced by many excellent theorists (Willi Apel, Elizabeth Eva Leach, Gilbert Reaney, Richard Hoppin), as well as performers of the early music (Ensemble Organum, David Munrow, The Medieval Ensemble Of London, Huelgas Ensemble). From these sources I have gathered enough information to attempt an “authentic” rendition. However, the sheer power of the music’s construction, as well as the originality that informed its ideas, convinced me to try to realize a version that would be more on my own “home turf”. The power of the best subtilior pieces, in my opinion, will come through in any competent rendition—like the music of great masters. The classical guitar environment, with which I and many listeners are familiar, even allows for some neutrality, which lets composers’ ideas come to light with more ease.
I hope that modern and traditional renditions of early music will co-exist more in the future and inform and influence each other.

Listen to guitARS subtilior

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

guitARS subtilior

14th century music is out of awareness of today's classical music mainstream. Music written prior to the 16th century is taught very sparingly (if at all) at conservatories, save within the specialized programs that focus almost exclusively on music of these ages. Even compositions of early Baroque composers (like Monteverdi, 1576-1643) are regarded as "early music", yet most of the materials on this album were composed some 250 years before Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea". For the sake of perspective, 250 years ago today Mozart was a child and Beethoven wasn't yet born.  One could go on with similar examples of music categorized as “early,” but the fact is that most classical music lovers today wouldn't expect music so intriguing, complex, and experimental to have been created over six centuries ago.

"Ars subtilior" is not a musical era, but rather a style. It was geographically limited mainly to what is today southern France and northern Spain. Chronologically, it flourished in the last quarter of the 14th century, a century full of strong drive for knowledge and progress, but also filled with catastrophes. There were many wars and upheavals, including the "Hundred Years’ War" between England and France, Western Schism (with one disputed pope in Avignon and the other in Rome), and the pandemic of bubonic plague, which occurred in the years around 1350 and wiped out about one third (or more) of Europe's population. The societies in Europe fell apart under the scourge of the Black Death, and life in quarantine was the only chance to survive. Life in the isolation of quarantine - with the arts as a connector within a small circle - became a frame story for Bocaccio's "Decameron", and it seems that similar small circles of supporters and connoisseurs were not only still common in the next generation, but also decisive for the existence of a style such as ars subtilior.

As a style, ars subtilior defies known categories of musical history. Although many of its features were passed on from the masters of the previous, ars nova generation (especially Machaut), the writing shows much more concern for vertical texture. The poetry used is often so personal and subjective, that a reading of translations evokes a 19th century poet's work. The rhythmic complexity and intricacies, as well as an imperative to experiment, however, are as close to the 20th century as it gets - a reason, maybe, why the 20th century started the reevaluation and new appreciation of ars subtilior. One of the reasons why such sophisticated rhythmical structures could come to life is that the notation of that time became able to carry great rhythmical diversity. Nevertheless, some composers went even further and added their own notational features, which applied in some cases only to a particular composition, or to a section within. As if such notational embellishments were not enough, sometimes the score was shaped into a picture, or was fitted into one. It may be that patrons of the ars subtilior composers liked to get an exquisite picture presented with such music, but in some cases it is probable that a composer wanted to visually illustrate his compositional idea - like notating a circular canon in a staff shaped as a circle.

The name of the style itself is Latin meaning "the more subtle art", and it has become widely accepted in the recent decades as the perception of the music itself became more enthusiastic. One of the style's former names was "mannerism", which pointed to some excesses of experimenting for experimentation’s sake, in this era of "14th century avant-garde". Although the music of ars subtilior is being increasingly acknowledged, it seems that its widest acceptance comes from "modern composers", the avant-gardists, this time those of 20th and 21st century. I myself came across this music through these channels. Once I started learning more about it, I wanted to play it, and this is how these guitar arrangements came to life. These recordings are modern renditions, and the fact that there is so little certainty regarding original performance praxis, restricts most of the interpretational decisions to the music itself. Furthermore, the closeness of the spirit that created this music to the spirit of our time makes a modern performer more comfortable in the quest for their own interpretation, than in the case of some much later music.

The most represented composer on this album is Jacob Senleches. Only six of his works survived, all of them three-part songs in "fixed forms" (as instrumental music was far less advanced than was vocal music then), but even such a small body of work suffices to place him as one of the leading figures of the era. Even within so experimental a style, he could be called the "bad boy of ars subtilior" (if today’s feuilletonists would care to report), as he was already complimented to be - matching the previous name of the style - "one of the most mannered composers". For some time, he was associated with the court of Eleanor of Aragon, Queen of Castile, who must have had a remarkable music taste. Unfortunately, she died at age of 24, and Senleches was inspired to write a lament entitled "Fuions de ci", or "Let us flee", urging his circle to try their luck elsewhere, as they had lost their Eleanor and nobody would care for them there anymore. We neither know much about Senleches, nor has his image (or of any ars subtilior composer) been preserved. It seems that the most we will ever know about him will be learned from his own poetry he set to music. "Je me merveil" is a song in which he expresses anger towards copycat composers, who counterfeit music by stealing ideas. Senleches was a harpist, and this work makes an impression as if it was perfected from an improvisation of chords on a harp, in which the tones are occasionally delayed, especially the bottom line. Many instances of what we would today call "broken chords," clearly point to coming times, apart from holding a rhythmically extreme piece together. Although a spring song, "En ce gracieux temps" may also have been meant as criticism of unoriginal composers (who seem to have been irritatingly good at marketing their production), contrasting the gentle singing of a nightingale to the rudeness of a cuckoo.

As a wonderful piece of music AND a picture, "Le harp de mélodie" enjoys a cult status. One of the two preserved versions is notated inside a picture of a harp, and this has become the most recognizable image of the style, something like a trademark of ars subtilior. The composition is a canon between the two top voices, while the bottom voice (the tenor) plays its own line in what today would be described as a different key. This was a common procedure for Senleches and his contemporaries and was even more prevalent in older music. The piece is rhythmically rich, and the canonic imitation creates an impression of an ancient machine, moving precisely and predictably in accordance with its own rules. To the ears of the modern listener, there is a melancholy mood to the piece, and the text of the song makes clear how much the times have changed, as it states that the harp is here to bring us pleasure. An apprehension that the music is present to banish the melancholy is also to be found in earlier composers’ writings, so even when a ballade by Machaut makes us most melancholic, we should be aware that an exactly opposite effect was intended.

While we don't know much about Senleches, when it comes to Solage, we don't even know his full or real name. Twelve of his vocal works have been preserved, and his style appears to be less "mannered" than the style of Senleches, thus more connected to the ideas of the next generation of composers. However, he is the author of one of the most notorious works of ars subtilior. His rondeau, "Fumeux fume par fumée", which could be translated as "smoker smokes through smoke," uses chromaticism unheard of at that time. The singers sing untypically low, starting higher, and then sinking for much of the time. The lyrics provide more mystery, as some two centuries would have to lapse before tobacco became known in Europe. Hence, there is a lot of discussion as to whether “smoking” was meant metaphorically, or was the smoke just incense, or something of "sterner stuff?" There is surely a feeling of drowsiness in the music.

"Stella celi" is a setting of a Marian prayer for deliverance from the plague by the English composer John Cooke. It doesn't belong to ars subtilior and is written later than the other pieces on this album (save for Barcarola). Nevertheless, it is more conservative in style, maybe because it belongs to the sacral music, a field in which the ars subtilior composers were less productive. However, I decided to include it on this album, not only because it is a beautiful piece of music, but also to bring a contrasting atmosphere of living under the threat of plague, which the ars subtilior figures mostly chose to ignore in their output. "Dieux gart" is one of two known pieces by Guido, who by full name may have been Guido de Lange. It is dominated by a marvelous melody in the top voice, which is full of characteristic syncopation. It is a piece from style's beginning, but already with all of the traits typical for ars subtilior. "Aller m'en veus" is a farewell to his country by Johannes Ciconia. A prolific composer with a large output in various styles, he came at the end of the ars subtilior, segueing to the coming generation of Binchois and Dufay.

My own "Barcarola" is essentially a neo-romantic piece, influenced and spiced by many elements of ars subtilior.  I was approached by Russell and Leslie Margolis regarding a composition commission to honor the birth of their cousin Edie Rae DeRoche. The work was to be on the more traditional side, and we discussed possible options, until we settled for a barcarola. It usually has a ternary form and developed from the songs of Venetian boatsmen, its accompaniment suggesting boat-rowing. I have myself played guitar transcriptions of barcarolas by Mendelssohn and Albeniz, which are in a gentle and nostalgic mood, and I decided not to suppress my own nostalgia in the work. However, as the piece honors the birth of a little girl, I decided to include a joyful middle section, in which the omnipresent melody — and there is essentially only one in this 8 minute piece — becomes light and even childish. There was not much work to be done in order to accomplish that, apart from using inversion and removing all of the rhythmical tricks I used in other sections of the piece.

I am not aware of other guitar arrangements of the works on this album, so I should add a few points from the performer's perspective. The range of the music is very narrow, but with complex voice leadings, independent and lively rhythms in every voice, much syncopation, and independent metric constructions. I used octave transpositions in only a few sections of "Dieux gart", much of "Je me merveil", and a few tones of "Harpe". However, in the last one I play the canon at the octave, instead of unison, which isn't possible on the guitar. The same effect, however, is present when the bottom voices are sung by males, and the cantus (the top voice) by a female. Regardless of the uncertainty associated with the contemporary performance of the works of the era, I don't think that a composer who has the nerve to draw an enigmatic score into a picture would protest a performance on a solo instrument.

Although the music is (extremely) polyphonic by the standards of later eras, the greatest prominence is given to the top voice. Also, there was an option of performing the top voice solo, or in conjunction with the lowest voice, which I did in "Fumeux" and "Harpe". It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between voices on the solo instrument, but in so narrow a range (usually some two octaves) it is also a problem in purely vocal renditions. I have heard versions that include instruments, or were purely instrumental (which also may have been common contemporary practice). Although this can make the voicing much clearer, it can also deprive the arrangement of the excitement of the "search for the line" when voices switch perspectives. This music is open to many different readings, and it will undoubtedly find its way to more interpretations.

Baltimore, January 22nd 2013

Special thanks to Paul Weaver and Leslie, Russell, Paz and Rebecca Margolis.

Friday, December 17, 2010

About My Works For Solo Guitar

In the gloomy nineties – which were gloomy to me because of the war and then the post-war desperation in my home-country at that time – my compositions had a special meaning to me, as they were acts of creation among all the destruction surrounding me. Among the compositions, the guitar solo works have enjoyed a privileged status. They were to be performed by me, their creator, and this enabled them to be the most immediate reflections of what mattered to me musically, intellectually and emotionally. Interestingly enough, the style I was developing in works for other instruments was not lending itself easily for presentation in guitar solo works. I believe it was then that I started learning how to extract details from a large work and turn them into main ideas in my works of a smaller scale. Obviously, all of that (and more) was a lot for a mainstream music scene then – which was supposed to have been more open to new ideas than today’s – and most of the people found my music rather difficult to understand. I must admit this used to surprise me. Nevertheless, I eventually started to experiment with some more approachable, popular, “Branimir Lite” works. This has lead to my compositions based on Croatian folk tunes, and later to my version of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album, as well as “Soundtrack”, a collection of “cinematic” melodies.

I have decided to combine the compositions on albums by genre, rather than chronologically. The album “Melodies” would probably be the most interesting one to most of the classical music listeners. For listeners interested in experimental music, “Neue Musik,” an album consisting of an hour of “modern music”, would be more appealing. As the scene for contemporary classical music – even if tiny – is very fragmented, I can imagine that the stylistic richness I present within the “niche” will ensure that everybody finds something interesting. “Croatian Songs” consists of light, but still intellectual and “constructed” compositions. I assume that most of listeners would enjoy them. Those familiar with the original songs would find a reason or two more for having fun.

“Two Preludes” is a juvenile work, with the quality of great directness, and interesting guitar writing. These two movements belong to the first of my publicly performed compositions.

“Chiro’s Toccata” is an early work based on the song from Slavonia, my native Croatian region. The main protagonist is Chiro who is sitting on a hay stack scaring crows with his moustache, smearing sour cream over his face and presumably flirting with girls, which he is finally kindly advised to leave alone. The piece is influenced by Bartok, and balances folk contents with features of a virtuosic concert piece.

“Baroque Triptych” is an attempt to reconcile my own musical ideas with that of great baroque masters, and connect everything with modern influences by Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Henze, Kagel, and other icons of the contemporary music scene.

 “Four Nocturnos From Osijek, January 1990”, is a work written under influence of Hans Werner Henze who was, at the time of composing, just retiring from the composition professorship at my Cologne academy. I was integrating the (still) late romantic expression of the atmosphere from the trip to my hometown with the modern atonal music language. The result is this work, which has been my favorite in concerts and with the major European radio stations.

I composed for guitar and performed my compositions very early in my career. However, after I actually officially started composition studies, it took me some time to compose for guitar solo again. As I felt there were not enough works for guitar in the manner of “etudes” like Chopin’s, Liszt’s or Ligeti’s, I decided to work on my own studies for guitar. Here I present only the first three of the six studies. The latter three are technically and musically so challenging, that they need to wait for a separate occasion. All six of the Studies explore the way in which the time within music is being perceived, as well as how the musical events created in a regular time (one which we measure with clocks) work when distributed non-chronologically, in a manner close to a “stream of conscience”.

“Liebestraeume” is a neo-romantic composition, about the music that the guitarists sorely miss in their repertoire. The romantic literature for guitar cannot match the piano music of composers like Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, and other celebrated romantics – which have probably created over a half of most beloved classical music. Paradoxically enough, guitar is usually associated with romantic music due to its intimacy and ability to produce very delicate sound color shadings. “Liebestraeume” is recreating romantic ideas in a slightly modern context.

“Croatian Songs, Part I” were composed after I already gained a lot of experience in integrating folkloristic contents within context of contemporary music. I decided to completely simplify the tonal language, and even avoided adding the non-chordal tones (like Rodrigo’s minor seconds). The result is music that is easy to listen on the surface, but saturated with various meanings and symbols “under the hood”. Shortly, those who dig deeper will find more. There are many abrupt modulations in non-guitarist keys, which are very hard to execute, and make some squeaks unavoidable (resulting from the moving of the left hand barre across the strings).

The left hand has to work even harder in “Croatian Songs, Part II”. The construction within movements is more stringent, and the compositional ideas are developed more intensively. This time all the movements are written in non-guitar keys, with modulations leading to guitar-friendly keys – a procedure opposite to that of the first part. Composers for most of other instruments (piano in particular) often feel that nothing new can be done when composing in the traditional style, as the burden of the classical masterpieces is so great. To the contrary, while writing both parts (as completely tonal works), I was able to introduce some ideas in guitar writing that the classical (and romantic) composers for guitar had missed.

“The Hunter InThe Garden Of Eden” is an “actor’s piece”, a dramatic single movement inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s life and work. I tried to capture Hemingway – the way I see him – in the net of his three main subjects: hunt, fight, and love. His love for Spain resulted with integration of some flamenco elements, and it fell just naturally, as I was always fond of flamenco, and have long desired to experiment with that type of music from another angle.

“December ‘04” is a return to baroque music and its recreation in the new context. In comparison to the old “Baroque Trypich,” the  ideas are richer and their realization a lot more skillful. However, the most valuable features are not apparent, and the work is enigmatic and hermetic, even if the brilliance of standard concert music is maintained throughout. Despite the fact that this is a polished work of a mature composer, there will be many who would still appreciate the directness and spontaneity of the “Baroque Tryptich”.

“Soundtrack” emerged from my lacking of nice guitar themes in the movie productions I was coming across since ‘The Deer Hunter’. All movements are of different character, and suitable for concert performance, or as encore pieces. Cheap effects have been avoided.

Baltimore, April 2008

A Farewell To Johannes Fritsch

The bow of Maestro after the premiere of his successful Cello Concerto in Cologne is the first of many encounters I had with Johannes Fritsch.  The year was 1990 and this concerto has intrigued me ever since. In the years to follow, I became acquainted with many more of his works and my respect for him has grown along with my knowledge and composing skills. Johannes Fritsch passed away this last spring at the age of 68 and I will remember him as a captivating, kind, and generous composer. He was my principal mentor during my composition studies in Cologne. I always enjoyed showing him my new works, learning about his latest compositions, and analyzing the works of other composers. 

He felt most comfortable teaching in his Feedback Studio (Belgisches Viertel, Cologne), where I have heard most of his opinions. He was very inspired in that environment surrounded by scores he held dear, recordings on tapes and cassettes, along with studio equipment. He was always prepared to explain how other composers (especially those of his generation and the one preceding it) responded to similar musical problems that I would encounter. Enforcing the solution was not his method of teaching - he would rather provide options, and guide me to the best conclusion. It was the spirit of music that mattered to him, rather than hollow mechanics, which would take away the life, and deep purpose of the composition. The music to him was a product of composer’s reflections, and mindless note-scribing was meaningless to him. When teaching, his focus was not on easily examinable materials that build up the curriculum of an average composition class.  He expected greater things from his students, as it was understandable they would have to develop all the techniques involved in the handling of instruments, sounds, scores, or anything else from the toolbox of a composer. Although the entrance criteria was already set high, he would not let his students become overwhelmed by the technology of music making at any stage of composition studies. On the other hand, he would not allow the practical side of composer’s work to become neglected. Hence, it was extremely beneficial to have many concerts organized with his help, and have the works rehearsed, performed, and recorded. The discussions that followed were illustrative for the early life of a particular piece of music. I benefited tremendously from his evaluation of my works in progress, as well as from the critiques, which followed the premieres. The fine touch of Johannes Fritsch was gently helping young composers find direction. 

He gave me a lot of material to ponder over in the years that followed my studies, and occasionally memories will reappear through completely unrelated doors. These memories create questions I would have liked to have answered with his help. Sometimes I believe to be able to come up with an answer in his style.  He probably would start with aesthetical considerations and never let them out of one’s sight. As the years have passed, I have come to the conclusion that his approach was right. The technicalities become trivial, and the true spirit of the matter is the only thing that matters. He believed that with so much music being written, one shouldn’t waste time repeating the things already heard. For him, it was not the endless analysis on where to place which tone, nor self-sufficient perfect organization of pitches, nor any other clockwork that can be put into music composition. He didn’t work that way and his music doesn’t work that way. He used to follow a big picture of a piece of music, and that musical vision mattered to him above all. In his music, he was making some deep cuts, and he knew where to cut. He would never do some irrelevant “surface scratching”, and then try to pass it along as something important. Furthermore, he never wrote cycles of works based on the same ideas and materials, as many composers who “crack the code” of success do. His opus would have been stylistically a lot less heterogeneous, and hence easier for music theorists to “encode” for teaching purposes. However, it was not like him to alter anything within his musical vision to make it more teachable or marketable. He was extremely uncompromising when following his musical visions. 

Johannes Fritsch was deeply involved with philosophy and music aesthetics. He contributed to the perception of his work and views by publishing many texts in Feedback Papers, a music-theoretical magazine from his Feedback Studio. His output in the field is far from systematic, as we know it from the music-theoretical output of Schoenberg and Hindemith. Nevertheless, Feedback Papers provide a good introduction to his aesthetics.  Contrary to many composers of the past century - whose writings were sometimes so elaborate, that the music itself often came as an anti-climax, Johannes Fritsch knew how to avoid such pitfalls. After all, he was primarily a musician, and always preferred music to words. 

We spoke extensively about his Cello Concerto, and he presented me with the recording and score. I consider it one of the greatest works for a solo instrument and an orchestra of the past century. I believe that this single movement (of approximately 20 minutes) will become one of the milestones of the cello literature, along with concertos by Dvorak and Elgar. He once told me that the success of the concerto at the premiere was somewhat annoying to him, as he believed it was partially due to misunderstanding of his work. He seems to have heard too many remarks like “Finally a composer who is using his ears”, and he found out how bitter triumph can sometimes be. While such a success would have moved many other composers to exploiting the same vein, there was nothing alike to be expected from Johannes Fritsch. He turned to other ideas and composed music he believed he had to. It was his modest and down-to-earth, but also dreamy and mystical personality that lacked any interest in self-promotion. 

I remember especially well the premiere of his Passacaglia for a large symphonic wind orchestra. It took place in the Altenberger Dom (Cathedral of Altenberg), a marvelous old church in which such an ensemble was sometimes hard to tell from the sound of an organ. His Trio (written for the rock-trio Ugly Culture) displayed his humorous side. The premiere took place in the Feedback Studio, as part of his Hinterhausmusiken (Backyard Music). The audience was surprised by the unexpected light-hearted directness from the Meister, exposing his bright side. This Trio appears to have been his sole contribution to the “minimalist” style. In regards to Hinterhausmusiken “concert series” (and the Meister would probably remind me - these were not typical concerts, and it was not a series), I must mention that they enjoyed a cult status in Cologne. Although barely advertised and detached from the mainstream concert life, these events were always presenting something new and intriguing. I have often been told of interesting, up and coming composers I should hear, only to find out that I have heard them a while ago in Feedback’s Hinterhausmusiken. 

There are two more large works by Johannes Fritsch for which I believe will become widely known in the coming years. I haven’t so far heard these works live, but the Meister has sent me their recordings. One is the Konzertstück (1999) for two percussionists and an orchestra, in which he was revisiting and redeveloping several of his earlier ideas. It contains some of his most mature orchestral writing. The other work is called Herbstlicht (1994/95), and it is an atmospheric work filled with wonderful shadings and colors. His writing for strings is especially original and nuanced. In this work, he uses many elements from traditional Asian music of which he was very fond. His expertise in Japanese music led him to collaboration with many Japanese musicians and theorists. 

In 2006, I received an email from Johannes Fritsch, inviting me to hear a program on the German Radio, on his 65th birthday. I savored the program, in real time. Although I truly enjoyed hearing him talk in depth about his music, some things in the program were surprising.  I expected to hear about his more recent output, as all the composers seem to care only for the most recent compositions. However, he spoke mostly about his time and works in the sixties and early seventies. Something became clear to me. I remembered him saying to our class that there are more and less interesting periods in the history of music and that we, his students, live in one of the less interesting periods. He seemed to have a life-long fascination with the sixties, a period in which he played viola in Stockhausen’s ensemble. He held that period dear like an amulet, a materialized piece of music history, which he actively helped shape and form. Indeed, there was some pessimism he felt about current conditions in the world of music, and the world in general. While some of his senior colleagues were musically depicting intergalactic conflicts, Johannes Fritsch was concerned with the humans and the environment they inhibit on this planet. He felt that things got out of hand due to pollution, greed, and ignorance, and his work was a counterpoint to such state of affairs. 

He was modest and a man of fair-play, characteristics that I feel are frequently missed in the world of classical music today. He always took interest in the work of his fellow composers, and I have witnessed many times his sincere congratulations after concerts. I believe he felt a sense of freedom by refusing to execute total control over a particular entourage of students and followers that many of the musical authorities consider necessary. He was a man who would openly discuss his interests, and was eager to hear the opinions of his students expressed. For his students, it was not compulsory to be a devotee of some personality or ideology. 

I expect the importance of his opus to become widely recognized in the coming years. If I could make a single suggestion in a farewell to a great teacher, person, and artist, I would recommend to start studying the work of Johannes Fritsch at the same point where I have started: with his Cello Concerto!   

Baltimore, December 2010