Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Saint-Saëns Septet and the Glass Ceiling

Two comps questions now down, one to go! I've typed 37 pages total in a bit less than 4 hours per day... But if I've done all this work, why waste it? I saved my answers on a USB key, and I'm adding some linked content (to correct what I may have missed when I was sitting and typing without sources and to make it more web-friendly).

There's a problem with chamber music, particularly mixed chamber music. Picture this: you're a member of a string quartet or a piano trio. With either configuration, think of all the choices you have! Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Ravel. Most twentieth century composers tried their hands at string quartets as well, and it makes sense to write "new music" for these established genres rather than a configuration of performers who would otherwise only come together for a single performance.

As brass musicians, we're constantly needing to justify our own existence. String quartets, as a genre, are established as being something aristocratic, something elegant, something that people of culture go to, even if it's just for the overpriced wine and conversation at intermission. Most of the string quartet literature needs no introduction--and no defense. Mozart and Haydn were prolific composers, but seriously: they phoned it in sometime.

And yet, audiences give established composers the benefit of the doubt. "This must be good music. I mean, that guy has his own bust!"

  • Oskar Böhme
  • Victor Ewald
  • even Eugene Bozza
  • Alvin Etler
  • Tony Plog
  • Eric Ewazen
  • Arthur Frackenpohl
  • John Stevens
  • Verne Reynolds
  • David Sampson
  • Fisher Tull
  • Walter Hartley
  • Alec Wilder, to a certain extent
I really care for most of these composers quite a bit, especially Plog and Böhme. While musicians (performers, fellow composers, and brass-sensitive audiences) may prefer some of these "brass-heavy" composers and dislike others, but the point remains the same: general audiences do not come to our repertoire with a fundamental sense of goodwill or, possibly, the sense that they're listening to something of monumental importance to Western Culture. And sometimes, music is all in good fun...but how many string quartet concerts have you been to that include a show-tune medley and a few Joplin transcriptions? Uh-huh. For better or worse.

A former teacher of mine won the concerto competition when he was at graduate school at one of the top five public university schools of music in the country, an impressive and rare feat for a brass musician. When prepping us, his students, for competitions of our own (I even played the Tomasi concerto, the piece he won with) he hammered the point home, and I'm paraphrasing from the many times I heard him say this:
We have to play better than pianists and string players. The day after last year's competitions, they chose this year's concerto, and they've been beginning to learn it for years before that. They probably have next year's concerto picked too, and know what competitions they're going to. And we have to work even harder than they do, because we empty our spit out on stage, and it's just not as glamorous.
Saint-Saëns couldn't imagine writing for the trumpet before he composed his Septour in 1881. The work is a neo-classical, neo-baroque fish swimming up the stream of thick chromaticism. Like some of the above-listed composer, Saint-Saëns was considered a bit of a stodgy "academic" composer obsessed with the vanishing history of French music. When the French chamber music society La Trompette asked Saint-Saëns, a member and supporter of the organization, to write a septet for strings, piano, and trumpet...Saint-Saëns recoiled, according this recent critical biography:

"I shall write for you a concerto for twenty-five guitars and to play it you will have to depopulate Castille and Andalucia; but a piece with trumpet? Impossible!"
Another version of this story exists (from a review of another scholarly book on Saint-Saëns):
In the entry on the Septet for trumpet, two violins, cello, contrabass and piano (no. 122). for example, the section concerning the autograph contains a long quotation in French by Emile Lemoine, who requested the piece of Saint-Saens. Lemoine writes that when he asked the composer to write a piece for this unusual combination, Saint-Saens joked that first he had to write a piece for guitar and thirteen trombones (p. 175).
Well, Saint-Saëns was skeptical, right? After all, Saint-Saëns was a performer of serious chamber music, like the Franck quintet (the terrifically difficult piano part of which he premiered the year before writing his septet). Just take one listen if you don't know the piece. It's music that means business:

Well, Saint-Saëns had it with all the chromaticism, the crazy key changes, the uneven forms, the anything goes bombast of Franck and others. He had other beefs with Franck, actually, that are worth reading about. Anyway, the septet--which he was reluctant to write--was his attempt to rein in some of the excessive formal and harmonic tendencies of post-Wagnerian music. Interestingly enough, it could be his attempt to reclaim the trumpet along the way as the trumpet shatters the glass ceiling of chamber music. The treatment of the trumpet alternates between the military and melodic.

Speaking of the military, the Saint-Saëns septet is not exactly the work that shatters the glass ceiling of the trumpet in mixed chamber music during the nineteenth century. In 1829, Hummel wrote a charming (if a tad dopey) Septett Militaire No. 2 in C Major for piano, flute, violin, clarinet, cello, trumpet, and bass. IMSLP has a free PDF of the score and parts here. Even though Hummel wrote one of the first works for keyed (chromatic) trumpet in his famous concerto, this one goes back to the overtone series, if only because the early keyed trumpet was a MASSIVE FAIL.

The Septet is both jaunty and graceful. It follows a blend of classical forms (followed almost to the letter, down to the pattern of movements one would find) along with simple baroque textures. The themes of the first and last movement are stated as a sort of baroque ritornello placed within sonata form, and spawn very clear and perceptible fugal sections. The counterpoint could have come straight out of a textbook. The occasionally lush string writing or harmonic substitution make it recognizably romantic, as does the virtuosic piano writing and motivic connections between the movements. What makes Saint-Saëns’ trumpet writing so compelling is that much of the first and fourth movements, especially, could be played on a -chromatic- natural trumpet, and this reflects Saint-Saens previous engagement with the instrument, in the orchestra. While piston trumpets were available at this point, composers still clung to the whole crooked natural brass tradition, from the legacy of the Viennese classicists. The imitation of the natural trumpet, however, helps Saint-Saens in his quest to recreate the soundworld of the 18th century within the romantic era.

And yet, at the same time, he gives the trumpet the benefit of the doubt as far as rich melodies go. The stepwise trumpet melodies that float on top of the string sections would not have been possible on a chromatic natural trumpet. Indeed, especially in the Minuet (movement two), the trumpet is treated as if it were a string instrument, playing sometimes in unison with the homophonic chorale. With the pedaled piano and sustained strings, the sound is unusually warm and inviting—much more inviting than, say, 25 guitars and orchestra would be!

So, we may have alot going against us, spit valves and all. But we won over at least one tough customer!

There's a beautiful recording of the septet from Charles Schlueter from 2005, the same year he retired as principal trumpet Boston Symphony Orchestra. It's a terrific album, with repertoire that every trumpet player has to know played as it should be played. It is a must buy! Somebody's put his recording onto youtube, but definitely buy the disc!:

Movement One: Preambule

Movement Two: Menuet

Movement Three: Intermed.

Movement Four: Gavotte

And, just for fun, this classic:

1 comment:

Opera Rat said...

Thanks for sharing all this information. I heard this on the radio the other night and I can't get the melody from the Minuet (around 2:38) out of my heard. It seems familiar, from another piece, or used in a movie. Any ideas?