Kurt Weill (1900–1950) began his career in the early 1920s after a musical childhood and several years of study in Berlin with the composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. By 1926 he was an established young German-Jewish composer but he had already decided to devote himself to the musical theatre (he married the actress Lotte Lenya in 1926) and his works with Bertolt Brecht soon made him famous all over Europe. He fled the new Nazi leadership in March 1933 and lived in America for his remaining years.
Weill composed his violin concerto in 1924; its orchestration and harmonies suggest the Second Viennese School and sit somewhere between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Weill injects humorous and morose themes often mixing the two together as if they were indistinguishable. He uses the soloist-versus-orchestra format, the violin often competing against angular rhythms in the orchestra with an agitated lyrical line; there is also noticable jazz influence.
The violin concerto by Latvian-born Peteris Vasks (b1946) could not be further removed from Weill’s astringent work. As with many composers who emerged from eastern Europe in the 1980s—such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki—Vasks’ music has a very strong spiritual theme, in particular the tension between contrasting worlds—good and evil. His concerto for violin is fragile, beautiful and otherworldly, with just a small section of chaos depicting the fight of evil which is soon stamped out.
Anthony Marwood’s silvery tone and immaculate intonation is again on display in this fascinating disc.
Kurt Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op 12, was composed when he was at a crossroads in his stylistic evolution. Weill came from a musical family (his father was a cantor) and had taught himself the piano by the time he was ten. Although some early songs (solo and choral) survive from 1913 onwards, he didn’t make a serious stab at composition until 1916, as part of his private studies with Albert Bing, the first Kapellmeister of the opera in Dessau, Weill’s home town. Almost all his early manuscripts were lost during his parents’ emigration to Palestine in 1935: as their ship was being unloaded in Tel Aviv harbour, a packing case containing his first compositions was dropped overboard. But enough material survives to reveal that until around the time of his eighteenth birthday his music encompassed an amalgam of the styles he heard around him. Once he discovered his own voice, from the age of eighteen onwards, his evolution was swift and decisive. His ambitions grew equally quickly: by the time of his nineteenth birthday he had nearly finished the scoring of a suite for orchestra and immediately set to work on a symphonic poem inspired by Rilke’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke. And he was soon earning his living as a professional musician: although he had won a Felix Mendelssohn scholarship for composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, he quickly grew disenchanted with the conservative nature of the teaching – his composition professor there was Engelbert Humperdinck – and he left at the end of July 1919. Before the year was out, thanks to a recommendation from Humperdinck, he had landed the position of assistant conductor at the Municipal Theatre in Lüdenscheid, in Westphalia, taking over full responsibility when the principal conductor resigned in January 1920. At the conclusion of the season in May he spent some time with his parents, who had just moved to Leipzig, and then he returned to Berlin.
Another former resident of Berlin was on the way back, too: Ferruccio Busoni had spent the years of the First World War in Zurich, refusing to live in any of the belligerent countries, and by the autumn of 1920 Leo Kestenberg, a former student of his who was now director of music in the Prussian Ministry of Education, had persuaded him to take over the masterclass in composition at the Academy of Arts. The negotiations had been underway for some time; a letter from Weill to his brother in February 1919 records his excitement at the prospect. Among the conditions Busoni imposed on Kestenberg were that there would be a maximum of six students, and none should have to pay tuition fees: they were to be chosen on merit alone. Weill won an interview with Busoni through the intercession of the critic Oscar Bie, and was accepted into the composition class; long before the class formally began (on 1 July 1921) Weill was a welcome visitor to Busoni’s flat on the Viktoria-Luise Platz, a famous meeting place for Berlin’s intelligentsia. Busoni was impressed by Weill’s youthful ability, Weill by the generous attention Busoni paid to the artistic and personal development of his young student.
Weill’s studies with Busoni formally came to an end in December 1923, by which time Busoni was already so ill with heart and kidney disease that he could not leave the house; he was to die on 27 July 1924. The distraught Weill plunged himself into work. One of the scores that resulted was the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, which represents a quantum advance over his music up to this point. Not the least reason for the fascination of this work is the manner in which it pulls together a number of the stylistic influences on the young Weill. The formal clarity of Busoni’s neue Klassizität (new classicality) is readily to be heard. The other main influence in the Concerto is Stravinsky, most obviously in the scoring: Stravinsky’s own Concerto for piano and wind instruments can’t be a direct influence, since it was completed in April 1924, only a month before Weill’s own concerto, but his Symphonies of Wind Instruments of 1920 and the Octet for winds of 1922–3 had already revived the eighteenth-century sonorities of the wind ensemble in Stravinsky’s dispassionate neoclassical style. A less immediate influence is Schoenberg, who took over Busoni’s composition class. The simplification of Weill’s style – to be heard at its most radical when he began to work with Bertolt Brecht in 1927 – can be sensed in embryo here, too.
Weill’s approach to the concerto uses the soloist-versus-orchestra format, especially in the first movement, where it is expressed in the nature of the material allocated to each: the violin uses an increasingly agitated lyrical line to which the wind ensemble responds with angular, brittle rhythmic figures à la Stravinsky. After this heated dialogue, the second movement provides repose – though, unusually, it is divided into three parts, Notturno (where the violin duets with a xylophone), Cadenza (where the duo partner is now a trumpet) and Serenata (with flute), the titles and the music all bringing Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat to mind. The finale, marked Allegretto molto, un poco agitato, owes further debts to Stravinsky, not least its rhythmic unpredictability and a fondness for brittle bitonality; the wind-writing recalls Busoni’s orchestral manner very directly.
Although the score bears a dedication to Joseph Szigeti, the first performance was given by Marcel Darrieux with the Orchestre des Concerts Straram conducted by Walter Straram in Paris, on 11 June 1925. But the violinist who did most to promote the work over the coming years was Stefan Frenkel; indeed, he was to return to Kurt Weill’s music in 1930, when he transcribed seven pieces from Die Dreigroschenoper for violin and piano.
A recurrent theme in the music of Peteris Vasks is the tension between contrasting worlds: between good and evil, between the purity of nature and man’s impact on it, between some idyllic lost paradise and current catastrophe, between God and man – a tension which, during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, was a very real part of everyday life. Indeed, Vasks must have felt this tension almost as soon as he was aware of his surroundings: born in Aizpute in 1946, he was the son of a pastor in an atheist state. Though that fact was no fault of his own, it blotted his political copybook nonetheless: as a would-be student he was forbidden entry to the Latvian Academy of Music, and had to travel to Vilnius, capital of next-door Lithuania, to enrol at the Academy of Music there. It is hardly a coincidence that, as with many of the composers from eastern Europe who became popular at roughly the same time as Vasks (the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Pole Henryk Górecki, for example), one can discern a strong spiritual component in his music, as he confirmed in an interview during my most recent visit to Riga:
For me, music exists only if it has a spiritual content. Everything else plays no role – it’s just a noise. Whether it has a spiritual text or is instrumental music is irrelevant. Music must carry a message, with an ideal form, with spiritual concentration. That’s my way. My music doesn’t tell how awful things are, how bad the world is, how bad people are. It’s the other way around: [it tells] how beautiful the world is, how beautiful people’s souls are. So I’m positive, yes. Music must give people a spiritually positive influence. I am an idealist, and my idealism is in my music. It’s part of my expressivity. I’m a bit different from Arvo Pärt, for example – he’s already living in Paradise, and his music comes from there! There’s no emotion, no drama. My ideal is there, but I am living here, and my compositions deal with the contradiction between the ideal and reality. The expressive qualities of a composition require the sad, the dramatic, the tragic, but in all of my compositions there are positive moments; they have to bring hope.
Now the question is how we so-called contemporary composers make contact with listeners. We’ve lost that. For me it’s one of the greatest nonsenses when a composer says: ‘The public is too stupid for my music – this is music for the future.’ You can’t talk like that. Contemporary music was the only music that was played in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, for the churches, for the courts, for coronations. It was quite complicated, the best of it. Composing music for experts, for a small intellectual ghetto, is a false path, I think. When a composer writes only so that his colleagues can say: ‘Oh ho, look what’s been found here – something new’, it’s like when someone flies into the cosmos and looks for a new planet. That’s interesting as well, but it’s not the most important thing. When I compose, when I write, it is for people today, for our people, for things that matter today.
Hardly surprisingly, then, one of the prevailing characteristics of Vasks’ music is its sheer beauty of sound, and his Violin Concerto Distant Light (Tala gaisma in Vasks’ original Latvian), composed in 1996–7 at the request of Gidon Kremer, observes the basic topos of many other Vasks works in its suggestion that music can relieve suffering and assuage grief. When he read Kremer’s book Childhood Fragments he realized they had gone to the same school: ‘But we have only really met now in music. Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light years away.’
The opening of Distant Light, which is built in a single span of music, places Vasks stylistically exactly where his geographical origins are – between Pärt and Lutoslawski. The violin line slowly opens out over a gentle bed of growingly confident string tone, part diatony, part cluster. The strings disappear behind the first of three cadenzas, the basses then taking up a beautiful lament as the soloist soars ecstatically above. A bright-eyed, folk-like dance episode introduces a change of mood and tempo but is abruptly silenced by the second cadenza – which itself snaps to a close as the basses begin another poignant elegy. The third cadenza, with some deliberately ugly sounds, unleashes what one commentator has called ‘aleatory chaos’ before a rather ill-bred waltz stamps it into submission and an extended coda revisits some of the earlier material and lays the music to gentle rest.
Martin Anderson © 2005