YellowBarnBlog

"The Seven Last Words"

Monday, July 30, 2018

On Saturday, August 4th at 12:30pm, Yellow Barn will give a performance of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ, interspersed with Mark Strand's poems read by Eric Bass. The poetry is printed below. In 2003, The Brentano Quartet commissioned these poems to accompany Haydn's profound work. Of this work and their commission, violinist Mark Steinberg wrote:

The Seven Last Words comprises an introduction, seven slow movements corresponding to the seven words, and a musical depiction of the earthquake following the crucifixion. It exists in several versions: for orchestra, for orchestra and chorus, and for string quartet by Haydn, as well as a reduction for piano which was approved by the composer. Of these, the arrangement for string quartet has a particular purity and intimacy in which the flexibility and subtlety of the string instruments’ sound serves to enhance the vulnerability of the expression. It is a dark and deeply moving work inspiring searching contemplation. Mostly homophonic, with melodic lines supported by simple accompanying figures, the piece explores and reveals within this elemental texture the emotional resonances inherent in the story of the crucifixion. The music is often stark, barren and painful, but always overwhelmingly human. Strength and frailty, grief and acceptance, bewilderment and understanding are all expressed with the greatest economy of means and intensity of gesture. The work serves as a meditation on the gravity of tragedy, as well as on the possibilities of hope and redemption. It is music of great weight as well as great transparency, coupling profound directness of affect with ennobling humility.

In striving to create a performance which was suited to our feelings about the work, as well as to performance outside of a strictly religious venue, we decided to commission poems to be read before each of the slow movements, one poem for each of the Words. Our hope was to find a poet whose work shared certain important aesthetic qualities inherent in the Haydn. The poems were to be secular rather than specifically religious, based on the universal human qualities evident in the story of the crucifixion and in the music. There needed to be a sense of penetrating insight and of deep feeling, setting up a dialogue between word and music. The poetry of Mark Strand shares with the Haydn a surface of relative simplicity betraying underneath a piercing understanding of the human spirit. His is poetry which is quite musical in its cadence, lending itself to well to being read aloud. There is a complete lack of pretense in his poetry, which has the sincerity so immediately apparent in the Haydn. Mark Strand is a beautiful and wise artist, and it has been an immense privilege to collaborate with him and to feel part of the genesis of a rich and affecting set of poems.

—Mark Steinberg

Mark Strand
The Seven Last Words

1

The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it — one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.

2

There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.

3

Someday some one will write a story set
in a place called The Skull, and it will tell,
among other things, of a parting between mother
and son, of how she wandered off, of how he vanished
in air. But before that happens, it will describe
how their faces shone with a feeble light and how
the son was moved to say, ‘Woman, look at your son,’
then to a friend nearby, ‘Son, look at your mother.’
At which point the writer will put down his pen
and imagine that while those words were spoken
something else happened, something unusual like
a purpose revealed, a secret exchanged, a truth
to which they, the mother and son, would be bound,
but what it was no one would know. Not even the writer.

4

These are the days when the sky is filled with
the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire,
when there is nothing that does not wish to be born.
These are the days of spring when the fate
of the present is a breezy fullness, when the world’s
great gift for fiction gilds even the dirt we walk on.
On such days we feel we could live forever, yet all
the while we know we cannot. This is the doubleness
in which we dwell. The great master of weather
and everything else, if he wishes, can bring forth  
a dark of a different kind, one hidden by darkness
so deep it cannot be seen. No one escapes.
Not even the man who saved others, and believed
he was the chosen son. When the dark came down
even he cried out, ‘Father, father, why have you
forsaken me?’ But to his words no answer came.

5

To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
instead of water, vinegar, and that to be pressed
from a sponge. To close one’s eyes and see the giant
world that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one
mourned. To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover
what one suspected, that the only word in it
is nothing. To try to open one’s eyes, but not to be
able to. To feel the mouth burn. To feel the sudden
presence of what, again and again, was not said.
To translate it and have it remain unsaid. To know
at last that nothing is more real than nothing.

6

‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
the words almost a whisper, then not even that,
but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come
from him, but from elsewhere. This was his moment,
his final moment. “It is finished,” he said into a vastness
that led to an even greater vastness, and yet all of it
within him. He contained it all. That was the miracle,
to be both large and small in the same instant, to be
like us, but more so, then finally to give up the ghost,
which is what happened. And from the storm that swirled
a formal nakedness took shape, the truth of disguise
and the mask of belief were joined forever.

7

Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.

Beethoven Sonatas Opus 102

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Yellow Barn is pleased to announce the arrival of faculty member Natasha Brofsky's recording of Beethoven's Opus 102 sonatas for cello and piano, which she recorded with Seth Knopp as part of a long personal journey with these pieces. A glimpse of her musical exploration can be found in her liner notes below.

Beethoven Sonatas Opus 102 is available online and at Yellow Barn summer concerts.

The terrible fire that consumed Count Rasumovsky’s palace in 1814 caused the palace’s famed resident quartet, the Schuppanzigh, to disperse to find new work. As a result, the quartet’s cellist, Joseph Linke, spent the summer of 1815 with Beethoven’s great friend and supporter, the Countess Marie Erdödy, at the Erdödy summer residence at Jedlesee. The Countess, though an invalid, was a fine pianist. As for Linke, he was a superlative performer. According to his obituary, published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musikin 1837, his musical interpretations could be variously ‘flattering, capricious, passionate and so on, his playing capturing the critical essence of Beethoven’s music’.1No wonder Beethoven was lighthearted and joyful in his letters to the Countess - letters in which he contemplated the prospect of visiting Jedlesee and bringing with him the new sonatas he had just composed.2

Years later, a reviewer for the Berliner Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung1 (1824) would praise these sonatas as a “a work of the newest inspiration of our great master. It is not necessary to say that, like all his works, its originality distinguishes itself not only from all products of other composers, but also, remarkably enough, from his own works. Everywhere the inexhaustible source of his glowing genius pours out, fresh and bright, a new outburst of his feelings, and with each new gift one must admit after repeated hearings not only its beauty, but novelty, as something previously unheard from him and, naturally, from others.”3  

In a gradual process that began with Beethoven’s earliest trios and sonatas, the emancipation of the cello from the left hand of the piano is fully realized in Opus 102, making the cello an independent voice in the musical conversation.

Sonata No.1 in C Major

In the autograph of the opening of the C Major sonata, the word teneramente(tenderly) is written in large letters in Beethoven’s hand.  In the printed score, it is none so prominent, although perhaps it should be; for throughout his life, Beethoven increasingly used descriptive words in his scores.  The reason is implicit, perhaps, in the commentary of Ferdinand Ries, who studied piano with Beethoven: “If I made a mistake in passages or missed notes and leaps which he frequently wanted emphasized he seldom said anything; but if I was faulty in expression, in crescendos, etc., or in the character of the music, he grew angry because, as he said, the former was accidental while the latter disclosed lack of knowledge, feeling, or attentiveness.”4

In the title of the C Major Sonata, Beethoven originally wrote “free sonata,” seemingly conceiving ofthe pieceas unbound by traditional forms.  The words are a reminder that Beethoven was celebrated in his time as a great improviser. As in his Sonata in A MajorOpus 69, he opens the C Major with the cello alone, improvising, as it were, on a C Major scale. The simplicity and inventiveness here are remarkable. The piano joins the cello on the last three notes of this opening phrase with a mini-scale of its own, as if playfully commenting on the cello’s scales while also harmonizing the descending motive. Famously, the motivic material for the entire sonata is derived from this opening phrase. In the Andante sections of the work, the instruments seem to be improvising together with a sense of freedom and timelessness. In contrast, the a minor Allegro vivace movement, which follows the opening Andante, is compact and driving. The Adagio, originally intended to follow without pause, begins with a whimsical cadenza as if the pianist is ruminating on the opening motives of the piece. The cello answers, taking us into a dark and mysterious mood. It is only after a succession of stormy and troubled crescendos that Beethoven gives us the most tender phrase of the piece. Then, like a memory that has been embroidered in its retelling, the opening Andante returns in a more ornamented form.  The final Allegro vivace is a playful, boisterous and virtuosic movement. It provides a vivid example of Beethoven's genius in portraying a huge range of emotion while achieving compositional unity.

Sonata No.2 in D Major

The D Major Sonata has the more standard three-movement form. Like the a minor Allegro vivace of the C Major Sonata, the first movement is not only terse, but also full of dramatic contrasts as well as beautiful lyrical moments. The second movement begins with a soft and sad hymn in minor with a touch of major harmony that brings a glimmer of hope. The music of the middle section of the movement is tender and lovely, made all the more fragile because it is preceded by music that is so unsure and searching. Beethoven returns to an improvisatory quality with the harmonic wanderings at the end of this glorious slow movement.  The famous fugue that is the third movement of this work begins with the playful trading off of a one octave scale. This coy dialogue was added by Beethoven after he completed the whole movement. From this simple scale he creates a fugue subject, and as each voice enters, the fugue becomes a riotous cacophony.The dissonance of this third movement was challenging for Beethoven’s audiences; it still sounds modern, even in the 21stcentury.

This recording represents only a snapshot of our lifelong effort to capture the spirit and essence of Beethoven’s music.  While playing together in the Peabody Trio for nearly two decades, we performed all of the Beethoven Trios. In addition, we played the Cello Sonatas and coached our students on these pieces.  In grappling with these works over many years, we have become increasingly familiar with the medium and ever more obsessive about the ways in which our instruments speak to each other in Beethoven’s music. The instruments sing together, argue, reminisce, shout, and weep. These Sonatas have challenged us to use our utmost imagination in color and expression.  It is this challenge that has inspired us to come back to these pieces over and over, to explore them again and again.

1 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik6 (1837), 130 (21 April) as quoted in Moskovitz, Marc D.; Todd, R. Larry. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World (Boydell & Brewer Group Ltd. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 4521-4522.
2 This sequence of events is detailed in Moskovitz, Marc D.; Todd, R. Larry. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World
3 Berliner Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung1 (1824), 409– 10 (1 December) as quoted in Moskovitz; Todd. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World, Kindle Locations 6233-6238.
4 Ries, Ferdinand; Wegeler Franz. Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven(Coblenz 1838), p. 94 as quoted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliot Forbes, editor(Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 295.

2018 Yellow Barn videos

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Watch performances from Yellow Barn's 2018 Summer Festival in Putney, Vermont.

Yellow Barn's Summer Season

Listen to recordings of Yellow Barn summer festival performances

Steven Mackey (b.1956). Heavy Light (2001). Steven Mackey, electric guitar; Rosie Gallagher, flute; John Myerscough, cello; Eduardo Leandro, percussion; Pedro Borges, piano—July 28, 2018 | Program Note
Ritual: 3.0'
First Crossing: 14.32'
Psychedelic Sketch: 19.14'
Voices: 23.51'
Second Crossing: 26.10'
Heavy Light: 29.19'

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op.6 No.5, HWV 323 (1739). Zenas Hsu, YuEun Kim, Harriet Langley, Magdalena Filipczak, Brian Hong, Leonard Fu, Mélanie Clapiès, violins; Tegen Davidge, Emily Brandenburg, Yitong Guo, violas; Natasha Brofsky, Cristina Basili, cellos; Peter Walsh, double bass; Alice Chenyang Xu, harpsichord—July 6, 2018
Larghetto e staccato: 0'
Allegro: 1.42'
Presto: 3.53'
Largo: 7.36'
Allegro: 9.44'
Menuet. Un Poco larghetto: 12.18'

 
John Cage (1912-1992). Solo for Voice 15 from Song Books (1970). Lucy Shelton—July 6, 2018 | Program Note
 

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016). Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981). Marion Ravot, harp; Violaine Melançon, Leonard Fu, violins; Lauren Siess, viola; Sein Lee, cello; Peter Walsh, double bass—July 7, 2018 | Program Note

Liza Lim (b.1966). Love Letter (2011). Sam Seyoung Um, percussion—July 7, 2018 | Program Note

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen "Songs of a Wayfarer" (1883-85) (arr. Arnold Schoenberg). Melanie Henley Heyn, soprano; Rosie Gallagher, flute; Yasmina Spiegelberg, clarinet; Emma Frucht, Juliette Roos, violins; Katherine Murdock, viola; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello; Peter Walsh, double bass; EunAe Lee, piano; Pedro Borges, harmonium; Sam Seyong Um, percussion—July 7, 2018
Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht: 0'
Ging heut morgen übers Feld: 5.38'
Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer: 9.48'
Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz: 13.17'

John Cage (1912-1992). Experiences No.2 (1948). William Sharp, voice—July 7, 2018

 
Salvatore Sciarrino (b.1947). Le voci sottovetro, elaborazioni da Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa “Voices under glass, elaborations on music of Carlo Gesualdo of Venosa” (1998): 0'
Hans Abrahamsen (b.1952). Liebeslied (2010): 16.34'
Melanie Henley Heyn, voice; Rosie Gallagher, bass flute; Mark Hill, English horn; Yasmina Spiegelberg, bass clarinet; Mélanie Clapiès, violin; Jesse Morrison, viola; Coleman Itzkoff, cello; 
Sam Seyong Um, percussion; Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, piano—July 12, 2018 | Program Note
 

Philippe Hersant (b.1948). Usher (2016)
. Marion Ravot, harp; Juliette Roos, Emma Frucht, violins; 
Katherine Murdock, viola; Cristina Basili, cello—July 12, 2018 | Program Note

Stephen Coxe (b.1966). Entretien (2018). Maren Rothfritz, viola; Tomer Gewirtzman, piano—July 12, 2018 | Program Note

 
Oliver Knussen (1952-2018). Triptych
Autumnal, Op.14 (1977): 0' Eunae Koh, violin; Eunae Lee, piano 
Sonya’s Lullaby, Op.15 (1978): 8.42' Alice Chenyang Xu, piano
Cantata, Op.16 (1977): 16.52' Mark Hill, oboe; Harriet Langley, violin; Tegen Davidge, viola; Annie Jacobs-Perkins, cello—July 13, 2018 | Program Note
 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). String Quintet in G Minor, K.516 (1787). Jennifer Liu, Eunae Koh, violins; Katherine Murdock, Lauren Siess, violas; Daniel Hamin Go, cello—July 13, 2018
Allegro: 0'
Menuetto. Allegretto: 8.50'
Adagio ma non troppo: 15.01'
Adagio—Allegro: 23.33'

César Franck (1822-1890). Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879). Peter Frankl, piano; Magdalena Filipczak, Claire Bourg, violins; Nicholas Mann, viola; Yoshika Masuda, cello—July 13, 2018
Molto moderato quasi lento—Allegro: 0'
Lento con molto sentimento: 17.17'
Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco: 28.29'
 
 
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.26 (1876). Peter Frankl, piano; Violaine Melançon, violin; Edvard Pogossian, cello—July 14, 2018
Allegro moderato: 0'
Largo: 13.06'
Presto—Poco meno mosso: 21'
Finale. Allegro non tanto: 27.20'
 
 

Chinary Ung (b.1942). Spiral (1987). Natasha Brofsky, cello; Marisa Gupta, piano; Sam Um, percussion—July 19, 2018 | Program Note

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). String Quartet in F Major (1903). Eunae Koh, Leonard Fu, violins; Maren Rothfritz, viola; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello—July 19, 2018
Allegro moderato—très doux: 0'
Assez vif—très rythmé: 9.25'
Très lent: 17.24'
Vif et agité: 26.25'

 
Alexandre Lunsqui (b.1969). Deflectere II (2008). Magdalena Filipczak, violin; Alan Kay, clarinet; Eduardo Leandro, percussion—July 19, 2018 | Program Note
 
 
Shulamit Ran (b.1949). Moon Songs, a song cycle in four acts (2011). Lucy Shelton, soprano; Rosie Gallagher, flute/piccolo; Annie Jacobs-Perkins, cello; Alice Chenyang Xu, piano—July 20, 2018 | Program Note
Act I: Creation: 0'
Act II: Li Bai and the Vacant Moon: 6.27'
Entr’acte I: 14.38'
Act III: Star-Crossed: 15.54'
Entr’acte II: Prayer to Pierrot: 19.51'
Act IV: Medley: 20.54'
 

Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Violin Sonata No.2, Sz.76 (1922). Mélanie Clapiès, violin; Pedro Borges, piano—July 20, 2018
Molto moderato: 0'
Allegretto: 9.08'

György Kurtág (b.1926). 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op.13 (Hommage à Mihály András) (1977). Donald Weilerstein, Zenas Hsu, violins; Yitong Guo, viola; Edvard Pogossian, cello—July 20, 2018 | Program Note

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25 (1941). Harriet Langley, YuEun Kim, violin; Tegen Davidge, viola; Sein Lee, cello—July 20, 2018
Andante sostenuto—Allegro vivo: 0'
Allegretto con slancio: 10.36'
Andante calmo: 13.56'
Molto vivace: 24.58'

Christopher Rouse (b.1949). Compline (1996). Rosie Gallagher, flute; Yasmina Spiegelberg, clarinet; Marion Ravot, harp; Brian Hong, Juliette Roos, violins; Emily Brandenburg, viola; Daniel Hamin Go, cello—July 21, 2018 | Program Note

Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Fantasie in F Minor, D.940 (1828). Tomer Gewirtzman, Pedro Borges, piano four-hands—July 21, 2018
Allegro molto moderato: 0'
Largo: 5.25'
Allegro vivace: 8.01'
Allegro molto moderato: 13.49'

Alexander Raskatov (b.1953). Monk’s Music, Seven Words by Starets Silouan (In memoriam Mieczyslaw Weinberg) (2005). Leonard Fu, YuEun Kim, violins; Lauren Siess, viola; Natasha Brofsky, cello; William Sharp, baritone—July 21, 2018 | Program Note
I. Adagio: 0'
II. Adagio cantabile: 7.14'
III. Adagio recitando: 16.39'
IV. Adagio chiaro e dolcissimo: 24.58'
V. Adagio affetuoso: 31.29'
VI. Adagio spianato: 39.31'
VII. Adagio molto: 45.10'

Yellow Barn Videos

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Watch festival performances from the Big Barn in Putney, Vermont.

Yellow Barn's Summer Season

Listen to recordings of Yellow Barn festival performances

2018 summer season

George Frideric Handel Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op.6 No.5, HWV 323J
John Cage Solo for Voice 15 from Song Books
Einojuhani Rautavaara Ballad for Harp and Strings
Liza Lim Love Letter
Gustav Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen “Songs of a Wayfarer”
John Cage Experiences No.2
Salvatore Sciarrino Le voci sottovetro
Hans Abrahamsen Liebeslied
Philippe Hersant Usher
Stephen Coxe Entretien
Oliver Knussen Triptych
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart String Quintet in G Minor, K.516
César Franck Piano Quintet in F Minor
Antonín Dvořák Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.26
Chinary Ung Spiral
Alexandre Lunsqui Deflectere II
Shulamit Ran Moon Songs, a song cycle in four acts
Béla Bartók Violin Sonata No.2, Sz.76
György Kurtág 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op.13
Benjamin Britten String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25
Christopher Rouse Compline
Franz Schubert Fantasie in F Minor, D.940
Alexander Raskatov Monk's Music, Seven Words by Starets Silouan
Steven Mackey Heavy Light

2017 summer season

Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Sofia Gubaidulina Galgenlieder à 3
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart String Quartet in G Major, K.387 
Alexander Raskatov Five Minutes from the Life of W.A.M. 
Maurice Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello
Jörg Widmann Zirkustänze

Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Yellow Barn's concert this Friday, July 13 was meant in part to celebrate the revered British composer Oliver Knussen, with the performance of three of his works. It is with great sadness that these performances must now be presented in memoriam to this composer who will be deeply missed.

In the words of BBC broadcaster Tom Service, “Oliver Knussen’s sheer brilliance as composer and conductor, his support for generations of younger composers and musicians, with whom he created a performance practice for music from Elliott Carter to Helen Grime—made him an essential part of our musical life. His music is one of the life-enhancing glories of the repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries."

The Guardian published the following obituary on July 9, 2018:

Oliver Knussen, who has died aged 66, was a towering figure in contemporary music, as composer and conductor, teacher and artistic director. The relatively small size of his compositional output conceals music of exceptional refinement and subtlety—a few bars of Knussen may have more impact than whole movements by lesser composers.

Besides definitive interpretations of his own music, he must surely have given more first performances than any other conductor, alongside an outstanding body of recordings. He was the central focus of so many activities, and an irreplaceable mentor to his fellow composers, who constantly sought and relied on his advice and encouragement.

He was born in Glasgow, son of Jane (nee Alexander) and Stuart Knussen; his father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra for nearly 20 years. Although Knussen would have laughed at any idea of his being a child prodigy, this gave him an unrivalled insight into the workings of the orchestra from an early age. It culminated in his conducting his First Symphony with the LSO at the age of 15, when their principal conductor István Kertész fell ill. His father played in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s church parable Curlew Riverin 1964. Knussen attended all the rehearsals, and Britten was very encouraging to the young composer, commissioning a work for the 1969 Aldeburgh festival.

Between 1963 and 1969 he studied with the composer John Lambert, which gave him a solid but untraditional grounding. His musical perspectives were expanded greatly by studying in the US with Gunther Schuller from 1970 until 1973 at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he met his future wife, Sue Freedman, then a horn player, later a maker of documentary films. This period saw him writing with ever greater confidence—a Concerto for Orchestra commissioned by André Previn in 1969, and his Second Symphony, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin in 1970, the latter the first major work in which he felt fully confident of his abilities. Even at the age of 18 his musical personality seemed fully formed.

The 1970s were a period of intense creativity for Knussen, with chamber works including Rosary Songs, Océan de Terreand Ophelia Dances, culminating in the completion in 1979 of his Third Symphony, a work whose first movement had been conducted by its dedicatee, Michael Tilson Thomas, in 1973. But this activity came at a cost: his extreme scrupulousness led him to take increasing care in composing, whether the work was on a small or large scale, and the material for the first complete performance of the symphony at the Proms was delivered only at the last minute. The 70s also saw the beginning of his longstanding relationship with his publisher Faber Music.

Similar problems attended the two “fantasy operas” he wrote in collaboration with Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83) and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1984-85). These superbly crafted, colourful works give every impression of unaffected spontaneity, but for Knussen it was a slow and painstaking process, with both operas first performed incomplete. Higglety was finally completed to the composer’s satisfaction only in 1999.

Until the 80s conducting had been a second string for Knussen, but gradually began to take up more of his time, particularly with his appointments as artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival from 1983 until 1998 and head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood between 1986 and 1993. In 1992 he and I founded the Aldeburgh Contemporary Composition Course, where it gave him great pleasure to work with young composers and performers, who gratefully sat at his feet. Conducting was an occupation which gave him much satisfaction, with the opportunity to programme the music of both senior and junior composers, as well as his contemporaries, but it inevitably distracted him from composing. “I certainly wish I could afford to keep the two roles, conducting and composing, in better balance,” he said in 2012.

Most of the works from the next decade were on a smaller scale, but the Whitman Settings(1991), Songs Without Voices(1991-92) and Horn Concerto(1994) stand out as major achievements. He seemed to recover something of the flair of the 70s when he composed Prayer Bell Sketch in three days in 1997 in memory of his great friend the composer Toru Takemitsu, and the Violin Concerto, composed in 2002 for Pinchas Zukerman, which seemed to come almost out of the blue.

The similar intensity of Requiem: Songs for Sue(2005-06) was his considered reaction to the death of his wife in 2003 (he had much earlier composed Sonya’s Lullabyfor the birth of their daughter, now a gifted singer, in 1977). He described this major late work succinctly: “It’s not a huge work ... but it’s a big piece emotionally.” However other works from this period remained incomplete, including the remarkable Cleveland Picturesfor orchestra begun in 2003, withdrawn for revision and still unperformed, and concertos for piano and cello. His last completed work was O Hototogisu!for soprano and ensemble, a tantalising but substantial fragment of an intended larger piece.

Honours came to him in later years—appointment as CBE and honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2002 and its conductor award in 2010, the Ivor Novello classical music award and the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2016. He was associate guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989 onwards and their artist in association, 2009-12; artist in association with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group from 2006; and associate artist of the South Bank Centre in 2006. In 2014 he was made the inaugural Richard Rodney Bennett professor of music at the Royal Academy and was awarded an honorary doctorate there very recently.

But any sense of Olly (as everyone knew him) belonging to the establishment would have been an illusion. He was too big a figure to fit into any easily defined category. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge, with a special love for films—he was a Hitchcock obsessive and became friends with Jim Jarmusch—and painting: he had a fascination for obscure artists such as Joachim Patinir and Ivan Bilibin. But above all his consuming passion was for music. I can think of no composer into whom he could not offer insights, although his taste was very much for the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a love that could and did get in the way of composing: it was as if every bar that he wrote was measured against all the music that he knew, and this explains the almost painfully slow process by which his music was written, and the number of fragments left behind.

He had close friendships with most of the major 20th-century composers—Takemitsu, Hans Werner Henze, Elliott Carter (whose late works he championed), Mauricio Kagel, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, among many others. He even established a relationship with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and loved to tell the story of how, when he said to him “You can call me Olly”, the reply came back “You can call me Stockhausen.”

Although he leaves a wonderful legacy of performance, it is primarily as a composer that he would want to be remembered. It makes it all the more regrettable that, although he gave less time to conducting, due to the ill health which dogged his last years, this did not mean—as he said to me in hope only a couple of months ago—that he would have time to write the music that was in his head, and which would undoubtedly have taken him in new and rewarding directions.

He is survived by Sonya.

—Colin Matthews for The Guardian (July 9, 2018)

Video program note: Four Iconoclastic Episodes

Saturday, June 23, 2018

In 2003, during Steven Mackey's first composer residency at Yellow Barn, violinist Anthony Marwood proposed the idea of a double-concerto for violin and electric guitar with string orchestra. Six years later, Steve and Anthony premiered Four Iconoclastic Episodes. On July 26, 2018 the double-concerto comes home to Yellow Barn for a performance with Steve and Anthony in the Big Barn. Steve describes the genesis and composition of his piece in the following video program note:

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