Archive for the ‘Repertoire’ Category

My First Beethoven Quartet by Bailey Firszt

If you study with Ivo, he’ll tell you at least once (but probably about ten times) that playing the Beethoven quartets was what he lived for as a quartet violist. After hearing him praise these quartets for the last four and a half years, I knew I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. My quartet-mates and I decided to study Beethoven’s opus 74 quartet, nicknamed the “Harp.” From the very beginning of the piece, Beethoven draws the listener in with the most organic music imaginable:


The beginning is especially scary, because the quartet has to strive for a perfectly blended, sotto voce sound, but not be too scared to start playing! Another challenge that we encountered in this opening was bringing out the rhetoric in the musical lines. Beethoven writes two statements of the same motive but resolves them with different harmonies underneath the first violin part. How do we make the first iteration sound like a question, but without giving away the mystery or darkness of the second? The entire Adagio is like a speech, filled with dramatic pauses and questions left hanging in the air. I love that it doesn’t gain any momentum until the very last measure, when Beethoven finally writes a crescendo, and the piece can really start!


 At last!

The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is really just a set of variations on a beautiful melody. My favorite “variation” starts in measure 87, the most intimate music of the movement. The viola part is made up of several measures of slurred thirty-second notes, which have to be completely smooth without sacrificing expression.


After very tastefully lengthening the beginning of every single beat (oops), I eventually settled on playing it basically straight while vibrating the important notes.

In the third movement, Presto, you have to be careful not to blink, or the music might pass you by. I really had to concentrate when we performed this movement, otherwise I would forget to come in! We found it beneficial to drill large sections several times to make sure it never fell apart. Since the movement goes by so quickly, it’s important to play it enough that you can take a step back and see the bigger musical picture as you’re performing, rather than simply trying to keep up with the tempo.


 Are we in 2? Or 3? What’s going on?

The end of the agitated Presto transforms into a lovely Allegretto con Variazioni.




This movement is especially tricky, because it’s in 2/4, but beat 2 sounds like the downbeat rather than the pickup. We struggled with whether to bring out this ambiguity or to just play it emphasizing the “wrong” beat. I don’t think we ever reached a consensus . . . nor did we ever figure out why in the world Beethoven did that! One of the movement’s variations is a viola solo made up of flowing, winding triplets. The biggest challenge I had to overcome with that variation was phrasing the melody without making it sound “seasick,” as one of my quartet-mates lovingly called it. (That, and my fear of the spotlight!)


The movement’s coda is a thrilling sixteenth-note passage that ends, instead of forte as you expect, with two piano chords. After leading us through four joyous movements, Beethoven ends the piece with a clever joke. I think I heard my dad laugh out loud at the end of our performance!


My first encounter with a Beethoven quartet was both thrilling and unsatisfying. One semester and one performance were not enough for this brilliant piece of music, but hopefully I’ll continue to play Beethoven’s quartets for the rest of my life.

Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque – Edward Schenkman

For my final blog post, I wanted to write about one my favorite viola pieces of all time: Suite Hébraïque, by Ernest Bloch. I have a strong attachment to this piece and was fortunate enough to play the first movement with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra as a senior in high school.

One of the most interesting facts about Ernest Bloch that I discovered while playing his piece was that he was not in fact Jewish. His composition style was, however, influenced by Mahler, who was Jewish, which is why much of Bloch’s music incorporates Jewish elements. One example is his use of augmented seconds that appear throughout the Suite Hébraïque, which are characteristic of klezmer music.

Suite Hébraïque was composed for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a token of appreciation for a concert in Bloch’s honor. There were originally five separate pieces: a rhapsody, three processionals, and a meditation. The publisher released the processional and the meditation as separate pieces and combined the other three into what is now the Suite Hébraïque.

The first movement is written in an improvisatory style that conjures up a gypsy-like atmosphere. A cadenza-like passage in the middle marks the emotional climax of the piece, which slowly winds down to a resigned conclusion. The second movement opens with a march rhythm from the harp and pizzicato strings, which ushers in the viola with a confident Phrygian melody. The third movement, another processional, was renamed Affirmation and is characterized by sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent use of augmented seconds.

This first solo performance with an orchestra was an incredible experience for me. I learned that the anxiety that I felt leading up to the performance only enhanced the energy and musical connection I felt on stage. I hope to one day perform this masterpiece with a more informed perspective and improved technical ability.

Quincy Porter Viola Concerto by Aaron Conitz

0403a Porter


Drawing of Quincy Porter playing viola

During my final year of undergraduate at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I participated in a studio recital project that was to feature music by American composers written for viola. While there were some obvious choices, my colleagues and I encountered something of a vacancy in the viola repertoire: American composers. It was because of this endeavor that I discovered the rich and diverse repertoire written for the viola by Quincy Porter. Among Porter’s works, I found the Suite for Solo Viola (1930) to be extremely attractive; its rhythmic drive, lyrical nature, and extremely idiomatic feel was quite provocative. I performed the work at the studio recital in Cleveland and then once again as part of my first doctoral recital here at Rice University. Working on the suite was challenging and rewarding; his compositional style is engaging, technically demanding, and always fits the instrument well.

My first encounter with the music of Quincy Porter inspired further investigation. While preparing the Suite, I found myself turning to recordings of the piece, which lead to the discovery of more of his works for viola. Eliesha Nelson’s recording of Porter’s complete works for viola was particularly inspiring, not only because of the wonderful artistry and execution demonstrated by Eliesha, but also in the presentation of so many beautiful pieces that I had never encountered before. It was obvious to me that these pieces needed to be performed regularly. The first piece I would turn to was the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. I would like to first give a brief biographical sketch of Porter to provide some historical context and, second, to describe my experience preparing and performing the concerto.

0403b Nelson

Cover of Eliesha Nelson’s Grammy-Award-winning CD of Porter’s music

Quincy Porter (1897–1966) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a musical family. His early interest in composition and viola performance brought him to pursue studies in composition and viola at Yale College (1919) and Yale School of Music (1921) with Horatio Parker and David Stanley Smith. In 1921 he received additional instruction from Vincent d’Indy while studying in Paris. Upon returning to America he began private composition lessons with Ernest Bloch; when Bloch was appointed the first president of the fledgling Cleveland Institute of Music, Porter followed him to Ohio. Porter’s involvement at the Institute was as a member of the theory faculty and violist in the Ribaupierre Quartet, the resident ensemble of CIM. Porter received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to return to Paris for three years (1928–31). Several sources claim that his compositional style came to fruition during the time spent in Paris; notable works were composed during this period including his String Quartet No. 3, Suite for Solo Viola, and the Violin Sonata No. 2. In 1932 Porter was appointed as professor of music at Vassar College; this position would mark the beginning of his career as a composition teacher and music educator. He remained at Vassar until 1938, when he was appointed dean of the faculty at New England Conservatory. Porter returned to Yale University in 1946 as professor of music and remained in this position until his retirement in 1965.

Porter’s compositional output represents an amalgamation of his American and French training, with a strong emphasis on contrapuntal line within a rhythmic and polytonal harmonic environment. The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra strongly represents all of these distinctive qualities. Written in 1948, the concerto was first performed and recorded by Paul Doktor and later would be taken up by several other notable performers including William Primrose, the piece’s dedicatee. Primrose described the work as “one of the most engaging of viola concertos,” although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other works written for Primrose. Howard Boatwright, in his eulogy for Porter, suggested that the work’s lack of attention was largely due to the fact that it was directly contemporaneous with the Bartók Viola Concerto, even though “in many respects the Porter is a more satisfying piece.”

The work is comprised of four movements; the first three are performed attacca, with an optional break between the third and final movements. It follows a non-standard progression of slow–fast–slow–fast. The first movement is extremely lyrical and flowing, characterized by somewhat unusual groupings of five and six, slurred in such a way that the divisions of pulse are obfuscated, making it difficult for both the violist and accompanist to have a sense of metric structure. Examine the opening passage of the first movement—


Opening of the Porter Concerto

The rhapsodic gestures are rhythmic in nature but are given a more cantabile effect through the slurring (e.g., groupings across two sets of sextuplets). This particular feature is maintained throughout the movement; learning to feel the rhythmic gestures but also to establish a lyrical quality was definitely a challenge on an individual level, but also became problematic when putting it together with piano (Note: not a likely piece to be able to put together for a lesson in one rehearsal …).

The second movement opens with an extensive orchestral interlude, after which the viola enters with a more extroverted, but nonetheless lyrical, melody. I found that the largest challenge in approaching this movement was not learning and executing the notes, although they did pose some difficulty, but putting it to memory; its meandering, soulful melodic passages soar above the orchestra, but tend to have such similar harmonic quality that it becomes difficult in distinguishing where one phrase goes that another didn’t and vice versa.

Without a doubt the third movement is my favorite of the four. It has an intensely introverted quality that suits the viola so incredibly well. Porter provides a number of modal scales that serve as the harmonic underpinnings of the movement. An extended cadenza is at the heart of the movement; it displays a wide range of virtuosic passage work and double-stops. The cadenza has such juicy substance that was so much fun to work on and experiment with colors and effects.

The finale movement is a raucous, almost rustic, dance and is full of challenging scalar-passage work as well as ostinato-like double stops (reminiscent of the second movement of the solo suite). One particular passage was great fun to learn and also to play—the harmonies Porter travels through are wonderful!

0403d concerto2

Page from the fourth movement of Porter’s Concerto

This delightful movement has enormous character and flair, providing the performer with ample opportunity to demonstrate playing of the highest order. Unlike most viola concertos, the Porter ends with a bang!

My journey through discovering, learning, and performing this concerto was incredibly fulfilling, not only musically but also technically. The work displays such a range of technical and musical demands while remaining tonally accessible in a way that is certainly comparable to the “Big Three” concertos. I highly encourage everyone to explore and revive the works of Quincy Porter, for he is certainly an American composer to be heard.

A Case for the Schnittke Concerto by Jill Valentine

I was riding in the car once with a friend who loves classical music. She had volumes in her car with titles like Classical Chill Favorites, Serenity Classical, and 100 Classics for Relaxation. A dose of Zen in the car was how she survived her daily grind. I was happy to take off the analytical ears myself and enjoy our drive as well. Besides a little too much reverb, it was a well-rounded sampling of major works musicians know well and audiences always love. But it got me thinking.

I had my own music on shuffle once on the highway, and appallingly, after a Jack Johnson track, came the second movement of the Schnittke Viola Concerto. As the buzz kill subsided, I considered what a Classical Not Chill or 100 Best Overwhelming Classical Pieces collection would have on it and how well it would sell. Very often I’ve observed that musicians’ lists of favorite pieces don’t include many purely “relaxing” works. We seem to love the works that emotionally exhaust us from listening, be it from the level of romantic emotion, struggle, despair, joy, etc.

If you’re looking for something to add to that playlist, I would recommend the Schnittke highly.

Nobody should be able to drive down the open road with the windows down loving life while listening to this concerto, but the Schnittke is not made for that. I would argue that it’s made not only to disturb you, but to also make you laugh (uncomfortably) and to drain your energy. It’s one of those rare works when a composer pours his autobiography and his fear wholeheartedly into it, and a work where the viola‘s “weakness,” especially in projection, is rhetorically valuable in itself. Schnittke wrote the concerto in the 1980s while he suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes that eventually took his life. He essentially died and lived to write about it, knowing his time thereafter was limited. It reminds me a lot of the Bartók concerto in that way, but in Schnittke‘s case, we know this is him talking the entire time, and we see his own death in his own words at the end of the piece.

The three-movement rollercoaster is all levels of disturbing and heartbreaking, rich with “should-I-be-laughing” humor and very toneful throughout. It is’‘t serial, and it has enough Romantic influence that I’‘s accessible once you get past the intensity. There’s a melody at the onset, and it even comes back a few times!

The concerto is incredibly difficult to play in many respects. I don’t want to think about how long I have worked on it, and I still can’t play it. But I’ll put it down for a few years and try it again later for sure.

Technical problems include the typical modern-music issues like large jumps, connecting disjunct lines, extended left-hand technique, and endurance with minimalist rhythms that tire your bow arm. Here are some clippings to illustrate:


This is an example of the disjunct, but very connected phrases that happen a lot in the outer movements, which involve big shifts, string crossings, and double stops with awkward replacements. This is also one of the most beautiful moments in the piece, if you ask me 🙂

Not only are the technical aspects challenging, but memorization is also incredibly difficult. The outer movements have many long notes that extend over mixed-meter bars, so anyone with photographic memory will have a huge advantage. I struggled with memorizing the order of time signatures/rests as much as the notes and rhythms themselves.


This note at rehearsal 19 lasts for many beats over many meter changes, and the piano plays straight quarter notes the entire time. It’s very easy to lose count! Cues, such as the (blank) bar where the piano rests, are a good things to have.

The second movement is an overload of chords and notes. Visually, some pages look like a black wall. The chords move in patterns that make it easy to skip one or play one too many times. It’s the most terrifying movement to play without the music, especially the passages that have 16th-note chord accompaniment.


Here’s the first page of the second movement. There are three or four more pages later in the movement that look very much like this one. The notes aren’t hard, but there are a lot, and every restatement has a slight pattern differences.

After you’ve learned the piece by memory (congratulations!!) comes the most important element. You need to sell this piece, a composer’s 40-minute lament over his own looming death. He uses the weak registers of the viola to show his own frailty, the shrill upper register to show himself screaming. Every shortcoming the viola has is used for what it is, and the very human element that results from that is chilling. After I played it in a recital, a friend from the audience said (as a compliment, he assured me) that he “wanted to walk out several times.” Another friend described it as a car crash you couldn’t look away from. While you’re pouring yourself all over the stage and your audience is shifting around uncomfortably, try to save enough energy to make it through the piece, because the structure provides no time for rest. The movements get progressively longer and harder. The second movement has all the notes, but in my experience the third movement is the hardest, because when you come off of the exhausting second movement, rather than relaxing, you have to regroup and get through the longest, slowest, most emotional movement yet.

I’m making it sound horrible. And it is, but it’s worthwhile. We play pieces like this and wonder why we love them so much, when they’re so painful for all parties involved. It’s an acquired taste, I guess, and of course not everyone will like it. But I highly recommend the Schnittke, especially if you are looking for something on the darker side of the repertoire. It won’t make it onto your car-jams or study playlist, and because of its structure it probably wouldn’t bode well in an audition. But the Schnittke will definitely challenge you and your listeners and invite you to appreciate a different kind of “beautiful” in music.

Thoughts on Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher

By Marie-Elyse Badeau

Though condemned by the Nazi party, or maybe because of that very fact, Paul Hindemith’s music participated greatly in the great changes happening in arts during the twentieth century. His numerous pedagogical and theoretical writings contributed to a new form of music practice and accompanied more than one musician’s path to professional life. Hindemith’s compositions hold an important place in many instruments’ repertoire, and the viola, which he used to play as a soloist, particularly benefited from his attention as a composer. It is for his great contribution to the repertoire of my instrument and his diversity as a composer that Hindemith stands by far as one of my favorite composers. For these same reasons, I chose to introduce his famous concerto for viola and orchestra, Der Schwanendreher, especially the first movement, as a blog post from the studio.

First, because I think it is essential for a musician to know the background of a composer, let me talk about Hindemith himself. Born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895, Hindemith began his musical apprenticeship at an early age on the violin. His immense talent earned him a full scholarship to the Hochschule in Frankfurt. Later, he worked as concertmaster of the opera of Frankfurt and founded with his brother the Amar quartet. In this quartet, Hindemith initiated himself to the position and sound of the viola, the instrument that would make him known as an international soloist later on. After fleeing Germany during World War II, Hindemith returned to his native country, dying there in December 1963, after a life full of playing, writing, composing and conducting.

As for his compositional style, though he was never tempted by his contemporaries’ technique of serialism, Hindemith is nonetheless a modern and “anti-Romantic” composer. In all his compositions, counterpoint and structural identity are his signature as well as clear, diatonic melodies accompanied by progressions of chords beyond the realm of common-practice era harmonies. In fact, the German composer is more inspired by the compositional techniques of the Baroque era than the Classical, though Hindemith still features some neo-classical aspects in his music. Rhythmic energy is also characteristic of Hindemith’s music. It represents the industrial era in which Hindemith lived and is often called Motorik, in reference to the sound of the new motors invading the new century. Like these motors, the rhythms in Hindemith’s music are percussive and repetitive, like an obsessive ostinato. In spite of their many dissonances, his compositions stay tonal and tend to develop more and more little motives.

Der Schwanendreher: The Concerto

The title of this famous concerto may seem weird at first. “The swan turner” is in fact the title of a song from a German songbook published by Franz Böhme in 1877: Altdeutsches Liederbuch. A swan turner was, as well, a profession of the Middle Ages that is depicted in the original edition of the concerto in an illustration, or it can also refer to minstrels. The work has three movements, each of them introducing the listener to one or more songs from Böhme’s songbook. It is also the reason Der Schwanendreher earned the nickname of Concerto on Old Folk Songs over the years. Hindemith links altogether the songs by writing an underlined story or poem in the preface of the concerto:

A musician comes among merry company and performs the music he has brought with him from afar: songs grave and gay and at the end a dance. According to his ability and inspiration he expands and embellishes the tunes, preludes, and fantasizes, like a true musician.

The first movement of the concerto, “Tween Mountains and Deep Valley,” is a real masterpiece of counterpoint. It starts with a solo for the viola as a colorful prelude that represents well a wandering minstrel starting a show for his/her audience. The prelude, however majestic and deeply emotional, is also probably a violist’s worst nightmare. The most important things to remember when you practice it for an audition are how you want the jury or the audience to remember your playing and how the actual writing, and the respect of it, can help you achieve what you want. As I already said, Hindemith takes rhythm seriously, and I find, personally, that some players tend to change or “ornament” it too much. If the rhythm is played exactly, one will notice how the energy is still driving and how the different articulations written are contrasting with each other. Also, it definitely proves to everyone that good rhythm goes along with great musicality. The sound is also very important. One should play the prelude as if starting a really long story that will bring the audience all over the world together before it ends and draw the attention of everyone inward. It is important to remember that the orchestration of the concerto is slightly unstandard as well. In Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith eliminates the violin and viola sections of the orchestra, which leaves only cellos and basses to the ensemble. The heavy combination of the low strings, woodwinds, and brass sections makes the viola hard to be heard throughout the piece. Therefore, articulation and focus in your sound are keys to make yourself heard as well as keeping your energy going for the next thirty minutes. For musical ideas, I always think about playing Hindemith the same as I would play Bach. The themes have to be clear, and the progressions, or sequences, made obvious for the listener. Finally, the first chord is a problem for most of us. Starting with an octave in tune as a first note can be dreadful, but as my teachers told me (and I write it to remember it myself), your fingers know where to play, and you should trust them enough to quiet the urge to prepare your octave ages before. Just play it when it is time, it is usually way more in tune and ringing that way 🙂

I really hope my little talk about Hindemith and the first movement of his concerto can help you understand more the motivation behind the piece and give you a guide for what to listen to in any of Hindemith’s compositions. If you want to learn more about the other movements, I encourage you to read this article by Libror Ondras on the JavsOnline!

Nico Muhly’s Keep in Touch by Aaron Conitz

Throughout the years that I’ve spent attending and performing recitals, particularly of the viola variety, it seems as though we all end up hearing and/or playing pretty much the same pieces . . . over and over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, some pieces are outright essential for the student, pedagogically speaking, or are indispensable—solo Bach comes to mind—but I say that we should draw from the wealth of music, diverse and unknown, that has been written for the viola! I’ve always found satisfaction in uncovering less popular works and introducing them to receptive audiences; not only does one break the monotony of Brahms and Walton but is able to really showcase what the viola has to offer.

A recent interest of mine has been the combination of acoustic instruments with electronic forces. For a recent project I created a somewhat extensive list of works written for the viola, two or three other instruments, and electronics (both pre-recorded and interactive). The second parameter was that the pieces must be written after 1995; I felt it was necessary to keep the list as contemporary as possible. My investigation began by searching online library databases and then transferring into the world of personal websites, offering me a glimpse at music that either hadn’t been collected by libraries or still is yet to be published. There were more pieces than I really knew what to do with! I found pieces by well-known composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Terry Riley; but also a number of composers I had heard of maybe once or twice or even not at all.

One of the composers in the latter category was a name I had heard a few times, but not really listened to his music in depth—Nico Muhly. A young composer, born in 1981, Muhly has truly established himself as a diverse and innovative voice within the American classical idiom; his works are a delightful pandemonium of musical styles—from electronic fusion to English choral music to neo-minimalism—and by using each of them he is able to create cohesive and compelling compositions. The work that caught my eye was Keep in Touch (2005), written for solo viola and pre-recorded electronic tape. I was so taken by the piece that I decided to program it on my most recent recital here at Rice University.

Keep in Touch was written for Nadia Sirota, a long-time collaborator of Muhly’s. Composed in 2005, the work is scored for viola and recorded electronics; throughout the work these two “voices” compete and interact with one another. Muhly created the electronic accompaniment using acoustic instruments, processed recorded material, and the vocalization of singer Antony Hegarty. Keep in Touch begins with an extended cadenza after which the electronic material enters; the work utilizes a chaccone-like framework with a set of repeated chords providing a harmonic and formal structure. The juxtaposition of Antony’s gorgeously androgynous, bluesy voice with the sweet, understated timbre of the viola results in a visceral and emotionally engaging piece.

I thought it would be interesting to discuss the process that I went through in order to learn the piece and also to document my first endeavor in preparing and performing a work with pre-recorded electronics. My initial approach to the piece was fairly straightforward and typical—getting the notes into my fingers, listening to a recording, and coming up with bowings and fingerings that would best suit my vision of the piece. I figured it would be best to have a good grasp of the work before sitting down and piecing it together with the electronics, but after my initial attempt at playing with the recording I was left confused. I had learned the notes and rhythms and had made appropriate decisions about colors, but something was not right. Every time I played a section, I would either end up ahead of or behind the recording, even when I was “following” the provided cues! I went back to the drawing board, getting down and dirty with the metronome; if my tempi were accurate I should be able to make it through, right? Turns out I was right, but not completely. I was able to play through the piece with great success in terms of ensemble, but after a lesson and a recital dress rehearsal it seemed that I was following the tape but not collaborating or interacting with it. How strange an idea, I thought, to interact with something so inflexible and inanimate as a recording!

The more familiar I became with the structure of the recorded material, the more comfortable I felt in allowing things not to be as absolutely synchronized as they could be. It was almost as though I had to allow an indeterminate musical idea to exist within the deterministic framework of the recording. The satisfaction and sheer enjoyment I received performing the work was incredible; I was able to interact with a wide array of bizarre and gorgeous sounds and meld the voice of the viola with that of Antony Hegarty.

My experience in preparing and performing a piece written for viola and electronics has certainly inspired me to pursue other works of this nature. The amazing presence of electronic and produced sound in popular music and film scores almost requires that we, as violists and musicians, pursue works that involve the electro-acoustic element.

Rochberg Sonata Analysis by Carey Skinner

Recently, as part of my final Music History course at Rice, I researched and analyzed the composition style of George Rochberg’s Viola Sonata. Specifically, I spoke with my professor and did research on how Rochberg bridged the gap between Serialism and Romanticism. This is a much-abridged version of my findings.

George Rochberg’s early works, particularly his First Symphony and First Quartet, feature “traces of Bartók’s melodic and harmonic practices, presented without quotation marks or irony.”1 In the early years of his career, Rochberg was less concerned with following the changing tides of composition in the twentieth century than with creating something beautiful. The vast majority of what he wrote was influenced by styles from past eras, and he often quoted other composers as a sort of tribute within his own works.

When he was twenty-one, Rochberg was drafted into the army and had to leave his studies at the Mannes School of Music. He was wounded in Normandy, France, and returned to the United States to continue raising his family. He was embittered by the war and frustrated upon his return in trying to live up to the “masters” of Romanticism such as Beethoven and Brahms. It was then that, like many of his contemporaries, Rochberg turned from the influence of Bartók in the early 1950s upon learning about twelve-tone music from Luigi Dallapiccola. He decided to embrace twentieth century music. It was with this new knowledge that he became known for joining the beauty of the Romantic era with the grit and complexity of twentieth century composition practices.2 From that point onward, and for the next decade, Rochberg composed almost exclusively with the twelve-tone method.

In 1964, however, Rochberg’s son Paul died of a brain tumor. The ups and downs of Paul’s illness are cataloged in the correspondence between George Rochberg and István Anhalt.3 It comes as no surprise that this traumatic event was a turning point in the life and work of Rochberg. It was then that he “abandoned serialism in favor of compositional practices common to earlier music,” and in doing so also returned to his study of Bartok’s compositions, “Using it not ironically, but as an expressive resource, a language he had earlier trusted to convey both pathos and austerity.”4 In his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Rochberg continued to implement the stylistic and harmonic tools of Bela Bartók.

In his book Five Lines, Four Spaces, Rochberg mentions his study of Bartók’s music and “[Bartók’s] way with chromaticizing an extended form of tonality,” and how it opened up a new world of possibilities. He says these “tonal extensions . . . spilled over” into how he heard things and how he composed. He specifically mentions how he became fascinated by the tri-tones created by the relationships between the intervals F to C and B to F-sharp. Rochberg refers to this equal division of the twelve chromatic tones as “the musical hieroglyph,” to “emphasize its symbolic, magical property.” Rochberg uses this property throughout the sonata both in the melody and in a wider harmonic scope.5

Figure 1

0207a Figure1

Margaret McDonald mapped out Rochberg’s use of tri-tones in her dissertation, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979),” and the following description is based on her analysis. In the opening two measures, the viola outlines the hieroglyph with statements of perfect fourths (F to C and B to F-sharp), which ultimately emphasize the minor second between F and F-sharp. McDonald explains that these groupings harmonically represent F major and B major. In figure 1 (above), Rochberg’s introduction of the important tri-tone motive is apparent in how he moves from F major in measure 1 to B major in measure 2, then back to F major in measure 3. These keys, being a tri-tone apart, represent the beginning of an overarching theme in the sonata of this dissonant relationship. Rochberg continues with the tri-tone harmonies throughout the work (see McDonald’s analysis in figure 2 below).

Figure 2

0207b Figure2

The grand-scale emphasis of tri-tones is supported by the same dissonance in both the melody line in the viola and the chords of the piano. Perhaps what is more interesting, however, is how Rochberg uses this interval to subtly imitate Bartók by emphasizing the minor second, a sound extensively explored by Bartók.

One strong example of Rochberg’s use of the tri-tone can be found in the second movement. It starts with a repeated chord in the right hand of the piano (see figure 3 below). The tri-tone is from F-sharp to C but with an F-natural on top, also forming a perfect fourth. This emphasizes the minor second between F-natural and F-sharp. When the viola enters in the third measure, all four pitches from the beginning: F, C, B, and F-sharp are present between the harmony and melody. With that chord still being repeated in measure 7 of this movement (see figure 4 below), Rochberg alters the original left-hand chord from a perfect fifth between D and A to a tri-tone between D and A-flat, once again placing emphasis on the change from the perfect to imperfect interval.

Figure 3

0207c Figure3

Figure 4

0207d Figure4

A crucial aspect of this work that must be addressed is its overall structure. For example, Rochberg loosely observed the traditional sonata form for this work but set his music apart by how he chose to break the structural rules. One way in which he did this was with his decision to forgo the expected uplifting final movement. Of this movement, the composer says:

The kind of last movement I knew I could not add—(that in fact I detested)—was a fast, concluding movement in order to fulfill a purely perfunctory function. If anything, I would have to speak the language and expressive character of what preceded it. I rejected the idea of a stormy finale—(the a kind of “battle scenario” merely to round off the old fast–slow–fast structural format) . . . I settled on writing an epilogue, one that had a sense of “remembrance of things past,” a musical recollection of major idiomatic elements that were characteristic of the opening . . . I needed to write a fantasia—a free, open, unhampered musical flow that went from thought to thought without being bound into a tight formal structure . . . despite its restless, constantly changing motion from idea to idea, it ends the work with a sense of deep repose and resolution.6

To fully mesh the old and the new, the perfect and imperfect, Rochberg knew the sonata needed a free-form restatement of previous important themes and motives in place of a conventional final movement. It is because of those kinds of decisions and innovations that, even with all of his imitation, Rochberg cannot be criticized for being unoriginal. The unusual conclusion to such an intricate work sets it apart as uniquely and quintessentially Rochberg.

When the first thoughts of all of these complex materials were forming in George Rochberg’s mind, he was not setting out to write a viola sonata. His work began on a violin sonata so that he could explore the close partnership between two musicians and specifically so he could write for a gifted violinist that he admired. Being separated from his work while at war, these thoughts were pushed into the background. Upon being commissioned to write a work in honor of William Primrose’s seventy-fifth birthday, Rochberg realized the potential for his old sketches. Had it not been for both the joyful and the mournful events in his life since the first conception of this work, the viola might not have this powerfully complex piece in its repertoire, nor would future composers have been able to learn of his creativity from a piece that combines multiple styles and practices so well.

“At the heart of the differences between tradition and the avant-garde lies the problem of language.”7 Rochberg begins the last chapter of his book with this statement. He talks at length about different twentieth century composers and how they approach the problem of language before continuing: “In a culture that moves rapidly from one radical vision to another, the problem of language intensifies. Each new departure must concentrate on its single image in order to produce even a modicum of works sufficient to state the idea behind the new radical aesthetic.”8

The twentieth century is set apart from other eras of music in its diversity and the aspect of constant change. George Rochberg was one of those few composers from this era who harnessed the ability to incorporate the past without getting left behind from the innovations of the future. He was able to create works with beautiful romantic melodies and characteristics without forgetting what era he was living in. The ways in which he used Bartók’s ideas paved the way for a new generation of musicians and composers by setting an example of open-mindedness and ingenuity.


[1] Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, Bartók’s Legacy in Cold War Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 158.

2 Margaret M. McDonald, “One Mind: Past, Present and Future; George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979)” (Ph.D. diss., University of California Santa Barbara, 2010), 4–8.

3 István Anhalt and Alan M. Gillmor, Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of István Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961–2005 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), 1–45.

4 Fosler-Lussier, Music Divided, 158.

5 George Rochberg, Gene, Rochberg, and Richard Griscom, Five Lines, Four Spaces: The World of My Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 223–31.

6 Ibid., 228.

7 Ibid., 260.

8 Ibid., 261.

Learning to Program Concerts by Ashley Pelton

Over this past winter break, my boyfriend (a cellist) and I played several concerts at retirement and rehabilitation facilities in the Greater Chicago area. We had two main programs: one that included piano and one as a viola/cello duo. Ben, having lived and played in Chicago for his whole life, had already built relationships with many of these facilities and knew what to expect sharing his music with these audiences. I, on the other hand, was unsure of what was to come. There is so much I could say about my experience performing these concerts, because I learned so much from the preparation and the actual performances, but in this post, I will highlight my thought process in programming for our duo concerts.

We had an easier time programming the concerts with piano, because we each have solo works in the learning and performance stages. However, the combination of viola and cello is somewhat of an untraditional ensemble. Of course, there is repertoire for the instrumentation, just not quite as much as there is for other groups. Our first task was to track down works originally written for viola and cello (something we’ve been doing for years) and then to read through to find out which pieces we enjoyed playing. We then turned to transcriptions and wrote some of our own.

In thinking about what to program for our duo concerts, here are some of the things I thought about:

• Length of concert: How do we fill _____ minutes?
• Who is the audience? What kind of exposure have they had to classical music/other genres? What kind of experience are they looking for from our interaction with them?
• What order should the works go in to keep the audience engaged?
• How much variety should there be?
• How much stamina does each piece take, and what order of pieces will allow us to maintain our energy?
• Which (if any) solo works should we include to balance the program and allow the other person to rest for a few minutes?
• Should we use programs or announce each piece before it is played?
• How much background information should we give the audience?
• What pieces highlight our ensemble and which can we play well?
• Are there any songs or pieces we could play that might get the audience singing/dancing/clapping along/having FUN?

Some of the facilities we played at had Jewish residents. Ben grew up playing Klezmer music and suggested that we should play a few tunes for these audiences. I was apprehensive at first, having had no experience with this type of music. Fortunately, he convinced me and thankfully as well, because the audiences absolutely loved it! I played melodies from a Klezmer book that he had, while he improvised the harmonies and supported my sound. While I absolutely love classical music, I had so much fun taking a risk and playing an unfamiliar genre of music, one that certainly excited the audiences we were sharing our music with. We had audience members singing and clapping along!

From concert to concert, we switched around the order of our program and the pieces a little. We were experimenting to see what pieces the audience enjoyed most and how engaged they stayed throughout the length of our program.

In the end, our programs wound up including (in no specific order):

• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 2 (Ben)
• Movements from Bach Cello Suite No. 3 (Ashley)
• Klezmer Songs: Tumbalalaika, Russian Sher, Freylachs, My Yiddishe Momme
• Arranged Telemann Duos
• Rebecca Clarke: Lullaby and Grotesque
• Beethoven: Eyeglasses Duo
• Several Bartok Violin Duos transcribed for viola and cello

Because I had so much fun playing Klezmer music, I wanted to leave you with a video of Maxwell Street playing one of the songs that Ben and I played. Ben learned to play Klezmer in Maxwell Street’s junior ensemble. While the larger ensemble and vocalists certainly have a different effect than purely viola and cello, these tunes worked extremely well on our two lone instruments. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Bach’s Second Solo Suite Prelude by Sergein Yap

I have had the opportunity to study the Bach Cello Suites with many different teachers, from Romantic interpreters to ones that insist on a more historically informed style. Regardless of what performance style you subscribe to, I think a very useful resource to have is a copy of the Anna Magdalena manuscript (perhaps aided by a magnifying glass). Though not Bach’s original manuscript, it is the closest thing we have to his own.

When trying to figure out suitable bowings, it’s important to take the time to hash out the bowings yourself with the manuscript. There are times when it’s quite difficult to decipher where slurs begin and end. When you find yourself in this situation, referencing an edition of the suites edited using the Anna Magdalena manuscript can be helpful. I have used the Bärenreiter cello edition (which comes with facsimiles of the various sources) and Anner Bylsma’s book, Bach, the Fencing Master (which includes a transcribed edition for the viola of suites 1–3).

Ivo is fond of using a metaphor about reflections and symmetry relating to bowing patterns. He sees this prelude as one walking about the inside of a large space, such as a cathedral, observing the architecture (arches, pillars, etc.) for symmetry. One lesson that I have taken from this metaphor is that one should choose bowings that add variety and avoid making extended patterns sound overly repetitive or belabored. More importantly, bowings and the execution of them (bow speed, amount of bow, contact point, and where you are in the bow) should serve the music and one’s interpretation, highlighting important points of tension/release in the harmony.

Something that I have recently been asking myself is if at points of release where I linger and take time, do I always need to give time back? My issue is that I tend to sound as though I am rushing and falling a bit forward when I give time back. Using rubato without feeling the need to arrive at the downbeat of the following measure in a metronomic manner is something I am working on incorporating much more.


• mm. 10–12 into the arrival at m. 13 (III)

extended pattern of 1 separate, 3 slurred with beat 3 of mm. 11 and 12 breaking from the pattern with separate bows.

0124a first example

0124b first example continued

• mm. 21–23

1 separate, 3 slurred pattern for 3 measures. Slight decrescendo into m. 23 to highlight the g-sharp, which creates the vii07/V harmony.

0124c second example

• mm. 44–48

On beat 2 of each measure, play as 3 slurred, 1 separate—The slur on beat 2 emphasizes the A Major pedal up until m. 47, where the harmony changes to g-sharp viio4/2/V

0124d third example

However you decide to play m. 48 regarding the length and speed of rolling the chord, it is the climax of the movement and is a dramatic exclamation on the vii06 harmony.

• mm. 59–63

In the last 5 measures, do you want to treat the chords literally and play them as the dotted-half-note value, simply arpeggiate the chords, reference gestures from previous sections (m. 30 for the realization of m. 59), or improvise new material based on these chords?

0124e fourth example

Fernande Decruck’s Sonata by Jarita Ng

Fernande Decruck (1896–1954) was a French composer who studied organ at the Paris Conservatory. Her husband, Maurice Decruck, was multitalented in clarinet, saxophone, and bass, was also a student at the Paris Conservatory. The couple moved to New York in 1928, and Maurice soon won a job at the New York Philharmonic as the principal bassist. He also auditioned and was invited to play the saxophone solos with the orchestra. It was when they were in New York that Decruck started composing for saxophone.  Back then, musicians and audiences did not pay much attention to Decruck’s music, and the sonata that I am going to introduce was only rediscovered 28 years after her death, at the World Saxophone Congress in 1982.

Jarita 1 Marcel MuleMarcel mule

At a saxophone congress!? Yes, at a saxophone congress. The piece is Sonate en ut# pour saxophone alto (ou alto) et orchestre (Sonata in C-sharp for alto saxophone or viola and orchestra), composed in 1943. While Fernande’s husband played saxophone, this particular sonata was composed for Marcel Mule, a friend of Fernande’s who had recently been appointed the saxophone professor at the Paris Conservatory. There is a reduction for saxophone or viola and piano, which is the version that is commonly played, by saxophonists. I was introduced to this piece by my saxophone colleagues at the University of Michigan, where I went for my undergraduate studies; the piece is a standard in their repertoire study. I didn’t pay much attention to it for a couple years until I listened to the recordings played by saxophonists Claude Delangle, Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and Donald Sinta, Professor of Saxophone at the University of Michigan. They both are renowned soloists and pedagogues. The sonata works beautifully for and showcases the saxophone—so many colors, so much flare, and so . . . Romantic, may I say. I decided to perform it on my senior recital in April 2012, and I enjoyed working on and performing the piece. After a couple months of work, I was ready to debate with my saxophone-playing friends about whether this piece was written for the saxophone or the viola first.

Jarita 2 DelangleClaude Delangle

Jarita 3 Donald SIntaDonald Sinta

In addition to giving a recital at the University of Michigan, I presented the sonata for the saxophone studio at Michigan State University. There was one common comment among all the saxophone players I discussed this with—the sonata was written for the viola. There were discrepancies between the saxophone and viola parts—the viola part includes a wider range of pitch, use of harmonics and pizzicato, longer arpeggios in the cadenza, and non-stop arpeggiation compared to some rests in the saxophone part, which are interpreted as breathing spots, etc. I agree with all of them. The piece sounds great on the saxophone, but I think the piece sounds even better on the viola due to those additional effects and color changes. However, I pointed out to them some elements of the piece that did not work well on the viola.

Firstly, the piece is in C-sharp!!! C-sharp! It is among one of the most difficult keys to play in. The scale of C-sharp provides minimal resonance on the viola. Secondly, the slurs in the part do not seem to indicate bowing but phrasing/breath marks. There are some long slurs over a crescendo, which are pretty challenging to execute. I ended up redoing a lot of the slurs/bowings. Thirdly, there are some note errors and clef change errors that are somewhat obvious. But the errors could have happened during the publishing process. Lastly, the piece ends on a high G-sharp on the A string on fff with the piano playing seven notes also at fff. It takes a lot, a lot, A LOT of effort to be heard under such circumstance. Well, at least it took me a lot of bows, and I had to ask the pianist to not play too loudly. But no matter which instrument Decruck wrote it for, the sonata is an extremely beautiful piece.Jarita 4 music

One of the many scales and arpeggios (note: seven sharps!)

Here is the live recording of the sonata, played on the viola, at my senior recital in 2012. The sonata has four movements. The first movement, Très modéré, expressif, is as the title suggests, an extremely expressive movement in both the viola and the piano parts. The extensive use of pentatonic scales creates a unique sonority. In the second movement, Noel, one can hear an altered version of the melody of a traditional French carol Noël nouvelet, which is known as Sing We Now of Christmas in English. Fileuse, which means spinning, is the title of the third movement, comprised of quick scales and arpeggios that resemble the movement of spinning wheels. This movement, in contrast to other slower, more expressive movements, provides a virtuosic and melodic element in the piece. The final movement, Nocturne et Rondel, has a calm opening that gradually transitions into the Rondel with exciting and dance-like passages, including some passages where saxophonists show off their double-tongue skills. The piece ends with an emotional, melodic section that leads to an ending note at the limit of the viola (the G-sharp that was mentioned earlier).

There is a commercial recording of the sonata on saxophone by Claude Delangle, which can be found here. There is a website where you can download the tracks, but it would require some searching through the list and the pages. The sheet music is published by Gérard Billaudot and can be found here. A commercial recording of the viola version is also available by Hillary Herndon and can be found here. And there is a 2010 dissertation that includes errata for the viola part, which can be found here. In 1954, an LP called Le Saxophone, Vol. 1 with Marcel Mule playing Andante et Fileuse by Decruck and other works was released. Andante et Fileuse starts with an introduction in a style similar to that of the sonata, then goes into the Fileuse exactly the same as the sonata. He did not record the sonata in its entirety.

Sonata in C# showcases the mellow sound and the capabilities of the viola. The Brahms, Clarke, Hindemith, and other “canon” sonatas are undoubtedly well-written and convincing music. But compared to the violin and cello, we violists don’t have as much repertoire to choose from. The Decruck sonata is one worthy piece to be given a chance to be played and be added to our viola repertoire.