Chiao Yuan-Pu / Spirits Programme Notes
Dark and Crimson: The Music of Phantoms and Love
Ghost stories are told in different parts of the world, East and West.  How do writers tell ghost stories to scare and impress everyone? Love stories are popular everywhere. How do musicians express the intricate subtleties of love with their bittersweet melodies to move the world? Ghosts and love are perennial subjects in all cultures. One is dark and one is crimson. But they are very similar in nature – both are unfathomable and unpredictable – like the two sides of a coin. And great artists are those who are able to turn boundless imagination into masterpieces. In this concert, the ghost stories are love stories as well. *The Qixi Festival, or the Chinese Valentine's Festival, falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, i.e. the Ghost month, perhaps a best time for us to experience, through words and music, the magic of love, the romance of ghosts, and the fantasies of the world of elves.

*The Qixi Festival is about the love story of Cowherd and Weaver who meet each other once a year, their reunion day was worshipped as a special day. (Edit: Zuni)

Spirits (2020) Multi-media Elements / Illustration: Lai Tat Tat Wing
F. Mendelssohn / S. Rachmaninoff: Scherzo, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, incidental music, Op. 61

“Midsummer Night” refers to the evening before St John’s Day (24th June). As legends go, fairies and elves come out and have fun on this night – the very night when strange things happen. This romantic comedy, written between 1590 and 1596, describes the events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta. The three subplots in the play revolve around four Athenian lovers, six amateur actors and a mischievous fairy. It is one of the most popular works by Shakespeare.

While many musical works were written under the inspiration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is Mendelssohn’s concert overture and incidental music which remain the most influential. Fascinated by this play by Shakespeare, Mendelssohn, at the age of 17, wrote this miraculous 12-minute work. No one would have guessed that sixteen years later, with a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia, the composer wrote a 13-movement incidental music for the same play again. By then, at 33, Mendelssohn, no longer a prodigy but the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, gained such compositional techniques that were mature enough to preserve the same musical style and seamlessly incorporate the overture written 16 years ago into this new work. But movements like Scherzo, in which skilful woodwind and strings arrangements are deployed to vividly depict flying elves, clearly show that this is not something which could be written by Mendelssohn in his teens. Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Scherzo for the piano is known for its exquisite delicacy and technical difficulties.  Tonight’s programme conforms to what happens in the play – after Scherzo, an extract of the conversation between Puck - the servant to the king of all fairies, Oberon, and another fairy is heard. This is followed by the fairy march which accompanies Oberon’s arrival. Together they give us a sketch of the fairyland created by Shakespeare and Mendelssohn.

Photography / Vic Shing
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit, trois poèmes pour piano d’après Aloysius Bertrand

I. Odine
II. Le Gibet
III. Scarbo

Ravel is considered to be a composer with a unique temperament. He was not merely a great composer, but a “noble-like” musician who created his own musical world with melodies of classic beauty and distinctive styles. Ravel’s piano works are original and challenging.  The most representative one must be Gaspard de la nuit, written under the inspiration of the eponymous collection of poems by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841).

“Gaspard de la nuit” means “Devil of the night.”  Ravel was deeply interested in Gothic horror, especially Allan Poe’s novels and poems. His friend’s recommendation of Gaspard de la nuit naturally inspired him to write. Ravel was keen on “proposition composition”. The more limitations he faced, the more creative he became. From the collection, he worked on “Odine,” “Le Gibet” and “Scarbo,” attempting to translate words into music. He even inscribed the whole poem at the beginning of each movement, indicating the performer to “play accordingly.” This highly imaginative piece is also meticulous in structure, with its three seemingly unrelated movements arranged as a three-movement sonata, namely allegro-adagio-finale, and carefully crafted in terms rhythm, organisation and balance. Technically speaking, Odine is reminiscent of the virtuosic pieces in the Romantic Era, save for its even greater difficulty. The unprecedented technical demands for Scarbo are often considered fearsome for pianists. In this movement, the composer successfully broke new ground in harmony and layering. Le Gibet is featured by its ingenious and unusual ostinato bell sound throughout the entire piece. At any rate, we must bear in mind Ravel’s motto in writing music, “complex but not complicated.” Complex as it is, Gaspard de la nuit displays clear concepts, strict organisation and excellent effects, enchanting its audience immediately. It stands as an important milestone in the piano repertoire.

Photography / Franz Lai
Saint-Saëns/Liszt/Horowitz: Danse Macabre, Op. 40 / S. 555

Danse Macabre has a long history as an art subject, dating back as far as the Late Middle Ages. It focuses on the notion that all beings are equal before death, regardless of age, sex, wealth and social status. By tradition, therefore, paintings under the title of Danse Macabre typically include all walks of life such as the popes, emperors, aristocrats, common people, the elderly, maidens and children, as a reflection of the fragility of life and the illusiveness of glamour. In the realm of music, the theme has also spawned an array of works. Liszt’s Totentanz, a set of variations written for piano and orchestra, may be a classic example, with each variation illustrating a particular character or image, but Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre is arguably more celebrated.

The work uses the original poem title of Danse Macabre, but its portrayal of the bones clashing with each other is reflected in the Chinese title, which literally means "Dance of the Skeletons". Saint-Saëns initially composed a short song of more than two minutes based on “Danse Macabre” by the poet Henri Cazalis. As regards the meaning of the text, the poem recaps at the end “the king dancing with the villeins" as well as “death and equality”, evidently making it a continuation of the traditional "Dance of Death" theme. Upon closer inspection, however, although it depicts a night parade of a hundred ghosts, its flippant rhetoric and erotic humour show that the poem is by no means a serious work stylistically, but rather that of “camp” in the modern sense. Saint-Saëns adopted a flowing and buoyant touch for the composition, resulting in an unforgettable melody, and was later expanded into a symphonic poem. Liszt took the liberty to incorporate his own embellishments in his transcription of the work for piano solo, and Horowitz, in turn, made his re-adaptation with striking effects. The clock strikes 12 times in the beginning, proclaiming the arrival of the midnight hour. After a moment of commotion, the banquet starts with the devils breaking loose and singing about the victory of death with increasing excitement. An abrupt rooster crow heralds the daybreak, and the skeletons flee back to their tombs, leaving behind the God of death, who groans in tranquillity about festivities next year.

Original text of Tre sonetti del Petrarca Sonetto 47

Liszt: Tre sonetti del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage-Deuxième année: Italie

Sonetto 47
Sonetto 104
Sonetto 123

Ravel’s piano works are ground-breaking, but if put in context, Liszt's influence is evident. This master brought about a paradigm shift in piano performance and music creation, and his prestige made him arguably the most important composer in the 19th century. Consisting of three suites and infusing various art forms into his music, Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage is a quintessential Romantic work. Since childhood, Liszt did not receive regular education besides intensive practising, but due to curiosity and a keenness on learning, as well as a passion for art, he exhibited a great persistence in self-learning. With the aid of dictionaries, he gradually managed to master different languages, and he was consequently able to read extensively publications in various fields, spanning literature, philosophy, art and religion, and his passion was persistent throughout his life.

In 1833, Liszt met Marie d’Agoult (1805-76) who was five years older than Liszt and a mother of two daughters. The two found great pleasure in literature and art discussions and fell in love, resulting in Marie’s divorce with her husband in 1835, leaving Paris with Liszt and travelling together. On their journeys, Liszt did little other than practising and reading and verified his readings by exploring picturesque landscape, architecture and relics. His thoughts were deepened and came to fruition in the form of the first two suites in Années de pèlerinage. The first suite, Première année: Suisse, was published in 1855 and based on actual experiences in the travels. The second, Deuxième année: Italie, concerning the art of Raphael, Michelangelo, Dante and Petrarca, is indeed a journey for the mind and wisdom through art, sculpture and literature. Nos. 4-6 of the suite were the piano solo version of Tre sonetti del Petrarca, a set of art songs published in 1846. After years of contemplation, not only did Liszt manage to incorporate vocal music expressions into the pianistic idiom, but also come up with exquisite colours, harmony and sonic shifts. The three sonnets depict the various feelings of a love-stricken poet for his love interest, from warm and joyful praise to anxiety and ambivalent feelings. His music is a faithful rendition of the text, but also filled with connotations and designs to leave the audience in deep contemplation.

Photography / Franz Lai
Liszt: Lenore

"Art faithless, William, or, William, art dead? ⁠'Tis long since thy departing." Following the army of King Frederick, Lenore’s lover participated in the Battle of Prague. The troop returned in delight when the king became weary of ruthless warfare, but Lenore’s lover was still yet to be seen. Falling to the ground and crying in despair, she blamed God for unfairness. On that very night, however, when the clock struck 11 times, William, dressed in black and riding on a black horse, appeared at the window. Before the rooster crowed, he took Lenore and the two fled in the night for their wedding under the moonlight, dancing with the devils, and finally made it to the cemetery where the gate of hell was opened.

This plaintive and horrifying ghost story of conservative moral values became an influential masterpiece when the ballad “Lenore” by German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794) was published in 1773. Among composers adapting the subject, there are Henri Duparc (1848-1933) who wrote the symphonic poem Lenore, Joseph Joachim Raff (1822-1882) with his 5th Symphony “Lenore” and Dvořák who chose the form of the cantata for his The Spectre's Bride. However, if we put Bürger’s text aside and consider the various incarnations of the Lenore folklore, there is no musical work with such widespread popularity other than “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”, from the set of songs Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The composer wrote gorgeous melodies to portray the sweet tenderness of a girl who endured a long time waiting to finally reunite with her lover. Beautiful as it is, the music occasionally hints at doubt and trepidation.

“You have stood outside so long! She reached to him her snow-white hand. From afar a nightingale sang; The maiden began to weep.” “Oh, do not cry, my darling, Next year you shall be my own! My own shall you certainly be, As no one else on earth is.”

Why was the maiden crying? Probably even the young boy himself did not realize that he became a cruel joke of God.

“The green heath that is so broad! It is there where the beautiful trumpets blow, There is my house of green grass!” The concluding section is a moment of truth: instead of heroic triumph, the horn plays a mournful elegy, reflecting the eternal regret of a love story turning into a ghost story.

On the other hand, the most faithful musical adaptation of Bürger’s poem has to be Liszt’s Lenore, a work quoting the original text directly written for piano and recitation. Liszt wrote a total of five melodramas, which reflect contemporary trends in the German-speaking region. It is a shame that these works are rarely performed nowadays. Written between 1858 and 1860, Lenore is the first and the longest of the five.  Making extensive use of the minor key, chromatic scale and augmented 4th interval, together with his precise and concise descriptive writing skills, Liszt created a world of desolation with chilling effects. As the music follows the poetic structure closely and was designed so that its timing matches the phrase lengths of the poem, adjustments to certain sections of the Chinese translation have to be made accordingly in preparation for a version specifically made for the performance.
Piano Solo Storytelling: Spirits
2020.10.23-24 (Fri - Sat) 8:15pm
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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