For both Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók, the folk music of their native land was an essential ingredient of the development of their own musical language. Janáček was 72 when he wrote the Říkadla (nursery rhymes) collection, with songs about the marriage of a beetroot and about a woman who fell into the soup. The playful miniatures were a jibe at his fellow composers, who approached so-called humorous works far too seriously. A comparable mix of folk music elements and expressionism marks Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, a pantomime full of eroticism and violence, which was banned immediately after its first performance in 1926.
The Brussels Philharmonic and the Vlaams Radiokoor combine the two richly imaginative works with an exclusive world premiere: the Viola Concerto ‘I cannot love without trembling’ by Cassandra Miller, one of the most fascinating composers of our day.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) that “If Janáček had died when he was 50, then he would merely have made it to a footnote in the history of music.” The Czech composer would develop his own musical language in the following decades and composed his best works only in the last 20 years of his life. An important stimulus for this was the public recognition of his work, but his passionate love for Kamila Stösslová, forty years his junior, certainly also helped inspire him from 1017 onward.
The drive towards innovation that is so typical of Janáček’s late works drew also on his fascination for Czech folk music and language. It was said that he would transcribe conversations that he heard around him in cafés and other public places. He considered that melodies could offer insight into the mood of a speaker: “The cadences of one’s speech show whether someone is foolish or intelligent, sleepy or alert, tired or alert.” Starting in 1897, he worked on a theory about recitatives, in which he strove to reflect as closely as possible the speed, tonality, intonation and rhythm found in spoken language. In his music, melodies not only follow rising and falling lines and short, irregular phrases of language; they also serve to describe the characters.
A principle that Janáček also applied to the nursery rhymes in his Říkadla collection. The music is as absurd as the texts. Some even have a slightly sadistic element: “My tiny little wife, I put her in the porridge; the lid goes on top, and she will make a delicious soup.” Janáček was 72 when he composed this music, but he certainly had not forgotten how to play. To give expression to the childlike and humorous mood, he used some eccentric instruments such as an ocarina, little clarinets and a toy drum. In 1924, he wrote an initial version with eight rhymes, for three women’s voices, clarinet and piano. In the final version, composed in 1926, he expanded the number of verses and the vocal ensemble, and added some deeper instruments such as the (contra)bassoon and the double bass.
The last concerto by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller (1976), ‘Duet for cello and orchestra’ written in 2015, was named by The Guardian as one of the best musical works of the 21st century. So we can only look forward to the world première of her latest (viola) concerto, ‘I cannot love without trembling’, dedicated to Lawrence Power. Miller had worked with the violist in the past and drew for her concerto on his song-like style of playing.
She found inspiration for the theme in the writings of Simone Weil, in which the philosopher posits that every absence also carries within it a form of presence. Miller saw a striking resemblance with a recording by the violinist Alexis Zoumbas, which she came across during a trip in northern Greece. Zoumbas was forced to flee to New York in 1910 and there he recorded some of his own versions of moiroloi, songs of lament that had been sung for centuries at funerals by the women of Epirus. They express not only the musical history of his distant homeland, but also his devastating homesickness.
With these recordings, Miller went to work via a process that has come to characterize many of her compositions: “I sang along repeatedly (first with Zoumbas’ recording, and then with my own) in a ritualized, meditative process that I refer to as ‘automatic singing’. In this way, the moiroloi became a trembling-loving-mourning sigh by the violinist. In Zoumbas' laments, I sought a supernatural space for dreaming – a space of both separation and connection, absence and presence - in the hope of being able to share in our mourning and our dreaming in the concert hall tonight.”
“It will be hellish music if I succeed,” Béla Bartók (1881-1945) warned his wife when he composed the pantomime titled ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’. That was certainly no lie; the ballet was an explosive work in every sense. To begin with, the libretto by Menyhért Lengyel was rife with criminality: in the tumult of a grey city, a few loitering thugs incite a prostitute to rob her clients. The first two victims appear to have empty pockets and are killed in cold blood. The third is a Chinese nobleman. He cannot resist the charms of the young woman and captures her after a wild chase. While he tries to embrace er, the young men mercilessly attack the mandarin. But his desire holds him up, and only after the woman has kissed him does he succumb to his wounds.
Bartók read the ballet scenario in 1917 in the Hungarian literary magazine Nyugat. A year later, he had finished the piano score, but it would take him until 1923 to finish the orchestration. The music itself seems devilish: raw, dissonant and arrhythmic sounds evoke the restless atmosphere of a big, noisy city. The orchestral violence is occasionally interrupted by a sweet, seductive melody in the clarinet, which portrays the woman’s attempts at seduction. The amoral content and the expressionistic music caused great scandal at the premiere in 1926: “Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels has lived to see its first true (musical) scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping, and booing ... which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the curtain went down.” The work was banned in Cologne as well, and it would be only in 1946 that the work would be performed live in Hungary. After Bartók had turned it into an orchestral suite and shortened it (in the suite, the story ends with the mandarin’s chasing after the woman), Bartók gave the work fresh life. And in so doing, The Miraculous Mandarin has after all become a frequently performed and much-loved work.