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Choreographing the quartet in Stravinsky's Three Pieces

Research seminar at York Gate Collections
with Nicholas Cook, Peter Sheppard Skærved,
Neil Heyde, Kreutzer Quartet

Royal Academy of Music Marylebone Road London NW1

Dry this academic afternoon was not!

It was a privilege to attend with some twenty students a revelatory public seminar - and to discover the museum which houses the RAM's renowned collection of musical instruments, well worth a visit.

Would you have thought that two hours would be insufficient to explore all the ideas and thoughts that bubbled up about the complexities and mysteries hidden in the little pieces that Stravinsky first called Grotesques, creating in them a completely new, very atonal style, its second piece with strange gestures inspired by the clown Little Tich with his big boots.

With discussion led by Neil Heyde and Peter Sheppard Skærved, we were pointed to 'in jokes' that would pass by listeners e.g. one pizzicato passage which requires the viola to be rapidly turned upside down and back again (never normally attempted in performance), a second violin diminuendo from ppp (!) against his colleagues playing f. We were all supplied with complete scores and pages of Stravinsky's almost indecipherable sketches.

In public rehearsal they deconstructed the minutiae of the pieces, trying the effect of different seating positions, considering Stravinsky's innovations in historical context and with thoughts about Russian quartet playing traditions; bouncing thoughts around and welcoming interventions from the audience. Never again will I be wondering why Stravinsky never got round to writing a 'proper' full length string quartet.

By way of prelude, Nicholas Cook gave a fascinating account of experiments about how musicians address the rhythms in 'new complexity' scores, illustrated by Philip Thomas's approach to learning a piano piece by Bryn Harrison, and "the often uneasy relationship between score and sound, between written notation and acoustic realization". By building it up line by line he actually achieved greater accuracy than he had thought intended or necessary. An extended version of this short lecture Prompting Performance, with music examples and a sound clip, can be accessed in Music Theory Online, a wonderful internet resource of which I have been delighted to have been made newly aware.

Mendelssohn/Hensel Bicentenary
(Lyric Song Salon and RHUL, David Josewitz Hall)

Later that afternoon (before departing for a reviewing commitment at Wigmore Hall, just a short walk away) I heard Briony Williams, who is researching at RAM for her PhD on Lieder by women composers, play some Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel pieces, attended by a good audience of visitors. An accomplished accompanist, and organiser of the recent Schiller event, she gave an honest, unvarnished account of Das Jahr, a series of thirteen substantial pieces equivalent to Tchaikovsky's dozen Seasons Op 37a. I was not persuaded on this showing that these are deserving of wider currency.

Briony Williams might have been helped if the pieces had been grouped in seasonal quarter-years, with an indication that applause would be welcomed between the groups and before the end of the whole? The audience would have appreciated a brief introduction, and the programme provided would have been more useful with some background information instead of the (superbly printed) photographic reproductions of rural scenes, and poems which really didn't contribute to our appreciation of the music.

On Amazon you can hear extracts of Sarah Rothenberg's well received recording of Das Jahr.

For future research events at RAM open to the public
visit http://www.ram.ac.uk/museum/researchevents.htm to request programme updates.


© Peter Grahame Woolf