|THE PIANO MUSIC OF DONALD
| Much as an
individual's character is formed relatively early and remains largely
constant, a musical personality is recognizable throughout a composer's
career. yet, just as a trait can mellow or harden through one's life, so
too a musical trait can grow harsher, soften, or recede largely to the
background, other traits assuming stronger roles.
Donald Martino's complex musical personality has been a major part of my keyboard concerns for several years and, as I have grappled with his keyboard masterpieces, I have developed a feel for his musical character an exhilarating journey of musical discovery and a voyage of self-discovery as well.
Martino's art centers around two coordinate traits. First is an intensely expressive line. Harmony and polyphony serve largely to enhance a central voice and color (i.e. touch) serves structural and expressive ends as a backdrop or commentary. There is nothing "impressionistic" about this music. As David Burge wrote: "Martino's 'mysteries' are the fluctuating emotions of living, feeling souls."
In his three major works for piano solo, of which the last two are presented here, there is a gradual mellowing of line. The disjunct bravado lines of his monumental sonata Pianississimo (1970), (Albany Records, TROY 168) which have roots in his earlier Piano Fantasy (1958) and are still present in Impromptu for Roger (1977) become less common in later work and the conjunct, fluid lines of Fantasies and Impromptus (1981) become symmetric phrases in some of the Preludes (1991). Martino's love of the Romantics, especially Schumann, is evident throughout his work from the climactic reverie of Pianississimo to the first Omaggio of Fantasies and Impromptus, whose meshing of melody and accompaniment is a token of affection for Dichterlieve, to small sections of many of the Preludes where, in the midst of complex passagework, a simple line will interrupt a memory of another time.
The other central trait of Martino's music is organic form. Martino describes his works as "narratives," and, in a narrative, one seldom does more than pause for breath or to emphasize one's point. Martino wraps the pure sonata structure of Pianississimo in a vast assortment of transitions cadenzas, recitatives, metric modulations, remembrances as a way of achieving structural fluidity. This becomes further mellowed in Fantasies and Impromptus where individual Impromptus slowly create transitions between the three poles of the work, each a complex metamorphosis of a classical form (sonata, variations, rondo). It is utterly convincing in an almost Joycean manner and creates an arch that is beautiful in itself.
In the Preludes, this means of transition is taken a step further something foreshadowed in a few of the Impromptus. Pieces proceed now by a kind of "emotional modulation." Moods are tints and one is carried along by emotional vagaries rather than by purely musical devices such as transitions or even cadences. The very first Prelude present this clearly and gently.
Perhaps as a result of the above, formal elegance is accompanied by an emotional inelegance at times which is Marino's recognition of, and laughing at, the rather coarse world, musical and otherwise, which surrounds us all. Instead of the stately dance that forms the high point of the second Fantasy, or the elegant episode in the middle of the slow movement of Pianississimo, one finds in a Preludes echoes of jazz bands or Latin rhythms, and a feeling of waltz is pervasive.
The passion and fierce conviction of Pianississimo gives way to the more introspective and nostalgic Fantasies and Impromptus which, though equally brilliant and demanding, is rhythmically less complex and more purely pianistic. Finally, a decade later, introspection itself expands to take the world into its embrace, In the four works heard here one can trace Marino's creative search, over a thirty year span, for a wedding of the flamboyance of his gestures to the coherence of his often-complex shapes.
The Piano Fantasy provides an early example. Its four large sections (with a reprise of the opening) resemble nothing so much as Italian opera. The opening recitativo leads to a comic duet, one hand futilely stumbling after the other. The center of the work is a soprano aria whose strands gradually coalesce into the dizzy presto-finale which is perhaps nothing so much as jazz Rossini. A nostalgic glance back at the opening provides a lyric, if somewhat quizzical ending.
Impromptu for Roger (for Roger Sessions' 80th birthday), which its wide-spread "tickling" o fall the keys, could on first hearing be perceived as "pointillistic." It is however, typically, one endless line, harmonically virtually unadorned but colored by harmonics and fast arabesques.
Pianississimo is Donald Martino's exuberant celebration of pianistic possibilities. The bravura of 19th Century Romanticism is wedded to the more intricate and evanescent sounds of out own time. This produces a complex web which Andrew Porter described as "an enchanted journey through circles where transfigured shades of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel sometimes glimmer, in a realm at once welcoming and strange." The wealth of allusion and rhythmic byplay cannot be fully savored upon first hearing, but the listener is swept in and left fulfilled by the swirl of colors and shades of emotions which coalesce in a vast four-part structure.
Complex rhythms, essentially written-out rubati, and widely-spaced leaps pervade much of the work. The Allegro proper, for instance, opens with an eruption covering the entire keyboard and is instantly rebuked by the same two pitches reversed and in a (seemingly) unrelated speed. These twin challenges, for listener as well as performer, have helped to create the aura of forbidding difficulty which surrounds the music. However, when the complexities are mastered, as performer can give the work a richly expressive sense of endless melody in almost the same fashion as a Bach Chorale-Prelude or a Chopin Nocturne.
Matino's love of the Romantics is evident throughout the work, from its opening and closing Lisztian bravado to its climactic Schumannesque reverie. Characteristically, Martino transforms Liszt's triumphant octaves into more acerbic but equally dazzling parallel ninths. The filigree textures of the Finale, in which voices (and hands) are enmeshed, recall nothing so much as Schumann's Kreisleriana. The vast and fluid sonata structure, with its Proustian remembrances of things past, and its almost fanatical devotion to the B-Bb polarity seems yet one more tribute to the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata, via the Liszt Sonata (and one might add the Cater Sonata as well).
No work reflects Martino's concerns for line, fluidity of form and "stream-of-consciousness" more strongly than Fantasies and Impromptus (A Koussevitsky Foundation Commission). And no work of Martino's is so clearly rooted in his love of 19th Century Romanticism. All the sharp contrasts and rhythmic complexities of his earlier works are finally subsumed beneath the warmth of the harmonies and the personally expressive, richly vocal lines which veer continually towards the surface.
Despite the description of the three Fantasies in technically formal terms, the expressive volatility and organic form utterly overwhelm any sense of the vast thematic blocks of these movements. In the opening Fantasy the rhetorical heights of the beginning slowly dissolve via two way stations to the intimacies of the "second theme" and, after a slight premonition, to the dance rhythms that follow.
The first three Impromptus, with their openly melodic style (sequences and symmetrical phrases are not abjured) and idiomatic pianism, group themselves together to form their own fantastical structure whose colors and lines melt into each other without pause, forming a bridge to the central Fantasy. Martino described this pivotal movement as follows: "The centrally placed Fantasy begins as a meditation: time is suspended. But as the variation process unfolds, as time is filled with more and more notes, melodic fragments emerge, coalescing about midway into long melodic lines."
After a pause, the colors and emotions of the second bridge of Impromptus gradually converge to lead in a remarkably slow but certain stream towards the rhythmic and melodic delights of the ultimate Fantasy.
Twelve Preludes was commissioned by the Network for New Music and WGBH-Boston for several pianists, including David Holzman. While inspired principally by the Chopin Preludes, Martino's Preludes have an even more contemporary edge than the Fantasies and Impromptus. The 8th Prelude is ironically contradicted within three measures. The artifacts of our culture are artfully subsumed into the work which is still technically demanding for performer and intensive for the listener (one hearing will probably not suffice to recognize his allusions). The rhetoric of the 2nd Prelude (an harmonic leitmotif) is gradually transformed into a single voice not crying out in the wilderness, but attempting a feeble dance with enough hint of syncopation to show who is dancing. The waltz-like opening of 3rd Prelude fans out in several directions from a slower and coarser folk-dance to the brilliant cadenzas with complex rhythmic interactions to the intense lamenting line which forms the climax. The 5th Prelude, which conjures up Chopin's G Major Prelude uses a structural technique common to all the works. But what was previously heard as transition is now heard as avant-garde jazz demanding a combination of delicacy and crudeness, formally complete within itself.
The "stream-of-consciousness" is still present but the more abrupt alterations of mood within each piece are largely muted. One senses a generally polite dialogue between two or, at times, three friends. As a result, the individual Preludes themselves form distinct colors which trace a two-part journey from the lyricism of the opening to the landler-like close. Preludes Part I are six different moods which impose themselves upon the previous mood, at times forcefully as 2 upon 1, or more politely as 3 upon 2. In Part II the process becomes ever-subtler as from 7 to 8, and one is virtually unaware of the slow motive and expressive shift that connects the penultimate to the ultimate Prelude. While Chopin reaches a stormy apotheosis in his final Prelude, Martino returns to the pleasures and, at times, ironic wit of dance. Colorful guitar chords augment the Latin rhythms which veer onto the soundscape amidst the Viennese rhythms which provide the opening and close.
One must savor all of a person's life. The wit and neo-classicism of Fantasy is that of a portrait of the artist as a young man. The brilliance and intensity of Pianississimo is that of a creator recognizing himself and his worth. The lyricism and fantasy of Fantasies and Impromptus is that of a man turning inward. The Preludes are the work of a man whose inner search is full and who can now incorporate the mundanity he sees around him into his art. While one may feel closer to one work or another, we should be grateful for the transformation that allows us these diverse and individual masterpieces.
As a performer, Martino's music has confirmed my own values: intensity of expression and subtlety of motion are perhaps the highest musical good, and difficulty of execution is a blessing, hidden or not. Utter freedom of expression within such complexities is the nearest possible approach to musical "truth" and the effort entailed provides one with a wiser perspective on all of life's concerns.