About the Music

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Arnold Schoenberg was a self-taught composer as well as a visual artist.  He also invented card games and a chess game for four players he called "Coalition Chess."  The short Piece was written in the late nineteenth century when Schoenberg was employed in a Viennese bank.  Fragment was composed at a time when Schoenberg had fully developed his 12-tone system, although the music shows more experimentation than is normally confined within the strict 12-tone method.  Schoenberg never finished the Fragment, and it ends abruptly with no real conclusion.

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971)

Today, Carl Ruggles the composer is virtually unknown, although in his time he was admired by the rebel composers of the day:  Charles Ives, Edgar Varese and Henry Cowell.  He wrote laboriously, working and reworking his scores-only 10 of which were published-all songs or for orchestra.

Ruggles was a violinist, beginning at age 4.  His mother had died and his father was an alcoholic. He supported himself as a theater violinist, a music critic who held nothing back, and a conductor, as well as a prolific painter who sold hundreds of paintings in his lifetime. He was aware of Schoenberg (also a painter) and Berg, but evolved his own independent writing style of not repeating a "pitch class" until a fixed number of pitch classes, such as 10, were used.  This resulted in wild leaps, major and minor ninths, major and minor seconds and tritones.  This was called "dissonant counterpoint."  A little like his personality-he was prickly, eccentric and a bigot.

Ruggles' good friend, pianist John Kirkpatrick, sorted through the vast amount of music Ruggles left, after he died at 95, and completed some of the works. Mood is the only piece Ruggles seems to have written for his own instrument. It was written in 1918 and there were numerous sketches made. It is a short atmospheric piece, with an ominous accompanying poem, expressed by his atonal dissonant harmonic language. While it is energetic and vigorous, it is also introspective and poetic. As we live with this piece, the dissonances become harmonious and expressive; the clashes reflecting something about our humanity. In Ruggles' words: "Creation is soulsearching. Nothing is ever finished".

MOOD for Violin and Piano
An Imaginery Tragedy
Our world is young
Young, and of measure passing bound
Infinite are the heights to climb
The depths to sound

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Charles Ives grew up copying Bach masterpieces into his study book, writing counterpoint in the baroque fashion. As a composer he worked within a strong counterpoint context but with a harmonic language far beyond his time. 

When he first showed his Third Sonata (of four sonatas for violin and piano) to a performing violinist of the time, the musician ran out of his house yelling about the pain of so many written wrong notes - and this was Ives' revised version, which he had tried to make acceptable to average tastes. 

In his Second Sonata, Ives (as he often did in his music) inset a sprinkling of Americana references, including country fiddling, a patriotic tune, a sea chanty, and camp-meeting hymns.  In the last movement, Ives created a set of variations based on one of the hymns, following a slow introduction mindful of transcendental New England.

Enrique Granados (1867-1916)

Rarely performed and little known, this is a sparkling gem of 19th century romantic piano music, infused with sublime melody, perhaps nostalgic to a fault.

John Holland (1944- )

The Sonata was composed specifically for the Rathbun-Rivera Duo.  Each movement of the Sonata incorporates a unique rhythmic or melodic structure.  Each of the 12 Haiku, for example, is based on a different melodic interval and all contain a pattern of 5-7-5 sounds distributed across 3 measures.

There are three movements that take the form of in Incrementa.  Incrementa is my term for a rhythmic or melodic aspect of the music that forms an increasing or decreasing incremental pattern.  Movement four, The Clock, is another example of an incrementa that shows down over time.  Scale Model 1 and Scale Model 2 employ a variety of melodic patterns arranged in different symmetrical configurations.  Incrementa No. 2 is suggestive of American fiddle music.  In Passing By, you experience the passage of time.  In Sands of a Distant Shore, you feel the motions of the sea.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Lou Harrison was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century-a pioneer in the use of alternate tunings, world music influences, especially the gamelan, and new percussion instruments. Harrison grew up in California where he was exposed to Asian, Mexican and Native American music and Cantonese Opera. He studied with modernist pioneer Henry Cowell and with Arnold Schoenberg. Harrison composed extensively for dance and percussion. He and John Cage established the first concert series devoted to new music for percussion.

When Harrison moved to New York City he became friends with Charles Ives whose music he championed; he also promoted the music of Edgar Varese and Carl Ruggles.   Harrison wrote a number of pieces using the twelve tone technique.

In 1947, Harrison had a nervous breakdown and moved back to California where he started writing world music.  He and his gay partner, musician William Colvig, built a tuned percussion ensemble using found instruments such as tin cans, aluminum furniture tubing, oxygen tanks, and steel brake drums.  Several works feature the “tack piano”, a kind of prepared piano with small nails inserted into the hammers to give a more percussive sound.

Harrison also wrote lyrical music, such as Grand Duo (1988), which is spartan in nature with simple harmony and emphasis on rhythm and melody.  The harmonic language is texture-based, yet still rich, utilizing the piano alternately as a lyrical and percussive instrument.  The piece introduces the padded piano bar which depresses all the notes in an octave.

Lou Harrison was interviewed about Grand Duo and told this account of its origins:

“In a fine Japanese restaurant in Philadelphia one day in 1988 I told Dennis Russell Davies that I was going to compose for him and his friend Romuald Tecco a polka. We had been talking for a while about my composing for the two of them a largish concert piece. The polka turned out to be the finale. In Portland Oregon I began a richly rhapsodic section that became Movement IV, and that consciously, though quite naturally, contains an Ivesian hymn-tune like section which is repeated. I say "consciously", because when the part appeared out of my material I thought "oh, this is very Ivesian" but saw no reason to abjure it, any more than I have abjured passages that remind of other composers. Since I was writing for Dennis who is a very dear and long-time friend, it occurred to me to include, as movement three, a developed version of a "round" that I had composed in his home in Stuttgart for his two daughters to play on violins. Then I thought to ask Romuald whether he had a tune or melody that he liked that I could also weave into this composition for two good friends. He suggested the barcarolle from Tales from Hoffman. This will be found, just the beginning of it, in the opening bass of the first movement. In two movements the pianist needs to play with a padded bar which exactly depresses all the keys of an octave. It makes for brilliance and gives two tone-colors; both the white-key set, and the black-key set, thus enriching the texture. Naturally Dennis immediately christened the bar a "piano-banger". The original artists have recorded the work, many others have played it, and I am happy that the choreographer Mark Morris has created a massively powerful ballet for it.”                                                 Lou Harrison    

Sebastian Currier (1959- )

Sebastian Currier was born in Huntington, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.  Schooled in NYC his musical influences ranged from Beethoven, Bartok, and Ligeti to rock music of the early 70’s and Shivkumar Sharma. 

Currier is on the faculty at Columbia University and has received numerous prestigious prizes and fellowships; his music has been performed worldwide.  He has written for voice, piano, various ensembles and orchestra.  Many of his works employ an experimental compositional concept. 

For example, his piece Vocalissimus (1991) for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and percussion, consists of 18 songs, each with a different setting of the same short Wallace Stevens poem.  Each setting is from a contrasting viewpoint, such as pessimist, mystic, lunatic, etc.  

Another work, Color Wheel (1999) begins with a series of 36 isolated chords.  The wheel revolves around musical space.  As the wheel turns, its momentum increases, one notch at a time.  When it moves fast enough it changes into something else: a fast whirling fugue, the emphasis not on color but on the movement of several entangled lines.

His work Aftersong (1993) was written for the world renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter who, with pianist Lambert Orkis, premiered the work at the Schleswig-Holtstein Festival, and performed it throughout Europe and the United States.  This piece is compositionally more traditional. Currier states: (It) “is in two movements played without pause, the first relentlessly active, the second distant and calm.  After an excited dance (comes) a quiet song.”  One hears imitative counterpoint reminiscent of Bach and Hindemith.

John Holland (1944- )

John Holland is a composer and Professor in the Studio for Interrelated Media, Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.  He has produced many recordings of electronic and digital music, and has published scores for most solo instruments, small ensembles, orchestra, concertos, and operas. 

Holland's work emphasizes the integration of science and art, incorporating structures and ideas that reference a variety of natural phenomena.  John Holland and Marla Rathbun have collaborated on a CD of his Solo Music No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin

Memory for Violin and Piano, written in 2002, is in 12 movements.  Each movement contains from 1 to 12 short musical episodes followed by a rest.  There are 29 musical episodes altogether.  Both the violin and piano parts play the same episodes (different versions to accommodate each instrument) in each of the 12 movements, but reversed in time to each other.  The 29 episodes are distributed throughout the 12 movements so we continuously hear repetitions and varied repetitions of the same music by both instruments. Thus the title Memory. Included in the score are several musical excerpts borrowed from well-known string works of the 20th century including music by Debussy, Carter, and Ives, and also excerpts from earlier Holland violin pieces.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1998)

Born in 1913, in Warsaw, Poland, Lutoslawski finished his compositional studies only to be put into military training, and then to be imprisoned by the Germans.  He escaped back to Warsaw where he played his compositions and transcriptions in cafes.  Most of his early works, lost in the war, were traditional.   After the war, the Stalinist regime banned his first symphony as “formalist,” but he continued to compose and developed an international reputation.  He developed his own personal, aleatoric technique, where the performers have freedom within certain controlled parameters, which is found in almost all his later music including the Partita for Violin and Piano.  He composed slowly, producing a large work every two years or so.  Lutoslawski attributed much of his style to a hearing of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

The Partita was composed in 1984 at the request of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for Pinchas Zucherman and Marc Neikrug.  The composer also wrote a version of the piece for violin and orchestra.  The work consists of five movements, three main movements and two, the second and fourth, short interludes to be played ad libitum.  The middle of the last movement also has an ad libitum section which leads into the final Presto.  “The major movements follow rhythmically, at least,” in Lutoslawski’s words, “the tradition of pre-classical (18th century) keyboard music.  This, however, is no more than an allusion.  Harmonically and melodically, the Partita clearly belongs to the same group of [my] recent compositions …”

Krzysztof Penderecki (1933- )

Born in a small town, Debica, near Krakow, Poland, in 1933, Krzysztof Penderecki studied violin and piano from an early age.  His father, a lawyer and an enthusiastic violin player, encouraged Krysytof to keep studying music even through the German occupation of Poland and through the experience of Nazi atrocities against and ultimate annihilation of the Polish Jewish population in his town.  One hears the impact of these experiences in the intensity of his music.

In addition to studying philosophy, art history and literary history at the university, Penderecki entered the Krakow conservatory at the age of 18, and wrote in the style of Brahms, Debussy, Beethoven, Honegger, and Chopin as assignments from his first composition teacher. 

This First Sonata for Violin and Piano was an apprentice piece where, in Penderecki’s words: “I wrote the Sonata sort of in the style of Shostakovich.”  One also hears Bartok, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Szymanowski. This engaging student work remained hidden amid the clutter of Penderecki’s studio until 1990 when it was recorded.  Ten years later, he wrote his second Sonata for Violin and Piano.  

Penderecki is a prolific composer of opera, symphonies, concerti, chamber music and numerous vocal works.  He is well-known as a conductor and a teacher and was Professor at Yale for five years. 

Ned Rorem (1923- )

Ned Rorem grew up in Chicago where his piano teacher “changed my life forever” by introducing him to Debussy and Ravel.  After studying at Curtis and Julliard he worked as Virgil Thompson’s copyist for $20 a week and orchestration lessons.   Renown for his hundreds of art songs and song cycles Rorem has also composed symphonies, concertos and other orchestral works, music for chamber ensembles, operas, various choral works, ballets and other theater music.  He has won the Pulitzer Prize, for his suite AIR MUSIC, 1976, Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, and many other prizes and commissions. 

Rorem’s prolificacy has included 17 books, the latest of which is LIES: A DIARY 1986-1999, a collection of essays and short reminiscences.  He has said: “My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose.  A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer’s present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise.  I don’t believe that composers notate their moods, they don’t tell the music where to go – it leads them….Why do I write music?  Because I want to hear it – it’s simple as that.  Others may have more talent, more sense of duty.  But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need.”

Night Music, 1972, is programmatic in content.  Each movement evokes some aspect of the night.  The titles give the performers a direction but are not more explicit.  For instance,  Epeira sclopetaria, is a family of predatory spiders; that is enough knowledge for the performers to depict color, mood and texture: his intention.  The singular exception is the directive with the first movement, Answers, where the composer writes: “The silences between statements must be counted in full.  The silences are the questions.”  In a letter to Ms. Rathbun addressing more specific intentions Rorem writes:  “For me, music means nothing beyond itself.  (Mendelssohn:  “it’s not that it’s too vague for words; it’s too precise for words.”)  Impressionistic titles are just that, impressions.  My titles were probably added after the fact.  After 34 years, you probably know the piece better than I.  Forgive me, but although I’ve published 17 books, many about details of other composers, I never write about my own music:  It must speak for itself. P.S.  Yes, do Mosquitos ponticello.”