Rachel Lee Priday offers two programs as a retrospective on WWI and beyond.

The darkest periods of history do not always produce overtly disturbing music; in response to war, music often turns inward and even backward, acting as a respite from traumatic events. As we approach the centennial of the end of the Great War, Rachel Lee Priday examines the phenomenon of composers during World War I and beyond whose self-introspection and nostalgia for bygone eras became sources of new inspiration. During a time of unprecedented global chaos, these composers looked looked to the past, and to their own personal musical fascinations, in crafting a distinctive musical language. Each of the works in “Chaos and Elegance” grapples with the question of musical order not only under the shadow of war, but also within a context of modernist experimentation. They are statements of personal vision and language, unique amalgamations of influences past and present, and prime examples of the breathtaking explosion of stylistic diversity in the 20th century.

Program I

Program I features the mature, late works of four composers whose musical arcs were shaped by the experience of WWI, and who found inward solace and meaning in folk traditions, nationalism, and staunch musical convictions amid the fraught intensity of world events.

Janacek, whose strikingly avant-garde works were only produced in his fifties and sixties, started work on his Violin Sonata in 1914 as war began: “I could just about hear the sound of the steel clashing in my troubled head…” The Sonata is a study in extreme contrasts: the paranoia, fear, and anxiety of coming war is set against Janacek’s deep-rooted passion for folk music, with its tender melodies, rich harmonies, and childlike serenity. Shock and sensation as an organizing principle override the bones of formal musical structure. Phrases are truncated bursts or whispers, alternating with soaring lines, the culmination of which, in the expansive final climax of the fourth movement, is meant to evoke Janacek’s hope for the coming of the Russian army liberating the Moravian people.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1917) is, in his own words, “an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war”: it his final completed work, written as he battled terminal cancer and grew increasingly despondent about war. Though he incorporates touches of Spanish flair and Asian harmonies, Debussy — an ardent French nationalist who signed his wartime work as “musicien francais” — achieves in the Sonata a characteristically French brevity and precision of expression. Originally intended to be part of an unfinished cycle of six sonatas for different instruments, the work is an example, like Beethoven, of a composer’s turn towards the intimate vehicle of chamber music, as life nears its end.

Elgar’s introspective, conservative Violin Sonata (1918), written during a final spurt of creativity in the composer’s life at the end of World War I, has a nostalgic and autumnal quality: “I fear it does not carry us any further,” he acknowledged, “but it is full of golden sounds.” For the next twenty years of his life, he remained almost silent.

Shostakovich’s great Violin Sonata (1968), written in the final decade of the composer’s life, bears the intensity of lifelong Soviet oppression and displays the maturity of his signature polystylism. The Sonata makes use of Jewish klezmer music and nods to serialism throughout the piece. Yet it is the sound of funeral bells, recalled from earlier moments, that brings the work to a close.

Janacek, Violin Sonata (1914)
Debussy, Violin Sonata in G minor (1916-1917)
Elgar, Violin Sonata in E Minor, Op. 82 (1918)
Shostakovich, Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 134 (1968)

Program II

Program II presents the works of four composers who, during WWI and immediately after, reached new turning points in their stylistic trajectories by looking to eras past, whether reaching for the purity and formal elegance of the ancient world, or the dance-like forms of the Baroque.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, based on his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, playfully injects Baroque forms in the style of Pergolesi with touches of modernist astringency. Of Pulcinella, the first major work of Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase, Stravinsky wrote, “[It] was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course…but it was a look in the mirror, too.”

In writing the Mythes, Op. 30 (1915), three poems depicting scenes from Greek mythology, Szymanowski declared that he had “created a new style, a new form of expression in violin playing, something of epoch-making significance in that respect.” In the Mythes, Szymanowski blends “impressionistic” influences with innovative use of instrumental techniques, shimmering textures, and complex harmonies to produce fantastical, subtle shades of color and an enchanting range of expression.

Though Respighi was known for drawing inspiration from both early Italian music and ancient Rome, his Violin Sonata is written in a lush, Romantic language. Nevertheless, its final movement is based on the Passacaglia, a variation form which originated in early seventeenth-century Spain and was employed frequently in Baroque Italian compositions.

Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917) is a musical memorial modeled after a traditional Baroque French keyboard suite. Originally a six-movement suite for solo piano, each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who died fighting in WWI. Like Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, the work reveals neoclassical tendencies during moments of chromaticism and dissonance, and in its lighthearted character. Though written explicitly as a tribute to victims of war, Ravel explains, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Stravinsky, Suite Italienne, after Pulcinella (1919-1920 Pulcinella)
Szymanowski, Mythes: Three Poems, Op. 30 (spring 1915) – I. The Fountain of Arethusa. II. Narcissus. III. Dryads and Pan
Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, arr. Violin and Piano (1914-1917) – I. Prelude. II. Forlane. III. Menuet. IV. Rigadoun
Respighi, Violin Sonata in B Minor (1917)