Sunday, May 1, 2016

Footnote to Mostly Late Efflorescences

After I posted that piece the other day I started thinking about Bach and how I had managed to leave him out. He isn't quite like the other examples in that he seems to have generated flurries of flourishing several times in his life, while the other composers that I listed just seem to have had one. Bach's bread and butter, as it were, was chamber and church music earlier in his career and mostly church music later in his career. His production of church music in the form of music for organ to be played in church, cantatas with religious texts, his monumental settings of the Passion and finally his B minor Mass extended over most of his life, so don't really fit my conception of a "Mostly Late Efflorescence". Still, perhaps the Mass in B minor does fit the model as it was entirely outside his usual work, being a Catholic mass while Bach was employed as a composer of music for the Lutheran churches in Leipzig. It also comes from near the end of his life. There are a couple of other examples from him that might fit as well. His Well-Tempered Clavier is in two books, the first dating from 1722 and the second twenty years later. These monumental collections of preludes and fugues fit the idea quite well in that they exceed any conceivable practical need he had, but are rather a contribution to posterity. Another possible candidate would be his remarkable collection of concertos for various instruments that pretty much exhausts the whole Baroque concerto genre. The Brandenburg Concertos date from 1721 or earlier and again, burst the bounds of their time and genre, becoming music for the ages. Finally, perhaps the most obvious example of a monumental achievement written solely, it seems, for posterity would be Bach's Art of Fugue, a set of fugues on a single subject and variations of it, along with some remarkable canons. So, it seems that the major problem with applying the idea of Mostly Late Efflorescences to Bach is that he had too many and they were spread out over all of his mature years. Darn! I guess that's why he is Bach.

Another, very different example, might be the Czech composer Leoš Janáček whose entire career as a composer was one big Late Efflorescence. Until he met his muse, the much younger (and married) Kamila Stösslová to whom he wrote some seven hundred passionate letters, he was a largely unknown regional composer of dull organ and choral music and folksong arrangements. Nearly all of the works for which he is acclaimed, such as his two string quartets, the Sinfonietta, the Glagolithic Mass and his five late operas, were all written in the last decade of his life, after he had met Kamila.

Janáček's String Quartet No. 2 was given its nickname "Intimate Letters" by the composer himself in a reference to his long correspondence with Kamila. This performance is by the Emerson Quartet and the photo is of Kamila (and her son) in 1917, the year they met.

No comments: