Sunday, October 14, 2012

Townsend: Preludios epigramaticos by Léo Brouwer

In 1974 I made one of the smarter choices of my life. I was determined to become a capable classical guitarist, but I had been running out of teachers. Every six months, it seemed, I reached the limits of the knowledge of my teacher and had to look for a new one. This was largely because, in the early 70s on Vancouver Island, Canada, there were no really good classical guitarists. In fact, in Canada at that time, there probably were no more than one or two competent teachers and they were in Montréal and Toronto, not way out on the West Coast. I did however, find a pretty good teacher in Vancouver, so every Saturday morning I would commute over on the ferry. The one-hour lesson would take about seven hours including six hours travel time. But my teacher, Téo Bagchus, did know his stuff. After six months he suggested that I go and study with his teacher in Spain, José Tomas, who lived in Alicante, Spain, on the Mediterranean coast. "I can do that?" I said. "What do I do, write him a letter, phone him?" Téo said, no, don't bother. He doesn't answer letters and I'm not sure he has a phone. Just go knock on his door. That sounded pretty crazy, but I had already contacted José Ramirez' shop in Madrid about buying a real concert guitar, so I decided to save some money and go.

I had already done two years at the University of Victoria in music, but the only problem there was that they wanted me to play the piano. They also had me playing lute in an early music ensemble. Nothing wrong with that, but the main reason I was there was to become a guitarist and they didn't even have a teacher! So I dropped out after second year and went to Spain. I picked up a great concert Ramirez in Madrid and headed for Alicante. When I knocked on Tomas' door, I told him I was a student of Téo's in Vancouver and he was all smiles: "How is Téo?" Then he asked what I was working on and I said the Etude No. 8 by Villa-Lobos, which seemed to pass muster. So I started lessons with José Tomas. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was just about the best place to be. There was a whole community of international guitar students there from Japan, the US, France, Belgium, England, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Finland and the Philippines. Here's a group photo of some of us at the end of the course. I'm kneeling down, second from the right and next to me, first on the right, is my good friend at the time, the Finnish guitarist Klaus Helminen who spoke at least seven languages. In the photo are guitarists from Canada, France, Scotland, Belgium, Mexico, Ireland and the girl whose leg I am clutching, was a fine guitarist from the Philippines.

When I went there I was a pretty junior player, just finding my way. A bit of a hack, I guess you could say. When I got back to Canada, about ten months later, I could play the guitar. Well. While I was in Alicante I did nothing but eat, sleep and practice the guitar (and read Russian novels). I played about six hours a day. I learned a LOT of music. At the end of one lesson, when I wasn't going to see Tomas for a couple of weeks, he suggested I learn the English Suite by John Duarte, which is in three movements--about ten or twelve minutes of music. When I came to the next lesson I had it all memorized.

The reason I got off on this digression is because of Alicante. It is a medium-sized provincial capital and, apart from the Conservatorio "Oscar Esplá" and José Tomas, there isn't much going on. But in the years after the terrible Spanish Civil War 1936-39, there was a prison camp outside Alicante where enemies of the Franco regime were imprisoned. One of these was the young poet Miguel Hernández, who started out as a goatherd and farmhand. He was on the Republican side--who lost--during the war and afterwards was sentenced to thirty years in prison. He died, age 31, in the prison outside Alicante in the year 1942, of tuberculosis and mistreatment. Much of his poetry was written in prison. Of course, when I was studying in Alicante, I knew nothing of this history.

In 1981, Léo Brouwer chose six lines from Hernández' Poemas de Amor as titles for six brief preludes titled Preludios Epigramaticos. Here are the titles with my translations:

  1. "Desde que el alba quiso ser alba, toda eres madre" ["As you are wholly woman, so the dawn wishes to be dawn"]
  2. "Tristes hombres si no mueren de amores" ["Sad men, if they don't die of love"]
  3. "Alrededor de tu piel, ato y desato la mia" ["Surrounded by your skin, mine is tied and untied"]
  4. "Rié, que tod rié: que todo es madre leve" ["Laugh, everything laughs, all is mother of levity"]
  5. "Me cogiste el corazón y hoy precipitas su vuelo" ["You caught the flight of my heart and today hurled it down"]
  6. "Llegó con trés heridas: la del amor, la de la muerte, la de la vita" ["I endure with three wounds: that of love, that of death, that of life"]
Now for the performances. With the first one, I have included three photos: a young Miguel Hernández, a young Léo Brouwer and myself working with Léo in his masterclass in Toronto in 1978. I think we might have been working on Memorias de El Cimarron by Henze, but maybe not as I don't see a cello bow anywhere!

Here is the second prelude. The photos are a pencil drawing of Miguel Hernández, a photo of Léo Brouwer playing Memorias as we can see from the cello bow, and a photo of myself playing a concert at the University of Victoria, BC.

With the third prelude I have put up a photo of Miguel Hernández giving a speech, Léo Brouwer playing a concert and another photo from the master class.

The fourth prelude is the only really up-tempo one, suitable to the text, so in the photos everyone is looking quite happy.

For the fifth prelude, three photos as before:

And finally, the sixth prelude:


RG said...

My question(s) should probably be with your Fake/Real post, but I have come back to these Preludes.

Why do people feel so mortified when, after listening to a piece(new or imperfectly remembered), they anticipate the end with premature applause?

Do they feel guilt for spoiling with their noise the ending and the thus the whole? Undermining the efforts of the performers? or the aesthetic enjoyment of their fellow listeners?

Or is their attendance at the performance part of some elaborate pretence to cultural refinement and musical knowledge which, with themselves, has been embarassingly unmasked by their mistake?

The outrage of fellow listeners is supercilious at best and more likely Schadenfreude. Do performers take an analogous delight in such faux pas? Do composers sometimes write works with pause traps at the end -- precisley designed to entrap the unwary?

[A noise like "clapping", at a point plainly not mistakable as the end, or one of a different (even if more cacaphonous)kind is dismissed by all as less 'ooo ooo' serious!]

Bryan Townsend said...

Now that is a tricky set of questions! The practice of utter silence during performances was one that grew up during the 19th century. It was part of the "romantic trance" in which one must not disturb the hypnotic effect of music. In the 18th century the aristocracy talked, ate, cheered and had liaisons with their mistresses during concerts! But all that was reined in during the 19th century when listening to music became a more sacred act and people became afraid of interrupting it with applause in the wrong place. Yes, perhaps some embarrassment might come from clapping at the end of the wrong movement: "don't you know the symphony doesn't end with the minuet?"

There is one composer at least who wrote a piece precisely to tempt the audience into clapping at the wrong place: Joseph Haydn in his "Joke" Quartet, op 33 wrote several false endings in the last movement to do just that! But, alas, nowadays, it doesn't come off the way it should because audiences are so cowed they sit on their hands no matter what!

Clapping does seem a strange way to show approval. I think a more impressive way is to simply sit in silence for a bit, let the mood of the piece ebb away slowly...

RG said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan,
I stumbled on your blog and discovered the Alicante photo. I was studying with Tomas at the same time. In fact, I'm crouched down right beside you, with black hair. Helminen and I were roommates. Also recognize Jonathan Baker in the back row, with the beard. Best, Jim Frazee

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jim,

Didn't you and I and Klaus used to go for lunch together? Great to hear from you. Yes, Jonathan Baker is in the back row and to the right of him is another Canadian guitarist whose name I forget. Next to him is a Mexican guitarist named Marcos and the two girls in front of him are from Belgium and one of them got to be quite well known. Kneeling in front in the blue shirt is an Irish guitarist who was my roommate, but whose name I also forget!

That was a long time ago!

Where are you now, and what are you up to?

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

Yes, almost 40 years ago. And yes, I think we did have lunch together at times. Do you have any other photos from then you could post? I have some. My email is I live in Oslo, and have been here the last 25 years. Send me a mail and I'll send you some photos if I can dig them up. Best, Jim