Wisst ihr wie das wird?(1): The Album-Sonate for Mathilde Wesendonck as Prototype for Richard Wagner’s Unrealized Symphonies
“Don’t look for too many unmentionable motivations in the Album Sonata. I promised it to a young woman who was very kind to me, in return for a beautiful sofa cushion that she gave me as a present.”
So wrote Richard Wagner, nearly twenty-five years after he composed the work in question (2). The little mention which the composer made to this sonata is exclusively dedicated to downplaying its significance; Wagner knew he would be remembered as a composer of dramatic works, not of ‘absolute’ instrumental ones. Aside from Wagner’s relationship with the work’s dedicatee, does this sonata, all but ignored in Wagner studies, offer any insight into a composer for whom so much insight has already been offered up?
Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark is a work from the fruitful period that followed his self-imposed exile from professional music-making. During the years 1898- 1906, Ives more and more removed himself from the German-Romantic harmonies which had dominated his earlier works, instead concentrating on the development of his own personal idiom derived from experimental technical procedures and an emphasis on quotation. The work, whose first title was “A contemplation of nothing serious,” serves as a companion piece to “‘A Contemplation of a Serious Matter’,” or The Unanswered Question.” In the work, we find Ives as a young man in a light-hearted contemplative mood, observing the goings-on of the Park while sitting on a bench by one of its ponds. This sort of immersed, nature-inspired reflection was just one of the ways in which Ives’ transcendentalism-- the set of ideas, attitudes, and questions espoused by thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau-- reared its head. By first examining significant elements within the score, and then by examining some those aspects of Transcendentalism which most immediately relate to music generally, this paper intends to broadly convey Ives’ musical translation of philosophical ideas. Foremost among these ideas are those concerning the importance of a communal, emotional language which can be accessed through quotation of popular materials; that the contemplation of Nature is essential to the well-rounded and dynamic life; and that harmony exists between elements which appear to be opposed to or at odds with one another.
The instrument now known as the baroque lute was commonplace in Bach’s Germany. Owing to the fact that most lutes were cheaper and more portable than keyboard instruments, its popularity had remained intact for the centuries in which it had been the ideal means of accompaniment for amateur singers. The instrument, while retaining the shape and timbre of its earlier forbearers during what was perhaps the height of its popularity in the 17th and early 18th centuries, had evolved substantially to reach the form it took on in Bach’s day. Before the middle of the 17th century lutes across Europe, while differing in other aspects such as the number of strings, were tuned in similar ways. This method of tuning-- 4ths around a central major third-- was described as early as 1483 in Johannes Tinctoris’s De inventione et usu musicae. Throughout the course of the 1600s, however, the need for an extended bass register prompted the addition of lower strings to the lute. There were so many strings that in fact a player’s fretting hand could not claim them all, and so the free-floating strings, under which there was no fingerboard, were most often tuned in a descending diatonicism that was adjustable based on the key of pieces. It was these additional basses which probably led to the elimination of the 4ths-around-a-3rd tuning, which was replaced in time by an open d minor tuning above the lower, diatonically descending bass strings (this tuning was by no means, however, universally accepted and the traditional tuning of 4ths was maintained throughout Europe and most notably in Spain in the form of the vihuela and baroque guitar, which later would pass on their open-inconsonant genes to the modern guitar).
Berlioz’s famous words stating that only those who play the guitar well can compose for it are doubly true for the baroque lute, which by this time had developed several tablature notational systems which varied from region to region. These tablature systems are one of the reasons why solo lute music continued to be written mainly by esteemed lute players of the day, and also a reason why the lute music of J.S. Bach stands out as an anomaly.
The motet, though now largely absent from modern concerts, has nonetheless played a crucial role in the development of polyphonic music throughout the history of Western art music. What began as the simple application of new text to older music nearly eight hundred years ago went on to become one of the longest lasting and most influential genres of composition--and the perfect vehicle for early musicians to develop their own distinct voices as composers. Because its history is so expansive--both in its longevity and in its international span-- the term ‘motet’ has meant many things to many different people. While its origins can be traced back to early 13th century France, it was a very different motet which was popularized and exported to surrounding nations. The motet, like many other musical genres, found its polyphonic culmination in the learned hands of Johann Sebastian Bach though he was here again standing on the shoulders of more giants than many of his idolizers may care to admit to. An important aspect of motet writing--if not the most important-- was that as it grew, it necessitated the evolution of many technical parts of music writing--and changed people’s ideas about how music could be composed. The motet had passed through perhaps more hands than any other kind of polyphonic genre before it reached Bach, and those skilled hands left it grown and changed. Pérotin was the one who perhaps started the practice, though some time would pass before ideas changed and the more rhythmically complex motets of Guillaume de Machaut were to be possible. The well-traveled and cosmopolitan Guillaume Du Fay exemplified the newer, more consonant harmonies which were being disseminated throughout continental Europe in the fifteenth century (and in effect contributed to the more international harmonic language that was to be found there), and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the so-called “Prince of Music," brought the counterpoint found in motets to heights never before explored. All of these composers, and many more, played a crucial role in delivering the motet to Johann Sebastian Bach (who called only seven of his compositions “motet”).