Recorded January 1992 and February 1993
Passacaglia Concertante, Songs of the Seasons, Musica Concertante
Camerata Bern, London Voices
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Sandor Veress - In Search of the Lost Homeland
In his 8oth birthday interview Sandor Veress talked to Andreas Traub about his childhood in Kolozsvar in Transsylvania and summer holidays by Lake Balaton. "Childhood scenes": the 15th-century Gothic cathedral in which his mother regularly sang solos, family life with lots of music, musical games with a little singing peasant girl from the Komitat Somogy, one of Hungary's richest sources of folk music - Sandor Veress's first home was Hungarian and musical, full of classical music and the folk music Kodaly and Bartok were discovering at that time.
In 1916 Budapest became his second home, a home linked with his first one in a number of ways. As a student at the Academy of Music, Veress worked on both the legacy of Western music and "peasant music," as Bartok called it. Veress studied composition under Zoltan Kodaly and - from 1925 - piano under Bartok. He thus became a pianist, a composer and a musical ethnologist, working as assistant to Bartok and Laszlo Lajtha.
Bela Bartok's programme for a new Hungarian music that was equal to the best of its period and at the same time rooted in the richness of the newly-discovered folk music fitted in precisely with Sandor Veress's own intentions. His earliest works, the 1930/31 1st String Quartet and the 1931 Sonatina for the very French combination of oboe, clarinet and bassoon, show the influence of Kodaly and Bartok, but they are not slavish imitations.
Veress produced a whole series of sonatinas in the thirties, and used to call this his "sonatina period" in later years. These works show the effort he made in educational terms, but also an impressive sense of self-discipline. They are very close to Hindemith and the other neo-classical composers of that period, but these are not the most important models. The major influences were Johann Sebastian Bach's linear quality and Beethoven's formal dynamic, but also Claude Debussy's sensitivity to every single chord. At the same time this music is based on thematic material derived from folk music. This shaping of the native idiom by Western music culminated in the wonderful 2nd String Quartet and the one-act ballet A Csodafurulya (The Miraculous Shawm) composed for Aurel M. Milloss and dating from 1937. Sandor Veress found his personal idiom in these works, a musical idiom in which his two musical forms, classical and folk music,were united.
The 1st String Quartet was played at the Festival of the Internationale Gesellschaft fur Neue Musik (IGNM) in Prague in 1935, and the 2nd String Quartet had its premiere at the 1937 IGNM Festival in Paris (as part of the World Fair); this Paris performance in particular brought Veress European recognition as a composer. At a time of general regression, a rejection of the "wild creative outbursts" (Edward Dent) of the twenties, a work like this 2nd String Quartet showed that deep respect for the old masters - from Bach to Debussy - did not necessarily entail a disregard of the musical modernism of composers like Schonberg, Stravinsky and Bartok. The formal models of classicism (the sonata, the lied, the sonata-rondo) are starting points and provide a formal framework, but Veress adapted them to his own needs. He did not meddle with the old forms, nor did he dismantle them as Stravinsky had. He felt that the old masters - Palestrina, Bach and Beethoven - commanded respect and commitment, and indeed artistic morality, from composer and composition teacher alike. The light and nonchalant tone that was readily accepted in both Paris and Berlin at the time was never echoed in Veress's compositions. Music was - and remained - something far too serious for him - which did not exclude entertaining and even caustic humour.
Music like this was completely out of place in Germany, but France and England (countries that did not discover the greatness of Bartok until after the Second World War) were by no means open to it either. Despite all this, thanks to choreographer Aurel M. Milloss, Veress's ballet had its premiere in Budapest in 1938, and was then performed again in London in 1939 and even in Fascist Rome in 1940. But it was soon clear that Veress was one of the generation who were to be mercilessly deprived of the fruits of their first success and their - international but also national - impact by political developments and the outbreak of war.
After a long stay in Rome in 1942/43, Veress spent the last terrible years of the Second World War in Budapest, even though he could have emigrated to England. (He had signed a contract with Ralph Hawkes, then director of music publishers Boosey & Hawkes, in summer 1939 - at the same time as Bartok.) After the outbreak of war he had returned from London to Budapest. Decades later he remembered:
"Everyone said Absolutely crazy!' even in London. But the inner voice of intuition said: 'You did right!' I knew that the war would last for a long time, and I also knew that I would be completely cut off from Hungary in England. But my musical development, my spiritual condition, still needed a native land, a breeding ground, perhaps one could say the atmosphere of the folk song. And this was quite right! My composition could not have developed organically in England at that time. It would have been too early to leave Hungary and so some of my works that are perhaps important, like the Psalm of St. Augustine [Sancti Augustini Psalmus contra partem Donati for bass, mixed choir and large orchestra (1943/44)] might never have been written."
Veress succeeded Kodaly as professor of composition at the Budapest School of Music in 1943. His teaching produced what was later to be known as the Budapest School. Gyorgy Ligeti (b. 1923) and Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926), the two most important post-war Hungarian composers, were his pupils.
The end of the Second World War brought fundamental changes to Veress's homeland: his birth-place, Kolozsvar, had borne the Romanian name Cluj since 1920, and in Budapest the Nazi invasion was followed by Matyas Rakosi's Stalinists. The moral climate became intolerable. On 6 February 1949 Veress took the night train to Prague from his Hungarian home, and flew to Milloss's world premiere of his ballet Terszili Katicza in Stockholm from Czechoslovakia. The monstrous show trial and execution of the Communist interior minister Laszlo Rajk, which Veress subsequently followed on the radio in Rome, meant that he could never go back. "It was anything but easy. Family, elderly parents, my brother, dear friends, my students at the academy, my homeland, leaving simply everything for ever- I was sure of that. These are persisting traumas ... After nine months [of waiting in Rome] the miracle occurred in the form of an invitation to take up a visiting professorship in Bern. Swiss soil gave me what I could not possibly have had in Hungary: personal freedom with human dignity and the possibility of developing my art. That is an extremely valuable gift in our times, and it would be good if people were to think it over more frequently and more profoundly."
I set off from my beautiful fatherland,
My little, glorious Hungary.
Halfway, I turned and looked back
And my eyes were filled with tears.
These are the words of a deeply disturbing Transsylvanian folk melody set by Bartok for voice and piano. It was sung at a ceremony in honour of Bartok's death in 1945 - and now for Veress it formed a painful counterpoint to the rattling of the train from Budapest to Prague that was carrying him into life as an emigre.
German-speaking Switzerland became his second home - superficially; he never became a "Swiss composer" or even a "German-Swiss composer". He was the most important teacher of composition in Switzerland for a quarter of a century, but he was not accepted as a member of the Schwei-zerischer Tonkunstlerverein, the Swiss association of professional musicians, until 1974, even though half a generation of Swiss musicians, Heinz Holliger, Roland Moser, Heinz Marti, Urs Peter Schneider, Theo Hirs-brunner, Jurg Wyttenbach were his pupils. Even in 1982, when a special edition of the Schweizerische Musikzeitung was dedicated to him on his 75th birthday, there was audible coughing from a few influential, seasoned German-Swiss composers.
Geographical separation from his Hungarian home meant being cut off from an essential, living source of his music. Folk music that he had heard, recorded, transcribed and analysed now became his inner home. Music was the only home left to him. Veress now became more actively susceptible to Western modernism, Debussy's free handling of form, and since the early fifties Anton Webern's and Alban Berg's twelve-tone technique. The avant-garde procedures of the fifties and sixties were not reflected directly in his music, but Veress remained as open to this New Music as he was critical of it. He did not engage in polemic about a radically different younger generation.
Veress's own idiom and work were not central to his composition teaching in Bern, but rather something that was immeasurably more fundamental to him: his own musical ethic, which was also that of his teacher Bartok; it reappears in the work of his pupils like Kurtag and Holliger. His pupil Roland Moser put this into moving words in 1982:
"For Veress music is a unity that includes folk music and classical music from all times and peoples. The musician is responsible to this unity. Thus a 'crime against music' inevitably affects him personally. His greatest problem is the difference between a strong sense of responsibility and an extremely limited sphere of influence. This is why for Veress teaching -and his educational responsibilities in general - is of such central importance. The idea of working on a unity of which only parts are ever visible and can be worked on has made a profound impression on me in my classes with Sandor Veress. But being committed to this whole does not mean having to deal with everything. What counts is intensity, complete dedication, stamina to pursue as far as possible the path that has been recognized as the right one."This sense of moral responsibility for every single note, every chord, every detail of a score unites the master, his own teachers and his pupils beyond all stylistic differences. This seriousness can be seen in every picture of the composer and - this is the crucial thing - it is beyond question for every serious listener to his music.
Veress died in Bern on 4 March 1992 at the age of 85, after months of severe illness. Permanent return to his old home was no longer possible, but his music can now live unshackled by the borders that impinged so painfully upon his biography.
In the fifties the "fury of disappearing" instantly turned the music produced by the various neo-classical tendencies of the post-war period into history; "justice" for the Viennese School led to new "injustices." It is thus surprising to hear how convincing Veress's music composed between 1930 and 1960 still sounds. The life and vigour of his music can be explained by its personal language. Despite all the lunacy of the period it has a double "home": the Hungarian homeland and the Western tradition. But for Sandor Veress "home" never meant conservative preservation or immutable form, but a conscious on-going commitment to a different present.
follow the roads and follow still
the dream that holds my heart in trance
and lures it to the fabled chance
to find, beyond these evening days
the morning and the woodland days
and meadows clear with gold, and you -
These lines occur just before the end of a cycle of English madrigals that Veress wrote in 1967, as a visiting professor in far-away Australia, to poems about the seasons by Christopher Brennan (1870-1932). The old English late Renaissance madrigal and echoes of Hungarian folk melodies marry here to form a declaration by the composer who was acutely aware of the grace of the fulfilment of such wishes in a world that he suffered as hostile to art and superficial. The few notes to which these lines are set seem to understand the fragility of the happiness that they are transforming into sound.
The Passacaglia concertante for oboe and string orchestra (1961), the Elegy for baritone, harp and string orchestra (1964), the Musica concertante for 12 string players (1965/66) and the madrigal cycle Songs of the Seasons for a capella choir (1967), with the Sonata for Solo Cello of 1967 form a central group of works within Sandor Veress's oeuvre. They were preceded by a series of compositions in the fifties in which Veress adopted an extremely personal approach to twelve-tone technique. It has rightly been pointed out that Veress incorporated and adapted Hungarian folk music - which thoroughly displeased his teacher Zoltan Kodaly - to twelve-tone rows, but without abandoning his own characteristic forms of melody and harmony. For Kodaly a folk tune was sacrosanct, but Veress saw it much more as a "find," from which he drew the motifs and themes of his music. He treated his tone rows in the same way. Veress rejected Schonberg's rule that repetition of a tone row was to be avoided if possible before the other eleven notes in the row had been played. This would have been too great a constraint for Veress's music, in which the genuinely melodic aspect was especially important. Veress saw twelve-tone music as a means of achieving the greatest possible musical unity and density. This method of adapting tone rows - as earlier (and also later) in the folk melodies - was an essential prerequisite for his synthesis of folk - or dodecaphonic - melodic material and older styles (like Palestrina's "classical vocal polyphony" and Johann Sebastian Bach's instrumental counterpoint).
The three works by Sandor Veress played here show the breadth of the range he acquired over the years and also the stylistic unity of his music, its unmistakable tone, firm and astringent but at the same time melancholy and lyrical.
The Passacaglia concertante was written between March and June 1961 for the young oboist Heinz Holliger and the Festival Strings Lucerne, to whom it was dedicated. They played the work for the first time on 31 August 1961 at the Internationale Musikfestwochen in Lucerne. Characteristically there are "instructions for oboist and string players" at the top of the score, and the composer thanks Sandor Vegh and Heinz Holliger for the suggestions they had made to him. It is interesting in terms of his ideas of balance and homogeneity that Veress sets an analogous extension of string technique, especially in terms of pizzicato playing, against the technical possibilities of the oboe that Holliger had so enormously extended. The form is structured symmetrically around the central piece with its characteristic instruction Andante, in modo d'una ballata. A peaceful Andante con moto is preceded by a persistently accelerating Allegro scher-zando movement, and the central section is followed by one that accelerates from Molto allegro to Allegrissimo. A movement that starts Molto allegro and leads back to the beginning forms the conclusion. Two simultaneously exploited twelve-tone rows are the starting point and this is continuously varied by the composer - from the soloist's entry in the first movement onwards - to produce an enormous variety of harmonic and rhythmic shapes. In a way that is comparable with the famous concluding movement of Brahms's 4th Symphony, this Passacaglia concertante draws life both from the formal unity and strictness of the baroque passacaglia variation form and the free and playful elements of "homo ludens" and "homo ornans", which the composer liked to talk about, and at the same time combines this with the idea of the solo concerto. Even more: if the multipartite nature of the movements is taken into account as well, it would be possible - following a suggestion by Heinz Holliger - to relate the overall form of this Passacaglia concertante to the structure of the basic tone row (3x4 notes).
Even in the very early thirties, when Veress started to experiment with using folk music in composition, he drew on Palestrina's strict vocal line, but equally on the late Renaissance English and Italian madrigal composers, and their free vocal polyphonic settings of words by major poets. The Songs of the Seasons are a late echo of his simultaneous work with Hungarian folk music, with important early music and with modernism a la Bartok. But the models are now behind this cycle of seven Madrigals; it is no good searching for quotations or copies of older musical style. Precise attention to textual detail - and also to textual rhythm and metre - but also to harmony addressed with the most refined ear make these choral pieces into real madrigals in the spirit of the 16th century. Veress handles the texts with freedom, or more precisely: with an eye to his own musical needs. Thus individual lines can move into the background, while others - by means of repetition-dominate entire sections. But at the centre of the cycle are the deep and sparkling colours of the fourth madrigal, which draws music out of silence: "Sweet silence after bells! / deep in the enamour'd ear / soft incantation dwells."
The Musica concertante for twelve solo strings was started in Bern in summer 1965 and completed in Baltimore, where Veress had a visiting professorship, in January 1966. The work is dedicated to the Camerata Bern and their first violin Alexander van Wijnkoop. Bach's 3rd and 6th Brandenburg Concertos provide the models for this solo group concerto with its constantly changing instrumental combinations between solo instrument and tutti.
The three movements are headed Improvisation, Meditation and Action (fast - slow - fast), indications both of attitude and musical approach. Characteristically the crucial formal caesuras in the first movement are marked by four cadenzas: the first of the two parts concludes with the first cadenza (2nd violin); cadenzas by the 1st violin and the viola form a link between the sections of the second part, while the cello cadenza interrupts the last part. The second movement starts with a tender tempo rubato duet for the violas, develops with ever-increasing concentration towards a fortissimo climax, then moves back to a morendo conclusion reminiscent of the end of Berg's Lyric Suite. The third movement is in three parts, and is also reminiscent of Berg, but the third part is a backwards-moving variation on the first. Here the reversed rhythmical forms create a metrical multiplicity that has become fashionable in our day (in Ligeti's music, for example). These first and third parts frame a central section with markings like molto deciso, duro e secco (very defined, hard and dry) and furente (furiously).
- Jurg Stenzl