The saxophone is one of the few instruments invented during the Romantic period and still in use today. The transcriptions of major works such as Grieg's Holberg suite and Dvorak's American quartet take on a very different and original colouring.
Enregistre en juillet 2002 a Saint Germain
a l'Auditorium du Conservatoire National de Region de Poitiers
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Edvard Grieg (b Bergen, 1843; d Bergen, 1907)
Fra Holbergs tid, op. 40
Antonin Dvorak (b Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841; d Prague, 1904)
Quartet no. 12 in F'major, op. 96, B179, 'The American'
Transcription, existing in very large numbers from all periods of Western musical history, creates interrelationships between periods, styles, instruments... In different contexts it is given different names and meanings. Adaptation, arrangement, reduction, orchestration... Each makes the transcriber an interpreter of the original text, which he bends to his aspirations whilst giving it another life, an existence in the etymological sense (ex- 'out' + sistere 'take a stand'), independent of its creator. The work gains its autonomy under a new custodian. The sacred may become secular and the secular sacred; an instrumental piece may become vocal and a vocal piece instrumental; the orchestra may replace a piano and the piano an orchestra; wind instruments may take over from strings and strings from wind instruments... The possibilities are infinite. Transcription releases the work from its original time and sets it in a newone.
Transcription is so widespread that very few people are shocked by it, as Schweitzer was by those of Bach. It flourishes in times of crisis, makes works accessible, and - beyond the practical level (economic, didactic.) - brings out the style and conveys the essence of a composition: those made by Saint-Saens and Schoenberg are fine examples. Transcription is also a means of making music more appropriate to one's time: Mozart adapted Handel, Berlioz and Wagner re-examined Gluck, Mahler took a new look at Weber. It enables exceptional works to bear new fruit: Monteverdi transcribing Monteverdi, Handel recycling Handel, Bach reworking Bach. And in periods of prosperity it shows itself at its very best: the work submits to the amusement of amateurs or to the wit of great creators, such as Ravel in his orchestrations of Mussorgsky, or Liszt, who sometimes went so far that he lost sight of his starting point.
Yes, reproduction can but be productive. And the Habanera Quartet fully assumes the legitimacy of transcription in these two works from the classical repertoire, which take on a very different colouring when played by saxophones.
Grieg himself wrote two versions of the suite Fra Holbergs tid ('From Holberg's time'). The original piano version of 1884 is probably not as popular as the transcription for strings that he made the following year. Moreover, the work is in itself a sort of transcription of early dances: Prelude, Sarabande, Gavotte, Rigaudon. The work was intended as a tribute to Ludvig Holberg (b Bergen, 1684; d Copenhagen, 1754), the outstanding Scandinavian literary figure of the Enlightenment period, noted for his comedies. And Grieg adapted his style to take in features of 'Holberg's time' (he himself referred to the work as a 'periwigged' piece): forms, rhythms, ornaments of the past are therefore transcribed for the media of his time -piano, strings - and adapted to suit their potential. The saxophone quartet does the same, thus giving the work a new temporal dimension. At the same time, the colours are changed, as is our perception of the work. The saxophones produce a tone-quality that was unknown in the Baroque era. With their reeds they bring a new iridescence to the melodic lines, and the instruments' air capacity intensifies the legato effects. The attentive and expectant listener will find new charm in this version for four saxophones.
The logic of the transcription of Dvorak's 'American' Quartet is quite different. The original version dates from the composer's American period (1892-95) as director of the National Conservatory in New York. The latter had been founded with the aim of promoting American music, and Dvorak, who had been such a keen champion of the music of his native land, seemed to be the ideal person to choose as a figurehead. Indeed, soon after his arrival hebegan to take an interest in the songs he encountered. The critic Huneker or the singer Burleigh introduced him to spirituals and plantation songs. This for him was the true American heritage and he was not afraid to defend his position officially. In an article that appeared in the New York Herald in May 1893, he maintained that if there was to be an original and serious school of composition in the United States, then it should take such songs as its basis.
The 'American' Quartet was composed during the summer holiday Dvorak spent at Spillville, a Czech community in north-east Iowa, in 1893, where he was able to speak his native language and be in contact with people from his own country. The various themes that appear in the work are obviously of popular inspiration, although it is difficult to tell whether that inspiration was American or Czech. The pentatonic scale, the absence of leading note, the syncopated rhythms belong objectively to both sources, while the long second-movement cantilena and the irresistibly lively energy of the fast sections appear to be the result of a spontaneous musical blend. Performance by a saxophone quartet gives the work a completely new slant. Traditionally associated with jazz, the instruments are in their element here.
Alexander Glazunov (b Saint-Petersburg, 1865; d Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 1936) Saxophone Quartet, op. 109, G184 (Ganina classification)
The successful first performance of the Saxophone Quartet, op. 109, at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in December 1932 was one of the last great pleasures of Glazunov's life. Four years previously, taking advantage of an invitation to represent the USSR at the Schubert centenary celebrations in Vienna and a European tour accompanied by his wife and daughter, he had chosen to leave Russia and settle in the West. Various letters to friends show that he was disillusioned with mentalities in the Soviet music world, and after his mother's death in 1925 there was very little to keep him in the USSR - not even his position as director of the St Petersburg Conservatory. Thus he followed other Russian composers, such as Rachmaninov, Tcherepnin and Prokofiev, in choosing to spend the last years of his life based in Paris.
The French capital and its music world had already treated him to great acclaim on several occasions: at the World Exhibition in 1889, where he had conducted some of his 'Russian Concerts' with Rimsky-Korsakov, and in 1907,1909 and 1910, when he had worked for the Ballets Russes at the invitation of Diaghilev. For the Ballets Russes, his work included collaboration with Michel Fokine for the orchestration of his ballets Chopiniana (Les Sylphides) and Carnaval (music by Schumann).
But he did not find the same enthusiasm in the Paris of the interwar period, which was more interested in the spectacularly bold works of his compatriot Stravinsky than in his craftsman's perfectionism and his fidelity to compositional and formal traditions. Greatly weakened by poor health and by his unhappiness at finding himself stateless, Glazunov never really found his feet again as a composer.
He was in great physical pain when he composed the Saxophone Quartet. 'The pain has become unbearable; my strength is waning. I no longer go out and do not even bother to dress. I cannot think of leaving Paris in such condition before July. I have not touched the piano for a long time. I thank God that I have been able to send my Saxophone Quartet (for publication) before my condition deteriorates, but when will I hear my work?' (Letter to Wolfman, Paris, 21 June 1932.) Paradoxically, the composition shows no sign of the composer's suffering.
It was his discovery of the excellent saxophone quartet of the Republican Guard through the Ukrainian composer and conductor Thomas de Hartmann that had inspired him to write the Quartet. Regarded in the Soviet Union as 'bourgeois', the saxophone was more or less boycotted there. So this work was both new and original for Glazunov. 'I am thinking of writing a saxophone quartet. These instruments are very powerful and sonorous; in the orchestra they even cover the classical woodwind with their sound. There are some excellent solo saxophonists in the orchestra of the Republican Guard.' (Letter to Steinberg, Paris, 21 March 1932.) Marcel Mule (soprano), had gathered around him Paul Romby (alto), Fernand Lhomme (tenor) and Hippolyte Poimboeuf (baritone). On several occasions they went to Glazunov's home to take part in the elaboration of the work. The result surpassed the composer's expectations: he had feared that the sound might be too uniform. 'The musicians are such virtuosos that it is hard to imagine that they play the same instruments that we hear in jazz. What really amazes me is their breathing capacity, their stamina, and the softness and purity of the intonations.' (Letter to Steinberg, 10 December 1933.)
In composing this work Glazunov returned to the four-part texture that had been so dear to him in his string quartets. His First String Quartet in D major, composed when he was seventeen, had brought him to the attention of the music publisher and art patron Mitrofan Belyayev (or Belaieff), who invited him to take part in his Friday 'Quartet Evenings'. He joined the group as cellist; Belyayev himself took the viola part. Glazunov composed his first five string quartets for the group, and after Belyayev's death he composed no other such work for eighteen years: his Sixth String Quartet dates from 1921. In 1928 in Paris he composed a tribute to the memory of his dear friend: Elegie for string quartet, in which he took up the theme that had symbolised the 'Belyayev Circle' and its Friday gatherings: B La F (i.e. B flat AF).
The period Glazunov spent in Paris at the end of his life was thus one of memory and nostalgia. Indeed, his Seventh String Quartet of 1930 bears the title 'Hommage au passe' -'Tribute to the past'. A past that appeared in his music through quotations and evocations: Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, the style of Tchaikovsky, the devotional atmosphere of a pre-1917 religious ceremony, the sound of balalaikas...
The Saxophone Quartet also pays tribute to the past. Glazunov wrote to Steinberg: 'I have finished the piece for four saxophones. The first part is an allegro in B flat major, with the rhythm - minim-crotchet / crotchet-minim / crotchet-minim / minim-crotchet - slightly Americanised. The second part is a canzona with variations on basic triads; the first two variations are in a strict classical medieval style; they are followed by a Schumann-style variation with trills (like the one in his Etudes symphoniques), another in the style of Chopin, and a scherzo. The finale is quite cheerful'.
Glazunov openly admits his homage to Schumann and Chopin, but the score reveals other influences, which make the series of variations into a veritable interweaving of memories. If the saxophones' sonority leads the composer, quite naturally and freely, to Americanise the arpeggios in the first movement, it leaves intact its source of inspiration which is the prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold. The composer had already evoked the latter through a quartet by Brahms in the first movement of his Opus 51 No. 1: we find the same unfolding of horizontal writing from low to high, gradually supported by chromaticism and rhythmic diminutions. In the canzona we find, barely concealed, a religious piece from the past, with its modal simplicity. The saxophones evoke the deep, strong, gruff voices of Orthodox chant. Then two 'cantors', the alto, then the baritone - reminders perhaps, in the fullness of their legato, of Belyayev's viola and Glazunov's cello - separate from the tutti, and the main key of B flat major offers us the B flat A F theme associated with the Belyayev Circle. We then come to the references to the styles of Schumann and Chopin, evoking no doubt his happy experiences in Paris with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Then twice in the lively finale we find tension in a cell borrowed from the Hungarian March - tension that falls just short of obsession. Who is Glazunov referring to here? To Liszt, who admired the talent of the sixteen-year-old Glazunov, whose First Symphony was premiered in his presence on 29 March 1882 under Balakirev's direction? To Berlioz, a pioneer of instrumental colour and an ardent champion of Sax's instruments, who was greatly admired by Glazunov's peers Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the members of The Five?
Thus the past offered Glazunov, exhausted and cut off from his roots, a last breath of life. The past, which gave him his final joys, was the essential condition if he was to go one creating. Curiously, at the same time it was Glazunov who paved the way for the future. For Shostakovich, for example, who used quotation, allusion and evocation to express himself despite great adversity. And for the saxophone repertoire in the Soviet Union, where his rehabilitation (his remains were transferred to Leningrad in 1972) led to the opening of the first saxophone class at the Gnesin State Institute for Musical Education in Moscow, with the aim of perpetuating his works - the Saxophone Quartet and the Saxophone Concerto, his final composition, of 1934.
- Florence Badol-Bertrand (translation: Mary Pardoe)