Friday, October 31, 2008

The Viola as Prima Donna and Other Improbabilities

Another lackluster week. I played a couple of Memos, played in my studio class on Tuesday night, and had a few rehearsals. Other than that, it's the normal eat, practice, sleep, repeat deal. However, I have been reading a book about the history of the Bartók viola concerto, and I was inspired to share this awesomely scathing review the concerto got when it was first premiered in the early 50s. (The title of this post is the title of the article). So here it goes:

The diverse efforts of Mozart, Berlioz, Hindemith, Walton, Arthur Benjamin, "Handel-Barbirolli" and others have succeeded in convincing us that the best viola concerto is one which isn't really a concerto, and that the fingerboard of the viola ought to be cut off, until further notice, at a point to be determined by a Committee of Chamber Musicians, but none too near the regions of the eternal resin. Only thus will the viola cease to lead into temptation. Meanwhile, painstaking musicological research has unearthed the inspirations, primary as well as pre-disposing, which make for a viola concerto. They are precisely four. The first inspiration is that the composer is fond of playing the viola. The second is that Paganini wants a viola concerto. The third is that Primrose wants a viola concerto. The fourth is that nobody, least of all the composer, wants a viola concerto, but that he hopes that once it's there someone will want it, since there are so few viola concertos. As for "exploring the virtuoso possibilities of the instrument," there aren't any, unless you want to change the viola's character, which nowadays isn't at all difficult, though Mozart has done far more in this direction than you with your whimpering and whining viola parts, simply by tuning the instrument up half a tone. If, however, you think that exploring impossibilities will give you ideas, you ought to turn to the saxophone, which offers the richest variety of them; or, since these have been dealt with by Ibert and Phyllis Tate, you might try a concerto for cow-horn. At least this wouldn't tempt you to throw in strings of semiquavers whenever you thought that virtuosity was called for - a game in which almost all modern composers of concertos for the violin family indulge. Beethoven started it, and indeed, with the deepest admiration for the content of the violin concerto, I do not find much reason to consider it a violin concerto. In our own time, the sense of the genuinely virtuosic possibilities of the violin family has largely been lost (for reasons that in my opinion lie ultimately in the development of harmony), which in part accounts for people's increasing readiness to write viola concertos. I personally would propose to every composer who writes a string concerto, including the great geniuses, to re-study the Mendelssohn which qua violin concerto has remained unequalled, and which incidentally goes to support Hindemith's discerning suggestion to Stravinsky, who is not a violinist, that his lack of executive ability, far from being a hindrance, would actually be "a very good thing" for writing a violin concerto.
Bartok's last work does not seem to lessen the improbablility of the viola concerto; even the would-be brilliant semiquavers are all there, in the last movement. At the same time the chief problem of the Concerto, which in places one hardly recognizes as Bartók (let alone the great Bartók), is more fundamental: should this music have been published at all?....If someone told me that I would find Elisabeth Lutyens' Viola Concerto immeasurably more satisfying than Bartók's I should have laughed in his face - which goes to warn us of even our most justified prejudices.

I love this review because it hardly mentions the Bartók concerto at all, and is instead an opportunity for the author to voice his great dislike of the viola. If only all viola bashing were this eloquent! Granted the Bartók concerto has a lot of flaws. But that's because he died in the middle of writing it. It's still a pretty cool piece, and just imagine how kick-ass it would have been had he finished the orchestration and finalized the viola part before he died. Course, this was a review of the Serly version, and it does sound decidedly un-Bartókian at times. Which is probably why they kept the manuscript under lock and key until the 1990s. But since the manuscript became available for study, 2 other versions have been published, not to mention countless others that may have been worked on but not published. The author of the book I'm reading created his own reconstruction! The most widely available new version is the Peter Bartók/Nelson Dellamaggiore version, but Csaba Erdelyi has published and recorded his version in Australia/NZ, but it is as of yet unavailable in the rest of the world due to differing statues of limitations on copyrights. Which is also why others haven't published their own versions (like the author, for example). Anyways, I'm reading this book, and I thought this was worth sharing. Enjoy.

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