Listening to a summer at Yellow Barn

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yellow Barn invites you to listen to selections from its 44th summer season at The Big Barn in Putney, VT. Click on the link following each selection to find out more about each program, including artist biographies, or peruse the complete season.

On Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen

Friday, August 2, 2013

Stanley Corngold, Writer in Residence at Yellow Barn, offers this comment about Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen (1944-45), arr. for string septet by Rudolf Leopold (1995) 

This past week of Yellow Barn concerts has alerted us to the great topics of citation and metamorphosis in modernist and post-modernist music. Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 opens with the purest citations of Orlando Di Lasso’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and the D-S-C-H motif, pointing at once to Dimitri Shostakovich and to Alfred Schnittke. Matthias Pintscher’s Janusgesicht constructs a musical metamorphosis of apparently independent strings—a viola and a cello—into a single figure, as Pintscher notes: the strings do not merely correspond, they do not communicate; from "the elementary craving that unifies two figures,” the one voice is “resolved” into the other. Now, in Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, we have a major instance of significant citation embedded in an inexpressibly beautiful river of sound, in which that citation undergoes continual symphonic metamorphosis. Strauss cites, once again, Beethoven—the funeral march from the Beethoven’s Eroica, and notes in the score: “In Memoriam.”        

The funeral march is “in memoriam”...of what? The years of Strauss’s composition are 1944-45, on the verge of the Nazi collapse. Whom or what is he mourning? The history of the Eroica might provide a model: the Eroica was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but after Beethoven had learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, he rededicated it “to the memory of a great man” although Napoleon was still very much alive and in power. At best, then, Strauss’s citation of the Eroica, together with the phrase “in memoriam,” would imply his rejection of the Hitler he once served. Like Beethoven—thus the Strauss scholar Timothy L. Jackson—Strauss “buries” and memorializes the still-living tyrant. More jaundiced critics have concluded, with handwringing, that the work is a memorial, instead, to the now collapsing, and thus metamorphosed, once grandiose Nazi regime, Hitler included. But that interpretation makes little sense in light of the very vexatious and even bestial treatment that Strauss and his partly Jewish family received at the hands of the Nazis. This “bestiality” is finally explicit in Strauss’s diary entry in early 1945, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

The word and thing “bestiality” will take us some distance into the conceptual background of Metamorphosen. According to Jackson, the key text present to Strauss’s mind at the time of the composition of this piece was a short poem of Goethe titled “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No one will know himself):

Niemand wird sich selber kennen,
Sich von seinem Selbst-Ich trennen;
Doch probier er jeden Tag,
Was nach außen endlich, klar,
Was er ist und was er war,
Was er kann und was er mag.

(No one will know himself,
detach himself from the ego of his self;
still [let him] test everyday,
what outwardly, finally, clearly,
what he is and what he was,
what he can do and what he may do.)

The act of penetrating deep into oneself might be supposed to induce a metamorphosis in the nature of the ego that probes. True, but the pessimistic title of the poem suggests the elusiveness of the final metamorphosis. The negative reading leads to a view of the entire “argument” of Strauss’s Metamorphoses as negative: again, according to Jackson, the metamorphosis in the process of the piece conveys the idea of a downward spiral to bestiality. The Eroica quote is then a mournful comment on the human inclination to war, the eternal repetition of man’s metamorphosis, à la Ovid, into a beast. The piece ends in irresolution, in despair.

But just as the Goethe poem does not exclude the possibility of a redemptive self-knowledge, the wholly negative reading of Metamorphosen is one-sided and an imposition. The topic of redemptive metamorphosis appears repeatedly in the German intellectual tradition, especially in other poems of Goethe—arguments that flowed through the veins of this highly literate composer. If, in Ovid, conscious beings are transformed into plants and animals, in Goethe’s great elegy “The Metamorphosis of the Plants” and the epic fragment “The Metamorphosis of the Animals,” the growth of plants and animals shares in “the secret law” that brings about the fulfillment of mutual love and moral intelligence. The poem “No one will know himself” states the impossibility, for now, of self-transformation, but urges that one try! Other poems by Goethe—very many—celebrate its necessity, at its finest in Goethe’s famous “Selige Sehnsucht” (Blessed yearning). The last quatrain reads:

Und so lang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und Werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

(And so long as you do not have
This:  Die and be reborn!
You are but a gloomy guest
On the dismal earth.)

“Stirb und werde”—“Die and be reborn!” If Goethe’s dictum was well known to Strauss, so was Hofmannsthal’s general imperative in a letter sent during their collaboration on Ariadne. “Live on, get over it, transform yourself, surrender the unity of the soul, and still keep oneself intact in the metamorphosis, remain a human being and not sink to the level of the beast without memory.”

Greatly to Strauss’s credit, in 1935, he wrote to Stefan Zweig: “Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German?’ Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.” It is nice to recall that early on, he spoke on behalf of the “bold harmonies and assurance of style” of the talented wunderkind Erich Wolfgang Korngold!

Metamorphosen is a product of the Late Style—as such less “the resolution of a lifetime’s artistic endeavor” than a work “rife with contradiction and almost impenetrable complexity.”  It is an immense privilege to hear it performed with illuminating precision by seven, indeed, impressively talented, impressively devoted scholar-musicians. 

Find out more about Yellow Barn's performance of Metamorphosen on August 3, 2013

On Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op.132

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stanley Corngold, Yellow Barn's Writer in Residence, offers these remarks about Beethoven's Op.132:

When I was in high school, many years ago, my brother Noel, who was to become an eminent physicist, was commuting from our home in Brooklyn to Columbia University. His new status as an undergraduate brought about an immediate increase in literacy in our household. Noel read the required Great Books on the subway, books that he then brought home, thinking it would do me no harm to add a title or two to my Lafayette High School reading list, which consisted of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, a much abridged Macbeth, and Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag—the last named not an obvious choice of required reading for incipient Brooklyn policemen, firemen, and meter-readers, since it described the struggle of Norse Calvinists on the windy plains of North Dakota.

In this way, a copy of Aldous Huxley's novel Point Counterpoint came into my hands, with some far-reaching consequences. In a remarkable scene, one Maurice Spandrell, a nihilist out of Dostoyevsky, invites Mark Rampion, a D.H. Lawrence knockoff, to listen to a gramophone recording of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132. The third movement is prefaced with the words, "A Sacred Song of Thanks to God, on the Recovery [of My Health], in the Lydian Mode." "You can't understand anything until you have heard it," Spandrell declares. "It proves all kinds of things—God, the soul, goodness—unescapably. It's the only real proof that exists; the only one, because Beethoven was the only man who could get his knowledge over into expression."

Spandrell proceeds to accompany the performance with instructions to his skeptical listener. "Here's the beginning of the slow movement," he notes, as the melody starts to unfold.

The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air...It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure, and crystalline..., a counterpoint of serenities, ...the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep...The beauty was unearthly, the convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian melodies was heaven.

Huxley, through Spandrell, announces the intervention of music of a "modern" character. "The Lydian harmonies were replaced by those of the corresponding major key. The time quickened. A new melody leapt and bounded, but over earthly mountains, not among those of paradise." Spandrell explains: "The Lydian part begins again on the other side. Then there's more of this lively stuff in A major. Then it's Lydian to the end, getting better and better all the time..."

Huxley's description is sublime but accurate.

The bright heaven of Lydian music vibrated on the air...But something new and marvelous had happened, in its Lydian heaven. The speed of the slow melody was doubled; its outlines became clearer and more definite; an inner part began to harp insistently on a throbbing phrase. It was as though heaven had suddenly and impossibly become more heavenly, had passed from achieved perfection into perfection yet deeper and more absolute. The ineffable peace persisted; but it was no longer the peace of convalescence and passivity. It quivered, it was alive, it seemed to grow and intensify itself, it became an active calm, an almost passionate serenity. The miraculous paradox of external life and eternal repose was musically realized...

They were silent again. The music played on, leading from heaven to heaven, from bliss to deeper bliss. Spandrell sighed and shut his eyes. A touch of discord in the Lydian harmonies gave an almost unbearable poignancy to the beatitude. Spandrell sighed again. There was a knocking at the door.

Spandrell leaves the room to answer it, whereupon three British Fascists, whose leader Spandrell has assassinated and whom he himself has summoned, fire a bullet into his brain. A critic, Chris Schuler, observes, "The juxtaposition makes the crime particularly shocking and reminds us harshly of the limits to what art can achieve." "Suddenly," we read, "there was no more music; only the scratching of the needle on the revolving disc."

The learned and elegant musicologist Scott Burnham recently lectured on Beethoven's quartets, remarking that "with his reference to the Lydian mode, Beethoven was reaching for an archaic sound. And indeed the movement begins with an air of antique simplicity, solemn, prayer-like—as from a world of hard pews and quietly profound homilies. It opens with an imitative call to prayer, and then we kneel."

This hyperbole brings me back to my story. It is 1951. I am now myself a student at Columbia University, and I notice that while studying one of the Great Books, no doubt, it is the evening of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thinking that I already had a good deal to atone for, and wanting to declare my loyalty to my parents, who were intermittently observant, I resolved to celebrate the holiday in my fashion. Point Counter Point suddenly came into my mind, foremost Huxley's suggestion that proof of the existence of God lay not far away at the Columbia University Music Library, where I would find 78 rpms of this divine music. The next afternoon, Yom Kippur, I played the heiliger Dankgesang again and again. It was everything that Huxley/Spandrell claimed it to be, with only a little ensuing violence. I staggered off, metaphysically besotted and unable to work.

It was many years before I heard the Opus 132 again. I cannot say why I waited. Perhaps because it was enshrined in a special place in memory, linked indissolubly to the afternoon of October 10, 1951, to a holy place, to a holy time. But the opportunity presented itself irresistibly sixty years later at Yellow Barn. The splendid Jupiter Quartet would play the entire corpus of Beethoven’s string quartets, beginning with the Op. 132. I drove up from Princeton to be at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main Street, in Brattleboro on Sunday evening, April 17, 2011, to hear the performance. It was sublime. And if not entirely proof of the existence of God, it was certainly proof of the godlike genius of Beethoven. And of a contrary principle, as well—Huxley's—as I will explain.

For, that night in April, on emerging from the (literally) stone cave of the Hooker-Dunham Theater, in a trance of happiness, I walked into...Hell. An enormous building with 59 apartments, Brooks House, located at the corner of Main Street and High Street, was burning into the sky. Everywhere: blazing lights, alarms, fire trucks, firemen, hoses, flooding. I had to think again that listening to the Opus 132 was fraught with the promise of violence. Is it a sort of retribution for a moment of impermissible identification of the unworthy listener with music that, as Rampion, Spandrell's opponent, says, "is too good." "How can anything be too good?” Spandrell asks. "Not human," replies Rampion. "If it lasted, you'd cease to be a man. You'd die."

For Spandrell, violence, the inhuman, the less than human, lies just outside “the limits to what art can achieve." The tragedy is the limits of art. For Rampion, the superhuman, the killingly more than human, lies precisely within the limits of great art. The liberation of the empirical human being from the metaphysical captivation of great art is the blessing of its limits. In this light it would be folly to deny the promise of the inhuman violence that attends the greatest art, of which Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, is the non plus ultra.

Find out about Yellow Barn's performance of Beethoven's Op.132 on Wednesday, July 31, 2013

VPR previews Yellow Barn's 44th season

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Neal Charnoff, host of All Things Considered for Vermont Public Radio, talked with Seth Knopp before the second weekend of Yellow Barn's 2013 summer season.

Listen to the interview

Honoring Stewart Miller

Sunday, July 7, 2013

This summer Yellow Barn honors Stewart Miller, Greenwood’s Headmaster, for motivating and helping to realize our extraordinary partnership and lasting friendship with the Greenwood community. A day of celebratory events on July 20th include Open House on campus, a gala dinner scholarship benefit concert in Stewart's honor.

Ellen Stimson, a friend and colleague of Stewart's, offers these words about Stewart and The Greenwood School:

The School That Stewart Built

I want to tell you a story. It is a story about strength and collaboration. It is a story about shared problems and real solutions. Really it is a story about love. The Greenwood School is run by a kindly ex-Marine named Stewart Miller. He rides a Harley and looks fierce.

Looks can be deceiving.

Greenwood is a place where young men come who have had real worries and dreams and who leave transformed. When they go they will take some things with them that they didn’t bring to school. They will take the skills necessary to succeed in a classroom and to build a life. They will take the confidence born of a worthwhile journey. And they will always carry with them a keen understanding of the strength and power in community. It is the community that Stew built.

Stew says there was never anything all that much different about these boys in the first place. They may have had trouble reading or maybe with numbers. Some of them had short attention spans. There was one big difference though. They were luckier. Their moms and dads met Stewart who told them that he and his teachers knew lots of boys just like them. They had a toolbox full of strategies that had worked thousands of times before. And then he put his big arm around them and told them it could work for them too. And it does.

Because Stewart has built a culture at Greenwood where everyone pulls for these boys. Everyone listens … with love and compassion. It is top down. At Greenwood everyone wants the same thing. No teacher wants to teach Faulkner more than they want a student to love reading. And that’s why this story has a happy ending. Because Stewart Miller? Stew writes happy endings.

—Ellen Stimson, Owner, isabelpratt, LLC

After serving four years in the United States Marine Corps, Stewart Miller graduated from Rowan University where studied literature and poetry. His love for teaching and the great outdoors led him to Putney, Vermont where he has enjoyed living and working with his wife, Melanie and son, Trent. Stewart has published articles and essays and presented regionally and nationally on the topic of learning differences, and he is entering his 9th year as Headmaster of the Greenwood School.

To Make Every Summer a Great Adventure

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Jon Potter writes for The Brattleboro Reformer:

Yellow Barn begins its 44th season with a love letter.

Friday’s season-opening concert includes the "Adagietto" from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, one which the composer wrote as a letter to his beloved Alma.

For Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp, the Mahler was just the right piece to put on Friday’s opening night concert, which is being presented as A Tribute to David Wells.

For the first time in its 44-year history, Yellow Barn is without David Wells, the monumental, sweet man who co-founded the festival with his wife Janet. David Wells died last August at age 85, just a few days after the 43rd season had come to a close.

For Knopp and most of the other faculty members, thoughts of David Wells will be with them throughout the summer -- and always.

"I miss him. Every summer will be his," said Knopp. "David was primarily, almost exclusively, about music. Most important of all, I feel that’s my responsibility, to keep that going. I wanted to continue trying to make every summer, this one like any other one, a great adventure."

"Adventure" is a word that comes up a lot at Yellow Barn. It guides the approach to music, and it certainly applies to the programming. Yellow Barn concerts are famously diverse, with contemporary pieces placed side by side with older masterpieces in ways that invite thoughtful comparison. The season begins with a piece by Bach, who was born in 1685; it ends with a piece by Lei Liang, who was both in 1972.

Yellow Barn's adventurous side has attracted notice from the wider musical world. Last fall, Chamber Music America honored Yellow Barn with its Award for Adventurous Programming.

"I was especially happy that it wasn't an award for programming new music. It's more about the dialogue than it is about Yellow Barn doing new music," said Knopp.

Those dialogues have led Yellow Barn to some interesting, adventurous places in the past year.

In late May and early June, Yellow Barn’s road led to Texas for performances of Gerard Grisey’s 1981 masterpiece "Le Noir de L’Etoile", a piece inspired by the discovery of pulsars, outdoors at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and then at a remote stargazers' paradise in Marfa, Texas.

In March, soprano Susan Narucki and a team of musical collaborators gathered in Putney for residency to work on an opera "Cuatro Corridos", about human trafficking, which will have its premiere in the San Diego area. Earlier in June, during the Young Artist Program, Yellow Barn collaborated with family members of Tuesday's Children, an organization committed to providing support and services for children who lost loved ones on 9/11.

In November, Yellow Barn returns to Dallas to take part in special programming commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The program, developed in residence at Yellow Barn by the Brentano String Quartet, clarinetist Charles Neidlich and pianist Knopp, includes "One Red Rose", a composition by Stephen Mackey co-commissioned by Yellow Barn, Nasher Sculpture Center and Carnegie Hall, which will be performed and broadcast from the Sixth Floor Museum.

All this adventurous programming may seem far removed from a festival which began 44 years in David and Janet Wells' home, imbued from the start with a special nurturing, family atmosphere exemplified by dinners on their front porch.

"What came first was idea of music. These ideas came out of trying to get to a deeper understanding of the piece itself," said Knopp. "Music leads us into the world, and the world leads us into music. ... And that, getting back to David, was how he lived."

Read the complete article