Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 26 (Fujiwara no Tadahira)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 26

Ogura-yama
mine no momoji-ha
kokoro araba
ima hitotabi no
miyuki matanamu

小倉山
峰のもみじ葉
心あらば
今ひとたびの
みゆきまたなむ

if the maple leaves
on the peak of Mt Ogura
could have hearts
they would wait
for the Royal Outing

Fujiwara no Tadahira (880–949)

[Arashiyama, Kyoto]

Nisonin Temple on Mt Ogura (in Kyoto's Arashiyama/Sagano area) is famous as the place where Fujiwara Teika had his villa and where he is supposed to have compiled the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. Verdant Sagano was a kind of resort area (like Uji in Poem 8), with fresh air and clear rapids, a world away from the noisy and dusty city. Many Heian aristocrats had villas here. 

The exact location in Sagano of Teika's villa is however not known from independent sources - the idea that it was Nisonin comes from poetry fans in the Edo-period and has no scientific basis. There are also competitors, such as nearby Jojakkoin or the quiet nunnery Enrian. Both Nisonin and Jojakkoin seem in fact doubtful as they are located on hills and Heian aristocrats usually built their villas on more easily accessible, level ground - probably Teika had his country house somewhere in the vicinity of where now Rakushisha with its memories of another poet, Basho, stands.

The temple itself is supposed to have been founded in 841 by the Emperor Saga (who is also intimately connected with Daikakuji). Belonging to the Tendai faith, it derives its name "Temple of the Two Images" from the fact that it has two main images: Shaka, who enlightens humans in this world, and Amida who takes care of our souls after death.

[Kyoto seen from Arashiyama (Okochi Sanso)]

This is the only poem in the collection associated with Mt Ogura, which is in fact a small, round hill rather than a soaring mountain peak. The present poem also starts the association of Sagano with autumn and momiji, maple leaves, turning away from Tatsuta in Nara which until then had been the classical poetic association for autumn colors. As the emperor still has not made his outing to see the maple leaves, the poet playfully asks the leaves to keep their colors for a while.

A headnote accompanying the poem in the Shuishu, puts the sentiment of the poem in the mouth of the Retired Emperor Uda, who wanted his son, Emperor Daigo, to see the autumn leaves at Mt Ogura. Tadahira then composed the poem to convey the Retired Emperor's will. The occasion was quite famous as it also figures in the Tales of Yamato (episode 99) and in the Great Mirror (Okagami).

Note that the basic situation of Tadahira's poem is similar to that of Poem 24 by Michizane. "Miyuki," "Royal Outing," is also a chapter title in the Genji Monogatari.

[Nisonin Temple in Sagano]

The statesman and politician Fujiwara no Tadahiro was also known as Teishinko or "the Ko-Ichijo Chancellor." Tadahira is also credited with writing the Engishiki and was one of the principle editors responsible for the development of the Japanese legal code known as Sandai-kyaku-shiki ("Rules and Regulations of the Three Generations"). Tadahira served as regent under Emperor Suzaku who ruled from 930 to 946.

Tadahira was the son of Mototsune; his brothers were Fujiwara no Tokihira and Fujiwara no Nakahira. Tadahira took over as head of the Hokke branch of the Fujiwara clan in 909 when his elder brother Tokihira died. He was the father of Morosuke, who in turn was the grandfather of the famous Michinaga. Tadahira's diary is extant, as are 13 of his poems in various imperial anthologies.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Omiwa Shrine and Sake

Mt Miwa, a beautiful conical mountain (467m / 1532ft) north of the city of Sakurai, at the eastern edge of the Yamato basin in Nara Prefecture, is an important sacred mountain, home to one of Japan's earliest Shinto shrines, called Omiwa or "Great Deity." The whole mountain is sacrosanct and entry is in principle forbidden even today.

[The Haiden of Omiwa Jinja]

An alternative name for Mt Miwa is Mimoro (Mimuro), which means "August Hall." Mt Miwa serves as the shintai (object of veneration, or "kami-body") of that shrine. On the western slope is Japan's most ancient road, known as the Yamanobe no Michi, which is already mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection of about 759. Several large burial mounds from the early Kofun period (2nd half 3rd c. - 4th c. CE) can be found around the mountain.

[The tip of Mt Miwa seen from Yamanobe no Michi]

The deity enshrined here is Omononushi (or Onamuchi), also identified with the Izumo kami Okuninushi, the leader of the earthly deities. In Kojiki (712) and Nihon shoki (720), the kami of Miwa emerges as the prototypical earthly deity, or as John Breen and Mark Teeuwen write in A New History of Shinto (p. 71): a violent force that the early Yamato kings struggled to control. In one story the Miwa kami transforms himself into a red arrow and impregnates a beautiful maiden while she is defecating in a ditch (before the advent of water closets riversides and ditches often served the purpose of natural toilets). The offspring resulting from this union with the arrow deity of Miwa became the wife of Jinmu, the mythical first emperor and fictional ancestor of the Yamato dynasty.

[The shrine stands in a quiet forest and is reached through an ancient type of torii: two posts between which a rope called shimenawa has been slung.]

In another tale, the land of Yamato was harassed by a dangerous epidemic and the kami of Miwa appeared in a dream to the then Emperor, the legendary Sujin. The deity declared that he was responsible for the disease and demanded that his spirit from then on be worshiped by a certain Otataneko. When this man was found and started venerating the Miwa kami, the disease was quelled. In fact, Otataneko was a mythical descendant of the Miwa kami, who - in another snake story - had entered the sleeping quarters of Otataneko's mother (Ikutamayori-hime) by way of the keyhole in the guise of snake.

And in one final story, Emperor Yuryaku dispatched one of his vassals of Korean background to seize the Miwa kami. The deity turned out to be a large snake, which cracked thunder at the emperor, forcing him to flee. So the kami of Miwa was a thunder (and rain) deity, who could appear in both human form and in the guise of a snake or arrow. Even today, the offerings at Miwa include not only sake but also raw eggs, because snakes are in Japanese folklore believed to love eggs.

[Ikuhi Jinja, dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi,
the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan]

Otataneko was the ancestor of the priestly lineages of both Miwa, Kamo (the two Kamo shrines in Kyoto) and Hie (at the foot of Mt Hiei in Shiga). "In other words, they were part of an extensive network of intermarrying priestly lineages who controlled a category of earthly deities that threatened the heavenly rule of the Yamato kings with techniques that were at least in part of continental origin," is the conclusion of Breen/Teeuwen.

There existed already an important cult place at Mt Miwa in the Yayoi period (300 BCE - 250 CE); archaeological surveys have shown that offerings continued here until well into the 7th c. The 7th or 8th c. was probably the time that for the first time physical shrine buildings were set up, as happened around that time at many kami cult places in Japan inspired by Buddhist example. The Omiwa Shrine only has a Haiden (prayer hall) and no Shinden (main hall where the deity dwells), because Mt Miwa, right behind the shrine is regarded as the shintai of Omononushi. Behind the Haiden is a triple torii, this time (in contrast to torii in general) with gates (and a fence) which normally remain closed as the mountain is a so-called kinsokuchi or forbidden place. (There is one entrance at the nearby Sai Shrine where pilgrims identified as such and under strict conditions are allowed to follow a path to a rock formation at the summit of Mt Miwa). The present Haiden at Omiwa dates from 1664.

[Sacred cedars in the shrine grounds. Offerings include sake and eggs,
as a snake is said to live at the foot of the tree]

The above mentioned large keyhole-shaped burial mounds in the neighborhood of the mountain probably belong to the first "great kings" (okimi, the term tenno or emperor was only devised in the late 7th c.) of the Yamato lineage. They probably ruled in the second half of the third and in the fourth centuries CE and Sujin, as we saw credited with initiating the worship of Omononushi at Miwa, may have been the first of the line (his real name was Mimaki-iri-biko-inie no mikoto, "Sujin" is a Sinified name devised - as for all emperors - in the 8th c.; also note that the Nihon shoki adds a fabricated calendar pushing the reign back to the impossible dates of 97-30 BCE).

[Sai Jinja is dedicated to the healing aspect of the Miwa deity]

Like the Matsuo Shrine in Kyoto, Omiwa has deep connections with sake brewing: the brew was handed down to mankind by Omononushi, the deity of the shrine, and continues to be offered to him as a way of thanksgiving. In the Manyoshu, "umazake," "delicious sake," is employed as an epithet for the Omiwa Shrine, and the term "miwa" itself was used to designate sake in the past. The Omiwa Shrine holds an annual Sake Matsuri on November 14, when brewers come to pray for a successful brewing season. In contrast to Matsuo Taisha and the Umemiya Shrine in Kyoto, the link of Omiwa with sake is documented in written sources and it was also deeper than that of just a patron deity for the craft of brewing. Deity and sacred drink form a unity, the one is a manifestation of the other. One of the sub-shrines of Omiwa, Ikuhi Jinja, is dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi, the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan. Several songs preserved in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki deny human agency but affirm divine responsibility (through the power of Omononushi, or alternatively, Sukunabikona) for successful sake brewing. The process of alcoholic fermentation must have been considered miraculous and sacred in antiquity. The song in the Nihon shoki occurs when Emperor Sujin has Otataneko worship Omononushi and for that event master brewer Ikuhi has to brew the sake. Ikuhi then sings the following song:

This sacred sake
Is not my sacred sake,
He who brought forth Yamato,
Omononushi,
He has brewed this sake,
Everlasting,
Everlasting.

[Sake brewery in Miwa - Imanishi Shuzo. The brand name is Mimurosugi, or "Cedar of Mimuro (Miwa)"]

Sake was seen as having regenerative powers, even healing ones. That is again connected to the Izumo myths in which Okuninushi figures a a creator deity, who creates the earth ("the land"). In this endeavor he is assisted by Sukunabikona, a dwarf or child deity who suddenly appears from over the sea. Sukunabikona is clearly a medicine god, who also is venerated in the Sukunabikona Shrine in the pharmaceutical quarter of Osaka. After his work is done, he again retreats to Tokoyo, the Land of Eternal Youth. In the grounds of the Sai Shrine (another sub-shrine) is a well with water to which medicinal properties are ascribed. There is here a clear link of sake with "the water of life."

Cedar twigs from the shrine forest of Omiwa are traditionally used to make sugidama (also called sakabayashi), globes of cedar twigs and needles hung under the eaves of sake breweries (and also the Haiden of the Omiwa Shrine) when the new brewing season starts. When the twigs turn brown, the new sake is ready for consumption.

[Otataneko Jinja (Wakamiya) - it is clear from the architecture that this hall was originally a Buddhist temple: the jinguji of Omiwa called Daigorinji]

The Omiwa Shrine was the most important cult place for the early Yamato court, but later it was superseded by the Ise Shrines. Also, when fixed capitals were set up in Nara (8th c.) and later Kyoto (from the end of the 8th c.) other powerful shrines came up in those areas and managed to get the attention of the court. A sort of apotheosis happened when in the early 9th c. the Hie Shrine in Sakamoto was sponsored (and brought under control) by Enryakuji, the Tendai temple complex on Mt Hiei; Omononushi, the kami of Miwa, was invited to this shrine, where he was paired with the mountain deity Oyamakui. Like all kami cult places, around that time also Omiwa was brought under the management of Buddhism and incorporated in a Buddhist worldview, where kami were seen as a sort of lesser avatars of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Several temples (jinguji) were built at Miwa, and remained in charge for about 1,000 years, until the end of the Edo-period.

The Meiji-government had a strict and entirely new policy of separating Buddhism from the kami cult (called euphemistically "clarification;" in fact, as Breen and Teeuwen stress, this was when "Shinto" was created [invented?] for the first time). The temples at Miwa were destroyed; one, Byodoji, was leveled completely, as it was a shugendo temple (the Meiji government particularly disliked the yamabushi priests); the other, Daigorinji, was turned into a sub-shrine (Otataneko Jinja) and here the Buddhist-style hall still survives. The main statue of Daigorinji was a magnificent Eleven-headed Kannon, which at the time of the separation in 1868-71, when countless Buddhist treasures were destroyed, was simply thrown into a ditch. There it was found by the priest of Shorinji, a small temple south of Sakurai, where it received a new home. The once discarded statue now even has the status of a National Treasure! (The main statue of Byodoji, a Fudo Myo-o, is now kept in a small temple near Hasedera).

Thanks to its ancient links with the imperial house, Omiwa Jinja was designated as a "state-funded great shrine" (kanpei taisha) from the Meiji-period until the end of WWII (meaning it was counted among the about 65 major shrines in Japan and its then colonies). Also today, the shrine stresses its link with the imperial family; a visit by the Showa Emperor unfortunately motivated it in 1986 to build a massive steel torii, which is an eyesore on the landscape. But the forested surroundings in which the shrine itself stands are beautiful and allow visitors to catch a whiff of the early kami cult and its strong connection to sake.

[Sources: Miwa - der heilige Trank, by Klaus Antoni (Stuttgart, 1988); Yamato/Kii Jiin Jinja Daijiten (Heibonsha, 1997); A New History of Shinto, by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume I (Cambridge U.P., 1993); Kojiki, translated by Donald Philippi (University of Tokyo Press, 1968); Nihongi, translated by W.G. Aston (reprint Tuttle, 1985); Shinto Shrines, by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (Hawaii U.P., 2013)]

Sake by Region Index

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Best String Octets

String octets are chamber works for eight string players and usually consist of four violins, two violas and two cellos, but there are also combinations of four violins, two violas, a cello and a double bass. One could say that the string octet originated in the double quartets written by Spohr in the early 19th c.; the most famous string octet was written by Mendelssohn, but there are several interesting works from both 19th and 20th c. An octet is of course not a string quartet with the parts doubled: in the double quartets by Spohr we have two quartets set off against each other in a virtuoso way, and in the "normal" octets we have music for eight differentiated string players.

The string octet has a nice sonority. The number of string octets is, however, relatively small. Although there are string sextets, as far as I know, there are no string septets and very few string nonets (probably because this combination is already so close to a string orchestra that it makes little sense). Of course, there are many sextets, septets, octets and even nonets for mixed combinations of winds and strings, but here we will restrict ourselves to string music.

Best string octets:

1. Felix Mendelssohn, String Octet in E-flat major Op 20 (1825)
The original score is for a double string quartet with 4 violins and pairs of violas and cellos. Composed when Mendelssohn was 16 years old, at a time when Beethoven, Schubert and Weber were still alive and active. Schubert had composed his Octet in F major - a work for winds and strings following the pattern of Beethoven's early Septet - only the previous year. This work marked the beginning of Mendelssohn's maturity as a composer. It is a work in a symphonic style, which is immediately apparent at the opening, impressing the listener more as a serenade than a chamber music work. This broadly proportioned and warm-hearted opening movement accounts for nearly half the work's length. It is followed by an Andante characterized by a song-like siciliano. Then follows a Scherzo (played pianissimo and staccato) which seems to point directly to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music, but the inspiration was in fact the "Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania" in Goethe's Faust. The Presto finale is full of energy. The Octet was one of Mendelssohn's own favorites among his works and I think most listeners will agree.
Recording listened to: Octets by Mendelssohn and Raff, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.


[Felix Mendelssohn]

2. Louis Spohr, Double Quartet No 3 in E minor Op 87 (1833)
Spohr was attracted by the prospect of using the richer textures that would result from the interplay between two equal, yet independent, string quartets. The concept of two string quartets sharing the musical argument was gradually developed by Spohr in the four Double Quartets he wrote between 1823 and 1847. The third quartet of 1833 is generally considered as the finest of the series. In a minor key, it starts with a gravely melancholic Adagio-Allegro. This is followed by a virtuoso Andante con variazoni. The third movement is a restless and agitated Scherzo and the Finale eventually brings a mood of optimism.
Recording listened to: Spohr Double Quartets Nos 3 & 4, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Hyperion.

3. Niels Gade, String Octet in F Major Op 17 (1849)
Gade's Octet is heavily influenced by the Octet of Mendelssohn, who had been the highly regarded mentor of the Danish composer. The work was written when Gade, just past thirty, was establishing himself in Leipzig. It is interesting he tackled the form of the string octet before writing a string quartet, perhaps because it was a genre with less intimidating examples; and he may have preferred the flexibility and expanded range of tone color afforded by the larger number of instruments. The Octet is closely linked to Mendelssohn's elegant, flowing style and perhaps because of that, has remained one of Gade's most beloved chamber music compositions.
Recording listened to: Chamber Music by Niels Gade, The Kontra Quartet and others on BIS.

4. Johan Svendsen, String Octet in A major Op 3 (1866)
The Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) was born in Oslo (then Christiana) and studied the violin at the Leipzig Conservatory with Ferdinand David, a colleague of Mendelssohn; problems with his hand forced him to switch to composition which he studied with Carl Reinecke. He worked as a conductor in his native town and also became musical director of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. In his time, Svendsen was considered as the leading Scandinavian conductor. His compositions are not very numerous (two symphonies, two violin concertos and one for cello, Norwegian Rhapsodies, chamber music) and were mostly written when he was in Leipzig, although they should not be considered as student works. As was the case with Gade and Raff, also for Svendsen's Octet, Mendelssohn's youthful masterpiece served as the great example. The emphatic first subject is announced by all eight instruments in octaves. The inventive second movement has the spirit of a scherzo and is rhythmically intriguing. The slow movement can best be described as a set of free, continuous variations. The sonata-form Finale has an angular main theme and lyrical, curving second subject. The Octet is further characterized by its use of Nordic melody, tonal amplitude (often bordering on the orchestral) and bold and innovative rhythms. A very attractive work.
Recording listened to: Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos (with Quintet by Nielsen).

5. Joachim Raff, String Octet in C major op.176 (1872)
Joachim Raff (1822-82) was Liszt's assistant in Weimar and later a renowned teacher and composer in his own right. His music is characterized by well-crafted professionalism. Like Gade, his Octet for Strings shows the influence of Mendelssohn - in the opening of the first movement, after a brief statement of the rhythmically powerful first theme, the answering phrase recalls the scherzo of Mendelssohn's Octet. The two middle movements are in ABA form. The C minor scherzo has a delightful central theme; it bounces by like a fast horse ride. The F major slow movement is a "Song without Words" in all but name. The finale, with its moto perpetuo forward momentum, shows the strongest influence of Mendelssohn. The final coda is announced by a brief pizzicato, before the music races down to the finish line. Raff is almost forgotten - by 1920 his music had disappeared from the concert stage - , although happily among collectors his symphonies, concerts and chamber music have made a comeback. In his own time, he was regarded as the equal of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. That is perhaps too much praise, but he certainly was an impeccable craftsman who left behind great chamber music. Raff.org is a website dedicated to his music, with also a detailed discussion of the present Octet.
Recording listened to: Octets by Mendelssohn and Raff, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.

[Reinhold Gliere]

6. Reinhold Gliere, String Octet Op 5 (1900)
Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) was born in Kiev. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Taneyev and Arensky. Later, Gliere himself became professor at his alma mater; among his students were Khachaturian, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky. Gliere was in the first place known for his symphonies and ballets, but he also wrote excellent chamber music. The Octet, written when he was 25, opens with an excited Allegro moderato in sonata-form - both the upbeat main theme and melodious side-theme are unmistakably Russian in character. The composer displays great polyphonic mastery in the development section. The second movement is an elegant intermezzo with a soulful Russian melody as middle section. The epic Andante builds up an expansive theme, which grows from quiet singing to a powerful climax. The Allegro assai finale paints the picture of a Russian festival; there are two main themes, each distinguished by a colorful sound palette. In the coda-cum-apotheosis the Octet reaches near-orchestral power. One of the best string octets ever written.
Recording listened to: Berlin Philharmonic String Octet on MDG (with Sextet by Gliere).

7. George Enescu, String Octet in C Major Op 7 (1900)
George Enescu (1881-1955) was a Romanian composer, violinist and pedagogue who brought unknown sonorities into Western art music by his inventive use of Romanian folk music (for example quarter-tones). Enescu studied at the Vienna and Parisian Conservatories. Chamber music constitutes a major portion of Enescu's musical output. His epic Octet for strings was hailed as an amazing accomplishment for a young man of nineteen. It combines the musical language of the late romantic era with the emerging new language of polyphony. The opening movement Très modéré is characterized by an expansive main theme. In fact, the thematic material of the whole composition is introduced here: accentuated rhythms, descending chromatic progression, and leaping intervals. The second subject is presented in canonic form. The explosive second movement, Très fougueux, is indeed, as the title says, a massive fugue. Lentement is a beautiful slow movement in the form of a mysterious nocturne. Stillness and harmony predominate here. The finale, Movement de Valse, is a limping waltz which combines many of the themes of the earlier movements and ends in a grandiose classical fugue. As the ceasurae between the movements are not very emphatic, the impression of a continuous melody emerges in this wonderful octet.
Recording listened to: Ensembles of "George Enescu" Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra on Arte Nova (with Dixtuor).

[Max Bruch]

8. Max Bruch, String Octet op. posth. (1920)
Max Bruch (1838-1920) is now only known as the composer of a famous violin concerto, but in fact he wrote more than 100 works in various musical forms, ranging from opera to oratorio, from cantatas to symphonies and from concertos to songs. When he was born in Cologne Mendelssohn was still in his prime; when he died Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps was already seven years old. But Bruch would his whole life be a classical composer in the romantic style of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In the Octet, the last work Bruch composed, the first violin part is more virtuosic than those of its colleagues. Bruch also has replaced the second cello with a double bass. The Octet consists of three movements - the scherzo has been omitted (although the finale contains scherzo elements). Two strong Allegro movements frame an Adagio in the dark key of E flat minor. The opening allegro features a dramatic first theme and a lyrical second theme. The finale is bright and optimistic and ends with a coda.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Ulf Hoelscher on CPO (with Piano Quintet & String Quintet).
Classical Music Index

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Best String Sextets

String sextets are chamber works for six players and are usually written for an ensemble consisting of two violins, two violas, and two cellos, but there also exist rare combinations for three violins, viola and two cellos or three violins, two violas and cello.

The string sextet was "invented" by Boccherini in 1776. The most famous string sextets were written by Brahms and Schoenberg, and we have several more examples from both the 19th and early 20th c. Excellent are also the sextets by Korngold, Schulhoff and Martinu. But the total original literature is not especially large, so we often find as additions to concerts the first two movements of the incomplete sextet by Borodin, or the string-sextet Introduction to Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio.

Best string sextets:

1. Luigi Boccherini, Sextuor No. 5 in D major Op 23 (1776)
Boccherini experimented with the limits of chamber music and was always on the lookout for new forms. One such new form was the string sextet, a combination in advance of the times, which on the other hand also means that Boccherini's six sextets Op 23 barely left an echo in musical history, despite being full of originality. In contrast to the double trios of the period (where instruments were simply doubled for effect), Boccherini goes much farther and gives equal importance to each instrument. He is also able to resolve the problem of four-part harmony for six instruments, mainly by means of a brilliant use of unison, not only in the basses but also in the violins and violas. This leads to a truly captivating sound quality. The six sextets Op 23 are quite extraordinarily beautiful pieces, mostly contemplative in mood. No 5 opens with a Grave for muted strings which features some remarkable and highly expressive decorative writing. This is followed by a vivid Allegro. The Minuetto is dedicated to pathos expressed in imitative contrapuntal writing, but the trio is full of dance-like rhythms. This is capped by a joyous Finale. It is a pity Boccherini only wrote six string sextets; another effort in the combination for six instruments were his sextets for flute and strings Op 16, as well as some of his Nocturni (especially those of Op 38).
Recording listened to: Boccherini, Sextets Op. 23 1, 2 & 5 by Ensemble 415 on Harmonia Mundi.

2. Anton Wranitzky, String Sextet in G (around 1800)
Although little known today, the Bohemians Anton and Paul Wranitzky were key figures in the musical life of Vienna at the turn of the 18th c. Anton Wranitzly studied with Haydn and worked most of his life at the court of Prince Lobkowitz. His chamber music output consists of more than 60 works. In the sextet Wranitzky seeks to exploit unusual sonorities and combinations of thematic lead and accompaniment such as are typical for the rare ensemble music of a sextet. The opening movement is in sonata form and held together by bustling scale patterns. The second movement is comparatively fast moving, using decorated versions of the main theme. The final movement starts with a slow introduction that sets up a faster section of a folk-like character.
Recording listened to: Wranitzky, String Quintet and Sextet, by Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics.

3. Louis Spohr, String Sextet in C major Op 140 (1848)
One of the finest late works by Spohr, said to be inspired by the optimism and exuberance of the "revolution year" 1848. The new medium of the string sextet (it is doubtful that Spohr knew Boccherini, or the meager handful of string sextets written since then) is handled resourcefully, making good use of the sonority of the ensemble, but also exploring the possibility of creating contrasts between different groupings, or treating the first of each pair of instruments in a concertante manner. The Allegro Moderato is characterized by thematic expansiveness, but there is also more delicate work, such as the opening trill that runs throughout the movement. Much of the time, the first viola is the thematic leader. The Larghetto begins with a hymn-like theme. Scherzo and Finale are intertwined; the wistful Scherzo also features a waltz-like section. The Presto finale is full of violinistic brilliance, and capped by the surprising return of the Scherzo, before it all ends in a Prestissimo.
Recording listened to: Spohr, String Sextet etc. by Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos.

4. Johannes Brahms, String Sextet no 1 in B flat Major Op 18 (1860)
This is one of the truly great works of 19th c. chamber music. Brahms probably took his cue from Spohr, as his two sextets were composed only a good decade later and feature similar luxurious textures. Brahms wrote his first string sextet in 1860, the second one followed 5 years later. While the second one is more complex, I like the first one best for its broad, typical Brahmsian melodies. Brahms regarded the string quartet as a "hallowed" genre, just like the symphony, and wanted to thoroughly prepare himself well before attempting it. So the form of the string sextet with its extra instruments to aid with harmony and texture provided an ideal opportunity for him to "get his feet wet." The 27-year old Brahms fully explores the sonorities at his disposal, with the violas often playing in parallel harmony. In the first movement the first cello presents the opening theme against the bass provided by the second cello. The movement is in sonata form with an exposition that ends with the suggestion of a Viennese waltz. The following Andante is a set of variations on a theme of a noble character, the most famous movement of the sextet. The Beethovian Scherzo is concise and vigorous and the main theme of the Finale is in outline similar to that of the opening Allegro. In all, this is sunny and melodious music.
Recording listened to: Brahms, String Sextets, by The Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion.

5. Niels Gade, String Sextet in E flat Major, Op.44 (1865)
The Danish composer Niels Gade was a pupil of Mendelssohn and his teacher greatly influenced his style. The work starts with an elegiac Andante introduction in which the main theme of the first movement is introduced (built on a pervasive falling semitone). In the Allegro vivace that theme is then developed in a passionate way. The lyrical second subject has a winning quality. This is followed by an elf-like, typically Mendelssohnian Scherzo (without separate trio). The Andantino is an abridged sonata form in which the recapitulation ingeniously takes the function of the missing development section. Both Scherzo and Andantino are built from semitonally-obsessed material. The sextet closes with a big-boned Molto vivace, which is based on an idea similar to the one that started the first movement; it is similarly prefaced by a slow movement.
Recording listened to: The Johannes Ensemble on Kontrapunkt.

6. Antonín Dvořák, Sextet in A Major Op 48 B. 80 (1878)
Dvořák's first work to be premiered outside Bohemia, the fruit of a period in his life that he could concentrate on composition thanks to a government grant. It is easy to hear that the sextet was composed at the same time as the Slavonic Dances - it is written in a recognizable Czech style and one of the first works of Dvořák's maturity. The two inner movements are stylizations of the elegiac Dumka (a folksong from Little Russia) and lively Furiant (a Czech folk dance). The first movement is written in the classical sonata form (with three themes), and the last movement is composed in the form of a theme and six variations. The work is typical for its sunny atmosphere, melodic wealth and rich tone color.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios.

7. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Souvenir de Florence for String Sextet Op 70 (1890)
This string sextet (which is perhaps better known in the later version for string orchestra) was named "Souvenir de Florence" because the composer sketched one of the work's principal themes while visiting Florence, where at that time he also composed his opera The Queen of Spades. The first movement is in sonata form and begins boldly with an energetic main theme. The second lyrical theme is the above mentioned Italian souvenir - the only one in a sextet which is mainly Russian in character. The coda of this movement borrows a phrase from The Queen of Spades. The Adagio second movement opens with a kind of slow version of the first movement’s main theme, as an elegant serenade which however embeds a whimsical scherzo characterized by a pizzicato accompaniment. The third movement is an intermezzo that is all carefree brightness; its trio section reminds us that Tchaikovsky had The Nutcracker in his head at the time. In the Allegro vivace finale, a theme of folklore character is subjected to various kinds of treatment, including an unexpected fugato just before the coda. Like other chamber music by Tchaikovsky, this sextet evidences more naturalness and geniality than many of his large-scale compositions with their over-the-top emotionalism.
Recording listened to: Yong Quartet on Telarc (with complete string quartets).
Also on Youtube in a performance at the Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival Utrecht.

8. Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night"), Op 4 (1900)
Another work that is often heard in a version for string orchestra, but that started life as chamber music. The one-movement string sextet was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, which describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. It ends with the man's bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman. The poem as well as Schoenberg's music were shocking for their time: filled by a new, anti-bourgeois sexual morality as well as the idea of an all-conquering Eros that shuns every convention. Schoenberg was not yet in his Twelve-tone period, but the sextet is written in a highly advanced harmonic idiom, with a rich chromaticism (deriving from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) and frequent use of musical phrases which undermine the metrical boundaries. The sextet follows the poem's structure, which consists of five stanzas of differing length; it is in fact based on a rondo-like ABACA pattern, with the recurring A section representing the moonlit walk, the B section the woman's confession and the C section the man's noble reply.
Recording listened to: Leipziger Streichquartett on MDG (with 3rd string quartet). 

9. Hakon Børresen, String Sextet in G Major Op. 5 (1901)
Hakon Børresen (1876-1954) was born in Copenhagen and studied with Johann Svendsen at the Royal Danish Conservatory. His String Sextet was dedicated to Edvard Grieg, who spoke highly about it. Borresen was a conservative composer who remained firmly steeped in a romantic / post-romantic musical language, mostly based on Brahms. The Allegro moderato, ma energico, opens with an energetic, Nordic-sounding main theme. It is followed by a genial scherzo and an introspective Adagio characterized by very long-lined melodies. The finale is again a big-boned movement in a Nordic style.
P.S. There exist several more string sextets by little known Nordic composers, as Ölander and Norman.
Recording listened to: Copenhagen Classic on CPO (with 2nd string quartet).

10. Reinhold Gliere, Third Sextet Op 11 (1905)
Gliere dedicated his Third Sextet to Mitrofan Belaiev, a great patron of music and also music publisher; many of Gliere's chamber music works premiered during the musical gatherings Belaiev organized every Friday. In the Third Sextet Gliere tried to capture the musical preferences of Belaiev (which were also his own): welding Moscow's tradition of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev with the Petersburg composer group The Five, in serene and positive music. The opening Allegro is light and folksy in character, reminding one of Borodin. The Larghetto is filled with heartfelt lyricism, an instrumental cantilena as emotionally charged as a human voice. The third movement, Allegro, is a quintessential Russian scherzo with its juxtaposition of contrasting themes. The final Allegro vivace returns to the festive mood of the first movement. Its colorful, full-bodied palette approximates the orchestral level. A sextet that abounds in fascinating ideas.
Recording listened to: Berlin Philharmonic String Octet on MDG (with Octet by Gliere).

11. Max Reger, String Sextet in F major Op 118 (1911)
Reger had firmly promised the String Sextet for the Gewandhaus Chamber Music of March 1911, but the composer found the filling of this obligation to be a hard task: Reger rejected whole measures and composed them again. In October 1910 he destroyed almost the complete first movement. By November he was still far away from finishing, and he had to work even during the Christmas holidays to complete the sextet in time. But at the premiere on March 12, Reger was enthusiastically celebrated: while striving for orchestral sound, he still remained within the framework of chamber music. The first movement, Allegro energico, is robust and rough hewn. In the second movement, Vivace, we find an effective alternation of dramatic and quiet sections. The third movement, Largo con grand espressione, features a deeply moving chorale. The finale, Allegro commodo, is again full of commotion and dramatic contrasts.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Villa Musica on MDG (with Clarinet Quintet)

12. Erich Korngold, String Sextet Op 10 (1916)
Korngold’s finest chamber work and a direct descendant of the sextets of Brahms. The luxurious sextet combines the melodic sweetness of late German romanticism with flecks of dissonance and moments of anxiety - making it sound quite modern. It encompasses an astonishing range of moods within its four-movement scheme. Korngold’s operatic talent is foreshadowed in the lyrical and romantic first subject of the opening Allegro. A calmer melody serves as the second theme. The second movement broods in melancholy. The delightful waltz-like third movement intermezzo contains a variation on a theme from Korngold's Sinfonietta in B Major. In the exuberant Presto finale we find some exotic, Bartokian-sounding elements.
Recording listened to: The Flesch String Quartet on ASV (with 3rd string quartet).

13. Erwin Schulhoff, Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos (1920-24)
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Jewish Czech composer, who was born in Prague, and who studied in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. In Leipzig he was taught by Max Reger, who guided him towards a neo-classical style. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s Schulhoff allied himself to the left-wing avant-garde. The Nazis arrested him in 1939; three years later he died in the Wulzburg concentration camp in Bavaria. The fist movement of the string sextet reveals the influence of Schoenberg, although the music is not consciously atonal. It is however strongly chromatic and demonstrates a deeply depressive emotional state. The second movement is a long-breathed cantilena. This is followed by a tempestuous burlesca, fiendishly difficult to play. The last movement is a despondent Molto adagio. "A rough-hewn work of deep brooding fearfulness," as the Hyperion sleeve notes put it.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios. 
Also on Youtube in a performance at the Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival Utrecht.  

14. Julius Roentgen, Sextet in G Major (1931)
Of Roentgen's substantial output of 650 works, 100 were composed after his retirement to Bilthoven, in the last seven years of his life. Julius Roentgen often wrote chamber music for performance at home, by himself with his family (his sons were professional string players) and musical visitors (these included such luminaries as Grieg and Pablo Casals). As he wrote for private entertainment, Roentgen didn't try to break new ground - this String Sextet, too, is not a work that one would ever associate with the sound world of the 1930s. But it is full of energy and drama; it also possesses a brevity and concision that invest it with a serenade-like charm. It is in four short movements, of which the third is in variation style.
Recording listened to: Julius Roentgen, Chamber Music, Arc Ensemble, on RCA Red Seal.

15. Bohuslav Martinů, Sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos (1932)
Written astonishingly quickly, in just a week. The sextet displays the "progressive tonality" that would be characteristic for the mature works by Martinu. There are three movements: the first Allegro poco moderato is preceded by a short Lento; this is followed by an Andantino which encloses a scherzo; and the work concludes with a short Allegretto poco moderato. A very vital work, that is a real string sextet and not a quartet with two extra instruments.
Recording listened to: The Raphael Ensemble on Helios.
Classical Music Index

Friday, June 2, 2017

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 25 (Fujiwara no Sadakata)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 25

na ni shi owaba
Ausakayama no
sanekazura
hito ni shirarede
kuru yoshi mo gana

名にしおはば
逢坂山の
さねかづら
人にしられで
くるよしもがな

if its name is true,
"come sleep vine" of "Meeting Slope Hill,"
isn't there some way
without anyone knowing
that it can reel me in to you?

Fujiwara no Sadakata (873–932)


[Marker of "Meeting Slope"]

"Osakayama" does not refer to Osaka, but points again at the "Ausaka" or "Meeting Slope" on the highway between present-day Kyoto and Otsu, which also figures prominently in poem 10.

Sanekazura is a specific Japanese plant, "Kadsura Japonica." It has deep green, glossy leaves and is cultivated as an ornamental plant in gardens. Extract from this plant is also used for traditional Japanese washi paper making. In our poem only its rope-like quality is alluded to, its ability to "pull" the poet towards his beloved. There is however a second sly allusion here: the name of the plant starts with the elements "sa ne" which can also mean "come, sleep!," so this becomes a rather open declaration of the poet's intention.

"Kuru" in the last line means "to come," but is a homonym with another kuru which means "to reel in."

There is a head-note attached to the poem which reads "Sent to a woman's house." It was usual to attach poems sent to others to some object, as a flower, and in this case the poem was probably attached to an actual piece of the Kadsura Japonica vine.

Although some commentators / translators interpret the last line in the sense that it is the poet who is "reeling in" his beloved, like a vine, in the actual Heian situation that was impossible. As we saw in earlier poems, women of status kept separate residences where they were visited not only by lovers, but even by their husbands; aristocratic women were quite immobile and never left their houses, certainly not for trysts - the only exception were pilgrimages to Kannon temples.

Fujiwara no Sadakata, also known as Sanjo Udaijin or Sanjo Minister of the Right, was the son of Fujiwara no Takafuji, and the cousin and father-in-law of Fujiwara no Kanesuke (poem 27). His son Asatada was also a poet (see poem 44).

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).