Ramal is the name of one of sixteen pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meters used in classical Arabic poetry. Each of these poetic meters is comprised of multiple variations of the verb فعل (fa’al), which means ‘to do’. These variants of fa’al are constructed by combining a series of unaccented [o] and accented [/] syllables.
The variation of the ramal poetic meter used in this work follows this pattern:
فاعلاتن فاعلن فاعلاتن فاعلاتان
as symbol (read left to right):
/o//o/o – /o//o – /o//o/o – /o//o/oo
as musical meter:
7/8 5/8 7/8 8/8
This poetic meter is used as a structural framework throughout the work. The opening section expands the metric cycle by gradually adding rests to each measure, while the closing section contracts by gradually removing the added rests. The middle, and largest, section of the piece develops the rhythmic and melodic motifs with contrasting moods that range from intimate and reflective to declamatory and strident. Although the work is not programmatic in its design, its emotional drive and changing meters reflect the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria. Despite all this, there is a tone of defiance in Ramal. Dedicated to the memory of Edward Said, Ramal is inspired by his steadfast determination to speak truth to power.
Death and Transfiguration,
Op. 24, TrV 158
It is difficult, indeed, to think of a composer more possessed of an overweening ego than that of Richard Strauss (other than that of Wagner, that is). Thankfully, his was not malicious, and was to some degree justified. Strauss is almost unique in that his long life (unlike that of, say, Verdi) spanned remarkable changes in musical style, not to speak of world history. He is known both as a master of late romantic symphonic style in his large tone poems for orchestra, composed mostly in the late 1880’s and 90’s, and also for his modern, often strikingly dissonant operas of the twentieth century. On the one hand his operas can still seem jarringly challenging–witness the sordidness of Salome (1905) with its lust, incest, decapitation, and necrophilia (including the controversial total nudity in the “Dance of the Seven Veils at the Metropolitan Opera, not long ago). On the other, few musical compositions are more beautifully romantic and serenely appealing than the Four Last Songs (all of which treat the graceful acceptance of death after a long and rich life) that he wrote in 1948, the year before his death.
Death and Transfiguration is a tone poem, a genre whose creation was largely spearheaded by Bedřich Smetana (composer of the opera, The Bartered Bride) and Franz Liszt. The musical premise is simple–write a single movement composition for orchestra that tells a story about something in the “real” world. The “stories” of Strauss’s tone poems vary: MacBeth; Don Quixote; the escapades of a medieval scamp; the life of an anonymous hero (read Strauss, himself, some would say); climbing a mountain in the Alps; and a musical depiction of several of the subsections of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.
Strauss was a master of writing for the orchestra. He knew exactly how to extract the most from its instrumental resources–so much so that generations of players complained of the “difficulty” of his works. He thought nothing of depicting the silverware on his breakfast table or the sheep in Don Quixote. All of his music is a challenge to perform, but players now love to do so. The young composer started his active career as a composer somewhat in the relatively conservative style of Brahms and others. But, around the middle of the 1880s he, at the encouragement of his friend, the composer Alexander Ritter, fell under the influence of the tone poems of Liszt, and composed his first essay in the genre, Aus Italien (1886). Don Juan and MacBeth came in quick succession, and in 1889 he produced Death and Transfiguration.
The subject of the latter is a simple one, the depiction of an old artist, in his death throes, who struggles to live, reviews events in his life, and eventually succumbs and passes into the next world, in a “transfiguration” of his being. Well, it’s not a happy subject for most, but it is typical of the intensity of German Romanticism for a young man to focus on such. What is not typical is that the music came first, and then, at the request of Strauss, Ritter, also a poet, wrote a poem that follows the music and makes clear that which is depicted. The poem—and the music—is in roughly four sections that proceed through the narrative of this man’s life’s end.
The opening Largo creates an atmosphere of life’s impending end, with soft repeating notes that sound like an ominous clock ticking, followed by a titanic struggle to forestall it in the Allegro molto agitato. The third section, quieter and more reflective, moderates the struggle as the dying man thinks of his long and active life—including happier times. Finally, starting softly, the last section depicts the transfiguration of his soul, and his departure from our world. In Strauss’s inimitable way, the main theme of transfiguration—three ascending stepwise notes followed by a soaring leap upward of an octave—begins quietly, but grows and builds in intensity, until in the stunning peroration, the full orchestra, brass filling the hall, shepherds the man’s soul into eternity.
The significance of that theme was central to the life and work of Strauss. Almost sixty years later, in 1948, as an old man of eighty-four, he returned to it. In his beloved, and stunningly beautiful, Four Last Songs—his last compositions, and all of which depict the serene acceptance of the inevitability of life’s end—he employs the transfiguration theme of his youth. In the last song, Im Abendrot (In Evening’s Rosy Glow) as the soprano softly sings “Is this perhaps death?” a solo horn softly plays the transfiguration theme in a “halo” of lush strings. The moment is incomparable and the circle is complete.
–Wm. E. Runyan
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18
Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style. And it is of little consequence whether or not their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics. Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally is to work within tradition and commonly-understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision. Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages. Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy. And it must be admitted, that there a universal prejudice among intellectuals—especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology—that the new is necessary the good. The latest styles are more sophisticated, hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them. This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.
Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as a more or less old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance. His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried. Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement. While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.
Rachmaninoff wrote four piano concertos, the first was a student composition (later revised) from 1896 and the last was composed in 1926 (revised in 1941). The second is by far the most popular, and was finished in 1901, when the composer was twenty-eight years old, and had just undergone a devastating series of professional setbacks that cast him into deep depression. It contains all of the essential characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s style that have established his lasting place in audiences’ esteem everywhere. An unparalleled melodic sweep, the lyricism of which seems to unfold in growing cascades of sound, is coupled with masterful orchestration of rich, lush textures. The composer was a virtuoso pianist and his writing for the solo piano emanates from a mastery of the almost limitless figurations possible for the instrument. Although Rachmaninoff left Russian after the Revolution, never to return, and lived in a variety of places—at his death in 1943, he was living in Beverly Hills—he lived as a Russian all of his life. That is, he and his wife maintained a home with Russian servants, spoke Russian there, and lived with Russian customs.
That ethnicity speaks eloquently in almost every bar of his music, and anyone can sense that from the first ominous chords that build the tension before the entrance of the main theme in the second concerto. The darkness of the mood is enhanced by the simple choice of register for that theme, for it is scored for unison low strings and clarinet, right at the bottom of the violins’ range. The winsome second theme, in a happier mode, is pure Rachmaninoff. The middle of the movement is suitably restless, in a varied tapestry of themes, keys, and textures, leading to a climax, where we expect the usual review of the opening. But, the composer, ever creative, turns things upside down, and we hear quite a different closing section than is usual. New ideas and relationships add considerably to the charm of the movement, as it builds to the inevitable climax at the end.
The slow movement finds the piano ruminating with figurations that leads one to ask: “Where is the theme?” The flute provides the answer, in a delicate solo that leads to a series of exchanges between the solo piano and other instruments in a languorous atmosphere that is now thought of as a trademark of the composer. Even if you don’t have perfect pitch, there is an indefinable satisfaction gotten from the unexpected choice of key for this movement, a rather unusual relationship between E major and C minor.
The last movement, of course, is the one with the melody made so famous during the 1940s in a maudlin pop arrangement. For all of that, this concerto to the present continues to be the source of musical elements ripped from it and used in unexpected contexts. In any case, after a few gestures in the lower instruments, the soloist kicks the movement off with a grand cadenza which teases us as to where the movement could possibly go. The answer is a dynamic march of a theme, snapping along. The “big, lyrical theme” is the contrast, introduced by the warm, rich viola section. Exciting give and take between the two ideas propels the movement along, until the “big, lyrical theme” wins the day, and soars rhapsodically to the majestic ending that only a grouch would denigrate. The years in Rachmaninoff’s life immediately before the composition of this work may have been low ones for the young man, but this concerto is apt testimony to the palliative effects of a good therapist and marrying your sweetheart.
–Wm. E. Runyan