Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

telling tales

paying homage to the past

March 18, 2012

Composers did not always have the opportunity or desire to take credit for their work. The chants of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, were once thought to have been sung to Pope Gregory by a bird, who brought them straight from the Lord. (Artwork depicts this holy transfer of music.) Surely, no one would credit the bird or even Pope Gregory for having written those chants. And of course, it didn’t matter who wrote them anyway, because that music was for the church, not the glory of any individual. Some later chants have possible composers, but since it’s hard to know for sure, we often use the fuzzy “attributed,” to indicate that someone might have composed something or perhaps just been the first to notate it. Once secular music began to be written down and distributed, the names of composers began to appear on manuscripts. With the advent of music printing at the turn of the sixteenth century, composers really began to get into the business of making music.

Ever since then, composers have been looking back at the work of their fellow artists and paying homage to them in various ways. Let’s say that I am a composer who lives in the 1600s, and let’s say that I adore the music of Renaissance master, Josquin des Prez. To honor him (and his considerable influence on me), I could pay homage to his genius by writing a mass based on De Profundis, one of his motets. When everyone heard my Missa De Profundis, they’d know I was giving a nod to Josquin, and not just from the title, they might actually recognize his tune noodling around in my new music. If I was a composer in the High Baroque or Classical period, I might write a set of variations on a tune from a composer I admired. Writing variations, which was popular for a long time, was a practice that would have allowed me to pay homage to an influence while showing off all the cool things I could do with the melody. It was a win-win situation.

Since the twentieth century, paying homage has taken on multiple new dimensions. “Borrowing” was a term that came to the fore when people like Charles Ives (1874-1954) were composing. Ives often incorporated pre-existent songs into his new music, everything from traditional patriotic tunes, to religious hymns, to pop songs of the day. Later still, the nature of borrowing transformed because of innovations in our ability to manipulate media. Tape compositions incorporated recorded sounds into music, which could then be cut or stretched or juxtaposed in odd ways. Sometimes paying homage was part of the concept, sometimes it wasn’t. But one thing seemed clear: the further away we moved from the music of the past, the more some composers desired to look back, although doing so was not always popular. American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005) was known as a serial composer for a good couple of decades before he abandoned the practice. He turned to a more tonal style, courting controversy, and one of his most fascinating works is a String Quartet based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D. (I’ve always interpreted it as a little something like a tour through music history, with the Canon changing to reflect evolving styles.)

Sometimes later composers have even “completed” the works of earlier composers. Probably the most famous examples of this are completions of Mozart’s Requiem, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death. Mozart’s friend Franz Xaver Süssmayr finished the work in a couple of months, and almost two hundred years later, more than half-a-dozen composers had taken it upon themselves to write their own completions, with varying degrees of success.

LACO is performing a brand new completion, but not of the Requiem. This time the piece is a piano concerto by Mozart, and the unfinished portion is in the soloist’s part. It wasn’t death that stopped Mozart from completing the work, he probably just figured since he was the likely soloist—-and he clearly knew what he was doing—-that he didn’t need to have that part written out. Timothy Andres, the “completer” in this case, is an accomplished composer in his own right, and he saw in the missing measures an opportunity for invention. He did not write what Mozart could have or would have written, instead he nudged Mozart forward a century or two, with inventive harmonies. Like Ives and Rochberg before him, Andres has spent some of his own development looking back at the past, while still creating new things. This “Re-composition“—-as Andres calls it—-of the Piano Concerto, No. 26, is just Andres continuing the tradition, paying homage to his influences in his own twenty-first century way.

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