The Aug. 17 concert at this year’s Salt Bay Chamberfest at Darrows Barn in Damariscotta promises to be something new and different, even for a festival whose programming is noted for novelty.
Called “Fragments: Connecting Past and Present,” it is a project of the Brentano String Quartet. The chamber festival is one of a dozen or more “commissioners” across the country taking part in the project, which commissions contemporary composers to write new works inspired by fragmentary or incomplete music of the past, from Bach to Shostakovich.
According to the quartet, the project “pairs incomplete works with new compositions by some of our most thoughtful and imaginative composers as if the chasm of time were to vanish. Traditionally, mythical beasts that live in two worlds at once have magical powers. We are hoping for some magic here.
“How fascinating it can be to get a glimpse into the workshop, into the process, into promising beginnings that never grew into fully realized works. And how intriguing it would be to have composers of our day reach back and hold hands with some of the great composers of the past, entering, after their own fashion, thoughts started and left dangling, suggestive and mysterious.”
The pairings to be played at Salt Bay will include “Marian Tropes” by Charles Wuorinen, including fragments of Josquin and Dufay; “Fra(nz)g-mentation” by Bruce Adolphe with the unfinished Schubert Quartet in C Minor; “Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H” by Sofia Gubalina with the unfinished Contrapunctus XVII from Bach’s Art of the Fugue; John Harbison’s “Finale: Presto” with the Haydn Quartet in D Minor; Stephen Hartke’s “From the Fifth Book” with a Shostakovich quartet movement; and Vijay Iyer’s “Mozart Effects” with the Mozart Quartet Fragment in E Minor.
“For a composer, to be tasked with ‘finishing’ an unfinished piece by Mozart is to serve as the punchline to a joke,” Iyer said. “There was no one I told about this commission who didn’t burst out laughing. Perhaps we are all (Mozart’s rival) Salieri, still haunted by those infernal cackles — Wolfgang’s revenge, yet again.”
Although the Brentano project is a good idea that should result in some fascinating juxtapositions, there is little in music that hasn’t been recycled many times, often by the composer himself — see Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli.”
The limitation of 88 keys on a piano worried John Stuart Mill so much that he almost had a nervous breakdown. As a lover of music, he fretted about what would happen when all the permutations had been used up. What with quarter tones and all, he needn’t have been concerned.
Moreover, it is not what theme pops into a composer’s head — from memory or inspiration or chance — that is important, but what he or she does with it.
Nancy Van de Vate and others have written works with a single note, and one can compose a monumental march based on “Three Blind Mice” (Mahler). Another almost universal theme was used by Donizetti, Liszt and Wagner, among many others.
Originality, like pornography, is hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. As Percy Scholes pointed out in “The Oxford Companion to Music”: “Comparable with the music of J.S. Bach is the drama of Shakespeare, who used stock plots and the dramatic technique of his day and yet produced work that the world has admitted to be highly original.”
He then goes on to quote Ruskin to the effect that “a man who has the gift will take up any style that is going and will work in that and be great in that, and make everything he does in it look as fresh as if every thought of it had just come down from heaven.”
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: