Sunday, December 8, 2013
By Christopher Hyde
The DaPonte String Quartet has an intriguing idea for its final concerts this summer, scheduled for Aug. 22, 26 and 29 at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. They're calling it the "Scandalous Music Festival," and it will consist of works that caused a furor in their own day as well as ours, from Ravel, Piazzola, Brahms and Schumann to Schoenberg, Britten and Rodgers & Hart.
The DaPonte String Quartet, from front, Lydia Forbes, Dino Liva, Myles Jordan and Kirsten Monke.
The icing on the cake will be improvisations on a scandalous theme suggested by audience members, with guest artists Jeffrey Goldberg on piano, Joshua Gordon on cello, Lila Brown on viola and soprano Karol Bennett.
Johannes Brahms' music seems the least likely of any classical work to create a scandal, but his legendary rudeness sometimes did.
The Op. 36 Sextet, subtitled "Agathe," employs the notes A-G-A-H-E (forget the T, and the "H" is B natural in German notation) to evoke his fiancee Agathe von Siebold.
After he dumped her because of his fear of marriage, he wrote: "I love you! I must see you again, but I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!"
She refused to see him again, and Brahms felt remorseful.
"I have played the scoundrel toward Agathe," he wrote. The Sextet was his way of making amends. "I have emancipated myself from my last love."
We will never know, unless an explicit love letter turns up, whether Brahms and Clara Schumann were romantically involved.
Robert Schumann wrote his Piano Quintet for Clara, a well-regarded virtuoso. Later in life, tired of being "Mr. Clara Schumann" and perhaps sensing Clara's attachment to Brahms, he panned her performance of the Quintet, saying, "Only a man can understand it."
Arnold Schoenberg's string sextet "Verklaerte Nacht" is based on a poem in which a woman confesses to her husband that she is pregnant by another man -- a shocking idea even today.
The husband forgives her and declares that his love will "transfigure" the child into becoming theirs, whereupon the cold night magically becomes warm and bright.
Benjamin Britten's score and W.H. Auden's lyrics for four "Cabaret Songs" were inspired by the Berlin sexual underworld and nightlife of the 1930s pictured in "Cabaret."
Britten imitated the style of its cabaret songs, and Auden captured the decadent atmosphere of the times.
Both were homosexual, also a scandal in days not so long ago.
Maurice Ravel's "Chansons Madecasses" sets erotic love poetry by third-world poets to music to point up what he considered the sexually repressed prissiness of American high society. It caused a riot at its 1926 Washington premiere.
Although tame by today's standards, it still is seldom performed in the U.S. Americans, even today, are easily scandalized. (See: Wardrobe malfunctions.)
In the first version of Rodgers & Hart's "Pal Joey," Hart's lyrics for "Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered" read: "Horizontally speaking, he's at his very best," and "Vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can be oversexed again."
Needless to say, they were changed hurriedly.
Astor Piazzolla's transformation of the tango, a dance of Argentinian brothels and seamen's bars, into an art form created a scandal in its day, like the waltz before it.
An aristocratic lady complained of the waltz being danced at court balls. Asked where it should be danced, she replied: "In bed."
I feel a little nostalgic for scandals such as these, or the riotous reception of Stravinski's "Rite of Spring."
At least people cared deeply about their art forms.
Tickets for each concert cost $25. Admission is free for those under age 21. For more information, visit daponte.org or call 633-4333.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org