A Librarian’s Choice #3

A Librarian’s Choice #3

The political turmoil and upheavals of the 20th century, with the two world wars and other global and national crises also left their mark on musicians and shaped the lives of composers of this era in unforeseen and sometimes tragic ways. Five works by composers who dealt with very specific, unconventional and personal themes in their music are presented below.

Manuel Martinez-Sobral : Acuarelas Chapinas
3 / 3 / 3 / 3 — 4 / 3 / 3 / 1 — timb - perc - 2 hpe - cél — strings
1907, 26 min
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The work of this Guatemalan composer (1879 -1946) was almost completely forgotten before Rodrigo Asturias rediscovered it and made it accessible in 1989. The composer himself only composed until the age of 42 and then pursued a career as a lawyer. Strong influences of Chopin's salon music combined with echoes of traditional regional Guatemalan music point to a very specific musical background. The "Acuarelas chapinas" are musical scenes of a typical Sunday in Guatemala City, originally composed for solo piano in 1903 and orchestrated by the composer in 1907. The four individual movements take us on a walk in the park, to a visit to mass, to cocktail hour and finally to sunset. The harmonically beautiful structure of the second movement and the lively waltz of the last movement must be highlighted. A very fine example of a Latin American composer who went his own way, detached from the European avant-garde. Interestingly, Martinez-Sobral probably had no knowledge of French modernism around Debussy and Ravel during his lifetime.

Mel Bonis : Le rêve de Cléopâtre. Nocturne 
3 / 3 / 2 / 2 — 4 / 2 / 3 / 1 — timb. - 2 perc. - 2 hpe — strings (divided)
11 min
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More or less against her parents' wishes, Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937) fought her way into the Paris Conservatory, where she studied under Chausson, Pierné and Debussy. As one of the few women composers of her time, she developed a very personal touch in a late Romantic style. She had to publish her works under the "male" pseudonym "Mel Bonis". In "Le Rêve de Cléopâtre", she deals with the mythical female figure of the title and uses her music to reflect on the place of women in society, so to speak. In terms of musical style, this very personal exploration is devoid of any exoticism or orientalism, which was quite common for such a subject at the time. Instead, a chromatically captivating and extremely psychologizing music predominates.

Jean Cras : Journal de Bord
3 / 3 / 3 / 4 — 4 / 3 /3 /1 —  timb. - 4 perc. - 2 hpe — strings
1927, 28 min
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Another composer with a very special biography is the Breton composer Jean Cras (1879-1932), who had a professional career in the navy throughout his life and "only" composed in his spare time. Musically, he was strongly influenced by his only teacher Henri Duparc. Maritime elements play a major role in many of his compositions, including his Suite Symphonique "Journal de Bord", which is a kind of record of an actual voyage he made. The individual parts are entitled "Quart de 8 à minuit", "Quart de minuit à 4" and "Quart de 4 à 8". Many of the notes in the score come from the world of seafaring and reflect different moods at sea, wind, waves and weather. The music is highly dramatic and late Romantic in character. Elegant string melodies rise above pictorial musical motifs and thus depict reflections on the experience of nature in a fascinating way.

Leo Weiner : Pastorale, Phantasie et Fugue (EMB)
for string orchestra 
1938, 20 min
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The Hungarian composer of Jewish origin Léo Weiner (1885-1960) was interned as a forced laborer by the National Socialists during the Second World War and the German occupation of Hungary, and was only liberated by the Red Army at the end of the war. Against this background in particular, it is impressive what a superficial and often even humorous lightness Weiner's music radiates, always dance-like and delicately composed. It is only at second glance that a recurring melancholy and sudden shifts in mood are revealed. In terms of musical style, there are many influences from traditional Hungarian music, and compositional influences from Bartok and Stravinsky are also noticeable. However, Weiner's music remains rousing, as in the Pastorale, Phantasie et Fugue (1938), in which the accessible melodies always take surprising turns on closer inspection. The brilliant closing fugue is based on the melody of a Hungarian bagpipe song.

Bohuslav Martinu : Thunderbolt P-47, Ouverture, Rapsodie tchèque 
3 / 3 / 3 / 3 — 4 /3 /3 /1 —  timb. - 2 perc. — strings
1945, 11 min


The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was also banned by the National Socialists in his home country. Having lived in Paris since 1923, he emigrated to the USA in 1940, with a few stops in between, when the invasion of France by German troops became imminent. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of works, some of which deal with very unconventional themes. One of these is "Thunderbolt P-47", a tribute to the American single-seat fighter planes that helped to end the Second World War. Musically pictorial propeller movements with sixteenth-note figures screwing up and circling around each other in combination with martially increasing brass notes create a very unique sound, the source of inspiration for which is always openly apparent. Between hemiolas and a triple meter, a captivating string melody triumphs at the end. A very personal and special musical thanks from an emigrated composer, which has achieved a certain permanence in the international repertoire precisely because of its very specific theme and not least because of the compositional consistency and conciseness with which this theme is worked through.