Thursday, March 08, 2012

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonata in D minor for clarinet and guitar

This work, so liner notes in Luigi Magistrelli and Massimo Laura's admirable recording tell me, dates from 1941.  By this time Ferdinand Rebay had lost his teaching post during the Anschluss and such accounts as have been provided about his life and times he had a Jewish wife and had attempted to protect her from what was happening in Austria at the time and lost his teaching post. There is no indication as yet what happened to her but that Rebay's music was consigned to near oblivion since that time and that he did not have an easy time of things is about all that could be said at this point.  I'm a fan of chamber music for the guitar but I have already mentioned I'm not a musicologist of the sort who can just dig things up from German sources.  So I shall have to be content to write in as much detail as I can about a large sonata for clarinet and guitar in D minor that took a few listens to grow on me.

The first movement opens up low register octaves on the guitar and a winding, rising lament from the clarinet. This clarinet line is arresting and, for some reason, reminds me of klezmer music.  At first I wasn't sure if I was hearing this and I "could" hear an association with Brahms but as more about Rebay's life gets mentioned it has turned out that Rebay's wife was Jewish so an influence from Jewish folk and popular musical traditions seems possible.  I'd have to leave it to musicologists and others far better trained than I to field that. 

Anyway, after an assertive call from the guitar we get a rising lament from the clarinet, stopping and starting and not quite finding its way until its turned into a second theme in F major.  A crucial detail in phrasing and thematic development for this tune is that at any given point where the melody could resolve the music transforms that apparently final phrase into the beginning of a new phrase that keeps pushing forward. This keeps happening until we reach a pause and begin a lyrical second theme in F major, a kind of happier or nostalgic memory of a happier time than the D minor of the present, if you will.  Interestingly this F major theme doesn't take long to transform into F minor before the exposition repeats. 

When the development comes, after the second play of the exposition is complete the development continues from F minor into C major where the second theme is taken up mostly unchanged. Rebay then takes us into a guitar solo that leads back to the recapitulation and the lament. That Rebay's development section is relatively short is common in sonata forms in which expositions repeat, at least in works of comparable scope by Haydn. Rebay offsets what might be heard as too short a development by adding some development to his themes within the exposition, another technique Haydn often employed.

I have spent quite a bit of describing "what" the notes do.  How the music comes across in this first movement, easily the largest in the cycle, is another matter.  Despite the fact that the guitar is in drop D tuning and could have at its disposal a variety of complex textures and possibilities Rebay invariably aims for a spare, spartan, even dour mood in the minor keys.  Even the happy theme in F major shifts into F minor and seems full of a kind of remorse or sense of loss. This cumulatively creates a mood in which the clarinet laments freely and the guitar, though loud in several places, seems to hold itself back, as though a friend who will not let a friend be held back in giving words to sadness. Given that the work is considered to date from 1941, almost two decades after Rebay's first essay into writing for the guitar this sense of holding back is one of deliberate restraint rather than uncertainty. 

After such a movement the second movement is a striking contrast, a sort of Brahmsian serenade with variations. Rebay, at least in this sonata, could be said to have placed elegance and symmetry over rawness of emotion.  Rebay's work may not strike everyone as unfettered in its emotion. This set of variations flirts with moments of unbuttoned energy but the variations only gradually, perhaps tentatively take on more energy and momentum.

This seemingly tentative moving toward a real climax in the second movement leads to the rough and tumble beginning of the closing Tanz-Rondo. It is the arrival of this aggressive dance movement that is arguably the climax of the work as a whole.  The restrained sorrow of the giant sonata form and the considered contentment of the variation form find their outlet in an assertive, celebratory rondo.  The outer parts of this seven-part rondo are jocular, even droll, while the central section is a kind of reprise of the second theme from the first movement that is now divested of its hints of melancholy and is free to be content without any worries.

But little by little even this theme takes on a few minor turns and dissonant notes and soon enough we're back to the minor key stomping dance. Rebay reassures us that this tale will end happily because in the final refrain we get the theme not in D minor minor but in a shimmering D major that ends the sonata not on a note of solemnity but of triumph. Rebay was probably not composing this sonata as an experiment in the musical narrative of Socialist Realism that Shostakovich and other Soviet composers were finding oppressive but what Shostakovich and others had imposed on them by Socialist Realism Rebay could naturally create within the tradition of Austro-Germanic music that Haydn and Beethoven and Mozart had all helped pioneer. The more I listen to the work in its parts but particularly as a whole the more I find a comparison to the musical narratives of Shostakovich's cyclical approach to string quartets to be a useful point of comparison.  I have other points of reference I intend to bring in later as Chamber Music week continues but let me add just a few more words about this sonata in particular.

I must confess I didn't warm up to this sonata right away. Many of the textures felt too thin and that the music could be more aggressive earlier but this would be to find Rebay's approach to the guitar and clarinet wanting by a set of ideas that are simply mine.  I came to classical guitar after years of interest in rock and pop and some jazz and so Rebay's approach in this sonata did not quite make sense to me the first time or two.  And, to be fair, audio engineering for Luigi Magistrelli and Massimo Laura's recording may not do justice to what sound like excellent interpretations of substantial works for clarinet and guitar. Clarinet/guitar repertoire is not exactly a huge segment of the literature for guitar and so Rebay's works being brought to commercial recording is going to be, almost single-handedly a great addition to the repertoire.

I intend to tackle writing about the Sonata in A minor for Clarinet and Guitar and the Sonatina in B flat major for the same instruments as Chamber Music Week continues here at Wenatchee The Hatchet

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