Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatina in B flat major for clarinet and guitar

Gerta Hammerschmid may turn out to be an influential guitarist you've never heard of before.  The niece of Ferdinand Rebay, Hammerschmid was the guitarist who inspired the composer to begin writing for the instrument and the Sonatina in B flat major was written in 1926 and dedicated to her. We can surmise merely from the key that as early as 1926 Rebay was confident writing in keys guitarists avoid assiduously and that his niece, though she may not have premiered the piece until 1931, was ultimately not put off by the key of B flat either.
After one has head the D minor and A minor sonatas for clarinet and guitar Rebay's sonatina is striking not just for being in B flat major but also for being relaxed, jovial, and unassuming.  The work is not unserious in ambition as I can attest from observation and musical activity that guitarists do not normally choose B flat without resorting to a capo and will avoid the key.  Though the key can be considered dark and lacking resonance because open strings are rarely called for this Sonatina opens with a pleasant, even bright sound.  We can chalk this up to the B flat clarinet, I suppose, but this Sonatina's first movement is as charming, unassuming and conversational as the D minor and A minor sonatas are grand and serious.  True to the title "Sonatina" the first movement opens with, yes, a sonatina.  The movement is four and a half minutes long so a guitarist would be forgiven for not wishing to prolong B flat and F major too much.

Although the second movement opens in what could be considered the terrifying key of E flat major this elegant, lyrical movement moves into keys like B major and G major soon. Rebay also wisely leans on chords that use open strings to help ease potential strain on the left hand.  It can seem that in many cases it can take a combination of an ambituous composer and a willing guitarist to demonstrate that many key regions avoided by soloists, in chamber repertoire, are not nearly as frightening as many imagine. 

The third movement is a jocular, light-hearted piece and throughout this work I find myself listening to it and thinking of this sonatina as a work that evokes the friendliness of Haydn. If compared to all sorts of works Rebay's music seems conservative, not least compared to composers like Schoenberg or Stravinsky, it is conservative in a way that is welcoming and affable. Given how far and wide composers seeking to be avant garde sought for the ideal in musical effrontery there's hardly anything wrong with a composer of good will and conservative interests creating works such as these. 

Any guitarist who considers the key of B flat major may point out that a piece of music that, as music, can seem undemanding and warm to a listener may present numerous physical and musical challenges to musicians.  That is true, and to that I suggest that Gene Kelly's approach to dance may be a way to consider approaching Rebay's Sonatina in B flat major, the goal is that a great deal of effort should find it's realization in warm and fluid art that seems effortless and is effortless in its expression.

A guitarist may be reluctant to take up literature such as Rebay's in as much as in Rebay's works the guitar is consistently providing a supporting role and does not usually shine in the spotlight but having spent a few months immersing myself in listening to and considering his work I would say that guitarists should champion his work as his chamber works are worth being heard and because their musical value goes considerably beyond the glamor associated with the guitar part.  As Matanya Ophee said in his lecture Repertoire Issues over the years, you must consider the value of the music as music and not merely what you'll get to show off doing as a guitarist.  Whether or not Mr. Ophee agrees with me here I would submit that Rebay's work has been overdue for champions among guitarists willing to play his chamber music for close to half a century. 

Fortunately it seems that in the 21st century we're finally getting and it is good news that Luigi Magistrell and Massimo Laura put so much care and effort into recording Rebay's complete works for clarinet and guitar.  Their CD was released last year and I would urge you to snap it up if you can.  The literature for clarinet and guitar has been greatly enriched by the rediscovery (or discovery, depending on the piece) of these charming and ambitious works.

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