Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar--No.2 in D major

Sonata for flute and Guitar in D major

This sonata opens with a broad, lyric theme that gently moves back and forth between major and minor modes.  We can be pretty sure we're going to hear a sonata and Rebay does not upset our expectations.  Theme 1 makes way for a second theme that is a type of inversion of theme 1's ideas.  The guitar has backed up the flute throughout and in theme 2 begins to be more assertive, introducing marching patterns as the flute soars above the guitar. After this languid exposition repeats Rebay begins to mine the minor keys in a development that seems to hint at harmonies and rhythms that would be typical of a work in Piazzola but with a more restrained and refined mood.

When Rebay comes to his recapitulation he gives the guitar a flourish and the flute a chance to embellish the first theme.  It is typical of Rebay that his development sections are generally short and simply wind down before he brings back his earlier themes and this sonata is no exception.  Here what Rebay does that it's a bit unusual for him is to develop some of his ideas in the transition from theme 1 to theme 2 in his recapitulation.  It gives this opening movement an element of surprise even in a very traditional sonata form.  

The second movement is a slow song that takes up fragments of the second theme from the first movement, giving them a bluesy turn here and a dark funereal turn there. This movement culminates in a delicate, somber presentation of its opening theme in a compound meter march (think 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' but with more dirge-like overtones).  After this slow, solemn presentation of the theme Rebay abruptly introduces a short call and response episode of counterpoint in a minor key that gets us just as abruptly back to the opening theme of the movement as a sedate phrase to a coda. 

The third movement is an agitated scherzo in minor. Its central trio is a waltz so cheeky it wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Shostakovich string quartet.  As Gonzalo Noque mentions in the liner notes for this album this sonata for flute and guitar demonstrates a lot of attention to cyclical development of a few core ideas across the entire sonata and we can hear that in each movement.  This scherzo is an impeccably balanced form with the outer scherzo segments swift and agitated in a minor key being offset by a central waltz that's more a fantasia.  Outer stringency is offset by a central segment that's more laid-back. 

The finale is a grand set of variations (that's to say it's a bit more than 10.5 minutes long) that sums up what has come before.  Rebay doesn't do this through anything as literal as quotation of previous themes, which is what, for instance, Shostakovich very often did; instead Rebay employs intervals and gestures that evoke the parts given to the flute and guitar earlier in the sonata.  The flute has a melody built from octave shifts while the guitar has a strolling, marching theme that has intervals that evoke rather than quote the marching gestures given to it in the earlier movements. Rebay is also able to exploit traditional ideas like a parallel periodic structure to evoke harmonic turns from earlier in his sonata without having to be as literal as Shostakovich would tend to be in a finale.  

Here again, we can hear that Rebay is in excellent form handling variations.  He moves through 1) a broad pastoral variation to 2) a boisterous dance to a lilting march that evokes the trio from the third movement to 3) another boisterous dance evoking the scherzo to 4) a solemn waltz to 5) a minor key, slower iteration of the earlier boisterous dancing music to 6) a somber march that evokes the development from the opening sonata that turns into 7) a more agitated march in minor  that swiftly builds up to the finale within the finale.  The finale presentation is a transformation of the theme into a Beethovenian march almost as long by itself as all the previous variations put together.  Through most of this set of variations Rebay carefully controls the end of each variation so that it sustains the harmonic and rhythmic momentum of each variation so as to lead to the next.   

For alert listeners we'll have heard how each of the variations calls back to a gesture or rhythmic idea from earlier in the sonata. Rebay's bearing is so traditional and conservative so it can be easy to underestimate the level of control he put into this sonata precisely because the conservative style can make it easy to not hear what is actually going on.  Rebay's music is conservative in a way that makes it possible to underestimate the obvious, which in this case is how tightly he's controlled thematic relationships across and within the movements of this sonata.  Noque has described this sonata as having a Romantic mood and I don't disagree but I hear a Beethovenian background to this work, particularly as I've listened to it at least a dozen times and considered Rebay's cyclical approach (plus the sonata is simply very fun to listen to!). 

Rebay's music is so conservative in style and form that there's a sense in which, though it was written in the 20th century, it isn't exactly of the 20th century.  Rebay's music sounds as though it could have, in many ways, been written in the late 19th century.  Now for guitarists and listeners committed to progress and to the guitar being at whatever point we imagine the guitar to be Rebay's music can be considered a throwback.  That may even be true, depending on your point of view.  But for guitarists let us consider that Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues have not yet been published and Bach compiled book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier more than two centuries ago. The thing about sidelining work that seems to be too old-fashioned is that as literature goes the guitar has often been bereft of forms and compositional approaches completely taken for granted in other instrumental and performance traditions.   

To go back to some earlier observations I've made, Rebay's chamber sonata cycle for guitar with various instruments began to take shape on a completely different track but during the same decades in which Hindemith began his giant cycle of chamber sonatas.  Much as I enjoy Hindemith I would not hesitate to say that Rebay's chamber sonatas, those I've heard, are easily more accessible and are worth getting a hearing.  As Matanya Ophee put it so many years ago, guitarists who want the instrument to be respected as at the level of other instruments should jump on the chamber music bandwagon and as substantial contributions to chamber music go we're only beginning to get an idea of the significance of Rebay's work.  Is it unusually conservative for 20th century literature?  Of course.  But the Cold War has been over for decades and in some sense the political weight with which questions of musical style and substance got freighted in the 20th century (as discussed at length by Alex Ross, for instance) seems virtually irrelevant to dealing with chamber music for guitar.  

Richard Taruskin has stated that concert music has so devolved into shoptalk that music criticism dealing with actual life and politics tends to only exist in pop music criticism.  That may be, and yet if shoptalk isn't going away in discussion of concert music surely there's nothing wrong with promoting music that is simple, conservative and attractive.  Rebay's music won't be to everyone's taste but I admit I enjoy it and find it rewards repeated listens.  I'll also admit that after decades of hearing the same old warhorses getting played through I think Rebay's music is worth hearing not just because it's worth hearing on its own merits but also because at some point some otherwise fine works can be reduced to what Ophee might call a lollipop.  In alto flute and guitar repertoire it shouldn't even be possible for "Toward The Sea" to become a lollipop and yet that might just happen! 

This is an unusually long review of a single disc and I've been mulling over this recording for months.  Obviously I've been eager to write about Rebay's music and to promote it.  A simple blogger can only achieve so much but I'd like to do what I can.  Belotto and Noque do a wonderful job interpreting very appealing sonatas for flute and guitar by Rebay.  Noque has been working on recording and publishing more of Rebay's work and I heartily endorse his recordings.  Noque and Maria Pilar Sanchez have done a great job recording Rebay's sonatas for oboe and guitar over on the Naxos label and I'd urged you to go get that recording, too.   

For all the times guitarists have considered our instrument a miniature orchestra the lack of enthusiasm for chamber music can be surprising.  Matanya Ophee's appropriately snarky retort to this bromide is to observe how few guitarists have any idea how to conduct.  If guitarists want to be at the same table as other musicians then let's consider the possibility that to move forward there may be some real ways in which we have to move backward, back to taking up traditions and forms and approaches that were so taken for granted by instrumentalists a century ago that the revolutions of the 20th century were possible.  Yet many guitarists actually believe that sonata form and counterpoint are not really feasible on the guitar, or that composing in all keys is passé now that tonality has been questioned.   

And yet, somehow, Andrew York sells a lot of music and people love listening to the Beatles.  I love Stevie Wonder about as much as I love Haydn and though I love Penderecki's music he's a sometime music.  I'm suggesting that if Rebay seems backwards, seems to exist in a musical realm where the 20th century didn't happen, let's remind ourselves that Bach compiled book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier two centuries ago and yet even now Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes for solo guitar are not yet in print.  Think about that for a while.  Clearly the reason preludes and fugues for solo guitar never tended to get written had virtually nothing to do with whether or not they were technically or conceptually feasible.  Rebay as a step backward from musical modernity as we know it is still a step we should take because the leap forward his chamber music constitutes for our instrument will be worth the effort of committing to music that may not feel glamorous to a guitarist but that is pleasing to listen to.  I'm definitely grateful Noque has so committed himself to publishing and promoting Rebay's music and hope that you will give his recordings of Rebay's music some serious attention.


Unknown said...

Where can I buy or Download the Score and/or parts of this beautiful work? I would love to perform it in my upcoming concert. Any direction would be greatly appreciated.



Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I had to do a little hunting around but the score is available for purchase with Editions Philomele

A recording is available by Gonzalo Noque on Brilliant Classics.

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar

Brilliant Classics 9291, 2012

Ashley Blasse said...

Philomele Editions are no longer online. So for anyone else asking the same question I was lucky enough to come across the following website where a whole load of Ferdinand Rebay works are available to purchase.

All the best,


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

on the one hand it's too bad the D major sonata for flute and guitar seems to be out of print or hard to find, on the other hand, all seven of the Rebay solo guitar sonatas being in print is great. :)

Rene, I hope you've been able to find the score for the D major. It may prove tough to find. :(

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Gonzalo has been doing quite a bit of work to make Rebay's music available so props for finding his site. Planning to get back to blogging about Rebay's music again but it may end up waiting until 2015. Got the solo guitar sonatas and here's hoping we get a commercially available recording of the cycle.