1941

This past summer brought quite a lot of music with ties to World War II Europe into my life I noticed. This week, two pieces that I am preparing for a concert tomorrow –Variations on a theme of Paganini by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski and a piece written by British composer Benjamin Britten in memory of Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski, Mazurka elegiaca.

Two musical works with stories loosely connected emerged from the spring of 1941 as signs of art’s triumph over the hopelessness of war.  Lutoslawski wrote hundreds of arrangements for two pianos, which he and fellow Pole Andrez Panufnik played in the cafes of wartime Warsaw between 1940 and 1944. All of these compositions, except one, were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising and are lost forever.  But Lutoslawski’s 1941 work, based on Paganini’s malleable tune from his 24th Caprice and used by so many other composers (including Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Liszt and even Andrew Lloyd Webber) found its way out of Poland and is much loved by piano duos.

Britten had an entirely different wartime experience.  He chose to leave England in 1939 and was harshly criticized for doing so.  He spent some of that time in California, where his publisher telegrammed him early in 1941 and asked for two piano pieces that would celebrate Paderewski’s long, multi-faceted career.  But Britten misunderstand his publisher’s request and wrote one two-piano piece, which, following Paderewski’s death in June of 1941, became a memorial work built on rhythms of the traditional Polish dance, the mazurka.  In its middle section, the confusion and turbulence of war seem to play out in music, causing one reviewer to describe the work as “a lament for Poland’s predicament: it’s tenderness is tinged with violence, and in the middle the piece seems to hang by a thread.”  But then, peace always hangs by a thread.

There were other bits of artistic news during that year of war.  The National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C.  The film “Citizen Kane’ was released. And Billie Holliday recorded her song God Bless the Child.  With Holliday’s description of its obscure text as a song that came to her after fighting with her mother about money, there can only be speculation that the words are related to Luke 8:11-18 and the parable of the sower, as many have suggested.  God, so this story from the Gospels seems to imply, has sowed the seeds of divinity in each of us and our lives will be increasingly fruitful as we become increasingly aware of that holiness within ourselves.

Holliday’s own sad life serves to remind us that fame and fortune can’t possibly satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.  Real happiness comes when our seeds of divinity bear the fruit of peace and quiet strength.  The biggest lesson of 1941 would come on December 7,  though, when this country learned it couldn’t turn its back on evil any longer.  Peace would have to wait.  Neither the quest for fame and fortune, nor the manipulations of power and domination could make anyone happy.

But if that’s just a bit too serious of an ending for this September day 75 years later, 1941 also brought us the first Curious George book.  God bless the child, and the magic of children’s books!

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. www.chevychasepc.org

Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. We are raising money for The House of Ruth, an organization that helps women and children coming out of domestic violence and homelessness. We will match any gifts made at the concert to support their good work. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.

October 5 – Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, 6:00 p.m., I will be playing on a program with Furia Flamenco and Guillermo Christie

Also in October, I will be playing for the High Holy Days (a first for me) for the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.

Living History

This past week gave me the privilege of being in Canterbury, England as the organist for a friend’s choir during their fourth residency at a British cathedral. Christ Church, Glendale (Ohio) is an all-volunteer choir that has flourished for nearly 30 years under their director, Bryan Mock.  They sang traditional English cathedral music, including Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. And as anyone who has done something like this knows, there is A LOT of music to prepare for a week’s worth of service at an Anglican cathedral. I got to hide out in Canterbury Cathedral’s organ loft, playing the music of Howells and Langlais and Bach, not to mention the anthems of Finzi and Elgar and Sumsion, just a few yards from the very spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170.

Talk about living with history.

Just a year ago I traveled with a different choir to sing in the great churches of France, and where we held an emotional service of remembrance at the American Cemetery, near the landing beaches of Normandy.  This summer I visited the tunnels in the white cliffs of Dover and learned about their role in World War II, particularly the evacuation efforts that rescued more than 300,000 soldiers and refugees from Dunkirk.  So interesting to be on the other side of the English Channel this summer, seeing the countryside where the Battle of Hastings was fought after seeing that story depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry last summer.

As with the Finzi anthem (composed in 1946), the war’s effect on Britain was surely foremost in the mind of Herbert Howells when he wrote the organ piece Master Tallis’s Testament in 1940.  Perhaps writing as the Battle of Dunkirk was waged during May and June of that same year?  Was he trying to recall England’s great Renaissance glory during those darkest days?

I played this lovely piece as a prelude to Canterbury Cathedral’s Sunday Eucharist this week.  It’s one of several pieces that highlight the draw that the Tudor period had for Howells, and he created in this work his own testament to British culture. Sixteenth century sensibilities combine with twentieth century emotions to take the listener (and player) from the courtly to the anguished, overlaid with the British melancholy that colors so much of the music of Finzi, Britten and Vaughan Williams as well.  In fact, Master Tallis’s Testament surely owes much to Vaughan Williams.  An 18 year old Howells was at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival, sitting next to the composer during the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ orchestral piece Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Two of my very favorite pieces are more deeply connected than I had realized:

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams)

Master Tallis’s Testament (Herbert Howells)

So many connections to make. The Battle of Hastings, the murder of an Archbishop of Canterbury, the flowering of English music and literature in the 16th century, the Three Choirs Festival of 1910, World War II, an American women in 2016 (“a lady organist! We don’t see very many of those,” so said a verger at Canterbury Cathedral). A few of the strands that create the tapestry of a life.  Some of the ways to live with history.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

Where I’ll be:
August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 a.m. rehearsal.

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.

Save the Date: Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.