About this Recording
8.223888 - MAY: String Quartet / FLEISCHMANN: Piano Quintet
English 

Frederick May (1911 - 1985)

Frederick May (1911 - 1985)

String Quartet in C Minor

 

Aloys Fleischmann (1910 - 1992)

Piano Quintet

 

Those writing music in Ireland in the first decades after independence 1922 were faced with a central question: to answer the ascendant inclination to be insular and produce a music that could be acclaimed unambiguously as Irish or to embrace the wider artistic tradition that paid no heed to shifting political boundaries. Two of those who argued for the latter course are presented here on this recording of Irish chamber music written in the 1930s. This was not an easy time to ply one's trade as a creative artist in a conservative society with a low level of musical literacy; it is telling that while Fleischmann's quintet was performed within a year of writing, it was over a decade before May's quartet came to public attention. A fuller appreciation of the two works can be had through the simple realization that both were at variance with the predominant mood of the community in which they were written. These contemporaries were standard-bearers and their work is consistent with their prose writings that consistently advocated a more generous cosmopolitan musical life.

 

Frederick (Fred) May was the Irish composer with the most original creative voice of his generation. Although the younger of the two composers represented here, he was the first to emerge with a distinctive creative voice and his quartet was the first written of the two works. May was born in Dublin in 1911 and commenced his musical education in his native city with John Larchet at the

Royal Irish Academy of Music and then pursued a primary degree course in music in Trinity College Dublin (Mus. B 1931). His cosmopolitan sympathies encouraged him to study further in London at the Royal College of Music where he enjoyed three productive years of compositional work with Gordon Jacob and Vaughan Williams, the latter whom he particularly admired. The first of his independent orchestral essays, the short Scherzo for Orchestra, was completed there in 1933. Along with other original work it brought him a traveling scholarship to Vienna to write under the tutelage of Alban Berg. That May was desirous of working with Berg and, his attendant openness to atonality and serialism mark him as the Irish composer who most early escaped the insularity that inhibited the composers of that first generation that emerged following the creation of the Free State. May's immediate ambitions were frustrated by the untimely death of Berg in December 1935 and he studied under Egon Wellesz instead. The String Quartet in C minor, his only essay in this genre, was conceived at this period, was completed in 1936 following May's return from Vienna, and remains one of his finest achievements; it is thus an early work and therefore is untainted by the increasing embitterment he felt on his later return to Ireland, where he deprecated what he felt to be inadequate consideration, both in terms of appreciation and resources, for the lot of the creative musician. Many whom admired his early courage and musical vision felt he had failed to fulfil his singular talent when he died in 1985.

 

That studies in London and Vienna confirmed May in his espousal of the European aesthetic is confirmed in the String Quartet. May's approach to composition was singular; his broad canvas reflected his training and he rejected the notion that his work had consciously to signal that it was of any specific national origin; if his writing was to be Irish then it would be innately rather than artificially so. Notwithstanding that the listener will divine here a composite of three self-contained units, we have May's assurance that the work was originally conceived as one continuous movement of some thirty minutes duration; practical circumstances and timely advice subsequently moved May to allow a short recuperative break between the second and final movements. According to the composer's pragmatic note this was:

 

to give the listeners a rest and to give the players an opportunity to re-tune their instruments should they feel it necessary.

 

The quartet medium is by nature an intimate form and has attracted creative attention for that very reason. The introspective and personal mood of May's work is consistent with this tradition but in addition, and according to the composer's testimony, is a reflection of the realisation that oto-sclerosis would occasion progressive deafness for the remainder of his life. The quartet opens with a dramatic and ambitious unison that suggests a serial approach in presenting all twelve notes within the first three bars. The concentration on the semitonal scale is employed as a unifying feature as are repeated rhythmic patterns. The first lyrical theme is introduced jointly in second violin and viola after seventeen bars and is characteristically discursive in that it is essentially an extended and varied exposition of a brief idea. The broader scope gives way to a return to a further examination of the semitone interval which leads to an energetic fugal idea based on gradually widening intervals which had its genesis in the accompaniment to the first theme. The period concludes with an extended coda that leads to a soaring lark-like first violin that abruptly descends in what May with biographical significance has suggested might be considered the enclosing darkness of fate.

 

Parallels with the atonal approach adopted by Berg in his early Op. 3 String Quartet (1903) are apparent in the succeeding Impetuosamente that takes the place of a traditional scherzo. The focus on close intervals is set on this occasion over a steadying tonic pedal in cello. The central slower section with wide expressive leaps was suggested to May by the death of Berg which occurred while May was at work on the quartet. A fast conclusion leads to the final period, the Lento espressivo, which was the first section of the quartet to be written. The semitonal focus is confirmed in a permanent shift to C sharp minor and the ensuing diatonic flavour of the opening lyrical theme with its imitative entries confers a sense of resignation and even of peace hitherto absent from the work. Again May's testimony suggests that the serene close might subconsciously have been prompted by the line from Goethe:

 

Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.

 

Aloys Fleischmann was born in Munich in 1910 to German parents who settled in Cork and who as a family were to make a telling contribution to music in Ireland. The rejection of the dominant insular approach to matters musical was undoubtedly a factor of a schooling divided between Munich and Cork. Like May, Fleischmann embraced a broader vision, certainly in his early career, but he differed from May in that his path was smoother, succeeding to the chair of music in University College, Cork, at the tender age of twenty-four and remaining there as a pillar of the establishment and powerful advocate for a pluralist musical approach. His energetic championing of music especially in Cork meant that he was but an occasional composer; yet the quality of his work affirms that this was a valued area of vocation. He died in Cork in 1992.

 

The Piano Quintet is an early work written in 1938 some two years after the completion of May's quartet. It was first given in April of the following year in Cork by the Kutcher String Quartet with the composer's mother Tilly, a formidable and influential figure in her own right, on pianoforte. As with other of Fleischmann's early work, this is eclectic with a range of echoes from Stanford to Delius; this diverse approach is also evident in the variety of compositional device employed in the course of the piece. Conversational throughout, it is structured in four movements with a gentle Allegretto opening with initial octave leaps in first violin leading simply from dominant to tonic of the home A minor tonality. This closes securely after 34 bars on an open A chord and leads from there to a succession of moods, from a gentle Andante with a lyrical violin melody to a thickly layered central Impetuoso that again presents the unifying octave leaps. The Allegro scherzando shifts for contrast to a tonal centre of D and its rhythmic character is fashioned from the contrasting shifts of metre from three to two. The ensuing Allegretto is both playful and liquid with simple accompaniment. The final Allegro malto introduces a theme in viola that owes much to the opening of the work. The sectional outlook is equally apparent here in the succession of fugato, lyrical melody of Irish character, and return to the opening theme set high in first violin. The turn to the major mode is but momentary before the quintet concludes in the home minor.

 

Fleischmann's penchant for shifting harmonies by semitones, while apparent, is always within a tonal context that contrasts with May's approach in the quartet. The variation principle employed gives rise to a sectional feel with continuing shifts in tempo and metre and yet the economic approach to thematic material and central axis of A minor ensures the unity of the work. While the work is not indentured to a specifically Irish programme, the linear writing and character of the initial variations invoke a distinctive spirit of place far more readily than does the May quartet. This can be heard in the first movement in the Quasi recitativo section where viola and cello combine to ruminate in an unmistakably Irish accent over held dissonance in the piano. In this respect Fleischmann's approach is at some philosophical remove from that of May: in more willingly turning inward with a linear design that is unmistakably Irish, he proposes consciously to represent the Irish condition; his goal was ever to forge the universal without repudiating the particular.

 

@ 1995 Joseph J. Ryan

 

 


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