Claude Monet was known to have painted the same scene many times over, whether the poplars or grainstacks of his series paintings, or the garden at Giverny, which occupied much of his later life. Composers throughout history have also looped back and re-imagined their writing. J.S. Bach lifted some of his own music from one work and put it into another: the B minor mass and Christmas oratorio have repurposed sections from earlier cantatas. (He would have had a bank of cantatas to draw from as the first years of his Leipzig post required a new cantata almost every week.) Beethoven, too, found a second life for a cantilena from his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, in his opera Fidelio. More than this, Beethoven considered changing the glorious, history-altering choral movement of his final symphony into a regular old instrumental movement. (Not all edits are good ones. Consider the loss.)
The circumstances of reframing for these composers varied. Britten took pieces written in his youth and shared them as portraits of his past, including minor touch-ups, “…when the fumblings were too obvious [and] the experienced middle-aged composer [came] to the aid of the beginner” (Britten). The virtuoso Rachmaninoff transmogrified his own vocal music into solo piano songs, a natural consequence of his skill. A thwarted commission disappointed Ravel, but did not ultimately rob us of these flavourful songs (intended to be part of a larger group), which would be the last he would compose. And Berg, is it truly possible that these Sieben frühe Lieder came from the pen of a man in his early twenties, though they remained unpublished for decades? Whether possible or not, Berg gives us two versions of these wondrous pieces – the earlier paired the voice with a humble piano, while the 1928 publication underpins it with an orchestra, following the pattern of Mahler and Strauss.
So, if the road diverges, choose the path less travelled. But if time and occasion allow you to retrace your steps, the other path has its own joys, to be sure.
Saturday, March 9th @ 7 p.m.
Greenwich House Music
46 Barrow Street
Tickets at door (cash only): $15 general, $10 students/seniors
A program of songs and solo piano music by Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Alban Berg.
Katherine Whyte, soprano; Sung Chung, baritone; Suna Chung, piano