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Once Upon A Time

Thanks to the wonderful Kathryn Bacasmot for providing our colorful program notes! Enjoy:

Once upon a time. The familiar and ancient preamble is something like a time machine; a verbal portal that instantly suspends our personal realities, and launches a mythic journey. We humans appear to have a need for folklore, a need to step outside ourselves in order to become observers of our lives, to have a laboratory where we can work out the meaning of our experiences. Joan Didion, the American author and journalist, made this observation in her book The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea…We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

Many folk tales came from societies where the everyday unknown held a plethora of perils: the terror of absolute darkness, the swift spread of untreatable diseases raiding communities, wild animal attacks, marauders. In our inoculated, antibacterialized, pest control society, where we have immense amounts of information at our fingertips, we have cultivated a false sense of control and security. But, the world is still wild. The inexplicable still occurs. Truth is still stranger than fiction.

Once upon a time places its audience as moderns observing a past, giving us a sense that we’re not alone, that someone else has been here before. Once upon a time isn’t just for myths, but a truth of something that has happened, somehow, somewhere, in another time and place: biography. Substitute fire breathing dragons with the horrors of war, battling villains with quieting inner monologues of self-doubt, rescuing a princess with achieving a dream.

Wistful fantasy and stark reality are two sides of the same coin.

Gideon Klein (1919-1945) :: Partita, arr. Saudek
In 1990, the family of Dr. Eduard Herzog found a suitcase, long forgotten. It had been given to the Herzog family by Gideon Klein before he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in the town of Terezín, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), where he remained for three years before being transferred to Auschwitz, then to hard labor in Fürstengrube, where he died in January of 1945. In the suitcase were manuscripts of his compositions. If he had survived, he would have been able to retrieve his oeuvre. Instead, its contents serve as a testament to the determined creativity and passions of an artist senselessly lost.

His story started out like many others: a young boy with musical promise pursued private piano lessons, and eventually academic study in composition and musicology. But then, at age twenty, the doors started to lock on him. The Nazis closed the Czech universities in 1939, and the following year, Klein had to leave the Prague Conservatory. The Royal Academy of Music in London then offered him a scholarship, but he was prevented from leaving the country. Assuming the name “Karel Vránek,” Klein performed whenever and wherever he could—often in his own apartment, or other apartments of friends and acquaintances.

On December 1, 1941, Klein, along with numerous musicians, composers, writers, and other creatives and intellectuals, was deported to Terezín, where the creative community was instructed to continue composing and performing, since the Nazi’s controlled the camp as a mock “society” as a PR stunt to the world. Under the insane circumstances, a top-notch level of education and performance was sustained. Michael Beckerman notes that Klein “remained active as a performer, serving as pianist for several opera productions and playing in solo recitals such works as Beethoven’s Op.110, Janáček’s Sonata, and Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C Major…chamber compositions as the Schubert Trio in Bb, Op.99, and piano quartets by Brahms and Dvořák. He also displayed conspicuous artistic growth as a composer, completing several choral works, a formidable Piano Sonata, a Fantasy and Fugue for String Quartet, and his final work, a Trio for strings, completed a week or so before he was transported to Auschwitz.”Before his departure, he, again, collected his manuscripts, handing them to his girlfriend to be delivered to one of his surviving sisters, when, and if, possible. It is the Trio that was arranged and renamed, Partita, by Saudek.

Josef Suk (1874-1935) :: Serenade for Strings in E flat, op. 6
If this Serenade for Strings brings to mind echoes of another work by the same name, it isn’t totally coincidence. One of Suk’s most famous teachers was Antonín Dvořák, who was not just a source of musical instruction and inspiration, for the teenage composer, but the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.

Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák were two composers responsible for grafting in and emphasizing Czech folk idioms or programmatic elements into their compositions, and featuring them in concerts of largely German programming. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire strained under the pressure of ethnic groups grasping for more independence, this was not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a political statement via cultural assertion. Their students would follow suit, though it has been observed that Suk’s compositions eventually utilized fewer Czech idioms, perhaps in an effort to stop comparisons between his music and that of Dvořák.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Symphony No. 38, K. 504, Prague
“No piece…has ever caused such a sensation as the Italian opera Die Hochzeit des Figaro, which has already been given several times here with unlimited applause” (Prague Oberpostamtszeitung, December 1786).

“…Figaro’s tunes echoed through the streets and the parks; even the harpist on the alehouse bench had to play ‘Non più andrai’ if he wanted to attract any attention at all” (Franz Niemetschek, Mozart contemporary and biographer).

The city of Prague adored Mozart. When his opera Figaro, which had received fine, but somewhat lukewarm, reviews in Vienna, arrived on stage in Prague, it exploded into a cultural phenomenon—an 18th century “Call Me Maybe.” When the craze hit fever pitch, Mozart was invited to visit the city. He immediately curtailed plans to travel to England, and upon arriving in Prague on January 11, 1787, was swept into a whirlwind of fêtes and concerts, which included a performance of Figaro. It was a composer’s fantasy. In a letter from Mozart to Gottfried von Jacquin written January 15, he gushed, “…people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro, arranged for contredanses and German dances. For here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me!” On January 19, Mozart treated Prague with the premiere of his most recent symphony, no. 38, subsequently nicknamed in honor of the city (a truly special moment in an era without radio, or recording, as it was uncertain if, or when, one could hear a work). It wasn’t the only premiere granted to Prague: later that year, Don Giovanni was received enthusiastically, and performed at least once every year in the city for a decade thereafter.

Why didn’t Mozart invest more of his lifetime into a city that clearly adored him? Prague lacked the glitter and allure of Vienna, as well as the caliber of musicians. In a Europe that still contained few proper countries amidst the smattering of smaller city-states, the wealth that congregated in Vienna nurtured a cultural center that became, and remains, one of the most prestigious in the world. But, it never adored Mozart with quite as much fervor as Prague did. Maynard Solomon summarizes the effect of the Prague travels thus: “The journeys to Prague in 1787 had left a golden glow in their wake, resonating with a knowledge of fulfilled creativity, new friendships, even a mythologically tinged sense of the conquest of a new city.”

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