The New Rigged Ship: Reinmar Seidler, cello, and Jacqueline Schwab, piano at PS 21, Chatham, NY
Sunday September 6 at 3 pm
“The Glen, the Mill, and the Trysting Thorn”
For centuries, Scottish folk music has proven a powerful magnet for musicians of many nationalities and practitioners of many musical genres. Even before the generation of “Ossian” and Robert Burns made Scottish culture an emblem of national character for all of Europe, its musical uniqueness was recognized by foreigners. In the Baroque period, Scottish tunes were lovingly set as sonatas, variations, and songs by esteemed Italian composers such as Geminiani, Barsanti, Corri, and Veracini, while native trained composers like William McGibbon were seeking to imitate Italian masters such as Corelli.
Bagpiping may be the best-known form of Scottish music, but it is actually fiddle tunes and songs that have spread farthest and nurtured the most numerous musical off-spring. The tunes of New England contra-dancing migrated from many parts of the British Isles from the 18th century on, particularly from Scotland, to enliven the social lives of the rural classes. Schottisches and écossaises were mainstays of European and American ball-rooms from the time of the French Revolution until World War I, and their echoes are found in the music of Beethoven, Hummel, John Field (who was Irish), Mendelssohn, and many other classical composers. So popular were Scottish songs in England and Europe that Haydn and Beethoven were paid handsomely to make ‘artistic’ settings suitable for respectable parlors. Beethoven’s efforts are little masterpieces, and it is wonderful to hear how imaginatively he discovered dramatic atmosphere within these “simple airs.” Mendelssohn was infatuated with both Scottish music and landscape, resulting in a piano fantasy, a great overture, and perhaps his best symphony. Max Bruch incorporated a number of tunes into his popular and appealing “Scottish Fantasy,” and of course Edward MacDowell, of partially Scottish descent, made his own contribution to this repertory with a “Scotch Poem” for piano. In our own day, British composer Peter Maxwell Davies has made a home in the Orkney Isles and much of his later music is directly inspired by the folk music of that part of the world. It seems like the colder, darker, and more inhospitable the Scottish landscape gets, the more deeply inspired the music becomes.
The intense nationalism of the 19th century was accompanied by a revival of traditional Scottish fiddling, and Scottish country dancing returned to fashion at about the same time that English dance was being revived in England. According to Groves Dictionary, “The Merrie England movement and the Irish and Scottish Gaelic Revivals of the 1880s were fuelled by notions of a lost ‘golden age’ of innocence symbolized by the music of the ‘peasantry’ and song airs; song texts and dance tunes of rural working people were idealised in contrast to the artiness of élite society or vulgar products of the industrial poor.” The heirs to these revivals are the musicians and dancers of the contemporary English and Scottish Country Dance scenes; the Scottish Country Dance Society was founded in Glasgow in1923. Scottish social dancing requires elegance and training and is delightful to see. The music for it is highly stylized, characterized by snapping accents, emphatic down-beats, and jumping rhythms. The principal forms are the air, strathspey, reel, and jig. New tunes and dances are still being actively created in this tradition.
The versatile and unique pianist Jacqueline Schwab appeared at PS 21 on a perfect Sunday afternoon to present a small but enthusiastic audience with a generous bouquet of dance tunes, mostly Scottish. She was joined by cellist Reinmar Seidler. It is worth spending a moment contemplating just what kind of musicians these are, since they don’t fit into familiar categories. Are they folk musicians? classical performers? popularizers? improvisers? Yes… and no. Ms Schwab has been described as the most famous unknown pianist in America, owing to the enormous exposure her playing has received on the soundtracks of the films of Ken Burns, starting with “The Civil War.” Her distinctively sensitive touch and deeply eloquent playing are unmistakeable; musically alert listeners will recognize it instantly. Part of what makes her music so compelling is that she is an imaginative improviser who begins with relatively simple melodic material, whether it is American songs of the nineteenth century or dance tunes of England, Scotland, New England, or Latin America, and elaborates on them in very personal ways. Her band, Bare Necessities, has been playing for English country dancers for decades. And yet, her musical identity is not limited to or defined by the genre of dance music. As an improviser she draws upon wide range of musical experience, bringing new emotional resonances to tunes we thought familiar. Her rendition of the once-popular Civil War song “The Battle Cry of Freedom” deplores war and eulogizes the fallen more eloquently than essays or poetry. She knows and performs classical repertory, particularly music of Bach, and she has a deep love for ragtime and old-time popular song.
I start with Jacqueline Schwab because her alert and spontaneous piano playing made it possible for the audience to experience a full program of 36 tunes lasting over two hours without losing interest. Ms Schwab’s choice of a partner in Mr. Seidler, is appropriate. His playing demonstrates a parallel sensitivity, resourcefulness, and passion. Mr Seidler, too, is steeped in varied musical genres, his “other” identity being as a baroque cellist. He also proved himself a talented story-teller and reciter of poetry, which offered needed contrast within the afternoon’s long string of tunes.
And yet it is simply the case that with the open, spontaneous and varied approach that “The New Rigged Ship” takes, the piano can do more. The cello was expressive in performing melodies, supportive and sensitive in playing backup, and occasionally powerfully rhetorical in semi-improvised solos. But what held attention was the piano’s endless variety, replete with delightful surprises. It is clear that Ms. Schwab’s playing is rooted in the dance, and the patterns and figures she came up with always suggested an elegant choreography. She is a master of displaced accents, which may confuse actual dancers not used to her style, but which provide listeners with the delight of a cat-and-mouse game around the beat. The visual pleasure of the concert came from watching her fingers dancing all over the keyboard. She has a wide repertory of physical gestures, including “hot griddle” snatches for staccato chords, caressing, suggestively-whispered melodic responses to cello phrases, the mobile individual fingers (including the pointing index finger), the firmly placed hand, and vigorous arm work. Ms Schwab’s improvisations have grown increasingly varied of late, and it was a pleasure to hear her indulge in such “unfolksy” idioms as chromaticism and tasteful polytonal dissonance applied in surprisingly apt ways. It was a particular pleasure to hear bits of jazz creeping in here and there. Lyrically emotional melodic playing has always been a strong point; what is newer is the wit and occasional acerbity.
While the majority of the program consisted of traditional Scottish tunes, including nineteenth-century compositions by Neil Gow and an encore, “Through the Woodladdie,” which was used by Bruch in the aforementioned “Scottish Fantasy,” newer works were allowed space, including “My Cape Breton Home” played as a tribute to its Breton composer, the late Jerry Holland; and “Candles in the Dark,” by a contemporary composer of English Country Dance tunes Jonathan Jensen (who doubles as a member of the Baltimore Symphony). This performance was one of the high-points of the afternoon: the piano began with a free-form, impressionistic meditation with delicate harmonic clusters and pearly wisps of scales in the upper register. This lead gradually into a moderate-tempo pattern of syncopations that eventually revealed itself to be a slow waltz full of hemiolas (double-time triple groups). The cello entered subtly with a plucked bass-line, eventually taking over the melody and adding characteristically sharp accents and articulations, along with very secure high-register playing. At this point the piano undertook an extended series of improvised variations.
Concerts can assume many aspects. Classical presentations tend to be formal to the point of ritual, folk music is often casually presented, as if the players had not practiced hard to master their instruments, and jazz can be offered as if primarily for the pleasure of the players themselves. This concert felt intimate, a bit folksy and a bit jazzy, but very generous in spirit, length, and emotional experience. The music spoke in a personal way to each member of the audience. Such an experience transcends genre.