Music Monday: Auerbach: Cetera Desunt

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Until 1991, Lera Auerbach was shaping up to be an extraordinary Soviet musician. Born in Chelyabinsk, a city near Siberia, in 1973, she received her earliest music lessons from her mother, and took to them like a fish to water. By the age of 12, she had written an opera, one which was performed in several cities, and was also making waves as a concert pianist. It was as a pianist that she came to the United States in 1991, performing a series of concerts and ultimately deciding not to return to the Soviet Union. She was thus one of the last musicians to defect before the Cold War ended later that year.

Enrolling in Juilliard not long thereafter, Auerbach continued studying both piano and composition, ultimately earning both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at that venerable institution. She made her Carnegie Hall debut as a pianist in 2002, not long after graduating, and has continued to stay active as a performer while also producing a considerable body of prize-winning work as a composer. In addition, she works as a poet and visual artist, and was the 1996 Poet of the Year as named by the International Pushkin Society.

Regarding this week’s piece, I’m on rather thinner ice than usual: In an interview on her publisher’s website, Auerbach explains that she no longer likes talking about her music, and refuses to elaborate on the meaning behind the titles of the movements. In a way, it’s quite fitting. Cetera Desunt, after all, means “the rest is missing”, and that’s rather the situation we’re in as listeners: We have the music, the titles, and a hint that the work is loosely modeled after a strambotto sonnet, but beyond that nothing else. As such, I’m not gonig to venture much in the way of interpretation; it seems quite counter to the spirit of the exercise.

Bold, stark lines inaugurate the first movement, “Dicis et non es” (“You speak and yet aren’t”, a quote from Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus), lines that don’t quite quote exactly but still deliberately bring to mind Dmitri Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, which uses a musical encoding of his name. After repeating slight variations on the gesture, the music slips downwards into a repeated dissonance before giving way to eerie, quiet wanderings. Abruptly, the music of the opening returns with renewed vigor, continuing stridently into the next movement, which begins with a further alteration of the motive. This “Sic ego non sine te . . . (nec tecum vivere possum)” (“So I can’t live without you . . . (or with you)”, a quote from Ovid) is calmer and more reserved, striving ever upwards towards more celestial regions before breaking out into a stream of unsettled trills and recapturing the tension of the opening. It is to no avail, however, and the movement ends with ghostly echoes.

Anxious, scratching notes get “Dicis et non facis” (“You speak and do not make”, another quote from Doktor Faustus), and we are firmly back in territory meant to call Shostakovich to mind. A storm of frantic scurrying about ensues, before coming to a sharp halt. Continuing the musical “rhyme scheme”, “Nec tecum vivere possum . . . (sic ego non sine te)” is back to Ovid and a more temperate, lyrical vein. Towards the end of this delicate, transparent movement, there are even moments that reach genuine tenderness and consonance.

Crisp, jagged rhythms break the spell. “Advenitatis asinus, pulcher et fortissimus” (“The donkey of arrival, beautiful and very bold”; Friedrich Nietzsche uses a slightly different form of this (“adventavit asinus, pulcher et fortissimus”, “the donkey arrives, beautiful and very bold”) in Prejudices of Philosophers; I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate change or a misquotation, and I’m not entirely sure that “adventatis” is a real Latin word . . . ) is certainly very bold, tho its beauty may not be so immediately obvious. The jittery scherzo is soon underway again, emerging after a passage of stochastic plucking with undiminished ferocity. “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”, a common Latin adage) is the longest movement, and it begins with a series of dynamically lurching chords. This strident introduction gives way to an almost inaudibly distant quotation of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet*, which becomes increasingly distorted, with stray lines adding veins of dissonance to the teacup-fragile texture. Once thoroly disrupted, the cello breaks out into an impassioned cadenza, ranging from the bottom to the top of its extensive range.

Hushed pizzicati see the movement out, paving the way for the spindly, mournful “Non omnia moriar” (another grammatically dicey misquotation, this time from Horace. The original is “non omnis moriar” (“I will not wholly die”), and that’s basically what the changed version should mean as well.) Delicate, wispy fragments drift and entwine, lounging still and almost motionless before a gentle, but steady rhythm emerges. There is a sense of building, growing towards some inexorable climax, but at the last moment, it falls away, returning to listlessness and sparsity. “Cetera desunt” sounds like it starts with another quotation, but this is one I can’t quite place, and it quickly spirals into distortion and another cello cadenza. This time, the other instruments get in on the action, but the texture remains somewhat sluggish and inactive. There is a final recollection of Shostakovich, and the work subsides into silence. One might, perhaps, wonder where the last six lines of this sonnet are, but, well . . . cetera desunt.

*So fun fact, because I’m a parody of myself, I didn’t actually recognize this because I know the Schubert, I recognized it as the same thing that George Crumb quotes in Black Angels, and worked backwards from there. It’s quite possible that there are other quotes worked into the piece that I’ve also missed; my knowledge of the string quartet repertoire is . . . not actually terribly extensive.