Music Monday: Ginastera: Harp Concerto

Going by the ones I know, at least, harpists aren’t overly thrilled with their repertoire. Admittedly, my harping acquaintances are heavily biased towards the ones who apply to new music–friendly festivals, but still, the point stands: There’s an awful lot of frivolous harp music out there (much of it, unsurprisingly, French), and while one or two pieces like that can be a nice change of pace, at a certain point, you want something with a little more crunch and substance. And that’s where composers come in.

I can’t do full justice to Alberto Ginastera’s life and influence in a single blog post, but suffice it to say that he was one of the giants of mid-century composition. Born in Buenos Aires in 1916 (he would’ve been 100 in April), Ginastera would wind up studying at the Conservatory there at the outset of his illustrious career. His early works fall into a style he called “Objective Nationalism”, making uncomplicated use of Argentinian folk music, but towards the end of the 1940s, he began moving into more abstract compositional waters, his language developing into what he called “Subjective Nationalism” and then finally “Neo-Expressionism”. (How much this shift reflected a purely musical development and how much it was related to political developments in mid-century Argentina and Ginastera’s eventual move to Switzerland is difficult to say.) Over the course of his 67–year life (he died in 1983), he wrote dozens of iconic pieces, taught some of the most famous composers of the subsequent generation, and helped bring Argentinian music to a prominent place in the international stage.

Near the tail end of Ginastera’s “Subjective Nationalist” phase, in 1956, the harpist Edna Phillips commissioned him to write a concerto for her to première at the 1958 Inter–American Festival. Ginastera accepted the commission, but he was also writing an opera and a piano concerto at the same time, and that, combined with the political unrest in Argentina, meant that 1958 came and went with no completed harp concerto in sight. So Phillips agreed to bump the première to the 1961 festival, and then to do so two more times for the same reason, meaning the work finally received its première at the 1965 festival. By that time, Phillips had retired from active performing, and the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta took the solo part in her place.

After a mere two bars of biting chords by way of introduction, the harp plunges into the main theme of the first movement in spare octaves, a clear voice ringing out over a tumultuous field. Just as the harp is starting to lose its nerve, the violins take over the melody, taut, lean, and antsy. After another harp interlude, the music boils away into a stratospheric dissonance in the violins, which slowly fades out over ominous poundings from the timpani. The harp then lays down a bed of stoic chords, launching a central section that — while no slower and just as dissonant — somehow feels like a pause to catch one’s breath. Acrobatics abound as the music picks up in tension, but it doesn’t build to a sustained climax. Instead, the music simmers down into scampering arpeggii in the harp playing off against ghastly runs in the upper woodwinds.

Slowly this all builds to a brusque, forceful climax, which is followed by a brief cadenza for the soloist. There is a subdued return of the opening material, but it can’t quite regain its initial force and violence, and the movement ends with a long slow fade into grim silence.

The second movement begins with a fugue of sorts, or at least a passage of densely woven imitation in the strings, beginning in the contrabass and working its way ever higher. There follows a long dialogue between the woodwinds and the harp, always feeling their way towards tonal waters but never quite arriving. With the addition of the celeste, this develops into a buzzing, nocturnal section, full of ghostly whispers and hints. The string fugue returns in a highly condensed version, one last phrase of the harp/woodwind dialogue, and then the movement ends.

Even tho the cadenza that opens the third movement seems to begin in a place of frivolous arabesques, it slowly introduces a variety of extended techniques, pulling the familiar soundworld askew and ultimately driving the launch of the finale proper, a vigorous, subtly folk–inflected dance. At first, the music largely proceeds thru alternation, the orchestra and the harp taking turns at the theme, but increasingly this strict compartmentalization breaks down, the harp fighting an ever more difficult battle to cut thru the fray. There is no hesitation or room for doubt — the hurtles forwards to close with a glorious, unapologetic wallop.