Martin Boykan: City of Gold & Other Works

Martin Boykan, more than any other living composer, is able to craft large-scale works with tremendous economy of means — works in which every note and gesture are essential both in the large and in the small. While he eschews overstatement and pyrotechnics, his work is emotionally available. Gratefully written for the instruments, it’s
elegant, subtle and delicate, yet viscerally powerful when it needs to be. In this day and age where it can no longer be assumed that professional composers have even a cursory acquaintance with the past, it’s become a commonplace to speak of a least some recent music as being informed by “the tradition.” In Boykan’s case, the music of his forebears, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and particularly Beethoven, not to mention that of the Second Viennese school, has been most thoroughly absorbed and its compositional lessons applied in a unique and quintessentially American language belonging to the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the music of the distant and not so distant past is truly alive for him offering boundless sustenance.
This CD presents four chamber works covering a period of twenty years, from the slight and blithely lyrical City of Gold (1996) for solo flute, to the large, intensely expressed, even thorny Second String Quartet (1973). In between are sandwiched Trio No. 2 (1997) for violin, cello and piano, and Echoes of Petrarch (1992) for flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, and piano. Both trios are fine examples of Boykan’s mature mode of expression. Thus, the CD chronicles not only a reversed progression in time, but a continual reduction of means, the most recent work being the most unabashedly lyrical and simplest of surface.
City of Gold was composed in collaboration with Boykan’s wife, Susan
Schwalb, who “had a commission to create an artist’s book
commemorating the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem.” The composition
was designed so that a tape of it could be played continuously at the
site of the exhibit. City of Gold begins and ends with sustained B’s
(above middle C) which are meant to connect to each other in an
endless loop. On this CD it is a gently persuasive introduction to the
music to follow.
Trio No. 2 is a substantial three movement work for an instrumentation
not seen all that often in contemporary music (violin, cello and
piano). It is characterized by the composer as “among the more
classical works I have written. I am bold enough to admit that I often
thought of Mozart while writing it.” Throughout the piece, a sense of
dialogue among three equals, difficult to achieve in an original way,
is continually present. This is particularly manifest in the first
movement, where balanced four measure phrases are made to sound fresh,
never mechanically symmetrical. It is a characteristic of Boykan’s to
set up compositional challenges for himself, and the adoption of
phrases of equal length which are made to sound open-ended is a good
example. The second movement, described by the composer as “the
dramatic center of the trio,” begins with a highly expressive
unaccompanied cello solo. The sense of lyricism, somewhat restrained,
even lofty, in the first movement, becomes most heartfelt and
unrestrained here. The violin’s concluding paraphrase of the cello
solo which brings the movement to a satisfying close, is absolutely
right and unpredictable at the same time. Movement three, marked
grazioso ed un po’ scherzoso, comes as a playful contrast, injecting
into the dialogue an element of humor at times turning sardonic.
As might be expected from the literary association, Echoes of Petrarch
is primarily a pastoral work. The composer writes, “I would be
gratified to have captured something of Petrarch’s sensibility, but
although his poetry was highly suggestive to me, I allowed the music
to take its own course.” Written for an Italian tour of the New York
New Music Ensemble, it opens with a Canzone which captures the
valedictory longing of the aging poet wishing to be buried alongside
the “clear, fresh, and sweet waters, where she who alone to me seems
woman rested her lovely limbs.” The second movement (Sonnet), marked
Agitato, reflects the poet’s extremities of feeling — “I fear and
hope, I burn and freeze; I touch nothing, and embrace the whole world;
I see without eyes and scream without a tongue; I wish to die and beg
for help; I feed on sorrow, and laugh with tears; To such a state, my
Lady, you have brought me.” It provides a wild and biting contrast to
the placid surrounding movements. For Boykan, the third movement,
Madrigal, describes “a moment of rapt contemplation.” Just as the
text, an evocation of Diana washing her veil, provides subtle echoes
of the extremes of the sonnet (“ the midst of icy waters; such
that she made me tremble with an amorous chill, now when the heavens
burn.”), so the music at times recalls the agitation of the Sonnet
within its prevailing tone of reflection.
With the String Quartet (dedicated to the late composer Seymour
Shifrin, a friend, colleague, and kindred spirit), we journey
backwards to a more turbulent time, reflected in both the surface and
structure of the work. The first three movements are meant to be heard
as open-ended in various ways leading inexorably to the finale — an
extensive Lento. In essence, these three movements form a giant upbeat
(anacrusis) to the fourth. Unlike the slow movements of the preceding
works, this Lento has an element of unresolved tension, perhaps even
Angst, made all the more compelling by the extremely unsettled context
provided by what preceded them.
As Boykan states in his notes to the premiere recording, “the first
movement begins with a rapid-fire succession of ideas leading to an
unusually early climax. A short slow movement follows — too short, in
fact, to be complete. It is to be continued at the end of the quartet.
The third movement is a fast scherzo which leads into the last
movement without any pause (indeed, with a phrase overlap).” I would
add that the climaxes of both the first and third movements highlight
unison writing for the quartet. In keeping with the preparatory nature
of the first three movements, these unisons turn out to be
foreshadowings of the prominent octaves which appear (for the first
time) in movement four. The composer speaks of these as “expressive
moments,” attempting “to invest this interval, avoided in much
contemporary music, with the significance of a ‘diabolus in musica.’”
The almost Webernian ending of the first movement is a transition to
the starkly expressive Grave. Here, the texture is very spare, leaving
room for the fullness to come in movement four. This small utterance
has an austere, other-worldly beauty, a beauty shattered by the
slashing intensity of the scherzo which follows without pause. After
all this instability, the finale takes on the added weight of an
arrival following a long and eventful journey. Characteristically,
however, Boykan simultaneously creates and undermines this stability:
“The concluding Lento is divided into four equal sections, marked by
rhyming cadences. But against this even background, the music is
unevenly paced, so that the sections seem unequal in length.” As the
quartet ends, we are left with a hard-won yet equivocal resolution.
As you’ll hear, Martin Boykan is a composer incapable of easy
solutions. He has regard enough for his audience to assume they’ll
join him as he aspires to “the precision and emotional breadth of the
great tradition.” Aspirations are well and good, but achievements,
such as the music of this CD, are even
better! I invite you to celebrate the achievements of this most
rewarding American composer.
—Ross Bauer

MARTIN BOYKAN (b.1931) studied composition with Walter Piston, Aaron
Copland and Paul Hindemith, and piano with Eduard Steuermann. He
received a BA from Harvard University, 1951, and an MM from Yale
University, 1953. In 1953-55 he was in Vienna on a Fulbright
Fellowship, and upon his return founded the Brandeis Chamber Ensemble
whose other members included Robert Koff (Juilliard Quartet), Nancy
Cirillo (Wellesley), Eugene Lehner (Kolisch Quartet) and Madeline
Foley (Marlborough Festival). This ensemble performed widely with a
repertory divided equally between
contemporary music and the tradition. At the same time Boykan appeared
regularly as a pianist with soloists such as Joseph Silverstein and
Jan de Gaetani. In 1964-65, he was the pianist with the Boston
Symphony Orchestra.
Boykan has written for a wide variety of instrumental combinations
including 4 string quartets, a large concerto for large ensemble, many
trios, duos and solo works, song cycles for voice and piano as well as
voice and other instruments and choral music. His symphony for
orchestra and baritone solo was premiered by the Salt Lake City
Symphony in 1993. His work is widely performed and has been presented
by almost all of the current new music ensembles including the Boston
Symphony Chamber Players, The New York New Music Ensemble, Speculum
Musicae, the League-ISCM, Earplay, Musica Viva, and Collage New Music.
He received the Jeunesse Musicales award for his String Quartet No. 1
in 1967, and the League-ISCM award for Elegy in 1982. Other awards
include a Rockefeller grant, NEA award, Guggenheim Fellowship, a
Fulbright, as well as a recording award and the Walter Hinrichsen
Publication Award from the American Academy and National Institute of
Arts and Letters. In 1994 he was awarded a Senior Fulbright to Israel.
He has received numerous commissions from chamber ensembles as well as
commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of
Congress, and the Fromm Foundation.
At present Boykan is the Irving G. Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis
University. He has been Composer-in-Residence at the Composer’s
Conference in Wellesley, Visiting Professor at Columbia University,
New York University and Bar-Ilan University (Israel). He has served on
many panels, including the Rome Prize, the Fromm Commission, the New
York Council for the Arts (CAPS), and the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts. Over the years he has taught many hundreds of students
including such well known composers as Steve Mackey, Peter Lieberson,
Ross Bauer, and Marjorie Merryman. In 2001, Perspectives of New Music
is planning a special issue in honor of his 70th birthday. Professor
Boykan has been composer-in-residence at the Composer’s Conference,
Visiting Professor at Columbia University, composer-in-residence at New York
University, and Senior Fulbright Professor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.