To begin the final week of my Lent Series, i’m turning to a curious little miniature by Morton Feldman. Composed in 1970, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is a work for a small, unusual ensemble of 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, celesta, bells, 2 cellos and 2 double basses. The titular dedicatee, Vera Maurina-Press, was in fact Feldman’s childhood piano teacher (from the age of 12), about whom he spoke very affectionately in a short essay from the early 1960s: “It was because of her – only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian – that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.” And a decade later, his warmth for her remained strong: “Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”
Feldman’s memorial to Madame Press comprises a mere fifty-five bars of music. Her age is represented in a recurring falling major third motif that for the most part is passed back and forth antiphonally between the flutes, not unlike the chiming of an elegant cuckoo clock; the motif occurs exactly 90 times, marking the duration of Madame Press’ life. The rest of the ensemble ‘colours in’ around this, creating ever-changing harmonies, relaxed and gentle at first but becoming more dark and pained after the first minute. Now the flutes seem to be both something and somewhere strange, mechanical and alien, surrounded by a musical fabric that’s pulling apart at the seams. Shortly after the pattern is stopped via a stunned stasis, whereupon the trumpet briefly takes over the motif, haltingly, with wan streaks of pitch from the ensemble. Feldman then jump-starts the original process again, the flutes slightly brisker than before and enveloped in warmth. The piece ends (as it also begins) with an enigmatic rising phrase from the celesta.
This is music of the most delicate yet unaffected affection, performed here in January 2004 by the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Porcelijn, as part of the Barbican’s John Cage Uncaged weekend.