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Music of Nicanor Abelardo (By Ramon P.Santos Ph.D.)
Spanish conquest, a Filipino classical music repertoire took off and evolved from the European art music tradition.
Over the years, a definition of Filipino classical music has been developed according to social and artistic parameters appropriated yet distinguished from western musical culture, and based mainly on such factors as talent, formal training, technical proficiency, creativity, and a Filipino self-identity.
The development of literature on Filipino classical music literature can be traced back to the 1860s and lasted till the end of the World War II. This literature included practically all forms of western art music from short instrumental pieces and solo art songs, to opera and other music theater forms, and extended multi-part compositions for solo instrument, chamber ensemble, and symphony orchestra.
The most exalted aspect of music classicism inherited from the west is the art of composition. It did not only place the Filipino composer on a loftier platform in the local music community but it also offered him an imagined place among the masters of a musical culture that he has long assimilated as an integral part of his own native heritage.
Nationalism and Filipino Art Music
The rise of the Filipino classical music tradition coincided with the rise of national consciousness. Perceived as one of the highest forms of civilized human expression, art music provided a formidable arena for expressing a nationalist aspiration as well as a pride in a Filipino cultural heritage. Even during the height of the revolution against Spain, patriotic hymns, marches, and the so-called revolutionary kundiman had already proliferated in the circles of the literati as well as the ordinary ranks of freedom fighters, both composed by trained musicians or extemporized by ordinary plebeians.1 Under the American colonial administration, the spirit of nationalism permeated the literary and theater genres, including the zarzuela; for this creative artists and producers were severely chastised for their dramatic works" seditious contents.2 Filipino society was also looking to its creative artists for the construction of concrete symbols of "Filipino-ness" by which the nation and its people could develop self-respect and respectability in the global community.
The Americans sought to develop the creative skills of the Filipino composers in the same level as composers from the western world and to create and produce a distinctly "Filipino" classical music literature. For this reason, Filipino music students were directed to draw inspiration from nationalist movements in the arts and music of other westernized peoples outside western Europe like Russia, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico.
Acting under the largesse of the American imperial government, the Philippine Assembly established the Conservatory of Music of the University of the Philippines in 1916 for the purpose of providing professional academic training to Filipino musicians. According to its first Filipino Director Francisco Santiago, courses in composition were introduced "aimed at the enrichment of our native music... novelty, style, and form were stressed to improve native compositions so that the country might treasure and preserve them for future generations."Bañas, 1970, 123) The UP Conservatory of Music became the principal breeding ground of the most prominent classical music composers of the Philippines. A rare pronouncement by another Filipino composer captures the prevailing pragmatism in the collective nationalist sentiment among Filipino composers at the time, even revealing a savvy attitude towards his country's colonial masters:
The nationalization of our music is so important that it merits more than a passing notice. It is true that America, with all her progress in music, is still without a national music. But America can never have one; perhaps thousands of years from now when conflicting foreign elements have unified into one compact thing, she can produce music that is somehow distinctly American. What about our kundiman, awit, and kumintang? Let us dig them up and from them fashion a music that is truly Philippine.
The above statement was made by Nicanor Abelardo, the man who stood tall and prominent at the height of classicism in Filipino music.
Nicanor Abelardo was born in the town of San Miguel, Bulacan on February 7, 1893. Based on the biographical sketch by the eminent scholar E. Arsenio Manue15 and his life story written by cellist-educator-writer Ernesto Epistola6, Nicanor Abelardo was an exceptional talent who was completely molded and cultivated by the social environment of his time.
Just like other individuals who later became noted for their musical careers, Abelardo's childhood was surrounded by the arts, particularly music. His paternal grandmother was a celebrated performer of duplo and karagatan7, his grand-uncle Pedro Henson was a visual artist and poet, his mother Placida was a church singer, and his father,8 who at one time earned his living in photography, gave Nicanor at age five his first lessons in solfeggio and the bandurria. Abelardo's legendary talent and precocity for music were immediately evident. He played his father's arrangement of Rossini's William Tell on the guitar at six, tried his hand on other instruments, played danzas, jotas, and polkas for the capers by the town's haranistas, and composed a waltz at eight. At nine, his painter-uncle Juan Abelardo brought him to Manila where, while attending primary schools and assisting his uncle in the latter's trade, Nicanor learned to play the piano practically on his own. He also shared voice lessons given by the Italian teacher Enrico Capozzi with his cousin Virginia.
Abelardo possessed an unbridled artistic urge and pursued erudition in the other arts, as well. He tried learning to paint under uncle Juan's guidance and also engaged in writing poetry in Tagalog and Spanish, informally tutored by a literary friend Mariano Velayo. He played the piano as an apprentice of Francisco Buencamino for the silent movies in Cinematografo Filipino. Soon after, he was making the rounds of other theaters, from the cheap and small, to the high class establishments.
He associated with the famous zarzuela librettist and producer Florentino Ballezer, first as an instrumentalist, and later as composer and director. His talent was like a sponge that absorbed whatever music - traditional or modern - seeped into its corpus. And he particularly reveled in the new and the untried.
Everything that Abelardo fancied to undertake came quite easily. It was only at the Conservatory of Music of the University of the Philippines,10 that his rare ability was formidably challenged. Within the walls of the institution could be found the most revered artists and music experts in the country - foreign as well as local - as members of the faculty. Abelardo's yet untapped sense of discipline immediately came into full bloom as he inundated himself with exercises in harmony and counterpoint. Finally, he was learning the higher grammar and poetics of a language that he had known and used since childhood.
The UP Conservatory of Music became his musical home where his raw faculties were weaned to formal perfection, his imagination and acute sensitivities matured, and emotions and expressive instincts found nourishment, refinement, and aesthetic consummation. While polishing his craft in counterpoint and harmony, Abelardo broadened his command of the entire tonal language, aligning his practice with the music of Wagner, Chopin, Liszt - the late romantics - who brought harmonic chromaticism to its expressive limits. He learned the art of tone painting, thematic development, and formal structuring not as fabricated materials or devices, but as subtle and spontaneous poetic expressions. His growth as an artist, composer and musician extraordinaire was phenomenal. To begin with, his admission to the Conservatory was purely based on merit since he did not possess a high school diploma. Upon his junior year in 1918, he received an appointment to teach solfeggio and harmony.
According to Epistola the larger world of Nicanor Abelardo is the tragic story of a man whose metaphysical consciousness and aesthetic sensibilities and powers were unceasingly confounded by the physical realities of human existence. Looking at his short but highly charged life is like witnessing a surreal drama. All the elements were there - the humble beginnings, the rise of the phenomenal genius, a difficult marriage, a bohemian existence, a family to support, expressive energies constantly searching for perfection, the doting master and teacher, the life of nocturnal minstrelsy, friendships and camaraderie, alcoholism and unfulfilled dreams. His music spoke not only of his life but epitomized the climate, mood, and spirit of the Filipino cultural and social landscape in the 1900s.
Nicanor Abelardo finally graduated in 1921 with a Teacher's Diploma and the next ten years of teaching and professional activities saw a musical career that scintillated not only in its avid probing of every thing known musically at the time, but also in realizing this knowledge through his prolific creativity. Indeed, Abelardo was able to fit into his enormous creative bag virtually all the existing musical forms and media existing then: zarzuela, opera and operetta, symphony, concerto,11 sonata, string quartet, suites, fugues, overtures, ballad, serenade, art song and Filipino evolved art song; the classical kundiman, kumintang, balitaw, danza, vocal duets, trios, choral music, marches, hymn (sacred, patriotic, commemorative), trio, short character pieces (nocturne, valse, cavatina, capriccio, intermezzo, polka, fantasie impromptu, reverie, barcarole, bolero), incidental music, tone poem, the foxtrot, tango, paso-doble, two-step, folksong arrangements, and music for different instrumental ensembles.
Nicanor Abelardo was a musical poet. He wrote some of his texts but also heightened the aesthetic impact of some of the best poetry of his time13 through his copious musical arsenal.
Besides being a creative genius, he was a storyteller and chronicler. He painted in musical tones real-life tales of woe and love. Abelardo closely observed and depicted local humanity in all its manifestations, from the noble and sublime to the mundane and humorous. He wrote music about the bato-bato, the sinigwelas, bibingka't langgonisa, Kenkoy, the Philippine Health Service, wine drinking, Lola Basiang, and the sampaguita. And in all its variety and color, Abelardo was able to portray his native social environment with the appropriate images, sometimes grave and solemn, sometimes light and comic - always poetic but never trite nor vulgar.
In 1931, Abelardo was able to go to the United States and enroll at the Chicago Musical College. In barely a year, Abelardo was able to assume and internalize the idiom of the Expressionist School of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Because of his complete understanding and command of the European harmonic language, it became completely natural for him to absorb the concept and language of atonality that was still in evolution from the chromaticism of the late and post-romantic eras of western music.
It can be safely said that Abelardo was the first Filipino modernist composer, one who was able to keep abreast with contemporary trends in the western musical world of the early twentieth century. Thus, his entire output far outweighed and outreached the stylistic and idiomatic scope of both his predecessors, contemporaries, and even some post-Abelardo generations of Filipino art music composers before the 1950s.
What then is the music of Nicanor Abelardo?
An in-depth appreciation of Abelardo's music requires a clear definition of the general stylistic and aesthetic schema of the Filipino classical music.
One of the most important characteristics of Filipino classical music, whether vocal or instrumental, is its heavy reliance on the song. Thus, melody, more than any other musical structure permeated in practically every musical piece.
A large proportion of Filipino musical compositions are also program-oriented, based on extra-musical meaning such as stories and tales, depicting characters, objects and circumstances. After all, Filipino life and culture is predominantly storied, and it is through narratives-epics, ballads, rumors and gossips-that Filipinos have preserved their traditional worldview and cultural ethos. The advent of classical music into the local expressive culture provided another medium for telling stories with greater sophistication and modernity.
In the aspect of language, Filipinos studied harmony as a system of functional progression of chords according to a tonal center. On the other hand, counterpoint was learned more as a compositional device, rather than as the syntactic foundation of the harmonic language and western polyphony.
The music of Nicanor Abelardo did not only fulfill the canons and dogmas of Filipino art music, but also transcended their boundaries. The depth of Abelardo's musical expression digs deep through different aesthetic layers, from intense lyricism, mysticism, and almost manic-depressive drama to subtle humor, simplicity, and candor.
One work that reveals so much about Abelardo's musical style and his distinctive musical ideas is his song "Mutya ng Pasig". Composed in 1926, "Mutya ng Pasig" could well represent a mature level of Abelardo's classico-romantic poetic imagination.
"Mutya ng Pasig" was conceived as a kumintang,15 a musical expression that Abelardo believed to contain in its pre-Hispanic rhythm formula and modal configuration, the oriental sentiment and the deeper aesthetic consciousness of the Filipino psyche (See Ex. A). Thus, he treated the kumintang not merely as a source of structural material, but a unique form of native expression, of which he intended "Mutya ng Pasig" to be a representative of its classical variety.
"Mutya ng Pasig" is a unique song in that it is the song of two persons: the narrator-poet Abelardo, and the river nymph. It therefore demands that the singer take on a dual identity and to reveal this duality through a highly sensitive musical delivery.
The first part is the song of the poet, starting with a dramatic recitative that describes the mysterious aura of the entire scenario of a quiet river gently bathed by the light of a peering moon and slightly stirred by the gentle evening breeze. This vivid scene was tonally depicted by Abelardo with a drone on the dominant tonal region, disquieted only by the punctuating sub-dominant chord (A-flat) subtly elaborated by the kumintang motif. Furthermore, the text is made prominent through its poetic recitation based on another old tune formula called tagulaylay. In his other works, the drone appears as one of Abelardo's preferred devices in expressing mystery and a feeling of ominous anxiety and tension.
After a momentary pause on the tonic, both melody and harmony begin to pick up motion on the line "tila ginising ng habagat" [awakened by the gentle breeze] and the text begins to describe the presence of a mysterious figure, whose gleaming white image and long flowing tresses appear to breath life and agitated excitement to the whole scenario. And the small ripples of the kumintang motif in the piano becomes surging waters as her presence grows from apparition to reality.
Abelardo's musical poetry tries to capture every detail of this animated scene, including the syncopated sparkle and flicker of the bubbling waters.
Harmonically, the entire unfolding drama is still framed against the prolonged dominant chord drone, creating so much harmonic and emotional tension with its elaboration and the almost uncontained melodic swells that it accompanies.
The tonic (in the E-flat major mode) finally appears in m. 30 as a significant harmonic region only at the end of the first part, or at the end of the poet's dramatic narrative, revealing the Mutya ng Pasig in her full glory. "Mutya ng Pasig" begins to tell her story with a lyrical melody and an active harmonic motion, enhanced by vivid chromatic contrapuntal lines in the accompaniment. As she reaches a climactic point in her tale," ...ang pag-ibig ng mamatay, naglaho rin ang kaharian... "[when love died, my kingdom vanished], Abelardo jabbed a sudden and jarring harmonic shift to a remote tonal region (from Eb major to F#7) to dramatize the line: "...ang lakas ko ay nalipat sa puso't dibdib ng lahat... "[my strength was moved to every other heart and breast]. The initial F#7 traverses through a passing-chord sequence towards the subdominant Ab to reach its pinnacle of tension in Bb dominant 9th chord. In this sequence, Abelardo enhanced the feeling of agitated urgency and tension with his chromatic suspensions, acciacaturas and other harmonic dissonances.
The first part of the final statement of "Mutya ng Pasig" "...kung nais ninyong ako'y mabuhay..." [if you wish for me to live] is depicted against a background of an ominous calm, in direct contrast to the shattering force of her final exhortation, "pag-ibig ko'y iyong ibigay!" [give me back my love]
(EXAMPLE F - "Mutya ng Pasig" ms. 49-50)
"Mutya ng Pasig" is the classical romantic and musical poet Nicanor Abelardo at his best. It reveals several important aspects of his craft and his own interpretation and realization of the given canonic parameters of creative writing at the time.
First, in his adoption of the kumintang as the central framework of this work, Abelardo did not merely quote the tune of the kumintang, but attempted to appropriate the spirit of the kumintang, including its tempo and its style of delivery (tagulaylay, m.6). Thus, his own melodic inventions throughout the song were intended to be a piece of kumintang with all its structural peculiarities and aesthetic character, expressed in the modern harmonic language.
Secondly, the piece is musical poetry not only for its almost sacred respect for the text, but also in the highly sophisticated musical portrayal of the text's meaning, imagery, and metaphor. The harmonic dialectics of Mutya ng Pasig is also quite unique. First, it is set in the rather difficult key of E-flat minor, connoting gravity and seriousness in western music literature, but also providing the composer so much harmonic space to create a wide variety of chromatic shades and tonal hues. Abelardo heightens the dramatic tension through the use of dissonances, in both contrapuntal or linear context as well as non-harmonic tones. Mutya ng Pasig does not only show Abelardo's linguistic and poetic mastery but also his visual sense in the way he used the musical texture in painting the transforming scenarios of the song.
Finally, Mutya ng Pasig shows that the greatest strength of Abelardo's music lies in his melodic inventions which control or dictate for the most part the entire conduct of his songs and even non-vocal works. Abelardo's melodies are well crafted and extremely musically functional in the sense that their construction is highly dependent on what is being expressed and in the manner Abelardo chose to express them. In Mutya ng Pasig, the configurations of his melodies show such variety, from being simple and discursive to lyrical or dramatic or dramatically lyrical.
"Nasaan Ka Irog" and the Kundiman
One musical form of premier significance that came out of the classical music period is the kundiman, today considered a Filipino cultural emblem in the same breath as the barong tagalog or the pasyon. It is perhaps the fortune of the kundiman to belong to the Tagalog tradition, the predominant language and culture of Manila and its art academies, as well as the language of the leading progenitors of art music in the emerging nation-state. Thus, the kundiman developed into a national symbol of Filipino artistic expression, mainly due to the interest and efforts of the art music composers in finding sources of identity for their collective expression.
From its isolated beginnings as another oral form of expression in Tagalog, the kundiman may be traced to old modal tune formulas such as the kumintang and awit, that were used by suitors to sing out extemporized verses of love and passion.
The kundiman underwent transformation from a formulaic piece of music to one of high poetic value and creative independence. Nicanor Abelardo's kundiman contributed a great deal to this development, as mirrored in his modest but highly dynamic output in the ten-year period from 1920 to 1930. In the listing of Manuel, Abelardo actually composed less than ten kundiman, starting with "Kung Hindi Man" in 1920. However, a close study of these compositions will show how Abelardo raised the kundiman to an art form wherein poetry and music did not merely compliment each other but became one formal entity.
His first officially documented kundiman "Kung Hindi Man" illustrates a kind of a test piece in which Abelardo appeared "rule-bound" in dealing with his melodic materials, as well as other structural, formal and harmonic parameters. His melodic phrases are visibly anchored to pre-existing materials from the old kundiman. The following example shows melodic fragments that have striking similarity to tune phrases from "Jocelynang Baliwag"
The next major kundiman of Abelardo is "Nasaan Ka Irog", written in 1923. Stylistically, the work may be categorized as belonging to his mature period starting in 1921, the year he completed his teacher's course at the UP Conservatory of Music.
"Nasaan Ka Irog" is Abelardo's memorialization of the doomed love affair of bosom friend Dr. Francisco Tecson, to whom the said piece was dedicated. In its over-all conception, Abelardo manipulated language, music, and time structures to create a highly unified dramatic musical poetry. Just like in Mutya ng Pasig, he combined both the elements of speech and song in dealing with the poetic lines, while he explored the semantic and phonetic regions of the harmonic language in painting the meaning and emotional sentiments conveyed in the text.
The opening melodic structure is a clear departure from the symmetrically constructed melody of "Kung Hindi Man" in that its configuration is more visual than tonal, a kind of circuitous line describing a searching motion. Moreover, the rising motion at, the end of the phrase is almost like a literal replication of the question mark as well as the semantic and tonal property of speech:
"Nasaan Ka Irog" shows Abelardo taking greater liberty in expanding on the framework of "Kung Hindi Man."His melodic phrases, no longer tethered to the old kundiman formulas, are like bold extended strokes, almost wildly exploring the height and depth of the singer's vocal range, and weaving through different directions (See Ex. I) or leaping, with intense passion.
Perhaps the most telling tone painting that Abelardo accomplished in "Nasaan Ka Irog" is his deliberate avoidance of the tonic as a harmonic region of rest in the entire First Section in the minor mode. In the First and Second sections, all the harmonic motions lead to the dominant (V), a point of the highest tension and instability in the tonal harmonic system.
PLATE: Harmonic Reduction of "Nasaan Ka lrog"
It is only at the end of the Second Section (ms. 38) that the entire music finally resolves in the tonic, where resignation is expressed in the text "ngayong nalulungkot ay di ka makita"[now that I'm lonely, I can't seem to find you]. Immediately however, another dramatic recitation re-introduces the dominant that opens the Final Section.
"Nasaan Ka Irog" as a masterpiece in classical kundiman literature was accomplished by Abelardo by stretching its formal mold - its melodic, harmonic and textural parameters, reconfiguring them as commanded by his artistic imagination and his own dramatic interpretation of the text.
A comparative view of Abelardo's major kundiman offers an insight into his over-all stylistic approach and creative process. Phrase lengths of his melodic structures, for example, is clearly dictated by his sense of drama in the musical delivery of the poetic lines, varying from a one-measure phrase to the five-measure varieties.
In "Kundiman ng Luha" (1924), the 1-3 phrase sets are followed by a 3-5 phrase set:
In the Third Section of Kundiman ng Luha, this variance in phrase-lengths is quite apparent, 3-2-2 and 2-2-4 sets:
The most potent element in the kundiman of Abelardo and all his other compositions for that matter, is his poetic command of the chromatic harmony. His imaginative utilization of the different harmonic regions, as well as the different colors and shades of his chord structures were meticulously attached to meanings and states of emotion. He was able to heighten tension through the use of 7th and 9th chords, hidden dissonances, or by accelerating the harmonic motion.
As the Harmonic-Melodic Phrase Table and the Harmonic Outline Chart would show, each of the five kundiman cited do not only have varying melodic phrase structures, but harmonic progressions as well. The First Section of "Kundiman ng Luha" illustrates a kind of stasis-and-motion harmonic sequence. It shows that the first four phrases are all a prolongation of the tonic minor, but immediately picks up motion as the poet begs the beloved to open her heart to his mourning and ailing soul.
Kaluluivang luksang luksa at may sakit Buksan mo't damayan kahit saglit.
[To an ailing soul in mourning Open your door and aid me even for a moment]
A more active harmonic sequence occurs during the Third Section as the poet's desperate and fatal need for his beloved intensifies. Abelardo unleashed his emotional intensity through a series of secondary dominants, passing through different harmonic regions, complimented by a surging sequence of ascending melodic phrases and an agitated instrumental texture.
The harmonic motion of Abelardo's classical works is not only functionally logical but semantically appropriate, always giving deeper or greater shade of meaning to the music in terms of emotional nuances and shades of sensuality.
In his songs, Abelardo's sensitivity to the text is almost sacred. Although the prosody sometimes suffers due to the limitations of the conventional rhythmic vocabulary of western music vis-a-vis the complex syllabic construction and accents of the Tagalog words, his musical rhythm was carefully fitted to the natural inflection of key words and climactic stresses of the poetic lines in the musical phrases.
The songs and other works for the voice are truly a showcase of Abelardo's creative genius and dramatic instincts. But what about his instrumental compositions? How did he exercise his creative skills on text-less music?
The Instrumental Works
To answer this question, one might consider 1921 as a year of unveiling. It was the year he completed the requirements for the Teacher's Diploma in Science and Composition17 and a year of intense creative activity. In the listing by Manuel,18 a total of nineteen compositions were written, ranging from large-scale works such as the Mountain Suite and the Academic Overture for orchestra, four-movement and three-movement sonatas, and a string quartet, to short solo instrumental pieces that include his First Nocturne, Fantasie-Impromptu, and Valse Caprice for piano, the Cavatina for violin; and the Romanza for violoncello.
These compositions reveal the young composer as attempting to wander in the backyards of Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven in terms of adopting and absorbing the instrumental idioms and poetic parlance of the masters of western romantic music.
Even at this initial stage of his creative career, Abelardo's non-vocal compositions are quite indicative of their dependence on the song. Although the thematic materials are simple and rather uncharacteristic, they are undoubtedly inspired by the singing voice as in the First Nocturne, the Romanza for cello and piano, or the second section of the Fantasie-Impromptu.
As Abelardo expanded these themes, however, they lose their innocence so to speak, as they become transformed into highly energized organisms of affective expression. Abelardo turned to the kundiman for many of his melodic structures. In fact, these melodic structures appear to serve as Abelardo's "love motifs."
In his instrumental works, Abelardo capitalized on the wider range capability of the instruments vis-a-vis the limitation of the human voice. It is not only the range and linear direction that Abelardo explored but also the variety of phrase lengths that he could utilize to create greater drama. Note for example the motivic-phrase divisions in the Cavatina melody from ms. 20-32, with the possible phrase-measure groupings: 2 (1+1), 2 (1+1), 4 (1+3).
Another area of commonality among all these works is an extremely fertile harmonic ground by which Abelardo caused them to traverse.
Abelardo's romanticism and sense of drama found poetic realization in the variety of ways that remote tonal regions representing emotional polarities, are processed towards or in contrast to each other in the context of transformational representation. The First Nocturne is one such example where Abelardo bridged two remote tonal regions: c# minor and Bb major (lowered major seventh or bVII), triggering the sequential harmonic motion with an altered lowered-supertonic six (bII) and proceeding to the submediant seventh(V17) and finally to the raised subdominant seventh (IV7) which Abelardo made to serve enharmonically as a lowered modifier (Neapolitan function) to the lowered major seventh or Bb major. See the following harmonic outline of ms. 11-24.
The transfer to the tonal region of Bb however was not totally consummated but simply used as a vehicle to present a new melodic idea (the "love motif") and jumpstart a series of passionate utterances soaring to new emotional levels and reaching a climactic point in measure 42, the dominant seventh (V7) of c# minor, the home key. Note the following harmonic reduction of ms. 32 to 46, outlining the return to c# minor via the submediant seven (V17).
(EXAMPLE 0.2 - Harmonic Outline of FIRST NOCTURNE ms. 32-46)
In the return to the home key, Abelardo created a passage wherein he presented a dialogue by means of answering and intersecting contrapuntal lines of different rhythmic character:
This seeming recap is not final, however, in that Abelardo entered another level of tonal consciousness in the region of D-flat major (ms. 59), the enharmonic equivalent of the parallel major. In this new tonal arena, Abelardo combined the two thematic, materials, expressing the union of two seemingly remote musical statements: one, a brief downward melodic figure of tender character, and the other an extended and emotionally aggressive statement with an ascending figure at the end). One's imagination can perhaps be stretched to suspect that Abelardo designed the Nocturne as a portrayal of the beloved and the lover in a love dialogue, finally coming together at the end, united in another level of transcendental consciousness.
The poetic use of transformational harmony to portray emotional and affective transcendentalism is also quite evident in Romanza for cello and piano. In spite of the simplicity of the melodic material, (even less complex than the First Nocturne), Abelardo was able to give it a dynamic flowering. The piece is in three parts, a kind of an A-B-A1 form, whose sections differ from each other in their melodic materials and harmonic directions.
The harmonic settings of the A and B sections are quite different. In A, the harmonic motion progresses over a descending bass line that seems to explore the depth and breadth of the tonal space, while the upper melodic line moves in an ascending direction. Harmonically, the motion is simple, going from the I to the V, but gathering emotional tension in the areas of ii6/5 and iv and proceeding to the highly unstable dominant eleventh chord (V-11) via the German 6th (#IV b6/5), as illustrated in the harmonic outline of ms. 22-34:
The B part on the other hand is shaped by ascending lines, first in the bass and later in the lower inner voice, passing through highly remote harmonic regions such as lowered major supertonic (bII) in ms. 44 and proceeding to the lowered submediant minor seventh (bvi7) that functions as a dramatic point of release to the mediant seventh (iii6/5) on the way to another temporary domain of VN (I1-7). It finally returns to the tonic region after an exhaustive journey through different states of tonal sensuation. Furthermore, Abelardo was already using the pedal point in providing greater instability and tension, as can be seen and felt in ms. 45-48 and ms.53-56.
The return to A is not merely a re-articulation of the thematic material and its initial harmonic character, but is actually a forward motion and follow-through of the emotional drive that began to swell in Section B. While the harmonic motion of A1 replicates the downward bass line of the First Section. This motion goes even deeper. The entire music is now expressed with greater textural exuberance, mixing counterpoint and passionate exchange between the cello and the piano, and reaching its climax in the remote tonal region of C# major, possibly signifying a total change in consciousness and perhaps even a state of ecstasy and erotic fulfillment. The difference between this dramatic, transformational approach to the V and the German 6th approach in the First Section is quite striking in that the first approach is not as strong as the final climactic moment in the Final Section.
Abelardo and Modernism
The next collection of extended classical works were written during his one year residency at the Chicago Musical College in 1931. His brief American sojourn was both an escape from a spiritually and creatively constricted environment as well as a journey into a realm of new challenges. These challenges were multi-pronged, starting from his struggle to free himself from the restrictive demands of his academic employment, to his search for resources to support his new endeavor,19 and his own internal battles between his unquenchable thirst for alcohol and his unrelenting pursuit to satisfy his equally unquenchable thirst for artistic freedom and fulfillment.
By sheer determination, Abelardo was able to travel to the United States and got admitted into the Chicago Musical College. He easily passed all the music examinations given in the morning of June 10, 1931, covering the bachelor's to the master's levels that astonished the examination panel as well as his own adviser.20 By July 13, a little more than a month after he formally enrolled, the first movement of his Violin Sonata was finished. The music of the Violin Sonata is like a long-overdue eruption of a seething musical volcano. Its soaring melodic lines and highly ambiguous and unpredictable harmonic progressions are like the furies unchained from their imprisonment in the realm of the classical romantic idiom.
In his highly revealing letter to his pupil Hilarion Rubio, Abelardo expressed his artistic euphoria on his musical emancipation:
Of my studies, nothing have been more encouraging. After a stay, of scarcely three weeks, I have written a "sonata" for violin, and a Fugue for string quartette on the atonal basis. 1 have been released at last from the Classical Bond, I have been sent to wander in the new horizon taking for a guide Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, - and the ultra modern style.
The challenge and intimidation that confronted his musical creativity upon his admission to the Musical College easily wore off. On August 19, some two months after his arrival, he wrote another letter to Rubio, revealing his remarkable self-confidence:
My stay here or rather my having come here gave me an idea that, after all, we are not too far behind anybody else as far as music is concerned.Perhaps I feel kind of optimistic about my ability, but the fact is that I came to the conclusion that "There is nothing new under the sun" and the unseen things are always "There" we do not see them simply because we do not have enough "Light" to illumine our view.21
The tonal language of the Violin Sonata is not atonal in terms of the pre-serial and serial works of Schoenberg and his school starting from op.11 (Drei Klavierstuecke). It is cast more according to the tonal explorations of the Second String Quartet and the Chamber Symphony, in which reference to tonality is intended to dramatize its deconstruction by entering into a field of tonal ambiguities. While Abelardo wrote his Sonata in the domain of "a" as the tonal center, the entire music was written as though challenging the over-all influence of "a" as a place of rest. The over-all scheme of the three movements is in fact based on a tritone relationship: a-minor/major (1st Movement); E-flat major (2nd Movement); a-minor (3rd Movement).
(EXAMPLE R.1 - 1st Movement Violin Sonata ms. 1-16)
Taken as a whole, the statement of the First Thematic area is jarring in its ambiguity. The melody that is boldly introduced by the solo violin appears to focus on "e", while the piano accompaniment establishes an octave pedal on "a" but tonally muddled by "non-harmonic" quartal structures. At this initial passage, it is very clear that Abelardo was using the tritone and the perfect intervals (of 4th and 5th) as the main polarities in play in the entire work, and no longer the tonic versus the dominant.
The first thematic material shows an unfettered character, the melodic contour no longer strictly bound by triadic harmonic cells but pitting different intervallic units as a point of contrast. This can be observed in the upward melodic lines in ms. 3-4 with leaps of perfect fifths (p5) and in its parallel in ms. 7-8 with leaps of augmented fourths or tritones. Even at this opening statement, Abelardo had already indicated his intention of obfuscating any sense of conventional harmony by creating a tonal arena that pits perfect (p4 and p5) intervals against imperfect intervals (+4ths) instead of tonic (I) and dominant (V) as the foundation of the larger formal schematic design.
This is further underscored in the transition between the first to the second thematic groups (ms. 29-36) which is completely based on the quartal and whole-tone structures. In this particular instance, it seems obvious that Abelardo was aware of the so-called "mystic chord" of Alexander Skriabin, consisting of superimposed tritones and creating a feeling of mystery and uncertainty.
(EXAMPLE - 1st Movement Violin Sonata ms. 29-42)
In the Recapitulation section, Abelardo stated the first theme with the full force of the piano and only followed by the violin playing a variation of the theme after the first 8 measures.
The First Movement of the Violin Sonata reveals so much in what Abelardo must have experienced in giving vent to his sense of discovery and exploration, reveling almost deliriously in a new-found musical landscape. He treated and absorbed every bit of musical knowledge both old and new as part of a metamorphosed self, and not as added craft or technique in constructing newly-sounding pieces of music. The intensity, lyricism and poetic drama that characterized his earlier works merely found greater latitude in his expanded language and in his liberated musical consciousness.After hearing the performance of the first two movements of his Violin Sonata, he wrote:
Commencing with my work, (Violin Sonata), ...you can more or less imagine it to be traditionally classical and academic, taking into consideration that it was the first composition I wrote here. It commences with a vigorous minor theme dissolving into a rather plaintive subject and which is worked out to a climax, followed by the development, the recapitulation and coda. The second movement is most interesting, consisting of a passionate theme of the Wagnerian "melos" (Riemann) which later on was developed into a canon in unison by itself at one bar's distance. But, somehow or other it has seemed to reflect my inner emotions, annihilations, and optimistic hopes ... my cry of agony, my burst of passion, my longings, my hopes and resignations, as I sat there listening to myself reveal my inner emotions that way!
Following the Violin Sonata, Abelardo exhibited a wide breadth of new structural materials and creative processing of these materials in the spirit of experimentation. He wrote:
I am encouraged to write in the modern idiom now. "Atonality" is the watch word; and Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok, the models ...lt is not my desire to say that I can write like Debussy, Eric Satie, etc., but I can write as Abelardo and nothing more.
The other major works written in 1931 are the Cinderella Concert-Overture, Panoramas and the Sinfonietta. Of the three, the Sinfonietta, a one-movement work for string orchestra, contains some of the most remarkable evidence of Abelardo's expressionist inclination as well as his experimental attitude. The structures that he crafted in Sinfonietta are quite a departure from the aesthetic realm of structural balance, symmetry, textural and temporal logic, stretching the boundaries of conventional musical discourse according to Abelardo's relentless search for expressive fulfillment. Emerging from his creative explorations in Violin Sonata and Cinderella Concert-Overture, Abelardo's modernism in Sinfonietta is not only bolder, but brimming with daring conviction. The opening statement alone indicates a very clear tonal design in which the dichotomy between tonal harmony and atonality are presented in direct opposition to each other - the first phrase cast in minor interval, while the consequent phrase is a series of fourths based on Skriabin's "mystic chord" formation.
This phenomenon is not new in western literature, which in fact echoes the opening statement of Arnold Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie where a highly chromatic Wagnerian passage resolving in F-major is suddenly shattered by a trajectory of ascending perfect fourths.
In the Recapitulation in ms. 162, the concept of harmonic transformation is again felt as Abelardo reveals the hidden "tonal dressing" of the 3-note opening statement - C major going to a dissonant E-flat major.
In the Sinfonietta, Abelardo was able to stretch his musical ideas to a wider expressive sphere through rhythmic intensification, extreme chromaticism, and a highly contrapuntal texture that layered against each other three to four lines of different rhythmic characters. The Closing Theme of this work shows Abelardo in his latest expressionist frenzy as he put his kundiman love motif through a series of expanding sequential repetitions.
In spite of the over-extended chromatic language that Abelardo acquired and practiced from 1931 till his passing in 1934,24 his music and poetic expression remained ingrained in the song, more specifically the kundiman and the kumintang which he embraced and internalized as the source of both his individual and Filipino sensitivity and temperament. The wide variety in the characters of his musical materials, that are at the same time traceable to common structural backgrounds show not only the extraordinary creative sense of Nicanor Abelardo but also his unquenchable thirst to experiment. In this regard, his late work A Study in Kumintang, a 43-bar miniature for piano quintet is like an exclamation point. Using a kumintang modal fragment as a roving drone-pedal point, the entire piece is a virtual test in combining an ancient local music with his newly found modern atonal language.
While it may well fit to label him as a modernist, Abelardo was in reality a romantic through and through, trying to express his yearning and longing not with the conscious predetermination and formalistic symbolism of his European models, but with a highly spontaneous and almost subliminal feeling and reaching out for the unknown. It is indeed difficult to sort out through Abelardo's extant body of works, of what is of major significance and what is of lesser creative or artistic value. For in every work, one will find a part or parts of the complex musical spirit of Nicanor Abelardo that absorbed the entire sonic environment of his time, whether it be his sense for the classical and the poetic, or his more mundane humor and uninhibited sensibility for folk music or jazz, or his craving to experience the unknown. For whatever it is worth in the early twentieth century history of Filipino music, the musical life of Abelardo stands singular for its having encapsulated the exceptional in the achievements of the Filipino composer of the time. But more importantly, Abelardo transcended the Filipino penchant for mere replication and duplication of pre-existing musical models. He strove to explore the aesthetic realm of his individuality and the Filipino psyche, by expressing his very own life in the remarkable manner that he knew how, and in new ways to communicate that he indefatigably sought to discover. The legacy of Nicanor Abelardo is enormous, and this brief account is merely a modest attempt to lift the lid on a hidden treasure.