Saturday, October 22, 2016
The opening concert of the Pioneer Valley Symphony’s seventy-eighth season features three works of program music or, to use the term coined by Franz Liszt, symphonic poems—orchestral works that depict or embody extra-musical narratives, ideas, or events. Such works are often thought of in contrast to “absolute music,” a category used to describe orchestral music meant to be enjoyed purely on its own terms without reference to extra-musical ideas. A debate about the relative merits of these two approaches to symphonic composition raged in the German-language press throughout much of the nineteenth century with Liszt and Richard Wagner siding in favor of program music, and Johannes Brahms and the reactionary Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick defending absolute music.
Paul Abraham Dukas (1865-1935): The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897), Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe [L’Apprenti sorcier: Scherzo d’après une ballade de Goethe]
Dukas was, like many French composers of his generation, both infatuated with the music of Wagner and Liszt and anxious to put a French stamp on their Germanic tradition. Like the French opera composers Meyerbeer, Halevy, and Offenbach in the generation before him, Dukas was the son of a bourgeois Jewish family, his father a banker, and his mother an accomplished amateur pianist. Although he had not shown a particular penchant for music in his childhood, he caught the composing bug at age fourteen and made quick progress, entering the Paris Conservatory at the age of sixteen. Claude Debussy, who would become a lifelong friend, was a classmate at the conservatory. Both played an important role in putting French music at the forefront of new musical tendencies at the turn of the twentieth century.
Unable, after multiple attempts, to win the Prix de Rome, the Paris Conservatory’s top prize in composition, Dukas gave up composing in favor of writing music criticism. Although he eventually returned to composing he never gave up his work as a critic, which may have been one of the reasons he was highly critical of his own works, burning a number of scores with which he was unsatisfied and allowing only a few of his works to be published and performed. His greatest influence on later generations came from his position as a Professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory where Olivier Messiaen and Joaquin Rodrigo were among his many successful students.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fourteen-stanza ballad “Der Zauberlehrling,” itself inspired by a German translation of a Greek tale by Lucien of Samosata (2nd century C. E.). The ballad recounts in rhyme the story of a sorcerer’s apprentice who takes advantage of his master’s absence to cast a spell on a broom to help him fetch water. The spell works, but too well. As the sorcerer’s house fills with water, the apprentice realizes that he lacks the knowledge to make the broom stop. In his desperation he chops the broom in two, but this only worsens the situation as now two brooms double the pace of the work. The ballad ends with the return of the sorcerer who uses his superior power to banish the broom to the corner, commanding it never to listen to anyone besides himself.
Musically, the magical element of the ballad gives Dukas an excuse to experiment with a wide range of “magical” harmonies of the sort that were all the rage among progressive composers of his day. A slow introduction featuring such harmonies opens the work and ushers us into the sorcerer’s world, which Dukas represents with colorful orchestral effects: the high harp may represent a few tentative drips of water, the call of the muted trumpets suggests the overly aggressive apprentice’s casting of the spell.
The main section of the work begins with a series of low hits that gradually develop into the broom’s lumbering theme played by three bassoons. The theme grows in volume and speed as the broom grows more aggressive, occasional returns to lower dynamic levels alternate with every more frenetic motion. Behind the increasingly dense texture the trumpets’ call signals the apprentice’s futile attempts to undo his spell. Immediately thereafter comes the whack of the apprentice’s axe, which stops the broom, but only for a moment: now bassoon together with clarinet depict the two brooms coming to life. Finally, the trumpet fanfare blasts through with even greater force as the sorcerer returns and enforces his power over the broom, which, following the sorcerer’s outburst can be heard limping back to the corner. The piece ends with a relaxed recollection of the opening, and one final blast that seems to dismiss the magical vision with the wave of a wand.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Death and Transfiguration (1889) Symphonic poem for large orchestra [Tod und Verklärung. Tondichtung für grosses Orchester]
Dukas’s German contemporary Richard Strauss was the son of a composer and hornist who lead the horn section of the Munich Court Orchestra. Strauss grew up around music and was, like Dukas, especially influenced by the music of Wagner and Liszt. Also, like Dukas, he was an extraordinarily good orchestrator, a skill Struass learned not only from his experience listing to the Munich orchestra growing up, but also from the fact that he was among the leading conductors of his day. Unlike Dukas, Strauss was exceptionally prolific.
Like most symphonic poems, Death and Transfiguration is related to a poetic text, but, unusually, the poem by Strauss’s friend Alexander Ritter was written at the composer’s request only after the composition had been completed. Strauss conceived of the work as depicting the death of an artist—artwork that took the artist as their subject being a favorite topic of the time—and wrote the music in four continuous sections. What follows is Strauss’s own explanation of the program of the work with occasional added descriptions (in parentheses) of the main musical events of the sections, which are played together without pause:
I. Largo [slow]
A sick artist lies in bed, asleep, with heavy, irregular breathing (soft rhythmic tattoos in the strings, timpani, and woodwinds); friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man (harp arpeggios and descending lines in the woodwinds and solo violins).
II. Allegro molto agitato [fast and very agitated]
The artist awakens (dramatic tympani strike), he is once more racked with horrible agonies (impassioned music in the strings and winds); his limbs shake with fever (jagged unison rhythms from the whole orchestra and seemingly relentless storm music)
III. Meno mosso [slower]
As the attack passes and the pains leave off, the artist’s thoughts wander through his past life (much more transparent texture, oboe solo followed by flute solo); his childhood passes before him (light, march-like music in the woodwinds), the time of his youth with its strivings and passions (strings dominate the texture) and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life’s path, the conception, the ideal that he has sought to realize (several statements of a victorious short rising theme), to present artistically, but that he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things (a great calming and slowing down, and one last violent fast violent interruption before an evaporation in the high strings and winds lead to…)
IV. Moderato [medium tempo]
The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things that could not be fulfilled here below (apotheosis of the rising theme heard several times earlier in the work). Sixty-five years after Strauss completed the work, he commented from his death bed that he was now experiencing death just as he had depicted it in Death and Transfiguration.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959): Schelomo (Solomon) (1916) Hebraic Rhapsody for violoncello solo and large orchestra [Schelomo. Rhapsodie hébraïque pour violoncelle solo et Grand Orchestre]
Ernest Bloch, born to a Swiss Jewish family in Geneva, was heir to both the Germanic and French musical traditions. Although not a practicing Jew, he made a tremendous splash in New York and Boston in the second decade of the twentieth century writing music on Jewish subjects. Thus, Bloch was able to capitalize on the same craze for exotic music that had put Stravinsky at the forefront of the musical world with his Russian exoticism in The Firebird and Petrushka and would soon result in Manuel de Falla’s Spanish works such as The Three-Cornered Hat.
Unfortunately for Bloch, his highly successful excursion into the realm of Jewish music ended up becoming something of a prison for him. In the late 1920s he tired of Jewish subjects and the melodic and harmonic gestures he had used to create sonic pictures of the ancient Hebrews and life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Audiences and critics, however, continued to hear what they considered his Jewish essence even in works in which he had adopted an entirely different sonic palette. His fame to this day rests primarily on his so-called Jewish works, although they make up less than half of his compositional output.
The text associated with Bloch’s Schelomo (Solomon), a rhapsody for solo cello and orchestra, is the Book of Ecclesiastes. In Bloch’s words:
Towards the end of 1915 I was in Geneva. For years I had been sketching a musical setting of the Book of Ecclesiastes, but neither French, German, nor English suited my purposes and I did not know enough Hebrew…One day I met the cellist Alexander Barjansky and his wife. I heard Barjansky play and immediately became his friend. I played him…the Jewish Poems, the Israel Symphony, and the Psalms — all of which were then unpublished…The Barjanskys were profoundly moved. While I played, Mme. Barjansky…sketched a little statue — her ‘sculptural thanks,’ as she put it…My hopes revived and I began to think about writing a work for that marvelous cellist. Why not use my Ecclesiastes material, but instead of a human voice, limited by a text, employ an infinitely grander and more profound voice that could speak all languages — that of his violoncello? I took up my sketches, and without plan or program, almost without knowing where I was headed, I worked for days on my rhapsody…At the same time Mme. Barjansky worked on the statuette intended as a gift for me. She had first thought of sculpting a Christ, but later decided on a King Solomon. We both finished at about the same time. In a few weeks my Ecclesiastes was completed, and since the legend attributes this book to King Solomon, I gave it the title Schelomo.
While Bloch claimed that he “had no descriptive intentions,” he also stated that the ‘cello represented the strong, noble, voice of the prophet and King who built the First Temple in Jerusalem, while the orchestra “represents the world surrounding him and his experiences of life; at the same time, the orchestra often seems to reflect Solomon’s inward thought while the solo instrument is giving voice to his words.”
Rhapsodies normally fall into two large, multi-sectional parts: slow-fast. In Schelomo Bloch alters this form by adding a second slow section after the fast section. This section develops and recalls the material of the previous two sections and adds a great deal of weight to the normally light rhapsody form. Schelomo is thus a hybrid genre—a symphonic poem because of its relationship to a text, a nationalist rhapsody à la Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies because the musical material is considered representative of a group of people, and a showpiece for a virtuoso soloist. Although Bloch uses neither Jewish folk music nor biblical chant, the musical style he developed in Schelomo has come to represented the expression of a Jewish soul for generations of concert goers.
© 2016 David E. Schneider. All rights reserved.
David E. Schneider is professor of music history and theory at Amherst College.
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Carl Maria von Weber, Overture to Der Freischütz (1821)
For most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, grand opera failed to find much of a toehold in Germany. When it came to sung drama, German audiences preferred their traditional Singspiel, which interspersed spoken dialogue with vernacular German songs, and which was much more akin to the English “ballad opera” than to anything in the spectacular Italianate tradition of Handel, Mozart, or Rossini.
Early in the nineteenth-century, however, Germany became possessed with a patriotic fervor that led increasingly to the xenophobic rejection of foreign styles, including Italian opera. German audiences and critics clamored for their own operatic tradition, one that would display their culture in a positive light, and that would be imbued with good Germanic values. It was during this same period of burgeoning nationalism that scholars like the Brothers Grimm began conducting research in rural hamlets, intent on collecting and anthologizing the age-old folk tales that were felt to contain the essence of the German spirit.
Thus, in 1821 when Weber began composing an opera with a German text and a plot set in Germany, he intended to make not only a musical statement, but a nationalist one as well. In Der Freischütz, Weber maintains certain traditional musical aspects: it is a Singspiel, for example, and many of its songs structurally evoke German folk songs. For a libretto, he also turned to a peculiarly German source: the Gespensterbuch, a collection of folk tales published between 1811 and 1815. Der Freischütz (or, “the Free Shooter”) is the first of these tales, and tells the story of Max, a young woodsman who attempts to advance his career by winning a test of marksmanship. He loses the contest, and—due to the weakness of his character—makes a pact with a demon named Samiel. The terrible chaos that ensues is ultimately put right by the intervention of a Christian hermit who suddenly appears and casts judgment on the wayward Max.
The opera’s “Germanness” manifests in a variety of ways. it uses folk song styles and pastoral instrumentation to establish the German countryside, peasantry, and even German Protestantism as the source of authentic cultural expression. It also depicts the kind of dark supernatural forces that crop up incessantly in German folk tales and songs, and even in the poetry of literary superstars like Goethe. In many German literary and musical works from this time period, the dark forest hides specters: gnomes, Elf Kings, trolls, doppelgänger, and unearthly hallucinations that confuse and terrorize hapless protagonists.
In the Overture to Der Freischütz, Weber sets up the duality between the natural and the supernatural; between the realm of the human and the realm of the demonic that is so characteristic of German folk tales, by oscillating between C major and C minor. The Overture further establishes this duality by combining hunting horns in perfect fifths—a sonic symbol of heroic German manliness as well as the German countryside—with the low woodwinds, ominous timpani, and diminished seventh chords that will later characterize the villain of the opera, Samiel.
Gustav Mahler, songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (pub. 1905)
Written some 70 years after Der Freischütz, Mahler’s song cycle nonetheless betrays some of the same peculiarly Germanic interests and anxieties. The songs’ texts are taken from yet another early nineteenth-century German folk anthology, called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (or, “The Youth’s Magic Horn”).
Like many of his German musical forebears, Mahler maintained a lifelong obsession with folk tales and evocations of the pastoral. However, as an early modernist, he explores these interests with more than a hint of irony. Thus, his constant use of folk material is often ambiguous and difficult to interpret. In some ways he seems to express a sincere nostalgia for a simpler time; in other ways we might understand him as presenting a critique, not only of nostalgia, but of the past itself.
My favorite of the songs we will hear tonight is “Der Antoninus von Padua Fischpredigt.” The song depicts St. Anthony preaching a sermon to a sea full of fish, who listen attentively but then swim away, smugly satisfied with themselves although they have learned nothing. The song, like so much of Mahler’s music, is affectively ambiguous. Is it meant to be funny? The oom-pah rhythm, and the way the clarinet and violin imitate the unheeding slipperiness of the fish, are clearly intended to be humorous. Yet the song seems to evoke sadness and emptiness as well. When Anthony finishes speaking, the fish swim away, unchanged. The crabs still go backward; the carp still eat too much. Indeed, “they remain like everyone!” While self-consciously funny, the song also conveys the tragedy of the contemporary individual’s condition: alienated, atomized, unable to communicate productively.
Mahler composed only songs and large symphonies—no operas, no chamber works, no solo showpieces—and, furthermore, his songs and symphonies had a profoundly symbiotic relationship. He often wrote them simultaneously, and he sometimes seamlessly incorporated bits of songs, or references to songs, into his symphonies, thus deepening the interpretive difficulties involved in approaching these monumental works.
Indeed, many of the songs we will hear tonight crop up in Mahler’s symphonic music. “Fischpredigt,” for example, plays an important—if perplexing—role in the third movement of Mahler’s epic choral symphony, the Resurrection. The text of the movement (written by Mahler) claims that life is a meaningless activity, but this devastating assertion is musically based on the fishy accompaniment to “Fischpredigt.” The music refers to a funny song with which all his listeners would have been familiar. But in spite of the music, the text is existentially shattering, and the movement itself ends with harrowing forte chords that Mahler described as “the death-shriek.”
Gabriel Fauré, Requiem (1887)
In Gabriel Fauré’s nineteenth-century France, sacred music had taken on the political baggage of the French Revolution and its violent repression of Catholicism. Post-Revolutionary artists, composers, and writers often manifested a certain nostalgic melancholy for their lost religious past, and sought to revivify it in various ways: they studied scraps of parchment upon which old plainchants might be found; they wrote melancholy tales set in the distant past; and, like Victor Hugo, they invested the cathedrals and monasteries that had managed to escape the Reign of Terror with a new significance as manifestations of national heritage.
Fauré, however, was neither religious nor nationalist, and nor was he a nostalgic person. He bore none of the marks of the late Romantic artist: he did not have grandiose career ambitions; he wasn’t depressed, diseased, or mentally ill, nor did he pretend to be; and he never undertook the sort of tortured self-analysis that was such a governing trait of his German contemporaries (Mahler, Strauss, et al). For most of his career, he wrote in “small” genres—piano pieces; little works for children to play—rather than in the grand symphonic or operatic traditions that, at that time, made composers into superstars. Finally, unlike many of his contemporaries in both Germany and France, Fauré did not seem to bear the weight of the past on his shoulders, and he did not feel the responsibility of creating the “music of the future.”
In light of this airy approach to life and music, it will come as no surprise to learn that Fauré did not compose his Requiem to commemorate a fallen hero or national day of mourning, but rather simply “for the pleasure of it.”
Because it is a series of short vocal works, the mass might be thought of as bearing some similarities to song. Throughout his career—which went through many stylistic transformations—Fauré always thought melodically. He takes care to unfold melodic lines over stunningly large periods of time, where the post-Beethoven Germans tend to be more interested in motivic development. Fauré’s “Pie Jesu,” for example, is simply a setting for solo soprano and orchestra that unfolds almost like an opera aria, and the final movement (“In Paradisum”) opens with a single melodic sentence that lasts some 30 measures. As I hear it, this heightened attention to melody (as well as the choice not to set the frightening “dies irae”) emphasizes a characteristically late French Romantic approach to death, similar to the one explored in the French “fantastic” tales that were so popular at the time. While the music is certainly solemn—as befits its text and historical usage—it never verges on the kind of terror and spiritual angst so common to the requiems of Mozart and Verdi. Instead, Fauré draws out the gentler implications buried in the generic title itself: “requiem” comes from the Latin word requies, which simply means “to rest.”
© 2016 Marianna Ritchey. All rights reserved.
Marianna Ritchey is an Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a (1806)
When Beethoven revised his only opera, Fidelio (originally entitled Leonora, or the Triumph of Marital Love) for its second production in 1806 he gave it a new overture, which we known today as the Leonore Overture No. 3. The work exemplifies Beethoven’s so-called heroic middle period in which many of his works trace a trajectory from darkness to light, struggle to victory. The composer’s Fifth Symphony, which begins with what Beethoven referred to as “fate knocking on the door” and ends with music of triumph, follows the paradigm most famously. The plot of Fidelio is, however, an even clearer realization of this dramatic arc, in that it explicitly corresponds to Enlightenment ideals of the time by celebrating truth and justice as victorious over the darkness of corrupt authoritarianism.
Fidelio tells the story of the political prisoner Florestan, who is unjustly confined and helped to escape by his faithful wife, Leonora, disguised as the prison guard Fidelio. Fidelio is a type of opera known as a Singspiel (sung play)—that is, a work in German with spoken dialogue instead of recitative. The most famous and influential Singspiel before Fidelio was Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte). The two works were intimately connected as Fidelio was originally intended for Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of The Magic Flute. While Mozart had famously integrated a few musical elements of his Singspiel in its overture, Beethoven took Mozart’s idea one step further by constructing an overture to Fidelio that encapsulated the drama of the work.
Beginning with a slow introduction (Adagio) constructed of music from Florestan’s dungeon scene, the body of the overture (Allegro-Presto) brings the music to a triumphal celebration several times. The most programmatic of these deliverances comes about two thirds of the way through the work in the so-called development section. Here, after some rather tumultuous music, everything stops and a trumpet sounds a call from off stage. In the opera this music signals the approach of the liberating army, and, as in the overture, the effect is repeated. Following the trumpet calls the orchestra plays music of ethereal beauty, the second time blossoming fully into music of celebration in the solo flute whose strength and independence resonate with Leonora as the leading figure in the triumph.
Beethoven’s score to the Leonore Overture No. 3 calls for a large orchestra that includes three trombones. This work pre-dates his Fifth Symphony, which was the earliest Viennese concert work to call for the instrument. While still a rarity in concert music, however, Mozart had previously used trombones to great effect in The Magic Flute, and therefore Beethoven had every reason to assume they would be available in a production sponsored by Schikaneder. Indeed, the trombones were not a problem, but as it turned out, Schikaneder did not care for the subject matter and withdrew from the collaboration. At first it seemed as if Schikaneder had been right to disassociate himself from the opera. The first two productions met with little success. For the work’s third production in 1814, however, Beethoven made revisions that included a new, shorter and less programmatic overture. The opera finally met with acclaim, and its discarded overture has come down to us as one of Beethoven’s most beloved concert works.
Brahms (1833-1897): Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54 (1871)
Langsam und sehnsuchsvoll (Slow and with an expression of longing)–Allegro–Adagio
One of the greatest strokes of luck in the history of Western music is that Martin Luther was a musician who saw music as itself a holy creation of God. While other protestant leaders such as John Calvin advocated a starkly reduced role for music in the Church, Luther cultivated music as a central element of spirituality. One result was a particularly rich tradition of choral singing in Germany that began with Luther and continued with such musical luminaries as Heinrich Schütz, J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and Johannes Brahms.
Unlike his predecessors in the German choral tradition, Brahms was skeptical of religion and wrote no liturgical works (works based on the text of the Mass, as opposed to simply spiritual in nature). Still, his music for chorus and orchestra shows him to have been a devoted student of those who came before him in the German tradition, and his choral music, though humanist as opposed to devotional, has spiritual depth.
A prime component of the German tradition of writing for chorus is the chorale, the German term for Hymn. Luther saw chorales as not only beautiful in their own right, but as a source for creating community in that they could be sung together by large groups of amateurs. In Schicksalslied Brahms uses no actual chorale melodies, but recalls the musical language of the chorale—a simple melody harmonized in rhythmic unison by all the voices—throughout much of the work.
Brahms found the text of Schicksalslied in a collection of poems by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) that he happened upon at a friend’s house in the summer of 1868. The composer was immediately taken with the pessimistic subject, which concerns the impermanence of beauty and the unattainability of heaven. The text falls into two main parts, the first full of calm, peaceful images, the second, beginning “Auf keiner Stӓtte zu ruh’n” (No restful heaven to find), communicating the brutal image of fate or destiny (Schicksal) that is the main message of the poem.
Brahms precedes the first section of the text with an orchestral introduction containing some of his most beautiful, serene music in the relaxed key of Eb major. The choral entrance continues in this beatific vein, with rising flute lines sometimes giving the sense of reaching toward heaven. He makes an abrupt change to C minor for the music of storm a violence that he uses for the second portion of the text, which he sets twice so as to equal in length the slower first half. Brahms did not know, however, how to end the work, which he left incomplete for well over a year. Finally, the conductor Hermann Levi, who would lead the first performance of the work, convinced Brahms that he should end with a return to the music of the opening. Brahms did this in an orchestral postlude that reiterates the music of prelude, but with different orchestral texture and a change in key: C major as opposed to the opening Eb major.
The meaning of the ending has long been debated. Did Brahms intend to contradict the message of the text by leaving his listeners with the hopeful image of heaven or a place of eternal beauty as the final result of destiny, or does the orchestral postlude simply provide us with a peaceful space in which to contemplate the fate of man?
Dvořák (1841-1904): Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 (1885)
- Allegro maestoso
- Poco adagio
- Scherzo. Vivace–Poco meno mosso
- Finale. Allegro
Antonín Dvořák came to the attention of Brahms in 1874 when the thirty-three-year old Czech composer entered a competition for a subvention from the Austrian Empire (of which the Czech lands were a part). Brahms was a member of the jury—along with the great Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johann Herbeck, director of the Imperial Opera—and was greatly impressed by Dvořák’s submission of fifteen substantial works, including two symphonies. The body of work was all the more impressive given the fact that it had been produced while Dvořák was struggling to make ends meet in Prague. He didn’t even have enough money to own a piano. Brahms not only recommended Dvořák for the Austrian State subvention, but became Dvořák’s most important supporter, eventually recommending him to his own publisher, Nikolaus Simrock.
By 1880 Dvořák had gained world-wide fame as a composer of symphonies and chamber music. (Because his operas were in Czech they were less frequently exported.) His style combined a Brahmsian sense of profundity with a touch of Czech exoticism—a combination that audiences found appealing not only throughout Europe, but also in the United States. British audiences were particularly fond of Dvořák, and in 1884 the Philharmonic Society of London made him an honorary member and commissioned him to write a new symphony. He produced the work, his seventh essay in the genre, in short order, telling friend that “I am now busy with this symphony for London, and wherever I go I can think of nothing else. God grant that this Czech music will move the world!!” He travelled to conduct the premiere in London in 1885. It was an immediate success. Oddly, given the Seventh Symphony’s popularity and high quality, Simrock put up resistance to its publication, although in the end competition from other publishing houses eventually led Simrock to publish the work for what Dvořák considered a fair price.
The first movement begins with one of the most effective openings in the entire symphonic repertoire—after laying down a quiet, ominous low D in the basses, horns, and tympani, Dvořák introduces a deceptively simple melody in the violas and ‘cellos. This first theme, confined to a small range of only a few notes, circles in on itself and is almost too short to be considered a melody at all in the traditional sense. Its most notable feature is its seemingly tacked-on ending, a twice repeated short-short-long figure that gives it rhythmic vitality. The contrast between the meandering melody that precedes it and the rhythmic tattoo creates a tension between lilting smoothness and crisp drive that characterizes the entire movement.
The Adagio presents a wealth of ideas, from the slow walking of the opening, to woodland passages evoked by the horn choir and woodwinds, to bold declarations from the entire orchestra that verge on recitative. The full-throated climax of the movement occurs close to the end. Dvořák follows it with an extended dénouement over a low F tonic pedal, above which we hear gentle echoes of what came before.
The third movement scherzo has the most decidedly Czech-inflected music of the symphony. It is a symphonic rendering of a furiant, a Bohemian folk dance that alternates and superimposes patterns of two and three. The contrasting trio section initially gives the effect of panning away from the vigorous dancing of peasants to their surroundings—the flute ascending to a high trill evoking a bird in the forest. The reintroduction of furiant rhythms in the transition out of the trio to the main music of the scherzo is one of the most energetic parts of the symphony.
The finale opens with a romantic, expressive melody in the cellos and moves quickly onto something akin to a hymn, which in turn soon becomes agitated and explodes into a rocketing arpeggio figure that turns out to be one of the hallmarks of the movement. Much of the finale invokes Slavic folk dances, but the material is too varied and quickly changing for any one type of gesture to dominate. The result is an overflowing cornucopia of ecstatic celebration.
© 2016 David E. Schneider. All rights reserved.
David E. Schneider is the Andrew E. Mellon Professor of Music History and Theory at Amherst College.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
(F.) J. Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 77 in B-flat Major, Hob. I:77 (1782)
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Menuet & Trio. Allegro
4. Finale. Allegro spiritoso
Unlike most eighteenth-century composers, Joseph Haydn did not come from a family of professional musicians. His father was a village wheelwright with a great love and talent for music, but no formal musical training, and neither of Haydn’s parents could read music. Observing musical talent in their son, the Haydns sent Joseph to study in a nearby town at the age of 6. At the age of 8 he was recruited for the choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna where he received a solid foundation in Latin, violin, voice, and keyboard, but no instruction in music theory or composition.
Dismissed from St. Stephen’s shortly after his voice changed at age 17 (the Empress herself had commented on the cacophony that occurred when he tried to sing the high notes), Haydn spent twelve hard years “in the salt mines”—that is, working his way up the musical ladder in Vienna from lowly positions such as street musician, freelance violinist, and composer’s assistant to gradually more illustrious posts in the service of noble patrons.
At age 29 he became assistant head of music (Vice Kapellmeister) in the employ of the Esterházy family, one of the richest noble families in the Habsburg realm. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to the position of head of music (Kapellmeister). After thirty highly productive years in the Esterházy’s service, Haydn retired in 1791 with a substantial pension, good earnings from the publication of his works, and a reputation as the world’s leading symphonist.
By 1782, the year he composed his Symphony No. 77 in Bb major, Haydn had been writing symphonies for two decades, and had long since settled into the four-movement formula typical of symphonies in the last third of the eighteenth century: fast—slow—minuet—fast, each with its own characteristic form and mood. What made Haydn’s approach so special was his power of invention, especially keen in the small departures from convention that kept the audience of Haydn’s day who were familiar with those conventions on its toes.
The first movement this symphony (Vivace) begins as a virtual textbook example of sonata form. The first part (exposition) opens with two iterations of a 12-bar first theme (one quiet, one loud), which give way to a stormy bridg” section that ends with a full stop. The second theme (two iterations of an 8-bar melody) that follows is more relaxed and lightly scored. It leads in turn to a more energetic passage ending with a forceful cadence. The entire exposition is then repeated verbatim. After the second time through the exposition Haydn enters the so-called development section, in which he works with (or develops) the musical materials already presented, now weaving them into more complicated contrapuntal textures. He first focuses on the materials of the first theme then, after another full stop, the materials of the second theme, which leads to a loud restatement of the first theme. This marks the beginning of the final section or recapitulation. Haydn’s treatment of the recapitulation is what would have especially intrigued his audiences. Although it reiterates the sequence of events of the exposition, it does so with different proportions and surprising additions. Particularly charming is a brief staccato (clipped-note) passage (pianissimo) after the second theme that features two unexpected full stops in a row.
The second movement (Andante sostenuto) explores a more relaxed mood than the extroverted first movement. Haydn accentuates the contrast by instructing the violins to use mutes, which lends a hushed fragility to their sound. The structure of the movement is ABA’. As in the first movement, towards the end of the last section Haydn employs unexpected full stops, which add a touch of drama, mystery, and humor to the concluding bars.
Haydn labels the third movement Minuet, a dance in triple meter with roots in the seventeenth-century French court that had become one of the most popular social dances in Haydn’s day. While Haydn does use triple meter, the forceful rhythm of this movement is not typical of the elegant minuet, but evocative of a more rustic peasant dance. The mood and rhythm smooth out a bit in the trio section, which continues the same meter and tempo as the minuet, but changes orchestration to feature the oboes and bassoons accompanied by pizzicato (plucked) strings.
As was Haydn’s general practice, the finale (Allegro spiritoso) is a light, fast race to the finish based on a theme with the feel of a folk dance. The repeat of the first section as well as the alternation of thematic sections with stormy passages indicate that Haydn employs the same basic form as he did in the first movement, but since he uses identical melodic material for his first and second themes, the result is simply several iterations of the pattern: theme, stormy departure, and return.
W. A. Mozart (1756-1791): Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major, K. 417 (1783)
1. Allegro maestoso
Virtually all of Mozart’s concertos were written for specific soloists. In the case of his concertos for piano and for violin, the intended soloist was most often the composer himself. In the case of his horn concertos, Mozart’s inspiration was the horn virtuoso Joseph Leitgeb (1732-1811). Leitgeb was a close friend of the Mozart family, having been a member of the Salzburg Court Orchestra and thus a colleague of Mozart’s father, Leopold, from 1763 to 1777. Leitgeb also provided one of several connections between Joseph Haydn and the Mozarts, as Haydn had written a horn concerto for him in 1762, and the hornist had played under Haydn in Esterháza just prior to his move to Salzburg.
Leitgeb, who as a young man had had great success in Vienna as a soloist, moved back to Vienna from Salzburg in 1777 and bought “a snail’s shell of a house” to quote Leopold Mozart who provided Leitgeb with a loan to aid in the purchase. When Wolfgang moved to Vienna in 1781 he re-established close contact with Leitgeb, who was apparently living under strained circumstances. As Mozart wrote to his father in 1782 regarding Leitgeb’s unpaid loan:
Please have a little patience with poor Leitgeb. If you knew his circumstances and saw how he has to muddle through, you would certainly feel sorry for him. I shall have a word with him and I feel sure that he will pay you, at any rate by installments.
Leitgeb had long requested a horn concerto from Mozart, and Mozart had already made several aborted attempts to compose one before he finally produced the work on this evening’s program in 1783, affectionately inscribed “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart has taken pity on Le[i]tgeb, ass, ox, and fool, Vienna, 27 March 1783.” The designation “Horn Concerto No. 2” is due to an error made by the first cataloguer of Mozart’s works. It is, in fact, Mozart’s first.
This concerto is a remarkable testament to the performer’s skill. Although the main theme of the first movement is built on an arpeggio, typical of writing for horn in the eighteenth-century, this arpeggio is embellished into a gently rounded melodic line, which could have been played only by the most accomplished eighteenth-century hornists. Unlike the modern horn, which employs valves that allow for the player to play scales throughout all of the instrument’s range, the horn of Mozart’s day was a simple tube that generally restricted the instrument to arpeggios consisting of the notes of the overtone series. Leitgeb, however, was a master of modifying the pitches of the overtone series by modulating the position of his hand in the bell of the instrument, which allowed him to produce a greatly expanded number of notes.
Mozart takes advantage of Leitgeb’s stopping technique throughout the first movement, which includes numerous brilliant ascending scales, as well as in the more vocally inspired melodies of the second movement. Only in the last movement does Mozart give in to the horn’s natural proclivity for playing calls related to the hunt, which is the topic of the movement. The solo horn consistently leads the pack. Mozart adds variety and excitement at the end with several unexpected full stops (reputedly jokes by Mozart intended to make it seem as if Leitgeb had lost his place) followed by an increase in tempo, which gives the impression of the horn racing away and leaving the galloping horses of the orchestra in the dust.
P. I. TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93): Symphony No. 3 in D Major, Op. 29 (“Polish”) (1875)
1. Introduzione e Allegro. Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) – Allegro brillante
2. Alla tedesca. Allegro moderato e semplice
3. Andante. Andante elegiaco
4. Scherzo. Allegro vivo
5. Finale. Allegro con fuoco (tempo di Polacca)
The sub-title “Polish” of Tchaikovsky’s decidedly Russian Third Symphony would not have made sense to the composer. It accrued to the work after its first British performance in 1889 because the Polonaises of the finale were assumed by British critics to be expressions of Polish nationalism. In fact, in the Russian context, the polonaise had long been a symbol of the ruling Romanovs, making it the most patriotic Russian dance.
A slight oddity of this symphony is that it is in five movements as opposed to the customary four, although Tchaikovsky was not alone in writing five-movement symphonies. (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and Robert Schumann’s Manfred Symphony, are the most prominent earlier examples.) Tchaikovsky’s “additional” movement is the second, a minuet, a standard component of eighteenth-century symphonies that had been supplanted in the early nineteenth century by the scherzo. Thus, as he often did in his ballets, in his Symphony No. 3 Tchaikovsky tips his hat in the direction of eighteenth-century classicism at the same time as making use of the full sonic resources of the mid- to late-nineteenth-century orchestra. As with most of Tchaikovsky’s mature orchestral works, the orchestration of the Symphony No. 3 simply sparkles. In the course of the work, virtually every section in the orchestra—from the low brass to the piccolo—has a prominent part, often demanding the utmost technical agility.
Although Tchaikovsky uses forms traditionally associated with the symphony, most of the musical material of the Third Symphony sounds as if it were conceived for dance. New York City Ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine, who was especially attuned to the Russian tradition, used most of the work for “Diamonds,” the third act of his 1967 ballet Jewels. Not coincidentally, Tchaikovsky’s composition of the symphony dovetailed with his work on his ballet Swan Lake, his next large-scale work.
Unusually, three of the Symphony’s five movements are in 3/4 time, this being the time-signature not only of the minuet (2nd movement) and the polonaise (5th movement), but also of the sarabande, the eighteenth-century dance underpinning the slow third movement. Possibly as a result of this preponderance of triple meter, Tchaikovsky departs from convention by writing the scherzo not in the customary 3/4 or 3/8, but in duple meter, a lightening quick 2/4 that heightens the contrast with the surrounding movements.
The first movement is a set of two marches, both in 4/4 time. The first is a slow funeral march in D minor, the second a fast military march in D major. The progression from minor to major already present in the first movement corresponds to the typical Beethovenian symphonic progression from struggle to victory. In the last movement, Tchaikovsky takes full advantage of the power of the key of D major, one of the few keys that is especially brilliant for both strings and brass, with a tremendous climax in which he pulls out all the stops. The bombast of the finale’s conclusion leaves no question about Tchaikovsky’s support for the victorious fortunes of the Russian Empire.
© David E. Schneider 2016
Sunday, November 15, 3pm, Second Congregational Church, Greenfield
The unifying idea behind this performance has its origin in the nickname of the Haydn Mass that ends the program: “Little Organ Mass.” The piece has that name (not given by Haydn) for two reasons: it has beautiful and extensive organ solo passages; and to distinguish it from his Missa in honorem Beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ, which is nicknamed the “Grosse Orgelmesse,” or “Large Organ Mass.”
The idea of a “little” Mass made me think about what other “little” music there is: chamber music! So this afternoon, we will hear a program of “little” music – vocal chamber music, instrumental chamber music, and the “Little Organ Mass.”
The Pioneer Valley Symphony Chamber Choir’s set of seven pieces that opens our program is a tribute to this season, PVS’s 77th, which we’ve unified under the theme of “Lucky Sevens.” Each of the seven pieces performed by the Chamber Choir is related to a number, counting up from one to seven.
Contemporary Venezuelan composer Alberto Grau’s piece “Kasar mie la gaji” is conscientiously environmentalist music, depicting an earth that is tired and increasingly frustrated with its mistreatment at the hands of humanity. It is a reminder that we only have ONE earth, and it should not be abused. The lighthearted madrigal “Four hands, TWO necks, one wreathing” by English Renaissance composer Thomas Weelkes is a love song that the sopranos and altos of the Chamber Choir perform on their own. Claude Debussy’s luscious “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” is the first of THREE pieces in his set Trois chansons.
The Romantic motet by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner entitled “Christus factus est” was written for FOUR voices, with a sense of intense religious devotion. English Renaissance composer William Byrd also wrote “Psallite Domino” out of a deep feeling of faith – he was a devout Catholic during the English Reformation – but he wrote his sacred piece for FIVE voices.
“En hiver” by 20th century German composer Paul Hindemith is a setting of a poem by the early modern poet Rainer Maria Rilke that combines humor and deep sadness, and it is the fifth of SIX pieces in Hindemith’s collection Six Chansons. Finally, Moses Hogan’s arrangement of the spiritual “The Battle of Jericho” tells the biblical story of Joshua and his Israelite forces attacking and ultimately seizing the walled city of Jericho. After laying siege to the city for SEVEN days, they marched around the city seven times, and the walls miraculously fell.
Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, written in 1837, is one of the composers many pieces that was influenced by literature. The collection is named after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella collection Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (“Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot”). Schumann’s collection is designed as a dialogue between two halves of his personality: Florestan “the wild,” and Eusebius “the mild.” Florestan was a manifestation of the passionate, bold parts of the composer, and Eusebius was the dreamy introvert. “Aufschwung” is most definitely a depiction of Florestan!
Claude Debussy composed his twelve Études for piano in 1915. Each etude is designed to be both a beautiful piece of music, and a study of a particular pianistic technique. They are considered his late masterpieces, and some of the most difficult works in the solo piano repertoire. Debussy himself described the collection as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.” The twelfth etude, pour les accords, is designed to emphasize the pianist’s skill at playing chords.
Jesse Johnson is a senior in high school and is currently preparing for college auditions. Today’s performance is an opportunity for him to perform his audition pieces in public, before an enthusiastic and welcoming audience!
Czech composer Antonin Dvořák composed his String Quartet No. 12 in 1893 during a summer vacation in the town of Spillville, IA, which was home to a Czech immigrant community. He wrote the entire work in just sixteen days.
The fourth movement contains music that scholars suggest might have come directly from his time in Spillville: the first theme sounds like Native American music to some; there is music that could resemble a locomotive chugging across the plains; and the third theme sounds like a hymn, maybe inspired by the Church of St. Václav in Spillville, where Dvořák sometimes played the organ during his summer vacation. The composer later wrote “When I composed this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.”
Haydn’s “Little Organ Mass” is a missa brevis, which means that it is smaller than many other Mass settings. Haydn shortened the duration by having different voice parts sing different texts at the same time – that way, the liturgical necessities were accomplished in less time! Listen at the beginning of the Gloria and the Credo – all four voice parts are singing different words, splitting the text between them.
The “Little Organ Mass” was written in the mid-1770s for a chapel of the Order of the Brothers of Mercy, a religious order that provided medical care to the poor. The chapel was very small, which is why the Mass is scored only for violins, cello, bass, and organ. It also only showcases one vocal soloist, instead of the more common solo quartet. So the “Little Organ Mass” is not only small in length, but also small in performing forces. Don’t be fooled, though – it contains some of Haydn’s most beautiful melodic writing. Good things often come in small packages, after all.
Saturday, October 24, 7:30pm, Greenfield High School Auditorium
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Capriccio Italien (1880)
Andante un poco rubato—Allegro moderato—Andante—Allegro moderato—Presto
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (1831-1894) was a remarkable woman of aristocratic heritage who encouraged her husband to leave his post as a poorly paid government engineer and strike out on his own as a speculator and builder of railways in Russia. On his death in 1873, he left and a spectacular fortune and 42-year-old Nadezhda with seven of her thirteen children still at home. Madam von Meck took charge of his extensive business interests, ran her family with an iron fist, and used part of her fortune to become a patron of musicians—such as the composer Claude Debussy, the virtuoso violinist Henri Wieniawski, the pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, and the violinist Josef Kotek. Through Kotek, a one-time student and likely sometime lover of Tchaikovsky’s, and Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s boss at the Moscow Conservatory, von Meck became aware of Tchaikovsky’s need of support, She supported him with a generous stipend for thirteen years, beginning in 1877.
Since one of von Meck’s conditions was that she and Tchaikovsky must never meet (a recluse, she refused even to meet her children’s in-laws), one by-product of the arrangement was an astonishing correspondence of over 1,200 letters between the composer and his patron. Another result was that in 1878 Tchaikovsky had the financial security to quit his post as professor at the Moscow Conservatory and dedicate himself to what became for him two intertwined activities: composition and travel.
We know about the composition of Capriccio Italien both from Tchaikovsky’s letters to von Meck and from reports of his brother Modest, who was with him on the trip to Rome in the winter of 1879-80 that inspired the work.
Capriccio Italien is something akin to a multi-paned sonic postcard containing musical impressions of Italy. The designation “Capriccio” has been used in a variety of ways in connection with music over the centuries. In the nineteenth century, composers used it as one of several genre titles designating a light, multi-sectional, one-movement work expressing regional or national coloring. Other designations for similar works include “rhapsody” and “fantasy.” The latter had, in fact, been Tchaikovsky’s original title of the work. In the nineteenth century, such compositions tended to consist of two halves: the first relatively slow, the second increasingly fast, each made up of several sub-sections.
The opening fanfare in the trumpets is Tchaikovsky’s verbatim rendition of the bugle call that he heard each morning from barracks neighboring his hotel in Rome. The trumpets play the opening fanfare, and their more agile and less piercing cousins the cornets (an instrument borrowed from military bands) are given extraordinarily demanding parts throughout the work. A further particularly striking military element of the first half of the Capriccio is the series of generous pauses separating repetitions of the stark rhythmic tattoo (ta-ta-ta-tum) played by the brass and woodwinds that conveys a sense of pompous procession such as one might hear at a military funeral. The first half also contains a brilliant section introduced by a horn call in which the violins, woodwinds, and cornet all vie to show off their agility.
The second half of the work begins with a return to the opening tempo, which soon gives way to a tarantella—a fast dance in 6/8 time from southern Italy—which Tchaikovsky uses to bring this orchestral showpiece to a virtuosic close.
Philip Glass (b. 1937): Symphony No. 7, “A Toltec Symphony” (2004)
- The Corn
- The Sacred Root
- The Blue Deer
Repetition of gestures, phrases, and entire sections has always been a part of symphonic music. Indeed, the first and third movements of even the earliest symphonies from the first quarter of the eighteenth century grew out of dance forms that were filled with repeats—a practical feature that allowed musicians to tailor the length of their playing to the needs of the dancers. In Philip Glass’s music, however, repetition is so prevalent that it often takes on the quality of a mantra. Not only is the immediate repetition of musical material one of his primary compositional modes, but his particular brand of repetition combined with gradual changes commonly induces in listeners a state akin to that of meditation in Buddhism.
The relationship of Glass’s aesthetics to that of Eastern religion is not coincidental. One of his formative influences as a composer was the Hindustani classical musician Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), whose music Glass transcribed into Western musical notation while studying on a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris, 1965-66. Glass—who grew up in Baltimore, graduated from the University of Chicago at 19, and held a master’s degree in composition from Juilliard—was hardly a beginning composer at this stage of his life, but had not yet found what would become his distinctive compositional voice. In Paris, studying with the great guru of Western classical music Nadia Boulanger (confidante of Igor Stravinsky and teacher of Aaron Copland, among many others), Glass took the work with Shankar mainly out of financial need. The effect of Indian music began to emerge in his own work only when he returned to New York in 1967 and encountered the music of Steve Reich, who, like Glass, was a “downtown” (Greenwich Village) New York composer experimenting with music that included a great deal of repetition and changed very slowly.
Glass’s early works in his new ultra-repetitive style, which is sometimes referred to as “minimalism,” were highly aggressive—many featuring electric keyboards and other amplified instruments playing patterns furiously while cranked up to rock-concert volumes. Often performed in lofts and art galleries, Glass’s work acquired a strong following among young visual artists and avant-garde dancers and actors. Music critics from the established media almost universally dismissed it. Gradually, however, the music gained greater acceptance, and, perhaps as a reaction to less hostile criticism, became less aggressive, warmer, and less obsessively repetitive (although plenty of repetition remains a hallmark of his style). Along with these changes came an increasingly large body of work in traditional genres such as concertos, string quartets, and symphonies, which to date so far span the twenty years from 1992 (Symphony no. 1) to 2012 (Symphony no. 10).
Glass’s Symphony no. 7 was commissioned in 2004 by the National Symphony in Washington D.C. for the sixtieth birthday of its music director, Leonard Slatkin, an American conductor well known for his championing of new American works. Like Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Glass’s Seventh Symphony is an attempt to capture something of the music and spirit of a foreign locale, the “Toltec” of the work’s subtitle referring to the Mesoamerican culture centered in what is the present-day Mexican state of Hidalgo in approximately the 8th through 12th centuries CE. According to Glass’s program notes for the world premiere of the work, some of the practices of the Toltecs live on in the Wirrarika people from North Mexico, and his “Toltec” Symphony takes its inspiration from their spiritual practice. In Glass’s words:
THE CORN represents a direct link between Mother Earth and the well being of human beings. But it also represents the responsibility of the people to nurture the gifts of Mother Earth—that corn which will sustain them.
THE SACRED ROOT is found in the high deserts of north and central Mexico, and is understood to be the doorway to the world of the Spirit.
THE BLUE DEER is considered the holder of the Book of Knowledge. Any man or woman who aspires to be a ‘Person of Knowledge’ will, through arduous training and effort, have to encounter the Blue Deer. The Blue Deer might be seen as a literal blue deer or something more abstract—for example, a vision, a voice that one might hear, or a thought uninvited but present in the mind of the practitioner.
Glass’s work departs from conventions of the symphony as established in the first half of the eighteenth century and still largely observed today: it is in three movements as opposed to the traditional four; it includes a chorus in the second and third movements; and it concludes with a slow movement in place of a traditional fast finale. Like Tchaikovsky, who used an Italian tune or two he heard on the streets of Italy in Capriccio Italien, Glass used a field recording of a Mexican man of indigenous origin as the basis of the singing and drumming of his symphony’s second movement. Glass’s chorus sings no actual words, only syllables that heighten the chant-like ritual aspect of the work. In the third movement of his Symphony, Glass uses unusually long silences to powerful effect—much as Tchaikovsky does in the main theme of Capriccio Italien.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), op. 36 (1899)
Sir Edward Elgar was the son of a professional musician who earned a living in the vicinity of Worcester, England, as a piano tuner, music shop owner, organist, and violinist. Brought up Catholic, Elgar had neither the wealth nor social connections of most successful English composers of his day. An accomplished violinist, skilled conductor and arranger, he supported himself for many years in low-level service and teaching positions, such as conductor of the attendants’ band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum and Professor of Violin at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. Hard work and the unfailing support of his wife Caroline Alice (née Roberts), who was eight years his senior and the daughter of a major general, eventually brought about recognition of Elgar as the leading British composer of his generation. Never fully at home in Anglican British society, at age 47 he was knighted and at age 67 in 1924 was publicly acknowledged as the most important living British composer with his appointment to be the Master of the King’s Musick, an honorary position somewhat akin to poet laureate in the United States.
Elgar’s big break as a composer came at age 42 with the success of his Variations on an Original Theme, which was premiered in London under the baton of Hans Richter (1843-1916), an Austro-Hungarian conductor closely associated with Wagner, and a much respected figure in British musical life. The work originated with Elgar improvising a theme at the piano after a long day of teaching. His wife particularly liked it and encouraged him to repeat it. As a sort of parlor game he asked her to guess who he had in mind when he repeated the theme in different guises. Much impressed, Alice encouraged Elgar to take the game seriously, and the eventual result was a substantial work of the theme and fourteen variations, each depicting some characteristic of the personality of a person close to the composer. Elgar identified the subjects of all but one of the movements, but he also claimed that the work contained an unstated theme, the “Enigma” of the work’s subtitle. In Elgar’s words,
The Enigma I will not explain – its “dark saying” must be left un-guessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played… So the principal Theme never appears…
Much speculation has gone into figuring out the Enigma, but since Elgar never approved a solution put forward in his lifetime it remains a mystery. What follows are mainly culled from Elgar’s own comments on the content of the work’s individual sections:
Variation 1 (C. A. E.) L’istesso tempo. A continuation of the theme inspired by the delicacy of the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar.
Variation 2 (H. D. S-P.) Allegro. Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist and chamber-music companion in chamber music of Elgar’s. The fast figuration is an imitation of Steuart-Powell’s idiosyncratic warm-up at the piano.
Variation 3 (R. B. T.) Allegretto. Richard Baxter Townshend, a classicist at Oxford, former cowboy in the American West, and amateur actor, here depicted portraying an old man in a theatrical production.
Variation 4 (W. M. B.) Allegro di molto. William Meath Baker, a country squire, briskly giving orders, then running out and inadvertently slamming the door.
Variation 5 (R. P. A.) Moderato. Richard Penrose Arnold, a music lover and amateur pianist who played with great feeling. In Elgar’s words, “His serious conversation [strings] was often broken up by witty remarks [woodwinds].”
Variation 6 (Ysobel) Andantino. Isabel Fitton, Elgar’s viola student and secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society, which Elgar conducted.
Variation 7 (Troyte) Presto. Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and co-founder with Elgar of the Malvern Concert Club. The frantic drum part is said to be inspired by Troyte’s wild attempts to play the piano.
Variation 8 (W. N.) Allegretto. Winifred Norbury, along with Isabel Fitton, secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. According to Elgar, the variation shows “the gracious personalities of the ladies [Winifred and her sister].”
Variation 9 (Nimrod) Adagio. August Jaeger (Jaeger means hunter in German, and Nimrod was described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord” in Genesis 10), Elgar’s closest confidant next to his wife. The variation depicts a long summer’s walk in which Jaeger held forth on the slow movements of Beethoven. This is the most beloved part of the work, often performed in Britain at times of national mourning.
Variation 10 (Dorabella) Intermezzo. Allegretto. Dora Penny, step-niece of W. M. B. (variation 4), a young woman of great vivacity whose slight stutter Elgar depicts.
Variation 11 (G. R. S.) Allegro di molto. George Robertson Sinclair, an organist and conductor who was famously inseparable from his bulldog Dan, depicted here falling into a river, “paddling upstream to find a landing place; and his rejoicing bark on landing.”
Variation 12 (B. G. N.) Andante. Basil George Nevinson, an amateur ‘cellist and chamber-music partner of Elgar’s.
Variation 13 (* * *) Romanza. Moderato. The unnamed person in question is thought to be Lady Mary Lygon, a noble member of Worcestershire society who was travelling to Australia at the time Elgar composed the Variations. The very soft clarinet solos are quotations from Mendelssohn’s Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
Variation 14 (E. D. U.) Finale. Allegro. The letters are not an abbreviation, but a representation of “Edoo,” Alice Elgar’s term of endearment for her husband. In addition to Elgar himself, we hear Alice and Jaeger (Nimrod), the composer’s two greatest supporters.
© David E. Schneider 2015
David E. Schneider is the author of Bartók, Hungary, and the Renewal of Tradition (UC Press, 2006) and professor of music history and theory at Amherst College.
Saturday, May 9, 7:30pm, Academy of Music, Northampton
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera, Cavalleria rusticana (premiered Rome, 1890) started life as an entry to a contest for composers who had not yet had an opera performed on stage. Needless to say, it was one of the three winners, and has been a popular hit from the moment of its premiere, securing its place as one of the most often-performed operas in the repertoire.
But Cavalleria is more than just popular. It has a special place in music history as the first Italian verismo opera. Verismo, meaning naturalistic, was a reaction to 19th-century Romanticism, which in turn was a reaction to Enlightenment Classicism. The Romantics rejected the optimistic, rationalistic view of the world embodied in the opera of the eighteenth century, where evil is punished and everything works out in the end (Don Giovanni was a scoundrel, after all). Instead composers like Verdi created highly charged, dramatic operas in which the protagonist often dies and true love is seldom rewarded.
The verists , on the other hand, believed that the arts should reflect real life truthfully, in all its commonplace ugliness and ambiguity. Instead of the gods, kings, queens, and nobles of Romantic opera, their plots revolve around the humblest of individuals struggling with everyday problems that are nonetheless momentous and dramatic to them.
At least on the surface, Cavalleria adheres to these principles: Sicilian peasants at Easter playing out a drama that involves jealousy, adultery, and revenge. But a closer look reveals that Mascagni tipped his hat to Romantic opera, while at the same time creating something that very definitely breaks that mold.
As the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus points out, there are key differences in the opera’s libretto from the novella it is based on by verist author Giovanni Verga. In Verga’s story, Lola marries Alfio because he’s wealthier than Turiddu. Turiddu is never in love with Santuzza, but exploits her to make Lola jealous. And Santuzza has no remorse after she tells Alfio about his wife’s affair: it is an act of pure revenge.
Librettists Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci softened these sharp edges in their work for Cavalleria, perhaps unwilling to stray so far from the operatic norm. They make us believe that Turiddu was really in love with Santuzza, at least at one time. We know nothing of Lola’s motivations in marrying Alfio, and Santuzza is a figure of pity appearing not to realize she has basically signed Turiddu’s death warrant by informing Alfio of the affair.
All this makes the plot itself—although not the setting and characters—very similar to Romantic opera.
Musically, the Romantic operas of Verdi and his contemporaries were extremely conventional, meaning that there were specific conventions a composer was bound to follow or he risked alienating the singers and the public. The prima donna and the primo uomo each had to have two two-part arias (cavatina-cabaletta) in which to show off their voices. The seconda donna or uomo might get only one, and lesser characters could have lyrical moments or a single one-part aria. These arias occur at heightened moments of drama, and give the characters an opportunity to reflect, or make a decision, or turn the plot in a surprising way. The chorus, in addition to providing context as crowd or other group, usually had a moment at the climax of the opera called the groundswell, where the light dawns on them about what is happening or some secret is revealed.
Another set piece is the love duet (sometimes a friendship duet between two men or two women), which had its own musical conventions. The closer the two characters are, the more their musical lines parallel each other, in thirds, sixths, or closest of all, octaves or unison.
In Cavalleria, however, arias, duets, and choruses arise organically from the overall flow of the music rather than being set apart as discrete numbers. More tuneful sections blend into what we experience as dialogue, but are not distinctly arias. Gone is anything resembling the dry recitative still prevalent in Romantic opera through much of the nineteenth century.
In fact, often when we notice something that fulfills the musical function of an aria, we find that rather than occurring at moments of high drama and moving the action on to another level of intensity, they are, literally, songs—with a few notable exceptions.
Turiddu’s opening aria “O Lola, ch’ai di latte la cammisa”, for instance, is a love song in the form of a Siciliano, a folk dance in 6/8 time native to Sicily. The function of this song is dual: to identify the setting as Sicily (the lyrics are in Sicilian dialect, just for emphasis), and to foreshadow the action to come. This is a definite break with convention. Romantic operas are more likely to set the scene with a chorus, as Verdi does in La traviata.
When Alfio arrives on the scene, he does so singing a song in praise of his profession, complete with a repeated refrain, “Il cavallo scalpita”. Turiddu sings a brindisi, or toast, after Mass, when everyone gathers to drink wine. (Think of the famous example in La traviata, Alfredo’s “Libiamo ne’i lieti calici”.) Lola also enters singing a cheerful love song that is not tied to the drama, “Fior di giaggiolo”.
Even the chorus sings its glorious music in the service of setting and atmosphere, not drama. Their opening “Gli aranci olezzano” is a description of the countryside, and the Regina coeli and the Easter hymn establish the day and time of year.
Only Santuzza does not have a “song.” Her moments of lyricism are consistently tied to the dramatic action. Both of her duets with Turiddu occur at points of great intensity. The second one, “No, no Turridu, rimani ancora” in many ways follows the conventions of the Romantic love duet, with one important distinction: it’s really a hate duet. At the moment when their two musical lines are in parallel octaves, they are singing diametrically opposed lyrics with completely opposite emotional content. This sets up an irony that would not have been lost on the contemporary opera audience. Likewise Santuzza’s “Turiddu mi tolso l’onore”, where she informs Alfio of his wife and Turiddu’s treachery,creates the turning point that leads to the inevitable, tragic ending of the drama.
As listeners today, we can sit back and simply enjoy the music and the action without knowing any of the historical and stylistic context. But in its day, Cavalleria rusticana must have been very thrilling to an opera-going public that was intimately acquainted with the operas of Verdi and the other Italian Romantics. While Wagner had already revolutionized opera in German, Mascagni’s one-act jewel provided the Italians with their own variety of modernism, wrapped in memorable, lyrical music.
Sunday, March 29, 7pm, Hess Center for the Arts, Deerfield Academy
Sibelius & Rachmaninoff
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Prelude to The Tempest, Op. 109, No. 1 (1926)
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was a leading symphonist, and, with Antonin Dvořák, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich, among the most influential of the non-German contributors to the genre. He was also one of the most tragic casualties of modernism.
Hailed as a major modernist at the premiere of his first symphony in 1900, in the post-World War I era critics saw his style as Romantic and outdated. Although there was no lack of public interest in his works and he continued to receive important commissions, a sense of being out of step with the musical developments of the day eventually led to a crippling depression and insecurity. Despite his fecundity through the mid 1920s, he wrote virtually nothing of significance after 1926 although he lived another thirty-one years. Never a teetotaler, alcohol became his refuge, writing in his diary in 1927: “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair… In order to survive, I have to have alcohol… My prestige here at present is rock-bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”
Incidental music to accompany Shakespeare’s play The Tempest was the second-to-last of Sibelius’s large-scale completed projects (he finished his last symphonic poem, Tapiola, a few months later). Written to accompany a 1926 production of the play by Copenhagen’s Royal Theater, the score is composed of some thirty-six musical numbers, the first of which is the prelude on tonight’s program. A prelude generally deviates from its close cousin the overture in that it tends to focus more exclusively on the mood appropriate to the beginning of the drama rather than encapsulating the action of the whole. Sibelius’s Prelude to The Tempest is no exception: it is almost entirely devoted a depiction of the storm at sea that opens the work. The shipwrecked Prospero, who has magical powers, conjures the storm in order to have his brother’s ship run aground on Prospero’s island.
Sibelius’s storm is not, however, one of bombastic fury in the manner of the raging rain and wind that Verdi depicts at the opening of his opera Otello, but an eerier and quieter constant churning of the waters, which Sibelius captures with wave-like rising and falling dissonant chromatic lines in the strings. An intimation of the power of the surging ocean lies in the forceful chords in the brass and woodwinds. Swells undulate until the last minute of the prelude when the ship is presumably beached, and the churning strings give way to several iterations of a final static chord. This chord, while quiet, nevertheless conveys a sense of latent power in Sibelius’s inclusion of timpani and low brass. Taken as a work of musical abstraction rather than one of dramatic mimesis, the sound of this prelude can be heard as Sibelius’s attempt to join the ranks of modernist composers of the 1920s.
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1907)
- Allegro moderato
- Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
- Moderato – Allegro (ma non tanto)
1907 saw the completion of two important works in the history of the symphony: Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, a half-hour work scored for the medium-sized orchestra common in Europe already in the 1840s, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand lasting almost an hour-and-a-half and requiring an immense orchestra, huge chorus, and vocal soloists—a boundary-breaking work that characterized the trend towards maximalization in the decade preceding World War I. Because of the relatively modest dimension of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, it is often dubbed “classical.” The designation does indeed capture the Third Symphony’s medium-size forces and length as well as some of its lighter sections, but does not prepare one for its idiosyncratic cragginess, and, by turns, heartfelt and steely expressivity.
The first movement contains two decidedly light elements: a jaunty, almost childish opening tune played by the cellos and basses, and the spritely figures played by the solo woodwinds in their initial entrances. Unlike the Prelude to The Tempest, in the first-movement of the Third Symphony Sibelius never allows a mood to linger, quickly progressing from such relatively simple tunes to complex textures and shuddering climaxes. The jaunty opening is soon subsumed by rough-hewn folk-style fiddling over raw bagpipe-like drones, and the light sixteenth notes of the initial woodwind entrances take on a darker hue as they are transferred to the strings that build aggressively towards the first climax of the movement.
This climax, which occurs only about a minute into the movement, exhibits a type of texture for which Sibelius is especially renowned: strings create a curtain of sound supported by held chords in the brass through which horn and woodwind lines emerge as if from a distance. Such layering gives a sense of great space often associated with Nordic landscapes.
The cellos introduce the second theme, a plaintive lament, which, after circling around a limited number of notes in a somewhat hypnotic manner, soon devolves into a series of sixteenth notes that Sibelius once again uses to drive towards a climax. The so-called development or middle section begins with a hushed passage for strings alone that ushers in more intimate music of repose.
Gradually, however, the fast-running sixteenth notes, here introduced tentatively by the solo flute, transform the texture, which builds to a vigorous recapitulation of all of the material heard in the first part of the movement. This time there is little lightness as Sibelius renders almost all the music with expanded forces—the second theme, for example, scored for the cellos the first time, now enlists the entire string section, which Sibelius accompanies with ominous blows in the tympani. A slow coda brings the movement’s disparate elements together in a manner that reveals connections between them that have likely gone unnoticed, and concludes with a religiously tinged “amen” cadence.
If the first movement had several sections reminiscent of folk dance, the second movement moves decidedly towards a pastoral topic signaled by the mournful “folksong” (of Sibelius’s invention) played mainly by woodwinds, often in pairs. The picture is one of natural serenity and loneliness, another effect often taken to reflect a peculiarly Nordic condition. Unlike first movement, in the second Sibelius remains in one mood for long stretches, allowing the theme many repetitions in various registers before moving to a contrasting, somewhat faster-moving section in which the motion is repeatedly interrupted by fermatas (held notes), before leading back to a repetition of the material of the first part, now played more robustly by the strings.
The third movement begins as a fast and light, if somewhat disjointed scherzo that gradually gains in power, continuity, and seriousness. The mood changes dramatically with the appearance of another folk-like tune, introduced by divided violas and cellos, a thick texture that gradually expands to involve the entire ensemble. The movement ends with a glorious C-major passage in which the trombones, often silent bystanders in this symphony, are finally given leave to blast away as Sibelius turns the orchestra into something akin to an all-powerful organ.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 (1909)
- Allegro ma non tanto
- Intermezzo. Adagio
- Finale. Alla breve
Like Sibelius, Rachmaninoff began his career as a composer with the reputation of being absolutely up-to-date, but soon came to be regarded by critics as a conservative—and also like Sibelius, he has remained highly popular with audiences.
One of the greatest pianists of all time, he was also known in his native Russia as a conductor. After leaving Russia in 1917, his concertizing activities as a pianist left little time for either conducting or composition. While his later works—including the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934) and Symphonic Dances (1941)—are masterpieces, stylistically he never moved beyond the Romantic musical language he developed at the end of the nineteenth century. A long-time resident of Beverly Hills, he was asked to write movie music, but resisted the temptation of the silver screen. Nevertheless, his style greatly influenced film music of the 1930s and ’40s. For millions, the lush lyrical style Rachmaninoff developed in pre-revolutionary Russia came to epitomize the larger than life love and passion of American cinema.
Rachmaninoff wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 specifically for his own use on tour in the United States. After making his American debut with a recital at Smith College, he premiered the work in New York City in November 1909. It is commonly regarded as the most difficult piano concerto in the standard repertoire.
Like Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 begins with a simple tune that contains little hint of the complexities to come. (The musicologist Joseph Yasser, who discussed the work with Rachmaninoff, has argued that this tune bears a strong resemblance to Russian Orthodox chant.) The beginning of the second theme is ushered in with a march-like motive that is the basis of several quick exchanges between the orchestra and soloist. Soon, however, Rachmaninoff completely alters the character of the music, allowing the piano to transform the motive into one of his lushest, long-breathed “Hollywood-style” tunes.
One aspect of the first movement of this Concerto that makes it so rich is that it appears to tell something of a story. Much as in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the development section begins with a clear re-statement of the simple opening theme, then soon builds to a terrible crisis that comes to a head with a trumpet call. This trumpet call is an explosion of sorts that dissipates with single lines of counterpoint in the piano (mainly descending scales) accompanied by lamenting sighs in orchestra, as if these were the only fragments of music to survive the trauma.
The cadenza for the piano that follows may be heard as something of a rebirth, and the next section, in which solo woodwinds enter over the harp-like filigree in the piano, as a glimpse into heaven—an impression that is only strengthened when the piano repeats the heavenly second theme. The return to the opening theme, which signals the beginning of the coda, acts as a storyteller framing his narrative with the image with which he began.
The opening of the second movement, the Intermezzo. affords one of the few extended periods of rest for the soloist in the entire Concerto. The orchestra introduces the theme, which is at once mournful and declamatory and serves as the basis for almost the entire movement. The mood of pathos is relieved only once, following a climactic statement of the theme in the piano and orchestra, with a scherzo-like fast section featuring dazzling repeated notes and passage-work in the piano. After the music has returned once again to the main theme, a second, more aggressive fast passage leads without pause into the finale.
The Finale demands the utmost virtuosity from the soloist, beginning with a theme that seems to take its inspiration from the scherzo-like section of the Intermezzo. The underlying meter of the Finale is that of a march, which underpins both the scherzo-like material and another of Rachmaninoff’s “Hollywood-passion” themes. At times the march also comes explicitly to the fore, for example, in the final build up to the brief cadenza, which in turn leads to the coda, the most brilliant section of a work renowned for its bravura.
Few pianists have sufficient technique and stamina to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Those who do tend to bring down the house.
By David E. Schneider
© 2015 David E. Schneider. All rights reserved.
David E. Schneider is professor of music history and theory at Amherst College.
February 7, 7:30pm, Greenfield Middle School, Greenfield
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Sarasate
Haydn is best known as a composer of symphonies and chamber music (especially string quartets). His duties as head of music (Kapellmeister) for Prince Nikolaus Eszterházy were, however, far ranging, and extended to providing works for the Prince’s theater. Armida, based upon Torquato Tasso’s poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), is the fourteenth and last opera Haydn wrote for the prince. According to Haydn it was his best opera, an opinion borne out by the fact that during the composer’s lifetime it was performed fifty-four times in Eszterháza as well as in Budapest, Pressburg (present-day Bratislava), Turin, and Vienna.
In the eighteenth-century an overture to an opera, often referred to as “Symphony before the opera,” differed from the first movement of a symphony only in that it generally lacked a repeat of the first section, the so-called exposition. Likewise, the term “overture” was often used synonymously with “symphony,” since either was considered an appropriate way to begin a concert. When Haydn went to London on two occasions in the 1790s his symphonies were advertised as “grand overtures.” In the score, the overture to Armida is labeled simply “Sinfonia.” Haydn scored the work for flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns in addition to the customary complement of strings.
The overture begins, as was conventional for pieces opening concerts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with a premier coup d’archet, literally a “first strike of the bow”—the loud unison blast from the assembled forces used to quiet the audience in the days before dimming the lights was possible. A soft answer in the strings follows before a repeat of the loud opening gesture leads to a new theme in the violins and a stormy section that gives way to two short march-like interjections in the winds and a cheery section leading to a cadence.
A third statement of the opening gesture sounds at first as if the entire large opening section will be repeated, but instead leads to new material: another storm-like section, and an extended minuet in triple meter featuring the oboe gently playing the melody in unison with the first violins. At the end of the minuet the first violins play a short declamatory figure three times successively higher, each punctuated by an outburst from the rest of the strings—a clear reference to recitative, the speech-like singing that carries dialogue in opera. (A similar instance of instrumental recitative occurs in the first movement of the next work on the program, Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3.) The final section of the overture returns to a brisk duple meter and includes much of the music heard in the first third of the piece, but not the music of the premier coup d’archet. This Haydn saves as a brief coda to end the overture as it began.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major, K. 216 (1775)
- Rondeau-Allegro (Allegro-Andante-Allegretto-Allegro)
Written in September 1775 when Mozart was nineteen, the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216 is widely considered a milestone in the composer’s development. As the son of an eminent violin pedagogue, Mozart himself was an accomplished violinist. The G-major violin concerto reveals not only his intimate knowledge of the instrument, but, through the vocal quality of its melodies and the dynamic interactions between solo and orchestral forces, it also foreshadows his future ingenuity as an opera composer.
The concerto’s first movement begins, as was the custom, with an opening section for the orchestra that introduces the bulk of the musical material for the movement. Borrowing from the genre of the symphony or overture, the opening theme starts with an energetic premier coup d’archet. Mozart borrowed the opening melody from “Aer tranquillo” (Tranquil air), an aria Mozart had written a few months earlier for his chamber opera Il re pastore (The Shepherd King). Such self-quotation is unusual in Mozart’s oeuvre. The movement features a number of operatic elements—the solo violin and orchestra (particularly the oboe) interact in passages of lively dialogue, and Mozart includes a few recitative-like gestures for the soloist shortly before the return of the main theme.
Mozart exhibits his talent for expressive lyricism in the aria-like Adagio. The orchestra introduces the warm and luminous D-major melody, tenderly sung by the muted violins. Below, a softly pulsing triplet accompaniment buoys the melody’s expressive swells and sighing appoggiaturas. With infinite delicacy, the soloist enters an octave higher, soaring above with celestial sweetness. Following an excursion to the relative minor, the music briefly meanders into strange harmonic territory before settling once again into the original D major. After a cadenza, a final statement of the lyrical main melody gently carries the movement to a close. The score of the Adagio calls for two flutes instead of the pairs of oboes for the concerto’s outer movements. The change in orchestration lends a delicate halo to the sound. One may assume that the woodwind players in the Salzburg orchestra were “doublers” who played both oboe and flute.
The exuberant dance-like Rondeau-Allegro closing movement displays a novel degree of variety. The orchestra begins in a sprightly triple meter with the jig-like rondo theme. The soloist enters with a secondary theme, and in typical rondo fashion the first theme is repeated in alternation with additional secondary material and variations. Exceptionally, however, Mozart—much like Haydn in the overture to Armida—writes a contrasting middle section in which the music changes meter. A courtly G-minor gavotte undergirded by pizzicato accompaniment leads into a livelier folk dance in which the soloist and orchestra trade off a G-major folk tune known as a “Strassburger.” Between passages of sparkling triplet flourishes, the soloist launches into a rustic bagpipe tune, characterized by stepwise melodic motion accompanied by a drone. Following a brief pause, the music returns to triple meter but not, as might be expected, to the opening rondo theme; Mozart delays the thematic return with an episode in A minor. An orchestral repetition of the rondo theme rounds out the movement, which features an unusually understated ending in the winds. If one takes the whole movement as an open-air dance, the ending might be taken to depict the musicians wandering off into the distance.
In Mozart’s day, professional musicians were generally expected to improvise their own cadenzas, although Mozart did occasionally write-out cadenzas for some of his concertos (presumably for occasions when they were to be performed by his students). He left no such notated cadenzas for his violin concertos. Tonight’s performance features cadenzas by the American violinist, conductor, and composer Sam Franko (1857-1937).
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908): Ziguenerweisen (Gypsy airs) (1878)
Born Martín Melitón Sarasate y Navascues in Pamplona (famous for its annual summer festival featuring the running of the bulls), Sarasate was the son of a military bandmaster. His talent for the violin exhibited itself by the time he was five; at age eight he obtained a scholarship that allowed him to study in Madrid where he became a favorite of the royal family; and at age eleven, encouraged by his Spanish teacher who felt he had no more to teach the young virtuoso, Sarasate left Spain to study violin and composition in Paris. Initially this was a trip from hell: his mother died of a heart attack en route and Sarasate contracted cholera. When he recovered enough to resume the journey and arrived in Paris he was welcomed warmly by Jean-Delphin Alard (1815-1888), professor of violin at the conservatoire, who took a fatherly as well as musical interest in him. At age seventeen Sarasate, now feeling more French than Spanish, won the Paris Conservatory’s coveted first prize. This launched him on a career as a touring virtuoso throughout Europe and North and South America. Antonín Dvorak, Édouard Lalo, Camille Saint-Saens, and Henri Wieniawski all composed pieces for Sarasate that have become central to the repertoire for the violin.
As a composer, Sarasate wrote exclusively showpieces for his instrument of the type nineteenth-century violinists were expected to play in recitals and concerts—crowd-pleasing soufflés alongside weightier concertos and sonatas. The musical style as well as the German title of Ziguenerwiesen (Gypsy airs or melodies) suggests that the Roma or Gypsies to whom Sarasate referred were not from his native Spain, but from regions farther east. Ziguenerwiesen is modeled, like Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, on the playing of Hungarian Roma violinists who cultivated a particularly virtuosic style of embellishing popular tunes. The bulk of the composition is taken up by what the Hungarians call a lassú or slow first section of a rhapsody. Much of this music is quite free and declamatory, a characteristic of the so-called hallgató—literally “music for listening” as opposed to dancing. The concluding section of the work corresponds to the friss or fast dances that traditionally occupy the second part of a Hungarian rhapsody. Here Sarasate shows his feel for the so-called Gypsy style with a series of wild, syncopated tunes that would have accompanied the dancing of the Hungarian national dance, the csárdás. Throughout the work Sarasate demands a dazzling array of virtuosic techniques—intricate bowings combined in every possible way with left- and right-hand pizzicati, harmonics, slides, wide leaps, and double-stops.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802)
- Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
- Scherzo. Allegro
- Allegro molto
Beethoven left his native Bonn for Vienna to “receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands,” in the words of his patron Count Waldstein. Like Haydn, Beethoven came to be best known for his symphonies, although he completed his first symphony when he was almost 30, a relatively late age for a composer of the day. Perhaps because of this, each of his first three symphonies offers striking developments for the genre. Beethoven’s Second Symphony follows the same outline as Haydn’s late symphonies, particularly the practice of beginning the first movement with a substantial slow introduction, but clearly strives to outdo Haydn at every turn.
The slow introduction to the first movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony is not just Adagio (slow) as was the introduction to Haydn’s last symphony, but Adagio molto (very slow). It is also longer and more varied than the slow introduction to any previous symphony. Most striking, however, are Beethoven’s signature extreme dynamic contrasts—portentous declarations for the whole orchestra followed by gentle winds or staccato strings—and the way the first violins dive fearlessly into the fast section of the movement without a pause. The main characteristic of the Allegro is forward motion. Those familiar with sonata form will note its main features (e.g., the storm-like bridge following the first theme or the bouncy second theme introduced by the clarinets), but all this occurs amidst a headlong rush, every pianissimo an excuse to begin another crescendo to an explosive forte punctuated by Beethoven’s famous syncopations.
The second movement, Larghetto, opens with what sounds like a prayer in the strings, the same music taking on a more relaxed open-air feeling when echoed by the winds. The pattern of statements in the strings echoed by the winds (or vice-versa) occurs repeatedly throughout the movement. The second theme, a bouncy ditty introduced by the cellos and second violins, is decidedly lighter than the opening. Deeply felt beauty is, however, the main topic of the movement.
The third movement is the first time in Beethoven’s oeuvre when he uses the word Scherzo as a tempo and character marking. In a symphony or string quartet, scherzo generally means a light, fast movement in triple time. The original meaning of scherzo is, however, “joke,” and Beethoven seems to find humor in the fact that the movement apparently cannot seem to make up its mind about the dynamic level. Is it primarily loud, as is the first bar, or soft, as is the second? A scherzo usually has a contrasting section known as a trio because of its reduced texture. Here a solo passage for oboes and bassoons signals the beginning of the trio.
The fourth movement is, like the last movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, a rondo, meaning that the opening theme keeps returning after various excursions. In it Beethoven combines something of the headlong rush of the first movement with the jokey lightness of the third. Its extended ending section led an early critic to compare it with a wounded dragon that refuses to die.
Nothing in the sound of Beethoven’s Second Symphony appears to signal that the period during which Beethoven was composing it was also the time he realized he was going deaf. A letter to a childhood friend who was a physician reveals that Beethoven contemplated suicide, but decided against it because he found himself too full of compositional ideas.
By David E. Schneider with assistance from Diana Chou on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216
© 2015 David E. Schneider. All rights reserved.
David E. Schneider is professor of music history and theory at Amherst College. Diana Chou is an Amherst College senior majoring in math and music.
December 13, 7:00 pm, Hess Center for the Arts, Deerfield Academy
Annual Family Holiday Concert
Christmas Overture on “Vom Himmel Hoch” (1833)
Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (1810 – 1849)
German composer Otto Nicolai was born and died in the same years as his more famous contemporary, Frederic Chopin, but their career trajectories couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Where Chopin ended up a darling of French aristocratic society, Nicolai struggled all his life to find the success he sought, in life and in music. His early youth was spent largely in a foster home, and pressure from his father to be a musical prodigy eventually led to a complete breakdown when he was 15.
Nicolai eventually went to Berlin where he ended at the Institut für die Ausbildung von Organisten und Musiklehre to complete his studies as a church musician. The Christmas Overture had its premiere at the Berlin Garrisonskirche in 1833, although the overture was never published during his lifetime.
Nicolai was a great admirer of Handel, and of Messiah in particular. However, it’s easy to hear his flair for the dramatic in the dark opening of the Christmas Overture, and a nod more toward Bach than Handel in his use of counterpoint.
In 1840, Nicolai became almost a household name in opera equivalent to Verdi, who also rose to prominence at that time with his opera Nabucco. Ironically, Nicolai was offered the libretto of Nabucco before Verdi, but refused it because he considered it unsuitable for opera.
The work Nicolai is most famous for is his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor. It was the only opera he composed to a German libretto (some of his earlier operas were translated from Italian to German). Although it was completed in 1847, its premiere was postponed by the revolution of 1848, and didn’t occuruntil 1849, two months before the composer’s death. Also in 1849 he finally achieved the professional success he sought, when he was elected a member of the Akademie der Künste—on the day he died. Nicolai not only missed knowing of this great honor, but was also never to know how popular his final opera would become.
At the first performance of “L’adieu des bergers,” Berlioz tried to pass the composition off as by a fictional, 17th-century French composer named Pierre Ducré—a gesture typical of the fiery and flamboyant composer who had a keen sense of humor, and who, despite his obvious gifts, was often the despair of the French musical establishment. One lady who heard it and was taken in by the ruse said, “Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece by old Ducré”.
Over the course of his long career, Berlioz composed in just about every genre. And, like Nicolai, was drawn to opera and longed for success in that world. His first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was an abject failure, and it took him many years to convince anyone to mount his ambitious masterpiece, Les Troyens.
Perhaps that was because nothing Berlioz did was easily classifiable, or easy—period. He constantly strained against expectations and pushed the limits of form. Even his symphonies didn’t look or sound much like the symphonies of, say, Schumann or Mendelssohn. Always trying to explore the relationship of drama and music, Berlioz created unique works that infused music with external meaning. His Symphonie fantastique, to name perhaps his most famous work, is a remarkable example of “program music,” accompanied by a written narrative to explain a story.
Berlioz never called his two large-scale choral works oratorios. La damnation de Faust was a Legende dramatique (dramatic legend), and L’enfance du Christ was a trilogie sacrée (sacred trilogy). Of the two, L’enfance du Christ comes closest to the form of an oratorio with its three-part structure. “The Shepherds’ Farewell” was the first part of the entire work to be composed, probably around 1850, and was subsequently enlarged into a work called La fuite en Égypte (The Flight to Egypt) in 1852. This was so popular that the composer’s friends urged him to build upon it. He added a subsequent section, L’arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), and finally the first section, Le songe d’Herod (Herod’s Dream).
Remarkably, the Parisian critics who were so often hostile to Berlioz’s works received L’enfance du Christ with great praise.
“Dance of the Tumblers,” from The Snow Maiden (1880-1881)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff (1844 – 1870)
Rimsky-Korsakoff joins a long line of musicians who originally embarked on different careers. Berlioz went to medical school (although he hated it), and Rimsky-Korsakoff went to Naval College—yet still continued the study of music, which he started in his childhood.
Fortunately for him, circumstances led him as a young naval officer in St. Petersburg to go to the opera. From there, he made connections with some of the great, Russian-nationalist composers, including Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Cesar Cui. They encouraged him, the composer bug bit him, and although he went on a three-year tour of duty, he came back and continued to work with his friends. The group became known as The Five, and are seen as having taken Russian music along its own path distinct from the European Romantic composers.
Rimsky-Korsakoff’s opera The Snow Maiden was truly Russian in inspiration, having been composed while his family was in a summer house in a bucolic Russian village. He saw this opera as the apex of his own achievements, and had a hard time going back to composing after it, believing that he’d said everything he had to say with this opera.
The Snow Maiden is called an Epic Opera in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s oeuvre. In it, mythological characters interact with real human beings. It’s the story of the struggle of the eternal forces of nature, including love, set against a backdrop that includes the spirits of the forest and a village of Russian peasants. The Snow Maiden, who longs for love, in the end must melt into the lake in order to allow the advent of Spring. “Dance of the Tumblers” comes from Act III of this four-act opera, which takes place in a forest clearing. Its distinctive rhythm is meant to mimic the movements of tumblers.
Three Choruses from Messiah (1841)
George Frederick Handel (1685 – 1759)
“And the Glory of the Lord”
“For Unto Us a Child is Born”
German born Handel adopted England as his country in 1712—and England wholeheartedly adopted him back. Although he cut his teeth at the Italian courts, writing Italian cantatas, oratorios, and operas, he is most renowned for essentially inventing the form we know as English Oratorio. An astute businessman as well as a great composer, Handel recognized the English taste for choral music, and satisfied the public with oratorios primarily based on Old Testament stories. Of course, it didn’t hurt that by presenting un-staged dramatic works, Handel could get around the proscription against opera during the Lenten season.
Messiah is the only one of Handel’s English oratorios whose text contains scripture from the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer. Although the librettist, Charles Jennens, wanted Messiah to be premiered during Passion week in London (a time suitable to the subject matter), Handel, who had been invited to Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, thought it would make a good addition to his Dublin concert series. To quell possible controversy about the scriptural texts, the premiere at the music hall in Fishamble Street was promoted as a charity event.
Handel’s genius for marketing and knowing what would draw an audience was also apparent in his choice of cast for the first performance of Messiah. As mezzo soloist, he engaged Mrs. Susanna Cibber, who although she possessed a very sweet voice, was known primarily as an extremely popular actress. In fact, Cibber could not even read music, and Handel (who was notoriously impatient with his singers) taught her all her arias note-by-note himself. He also transposed several of her arias to suit her contralto range—a not-uncommon practice at the time.
For whatever reasons, the premiere of Messiah sold out so quickly that notices were posted asking ladies not to wear their fashionable hoops and panniers to the concert and men to leave their swords behind, so that everyone would fit in the hall.
Messiah was a hit from the very start, with over 700 people in attendance, and £400 raised for three charities. It remains the most popular of Handel’s works. But how did it come to be a staple of the Christmas season, when the majority of its text is more suited to Easter? In fact, through most of the 18th century, Messiah was performed in the spring. It wasn’t until 1791 that it received a December performance.
Only the first section concerns the nativity, and it is this section from which two of three of the choruses on the program this evening are taken. “Hallelujah” ends Part II. Whatever made the public come to see Messiah as a Christmas tradition, it is firmly planted in the season now.
© 2014, Susanne Dunlap. All rights reserved.
October 25, 2014, 7:30pm
Fine Arts Center, UMass
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): Suite from the Ballet The Sleeping Beauty (ballet completed 1889, arranged as suite 1899)
Tchaikovsky wrote the second and longest of his ballets Sleeping Beauty (Spyashchaya krasavitsa) for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, where it was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in January 1890. Like Tchaikovsky’s other two ballets, Swan Lake (1876) and The Nutcracker (1892), Sleeping Beauty was not an immediate success; but it caught on more quickly than the other two, and in short order came to be considered among the greatest nineteenth-century ballets.
Although its length (4 hours with intermissions) has prevented it from being mounted as frequently as Tchaikovsky’s other ballets, much of its music is among the composer’s best known and loved. Tonight’s program features the five-movement, 20-minute-long suite excerpted from the ballet. Tchaikovsky endorsed the idea of the suite, but found himself unable to decide which numbers of the fabulous score should be left out. At Tchaikovsky’s suggestion his former student and Serge Rachmaninoff’s cousin the conductor Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) made the arrangement.
The Sleeping Beauty ballet enacts the ancient fairy tale as re-told by the brothers Grimm in 1812 and adapted for the stage by the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909), who also designed the costumes for the ballet’s wildly extravagant original production. Many Great Russian artists, including choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83), prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), and composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), claim that a childhood encounter with Sleeping Beauty was decisive in determining their artistic path.
In Vsevolozhsky’s version, Princess Aurora is cursed on the day of her christening by the evil fairy Carabosse, who instead of bestowing a blessing casts a pall on the proceedings with the declaration that Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die on her sixteenth birthday. The powerful and good Lilac Fairy cannot completely undo Carabosse’s curse, but modifies it such that Aurora will not die, but merely fall asleep to be awakened after 100 years by the kiss of a handsome prince. The first and second acts depict the story proper, while the third act, sometimes performed separately, shows Aurora’s elaborate wedding, which, like the second act of The Nutcracker, is an excuse for a great number of divertissements, that is, dances meant to entertain rather than further the plot. Again, as in the Nutcracker, many of these are character dances, here whimsically involving characters from other fairy tales—including Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.
Movement 1 of the Suite (“Introduction”) opens with a brilliant and noisy Allegro vivace depicting the evil fairy Carabosse. This music comes to an abrupt halt, and a much gentler Andantino ensues in which the harp, often a signal of passing into a different world, introduces a melody in the English horn associated with the Lilac Fairy. This music builds to a powerful climax and then gradually recedes, ending with quiet tremolos in the high strings and whispered chords in the harp.
Movement 2, a dramatic pantomime, features one of Tchaikovsky’s most Romantic melodic outpourings, music that accompanies each of four suitors dancing with Princess Aurora in a pas de cinq called “The Rose Adagio.” The harp again plays an introductory and transitory role with an impressive solo that leads to the first statement of the melody in the violins.
Movement 3, a character dance depicting Puss in Boots and the White Cat is a humorous divertissement from act 3 of the ballet in which Tchaikovsky uses the oboe and bassoons in a particularly feline manner. The gliding music of Movement 4 (“Panorama”) is taken from act 2 where it accompanies the magical boat ride of Prince Charming (Prince Désiré) to the palace covered with overgrown vines in which Princess Aurora sleeps. The suite ends with the ballet’s best-known number, the grand waltz at Aurora’s 16th birthday party from act 1.
Henri Tomasi (1901–1971): Trombone Concerto (1956)
Although the trombone was among the last instruments to become a regular member of the symphony orchestra, its origins reach back to the high Renaissance—its distinctive slide mechanism a result of technological advances in the fifteenth century. While the earliest trombone to survive to the present day comes from mid-sixteenth-century Germany, depictions of the instrument can be found in late fifteenth-century church frescos, leading us to believe that it was invented circa 1450.
While the trombone has undergone modifications in design that have increased its power to project, the look of the instrument has remained remarkably consistent over its five-hundred-year history. Before becoming a standard member of the modern symphony orchestra—the Swedish composer Joachim Nikolas Eggert (1779-1813) was the first to use trombones in a symphony (in 1807), Beethoven was the second (in his Fifth Symphony in 1808)—they had had a long association with the all-male choirs of the Catholic Church, in which trombones of various sizes were commonly used to double voice parts. The instrument’s ecclesiastic associations attracted composers such as Mozart and Gluck, who used it in the opera pit to accompany religious and otherworldly scenes several decades before the trombone became a member of the symphony orchestra.
Over the years, various trombone virtuosi inspired composers to write solos for their instrument. The first to gain notoriety was one mid- to late-eighteenth-century musician, Thomas Gschladt, for whom Mozart’s father Leopold wrote a serenade including several movements that constitute a virtual trombone concerto. The number of trombone virtuosi increased over the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth: first with trombonists emerging from military bands (c. 1880s–1890s), then with the rise of Dixieland-style jazz players (c. 1900–1930), and in the 1930s and ’40s with swing players such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
The Trombone Concerto (1956) by French composer and conductor Henri Tomasi (1901–1971) grows out of a trend, particularly strong in France, to write “classical” works for instruments often associated with jazz—such as saxophone, clarinet, and trombone. The first movement (Andante et Scherzo-Waltz) begins with a trombone cadenza in a somewhat modern style that contrasts with Tomasi’s dreamy writing for the strings, reminiscent of a Hollywood film score. With the introduction of the orchestra the movement gives way to waltz rhythms, first slow, then, beginning with an orchestral outburst, fast.
The second movement (Nocturne), requiring two different mutes for the trombone, is a slow march that sets a legato trombone line against an eerie ostinato (obsessively repeating figure) in the violins and woodwinds. This peaceful, if oddly colored, nocturnal scene increases in volume to a nightmarish climax, which dies down into a jazz-tinged section that dissolves into the uncanny spirit of the beginning.
The third movement (Tambourin) is a jazz-infused take on the eponymous eighteenth-century French dance number that reputedly grew out of lively Provençal folkdances accompanied by pipe and drum. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eighteenth-century description of the dance fits the jazzy third movement of Tomasi’s Concerto quite well: “a kind of dance much in style today in the French theatre… which must be lively, well accented, and swing.”
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885)
Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both born on May 7th (Brahms seven years earlier than Tchaikovsky) and both wrote highly successful symphonies considered conservative by critics who favored the musical styles of Wagner and Liszt. The two composers met on two occasions—the second was at the time Tchaikovsky interrupted his work on Sleeping Beauty to travel to Western Europe—and greatly enjoyed each other’s company. Reports say they had a rollicking good time chatting and getting tipsy on wine.
Nevertheless, they had little sympathy for each other’s music, perhaps not surprising given Tchaikovsky’s balletic fondness for long themes that he rarely broke up or “worked” in the Germanic manner, and Brahms’s predilection for tight motivic construction and intricate counterpoint that lent itself to just such treatment. Despite their musical differences, both wrote symphonies in E minor, a tragic key rarely found in symphonies until Brahms started something of a fad for the key with his Symphony No. 4. Important symphonies that took on the key after Brahms include not only Tchaikovsky’s similarly tragic Symphony No. 5 (1888), the last large-scale work he completed before Sleeping Beauty and one that Brahms singled out specially for criticism, but also Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (1895), and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 (1905).
The four-movement form and tempo markings of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 suggest a classical approach to symphonic form on the model of Beethoven. There is some truth to this conception, but Brahms also brings a great deal that is new to his last essay in the form. In addition to the rarity of its key, Brahms’s Symphony is unusual for its day in that it begins without an introduction. Instead embarking immediately on its first theme, the symphony starts with a melody composed exclusively of the repetition of a two-note, short-long sigh motive. Every note of the opening theme in the violins is accompanied by a gentle off-beat echo from the woodwinds—but what appears merely accompaniment is in fact a hidden statement of the theme, an emblem of Brahms’s control over every aspect of the work.
Brahms announces the entry of his more sweeping second theme in the cellos and horn with a fanfare-like figure in the woodwinds and horn. The rhythm of the fanfare continues as accompaniment to the theme in a manner Leonard Bernstein has characterized as somewhat akin to a tango. Perhaps the most striking gesture of the first movement occurs about a third of the way through, at the beginning of the so-called development, when Brahms seems to make time stand still by having the woodwinds, basses, and timpani hold an otherworldly chord pianissimo while the strings rise and fall in an arpeggio above. Brahms brings back this magical effect several times throughout the movement, notably twice in rapid succession just before the gentle return of the main theme that signals the beginning of the recapitulation.
The second movement begins with a horn call that suggests the dark-hued topic of the German forest. Prominent parts for the woody-toned clarinets and bassoons reinforce the mood. The music’s emphasis on every beat (often given to pizzicato strings as accompaniment to wind solos) implies something of a plodding procession—perhaps of a funeral, pilgrims, or penitent hunters. When the leading musical voice moves to the violins, it is as if the procession has reached a clearing that lets in the light from heaven. Although the key signature of the movement indicates a straightforward E major, Brahms’s opening melody is strongly inflected by the Phrygian mode, an ancient scale that lends the music a solemn inflection.
The third movement is a lusty peasant dance in the robust and unpretentious key of C major. Occasional short-lived contrasting sections recall something of the pastoral atmosphere of the third movement. Although the boisterous brassy mood of the movement would seem to be in line with using trombones (it is the only movement in any of Brahms’s symphonies to use the triangle), Brahms reserves the trombones in this symphony exclusively for the highly innovative fourth movement.
The opening eight chords of the fourth movement played by all the winds including the trombones introduce a harmonic progression that will be repeated some thirty times over the course of the movement. The progression is present throughout, but often difficult to discern behind the great variety of music Brahms places in the foreground. This structure is a passacaglia, and Brahms’s use of the trombones is a conscious reference to its historical association with seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century church music.
The passacaglia on which Brahms builds his symphony is a slightly varied version of one used by J.S. Bach in his Cantata Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich—“I long to be near you, Lord.” In some respects this vocal basis for a symphonic finale follows in the footsteps of Beethoven, who famously integrated voices into a symphony with soloists and chorus singing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the finale of his Symphony No. 9. It also follows Brahms’s own practice of making references to songs and hymns in the finale for his Symphony No. 1 (often referred to as Beethoven’s Tenth), although, as in the Symphony No. 4, he uses no voices or literal text. Himself a connoisseur and conductor of choral music of the sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries, Brahms was the first symphonist to structure the finale of a symphony in this manner—using an ancient technique to breath new life into a Romantic tradition would become a modernist craze two decades after Brahms’s death.
When Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 4 he was in good health and we have little reason to think he was strongly contemplating his own mortality. This was, however, very much on his and the entire audience’s mind when a jaundiced Brahms dragged himself out of bed less than a month before his death from pancreatic cancer to hear Hans Richter conduct what turned out to be his last symphony in Vienna’s Musikverein. Huge tumults of applause greeted the conclusion of each movement. Tears streamed down Brahms’s face as he acknowledged the audience. It was his last public appearance.
© 2014 David E. Schneider. All rights reserved.
May 17, 2014, 7:30pm
The Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, UMass
The two works on this evening’s program, Maurice Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan”(“A boat on the Ocean”) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, share several common threads: they are both on maritime themes, they were written at more or less the same time (Ravel’s composed in 1905 and orchestrated in 1906, Vaughan Williams’s composed in the years 1903 to 1909), and both works benefitted from Ravel’s virtuosic flair for orchestration since Vaughan Williams studied orchestration with the French composer, three years his junior, in 1908.
Maurice Ravel wrote “Une barque sur l’océan” as the third movement of his suite for piano Miroirs (Mirrors) (1904-5). The suite was something of a battle cry for the cause of modernism and demonstrated the novelties that prevented Ravel five times from receiving the prestigious Prix de Rome. The composer dedicated each of the five movements of Miroirs to a member of the progressive artistic group known as Les Apaches (the hooligans) who had initially come together in defense of Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande. “Une barque sur l’océan” was dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes who exerted a major influence on Ravel’s aesthetics.
Like much of Ravel’s music, “Une barque sur l’océan” is awash in color, here in the form of splashing arpeggios swelling around slower moving, hypnotically repeating melodic fragments. Woodwinds, at the beginning and end featuring the plaintive hues of the English horn, combine with the sparkle of muted brass to shine through shimmering string textures in a manner that mimics the play of light on water. Ravel’s control of dynamics helps capture something of the cresting of waves (crashing cymbals make the peaks of the highest waves unmistakable), and at times one can even hear gestures analogous to the spray of sea foam—as, for instance, when the piccolo trills atop a giant intensification of the orchestral texture buoyed by the brass. The end of the work, which fades out with a few gently surging gestures, feels less like the depiction of the end of a boat’s journey than a depiction of the boat slipping out of sight—perhaps behind a coastal outcropping, or, given the profession of the work’s dedicatee, beyond the frame of an impressionist painting in which a few brush strokes capture a boat on the edge of the horizon.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
A Sea Symphony (1903 – 1909, First Performance 1910)
England, the country that had fostered such world-class composers as Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, famously went through a two-century-long dry patch in composition from about 1700 to 1900. German composers who made their homes in London such as Georg Frideric Handel and Johann Christian Bach dominated the English scene in the eighteenth century, and visiting composers from the continent such as Carl Maria von Weber, FelixMendelssohn, and Antonin Dvořák continued to outshine domestic talent to the end of the Victorian era. In the 1880s, however, English musical life began to be invigorated by the establishment of new choral societies and music schools (notably the Royal College of Music, founded 1882), and composers such asCharles Stanford, Hubert Parry, Alexander Mackenzie regarded by British critics as capable of “rivaling the Germans.” Although this generation of British composers largely failed to make reputations outside of the British Isles, the next generation, most notably Stanford’s students Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, wrote music that has become a permanent part of the international repertoire.
Ralph (rhymes with “safe”) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) came from an illustrious British family related to Charles Darwin and the abolitionist potter-cum industrialist Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s side. Son of a vicar who died when Vaughan Williams (affectionately referred to as VW) was two, he grew up in comfort in the Surrey hills at one of the Wedgwood family estates. Tutored in piano, composition, and violin as a boy, he attended both the Royal College of Music and Cambridge University where he studied both music and history in the British tradition of the gentleman-musician. A characteristic VW shared with many of his contemporaries was an interest in the folk music of the British Isles; the modal inflections of English folk music left a strong mark on his work.
The sea has a long tradition as a musical subject: Verdi’s Otello and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are only the most famous operas to open with scenes at sea. Perhaps because of British navel dominance and the importance of sea travel to British imperialism that reached its peak in the years leading up to World War I, British composers had special affection for the sea as a subject in the years around 1900. Edward Elgar started the trend with his orchestral Sea Pictures, and VW’s teacher Charles Stanford wrote two important choral-orchestral sea-themed works: Songs of the Sea (1904) and Songs of the Fleet (1910).
Other British compositions from the time on the same topic include Delius’s Sea Drift (1906), which, like VW’s A Sea Symphony (1909), is a setting for chorus and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s poetry, and Frank Bridge’s symphonic suite The Sea (1911). A fan of French music, VW surely also knew Debussy’s symphonic poem La mer (1905) (not to mention his orchestration teacher’s Une barque sur l’océan). But unlike these French composers, VW and his British peers who choose the sea as their topic tapped into a nationalist pride inspired by the immense British Empire on which, in Queen Victoria’s famous words of national dominance, “the sun never set.”
In the history of European music, the period from about 1900 to the beginning of WWI was a time of maximalization in which an ever-increasing desire for overwhelming effects led to works for immense forces. The surging power of the sea was the perfect excuse for VW to mine the potential of a large orchestra—replete not only with an extensive compliment of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, but also an organ, chorus, and vocal soloists—in the service of capturing both the natural wonder of the ocean and the man-made wonder of giant ocean-going vessels. (The Titanic’s infamous maiden voyage took place in 1912, two years after the premiere of the A Sea Symphony.)
Cast in the four movements of a traditional symphony, A Sea Symphony is equal parts symphony and cantata in that the chorus sings throughout the work, thus outdoing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and several symphonies following in its wake in which the chorus enters only in the last movement. Furthermore, as in the tradition of the cantata, the structures of the movements adhere more closely to the contours of the sung text than the abstract forms associated with symphonies. A life-long admirer of the American poet Walt Whitman who was initially more respected in Britain than in the United States, VW crafted the text out of extensive excerpts from the sixth edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1881).
The first movement (“A Song for All Seas, All Ships”) opens with a brass fanfare on a Bb-minor chord answered by a choral declaration “Behold, the sea itself,” which breaks into a glorious D-major chord and unleashes thefull force of the chorus and orchestra on the word “sea.” Here we feel the immense power and surge of a white-capped ocean on a clear day with a brisk wind. A more declamatory march-like motive soon introduces “the steamers coming and going,” andthe initial section is rounded off by a repetition of the opening fanfare and text. The tempo increases and the crude sounds of low clarinets in sea-shanty mode introduce the second large section, a baritone solo beginning “Today a rude brief recitative, Of ships sailing the seas.” The long middle section of the movement featuring the soprano soloist is once again introduced by brass fanfares preparing the text “Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!” The return of the baritone soloist signals the movement’s final section, which ends in a state of tranquil meditation on the opening text. In its final iterations the opening line takes on new meaning gained by the experience of the middle section of the movement, with which VW and Whitman have soberly reminded us that the sea has claimed the lives of many: “all that went down doing their duty.”
The slow second movement (“On the Beach at Night, Alone”) is a nocturnal contemplation on the interconnectedness of all men and nations, past and present. The movement has a simple A-B-A structure, in which the hushed A sections surround contrasting material that culminates in a forceful declaration as the text turns to beholding the immense reach through time and space (“This vast similitude”) in which Whitman sees a common thread. Especially in the ethereal effects and delicate orchestration of the beginning and ending of this movement one hears echoes of Ravel’s approach to orchestral color.
The third movement (“The Waves”), for orchestra and chorus without soloists, is a fast and tumultuous scherzo in which a purely descriptive text provides respite from the heady metaphysical contemplations of the other movements. VW responds to the lines he chooses from Whitman’s “Sea Drift” by painting the blustery text (“whistling winds… waves of the oceans bubbling and gurgling”) with sonic illustrations. Twice, at the lines “Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface” and “Following the stately and rapid ship,” VW breaks into a majestic musical style reminiscent of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, which were taking England by storm in the years VW was composing A Sea Symphony. Despite the transcendental humanity and internationalism of Whitman’s texts, in VW’s declamatory setting of these two lines one hears a British Union Jack flying above the churning ocean’s spray.
The extended length (nearly half an hour), sprawling form, and ecstatic climaxes of the fourth movement (“The Explorers”) provide the grandeur expected in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century symphonic finales. The movement’s hushed ending signals, however, that here VW reaches for something other than a Beethovenian depiction of victory over struggle. For this movement VW excerpts long passages from verses 5, 8, and 9 of Whitman’s “Passage to India” that clarify the main subject of the work as a philosophical-religious message far more abstract than a concrete image of the sea. Whitman’s text asks us to contemplate the entire world (“O vast Rondure, swimming in space”) and take a religious turn toward messianic transcendence (“Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs”). In this movement the sea as a site of exploration becomes a metaphor for the eternally seeking soul, which will always, as the last line of the text proclaims, “O farther, farther, farther sail.”
© David E. Schneider 2014
March 15, 2014, 7:30pm
Frontier Regional School
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Tuonelan joutsen (The Swan of Tuonela) (1895, rev. 1897, 1900)
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela is at once one of the most affecting slow movements in the orchestral repertoire and a single-movement concerto for English horn in all but name. Before discussing the music, it is worth taking a short etymological detour to explain that there is nothing particularly English about the English horn, a tenor oboe with a soulful tone. The instrument, developed by an instrument maker in northern Bohemia around 1720, is one-and-a-half times the length of the oboe and reminiscent of long wind instruments played by angels in medieval paintings. It was thus dubbed the engellisch Horn (angelic horn) in the Middle High German of the first half of the eighteenth century. Engellisch, however, also meant English. The two meanings were quickly conflated, and the original meaning largely forgotten.
Many composers born in the 1860s (e.g. Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss) went through a phase in which their work was profoundly influenced by Richard Wagner (1810-1883). Sibelius was no exception, and The Swan of Tuonela was originally conceived of as the prelude to his Wagner-inspired opera The Building of the Boat. Deeply impressed by the relationship of Wagner’s operas to Norse mythology, Sibelius based The Building of the Boat on the Kalevala, a collection of verses from ancient Finnish mythology. He soon grew disillusioned with Wagner, however, and left the opera incomplete. Focusing instead on symphonic music, Sibelius repurposed the opera’s prelude as the slow movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite, a collection of four tone poems on the subject of the eponymous hero of the Kalevala.
The Swan of Tuonela tells of Lemminkäinen’s descent into the kingdom of the dead (Tuonela) to kill the swan that floats on the dark river that separates the worlds of the living and the dead. Depiction of swans in art was common around the turn of the century. Considered symbolic of human spirituality, swans represented purity, perfection, and sanctity. Swans turn into beautiful maidens in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko (1897) and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1877). In Wagner’s Lohengin (1850) the main character appears in a boat pulled by a swan; and in his Parsifal (1882) the hero’s initial ignorance is demonstrated by his killing a swan. The swan’s song is associated with mortality, since according to ancient beliefs its song is heard only at the moment before its death. In Sibelius’s tone poem the English horn, an aural image of the singing swan, can thus be heard as an extended moment of death.
Sibelius’s treatment of time in The Swan of Tuonela shows a strong relationship to Debussy’s tone poem Nuages (clouds), another work written under Wagner’s spell. As in Debussy’s work, the slowly shifting string chords, above which the solo English horn moves majestically, are hypnotic and lack forward thrust. Sibelius compensates for this absence of goal-oriented motion with an emphasis on space, expressed in the constantly expanding and contracting range of the orchestra. The lack of bass for most of the work, the upward moving surge of the cello motives, and the muted horn calls all add to the sense of distance and depth.
Out of recurring and gradually expanding motives Sibelius weaves a mosaic-like fabric evocative of visual art. What changes most is not the thematic material but the color of its background. Accompanying the English-horn melody, the strings create a sound tapestry that gives the impression of the swan’s song reaching our ears through a dense mist. When a pure C-major chord signaled by the harp’s entrance indicates a clear vision of the swan, the melody that previously penetrated the mist and thus represented the distant song falls silent. As this focused vision fades, the English horn returns. The darkly glistening surface of the water is a perfect symbolist image, for it seems to conceal some mysterious depth below.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 5 in F Major (1875)
I. Allegro, ma non troppo
II. Andante con moto
III. Andante con moto, quasi l’istesso Tempo—Allegro scherzando
IV. Allegro molto
Great works often cast long shadows. This is especially true beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when composers started to look at the masterpieces of earlier composers for inspiration and, especially in the genre of the symphony, with great anxiety about living up to their implicit challenge. Beethoven cast the longest shadow over successive generations and was the greatest source of anxiety for later symphonists. Before Beethoven, C minor was just one of several relatively common keys available to a composer wishing to write a symphony. After Beethoven it was nigh impossible to write a symphony in C minor without confronting the legacy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which indelibly marked what it meant to write a symphony in that key. Dvořák’s choice of F major for his own Symphony No. 5 invokes in its first movement a decidedly gentler predecessor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major (the “Pastoral”).
While in his own words Beethoven’s first movement suggested a calm “awakening of cheerful feelings,” Dvořák’s first movement has a generally more vigorous and less bucolic feel. Indeed, Dvořák’s first movement seems to take its inspiration from a busy forest as opposed to Beethoven’s placid field, but the first movements of both works share a time signature, an opening melody that begins over a bagpipe-like drone, a sense of nature, and numerous other details.
The association of F major with the out-of-doors has a tradition going back at least to the early eighteenth century, primarily because it is an excellent key for the horn, appropriately called Waldhorn (“forest horn”) in German. It is hardly coincidental that in Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony the horns play an important role in creating the tone colors that generations of listeners have heard as embodying the Bohemian woods of the composer’s homeland. Surely it is also not a coincidence that for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Bohemia was famous for producing virtuoso hornists and other wind players. Before moving into a rustic folk-dance-like theme played by the whole orchestra, the first movement opens tellingly with a horn call—that is, a fanfare-like figure that would be well suited to a pair of horns, although here it is played not by horns, but by two clarinets, another pair of “woody” instruments. A rustling sixteenth-note figure (wind in the leaves?) in the violins deftly leads to a repeat of the motive in the flutes (birds?) before the music swells into the folk-dance theme.
Dvořák’s orchestration of the opening “fanfare” theme is both colorful and cleverly calculated to withhold its full power for dramatic effect. In the last section of the movement Dvořák reveals the opening theme’s true brassy nature in a brilliant climax rendered by what we might regard as super-charged horns—blazing trumpets and trombones supported by the full orchestra. This rendition might be interpreted as embodying at once elements of victory, the glory of the woods, and the hunt. The scene becomes almost cinematic as the climax dies away (is the hunting party receding?), finally leaving a soft, distant horn to repeat the opening motive one last time. Whatever major event has occurred—the literal passing of a hunting party, a psychological state of revelation, the blossoming of the musical material’s essence—it passes quickly, and we are left with a lingering memory of that distant lone horn (a lone hunter? the soul of the forest?).
While the first movement began in the winds, the second movement, in the more melancholy A minor, begins with a descending theme in the cellos, which Dvořák instructs be played espressivo e dolente (expressively and sorrowfully). The theme bears more than a little similarity to the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor written, entirely coincidentally, in the same year as Dvořák’s symphony. The theme takes on different hues as Dvořák passes it to the violins, now instructed to play it “quietly and sorrowfully,” and solo flute, which Dvořák indicates should play louder and “sorrowfully,” but not “expressively.” The music moves on to a slightly faster section in A major featuring descending arpeggios in the winds and pizzicato strings. A minute or so into this section the strings begin to play wispy, quick accompanimental figures that convey a sense of forest murmurs or gentle zephyrs. A return to the opening melancholy theme, now played by the full orchestra ushers in the last section of the movement, a more active and climactic version of the first section.
The third movement, a scherzo (jocular fast movement in 3/8 time), begins oddly with an introduction in the tempo of the preceding movement. Here a recitative-like cello line begins with a motive closely derived from the main theme of the preceding movement. To highlight the connection between the movements, Dvořák instructs that very little time be taken between them. The impassioned utterances in the cellos lead to a magical sequence of chords in the strings, which makes a transition to the scherzo proper, a light fast dance that surrounds a more rustic, Czech-flavored trio—a contrasting dance in the same tempo as the scherzo.
Departing from the tradition of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but in the tradition of Beethoven’s Fifth, Dvořák’s finale is the weightiest and most martial movement of the work. Although the movement returns us to the opening key of F major, it takes some time to settle into the key and gone is the pastoral mood of the first movement. Instead, it is replaced by angular and impassioned music that often careens forward in a headlong rush. The rush does, however, relax occasionally to allow for some ravishingly beautiful passages: notably the gorgeous second theme in the violins, which Dvořák places in Db, a key far removed from the work’s F-major home. Beauty in a distant key is a common technique of Romantic composers since Schubert, often used to signal that such beauty is akin to a dream of paradise—at once all the more necessary and fleeting because of the harsh realities of life.
Dvořák was one of the greatest symphonists of the second half of the nineteenth-century. Less obsessed with the Beethovenian tradition than his German contemporaries Brahms and Bruckner, Dvořák took inspiration from Beethoven and Schubert without being terrified by a need to outdo them. This combination of adherence to symphonic tradition and lack of pretense made him, perhaps along with Tchaikovsky, the most popular symphonist of his day. With a robust following throughout central Europe, and tremendous enthusiasm for his work in Britain and the United States, Dvořák and his symphonies were, along with Bohemian crystal (blown by the same incredible lungs that made the region famous for its wind playing) his homeland’s proudest exports in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
David E. Schneider is the author of Bartók, Hungary, and the Renewal of Tradition (UC Press, 2006) and professor of music history and theory at Amherst College.
February 1, 2014, 7:30pm
Frontier Regional School
We like our music wrapped neatly in packages, and one of the most convenient packages is national: this music is French, this Italian, this Russian, and so on. But sometimes it doesn’t fit in the box.
Romanticism dominated European intellectual life in the 19th century. Among its political manifestations was the rise of nationalism and the modern nation-state. On the cultural side, there was growing interest in the indigenous arts of ethnic and regional groups, including their “folk music.”
Romanticism also favored the “exotic,” especially the Mysterious East. To the politically dominant countries of Western Europe — mainly France, England, the German principalities, and Austria (which ruled Hungary as part of its empire of the Double Eagle) — Hungary was essentially Romantic: mysterious, eastern, exotic. Western European audiences craved Hungarian music. Or at least what they thought was Hungarian music.
Early in his career Brahms toured extensively with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, a virtuoso showboat who specialized in urbanized gypsy-style café music. It was neither authentically Hungarian, the gypsies (more properly, Romani) being a group separate from and marginalized by the larger population, nor authentically gypsy. According to Jan Swafford, author of the finest Brahms biography in English, “… the entire tradition of a lower-caste popular music percolating into more ‘sophisticated’ styles began with gypsy music.” Brahms loved the stuff. He spent hours in cafés drinking beer and listening to it, and liked to improvise at the piano in this style to amuse his friends. They urged him to write down the improvisations. He did, in two sets of arrangements for piano four-hands, the first set of ten in 1869, the second of eleven in 1880, all issued by his publisher Simrock. He called them “Hungarian Dances.” They sold like hotcakes.
Brahms orchestrated three of them—the ones we feature on our concert—and the rest were orchestrated by others, among them Dvořák. It was through Reményi that Brahms met Joseph Joachim, the greatest violinist of his time, who was also a fan of gypsy-style music, and for whom Brahms composed his Violin Concerto with its gypsy-influenced finale.
Franz Liszt, originally Liszt Ferencz, was born in Hungary of part-Hungarian ancestry (his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, spelled the name “List”) but was deracinated before he reached his teens. He spent his youth in Paris, then lived in Rome and Weimar, and travelled widely as a touring piano virtuoso. Later in life he reconnected with his homeland, composing works for ceremonial occasions in Budapest and teaching there at the Hungarian Music Academy.
But he had very little contact with or knowledge of everyday Hungarian people. He, too, composed Hungarian dances, but like Brahms’s they were in gussied-up gypsy style. None of which is meant to denigrate his astonishing achievements as a composer, still underestimated today. Liszt invented the genre of the “symphonic poem,” a single-movement orchestral work with narrative content, its structure dictated not by traditional sonata form but by the story it tells. (Blurring the boundaries between the various arts was another Romantic project.) “Tasso, Lament and Triumph” is one of the earliest symphonic poems. And there’s nothing Hungarian about it, except its composer’s name and birthplace.
Torquato Tasso, a 16th century Italian poet best known for his epic Gerusalemme liberata, led a difficult life marked by madness and incarceration, until he was at last hailed as a genius. He died only a few days before he was scheduled to be honored by Pope Clement. Goethe and Byron wrote works based on Tasso’s life, both of which influenced Liszt, whose own program notes read: “Lament and Triumph: these are the two great contrasts in the destiny of poets. I have taken, as the theme of this musical poem, the melody to which, three hundred years after the poet’s death, we have heard the gondoliers of Venice sing. This melody is in itself plaintive, slow, and mournfully monotonous … Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities at Ferrara, where he created his masterworks ; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City, which crowned him with fame and thus pays him tribute both as martyr and as poet.”
With Bartók comes a new vision of Hungarian music. A pioneer in ethnomusicology, he spent several years early in his career travelling with his colleague Zoltán Kodály throughout Eastern Europe collecting folksongs, using a phonograph to record local singers and eventually transcribing the songs into musical notation. For Bartók the composer this was material, not to expropriate, but to absorb into his own modernist idiom. Though most of the tunes in his works are his own, they sound more authentically Hungarian than those in the “Hungarian” works of Brahms and Liszt.
Bartók composed his Violin Concerto #2 (as it is now known; he had written one thirty years earlier, but it wasn’t performed until 1958, more than a decade after his death) at the request of his friend and frequent collaborator Zoltán Székely, leader of the Hungarian String Quartet. Bartók accepted Székely’s wishes concerning the work’s traditional three-movement format and flashy ending. He originally wanted to cast the work in variation format, and managed to have his way by embedding variations in the texture. What’s more, in the first movement the theme that is varied is twelve-tone. He bragged to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the work’s champions, “I wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all twelve tones and still remain tonal.” The middle movement is an example of Bartók’s evocative “night music” idiom, also in variation form. The finale makes the most extensive use of variation technique, but in ways so subtle that you’d probably have to follow along with the score to perceive it. This is Bartók at the zenith of his powers, not long before his untimely death in the U.S. (he had fled his homeland, castigating his countrymen for their Nazi sympathies); it’s one of the greatest modern violin concertos.
What is Hungarian music? Composer/critic Virgil Thomson, when asked how to compose American music, replied that all you have to do is be an American and write any kind of music you want. We can translate that principle into Hungarian for Liszt and Bartók; it works less well for the German Brahms, though his friendships made him a sort of honorary Hungarian. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much. As Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind. I like both.”
December 21, 2013, 7:00pm
Greenfield High School
Old friends are best, and today you’ll meet lots of them: Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah, and familiar songs of the season. No need, then, for introductions. But it’s worth looking into a couple of our other holiday offerings. Say hello to:
“Jubilee and Noel” from Symphonic Sketches
George W. Chadwick (1854-1931)
Last PVS Performance 2000
George Whitefield Chadwick, a key figure in the “first Boston school” of composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, began studies at the New England Conservatory and spent several years studying in Leipzig; German training was then considered essential for American composers. He eventually joined the faculty of NEC and at the end of his career became its director. The Boston Symphony Orchestra played many of his pieces, including his three symphonies. The four Symphonic Sketches are lighter works, published together in 1909, though “Noël” was composed in 1895. The score to “Jubilee” (a work well suited to our 75th season) is headed by the following poem:
No cool gray tones for me!
Give me the warmest red and green,
A cornet and a tambourine,
To paint MY jubilee!
For when pale flutes and oboes play,
To sadness I become a prey;,
Give me the violets and the May,
But no gray skies for me!
“Noël” also has an accompanying poem, translated from an old German Christmas song:
Through the soft, calm moonlight comes a sound;
A mother lulls her babe, and all around
The gentle snow lies glistening;
On such a night the Virgin Mother mild
In dreamless slumber wrapped the Holy Child,
While angel-hosts were listening.
A Ceremony of Carols
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Premiered in London, 1943
Last PVS Performance 1963
Many of the songs we customarily call Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles,” aren’t; they’re hymns. The term “carol” applies to a form of English parallel-note vocal part-writing, alternating stanzas with a refrain, which flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries. Not all carols were religious. Texts often mixed Middle English and Latin. The music derived from folk songs and dances.
Benjamin Britten was born a hundred years ago on November 22nd, Saint Cecilia’s Day (Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians). A pacifist, he spent the first few years of the Second World War in the United States. Performances of his works here had mixed success; the British press excoriated him for deserting his country in its darkest hours; and he was homesick. In March 1942 he and his companion, tenor Peter Pears, booked passage on a cargo ship to return to England. German submarines made transatlantic crossing dangerous. The voyage took a month. Britten had been working on a choral piece, appropriately a “Hymn to Saint Cecilia,” and was studying harp technique in preparation for writing a commissioned harp concerto. The concerto never materialised. The manuscript for the choral piece was confiscated by customs officials, who thought the notes were secret enemy code. The ship docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in a bookstore there Britten discovered an anthology of medieval verse, The English Gallery of Shorter Poems. Combining his compositional preoccupations at the time, he set some of these poems for three-part boychoir and harp. Ultimately, this grew into the Ceremony of Carols, probably his most popular work.
There are eight songs in a wide variety of moods, to Britten’s own tunes (not traditional ones). Most of the texts are anonymous; others are by late medieval poets Robert Southwell, William Cornysh, and the brothers Wedderburn. The carols are framed by a processional and recessional in Latin plainsong, and divided midway by a virtuosic harp interlude based on the same plainchant. The original SSA (two soprano lines and one alto) version can be sung by women instead of boys, and Britten himself made the arrangement for four-part mixed choir we perform today.
A Musicological Journey Through Twelve Days of Christmas
Craig Courtney (b. 1948)
Last PVS Performance 2004
Craig Courtney’s Musicological Journey cleverly takes us through the twelve days of Christmas by parodying musical styles chronologically, from medieval plainchant (like Britten’s frame music for the Ceremony of Carols) to the modern era, with stops along the way at Handel, Mozart, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, among others. Courtney lards this piece with quotations and near-quotations. How many can you recognize? (Don’t worry about the quiz on Monday. It doesn’t count.)
As for the rest of the show, just sit back (or forward, if you prefer) and enjoy it.
November 22, 2013, 7:30pm
Hampshire Regional School, Westhampton
For the most important events in our lives, we turn to music and poetry. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a defining moment in American history. Tonight’s concert commemorates that event and explores its meaning through words and music spanning more than three centuries.
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 by J.S. Bach ca. 1738, Leipzig
First PVS performance 1942
Minor keys imply sadness, but Bach’s Suite #2 for flute and strings finds light in the darkness. He called his four orchestral suites by the French term “Ouvertures” because they begin with a “French overture”—an extended movement in ABA form with a noble dotted-figure introduction and conclusion framing a rapid fugal section—and continue with a group of dances mostly in French style, the Spanish-derived “sarabande” being the only exception. The flute (specifically transverse flute, not recorder) is treated sometimes soloistically, at others as part of the orchestral texture.
“When I Am Laid In Earth” from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell
Premiered in London, 1688
Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was the composer’s first stage work, one of the earliest English operas, and despite its brevity the first great one. It was apparently written to be performed by students at a girls’ school in London, where the first staging took place around 1688. Unlike his other stage works, this does not include spoken lines; all the words are sung. The story comes from Virgil’s Aeneid and concerns the Trojan general Aeneas’s abandonment of his lover Queen Dido of Carthage. Its crowning number, known as “Dido’s Lament,” is built on a descending ground bass repeated eleven times, so that the aria is technically a “chaconne.” Purcell sets the text powerfully, as in Dido’s insistent cry of despair as she anticipates her death: “Remember me!”
Take Him, Earth by Stephen Stucky
Premiered in Dallas, 2013
Stephen Stucky’s Take Him, Earth was composed for performance at the 2013 national conference of the American Choral Directors Association. The site was Dallas, so texts chosen to memorialize John F. Kennedy seemed appropriate. Here’s what the composer says about the work: “… the score is dedicated to President Kennedy’s memory, but otherwise he is never referred to by name. Instead, I assembled a group of texts that are associated with him in some way, but that also stand alone as a more general eulogy. As a refrain, there are a few lines from the early Christian burial hymn that begins ‘Take him, Earth, for cherishing’ — lines that were earlier set to music by Herbert Howells in his classic motet commissioned for Kennedy’s memorial service in 1963. The lines of Aeschylus ‘Drop, drop — in our sleep, upon the heart sorrow falls’ from Agamemnon were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy upon the death of Martin Luther King in April 1968. The celebrated “When he shall die, cut him out in little stars” from Act III of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was cited by RFK a few months after his brother’s murder.”
Masonic Funeral Music by W.A. Mozart
Premiered in Vienna, November 17, 1785
The fraternal order of Free and Accepted Masons gained significance in 18th-century Europe because it was in tune with Enlightenment thinking. Masonry championed personal freedom and opposed absolute monarchy and religious intolerance, which made it anathema to the Catholic Church and political authorities, though by late in the century the Austrian Emperor Joseph II allowed the order to operate openly. Its membership included many distinguished citizens from various social strata and professions. Mozart was initiated as a Mason in 1784, and became a Master Mason within a year. His best-known work with Masonic connections, the opera The Magic Flute, was composed at the end of his life, but most of his Masonic works date from half a decade earlier, 1784 to 1786. His brief Masonic Funeral Music was originally intended to accompany the elevation of a fellow member to Master Mason, but on the death of two other members Mozart reconceived the piece as a memorial. Unusually for Mozart, it is based on a Gregorian chant, “tonus peregrinus,” used as a cantus firmus. Dark instrumental colors and chromatic harmonies create the somber tone. In performance, the work is often paired with Mozart’s Requiem, which it clearly prefigures.
Elegy for JFK by Igor Stravinsky
Composed in 1964
It’s easy to forget that Stravinsky lived longer in the United States than anywhere else; here was the last refuge for this perpetual refugee. Having endured a half century of political turmoil in Russia and Western Europe, he was profoundly affected by the Kennedy assassination, and asked his friend the poet W.H. Auden (another expatriate) to write a memorial poem for him to set to music. At the end of their careers, many writers strip their work to essentials and become aphoristic; Auden’s poem is in four haikus, each stanza consisting of seventeen syllables arranged in three lines. The language is spare and intentionally “unpoetic.” Stravinsky’s equally austere setting for baritone or mezzo-soprano and three clarinets, lasting about two minutes, begins with the last stanza and repeats it at the end. Late in life Stravinsky adopted the twelve-tone serial method of composition pioneered by his former rival, Arnold Schoenberg. The complex technique of this tiny piece has been meticulously analyzed by experts, but what we hear — keening lamentation leavened by hope — transcends technique.
“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” from Ein Deutches Requiem by Johannes Brahms
Premiered in Bremen, April 10, 1868
First PVS Performance 1971
Brahms was moved to begin composing his German Requiem in 1866 by two deaths, one recent (his mother) and one a decade earlier (his mentor Robert Schumann). The work defies convention. Instead of using the traditional Latin text, Brahms set excerpts from the Lutheran Bible in the vernacular. He excluded specific references to Christian dogma. There is no portrayal of the terrible Last Judgment (“Dies Irae”), no desperate call for mercy, and hardly any mention of death itself. Brahms said that his purpose was to comfort the living. He was criticized for calling it a requiem, but it has become one of the best-loved works to bear that title, and its eclecticism has served as a model to other composers, notably Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem. The text of the fourth movement, “How amiable are thy tabernacles,” comes from verses 1, 2, and 4 of Psalm 84. As it progresses from gentle yearning to triumphant faith, this music eloquently fulfills the composer’s intention.
Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) by Peter Lieberson
Premiered at The Kennedy Center, January 20, 2010
Peter Lieberson’s own life was beset by tragedy. His second wife, the beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, died of cancer at age 52, and he himself died, also of cancer, five years later at age 65, shortly after composing Remembering JFK (An American Elegy). But the work was commissioned to commemorate Kennedy’s inauguration, not his assassination. Lieberson chose texts from three of Kennedy’s speeches to give a multi-faceted portrait of the President: “I was astonished that so much that he said carried presentiments of what we need today, a vision of what was possible for us as human beings who cohabit this planet … There is an elegiac quality surrounding this inspirational figure, since in the end he was not able to accomplish so much of what he wanted. But there was also a practical element in his understanding of human nature that couples with the visionary. I chose speeches that reflect both.” The first source is a speech about ethics Kennedy gave to the Massachusetts legislature as President-elect. The second is from his famous inaugural address, with its ringing admonition to serve the country. The third is the commencement address he delivered at American University on June 10, 1963, concerning world peace. Remembering JFK begins with a declamatory trumpet motive that serves as the central musical theme and evolves into a series of variations. That motive is derived from a late work by Brahms, the fourth of his Chorale Preludes for organ, op. 122. The hymn on which that chorale is based, Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (‘My Heart Rejoices’), promises “eternal renewal.” Lieberson writes: “The poetry of the Lutheran chorale also has an elegiac quality, but at the same time conveys a sense of renewal and rebirth and of the possibilities of basic human goodness.”
What, then, is the value of observing this sad anniversary? Let’s turn again to Auden’s words:
Remembering his death
How we choose to live
Will decide its meaning.
NEW: Download the Kids Program for the October 19th concert.
October 19, 2013, 7:30pm
The Academy of Music, Northampton
Jubilee by Ron Nelson
First performed in 1960
Nelson’s extensive catalogue includes ten major works for orchestra, fifteen for chorus, and over two dozen for concert band, the medium for which he is best known. Conductor Leonard Slatkin has called him “the quintessential American composer,” and his Jubilee overture has an immediately recognizable American sound, with its lively rhythm and exuberant spirit. The opening theme leaps widely upward (two intervals of a fourth followed by one of a sixth, for those of us with a pedantic bent), launching into a wild ride fueled by percussion. The violins sing a second theme, yearningly lyrical and romantic, later underpinned by that driving percussion. The first theme returns in expanded form as subject of a grand fugue, building from lowest to highest instruments. A celebration, indeed.
Artist’s Life Waltz by Johann Strauss
Premiered February 18, 1867 in Vienna
First performed by PVS on December 10, 1939
“They play for the joy of making fine music.”
That’s from the introductory essay to the program booklet for the very first concert by the Pioneer Valley Symphony on December 10, 1939. Among the works on that program was Künstlerleben (Artist’s Life) by Johann Strauss II, “The Waltz King,” which is why it opens the first concert in celebration of our 75th anniversary season.
Strauss wrote Artist’s Life in 1867, hard on the heels of his greatest success, the Blue Danube. The newer work was hailed as the elder’s “twin” when they were premiered within three days of each other. To call Artist’s Life a waltz, singular, is misleading. Like its twin and their many other siblings, it’s really a suite of waltzes, preceded by an introduction and rounded off with a coda. They were meant for dancing, not just listening. (Feel free, but watch your toes.)
The Great Gatsby Suite by John Harbison
Premiered June 22, 2008 by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, Aspen, Colorado
In recent decades new operas by American composers have been pouring forth, many based on classic works of American literature. Among the most successful are Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, and William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge (Bolcom has appeared with PVS in performances of his music). John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby belongs on this list, but it’s had a bumpier trip.
Harbison is one of a number of distinguished American composers dubbed “Class of ’38,” having been born in that year, which not coincidentally is the year in which PVS was founded. He has composed prolifically in all major genres, and has received both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” award. The Great Gatsby, his third opera, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in honor of conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company. Its 1999 premiere was eagerly anticipated. The stellar cast included Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Susan Graham, Jerry Hadley, and Dwayne Croft.
The press “hyped” it vigorously, always a bad sign. Reviews were mixed, at best. It was subsequently staged at Chicago Lyric Opera, then disappeared for a decade, but in Harbison’s own reduced orchestration has recently made the rounds of regional opera companies and conservatories. A revival of the full orchestra version at Tanglewood last summer — with David Kravitz (who will once again join PVS this season as the baritone soloist in Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony) in the pivotal role of Nick Carraway — received a scathing review from Zachary Woolf in the New York Times. (“Slack and bloodless … no fragrance, no tension … a smoothly constructed iteration of anodyne late-20th-century Establishment Classical Music …” Oh, dear.) For what it’s worth — I attended several rehearsals and a performance of the original Met production — I think it’s a wonderful opera.
For his Suite from The Great Gatsby, Harbison chose music mostly from the opera’s non-vocal portions. He doesn’t attempt to “tell the story,” but to recreate its atmosphere. One distinguishing feature of the opera is its frequent use of an onstage period jazz band, with saxophone, banjo, tuba, and piano, for which Harbison wrote pastiche 1920‘s-style pop songs. In the suite this jazz group is folded into the orchestra, and the juxtaposition of pop songs with fuller orchestral sections reveals their common melodic material. Harbison has said that he takes pride in hearing audience members say they enjoyed the suite without having had any experience of the opera.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103, “The Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns
Premiered May 6, 1896, in Paris
Camille Saint-Saëns holds a curious position in the pantheon of composers. He was hailed as the “French Beethoven.” His prowess as an organist was legendary. He lived long, composed much, and played a central role in the intellectual life of his time. He studied philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences; he wrote scientific treatises, as well as poetry and plays. He was the first major composer to write a film score, and the earliest-born pianist to make recordings.
He began his musical career as a progressive, but later became ultraconservative. He hated the music of Debussy and Stravinsky. For all his prominence, few of his works have entered the canon: his opera Samson et Dalila; the third symphony, first cello concerto, third violin concerto, and a couple of shorter works for violin and orchestra; the tone poem Danse macabre; and a late jeux d’esprit, The Carnival of the Animals.
To these we can add the last and most popular of his piano concertos, #5 in F, known as the “Egyptian.” Saint-Saëns travelled frequently to North Africa and the Middle East, and wrote this concerto in Luxor, Egypt. French music at this time was especially susceptible to the “exotic” (one consequence of European imperialism, probably less malign than others). The second movement, for example, is based on a Nubian love song the composer heard boatmen singing on the Nile. Saint-Saëns himself played the premiere of the fifth concerto at his own Jubilee Concert in 1896, the fiftieth anniversary of his recital debut. He was a virtuoso pianist; this is an unashamedly virtuoso piece, its fireworks a fitting salvo to salute our 75th season.