Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, 2007-08
Riverside County Philharmonic, 2011
by Dr. Lars Hoefs
- C. P. E. Bach: Symphony in F, Wq. 183 #3
- J. S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2, 4, and 5
- Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
- Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet
- Brahms: Piano Concerto #2 in Bb major, opus 83
- Brahms: Symphony No. 4
- Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne
- Chávez: Symphony #2 ‘Sinfonia India’
- Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 11
- Glass: Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra
- Ligeti: Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)
- Mahler: Symphony No. 4
- Moncayo: Huapango
- Mozart: Overture to La Clemenza di Tito
- Mozart: Symphony No. 34
- Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 ‘Haffner’
- Mozart: Mass in C Minor
- Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 18, 9, and 27
- Piazzolla: Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra ‘Aconcagua’
- Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
- Revueltas: Homage to Lorca
- Revueltas: La Noche de los Mayas ("The Night of the Mayas")
- Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
- Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs)
- Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”
- Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
- Verdi: Requiem
- Williams: Viktor’s Theme from The Terminal
- Al-Zand: The Waiting Game
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788)
Symphony in F, Wq. 183 #3
J.S. Bach had 20 children by two wives (apparently prolific nights as well!), and four Bach juniors became excellent composers in their own right (not counting P.D.Q.). By far the most original voice of these belonged to C.P.E Bach. Carl Philipp Emanuel had only one music teacher, his father; and while today the father‘s fame far overshadows the son’s, in Carl’s lifetime it was the other way round (J.S. Bach’s music was virtually forgotten until Mendelssohn revived interest 100 years later).
C.P.E. Bach’s music reflects the empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style). He proclaimed his work “to move the heart and to excite the passions…a musician cannot move anyone unless he is moved himself.” In contrast to the baroque complexity and density of his father’s music, C.P.E.’s scores favor transparency of texture typical of the classical era, while also prefiguring romanticism in their overt emotional expression. Witnesses remarked that when performing at the keyboard, C.P.E. Bach became so involved in the musical expression that his face would unconsciously gnarl and contort into a most unsightly visage…as though possessed&hellp;
Composed in 1775-76 as one of four symphonies with ‘twelve obbligato parts’ for an undisclosed patron, the Symphony in F exhibits everything that makes Carl Philipp Emanuel a fascinating and unique artist. Shocking dynamic contrasts, quirky twists and turns, strange abrupt pauses, and unexpected modulations pepper the 1st movement; introspective emotion illuminates the 2nd, and a mischievous twinkle in the eye that Haydn or Mozart would appreciate clinches the gemütlich finale.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2, 4, and 5
A kaleidoscopic chamber music cornucopia, an extravagant festival of diverse solo instruments, a wild experiment in concerto grosso scoring that went so right – these are Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, some of the most popular (and most fun to play!) works by the man unanimously celebrated by nearly everyone since as the greatest composer of all time…
In March of 1721 Bach sent a dedicated set of 6 concerti ‘for several instruments’ to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg (Berlin). The Margrave had heard Bach play a few years before and requested that the composer supply him with a few scores for his library. Happily employed at the court in Cöthen at the time, it appears Bach was always looking for more gigs (after all, he did have quite a few mouths to feed). It remains unknown whether the Margrave and his band ever played the concerti, but what is certain is that Bach never received a thank you, let alone subsequent engagements from the Brandenburger (and we think the job market in 2011 is tough). But don’t worry, Bach hadn’t composed these 6 marvels for naught; when compiling sets like this one, J.S. would gather up movements written earlier and rearrange or rework them, and any newly-composed pieces would be copied to play with his own musicians in Cöthen.
Some of Bach’s compositions have been lost, while others survive in dubious editions causing headaches for performers. Lucky for us, the original manuscript of the Brandenburg Concerti (perhaps because it was ignored!) was preserved in the Margrave’s collection. We must still grapple with the odd conundrum of exactly which instruments Bach meant (‘echo’ flutes in #4?), and indeed performers often choose to substitute their own modern equivalents (e.g. piano in place of harpsichord). Forgotten and unknown, the Brandenburg 6 were rediscovered and published in 1850, but did not enjoy a widespread audience until the 20th century when early phonograph discs rocketed them to stardom (literally – a recording of the 2nd Concerto was included on the voyager spacecraft).
The 2nd Concerto is the most technicolor of them all, showcasing four soloists of similar treble range but uniquely different timbres: violin, oboe, flute, and a trumpet part so fiendishly difficult that interpreters have tried everything imaginable to circumvent it. To hit those high notes some early recordings replaced trumpet with clarinet, or soprano saxophone, or even the well-intentioned piccolo-heckelphone.
The buoyant 4th Concerto calls for solo violin and two ‘fiauti d’echo,’ or ‘echo flutes,’ a term musicologists will be squabbling over for centuries to come. Contrary to its frequent diva behavior, the violin humbly provides the bass line in the slow movement.
Concerto #5 features solo parts for flute, violin, and harpsichord, the first time this keyboard instrument was elevated to the role of soloist in a concerto grosso. The 1st movement’s monumental harpsichord cadenza offers a glimpse into Bach’s own fabled improvisations, here a blissful marriage of virtuosic brilliance and thematic integration.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra
Written in the United States at the height of World War II by a composer dying of leukemia, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is the crowning achievement of his unique synthesis of Balkan folk music with Western art music.
The Hungarian Béla Bartók demonstrated an affinity for folk music from the very beginning. His mother, Paula Bartók, wrote, “Once, at the age of one and a half, I played a little dance piece for him, and he listened with great attention. The next day he pointed to the piano and make a sign that I should play (he could not as yet speak). I played several dance pieces, but he only shook his little head until I played that certain piece, whereupon he gave a nod of assent, smiling happily... He was given a drum at the age of three, that he played with great delight. When I played the piano, he sat on a little chair, his drum on a footstool before him, and beat time precisely. When I changed from 3/4 to 4/4, he stopped beating for a moment and then went on in the right time, accompanying my playing earnestly and attentively. During special events, when Gypsies performed in our house, he listened with amazing interest. When he was four years old he played folk songs on the piano, with one finger.”
As a young man Bartók befriended another compatriot composer with an interest in folk music, Zoltán Kodály. Armed with the newfangled Edison gramophone, which recorded on wax cylinders, the ambitious duo set out in 1905 to “collect and study Hungarian peasant music unknown till then.” Bartók became so fascinated with the study of ethnomusicology that he would eventually add Slovak, Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian, and North African folk music to his field studies. Today, Bartók and Kodály are considered the pioneering forefathers of the burgeoning discipline of ethnomusicology, or world music.
When studying folk song, Bartók (not unlike Gregor Mendel) scientifically examined each offering at the level of the genotype: scale, form, final pitch, range, number of melodic lines, syllabic and rhythmic makeup, etc. He even tried to trace ancestry of geographically-separated races by linking their common musical traits, a kind of ethnomusicology owing as much to paleontology and anthropology.
Despite his impressive scientific resolve, Bartók was at heart a composer above all else, and the strongest motivator for his field research was finding material to use in his compositions. In 1938, the composer said that contemporary music “ought to be directed at the present time to the search for that which we will call ‘inspired simplicity.’” For Bartók, folk music was a pure expression of nature on par with the butterflies and alpine flowers he collected. He thought of the peasants as peaceful, non-political people living in harmony with the world, forced into war and conflict only by their urban counterparts. He conceived of nature, art, and science together as a kind of spiritual trinity, in place of more standard religious belief systems.
Bartók wrote a student in 1939, “The fatal influence of the Germans is steadily growing in Hungary, the time seems not to be far, when we shall become quite a German colony... where am I to go?” When his mother died in December later that year, the composer decided to leave his homeland, and he set sail for America. He tried his luck concertizing in the New World, but was largely unsuccessful, owing to a stiff and uninviting stage presence. He found work transcribing and categorizing thousands of discs of Serbo-Croatian folk songs for Columbia University, and composed nothing for a few years. His health deteriorating, by 1943 the composer weighed a mere 87 pounds and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, estimated to live only a few weeks more. A second diagnosis revealed leukemia, although the doctors and his family never informed him of it. The conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Jozséf Szigeti went to Serge Koussevitzky, director of the Boston Symphony and double-bass virtuoso, with the idea of commissioning something from the dying composer. In memory of his deceased wife, daughter of a Russian tea millionaire, Koussevitzky had established a Music Foundation that helped him to commission from such great 20th century figures as Britten, Copland, Messiaen, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Stravinsky. Koussevitzky agreed and offered a commission to the hospitalized Bartók. Given the composer’s condition, Koussevitzky’s offer was in reality a gift to help with Bartók’s medical bills — he didn’t expect the composer to fill the order. To everyone’s surprise and joy, the proposition transformed Bartók. He left the hospital the next day, moving to a quiet place in the Adirondacks of northern New York. In the astonishingly short span of 54 days, with his leukemia in remission, charged by a flash of inspiration, he wrote the Concerto for Orchestra.
“The general mood of the work represents — apart from the jesting second movement — a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” - Béla Bartók
I. Introduzione: Andante non troppo; Allegro vivace
We begin shrouded in mystery, ominous, terrifying, foreshadowing the night music of the 3rd movement. The opening theme in the lower strings, exhibiting Hungarian parlando (free) rhythm and a pentatonic mode, is taken from the Transdanubian folk song Idelátszik a temetõ széle: “From here is seen the graveyard’s border, where she who was the light of my eyes rests. The grave holds her, whom I would hold. Now only I know how thoroughly I am orphaned.” This was Bartók’s first piece following the death of his mother. The second theme, introduced by the oboe, resembles a Knéja Arab folk song he collected in 1913 in Biskra, North Africa, a prayer chanted to honor someone’s memory. Hungarian verbunkos-style, Slovak modes, and asymmetric Bulgarian rhythms (aksak) all inform this movement. The harp employs the unusual technique of placing a wooden or metal stick near the soundboard, producing a fascinating ethnic strumming sound.
II. Giuoco della coppie: Allegretto scherzandoLiterally a ‘game of pairs,’ this jocular scherzo consists of 5 dances played by instrumental pairs, a brass chorale trio section, followed by a varied turn through the 5 dances. The side drum directs the proceedings, announcing each change. The first dance is played by a pair of bassoons, in 6ths, like a Yugoslavian kolo round dance. Next pair are the oboes, in 3rds, drawing on Yugoslavian tambura music the composer recorded in 1912 at a St. George’s-day dance. Following is a pair of clarinets in minor 7ths, behaving not unlike the Serbo-Croatian sopiles (folk oboes) that Bartók transcribed in America. Next a flute pair in 5ths, and finally a pair of muted trumpets playing in 2nds, similar to the Dalamation melodies he studied. The 5-voice brass chorale, serving as a trio in a symphonic scherzo and trio setting, is probably a nod to Bach’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Bartók carried a pocket score of Bach chorales with him always). Like a ‘Sunday order of dances’, a staple of Romanian village life that Bartok witnessed in the field, we begin the day with outdoor dancing, enter a country church with the trio, then dance away the rest of the day outside again. On hearing this movement, it should come as no surprise that the composer provided a piano reduction of the work for use as ballet. The jaunty lilt suggests a ballet of puppets, calling to mind Stravinsky’s Petrushka, or Bartók’s own ballet pantomime The Wooden Prince.
III. Elegia: Andante non troppo
If you thought the very beginning was scary, better close your ears for this one, this is some haunting, harrowing, horrifying stuff. Placed dead-center in a symmetrical work, this movement is itself symmetrical, flanked by bookends of ‘night music.’ The oboe plays an Arabian mode, and we hear nocturnal birdsong. At the heart of the movement, first intoned by the violas, a grieving figure based on Transylvanian funeral songs is given. These cintecul zorilor, or dawn songs, announce a death to the village, asking the dawn to delay until the departed has prepared everything for the journey from the “land of longing to the land of no-longing.” Death looms over the Concerto in more ways than one: Bartók laments the death of his mother, the commission required the work to be dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Koussevitzky, and Bartók can’t help but faintly make out his own dawn song in the swift-approaching daybreak. The opening of the movement also recalls the beginning of Bartók’s ultra-dark symbolist opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and samples from his own “Lake of Tears” motif.
IV. Intermezzo interotto: Allegretto
The first theme of this ‘interrupted intermezzo’ highlights the Slovakian Lydian mode, while the second theme is a quotation of the popular melody: ‘Szép vagy, gyönyörű vagy Magyarország’ (‘You are lovely, you are beautiful, Hungary’), from Zsigmond Vincze’s 1926 operetta. A third tune is yet another quote, a song from Lehár’s The Merry Widow, itself quoted and repeated over and over by Shostakovich in his 7th Symphony. This tune elicits the riotous interruption, and is forthwith parodied and mocked.
V. Finale: Pesante; Presto
Joy and festivity seem to overcome the severity and tragedy of movements 1 and 3. The initial horncall resembles those the composer collected in 1910 played on bucium (Alpine horns) by Translyvanian shepherd women. Following is a near-literal transcription of a frenetic Romanian hora, music played on bagpipe to inspire throngs of dancers on Sundays and feast days. Things settle down for a bit, then are whipped back up for a stirring, second horncall declaimed by the trumpets, this one taken from the Slovakian swineherds. Bartók transforms this simple call into a life-affirming celebration, absolutely stirring and uplifting, before turning the motif into a very silly fugal caricature. After a brief return of the hora, a blurred memory of the dawn song from movement three challenges the finale’s triumphal mood. Opposing forces struggle to the end, and we receive no clear unanimous victory. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, Koussevitzky asked the composer for an alternate ending, essentially a better ‘happy ending.’ Bartók obliged and supplied the extended ending that is played today; and yet it still doesn’t quite manage to dispel the clouds of doubt, the fear, the knowledge that death is not so far off...
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is still mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes once more to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.
Your true friend,
As a teenager in Bonn, Beethoven joined up with the local Lesegesellschaft (reading society), a group deeply moved by the recent current of Enlightenment ideals. For Beethoven, the writings of Kant and Schiller especially struck a chord, and it was at this time that he first encountered Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ (‘Ode to Joy’). The Lesegesellschaft commissioned from the 19-year old composer a Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, a work which, like his only opera Fidelio and the 9th Symphony, expressly dealt with Enlightenment aesthetics. This Cantata so impressed Haydn that he agreed to accept Beethoven as his student in Vienna, prompting Count Waldstein’s famously prophetic letter.
The student-teacher relationship between Beethoven and Haydn was doomed from the start. While Haydn, himself without children, wished to receive Beethoven as his own, the young Beethoven was guarded and suspicious, unable to warm up to Papa Haydn. Beethoven claimed that he ‘never learned anything’ from Haydn, though this was certainly the brash overstatement of a brilliant and insecure student. The influence of Haydn and Mozart on the music of early Beethoven is indisputable. When Haydn traveled to England in 1794, he referred Beethoven’s studies to Albrechtsberger. Additionally, Beethoven studied Italian vocal setting from Antonio Salieri — that’s right, the same composer who, Hollywood would have us erroneously believe, murdered Mozart! When Haydn returned in 1796 with his sensational ‘London’ Symphonies, Beethoven attempted to write his own 1st in C major, but was discouraged, wary of how it would hold up next to Haydn’s fine forays in the medium. Encourage by the result of his 6 opus 18 String Quartets, Beethoven returned to tackle the symphony in 1799, exhuming the material he had abandoned. The Symphony in C Major, opus 21, was premiered in 1800 on a program that included a Mozart Symphony, selections from Haydn’s The Creation, and heard Beethoven at the piano for his own Concerto in C Major as well as an improvisation.
“In this symphony the poetic idea is completely absent... cold, and sometimes even mean, as in the final rondo, a true example of musical childishness.”
(Berlioz was of course so enamored with Beethoven’s middle and later works, which spoke to his own ultra-romantic bent, that he could not hear this first symphony of Beethoven objectively, for what it was.)
I. Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
From the very first chord, we know we’re in for something different. The symphony is billed as being in C Major, yet the first gesture tonicizes F Major! After another deceptive cadence, this very slow introduction presents a foretaste of what we will receive from the mature Beethoven: profound faith in slow, simple, affirming chordal progressions; extreme alternations in dynamics; lots of accents; and a noble inner strength and dignity. With the Allegro con brio, hushed anticipation spills over in abundant exuberance — this is C Major! Syncopated accents churn the rhythmic headwater, and Beethoven has such a good time exploring his material in the development that he gets carried away; remembering the proportions of the work, the development is abruptly curtailed, and an undisguised harmonic U-turn takes us back to the recapitulation.
II. Andante cantabile con moto
Haydn’s influence is unmistakable here. The opening anacrusis-motive and dotted-rhythms bespeak aristocratic noblesse and charm, and the entire affair basks in a light, sunny, effortless enjoyment.
III. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
Although Beethoven names it a Minuet, in fact this movement is a scherzo. Sforzandi, syncopations, extreme vacillation in dynamics, and general rhythmic mischief come straight from the frothy personality of our temperamental musical genius.
IV. Adagio — Allegro molto e vivace
A hilariously coy introduction consists of no more than a fortissimo chord followed by a timidly soft violin attempt at climbing a scale — when they’ve finally almost reached the top, the scale is transformed into the launchpad of the lickety-split finale, a delightful movement that won’t fail to turn up the corners of your mouth. In the recapitulation, the second theme is played in F Major (cleverly referencing the Symphony’s deviant opening) before correcting itself to C Major. Convivial and so much fun, the work marks Beethoven’s uniquely grand entrance onto the symphonic stage in impressive style.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, op. 92
Calling it “one of the happiest products of my poor talents,” Beethoven completed the Symphony no. 7 in April of 1812. Just weeks later he would send famously mysterious letters to his ‘Immortal Beloved,’ a woman whose identity probably will never be confirmed. Whatever the great composer’s motivation, a spirit of joyful celebration pervades the symphony; it truly is a happy product.
The 7th did not receive its premiere until December of 1813, in a benefit concert for Bavarian and Austrian soldiers fighting Napolean’s armies at the battle of Hanau. (Beethoven originally meant to dedicate his Symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica’ to his hero Napoleon, but when he declared himself Emperor, an infuriated Beethoven tore out the cover page.) The benefit was organized by the extraordinary Johann Mälzel, a sort of musical mad scientist and gadgeteer who invented all manner of gizmos and doodads, one of which is used today in its digitally-evolved form by every music student: the metronome. Headlining in Mälzel’s musical circus was the panharmonicon, an automatically-playing mechanical organ that reproduced the instruments of the orchestra as well as sounds of artillery and cannon-fire. Mälzel twisted Beethoven’s arm to compose Wellington’s Victory for panharmonicon, becoming one of the composer’s most popular works during his lifetime and today the black sheep of his catalog. It received its premiere alongside that of the 7th Symphony at the benefit. Beethoven’s unconventional behavior on the podium that night was described by violinist/composer Ludwig Spohr: " As a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms...at piano he crouched down lower and lower to show the degree of softness. If a crescendo entered he gradually rose again and at a forte jumped into the air."
The 7th begins with an introduction longer than any previously in the history of the symphony. A transition on one repeated note finally ushers in the movement proper, revealing a lilting dance rhythm, first aristocratic and graceful, ultimately transforming into a wildly heavy peasant romp, as though including and embracing all peoples, victorious…
The second movement is one of the most stunning and unforgettable pieces Beethoven wrote. Beginning with a simple rhythm (long-short-short) that continues throughout, layer upon layer is added, music that appears so simple on paper but has the power to reach the core of our being when heard&hellp;
As Beethoven loves to do, he takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous. The third movement Scherzo (which means ‘joke’) is at times outright silly, even teasing us with ‘broken record’ repetitions! The Trio section was fashioned after a folk tune Beethoven heard while walking through the countryside in Teplitz, where he met Goethe (an encounter brilliantly reimagined by Milan Kundera in his novel Immortality).
Wagner called this symphony the “apotheosis of the dance,” and we can hear why. The Finale spills over in the highest of spirits. With Beethoven in love and Napoleon on the verge of defeat, let’s join in the great bacchanalian festivity that must have been the scene that evening of the benefit premiere, the intoxicated multitude singing and dancing into the night, celebrating their humanity. All that’s missing is a panharmonicon!
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Be embraced, you millions!
Here’s a kiss for all the world!
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an example of the power of music to bring people together. The universality of its message, the vague religiosity and the promise of human unification, speak to all the people of the world. We identify with the struggle in the first movement, we share in the hope of Schiller’s utopian verse, we rejoice in the communal joie de vivre in Beethoven’s finale. Beethoven’s Ninth is the greatest of masterpieces because it is able to reach everyone; and we are better off, together, for it.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony underwent a remarkably long gestation period of more than 30 years. Ludwig van had first read Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ with his Lesegessellschaft brethren back in his teens, and expressed an interest in setting the poem to music as early as 1793. He returned to the idea in 1798 and again in 1812, but still nothing yet came of it. In 1816 he wrote a sketch for what would later become the first theme of the first movement of the Ninth, though at that point it was not intended orchestrally. In 1817, the Philharmonic Society of London asked him for two new, grand symphonies; instead he wrote a number of piano sonatas and the Missa Solemnis, a mass which would require two years to complete. He had sketched the main theme of the Ninth’s second movement in 1817, though presumably in the guise of a string quintet. Moreover, the second theme of what would be the Ninth’s slow movement first saw the light of day as a Minuet and Trio! When Beethoven came back to the commission from the London Philharmonic Society, he began work on two different symphonies — one to be in D Minor, the other to contain a choral section and a ‘pious song in the ancient modes.’ Soon, the choral symphony forging in his head expanded to include Turkish march music. By 1822, the elements of these two symphonies had begun to converge. He met the key D Minor with various themes he had sketched for unfulfilled projects. Finished in 1824, Beethoven had one huge symphony, and a Choral Finale commingling the seemingly incompatible elements of Turkish street music and pious song in ancient modes, unifying it all with the now long-distilled text of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy.’
I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
The first movement is exceptionally long, despite an absence of the customary repeat of the exposition. It is massive, monumental. Clearly, a great struggle is at hand. The very opening often conjures images primordial. As though emerging from a timeless, formless infinity, we hear only fifths — no minor, no major, as though they did not yet exist. When D Minor is established, its mighty impact is that of a cataclysm, an explosion of cosmic dimensions. The development employs fugato and winds though a number of minor keys, energy eventually dissipating. However, the recapitulation packs a punch that makes the first explosion appear milk-toast, a mere meteor collision next to this supernova: here at the recap, the music that was in the beginning soft and strings only is now full orchestra, fortissimo, and, most shocking of all, in D Major! The effect is earth-shattering. The coda at the movement’s end introduces a funeral march, an ominous, devastating finish. The battle between D Minor and D Major, between darkness and light, has been established. The movement’s final chord is neither major nor minor — just the neutral 5th of D and A, as in the opening.
II. Molto vivace
Beethoven remarked that this movement was ‘only farce,’ though it’s difficult to take that simple dismissal at face value. The surface form resembles that of scherzo and trio, but he gives no title. Interestingly, the entire scherzo section is classifiable within sonata form. The startling timpani entrance in the beginning provoked immediate applause from the first Viennese audience. Later in the movement, Beethoven indicates for the conductor to beat in 3: ‘Ritmo di tre battute’ — this is the first example in history where a composer explicitly calls for the conducting of hypermeter. The movement keeps repeating and repeating, as though it will never end; as with the scherzo of his Seventh Symphony, Beethoven is toying with us. When the trio returns again, and we think we cannot take it any longer, the movement is forcibly brought to an end by the music that had previously linked the scherzo and trio sections — a violent hammering of the notes D and A. As with the ending of the first movement, we end here with only those two notes, finishing in neither minor nor major...
III. Adagio molto e cantabile
This incredible, humbling, and profoundly simple slow movement is a testament to Beethoven’s faith in God, and to his hope for humankind. It is hymn-like, prayerful, almost begging to be sung (cantabile). The work itself is a double variation, where two parts alternate, and receive more decoration with each return visit. We meet with two substantial interruptions to this otherwise tranquil movement. Both interruptions begin nobly, but segue to music that is probing, penetrating, like death itself, or perhaps some mystery much greater than anything we humans can know...
The finale opens with a terrible tumult, a Schreckensfanfare (horror fanfare), as Wagner named it. What follows surely had no precedent in the literature — a recitative in cellos and basses! Recitative was used in opera as a musical method to convey speech, and here it is the lower strings who seem to have something to say. Music from the opening of the 1st movement is heard, but is interrupted by the lower strings. Music from the 2nd movement is then attempted, but again cellos and basses reject it. Music from the 3rd movement comes closer to satisfying the lower strings, but once more they burst out and seem to demand something still better suited. Finally the winds offer the opening of what will be the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, and after only four bars the cellos and basses exclaim their satisfaction. The theme proper is begun in the low strings, gradually growing into a full orchestral celebration. The breathtaking effect could easily represent a kind of panoramic inclusion, as our most lowly insignificant creatures of the earth are joined one-by-one by all manner of flower and beast, all the way on up, until the birds of the sky and the angels of heaven and all who dot the vast expanse beneath partake in this celebration called life...
However, the Schreckensfanfare is sounded again; this time, answered by the same music as the cello/bass recitative from earlier in the movement, and in the single most dramatic entrance in the history of music, in the voice of a solo male baritone: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (“O friends, not these tones!”) The words reject the horror fanfare, and explain the earlier behavior of the lower strings — they too were rejecting the music from the previous movements, until finally alighting on the ‘Joy’ theme, now made manifest in Schiller’s text and sung by soloists and chorus.
At the premiere, it seems there were three conductors. According to a review in the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung, ‘Hr. Schuppanzigh directed at the violin, Hr. Kapellmeister Umlauf directed with the baton, and the composer himself took part in the general direction of everything.’ In fact Beethoven’s role in the performance, it had been decided, was to give the correct tempo before each movement. According to a violinist in the orchestra, he did much more: ‘Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts. The actual direction was in Umlauf’s hands; we musicians followed his baton only.’ A particularly touching story recounts Beethoven’s reaction at the end of the piece. When the first performance was over and the audience applauded zealously, Beethoven continued to leaf through the pages of the score, unaware that it had finished. The alto soloist Caroline Unger tapped him on the shoulder, turning him round for his eyes to see the resounding ovation that his ears couldn’t hear.
In 1989, after the Berlin Wall was torn down, Leonard Bernstein led a concert of the Ninth in former East Berlin, with musicians from both sides. In the finale, he changed the word Freude (joy) to Freiheit (freedom). In Japan, it has become a year-end custom to perform Daiku (the Big Nine) with enormous human resources — one 1985 performance involved two full orchestras and a chorus of 5000. The people of the world continue to believe in the possibility of an existence where ‘All creatures drink of joy,’ where ‘All men become brothers.’ May we come together as one. Be embraced, you millions! May we share our love with all. Here’s a kiss for all the world!
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Romeo and Juliet
Hector Berlioz was the first truly romantic composer. He embodied the Romantic Movement to his core, and remained faithful to his lofty ideals despite severe hardships and, occasionally, better judgment. Berlioz emerged as a composer on the heels of Beethoven’s passing, at a time when the concept of individual genius was beginning to be acknowledged. Previously, one had a genius for something — for sciences, the arts, etc. With the Romantic Movement, individual geniuses were heralded by their own right. This development was spurred along further by a concomitant synthesis of religion and art: for a genius such as Beethoven or Berlioz, art was the transcendent expression of man, the noblest of pursuits, the path to the very soul...
Naturally, attitudes towards love were similarly aggrandized. For the romantics, love was all-consuming, love was raison d’etre; unlike the gallant sexual misadventures of the classical period, romantic love was an inflamed nexus of nature, a sublime consummation of life. Berlioz began experiencing this already at the age of 12, falling hopelessly in love with the 18-year-old Estelle Duboeuf in his French hometown of La Cote-Saint-Andre. He continued to idolize her throughout his life, writing many years later, ‘her radiant beauty illuminated the morning of my life.’
Berlioz received his education direct from his father, himself a medical doctor. The young Berlioz was a voracious reader of French and Latin literature, and learned to play flute and guitar from local music instructors. He found a copy of Rameau’s harmonic treatise at home and taught himself harmony without any reference to a keyboard. Unlike most composers, he never learned to play more than a few chords on the piano, an insight that renders his creative output all the more astonishing.
Despite an unmistakable gravitation towards music, Berlioz chose at the age of 17 to go off and study medicine, certainly due in no small part to the pressures of proud Berlioz the senior. At the Ecole de Medicine in Paris Hector managed to complete a bachelors degree in physical science, though how he found the time to study for this degree when not at the opera, not in the music conservatory library, not waxing artistic with his kindred spirits, and not busy composing, is a minor mystery. Paris opened a new world of musical possibility for the young man. Until reaching the capitol he had never heard music by great composers, and now he was soaking up all the opera could offer, discovering a particular affinity for the music of Gluck.
1827 dealt Berlioz a double-whammy: he attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the role of Ophelia played by the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Although the play was given in English, and Berlioz understood none, it made no difference — he was hooked, by both Shakespeare and Harriet. In addition to the Romeo et Juliette symphony, Berlioz would write the opera Beatrice et Benedict based on Much Ado About Nothing, a fantasy-overture on The Tempest, a few works on Hamlet, and a King Lear overture. When composing music inspired by Shakespeare, Berlioz rarely set the bard’s actual text. Instead he used the dramatic inspiration as a point of departure, a catalyst to catapult himself into his perfect world of sublime art. He admired Shakespeare’s fearlessness with regard to form, but most of all, for his expression of truths of the human condition. Berlioz would read and quote Shakespeare throughout his life.
As for Harriet Smithson, or as Berlioz would refer to her, his Ophelia, his Desdemona, his Juliet, well, where shall we begin. Her refusal of his initial advances coupled with bawdy rumors of her sexual escapades in London sent Berlioz into a mad depressive down-spiral, casting him at one point out on the streets to wander two desperate days without food or drink. His ridiculous and self-destructive obsession for the woman whom he hardly knew would sublimate into artistic expression in his Symphonie fantastique, in which she was represented by an idée fixe, a recurrent melody. And while his goal with the symphony had been to publicly humiliate her, and probably repay her some fraction of the suffering she had wrought on him, by some joke of fate the two were married just a few years later. It was by then impossible for Berlioz to see Harriet for who she was, as he had already been in love with his own unapproachable image of her for some time. The idealized union of Berlioz’s imagination never materialized, and the two parted in 1844.
Meanwhile, in 1828 Berlioz was introduced to the music of Beethoven, a year after the death of that grand master of the symphony. Berlioz heard performances of the 3rd and 5th Symphonies at the Paris Conservatoire, writing later, ‘Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry.’ Berlioz learned from Beethoven to see the symphony as a dramatic form, and to find in instrumental music more expressive potential than in vocal music ‘It is richer, more varied, less inhibited and, by its indefiniteness, incomparably more powerful.’
The inspirational currents of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Harriet Smithson flowed together for Berlioz in the composition of his dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette. In purposes practical, a fourth influence made the enterprise possible. In 1838, the unrivaled violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini heard a performance of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, a symphonic work with solo viola in the limelight. Overcome by the exquisite work, Paganini presented to Berlioz forthwith a gift of 20,000 francs. In the most unlikely of patronages in music history, that is, one musician’s sponsorship of another, Berlioz gained the means to devote himself entirely to the composition of Romeo.
No musical adaptation of a literary work can ever live up to the comprehensiveness of the original. Necessarily, composers of opera and musical theater always change the story to enable their musical efforts. Berlioz created his own genre with the symphony Romeo et Juliette — it calls for choir and vocal soloist in a few of the outer movements, leaving the middle movements solely instrumental. The vocal parts provide a bare minimum of narrative background, allowing for the poetry and drama to emerge without words, in the orchestra. Tonight’s performance consists of the three main middle movements, reordered: 1. Love Scene. 2. Queen Mab Scherzo. 3. Romeo Alone — Festivities at Capulet’s. In Shakespeare, Romeo is completely in love with one Rosaline at the beginning of the play. Mercutio, fed up with Romeo’s lovesick sobs, coaxes him to join in the merry-making at the Capulet’s, and it is there that Romeo first sees Juliet. He instantly forgets Rosaline and makes a beeline for Juliet, securing a kiss after only 15 lines (no easy task in Shakespeare). While Berlioz admired the human truths exhibited in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, apparently his own idealistic sensibilities won out here. Berlioz takes care to establish Romeo’s unrivaled love for Juliet in the opening vocal portion of his symphony, rendering the lad’s affection more pure, ideal, more fitting to 19th-century romanticism.
“How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night, / Like softest music to attending ears!”
Berlioz’s music representing the lovers’ balcony encounter is extraordinary. Considered by many to be the composer’s finest achievement, this movement somehow manages to convey the incredible depth and range of emotion that only young lovers experience. We understand now what Berlioz means when he writes of the power of instrumental music — this music penetrates to the core of human passion, unearthing sensations with which no mere words can contend. The opening music is vaguely reminiscent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, illuminating a glowing nocturnal aurora. When the main melody first enters in the cellos, Romeo’s vulnerable pangs of love are universally understood. On hearing the melody for a second time, however, a transformation has occurred — Romeo has discovered his love to be requited, and the ensuing impassioned outpouring is enough to set the listener’s entire body afire. Other material includes a kind of coquettish response in the oboe, and recitative utterances in the cellos. There is, however, an occasional counterpoint to the tender affair in the manner of a pervading ominous tone, no doubt foreshadowing the certain tragic fate that must befall the star-crossed lovers. At the end we hear a falling two-note figure that seems to be saying good night, but continues to linger, as only new lovers do, unable to part so quickly. Jul.: ‘I have forgot why I did call thee back.’ Rom: ‘Let me stand here till thou remember it’ Jul: I shall forget, to have thee still stand there, / remembering how I love thy company.’ Rom: ‘And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, / Forgetting any other home but this.’... Jul: ‘Good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow / That I shall say good night till it be morrow.’
Queen Mab Scherzo
Berlioz employs various extended techniques and innovative orchestral textures for his musicalization of Mercutio’s fantastical Queen Mab rant. She is ‘In shape no bigger than an agate-stone / On the fore-finger of an alderman, / Drawn with a team of little atomies / athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.’ Berlioz evokes this gossamer-thin ephemeral world with music quiet and quicksilver, evanescent, at times even violent. The ground-breaking features of this composer’s orchestration would later be more fully explored by his compatriots, impressionists Debussy and Ravel, and modern-day film scorers such as Danny Elfman owe a clear debt of gratitude to the advances of Berlioz in the sphere of orchestral color and timbre. Violin harmonics, trills and tremolandi abound; the harp plays an important role, and antique cymbals are called for. Horn calls evoke a soldier’s dream of warfare, and his snores are audible in the rumbling exhalations of the bassoon. Berlioz was not alone in writing scherzi on the subject of Shakespeare — Mendelssohn’s excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo came a few years later, in 1843. In fact, it was in Mendelssohn’s presence that Berlioz first conceived the idea of a Queen Mab Scherzo: “It was on one of my riding trips in the Roman Campagna with Felix Mendelssohn that I expressed surprise that no one had yet thought of writing a scherzo on Shakespeare’s sparking little poem Queen Mab. He showed equal surprise, and I repented at once having given him the idea. For many years after I was afraid of hearing that he had used this subject. Luckily for me he did not think of it.”
Romeo Alone — Festivities at Capulet’s
Brooding, meditative music demonstrates the aloneness Romeo is feeling at this point in the drama. In Shakespeare’s original, of course, he was bemoaning his case with Rosaline — here, instead, through Berlioz’s use of developing motivic relationships, we understand him to be ruminating on Juliet. Following a wandering pensive single line, the first instance of harmony subtly refers to the melody of the love scene. Later in the movement we will hear an oboe theme that specifically symbolizes Juliet — but first, it is foreshadowed by faintly-related music, as Romeo thinks on her and is swept away by his hopes and passions. This is phenomenal music. It somehow succeeds in clearly communicating such intense feeling, such heart-felt, genuine love (at least for Berlioz). But as in the love scene, sharp dissonances pierce through, again perhaps adumbrating their grim finality while simultaneously indulging the joyous pains that are ever companion to such intense passion.
A tambourine rhythm is heard on the air, but is subsumed by the oboe melody of Juliet’s appearance proper. This is music of unblemished purity, in a slow three. The tambourine rhythm in 2 rears its head intermittently throughout Juliet’s oboe theme. Her melody ends as the ball whirls into gear, and we discover the tambourine rhythm to be the impetus of the music of the ball. Later on, at the height of the festivities, Juliet’s theme is proclaimed by the horns, reemerging masterfully integrated into the texture of the ball’s music. Astonishingly, Juliet’s theme is in 3, while the dance ball music is in 2 — the resulting metric interplay is scintillating. One easily imagines Juliet swept along in the dance. Further along we get a dirty descending line in the basses, representing Tybalt and his murderous disdain upon discovering Romeo at the ball. The threat of unruly behavior is quashed by old Capulet, who will have none of that in his home. At the end, we hear for a last time Juliet’s melody, back in the oboe, superimposed atop Tybalt’s descending line. The music of the ball engulfs them both, a rousing finish for now, but we all know what is yet to occur...
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto #2 in Bb major, opus 83
Ever the bearded prankster, Brahms wrote his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (wife of composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg) regarding his new “tiny piano concerto with a tiny dainty scherzo.” Begun in 1878, left abandoned to work instead on the Violin Concerto but resumed and completed in 1881, Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto is no laconic affair; clocking in at a whopping 50-plus minutes, it outlasts each of his four symphonies. Whoever said Brahms and Wagner had nothing in common?
I. Allegro ma non troppo
The work begins with a simple romantic theme in the horn, decorated by the piano. Surprisingly the piano launches into an early cadenza, working through material that has yet to be properly introduced. The orchestra answers with a monumental tutti, and this grand Concerto is underway.
II. Allegro appassionato
There is nothing dainty, let alone joking (scherzando), about it. In Brahms’ tragic key of D minor, here heaving and there pleading, the music alternates between monumental struggle and lonesome questioning. A trio offers some relief; likened to Handel, robust and in the parallel major key, the middle section also provokes a profoundly impassioned descending declaration in the piano — truly inspired writing. Brahms wrote his publisher, “You ought to be enormously pleased with me: not only, for a trifling sum, are you getting four movements instead of three — you’re getting metronome markings too.” Jesting aside, his addition of a fourth movement to the Concerto’s standard three casts the work in the mold of a symphony, with piano obbligato.
The cello sings a heavenly song, and we forget that it’s a piano concerto. When the piano finally enters, it seems to be reflecting on deep matters - time is suspended. Eventually the piano gets worked up, almost approaching violence — but once the storm is spent, all is calm again, and with help from a floating clarinet line, the piano drifts among the clouds. We end with a reprise of the cello song, the solo piano bringing the movement to the boundaries of sleep and dream, or perhaps approaching that final sleep...
Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto also featured a slow movement Romanze duo for cello and piano. In considering Brahms’ forever-withheld affection for the wife of his great friend, composer Robert Schumann, and by examining the associations to two of his own songs, a deeper understanding of this other-worldly Andante begins to emerge. The cello theme resembles the song ‘Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer’ (‘Ever fainter grows my slumber’) which he would write in 1886. And the floating clarinet music is in fact a self-quotation ) from his ‘Todessehnen’ (‘Yearning for death’): the phrase in question being ‘Vater in der Höhe, aus der Fremde fleht dein Kind’ (Father in Heaven, from afar thy child implores’), of 1878.
IV. Allegretto grazioso
Graceful (grazioso) indeed, this charming finale returns to terra firma, where we know how to have a good time. A yearning, earthy 2nd theme shows Hungarian influence (which you’ll find a bit more of in the Bartók), and a 3rd theme revels in delight of a Mozartean order.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4
“But cherries never get ripe for eating in these parts, so do not be afraid if you don’t like the taste.”
The fourth and final symphony of Johannes Brahms is also his most baffling. Unlike the other three, the E minor symphony is markedly more austere in tone and complex in construction. The work is ultimately tragic, darkness clearly manifest in the first and last movements. Most daunting for audiences is the final movement, a passacaglia, a form never before in the history of music used in a symphony.
Beethoven’s unparalleled achievements in the realm of the symphony cast a mighty shadow over those who would attempt to take up the legacy. Beethoven single-handedly molded what would become the archetype of the genre: a monumental work spanning a dramatic journey, from struggle to victory, conflict to resolution. His most celebrated symphonies, the 5th and the 9th, embody this journey in their very tonality — the first movements are in the minor key, and the last movements in the parallel major key. Brahms’ first symphonic effort was a cautious one. It took him fourteen years to complete, finished at the age of 43. The debt that Brahms’ first symphony in C minor owed to Beethoven’s archetype also insured its success - Brahms’ 1st was unanimously acclaimed ‘Beethoven’s 10th.’ In fact, the finale of Brahms’ 1st, faithfully converted from minor to major, furnishes a melody that clearly echoes the ‘Ode to Joy’ of Beethoven’s 9th.
By the time of the composition of his fourth symphony, however, Brahms no longer felt confined to the Beethovenian expectations of the public. As a result he was able to fashion a totally unique and structurally brilliant work of art, one that yields new discoveries with each return examination. Brahms wrote the work during the summers of 1884 and ’85 at Murzzuschlag, an Alpine village south of Vienna. Well aware of the new symphony’s change in flavor, Brahms wrote to various friends in warning, saying in one letter, “I fear that it tastes of the native climate — the cherries here do not get sweet, you would not eat them!”
I. Allegro non troppo
The symphony begins with bittersweet, autumnal music. Unlike the previous three symphonies, Brahms’ 4th opens immediately with the main material, sans introduction. A shadowy uncertainty pervades the movement, at times overtaken by an enormous strength of will. Brief exquisite moments of great tenderness are powerless against a tragic inertia, reaching its zenith in the exasperating coda, like a mammoth structure crashing down. Brahms employs unusual technical devices: there is a false repeat of the exposition (like in his G minor piano quartet), and the recapitulation is such an innovation, it is nearly missed altogether. When the main theme returns at the end of the development, time seems to stop — the orchestra is at its quietest (ppp), and totally unexpected harmonies render the melody nearly unrecognizable. It is only when the material is taken up again in its original tempo and texture that we realize where we are.
II. Andante moderato
While the music of Brahms never comes with a program, it seems clear that this movement, to some degree, is about loneliness. The main melody so powerfully paints the solitary picture of Brahms himself, by now in his 50’s, never having married, as though walking along alone through a forest of memories and half-regrets; and when the cellos sing out the impassioned second theme, we bear witness to an overwhelming capacity for tenderness and affection, a gift that was never to find full expression in his life. Brahms himself blamed his ‘cursed childhood’ for distorting his relationships with women. As a young boy he played piano in a sailor bar to help out his family — his father was a free-lance musician who got his start as a beer-fiddler, and they weren’t always financially comfortable. The waterfront bar served as a meeting place for sailors and prostitutes, and the composer later in life referred to the experience as severely scarring. Clara Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann and the object of Brahms’ unattained love, was probably the closest female friend Brahms had; and yet, she found him a riddle, admitting that she could never know what he was thinking, as though he were a stranger for her.
III. Allegro giocoso
The third movement provides a moment of respite from the tragedies of the first and fourth and the loneliness of the second. This movement is the sunny, jubilant foil to an otherwise ponderously weighty symphony. The muscular merriment is infectious, though not without some academic explorations in the middle. A concise poco meno mosso section is prepared by two solemn, out-of-place chords that seem to threaten the movement’s charm; the horn melody that follows bears a hint of resemblance to the music of the second movement, but not to worry — now it is utterly genial, as though we have so completely escaped any hardship in this third movement that nothing negative can penetrate.
IV. Allegro energico e passionato
Brahms was always studying earlier music. Unlike Ravel, who studied particular composers or works for particular projects, Brahms was a life-long student, persistently studying music of the renaissance, the baroque, Mozart, Wagner, even European folk music. Of baroque music, Brahms was especially fond of Bach. Years before the fourth symphony, at a dinner party with friends, Brahms began extolling the virtues of Bach’s cantatas, and went to the piano to play for them the chaconne-finale of Cantata no. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich. He was fascinated by the possibilities inherent in the chaconne and passacaglia, baroque forms which feature an endlessly-repeating ground-bass line. Of Bach’s Chaconne in d minor for solo violin, Brahms wrote, “The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music.” The final movement of Brahms’ 4th Symphony is set as a passacaglia, an unprecedented choice in symphonic writing. Brahms lifted the bass line from Bach’s Cantata no. 150 and chromaticized it to suit his purposes, but leaving it nearly identical to Bach’s original bass. Paradoxically, Brahms breaks new ground in music history by creating a new breed of symphonic finale while reaching back far into the past to do so.
The intellectual accomplishments of this symphony are staggering. Brahms manages to unite the entire work around the interval of a third, and in the finale he superimposes sonata form on that of the passacaglia, its 30 variations correspondingly structured around the four-part division of exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. However, critics have attacked Brahms, and his fourth in particular, for exhibiting a lack of ‘heart.’ Much to its detriment, the symphony does not have a ‘happy ending’ — it ends firmly in the minor key, no effort made to fulfill the archetype expectation. Again measuring him against Beethoven, whose ultimate symphonic effort was the all-encompassing, all-inspiring testament to unity, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ Brahms’ passacaglia comes off a bit musty and cerebral. But taken for what it is, not comparing it to an unapproachable benchmark, Brahms’ 4th offers a view of a world all its own, a difficult, lonely, challenging, beautiful, human world — the world of Brahms.
Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957)
Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne)
As a boy, Joseph Canteloube went on long walks with his father, coursing through the mountain villages of the French Auvergne. He lived and breathed the regional folk songs and dances that would later occupy so much of his artistic bent. After World War I, like the Hungarian Béla Bartók, he donned the hat of ethnomusicologist and collected what he could of the genuine article in the field, primitive audio recording equipment and all. Even on his death bed, in the 1950’s, Canteloube espoused the importance of folk music, attributing the fall of (then) contemporary music to its neglect of folk material.
Canteloube’s arrangements and orchestrations add a lot to what were originally quite simple songs. While this issue of contamination has always concerned composers, Canteloube defends his methods, arguing, “When the peasant sings at his work, or during the harvest, there is an accompaniment which surrounds his song which would not be felt be those whose interest is purely academic. Only poets and artists will feel it... It is nature herself, the earth which makes this, and the peasant and his song cannot be separated from this..”
His best-known works, the five volumes of Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne), reveal a love of folk music and a tenderness for his homeland. Tonight’s performance presents six selections.
1. Passo pel prat (Come by the Meadow)
This song is a grande — a slow song, often lacking meaningful words, with the rhythm of slowly-drifting cattle.
2. L’Aïo dè Rotso (Spring Water)
A bourrée, a dance of amorous pursuit, where men snap their fingers and stomp their feet, chasing the women, of course.
In this dripping, sumptuous, emotionally-penetrating evocation of a magical landscape, we experience the composer’s radiant love for nature, and the primordial connection we have to it, as humans. Piano scales summon the current of the river, the shepherd is characteristically symbolized by the oboe, and the voice of the soprano soars above it all.
4. Lou Boussu (The Hunchback)
A humorous exchange between the lovely Jeanette and a love-sick hunchback.
5. Pastourelle (Pastorale)
Lovers are kept at a distance by the river flowing between them.
6. Malurous qu’o uno fenno (Wretched the man who has a wife)
A hilarious and, simultaneously, painfully true verse. (see translation!)
Carlos Chávez 1899-1978
Symphony #2, Sinfonia India
The indigenous art of Mexico is, in our day, the only living manifestation of the race which makes up approximately four-fifths of the country's racial stock.
The essential characteristics of this indigenous music have been able to resist four centuries of contact with European musical expressions. That is, while it is certain that contact with European art has produced in Mexico a mestizo (mixed) art in constant evolution, this has not meant the disappearance of pure indigenous art. This fact is an index to its strength.
There is never, in this music, a morbid or degenerate feeling, never a negative attitude toward other men or nature as a whole. The music of America's immediate ancestors is the strong music of a man who constantly struggles and tries to dominate his surroundings. Imported manifestations opposed to the feeling of the music have been unable to destroy it because they have not succeeded in changing the ethical conditions of individuals.
-- Carlos Chávez, referring to the Symphony #2, Sinfonia India
Chávez himself was no ethnomusicologist, but he had plenty of friends who were. The composer’s college chums provided him with material they gathered in the field from the Yaqui, Seri, and Huichol Indians, descendants of the ancient Aztecs. While Chávez later conceded that his knowledge of Aztec music was imagined, and scholars have since proven that some of the scales he uses in the Sinfonia India are not Aztec at all, the overall success of the Symphony is indisputable. The composer conjures a make-believe sound-world that might have been (since we really don’t know much about what actually was), while fashioning a work suited to his talents and palatable for modern audiences.
What makes this work sound ancient, primitive, pre-historic? Chávez composes in simple scales, called pentatonic modes, limited to 5 tones. You might also perceive an absence of functional harmony, standard dominant-tonic relationships. Most obvious of course is the wealth of percussion resources, and the insistent rhythms they pound over and over. The composer called for a number of exotic doodads which, when unavailable, are substituted by their most immediate modern counterparts. When available, however, the orchestra is spiked by such oddities as the Water Gourd (a tenor drum), Tenabari (a string of rattling Butterfly Cocoons), 2 Teponaxtles (Xylophones), and nightmare of the spelling bee champion, the Tlapanhuehuetl (bass drum).
Composed in 1936, Chávez’s Sinfonia India is clearly reminiscent of two famous Springs: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. As Stravinsky employed so famously in his shocker of the Parisian haute couture, Chávez similarly uses a sophisticated rhythmic vocabulary to tap a primitive folk aesthetic: in the beginning of the work he oscillates between various asymmetrical meters, developing his own highly developed structure to conjure an underdeveloped epoch. And a few minutes in we hear a melody, first on the clarinet, that bears remarkable resemblance to the Quaker melody Simple Gifts that Copland used to seal his masterpiece. Appalachian and Aztec; are they not both fundamentally American after all?
George Enescu (1881-1955)
Romanian Rhapsody no. 1
Romania’s greatest composer, George Enescu, was better known throughout the world as one of the finest violinists of his time. He collaborated regularly with such giants at cellist Pablo Casals, and was the dedicatee of Ysaye’s 3rd solo violin sonata. The man had a super-human memory to boot, able to sit at the piano and instantly access his own personal cognitive database of the complete works of Bach, any opera by Wagner, The Rite of Spring, and so on. He was also a consummate pianist, conductor, and teacher; it was his work as a composer, however, that he himself was most passionate about.
Enescu’s earliest musical experiences came from village musicians, lautari, playing and singing the rich heritage of Romanian folk music. He began violin lessons at the age of four with ‘Squinting Nick,’ a gypsy fiddler. Among the folk tunes he learned at this time was, ‘Am un leu si vreau sa-l beau’ (‘I want to spend my shilling on drink’), a melody which would resurface as the opening of his Romanian Rhapsody no. 1.
At the astounding age of seven George was accepted at the Vienna Conservatory, where he became known as the Romanian Mozart on account of the extraordinary precocity of his musical gifts. While practicing at the home of his violin teacher Hellmesberger in Vienna, Enescu would occasionally receive the advice of one Johannes Brahms, who had stopped in for a visit with the violin professor, the guest unable to resist doing a bit of teaching himself upon overhearing this exceptional talent coming from the other room.
At fourteen Enescu continued on to study at the conservatory in Paris, less interested in displaying his jaw-dropping wunderkind performance abilities and more concerned with studying composition. He began under Massenet and received further tuition from Gabriel Faure, in whose class he became life-long friends with another promising composition student, Maurice Ravel.
The Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 begins with the folk song 4-year-old Enescu learned from Squinting Nick, ‘Am un leu.’ It is clothed in authentic garb: played by solitary winds in carefree rhythm, the opening sound emulates actual folk music practice. In Romania, shepherds who spent long days tending animals in the fields would amuse themselves by fashioning wind instruments from whatever materials were at hand — a blade of grass, birch-bark, fish-bone, whatever produced a tone. The resulting tradition generated a style rich in improvisation and ornamentation. Enescu’s opening even supplies birdcalls, to accompany the shepherds.
After the spatial opening, dance rhythms are established and do not quit until it’s all over. The Rhapsody is a potpourri of folk dance-inspired tunes and meters, enjoying one grand gradual increase in intensity, not unlike Ravel’s hit Bolero. One dance early in the work resembles the Viennese waltz, and another clearly references the Near East and Turkish influence, 500 years of Ottoman rule leaving behind vestiges in exotic scale-modes.
Dancing, and by association, drinking, were the only ways for hardworking Balkan peasants to cut loose and have a good time. The instrumental music that served as soundtrack to this much-needed merrymaking, played by gypsies like Squinting Nick, naturally reflected the jovial spirit and abandon that folk dancing exemplified. Enescu wholly captures this spirit in the Rhapsody. The orchestra has a riot, violins accelerating trills, flying at breakneck speed; by the end we can almost hear the yelps, cries, whistles, stomps, whoops, and leg-slaps of booze-warmed peasants, bending their knees, leaping over sticks, in the irresistible hullabaloo.
Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra
Philip Glass’s music is ubiquitous. The composer enjoys an unprecedented popularity across genres, and is heard on countless film scores, in opera houses, concert halls, and everywhere on everything in between. His signature sound is immediately recognizable. Perhaps more so than any other living composer, Glass is absolutely reviled by music critics.
Young Philip learned to play violin and flute while growing up in Baltimore. At the age of 12 he began composing. Glass’s father had a record store, and he would take home those records which didn’t sell, listening to them in the hopes of discovering why they remained on the shelf. Philip was thus introduced to all kinds of eclectic musics, and was captivated. He entered the University of Chicago at the tender age of 15, and later helped finance graduate studies at Juilliard by operating a crane for a steel company. He would go on to study with many well-known composers, most notably Nadia Boulanger in Paris, among whose students were numbered Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Astor Piazzolla. While in Paris, Glass was hired to transcribe into western music notation a film score of music by the great Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar. This would prove to be an awakening for Glass, as he discovered in improvisation-based Indian classical music an entirely different importance placed on rhythm, and a heightened understanding of additive and cyclic procedures. While in France he also wrote music for a theater company for performances of dramas by the penetrating post-modern Irish author Samuel Beckett, and here, finally, found his voice for the first time.
Glass traveled on to North Africa and India, and established the Philip Glass Ensemble when back in New York. Alongside fellow minimalist Steve Reich, Glass established the minimalist sound of the 60’s and 70’s, music more like rock and pop than classical, characterized by electronic amplification, simple harmonies, and a constant pulse. He wrote for a while exclusively for his own ensemble, but eventually others became interested, and today most anyone plugged in to popular culture has witnessed his sound, whether they realize it or not.
A problem often occurs for the audience when listening to Glass in the concert hall — we become frustrated. Minimalist music works naturally very well when accompanying something else — a film, a drama, or a car-ride. However, when we listen to it in the concert hall, some of us find that it doesn’t do anything, go anywhere. But something is happening; it’s just not what usually happens in concert music. In the plays of Samuel Beckett, the subject of the narrative is no longer most important, sometimes even done away with altogether. Glass similarly took importance away from the traditional developing of melodic material and the customary forward-thrusting tensions of concert music, relegating these practices in favor of a new primacy of rhythm. Things still happen at the level of pitch, melody and harmony; they just aren’t as important. Thus, as is the case with so much misery in the world, we bring it on ourselves — we in the audience have an idea of what music should do, and when it doesn’t do, we are exasperated. As Robert Maycock has put it, Glass’s music is about states of being, not conflict. Material is simply revealed, it is what it is, and it doesn’t have to go anywhere.
Glass wrote: “I put off the timpani concerto for about ten years because I just couldn’t imagine how I would do it, and Jonathan Haas was so persistent that I finally did it. He was a complete nuisance until I wrote it.” It is indeed an unusual choice of soloists. Originally meant for one timpanist, the work grew to require two, playing a total of 14 timpani kettledrums. The soloists play nearly non-stop throughout, and similarly the respective tempi of the various movements never vary. The first movement opens with a gesture that cannot fail to conjure the Mission Impossible series. (Perhaps this was the way for him to begin an undertaking he himself considered impossible.) Throughout the movement Glass continues his personal exploration of the 6/8, 3/4 hemiola phenomenon. In the second movement the soloists establish a ritualistic rhythm, suggestive of a shaman incanting around a fire. A haunting melody emerges later, hanging on very long notes. One glimpses a world pre-historic, primeval. A cadenza for the soloists further explores musics of different world cultures, its strange sounds and potent silences hallucinogenic and trance-inducing. Mystery and ancient spiritism is abandoned by the last movement, ending with a kind of celebratory dance. Glass alternates between common time and a 7/8 meter, the same rhythm used in Bulgarian folk music when dancing the ruchenitsa.
György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)
While he would later go on to compose atmospheric, experimental textural soundscapes (used to great effect by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey), Ligeti’s early Romanian Concerto bears no resemblance to his later style, instead being directly informed and inspired by the fantastic folk music of Romania.
Romanian folk music left an indelible mark on young Ligeti. Growing up in Transylvania, at the age of 3 the composer first heard the Romanian alphorn (bucium), with its natural harmonics (5ths and 7ths sounding slightly lower than what we’re used to). A vivid childhood memory recalls one New Year, when wild folk musicians wielding violin and bagpipe crashed his family’s backyard. One in a goatskin cape sported a mask with horns and a beak, and as they played the raucous and riotous Capra dance music (snapping the jaws of the mask in rhythm), they pinched the women, terrified the kids, then tore off the mask and demanded money!
In 1949, a 26-year-old György was recruited by Kodály at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest to transcribe folksongs collected by Bartók. The music was recorded on wax cylinders so fragile that listening even 10 times would erase them. This ethnomusicological grunt work came to fruition in his Romanian Concerto, composed two years later, an easily accessible opus nonetheless banned under Stalin’s capricious iron fist. Later in life, Ligeti said this early work “embodied the height of my compositional misconceptions,” but in the 1990’s he eventually revised it and allowed for its performance.
The Concerto consists of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, and is here and gone as quickly and unexpectedly as the goat-skinned fiddler of Ligeti’s childhood. After a calm introduction, we are suddenly hanging on for our lives on this giddy wild ride, spectacularly orchestrated. The alphorns he heard as a child show up in the 3rd movement (the composer specifying ‘played on natural horn, 5th and 7th not corrected, right hand kept out of bell’), and exotic scale-modes from Bartok’s wax cylinders abound. The finale whips and whirls at breakneck speed (imagine what the dance would look like!), solos played by characteristic Balkan folk violin and clarinet. The piece ends with an extraordinary texture (surely pointing to the experimental turn this composer’s career would take) – the alphorn call returns, but with the trills of a solo violin glistening from way way up in the stratosphere...
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4
From out the seeds of Beethoven’s humanistic 9th, nourished further by the imaginative sonic concoctions of Berlioz and Wagner, and fueled by a fervid personal need to create, Mahler exploded the parameters of the Symphony. On his mammoth orchestral canvases, Mahler included everything — the sublime, the vulgar, the hilarious — in his passionate eschatological pilgrimage toward the great beyond...
The 4th Symphony, his shortest, lightest, and easiest to swallow, marks the end of an epoch on the timeline of the progression of Mahler’s oeuvre.
His was no easy life. Growing up in abject poverty, young Gustav and his 13 siblings — 7 of whom died in infancy — would witness their father abuse their mother. Mahler’s favorite brother, Ernst, died at the age of 13 after an extended bout with illness. His brother Alois grew up to be insane, and another brother, Otto, also musically gifted, committed suicide at 21. As a father, Mahler would later come to know the tragedy of losing his own daughter.
Perhaps driven by these horrors, Mahler constantly searched for truth and meaning in existence. He poured over the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Maestro Bruno Walter once heard him plead, “What grim darkness underlies life! Whence have we come? Whither are we bound? Why do I fancy I am free, when my character constricts me like a prison? Will death at last reveal the meaning of life?”
Mahler elevated and transformed his art into a quest for human truth. Embracing everything and everyone, he rendered the Symphony a teeming melting pot of seemingly incompatible influences. As Aaron Copland put it, “He had his own way of saying and doing everything. The irascible scherzos, the heaven-storming calls in the brass, the special quality of his communings with nature, the gentle melancholy of a transitional passage, the gargantuan Ländler, the pages of an incredible loneliness — all these, combined with his histrionics, an inner warmth, and the will to evoke the largest forms and the grandest musical thoughts, add up to one of the most fascinating composer-personalities of modern times.”
With the 4th Symphony, Mahler wrapped up the previous three, considering them together a “perfectly self-contained tetralogy.” All four were born of song. The 1st evolved from his song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Symphonies 2,3, and 4 would emerge from the song-cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler found the text for Des Knaben Wunderhorn in an anthology of folk-song verse written in the first decade of the 19th century by poet Clemens Brentano and antiquarian Achim von Arnim. Reflecting the poetic content, the Wunderhorn Symphonies are imaginative, fantastical, even bizarre, often borrowing from the sphere of popular and folk music. Symphony #2 deals with death and resurrection, #3 with nature, and #4 crosses the bridge to the afterlife.
Mahler wrote the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) in 1892. Themes from the song would recur throughout the 3rd Symphony, completed in 1896; in fact, at one point he conceived of the song itself as finale to the 3rd, renamed Was mir das Kind erzählt (What the Child tells me). Instead he saved the song for the finale of the 4th. Much more than just the last movement, the song would be the source for most of the motivic material in the entire 4th Symphony. One contemporary critic described negotiating the work’s architecture as “reading Mahler’s Hebrew Bible backwards.”
I. Die Welt als ewige Jetztzeit (The World as Eternal Now). Bedächtig. Nicht eilen (Deliberate. Do not hurry)
Compared with Mahler’s previous Symphonies, one is immediately struck with a fresh playfulness and charm. “Unprecedented cheerfulness” and “unearthly joy” were the composer’s aims, fashioning a first theme both “simple and childlike.” We hear music evocative of Viennese dance, military fanfares, and according to Adorno, “non-existent children’s songs.” Amid sport, delight, and gentle caress, the work begins devoid of any conflict. A struggle does emerge in the development section, inherited from Beethoven, but the recapitulation returns to the Viennese élan of the opening, kicked up a muscular notch. Near the end a great tenderness consumes the tumult, reclining, a kind of lullaby slowly dying away... but, incredibly, no, we aren’t finished, the dance begins again, first quite slow, then quickly whipping into a frenzy, ending in a joyful flourish.
II. Todtentanz — Freund Hein spielt zum Tanf auf (Dance of Death — Friend Hein Strikes Up the Dance). In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast (Easily moving. Without haste)
“It is Death who strikes up the dance and seeks to lure the souls into his realm,” said Mahler, in reference to this macabre, satirical, and utterly weird scherzo. The twisted dance, a disfigured waltz, takes as its subject the mythological character of Hein, whose role in German legend was to entice travelers with his fiddle and lead them on to the other side. The solo violin is tuned scordatura, a whole-step higher than usual, meant to sound “screeching and rough.” At times, when the tempo slows down and the specter disappears for long enough, we are seduced by the strains of an other-worldly calm. Mahler employs here his montage technique, superimposing musical motives upon one another, probably learned from Wagner’s sophisticated treatment and manipulation of leitmotifs.
III. Das Lächeln der heiligen Ursula (The Smile of Saint Ursula). Ruhevoll (Peaceful)
Simple, sublime, slow, serene, stirring; this adagio glows with a radiant, deep peace, as one could only imagine awaiting us in the afterlife. No one else has written music like this. Far from human conflict, as if floating above the earth - but it doesn’t last. Five minutes in, we return to the world, descending to the arena of human pain and disbelief. Various emotions are visited, from wild gaiety to utter loneliness to a profound probing of the depths of human suffering, offering a glimpse of some kind of universal truth. The simple opening music finally returns, in slight variation, and the piece drifts off with the clouds... but then, out from nowhere, comes a tremendous clash and eruption — here it is, the volcanic climax of the entire symphony! The shock and power of this moment are equally astounding; something significant has occurred. The music which follows is of such extraordinary beauty, like nothing we’ve ever comprehended; we begin to realize that we must now be ascending away from the earth...
Known for employing self-quotation, Mahler here subtly references Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen (With wings that I have achieved for myself) from the finale of his Second Symphony, his music of resurrection. Without pause, we continue to the last movement, the well-spring of the entire work.
IV. “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”)
The title of this Bavarian folk text was originally Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen (Heaven is full of violins), which Mahler altered alongside other parts of the text. Musical motives from earlier in the Symphony, even the sleighbells of the very opening, are now redeemed, fulfilling their ultimate roles and purposes. Besides the expected heavenly, peaceful, lolling music, we hear another kind; one full of humor, even off-color vulgarity. The source of the folk text, a legend intriguing if historically anachronistic, goes something like this: Ursula, an 11th Century British Princess, had been promised to a pagan king, against her wishes. To accommodate her cold feet, the king gave her eleven ships, with 1000 virgins aboard each, and a year’s postponement of the nuptials. The Princess and her 11,000 virgin ladies-in-waiting sailed to Rome to be blessed, but were butchered wholesale by the huns on their return voyage. A bizarre choice as basis for his great Symphony on the afterlife, to be sure. This juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous in both music and text is baffling, until we consider Mahler’s indulgent sense of humor, and the fact that he was, necessarily, still quite earthbound when composing it. Perhaps it should come as no surprise — after all, the clergy always seem to have the dirtiest jokes. Which reminds me, did you hear the one about the young nun who prepared the Father’s Saturday night bath just like the old nun told her to...
Pablo Moncayo 1912-1958
The dispute over the origin of the Mexican huapango has been reduced to the following three feuding camps:
- A corruption of the ancient Aztez cuauhpanco, a dance performed on a wooden platform;
- Songs and dances of the Pango, or Huastec, people;
- Huastec version of the Spanish fandango, also a dance on a wooden platform, brought by the conquistadores beginning in the 16th century.
Whatever its origin, the resultant huapango is characteristically played on the go (making slightly more difficult the wooden platform dancing). The band consists of a few violins and a few guitars, the bigger of which is named the huapanguera. The instrumentalists also double as vocalists, often singing in falsetto (men’s high head-voice).
Pablo Moncayo was a student of Carlos Chávez, who sent his pupil on a field assignment to explore the folk and popular music of Veracruz. Moncayo later reported,
“Blas Galindo and I went to Alvarado, one of the places where folkloric music is preserved in its most pure form; we were collecting melodies, rhythms and instrumentations during several days. The transcription of it was very difficult because the huapangueros (musicians) never sang the same melody twice in the same way.”
Moncayo uses three tunes that he heard in Veracruz as the basis of his rip-roaring orchestral romp, named simply Huapango. The first dance, El Siquisirií, is introduced by the trumpet after the vivacious, gregarious climate is established through an infectious rhythmic verve. As with all huapangos, this one is in 6/8 meter, and is always slipping between groupings of 2’s and 3’s (a phenomenon named hemiola). The second dance, El Balajú, is first given shyly by the oboe — don’t worry, if you miss it the first few times, you’ll get it loud and clear in the end. El Gavilán, dance #3, pulls the tempo back a bit for what nearly resembles a waltz. The solo harp plays a slight variation, but before we know it, we’re thrown back into the rousing huapango, forget the waltz. Remember that meek oboe tune? The pride of El Balajú is redeemed with a stirring, sensational dueling duo between trombone and trumpet, like two competing serenadores, each fighting to outplay, or at least play louder than, the other. To bring us full circle, dance #1 returns for a thrilling flourish, rendering a kind of truncated palindrome form to the work, but at this point who cares about form — if you’re not leaping out of your seat with cries of AY AY AY, CARUMBA!! (etc.), then let me pour you another shot of Jose Cuervo...
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Overture to La Clemenza di Tito
La Clemenza di Tito, along with The Magic Flute and the Requiem, were composed in the final months of Mozart’s tragically curtailed lifetime. The impecunious genius blazed through the two operas, but could not complete the legendary Requiem before his illness descended. Just after midnight on December 5th, 1791, the world lost Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; tonight, in his mercurial merriment, his sublime simplicity, in his magnificent music, we seek him again...
Tito was penned at a lightning-fast clip — completed somewhere in the span of 18 days to 6 weeks. The opera seria was composed for performance in Prague, to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II. The project was turned down by Salieri (no, Hollywood, not because he was plotting Mozart’s death!), but Mozart couldn’t refuse the healthy commission. Speed meant delegating composition of the recitatives to Franz Süssmayr, who would later complete the unfinished Requeim at Constanze Mozart’s request. The text used was by Metastasio, a phenomenal improviser of poetry and the most popular librettist of his day. The same libretto that Mozart sets in Tito had been already put to music by 40 composers before him.
The Overture to La Clemenza di Tito sets the tone for the drama. The Roman Emperor Titus, a beneficent and magnanimous ruler, remains merciful to the last despite schemes and intrigues from those closest to him. He absolves them all, and comes up roses. The opera’s theme certainly would not have been lost on the freshly-crowned Emperor Leopold II, who himself had exercised clemency in abolishing capital punishment as the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1786.
The opening fanfare material announces the merciful Emperor Titus in full regalia. Heroism and driving energy, while fitting to the dramatic subject, almost prefigure Beethoven — one passage particularly does so: an 8-measure retransition into the recapitulation, where each insistent pounding downbeat is answered with a sudden piano tip-toe.
While the Overture sets the scene and establishes the main key of the opera, none of its thematic material will be heard again over the work’s two hours. This kind of slapdash patch-work is unthinkable nowadays — after all, Wagner, 100 years after Mozart, was so obsessed with continuity that he wrote his overtures last, in order to best incorporate important themes from throughout the music drama. And while dramatic continuity has grown to become accepted and even expected today, it simply was not the practice in Mozart’s time.
Don’t blink — the Overture is here and gone in under five minutes.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony in C Major, # 34, K. 338
Salzburg was Mozart’s hometown. Known as ‘The German Rome,’ the conservative Austrian city was never quite beloved by the wunderkind, who on more than one occasion was heard to have uttered the colorful remark, “Ich scheiBe auf Salzburg” (“I s___ on Salzburg”). His scatological humor notwithstanding, the musical climate there did cause trouble for Mozart and his musician-father Leopold. In general, Austrian musicians were overlooked in favor of Italians, and in 1777 the Mozarts, father and son, found themselves unemployed.
A 21-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus, along with his mother, left Salzburg in search of work. After visits to Munich and Augsburg, they arrived in Mannheim. There Mozart witnessed the finest orchestral discipline in all of Europe. The Mannheim Orchestra, led from the concertmaster-seat by Stamitz, revolutionized orchestral possibilities — here, for the first time, the ensemble played true dynamics (louds and softs), and made the quantum leap to unifying bowings. The ‘Mannheim Steamroller’ characteristic was so-dubbed after one of the orchestra’s sensational effects, an exhilarating crescendo build-up over an unchanging harmony. Mozart considered this time to be the happiest episode of his career — he made quick friends, and had the great orchestra at his disposal. But what kept Mozart there for an extra few months was, wouldn’t you know it, a girl.
Mozart had fallen in love with the young singer Aloysia Weber (elder sister to his would-be wife Costanze, see the notes on the Mass below, it gets better!). Still under the thumb on his father, Mozart and his mother were ordered on to Paris to try their luck there. Mozart hated the French and their music. Reflecting and compounding the change in fortune, Mozart’s mother grew ill and died, in July of 1778.
Mozart returned to Salzburg with his tail between his legs. But his luck changed again, and he managed to secure the post of Court Organist from the Archbishop. The gig was meant to generate much sacred music, which Mozart did in fact produce at first. Zeal for his duties there must have waned, as Mozart’s attention focused on the secular sphere, where his prodigious output from this time included the Symphony in C Major, K. 338. The Archbishop forthwith countermanded the appointment of Court Organist and gave it instead to Michael Haydn, brother to the most famous servant of the Esterházy Court, Franz Joseph Haydn.
I. Allegro vivace
Don’t worry, they aren’t repeating the Overture — the Symphony’s opening fanfare just sounds exactly like the one you already heard! (Clever, Maestro Mester.) More than illustrating how a composer can use similar material in different places, placing this Overture and its blood-relative Symphony alongside one another illuminates a unique insight into the evolution of the symphony-genre. The purely-instrumental music that would precede an opera, known as a Sinfonia and codified already by the early 18th century, would later emerge as a vehicle of its own right, independent of the opera.
The music is bold and upright, at other times all charm. Coming out of the coquettish, endearing, unpredictable second theme, we get a Mannheim Steamroller!
And now for some lovely, genteel, sophisticated music. We are in no hurry — the graceful movement casually makes it way from one pleasant tune to the next, ending like a lullaby. This Symphony would be Mozart’s last in Salzburg, and he pays homage to the town’s signature genre, the Serenade, in this slow movement. Serenades were equivalent to night music — in fact, Mozart’s ubiquitous Eine Kleine Nachtmusic (translated as A Little Night Music) is really ‘A Little Serenade.’ The practice extends back to the Renaissance, when an admirer would wait for nightfall to sing beneath a fair maiden’s window. Serenades evolved to employ ambulatory bands, performing for festive occasions. Since cellos and basses could not maintain mobility while playing, the bassoon inherited their coveted role. In this movement, Mozart lets the winds rest and scores for strings only, with the exception of the bassoon, vestige of the serenade tradition, who doubles here the lower strings.
III. Allegro vivace
The finale is great fun, chock-full with rhythmic games galore. While the surface tempo never changes, all manner of subtle devilish device is deployed at the level of phrase length, hypermeter, cadential elision, and motivic manipulation. If you listen carefully, your eyes will widen, your grin will grow, and we’ll all have a great time!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony #35 in D major, K. 385 ‘Haffner’
The summer of 1782 found a 26-year-old Mozart newly relocated to the great musical capitol of Vienna, finally leaving behind Salzburg, the hometown he’d grown to loathe. “Up to my eyeballs in work,” and hiding his plans to wed Costanze from his disapproving father, Mozart wasn’t looking for another gig, but he got one.
A commission arrived from Salzburg to commemorate the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner Jr., a boyhood friend of Mozart. The deceased Sigmund Sr. had been mayor of Salzburg and benefactor to the Mozart family, and Mozart previously composed a serenade (now known as the Haffner Serenade) in 1776 for the wedding of Sigmund Jr’s sister, Maria Elisabeth. Mozart did not in fact meet this new deadline, but he did manage to squeeze out a 6-movement serenade and send it off late. Six months later he needed a ‘new’ symphony in Vienna and requested the ‘newish’ serenade sent back, discovering to his surprise and delight, “I had forgotten every single note of it.” Lopping off the bookend march that opened and closed the work, cutting one of the minuets, switching the order of the remaining middle movements, dispensing with the repeat of the 1st movement’s exposition, and voila! Mozart’s hastily assembled serenade for his elementary school chum was brusquely condensed into what we now know as the Symphony #35 in D major ‘Haffner.’ And wouldn’t you know it, it’s absolutely brilliant.
The opening Allegro con spirito served well its original purpose – noble, joyous, celebratory, this festive music must have pleased Sigmund. Rare for Mozart but commonplace for Haydn, this movement is monothematic – there is no second theme, rather all is based on the opening material. A sunny, pastoral Andante follows, then properly proportioned pomp and grace in the form of Menuetto and Trio, delightful fare. Til now Mozart has been on his best behavior, but the rascal shows his true colors in the mischievous Finale. Demanding his orchestra to play “as fast as possible” in rehearsal, Mozart’s Presto in fact quotes an aria from his recently completed opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. The text goes something like, “O how I shall triumph when they lead you to the gallows and string you up by the neck! I shall laugh and skip and sing a song joy, for then I shall be rid of you&hellp;” Could it have been Salzburg that Mozart was so tickled to be rid of? Whatever the subtext, it makes for a finale of devilish fun!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mass in C Minor, K. 427
Once Mozart was no longer court organist in Salzburg, he had no practical incentive to write sacred music. He would write only three sacred works more — in his last year, the sublime Ave Verum Corpus, and the Requiem, left unfinished at his death. The third work, the ‘Great’ Mass in C Minor of 1783, was left unfinished as well. Why he left it incomplete, and indeed why he composed it in the first place, has come under considerable debate.
Mozart had just married Costanze Weber in August of 1782. Costanze was the youngest of three sisters, all excellent singers, and all guilty of beguiling Mozart in one way or another. The oldest, Josepha, would be the first Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, nine years later. The middle daughter, Aloysia, had enchanted Mozart in Mannheim four years earlier, though she herself was uninterested in the luck-less lover. Along came daughter #3, the youngest, Costanze. It seems Costanze’s mother alleged that Mozart and Costanze had been intimate, coercing Mozart to wed her. Whether or not the rumors were true, the mother-in-law’s ruse did the trick, and Mozart married her. Despite such a guileful impetus, the marriage turned out to be a happy union. Mozart’s father, however, would give his blessing only begrudgingly, chastising Wolfgang for his supposed indiscretions and even accusing him of being bamboozled by the crafty mother-in-law.
A number of theories propound on Mozart’s inspiration for composing the ‘Great’ Mass: heightened religious sensibilities at the onset of his marriage, a wedding gift to his new bride, honoring a vow of thanksgiving for her recovery from illness, appeasement to his father — all of these may have weighed in. Most significantly, the composer sought an arena in which to test his hand at baroque techniques he had only recently, with much excitement, discovered. And so the new couple traveled to Salzburg for Costanze to meet father Mozart.
In Salzburg Mozart premiered the Mass, at least what there was of one. He wrote only two movements of the Credo, left out parts of the Sanctus and Benedictus, and contributed no Agnus Dei. The soprano solos were sung by Costanze, and what a beautiful wedding gift they must have made. The moving solo Et incarnatus est of the Credo is a kind of sinfonia concertante along with solo flute, oboe, and bassoon. And the soprano solo in the opening Kyrie, like the slow movement of Mozart’s Gran Partita, radiates an out-of-this-world beauty. Mozart’s Kyrie is a strange admixture: the beginning and ending present the powerful, frightening style of Bach or Handel, whereas the middle is pure Mozart. That middle bit was in fact written earlier, before plans for the Mass materialized. He wrote it as a simple Solfeggio for Costanze, listed K. 393
In Vienna, Mozart had been attending regular informal Sunday afternoon gatherings at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten. A Dutch diplomat, composer, music patron, and active amateur musician, van Swieten made his mark on late-18th century music history. While living in Berlin, he developed a taste for ‘old’ music, and commissioned C.P.E. Bach to write 6 symphonies in 1773. He adapted the libretto for Haydn’s The Creation, and was the dedicatee of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony (which the PSO played last month). In Vienna, he would bring together like-minded friends and music connoisseurs, and Mozart, to study and sight-read music of Bach and Handel. It was at these soirees that Mozart was first introduced to the craft of these masters, from whom he learned the baroque vocabularies that set the ‘Great’ Mass apart from his earlier sacred oeuvre. The spirit of van Swieten’s fetes lives on today, wherever musicians gather to sight-read, to drink (invariably), carouse, commingle, and explore great music for the pure joy of it.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
#18 in Bb Major, K. 456
#9 in Eb Major, K. 271 “Jeunehomme”
#27 in Bb Major, K. 595
If Haydn was Father to the Symphony and Beethoven stretched it to larger-than-life dimensions, it was Mozart who, chronologically sandwiched between the two, was the most universal of composers, excelling in every extant genre. Not only did he stock the canon with seminal masterpieces in the realms of the Symphony, instrumental chamber music, and sacred vocal music; he also proliferated in two genres that Haydn didn’t touch, namely Opera and the Piano Concerto.
Mozart was a wunderkind, a child prodigy with no equal. His father Leopold, himself an esteemed composer and music theorist, provided the groundwork for young Mozart’s development. More importantly, he had the knack to recognize his son’s astonishing potential and the drive to see it realized. Almost abandoning his own career, Leopold considered it more important to promote and propagate his son’s burgeoning gifts. Along with Mozart’s older sister, the precocious family troupe toured Europe, the young Mozarts dazzling dignitaries and parading before state-heads, all the while hearing and meeting the finest musicians and appropriating their far-flung repertoires. Through his early travels, young Mozart became intimately acquainted with the great opera houses of the European capitals and garnered the confidence of a performing virtuoso (on both violin and piano) — traits which were not lost on his contributions to Opera and Concertos. As young children are able to learn languages so easily and effortlessly, their brains like sponges, Mozart similarly soaked up all the music he heard along the way.
Wolfgang was often put to the test by curious new associates. The philosopher Daines Barrington, in his report to the Royal Society of London, recounted the following of Mozart’s improvisations and their flabbergasting effects: “I said to the boy, that I should be glad to hear an extemporary Love Song, such as his friend Manzoli might choose in an opera. The boy... immediately began five or six lines of a jargon recitative proper to introduce a love song. He then played a symphony which might correspond with an air composed to the single word, Affetto... Finding that he was in humour, and as it were inspired, I then desired him to compose a Song of Rage, such as might be proper for the opera stage. The boy again looked back with much archness, and began five or six lines of a jargon recitative proper to precede a Song of Anger... in the middle of it, he had worked himself up to such a pitch, that he beat his harpsichord like a person possessed, rising sometimes in his chair... After this he played a difficult lesson, which he had finished a day or two before: his execution was amazing, considering that his little fingers could scarcely reach a fifth on the harpsichord.” At the time, Mozart was 8 or 9 years old.
Mozart would eventually write a total of 27 Piano Concertos. They sprang from a codified formal template, though the first to exhibit mature style, #9 of 1777, deviates by a few notable exceptions. Between the years of 1784-1791, Mozart wrote his final 14 Piano Concertos which surpassed anything previously achieved in the genre, etching the benchmark by which subsequent composers’ contributions would be measured for years to come.
Mozart’s extraordinary abilities at some point fed into popular myth, painting Mozart as God’s musical puppet. He was known to write out music without making corrections, a feat alone unheard of, but to make things still more absurd, he did so at the dinner table while carrying on a conversation. Add to that the ratio of music to time: when the total number of works composed is measured up against the total time he spent on the earth, a meager 35 years, his output averages one work per every two weeks, operas and all. Such staggering statistics necessarily lend credence to the myth of Mozart as vessel to the divine, a kind of copying machine in whose head music was deposited pre-formed, forcing him to purge himself by writing it down. Naturally, it’s not quite that simple. Mozart was indeed human, if a quicker study than some of the rest of us. And in the case of the Piano Concertos, Mozart approached the task with respect and even trepidation, taking care to study previous examples.
The Piano Concerto began in the ancestral Harpsichord Concertos of J.S. Bach, continuing with the offerings of his sons. When Mozart first tackled the animal, he composed seven exercises, or “Pasticcio Concertos,” based on Sonatas by J.C. Bach (whom he met in London in 1764), C.P.E. Bach, and a historically less fondly-remembered quartet of composers, Eckard, Honauer, Raupach, and Schobert, all of whom he befriended in Paris. Through these etudes, Mozart planted the seeds and discovered the wherewithal that would flower in his later Piano Concertos.
As can be imagined from a lineage sprouting with Bach, Mozart’s Piano Concertos synthesized techniques from the Baroque with more recent Classical trends. Mozart retained a sense of the Baroque Ritornello form, a textural dialogue between soloist and ensemble, and married it to the Classical Sonata form. Also inherited from Baroque practice were improvisational elements for the soloist: options to ornament or embellish, especially for literal repeats of phrases and slow movements, and the freedom to spontaneously create cadenzas.
Not merely an academic exercise, the solo Piano Concerto in fact evolved from sociological demand, an outgrowth of the public music scene of the time. Whereas chamber music was to be enjoyed at home, played by amateurs for their own edification and delight, another kind of audience, a larger and therefore better-paying one, occasioned another kind of music. Opera and Symphony would do for this greater public; however, in the case of Mozart, himself both composer and performing virtuoso, why not play an ace in the hole? Mozart struck a double-whammy with his newfound vehicle to wow and awe the amassed gaggle; his Piano Concertos simultaneously established his compositional credentials while celebrating his digital dexterity.
While most were meant expressly for himself and by extension his sister, Mozart did compose a handful of Piano Concertos for other pianists to play (2 of tonight’s 3 number among them). Like a clever gift-giver, Mozart’s own playing style couldn’t help but inform the back of his mind when working on these commissions for their various dedicatees — and sure enough, he performed them all sooner or later. Like most musicians (today still), Mozart scraped together an income through multifarious gigs: commissions, publications, teaching, private patronage, and performing. Performing his own Piano Concertos was the method for him to reach the widest public in the most spectacular way. To kick-start things in Vienna, Mozart organized his own series of subscription concerts, called Academien. During the season of Lent, these concerts, combined with his various other engagements, saw Amadeus performing different programs every night for weeks at a time. It was common for the concertos to be performed without rehearsal, at most with a single run-through just before. And contrary to their venerable standing today, his Concertos functioned much like popular music then — to be used up once or twice and immediately replaced by new music. It seems hard to imagine now, but our revered composers of the immortal classics were in fact working with deadlines, knocking out opuses as they were needed. Vivaldi was required to write new music each week for his talented orphan girls to perform at the Venetian Ospedali (and yes, I’ve heard the reply, “well that explains why his all sound the same... ”).
If Mozart’s music was not viewed as “classic” at the time, it is easy to see why it has survived today as such. A natural bright buoyancy, ebullient élan, joyous mirth-making, zeal, zest and zing — in other words, the irrepressible happiness of being alive — combine that with balance, perfect proportion, dramatic dialogue, a genius for invention, a twinkle in the eye, and an almost innate understanding of the musical forms and conventions of the time, and we begin to approach the sovereign sonic sanctuary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart...
Concerto #18 in Bb Major, K. 456
Written for the blind pianist Maria Theresa Paradis in 1784, Mozart’s opening theme quotes J.C. Bach’s op. 13 #4 Concerto of the same key. The pleading, affecting second movement, with its vocal repeated notes, could easily be an aria of supplication. A theme with variations, this Andante owes a debt to aria #10 from Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Turkish Harem). Since the Concerto was written for someone else, Mozart included dynamic markings in the manuscript — a practice not in his habit.
Concerto #9 in Eb Major, K. 271 “Jeunehomme”
The 9th Piano Concerto, composed January of 1777, marked a quantum leap forward in Mozart’s handling of the genre. He wrote it for the pianist Mademoiselle Jeunehomme, who may have been an exceptional pianist, an exquisite beauty, both, or neither. Little is known of her, save that she and Mozart met in Salzburg and Paris. In letters to his father he spells her name “jenomy;” and while Mozart was oft given to farce, it seems this time the joke was on him, and his French. Probably influenced by the experimental approach of C.P.E. Bach, Mozart deviates a number of times from his accepted formal plan. For starters, the piano soloist makes a false entrance in the orchestra’s opening ritornello. The grace and charm of this work bubbles over, and the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is captivating. The slow middle movement in C minor inhabits the same quiet, dark, tragic sphere of the slow movement (in the same key) of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Sudden outbursts of emotional pain again point to the influence of C.P.E. Bach, particularly his fondness for Sturm und Drang (literally, “Storm and Stress”). The final movement, a Rondeau, pays homage to the dedicatee’s nationality: both in the French spelling of an otherwise typical Rondo, and with the unlikely inclusion of a lovely Minuet episode which drags down the tempo (the Minuet was a popular dance among French aristocracy through the late 18th Century).
Concerto #27 in Bb Major, K. 595
In his maturity Mozart achieved a remarkable confluence of mastery and simplicity, as is evidenced in this, his last Piano Concerto. The premiere of the work, given March 4, 1791, would present Mozart in his last public appearance as pianist. The development section of the 1st movement exhausts an exorbitant number of modulations (20!). Unlike the slow movements of Concertos #9 and 18, this one is sunny, untroubled. The final Rondo is simple and playful, it almost sounds like a children’s song. The main theme bears resemblance to Mozart’s K. 596 song Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling of the same year, and the movement also references Dorabella’s aria È amore un ladroncello from Cosi fan tutte.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra ‘Aconcagua’
Unknown to American audiences just decades ago, Astor Piazzolla brought the sounds of Argentina’s most suggestive dance into the concert hall, seducing audiences and performers alike with his unique fusion of classical, jazz, and tango.
Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Piazzolla actually grew up in Manhattan. His father worked at a barbershop with mafia associations, and a mob boss once frightened off local boys who had beaten up young Piazzolla. Or did he start it? Astor was regularly expelled from schools for fighting, and was known on the streets as ‘Lefty’ on account of his mean left hook. He dressed as an adult to sneak into jazz clubs in Harlem, and was even caught stealing a harmonica from Macy’s!
At the age of 8 Piazzolla’s father bought the boy a bandoneon. A close cousin to the accordion, the bandoneon was invented by the German Heinrich Band to substitute for church organs in the Black Forest region. Unlike most accordions, the bandoneon has no piano keys, using only buttons. Young Piazzolla taught himself to play Bach and other classical music on the bandoneon, and his uncle helped by locking him in the bathroom to practice. At 13 he met the great tanguero Carlos Gardel who said, “Look boy, you’re top-notch at playing the squeezebox, but you play tango like a gringo!” At 16 he moved back to Argentina and started playing in the great tango bands, later studying composition with Ginastera and Boulanger. But the bandoneon always remained at his side, the signature sound of Piazzolla and tango.
The Concerto for Bandoneon was commissioned by the Banco de la Provincia of Buenos Aires for a radio broadcast in 1979. The publisher Aldo Pagani gave it the descriptive title Aconcagua, explaining “this is the peak of Astor’s oeuvre, and the highest mountain peak in South America is Aconcagua.” The opening Allegro marcato wastes no time establishing an infectious, unrelenting rhythmic drive, always leaning forward like the male tango dancer. The following Moderato is hypnotic, breathtakingly beautiful. Beginning with bandoneon alone, Piazzolla weaves a remarkable texture by adding harp, solo violin and cello. The closing Presto returns us to the frenzy of the first movement, but halfway through it abruptly shifts to a slower, melancholy tango, eventually dwindling to nothing but a slow, steady, quiet, bare rhythm, which gradually crescendos to an exultant finish.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G Major
While composing a concerto for a one-armed man, Ravel simultaneously began work on another piano concerto, this one for two hands, for himself to play. The resulting Piano Concerto in G Major of 1931 would be Ravel's last major work. A car accident the following year hastened the descent of his already poor health, and death finally came in 1937 after a failed brain surgery.
Ravel often studied the music of other composers in preparation for his projects. In the case of the G Major Concerto, Ravel acknowledged its indebtedness to Mozart and Saint-Saens. Mozart had long been Ravel's favorite composer, and Saint-Saens was the teacher of Faure who was the teacher of Ravel (and Enescu). Much more blatant in the concerto, however, is the influence of jazz. In 1928 Ravel toured the United States, making the acquaintance of one George Gershwin along the way. They became quick friends and frequented Harlem jazz clubs together. In response to George's request to study with him, Maurice famously replied, "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?" Each composer would, inevitably, influence the style of the other.
The first movement is launched by a virtual gun-shot, setting the tone for a main theme that would be right at home on the soundtrack of a latter-day spaghetti western. The jazz influence quickly appears, blue notes and all. Despite the obvious delight he takes in grafting these models over his score, the moments are there where we get pure Ravel; in a way that no other composer can, using other-worldly orchestration and shifting scale-modes, he seems to reach back far away, long ago, tapping a collective human memory almost completely forgotten...
II. Adagio assai
The second movement is breathtaking. A simplicity is achieved through long melodic lines and the left hand's repetitive waltz-like accompaniment, and is not disturbed by the harmonic inventiveness of a true master craftsman at the height of his powers. Ravel studied the slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet while working on this movement, itself a model work of incredible beauty and simplicity. When asked how he wrote the extraordinary long cantilena line that defines this movement, Ravel responded with characteristic candor, “One measure at a time.”
The third movement whips by in a flash, a whirlwind moto perpetuo, like the finale of his Sonata for Violin and Piano. While a few jazz intervals and effects are heard amidst the non-stop torrent of pianistic virtuosity, this music owes more to the neo-classical offerings of a 1920’s Stravinsky. A bookend gesture cracks the movement open and likewise slams it shut.
Like Brahms, Ravel has often been criticized for being emotionally distant, for valuing craft over expression. Ravel himself testified to pursuing technical perfection; he identified strongly with the creative philosophy of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly with the writer’s method of planning an entire work in the mind before setting it to paper. While Ravel’s music certainly is not devoid of emotion, it does inhabit a sphere of mystery. Clever artifice and exotic distance often mask a more genuine vulnerability, just beneath the surface. His personal life was a mystery as well. Ravel was never actually seen composing, and what remarkably little is known of his love life indicates that he had none at all. A simple human need for love, perhaps, coupled with a cavernous knowledge of loneliness, may be the source responsible for the exceptionally moving Adagio assai of this piano concerto.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” Sitting pretty just outside of Washington D.C., Dumbarton Oaks was the homestead of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss and the site of their numerous musical soirees. To commemorate 30 years of wedded bliss, in 1937 the couple commissioned a work from Stravinsky, the Concerto in E-Flat, its first performance conducted at the home by no less than Nadia Boulanger (composition teacher to Copland, Piazzolla, and Philip Glass to name a few). Stravinsky called it “a little concerto in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos,” and claimed to have been inspired by the ‘perfect layout’ of the elegant gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. Referring to past musical styles was Stravinsky’s modus operandi since the 1920’s, when he found himself leader of the neo-classical movement in Paris, the toast of Les Six and all those who went for coolness and detachment over German excessive über-romanticism. Stravinsky even said at one point, “Music expresses nothing but itself.” The work boasts fascinating instrumental timbres and textures, and implies a kind of concerto grosso with the role of soloist migrating freely throughout the ensemble. The second movement in particular calls to mind ballet, a Stravinsky specialty. When accused of direct quotation, Stravinsky retorted, “I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.”
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)
Homage to Lorca
Pablo Neruda characterized him as a man of 'volcanic tenderness,' in addition to having the head of a minotaur. For all who knew him, Silvestre Revueltas left a lasting impression. Frenetic creative energy, self-destructive alcoholism, and the melancholy of solitude paint the portrait of this tortured artist, Mexico's most distinctive musical voice of the 1930's.
Born in the Durango mountains on the last day of the 19th century, Revueltas and his siblings received excellent educations thanks to the financial capacity and emotional encouragement of their father. Younger brothers Fermin and Jose became well-known as muralist and writer, and younger sister Rosaura as an actress. Silvestre was himself a child prodigy on the violin, and went on to study music in Austin and Chicago. He had a daughter from a short-lived marriage to an opera diva in 1920, toured as a violin soloist, and played in theater orchestras in Alabama and Texas.
As a member of the Mexican League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, Revueltas traveled in 1937 to a civil war-torn Spain. Conducting performances of his music by day and braving hallucinatory roads under fire by night, Revueltas ultimately would have to abandon his dream of the Spanish Republic, consumed as it was by Franco and fascism. An affinity with the nation stirred in the composer a comeraderie with her artists, and his reaction to the fascist murder of Spain's great poet and dramatist Lorca produced his Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca.
The Homage to Lorca conflates two seemingly incompatible musical vocabularies: Mexican street music and Modernism - as though Stravinsky had joined a mariachi band. Diego Rivera's murals from the same period illustrate a similar fusion of high-art technique with popular themes. Trumpet lamentations in the Homage to Lorca are profound and pained, appropriate to the somber subject of the work. Remarkably, dominating the piece instead is a sort of pollyannaish merrymaking. For Revueltas, life and death were not disparate conditions - they also were conflated, one unable to exist without the other. And as life for Revueltas so often presented cause for lament, scarce was he reluctant to find reason for celebration anywhere, even in death.
Silvestre Revueltas 1899-1940
La Noche de los Mayas ("The Night of the Mayas")
In 1928 Silvestre Revueltas was invited by Carlos Chávez, with whom he had previously toured Mexico performing chamber music, to serve as assistant conductor of the brand new Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México. His years with the orchestra saw a shift in Revueltas’s career from performing to composing, as well as witnessing a surge of nationalism and political activism. In 1936 he composed the soundtrack for a documentary produced by the Mexican government about fisherman (“Redes,” or “Nets”). A concert suite was arranged from the score by the great Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber (father to the legendary and ultra-great conductor Carlos Kleiber), and the success of the score led to further projects in cinema, including a 1939 film called “La Noche de los Mayas.” This score was also arranged into a concert suite, this time by José Ives Limantour, 20 years later.
Chano Urueta's film La noche de los Mayas was adapted from a novel by Antonio Mediz Bollo. The story goes something like this: amid Yucatán jungles and Mayan ruins, a modern-day (1930’s) white man happens upon a tribe still living in the manner of the ancient civilization. He arrives in time to witness the romance between and a hunter (Uz) and a maiden (Lol), and the scorn of a furious community which blames the lovers for the draught plaguing the land. A witch (Zeb) gets involved but is burned at the stake in the end, and the lovers don’t fare much better.
I. Noche de los Mayas (Molto sostenuto)
The work begins with a kind of primordial chorale-fanfare: epic, sweeping, chilling, penetrating, music that drives fear into the heart of man, like the reverence of Ancient Powers beyond his comprehension... The brass refer obliquely to authentic Mayan trumpets and horns, and the stage is set for this ominous tale.
II. Noche de Jaranas (Scherzo, "Night of Revelry")
Jarana, Spanish for “revelry”, is also the name of a dance which fuses Spanish and native elements. The dance is a close cousin of the huapango, which you can read all about below. Last season the PSO performed Revueltas’s Homage to Lorca, a work which (the clever program annotator pointed out) sounded like Stravinsky had joined a Mariachi band. Well here in the 2nd movement of Mayas we get more of this, a kind of ancestral Mariachi lineage. Once in a while we hear a sad, sour note on the tuba, the closest orchestral alternative to the authentic Mayan conch. In the end the carousers slip away into the night as quietly as they arrived.
III. Noche de Yucatán (Andante espressivo)
Lush, Late-romantic string writing represents the pensive gringo, the outsider who has wandered upon this community forgotten by time. Following are serene, hypnotic melodies, sketching the nocturnal prehistoric landscape. The memory of the conch nearly rises to the surface of his consciousness, and a short-lived recognition of a simple dance interrupts his reveries. This brief tune, played by flute and drum, is a quotation of the traditional song still sung in parts of the Yucatán: Konex Konex Palexén ("Come on, come on boys, the sun is about to set"). In the end a fearful crescendo rises, as the inevitable is anticipated in dread and terror...
IV. Noche de Encantamiento (Theme and Variations, "Night of Enchantment")
Wild percussion and the always recurring call of the conch set the scene for a night of enchantment, watch out. Simultaneous and (seemingly) unrelated rhythms at the outset simulate a conjuring of forces the people cannot control, dangerous powers to reckon with. Various episodes, like a well-edited video clip, fast-forward though what must be an interminable evening of relentless rhythmic rioting. The orgy eventually boils up to a feverish frenzy, suggesting all manner of shamanism, trance, spirit possession... The hapless Zeb fulfills her inevitable immolation, barely quenching the communal bloodthirst. For a spine-tingling coup de grace, the fanfare music from the very beginning kicks in, driven by a powerful back-beat, now transformed by the rhythmic trance...
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
When Saint-Saëns first met the 15-year-old prodigy Sarasate, the bold young violinist asked the great French composer to write something of substance for the violin. Saint-Saëns delivered with two Violin Concerti (#’s 1 and 3), and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The rondo’s Spanish flavor is surely a nod to Sarasate’s heritage, and is yet another example of some of the best-loved “Spanish” music being written by Frenchmen! Just think Bizet (Carmen) or Ravel (Bolero), both composers represented on the RCP’s January concert.
Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs)
As has always been the practice for great instrumental virtuosi, the Spanish violinist Sarasate composed sensational showpieces designed to feature his unique talents. His pièce de résistance appropriates the earthy, heart-on-sleeve, irresistible style of Gypsy musicians. The first section suggests an impassioned improvisation, and is followed by an infectious csárdás dance.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”
Sitting pretty just outside of Washington D.C., Dumbarton Oaks was the homestead of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss and the site of their numerous musical soirees. To commemorate 30 years of wedded bliss, in 1937 the couple commissioned a work from Stravinsky, the Concerto in E-Flat, its first performance conducted at the home by no less than Nadia Boulanger (composition teacher to Copland, Piazzolla, and Philip Glass to name a few).
Stravinsky called it “a little concerto in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos,” and claimed to have been inspired by the ‘perfect layout’ of the elegant gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. Referring to past musical styles was Stravinsky’s modus operandi since the 1920’s, when he found himself leader of the neo-classical movement in Paris, the toast of Les Six and all those who went for coolness and detachment over German excessive über-romanticism. Stravinsky even said at one point, “Music expresses nothing but itself.” The work boasts fascinating instrumental timbres and textures, and implies a kind of concerto grosso with the role of soloist migrating freely throughout the ensemble. The second movement in particular calls to mind ballet, a Stravinsky specialty.
When accused of direct quotation, Stravinsky retorted, “I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5
The conflict, struggle, unbearable longing, and eventual triumph clearly manifest in the 5th Symphony never fail to strike home with listeners. This is Tchaikovsky at his best – unstoppable visceral energy, an unforgettable slow movement, and an unexplained secret program that suggests the composer’s personal struggle against ‘fate’ that he waged in the 4th Symphony and which ultimately defeated him in the 6th...
Composed in spring/summer of 1888 at a country house outside Moscow, Tchaikovsky originally planned on dedicating the 5th to his friend Edvard Grieg (whose company he enjoyed much more than that of Brahms). Instead the dedicatee chosen was Theodor Avé-Lallemant, whom he’d recently met in Hamburg. An odd choice, to be sure: the elderly Avé-Lallemant disliked new music, and told Tchaikovsky point blank that he didn’t care for the Russian’s noisy scoring and particularly his use of percussion, but was certain that he could still become a good composer! As Tchaikovsky reported, ‘he exhorted me to leave Russia and settle permanently in Germany, where classical traditions and conditions of the highest culture would quite certainly free me from my shortcomings which, in his view, are easily explained by my having been born and brought up in a land still little enlightened and far behind Germany as regards progress.’ And then they became good friends!
Composed 11 years before the 5th, Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony traced a clearly personal program (which he divulged to his patroness and confidante Nadezhda von Meck). The 4th was about fate. The composer wrote: “that tragic power which prevents the yearning for happiness from reaching its goal…our whole life alternates between grim reality and fluttering dreams of happiness…joys are illusory, and Fate knocks again.”
Such a detailed description of the 5th Symphony doesn’t exist, but a mysterious key to the 1st movement turned up in his sketches, and provides the clue to understanding the 5th along similar lines as the 4th:
(Symphony #5, 1st mvt.)
"Introduction. Total submission before Fate - or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable design of Providence.
|Allegro.||1. Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against . . . XXX.|
2. Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith?
A wonderful program, if only it can be fulfilled."
It is impossible to know what Tchaikovsky meant by ‘XXX,’ nor can we be certain what exactly ‘faith’ and ‘fate’ meant for him. Certainly the composer’s suppressed homosexuality cannot be overlooked, but what of his persistent self-doubt, hypersensitivity and frequent depression? At the very least, we can extrapolate a general meaning of the symphony by using the clues in his program.
I. We begin with a somber clarinet tune – this must be the fate motive. Once the allegro con anima kicks in, the battle has begun with a march. Hopeful and longing music is heard as well, and stirring resolve in the coda – but no victory yet.
II. Over a shifting bedrock of lower strings, a horn song of such remarkable tenderness reveals what can only be the irrepressible outpouring of a love not allowed expression. Doubt resurfaces later, and we hear a monstrous statement of the fate motive from the brass. The lovely song resumes, eventually working up to a stirring, defiant climax...as we float back down to earth, a second pronouncement of the fate motive abruptly shatters the calm.
III. A ballet waltz provides temporary escape. Just at the end, a pianissimo utterance of the fate motive threatens to penetrate this daydream.
IV. The fate motive returns, but now totally transformed. As though flipping a switch, the composer has resolved to view ‘fate’ optimistically. There are still a few moments of conflict and struggle, but they are shaken off. The triumphant coda could very well be a throne room processional march. Any happy ending so abrupt raises suspicion – and as we shall see in Symphony #6, with good reason – but for now let’s just enjoy the victory bash...
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
“I do not like useless things. There are already so many, many Requiem Masses!!! It is useless to add one more.” -Giuseppe Verdi
In 1871, following the resounding success of Aida, Verdi appeared to be easing into retirement, raising chickens and corn at his Sant’ Agata farmhouse. Until then he had written almost exclusively in the realm of opera, reigning as the preeminent figure in Italian music since the 1840’s. It would require the deaths of two of Verdi’s personal heroes and compatriots, the opera composer Gioachino Rossini and the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, to stir in Verdi the passions that lit his sacred masterpiece, the Requiem Mass. Though inspired by the deaths of two specific artists, Verdi’s Requiem explores the universal mystery, terror, grief, comfort, joy, and uncertainty that all humans encounter on their own strange odysseys through life, to death, and beyond...
When Gioachino Rossini died on November 13, 1868, Verdi wrote, “A great name has disappeared from the world! His was the most widespread, the most popular reputation of our time, and it was a glory of Italy! When the other one (Manzoni) who still lives is no more, what will we have left?” Inspired to memorialize Rossini and his contribution to Italian opera, Verdi wrote to his publisher in Milan, Tito Ricordi, with a wild proposition: Verdi suggested that Italy’s most distinguished composers could each submit a piece to form one great composite Requiem Mass, to be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Despite numerous hurdles the project gathered support and momentum, and a committee convened to assign each composer his key, tempo, and performance resources for his respective piece of the pasticcio Requiem. Verdi was entrusted with composition of the final movement, the Libera me. While the consortium of composers did their duty and completed the work, the mishmash Mass would not be performed. In fact, its premiere didn’t occur until 1988! Chief among an assortment of obstacles were financial concerns. Verdi required the musicians to donate their services, bringing to the table (and I believe musicians of the southland can empathize here) a rather Indecent Proposal...
But Verdi’s contribution to the Mass for Rossini did not disappear along with the other movements of that work’s forgotten mafia of composers. In response to a friend’s imploring letter concerning the exquisite Libera me, “You, my dear Maestro, have written the most beautiful, the greatest, and most colossally poetic page that can be imagined,” Verdi replied, “I do not like useless things. There are already so many, many Requiem Masses!!! It is useless to add one more.” Thankfully, the great Maestro would change his mind a few years later, though the circumstance that motivated his about-face was not a happy one.
Alessandro Manzoni was one of Italy’s most celebrated poets and authors of the 19th Century. His magnum opus I Promessi sposi (The Betrothed) was read by a 16-year old Verdi who would forever acknowledge it as his favorite novel, even hailing it “not only the greatest book of our epoch, but one of the greatest ever to emerge from a human brain.” As a teenager Verdi had set Manzoni’s ode “Il cinque maggio” as well as choruses from the tragedies Il conte di Carmagnola and Adelchi. When Verdi’s wife brought home a photo autographed by Manzoni, the composer hung it in his bedroom, writing to the author, “I esteem and admire you as much as one can esteem and admire anyone on this earth, both as a man and a true honor of our country so continually troubled. You are a saint, Don Alessandro!” After finally meeting him in 1868, Verdi confessed, “I would have knelt before him if it were possible to adore mortal men.” When Manzoni died on May 22, 1873, Verdi did not attend the grand public funeral, instead preferring to visit the grave “alone and unseen.” On returning from the cemetery Verdi wrote his publisher, again with the idea of performing a mass for the first anniversary of a deceased compatriot artist, this time not for Rossini but for Manzoni: to perform a Requiem Mass in memory of his brother-in-arts, this one to be composed by just one composer.
Verdi took a break from composing opera after Aida for a number of reasons: he was doing just fine financially, and enjoyed spending time managing his estates as well supporting charitable causes. But he was still a composer, and wouldn’t you know it, he found himself writing a String Quartet in 1873. When Manzoni died later that year, a Requiem presented Verdi with the spiritual motivation and grandeur of scope he could devote his prodigious talents to. In preparation for the Requiem, Verdi studied those excellent examples of the form provided by Mozart, Cherubini, and Berlioz. Amazingly, it seems that he had never laid eyes on the other movements from the amalgam Requiem Mass for Rossini. Already furnished with his unused and 5 years dormant Libera me, Verdi embarked on the Requiem Mass for Manzoni that would prove to be one of the greatest Requiems of all time, rivaled in popularity only by Mozart’s.
In addition to the Libera me, Verdi recycled into the new work another leftover piece from his past. The main theme of the Lacrymosa comes from a duet written for Don Carlo, pulled before the opera’s premiere.
The first performance took place in Milan’s San Marco church with Verdi conducting, movements of the Requiem alternating with singing of plainchant as part of a dry mass ceremony (one without consecration of bread and wine). Verdi fought to include women in the production, finally obtaining permission from the Archbishop, if with the padre’s antediluvian precondition that “all possible precautions be taken that the women be hidden by a grating, placed off to one side, or something similar.” Verdi’s new work provoked polarized responses from the prevailing musical camps. Brahms lauded, “only a genius could write such a work” while Wagner remained taciturn after hearing it, his wife Cosima conceding that, “It would be best to say nothing.” The Italian public’s amore for the work was immediate and unconditional, so much that Verdi’s publisher was required to police rampant unauthorized arrangements and bastardizations of the music. Referring to one such counterfeit rehashing, Verdi lamented, “At Ferrara an assassin of a band director arranged the Mass for military band and had it performed in an arena!” The most infamous and scathing review of the work came from the critic and conductor Hans von Bülow who, reading through the score before the premiere without actually hearing a note of it, condemned it as “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes,” and decided to skip the concert. Bülow finally heard a performance 18 years later, and was moved to tears. He wrote to Verdi in apology, and the magnanimous composer replied, “Perhaps you were right the first time.”
With awe, fear, and great respect, Verdi broaches the subject of death. The Requiem begins so very quietly, like his solo visit to Manzoni’s grave, alone and unseen, a grief personal and deep. Amidst muted strings, the choir’s first utterance of “Requiem,” like a whisper in the dark, sotto voce, chills the bone. When the text changes to “lux perpetua” (“light everlasting”), ppp dolcissimo, the key seems to have magically transformed from A minor to A major. This opening scene, perhaps too painful to last much longer, is interrupted with the psalm text “Te decet hymnus” (“To you we owe a hymn of praise”), a joyous a capella outburst in the stile antico, with a surprise modulation to F major. The music and antiphon text from the beginning are given again, but rather than being interrupted this time they blossom into the Kyrie, each of the four soloists making a glorious entrance. The ensuing Kyrie is pure joyful celebration, eclipsing the shadowy mood of the opening. For a Requiem that began so pained and mournful, it seems almost too easy that the majority of this first movement can feel so good — and perhaps with good reason, as there is more to come...
He holds nothing back — with his Dies irae, Verdi unleashes Hell. The floodgates to the kingdom of Hades are thrown wide: fire and brimstone, the threat of eternal damnation, this is the Dies irae, the day of wrath, and it will dissolve the world in ashes. Verdi’s music is absolutely terrifying, a cacophony of screaming voices, blasting brasses, piercing winds, scrambling strings, and inevitable judgment in the pounding gavel of the bass drum. After the commotion dies down, Verdi prepares a literal and harrowing musical illustration of the following text. As the call of offstage trumpets announces more frightful revelations to come, and their charge is joined by the forces onstage, we understand full well the implications of “Tuba mirum spargens sonum, per sepulcra regionem, coget omnes ante thronum.” (“The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound through the tombs of every land, will gather all before the throne.”)
The Bass gets the first solo scene, singing “Death and Nature shall stand amazed, when all Creation rises again to answer to the Judge.” This stupefied amazement is illustrated by numerous silences and a fumbling figure in the lower strings. The mezzo’s scene follows, warning us that “A written book will be brought forth, which contains everything for which the world will be judged. Therefore when the Judge takes His seat, whatever is hidden will be revealed: nothing shall remain unavenged.” Her words contain a truth not exclusive to Catholicism: we cannot escape the reality that everything we do has some consequence, and affects the people and the world around us. However, use of fear as the motivating factor is indeed a distinctly Christian trademark, and Verdi is not shy about striking fear into our hearts with this movement. The entire Dies irae is only the 2nd of 7 movements in the Requiem, but it constitutes half of the work’s length. A number of sensational and operatic scenes for the soloists are interspersed with reminder warnings of the initial terror music, and by the end of this movement, we can all use an intermission.
The next three movements serve as a kind of balm on the wound opened by the Dies irae. The lovely Offertorio begins with a highly unusual orchestration, as the cello section gingerly vaults from their lowest note up into the stratosphere. The Sanctus, a resplendent double fugue for divided chorus, is the shortest of the movements, lasting just more than 2 minutes. The Agnus dei stays simple, beginning with unison statements and observing strict call and response behavior between soloists and chorus, with variation in harmony and texture. The opening of the Lux aeterna suggests a move back to the serious, profound spirituality of the first part of the Requiem: shimmering chords evoking ‘eternal light’ sound almost Wagnerian in their mysticism, and the bass intones the text of the 1st movement, “Requiem aeternam..,” with music so ominous and heavy it seems to pull us down toward the grave. And yet sunlight manages to break through with the words “lux perpetua,” and a joyful mood wins out. It seems we must wait for the final movement to get to the real mystery.
The Libera me, the final movement of Verdi’s Requiem, was Verdi’s contribution to the composite Requiem for Rossini. Fortunately, the first one never made it. The composite Mass, with each movement by a different composer and none of them aware of what the others were writing, necessarily lacked musical cohesion, what Verdi himself called unità musicale. When Verdi went back to his Libera me for the second Requiem, he used it as the fount of musical material for the entire work. Both the music of the very opening and that of the Dies irae are found in the Libera me. The music of the very beginning is this time, in the last movement, scored for solo soprano and chorus without instrumental accompaniment; and it is some of the most emotionally penetrating music ever written.
John Williams (b. 1932)
The Tale of Viktor Navorski, from The Terminal
Film composer extraordinaire John Williams is an American institution. His music, by virtue of its far-reaching medium, has in his lifetime graced the ears of more people than a Mozart or Beethoven could ever have dreamed of. Who doesn’t recognize Darth Vader’s Imperial March from Star Wars; what child can’t whistle the tune from Indiana Jones; who hasn’t felt the spine-chilling two-notes of Jaws; who hasn’t wept on hearing Itzhak Perlman’s violin in Schindler’s List; whose jaw hasn’t dropped from the sight-and-sound spectacle of the towering brontosauruses in Jurassic Park; not to mention Superman, Harry Potter, you get the picture.
The Terminal is one more notch in the belt for the Steven Spielberg/John Williams dynamic duo. Newly arrived at New York’s JFK Airport, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) falls into a bureaucratic crack in the regulatory façade of Homeland Security. His (fictional) native post-soviet country of Krakhozia has suffered a coup and is no longer recognized by the US government, thus Viktor’s passport is no good, and he is not allowed entrance to New York. Instead, he can wait in the airport terminal— which he does, for the entire movie.
The music, dominated by solo clarinet, masterfully taps the folk and gypsy traditions of eastern European countries, cleverly without committing too much to any one of them.
Karim Al-Zand (b. 1970)
The Waiting Game
‘A choreographic scene for dance,’ The Waiting Game was dedicated to the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto in 2005 by Canadian-American composer and Rice University Professor Karim Al-Zand. Involving only flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and harp, the piece consists of four sections or dances played without pause. In the 3rd the percussionist plays the African kalimba (also called mbira, or thumb piano), an instrument rarely heard in the concert hall. Al-Zand writes, “The title of the work relates to a choreographed dance scenario which develops in tandem with the piece: a man and woman flirt as they wait at a bus stop.” For those of us living in Riverside County, waiting for a bus may seem anachronistic; perhaps our flirting is rusty as well?