Undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures in the history of European music, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is also one of the most influential composers of the past 150 years. For many, images from some of his most famous works have become icons representing opera itself. While the tendency is to view Wagner as arrogant and head-strong, forging a new conception of theater and musical style, his early career was fraught with uncertainty and risky political entanglement. His earliest operas found only marginal success, with Rienzi (1840) the most recognizable of them. His next three operas would move him to the top tier of opera composers of the period, The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850). These works are all regularly performed as part of the standard operatic repertoire throughout the world. His later works place him in the category of opera immortals culminating with the Ring cycle and his last work, Parsifal (1882).
Interestingly, there is a thematic connection between Lohengrin at the start of Wagner’s peak creativity and Parsifal at its close in the element of the knights of the holy grail. Lohengrin is also identified in the eponymous opera as the son of King Parsifal. Despite the controversies inextricably connected to Wagner, there is no denying the magnificence of his musical invention. Many references to the music from Wagner’s operas have become iconic in popular culture from the fierce and menacing “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Die Walküre, to the transcendent and ecstatic “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. But, perhaps most familiar, though many don’t realize its original source, is the famous “Wedding March” or “Bridal Chorus,” also known as “Here comes the bride” from the opening scene of Act III of Lohengrin. This chorus is preceded by the Prelude to Act III, which is also one of Wagner’s most famous and frequently performed orchestral excerpts. The Prelude begins with a flourish in the strings followed by a brilliant fanfare-like theme in the brass, which is then balanced by an elegant lyrical idea in the woodwinds. The excitement of the fanfare theme returns even more enthusiastically before gradually settling down before the bridal chorus begins.
Disheartened by the disappointing reception to his First Symphony, in 1897, Rachmaninov suffered an artistic crisis that kept him from composing any new works for the following three years. In 1900, after seeking medical treatment for his depression, he began composing the work that would secure his position as a world-class composer, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. The Second Concerto has since become one of the towering edifices of the Romantic piano concerto repertoire. It demands the utmost in technical facility and emotional expressivity from the soloist within the context of a brilliantly effective and sensitive orchestral setting.
The concerto opens with the unaccompanied piano’s dramatic sequence of intensifying chords that leads into the dark and passionate first orchestral theme in the strings. The piano then becomes the focus of attention as it deftly leads into a new and extended section that builds gradually to an emphatic return of the opening melody. Following this climactic arrival, the intensity recedes as the orchestra takes on a somewhat more important melodic role. The movement ends with the piano anxiously pushing the whole orchestra to an abrupt close. The slow second movement features one of Rachmaninov’s most gorgeous and heart-rending melodies. This theme, which dominates the entire movement, is solemnly introduced by a subdued orchestral chorale. Solo flute and then clarinet present the main melody accompanied by the solo piano, which finally gets the theme to itself. The more agitated middle section builds to an excited climax following which the piano plays a brief cadenza before returning to the placidity of the opening, only now enveloped in a luxuriously orchestrated accompaniment.
The exciting finale is built on two main contrasting ideas, the first an incisively rhythmic theme that congeals out of the introductory statements of the orchestra and piano. Following a return of this theme, the concerto’s “big tune” is introduced in the strings. This expressive, singing melody, characteristically Russian in its expansive and languorous mood, provides a stabilizing foil and emotional relief to the mercurially rhythmic theme that provides the basis for the more developmental sections of the movement. Rachmaninov recasts the opening theme several times, each time balanced by a return to the string theme, before the concerto briskly ends, approvingly stamped with his signature rhythm (long-short-short-long: Rach-ma-ni-nov)!
For most Americans old enough to be aware of it, life under the tyrannical rule of the ruthless Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would seem an unimaginable nightmare. For the composer Dmitri Shostakovich it was reality. The harshness of this reality came to bear on Shostakovich in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk became the object of severe public criticism presumably by Stalin himself. The fear induced by this experience caused Shostakovich to withdraw his Fourth Symphony shortly before its scheduled premiere in 1936. The concern he likely felt as his Fifth Symphony was about to be performed only a year later must have been terrifying. Shostakovich has said that at the premiere he “felt like the gladiator in Spartacus or a fish in a frypan.” To Shostakovich’s relief the premiere was an overwhelming success. So moving was the experience to some audience members that by the end many wept openly. Despite its solid place in the symphonic repertoire, questions about the Fifth Symphony still arise, many driven by the disputed reliability of the purported Shostakovich memoir, Testimony, published by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov in 1979. What were the composer’s true feelings about Soviet ideology and how is this manifested in his musical message? On the presumed jubilant finale to the Fifth Symphony Shostakovich has said, “I think that it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, … It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing your business is rejoicing’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.'”
From the opening moments of the symphony one feels a raw sense of tragedy. The aggressive, gaping theme that rises up from the low strings draws us into a musical drama of incredible variety. Almost immediately themes and ideas are subtly transformed revealing new and contrasting character. After the extended ensuing lyrical section, the momentum gradually builds, accompanied by a menacing repeating figure first heard in the piano and pizzicato strings. Marching music soon takes over and the mood becomes increasingly frantic through contrasting ideas in the strings and winds. The movement then seems to proceed by retreating through various sections heard earlier before gradually, and inconclusively, dissipating.
The lighter Scherzo second movement seems, through its grotesque contrasts of gesture: the oafish waltzing, mocking and delicate wind melodies, and martial drums and brasses, an homage to Shostakovich’s symphonic progenitor, Gustav Mahler. It provides emotional relief between the ominous first and intense but desolate third movement. The desperation of the Largo whose sound is primarily colored by the strings, is answered by a brass fanfare that introduces the galloping finale. The pace of this movement builds incrementally until pastoral horns play over incongruously straining violins. The return of the fanfare theme over snare drum initiates a new and climactic drive to the symphony’s hammering conclusion. Program Notes by Robert S. Katz ©2022
In the field of classical music, the names Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler usually elicit an immediate response of recognition and reverence. They are among the true pantheon of composers whose musical achievements are virtually unassailable and as such can accurately be labeled “titans” of the artform. For most listeners, these composers need no introduction as their reputations are secure, their music familiar, and their greatness fully enshrined. And while judgement regarding these achievements is no longer up for debate, we should continue to listen to and ponder these works of art as they continually provide us with new insights into what art is best at doing, leading us to a deeper contemplation on the meaning of the human experience.
Leonore is the title character of a 19th-century French play immortalized in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. She is a hero, a symbol of faithfulness, loyalty, and purity of spirit. She is an archetype of titanic womanhood: intensely devoted and relentless in her pursuit of the good. The story is centered around her attempt to free her husband, Florestan, who is being held as a political prisoner. Leonore, disguised as a man named Fidelio, takes a job as a guard at the prison where Florestan is being held in order to realize her scheme to free him from his captivity.
Beethoven composed three Leonore overtures as curtain raisers to various productions of the opera—then titled Leonore—that premiered in the winter of 1805. The original overture is called Leonore Overture No. 2. It is the longest, most symphonic of all the overtures and as a result the least successful as an opera overture. Leonore Overture No. 1 was composed third for an anticipated but cancelled run of the opera in Prague in 1807. Leonore No. 3 was part of a major revision of the opera undertaken by Beethoven in early 1806 in response to criticism of the earlier production. Today the opera, as revised and revived in 1814, is known as Fidelio, for which Beethoven composed a fourth overture bearing the title of the renamed opera.
Leonore Overture No. 3 is perhaps the most familiar of the overtures having survived on its own as a popular concert overture. It shares the great dramatic qualities of its predecessor without its overwhelming power. The foreboding descent of the slow introduction leads gradually into a hopeful theme in the clarinet and bassoon; darkness still predominates. A rising flute arpeggio initiates the climb out of despair and into the bright sunshine of the main Allegro. A brief episode in the middle of the overture, a pair of off-stage trumpet fanfares, presages the pivotal moment in the opera when the fate of the characters is sealed. A hurtling coda assures us that the resolution of the story is triumphant, and the protagonists have, against all odds, prevailed.
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) is one of the most celebrated musical prodigies in music history. Famous for his extreme precocity as a child, he performed at the courts of European rulers and aristocrats from a very early age, dazzling his audiences with technical virtuosity at the keyboard and his ability to compose and improvise music. His early life as an object of fascination by these patrons also led to a rich cultural experience and exposure to broad set of musical influences from some of the greatest composers of the period. Consequently, much of his early music reflects the influence of these mostly incidental teachers. While it is without question that Mozart was a supremely gifted musician and composer, he earliest works reflect his developing musical mind more than the innovative creative force he would become. The appearance of the early mature works begin to reveal this aspect of his musical style and his Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183 is such a work. Composed at the age of 17 while living in his native Salzburg under the watchful eye of his father, Leopold, the Symphony No. 25 is remarkable for several reasons, but perhaps most recognizably for its rather exceptional casting in the key of G minor. Of all of Mozart’s 40-plus symphonies, only two were written in minor keys, and in both instances they are in G minor. The other G minor symphony is of course one of the greatest symphonies ever composed, his No. 40, written in the summer of 1788. Because of the comparative brevity and relative lightness of this early work, it is sometimes referred to as the “little G-minor symphony.” Nonetheless, this is an important work in the composer’s symphonic oeuvre. Upon hearing the open measures of the symphony, one is immediately struck by the seriousness of tone and the undoubted influence of another great composer, Franz Joseph Haydn. Mozart and Haydn, despite a more than 20-year disparity in age, were mutual musical influences. In the 1770s Haydn was busily developing his own symphonic language and composed a series of minor-keyed symphonies often referred to as being in the “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) style. It is highly likely that Mozart, in this G minor symphony, was responding to this important artistic movement.
The movement opens with a serious, agitated tone descending melodically and accompanied by syncopation, before settling on to a meandering oboe melody. A sudden outburst follows, constantly shifting harmonically and leading to brighter music and rushing scales. A relatively brief development follows recalling the oboe melody and shifting harmonies. The slow second movement is elegant in manner and evocative of a playful operatic scene, something Mozart would perfect later in his career. The Minuet returns to the dark minor key and serious tone with its brooding low string and French horn melody. The Trio lightens the mood and shifts to main theme to the woodwinds. The breathless finale again employs the minor and entails more complex textures and rhythms echoing but not recalling the opening movement and solidifying the work’s unqualified “Sturm und Drang” character.
Beethoven’s nine symphonies stand as the quintessential monument to the musical form that, in some respects, is still the measure of a composer’s greatness. His music scales the heights and plumbs the depths of human experience. Its emotional scale is often so heroic that his music takes on an almost universal symbolism. A similar sentiment can be expressed with regard to the music of the Bohemian composer, Gustav Mahler (1864-1911), whose compositions are almost all symphonic in scope. But for Mahler, perhaps even more so than for other composers, the creation of a symphony was an expression of intensely personal, rather than universal experience. For those to whom Mahler’s music speaks most directly, there is no more eloquently human composer. The circumstances of Mahler’s life are no doubt the catalyst to his emotional sensitivity. His sense of isolation from the world is expressed in his saying “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.” His early encounters with tragedy, prejudice and great literature manifested in him a deeply rooted searching for answers to life’s most profound questions. In collaboration with this lofty search for meaning was his belief that “The symphony must embrace everything.” This all-encompassing perspective is reflected in Mahler’s incorporation of folksong, dance (waltzes, ländler), bird-calls, marches and hymn-like melodies into his symphonies. This eclectic approach to symphonic composition enables listeners to gain a sense of accessibility into a world of extensive and complex musical structures.
Mahler, like several other great composers of the 19th century, concentrated his creative efforts primarily on compositions in just a few genres: songs – for voice with either piano or orchestral accompaniment – and symphonies, to which the songs are intrinsically linked. This self-imposed limitation and compositional intermingling, in addition to knowledge about Mahler’s personal life, provide insights into the possible meaning and significance of his music. The Symphony No. 1 in D major, marks the culmination of Mahler’s early musical development. The First Symphony began as a symphonic poem, expanded to a five-movement symphony and finally settled as the four-movement work most often heard today. The symphony uses several of Mahler’s early songs as thematic material in each of the four movements, especially those from the song-cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer. These early songs were written as tributes to, or reminiscences of, past love affairs, thereby giving us reason to believe that this symphony is concerned with Mahler’s experience of love, disillusionment, loss and renewal.
The symphony begins with a pastoral sense of awakening. Fragments of brief melodies and fanfares are tossed about over the hovering strings. A slowly rising murmur in the low strings suggests uncertainty before the first full melody, the lighthearted theme from the second Wayfarer song (“Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld”), is exuberantly taken up as the main theme of the movement.
The second movement is a sturdy peasant dance introduced by a rhythmically rocking figure in the low strings. The melody of this Scherzo is taken from yet another early song, Hans und Grethe, that Mahler dedicated to one of his early loves. The full, rich sonority of the Scherzo is contrasted by the thinner orchestration in the accompanying Trio, whose melody is more sentimental and wistful than that of the rustic Scherzo. The movement is rounded out by a return to the music of the Scherzo before an unrestrained surge to the conclusion.
An almost surrealistic atmosphere engulfs the various episodes of the slow, funereal third movement. The music begins with the unusual combination of tympani and muted solo double bass playing the melody to the children’s song, Frère Jacques, as a macabre march in a minor key. Other solo instruments follow creating the spiraling effect of a round. This march theme returns again and again throughout the movement. A new section follows with melodies reminiscent of sentimental dances whose phrases are constantly interrupted. A third section follows the return of the march theme. The melody of this section is once again a recollection of a song from the Wayfarer cycle. Themes from earlier in the movement are recalled as the movement draws to a sorrowful conclusion.
The uneasy calm that closes the third movement is obliterated by the crashing thunderbolt that launches the Finale. This sprawling movement is dominated thematically by an insistent, rising martial theme in the brasses. The first section of the movement develops a high level of tension through the dense activity in the orchestra along with the blaring brass theme. A second, lyrically yearning, section follows in the strings before the return of the menacing brass theme. The mood of the brasses is then transformed into a triumphant march accompanied by cascading string flourishes. Once again, the mood settles as Mahler now recalls ideas from the first movement. The symphony ends with a dazzlingly orchestrated, climactic return of the triumphant march. © 2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
A thing unfinished can signify many things, and that is clearly the case with the three ostensibly unfinished works on this concert program. The nature of the incompleteness of something can vary depending upon circumstances. Sometimes something is left unfinished due to interruption, sometimes neglect, and sometimes the creator’s life ends before their work is completed. The unfinished quality of these three works by Borodin, Bartók, and Schubert differs dramatically in type, but for all three the sense of incompleteness is either elusive or completely absent to the listener.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is recognized as one of the great Russian musical figures of the 19th century. Known by most audiences through a handful of works defined by a strong sense of melodic beauty and Slavic color, his music has remained popular for over a century. In his own time, however, Borodin was known as one of Russia’s leading scientists. He was trained as a physician and became one of the most influential chemists of his era who did pioneering work in the field of organic chemistry. Borodin was also a founder of the first medical college for women in Russia. His vocation in science also made him a perfect candidate for inclusion in a group of composers known for their contribution to the history of Russian music. This group, sometimes referred to as “The Five” or the “Mighty Handful” (Moguchaya Kuchka) consisted of five composers who shunned the limitations that often accompany formal musical training in favor of a true amateur approach to developing a Russian musical identity. Unrestrained by conservatory rules and practices, these composers experimented with unusual types of scales, harmonies, and instrumental colors. Most of the other members of The Five had other occupations outside of music, like Borodin, but his intensely active scientific career probably contributed significantly to the relatively small number of musical works he composed and almost certainly to the unfinished state of many of them. To compound matters, Borodin died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 52 while attending a masquerade ball.
His premature death left a number of his works unfinished including his largest and most famous score, the opera, Prince Igor. Borodin worked on this opera periodically over a period of nearly two decades and at his death its completion was left to two colleagues, Alexander Glazunov and Nicolai Rimisky-Korsakov. Anecdotal accounts report that the Overture to Prince Igor was actually completed and performed by the composer at the piano for an audience of friends and colleagues. Consequently, it remained for one of them to attempt to reconstruct the music Borodin performed. Glazunov was tasked with this responsibility and despite the fact that he had no sketches or instructions to follow in completing the score, many feel that the music accurately reflects Borodin’s original intent.
The story of Prince Igor is typical of the kind of subject matter that appealed to The Five: a traditional story about the history of the Russian people and their attempts to defend against outsiders. Igor is the 12th century heroic figure who, along with his son, Vladimir, are captured by the tribal Polovtsi, led by Khan Konchak, who regales the captives with song, dance, and feasting attempting to convince Igor to end his resistance to the invaders. Igor escapes his captivity and returns to his city to settle troubling internal issues that have developed in his absence.
The overture begins mysteriously, in hushed tones. A descending figure cascades to the lowest register of the orchestra followed by a surging rise in the brass generating excitement and expectation. A new idea in the clarinet provides some characteristic Russian flavor. In a contrasting mood, the French horn introduces a sense of romance and passion as the theme is taken up in the strings. A dramatic development of the clarinet theme leads to a revisiting of the opening complex. The two main ideas are then joined before leading to the exuberant conclusion.
Perhaps the most famous and enigmatic of all “unfinished” works is the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). There is much uncertainty surrounding Schubert’s unfinished symphony, beginning with the fact that there is more than one unfinished Schubert symphony, suggesting that the composer often discontinued work on a composition mid-stream to pursue other ideas and it is unknown whether he ever intended to return to complete them. Since incomplete and fragmentary works are quite common in the case of Schubert, there is a long history of debate and discussion about these works. This is especially so for the two-movement B minor symphony, which, since its first performance in 1865, has remained a staple of the orchestral repertoire. There are also some myths about the piece that can be dispelled, such as that it was left incomplete due to his untimely death at age 31. Yet Schubert managed to complete many other works, including his longest symphony, the Great C major, well after this apparently aborted earlier effort. There are too many unanswerable questions to conjecture meaningfully about why this work was never completed. We do know that he at least began working on additional movements, but these never came to fruition. We also know that in these two movements Schubert was taking symphonic composition in a dramatic new direction. He was eschewing classical models and expectations and heading imaginatively into uncharted territory. Perhaps the sheer boldness of this music created its own challenges in terms of how to proceed. Regardless, it is to our advantage that this symphonic torso survives because the music in these two movements is haunting, sublime, and profoundly expressive.
From the outset the first movement is strikingly original. Cellos and basses, in their lowest register and in a tempo uncharacteristically slow for symphonic first movements, hum a ominous tune in B minor before the tremulous accompaniment to the first theme enters. That theme, in duet between oboe and clarinet, hovers high above the orchestra leading to an abrupt and arresting cadence. The music that follows is a memorable Schubertian tune in the cellos that has become one of his most familiar melodies. It continues briefly before the stark character of the opening reappears with sharp dynamics and contrapuntal density. It is in the development section where we find out the significance of that growling opening theme and it is harrowingly dramatic.
The second movement, like the first, is in an atypical triple meter, but the mood here is divinely lyrical and gentle until ponderous, heavy chords interrupt the placid flow. More pathos follows in a searching clarinet theme above throbbing strings. The mood builds in expressive intensity only to return to the strife-ridden chordal music. The serene opening music returns once again followed by the threatening chordal passage. The series of abrupt juxtapositions of the earlier music repeats followed by a closing based on the dreamlike opening theme bringing this strange and wonderous movement to its conclusion.
That Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119, is considered unfinished is really more of a technicality than actuality. While it is true that the work wasn’t fully completed by the composer, the extent to which that is true is quite minimal. Béla Bartók(1881-1945) had completed composition of the entire concerto and was in the process of orchestrating it when he finally succumbed to the leukemia that plagued his last years. Even the work of orchestration was nearly complete, only 17 measures were left unorchestrated when Bartók died on September 26, 1945. The final orchestration was completed by Bartók’s student, Tibor Szerly.
Living in the U. S. since fleeing Nazi controlled eastern Europe in 1940, Bartók and his Jewish, pianist wife, Ditta, struggled to make a life in a new country. The couple had previously performed frequently together as duo pianists, but in the U. S. opportunities were few. Also difficult for Bartók was his separation from the Eastern European folk music sources that were so important to his own intellectual and artistic life. Prospects were starting to improve when Bartók received some much-needed commissions that led to a series of works including the Concerto for Orchestra and the Viola Concerto, that proved to be his last compositions. The idea for his Third Piano Concerto was more personal. It was intended as a surprise gift from the composer to his wife on her 42nd birthday in October of 1945 and was composed during that summer while Bartók was convalescing at a cabin in Saranac Lake, NY.
The concerto begins with a movement rich in Hungarian folk melody. The first and dominant main theme, lyrically rhapsodic in character, is heard in various guises throughout the movement, usually led by the piano, which is also given much passagework for technical display. The slow second movement, marked Adagio Religioso, seems to be a musical meditation on mortality. The imitative introductory idea in the strings echoes Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” from his op. 132 string quartet as the solo piano replies to the orchestra in episodic recitative. Sounds of nature animate the dialog between piano and winds in the movement’s middle section. A bittersweetly lyrical section follows as the piano’s outpouring seems urgently expressive. A mood of resignation in the piano leads to a recollection of the opening as the movement concludes. The concerto closes with a movement of buoyant optimism in the joyfully shifting meters and snapping rhythms characteristic of Bartók’s Hungarian/Bulgarian music. While the concerto has no solo cadenzas, the closing section of the finale places the soloist on virtuosic display as the movement rushes headlong to its conclusion. © 2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
All the music on this program originates from one of the most calamitous decades of the 20th century, and that century certain has several to choose from. But the decade referenced here is the 1940s. In this time the world was gripped in the struggle of WW II, and at least two of the works here, the opening piece, Walton’s brief Spitfire and the concluding Symphony by Shostakovich, are directly connected to that event. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was written shortly after the war, but in a more philosophical sense is connected through its associations with innocence and its loss as well as personal loss and death. Khachaturian’s Masquerade was composed in 1941, a time when the Soviet Union was engaged in a death struggle against the Nazis, but this music seems oblivious to those circumstances.
Sir William Walton (1902-1983) is one of the most prominent British composers of his generation who composed a wide variety of works, only a handful of which are regularly performed in the U. S. Most notable among those works are his celebrated Viola Concerto (1929) and his choral masterpiece, Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). Walton was also one of the first concert music composers to work extensively in the genre of film scores, composing for no fewer than 14 movies between 1935 and 1970. Some of those films and their scores have become icons in cinematic history, including two Shakespeare adaptations starring Sir Laurence Olivier, Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948).
In 1942 Walton was tapped to create a soundtrack for a patriotic film produced to boost morale in the wake of the destruction of the infamous Battle of Britain (July to October 1940) and in support of the ongoing war effort. In the words of then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” a reference to the heroic defense of England by the Royal Air Force, equipped with a new, high-performance fighter plane called the Supermarine Spitfire. The film for which Walton’s score was created was titled The First of the Few, a reference to Churchill’s quote. Walton later excerpted two of the numbers from the score to create the Spitfire: Prelude and Fugue. The Prelude comes from the opening credits sequence and is lyrical and heroic in character and colorfully orchestrated, characteristic of Walton’s music in general. The Fugue section, fast and rhythmically animated, comes appropriately from a portion of the film depicting the industrious assembly and testing of the new plane.
The music of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has become a regular feature in American concert halls ever since his now celebrated Adagio for Strings was performed by Arturo Toscanini on a national radio broadcast in 1938. That work has remained a staple of the orchestral repertoire, but Barber’s music spans virtually every genre, from song to opera. His music is highly accessible and distinctly American. His style is sometimes referred to as neo-romantic because of its unapologetically consonant and lyrical nature.
One of Barber’s most touching and lyrical works is his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24 (1947) for voice and orchestra. This unusual work takes a lengthy prose poem by James Agee, rich in poetic imagery, and imposes a simple yet rhapsodic musical structure so sensitively shaped that we are oblivious to the irregular textual structure. The text is personal from both Agee’s and Barber’s perspective as it was written as a reflection on Agee’s childhood just before his father’s untimely death in 1916. Barber composed his score while his own father was terminally ill, so the source was especially meaningful to him.
Musical moods shift kaleidoscopically as the child/narrator’s attention shifts focus. The gently rocking opening theme reflects the comfort and gentleness of his people – the child’s family. The placid calm is first broken by a clanging streetcar. As it passes, humanity softly returns leading back to the rocking music. A new tender melody rises in the clarinet as the child again reflects on his companions. Urgent strains in the orchestra interrupt as thoughts of providence and mortality arise. Despite the text’s troubled and unsettled conclusion, the familiar rocking theme returns once again for the closing section.
The Armenian Soviet composer, Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), shares some interesting similarities with a couple of the other composers on this program. Like Walton, Khachaturian was an early and active contributor to music for film and his consistently colorful and imaginative music is evocative and cinematic in character. Like Shostakovich, with whom he was friends, Khachaturian worked under the watchful gaze of the official Soviet artistic machinery under the notorious protégé of Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov. Today Khachaturian’s music is not widely performed in the West, but a few of his works have become familiar to audiences, especially his “Sabre Dance,” excerpted from his successful ballet, Gayne (1942), roughly contemporary with the music to Masquerade.
The Masquerade Suite is music composed to accompany a play by the brilliant 19th-century Russian poet and playwright, Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). The suite extracts five sections from the full score alternating three lively dance sections with a contrasting Nocturne and Romance. The story, an Othello-like tragedy of mistaken betrayal, centers around events at a masked ball, hence the numerous dance sections. The opening “Waltz,” is dramatic and full bodied in its orchestration, tinged with melancholy. The “Nocturne” is dark and mysterious featuring solo violin. A buoyant and playful “Mazurka” serves as the central movement of the suite. The Romance is brooding and passionately expressive, highlighted by solo clarinet and trumpet. The suite concludes with the boisterous and comedic “Galop” briming with humor and frantic energy.
In the spring of 1945 WWII in Europe finally came to an end with the German army finally defeated by the allied forces of Britain, the U. S., and the Soviet Union. The Soviets played a huge role in this victory but also paid a tremendous price in loss of life and destruction. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had already composed two “war symphonies,” his Seventh and Eighth, both recounting the sacrifice, heroism, and profound suffering of the Russian people. Now that the war was over, the expectations that he would respond with an appropriately magnificent, joyous, and epic musical creation seemed fitting. Add to this the mystique of the “9th Symphony,” with monumental predecessors by Bruckner, Mahler, and Schubert. Just the mention of the phrase immediately conjures associations with the most famous of all 9ths, Beethoven’s monumental choral symphony. Shostakovich himself had publicly announced a work dedicated to the victory including song with soloists and chorus. Ultimately, Shostakovich produced a work that is the opposite of what was expected: a short, classically proportioned, darkly humorous work. What could Shostakovich have been thinking? What are we to make of this piece seemingly so opposite to its time and place in history? It is perhaps a work of political subversion by a composer who understood that art must be truthful. That despite the victorious result of the war, there was a bitter irony to the reality that great suffering was inflicted both by the external enemy and the internal political authority. Perhaps Shostakovich just could not bring himself to create a heroic monument to Stalin’s Soviet State knowing how so many had suffered and perished at his hands. The symphony proved to be a puzzle for many after its premiere, incongruous to its stated purpose, it was ultimately banned by the Soviet officials in 1948. What Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, op. 70, ultimately means will remain conjecture. It is nonetheless a masterpiece, if somewhat unexpected, by a composer who is probably the greatest symphonist of the 20th century.
The symphony is arranged in an atypical five movements, the first tuneful and somewhat mocking in its juxtaposition of contrasting elements, such as the simple opening tune and the frequent rude interruptions by the trombone and militaristic snare drum. Humorous, but with a bite. The somber second movement is introduced by a solo clarinet with spare string pizzicato accompaniment. The mood is desolate and otherworldly. Shostakovich indicates that the last three movements be played without pause. First is a vigorous Scherzo, initially playful but with darker shifts eventually dissipating into the Largo fourth movement with its ominous introductory brass chords. The solo bassoon leads sorrowfully through this dark episode, eventually turning itself into a happily dancing tune that initiates the energetic and sardonic finale. © 2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
Folk music, or the traditional songs and dances of the people of a region or country, has been a part of more formal musical practices for a long time. In the 15th and 16th centuries, for example, in European church music, it was a common practice to incorporate folk or popular songs into large-scale works such as the Roman Catholic Mass. This form of borrowing has persisted in various ways ever since, but in the 19th century the use of folk and traditional music as a component of formal concert music began to take on a more political significance. This musical nationalism had the effect of bringing distinctive musical characteristics to the sound of operas, symphonies, concertos, and chamber music that were emblematic of the cultures of more marginalized people in an era of political and social upheaval. Another important consequence of the increasing integration of these traditional musical elements was the disruption of the long-established musical system that had defined the sound of European classical music since the mid-17th century. Ultimately, folk music would contribute significantly to the defining features of the sound of music in the 20th century. Composers as distinct as Debussy, Stravinsky, and Copland, were mining the materials of folk and vernacular musics to create new harmonies, melodies, rhythms, colors, and textures that would both disrupt and help reshape the sound of concert music for the next several generations.
Among the most important and renowned musical folklorists was the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Bartók, along with his colleague and fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály, were among the first musicians to attempt a systematic collecting and study of the various types of folk music of their native region of Eastern Europe. Hungarian and “Gypsy” music had been incorporated into works by composers like Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, but Bartók and Kodály, recognized that besides the superficial nature of this use of folk music, the types of songs being used were not the “authentic” music of the rural people who still knew the old songs passed down orally from generation to generation. Consequently, they undertook field research of regions of Eastern Europe including Hungary, Transylvania, Bulgaria, and Romania. Using an early Edison phonograph, they recorded rural people, field workers, soldiers, homemakers, to gather as many songs as possible and attempt to catalog and categorize the music. In addition to preserving a body of music gradually being lost to urbanization, Bartók began incorporating elements of this music into his own compositions in various ways. One approach was to take the existing melodies (folk music is virtually always strictly melodic) and create a kind of setting for them with accompaniment and harmonies. It is this type of “folk song arrangement” that is the basis for his suite of Romanian Folk Dances (1915). The suite consists of 7 sections: “Stick Dance,” “Sash Dance,” “In One Spot,” “Dance from Buchum,” “Romanian Polka,” the last two both titled Maruntel or “Fast Dance.” The work was originally composed for solo piano and later arranged by the composer for small orchestra in 1917.
Among the least likely instruments found to be featured on a symphony concert is the tuba. This neglected low-register member of the brass family has found few sympathetic patrons outside of its devoted practitioners, but in 1954 the aging but highly esteemed British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), composed a Concerto for Bass Tuba that has since become the classic example in a relatively scant repertoire. The concerto is brilliant for several reasons. It denies the ponderous cliches of the instrument’s cumbersome size, demonstrating a surprising lightness and lyricism, qualities enhanced by the writing by one of England’s most respected composers of the 20th century. The late British music critic and Vaughan Williams biographer, Michael Kennedy, wrote of the concerto,
There is nothing patronising or parodistic about this concerto. Vaughan Williams wanted to give the tuba a rare chance to take the centre of the stage and went to considerable effort to study its capabilities.
True, its elephantine humour is exploited in the first movement, but its unsuspected agility is given rein too; the slow movement, “Romanza,” has a principal theme of lyrical beauty such as Vaughan Williams might have awarded to the viola; and in the Finale, the tuba romps amid the dancing strings, like Falstaff among the fairies in Windsor Forest.
The opening movement is rhythmically vibrant, falling into brisk marching cadence as the soloist deftly moves through the extremes of the tuba’s range. A folk-like quality, so characteristic of Vaughan Williams, creates a melancholy mood of British pastoral lyricism in the second movement Romanza. The concerto concludes with a technical tour de force as the recurring opening section, marked by a high trill figure in the tuba, alternates with new ideas leading to the demanding solo cadenza.
The impetus for the Simple Symphony (1934) by English composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), was to create a work playable by young, non-professional musicians, hence the title. This type of “school” music was much in demand at the time and the twenty-year-old Britten knew he could benefit financially from its sale. The thematic material for the work was derived from music Britten composed as a young boy, between the ages nine and twelve, and had been kept in his childhood home for years. The character of the music is expressed in the tersely alliterative titles Britten gave to each of the symphony’s movements: “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Sarabande,” and “Frolicsome Finale.” The opening movement is based on a spirited Baroque dance. In the second movement the players put down their bows and pluck their strings at the fastest tempo possible. The third movement, also based on a Baroque dance, is the emotional climax of the work, sentimental in the best sense of the word. A rising figure in the whole orchestra introduces the anxiously energetic and exuberant Finale. More than 20 years later, the composer provided a cheeky set of comments for liner notes to a recording from 1956, excerpted here:
Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy. He was quite an ordinary little boy… But there was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music. He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it. I don’t really know when he had time to do it. … somehow these reams and reams got written. …all the opus numbers from 1 to 100 were filled (and catalogued) by the time Britten mi. was fourteen.
Of course they aren’t very good, …but when Benjamin Britten, a proud young composer of twenty (who’d already had a work broadcast) came along and looked in this cupboard, he found some of them not too uninteresting; and so, rescoring them for strings, changing bits here and there, and making them more fit for general consumption, he turned them into a ‘Simple Symphony,’ and here it is.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is perhaps the most important figure in the advancement of folk song as a means to the creation of a distinctly British concert music. He is certainly the most well-known English composer in the early-20th century and his interest in folk music was inspired by many of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. Some of his most famous works are directly inspired by folk music, including several sets of folk song arrangements. Vaughan Williams is also Britain’s greatest symphonist, despite his early assertion that he had in fact never intended to compose a symphony. His nine symphonies, spanning more than 50 years of work, are the most significant contributions to that genre from a British composer.
Although not overtly folk song-based, his Second Symphony in G major, titled A London Symphony, is an expression of the composer’s musical style that had already been influenced by an awareness and study of English folk song. A London Symphony is Vaughan Williams’ first purely instrumental symphony and despite the nickname given by the composer, he averred that the music lacks any specific program, suggesting that perhaps a better title would have been Symphony by a Londoner. Given this sentiment, the work should be heard as a personal reflection regarding the composer’s impressions of the city he adopted as his own. Vaughan Williams wrote of this symphony,
…it is in no sense descriptive, and though the introduction of the “Westminster Chimes” in the first movement, the slight reminiscence of the “Lavendar Cry” in the slow movement, and the very faint suggestion of mouth organs and mechanical pianos in the Scherzo give it a tinge of “local colour,” yet it is intended to be listened to as “absolute music.” Hearers may, if they like, localize the various themes and movements but it is hoped this is not a necessary part of the music.
Structured in the traditional four movements of the classical symphony, the work begins as though shrouded in flowing dusky fog, impressionistic and fragmentary, the sound gradually rising through the orchestra. The main Allegro begins with a menacing theme in the low register as the city seems to come alive. A series of themes follow, some heroic, some folk-like in character. The constantly shifting mood gives way to a more pastoral section introduced by solo violin. The movement closes with a layered presentation of the multiple themes and a final brilliant fanfare.
A dark and plaintive mood introduces the slow second movement. Vaughan Williams features a variety of solo instrumental voices, English horn, viola, clarinet, to create a sense of intimacy and intense expression with occasional climactic swells from the full orchestra.
Vaughan Williams designates the third movement as Scherzo and Nocturne, two seemingly contradictory descriptions, one playful the other darkly meditative. Somehow the effect is persuasive as the quick rhythmic theme of the opening is also somehow dark and coyly elusive. The second of the movement’s two trio sections seems to imitate the wheezing sound of a harmonica. Darkness descends again as the movement draws to its conclusion.
The finale opens with an epic orchestral howl quickly receding into a marching songlike theme in the strings. A main theme in a faster tempo forms the central portion of the movement followed by echoes of music from earlier movements that appear and fade, including the Westminster Chimes, heard in the harp. The work concludes with an Epilogue recalling the lugubrious flowing music heard at the outset of the symphony. © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the place that was unquestionably ground zero for musical experimentation, the development of new ideas, and home to the artistic avant-garde in Europe was Paris. Not that there weren’t important things happening elsewhere on the continent, but the concentration of artists, writers, dancers, and musicians who brought a new and distinctly modern sensibility to their work were living and creating there. This is true for the period shortly before the First World War and continuing into the 1930s, before the rise of European Fascism. Although only three of the four the works on this program are French in origin, they all are tied in significant ways to the musical trends and innovations that developed there. Following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Europe underwent a political and social realignment with the creation of a unified Germany for the first time in history and a humiliated, formerly dominant France. The political and military consequences helped to set the stage for the devastation of WWI, but curiously, the artistic atmosphere of France and Paris in particular saw a renaissance of sorts, in part as a reaction against German culture. Artistic movements like Symbolism and Impressionism invigorated French art before the turn of the century. Even more experimental trends like Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, and later Neo-classicism took hold in the early decades of the 20th century. Each of the works heard on this program has a connection to one or more of these seminal artistic trends.
For most people knowledgeable about modern French music the name Boulanger is familiar in the figure of Nadia Boulanger, the influential composition teacher who shaped the ideas and attitudes of some of the 20th-century’s greatest composers including some of the most important names in American music such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, and Quincy Jones. But Nadia had a younger sister, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who died at the age of 24. Unfortunately, Lili was plagued by poor health from an early age, which led to her premature death, but not before she was able to demonstrate a prodigious musical talent. Lili and Nadia were born to an esteemed musical family; their father, Earnest Boulanger, won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1835. Following in their father’s footsteps, Nadia and Lili both contended for the prize, which included a year-long residency in Rome. Nadia was unsuccessful, but Lili won in 1913 at the age of 19, making her the first woman composer to achieve that distinction. The outbreak of WWI in the summer of 1914 interrupted Lili’s residency and study in Rome and she was only able to complete her tenure following the end of the war. By the time she returned to Rome, her health had already declined considerably.
Despite her short career, she was able to amass a fairly sizeable body of compositions including the cantata Faust et Hélène for which she was awarded the Prix de Rome, and a number of choral and vocal works along with some instrumental pieces. During the last months of her life, she composed her most well-know work, Pie Jesu (1918) and a pair of instrumental pieces, D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning). She had grown so weakened by this time, she had to dictate the music to her sister Nadia who committed the music to paper. The two latter works originally took shape as chamber works for small groups, the D’un matin de printemps appearing for flute or violin and piano as well as a version for piano trio. Lili then reworked the piece for orchestra, though the orchestral version is not simply an arrangement of the chamber version but rather a reinterpretation, not unlike some impressionist paintings that address the same subject but at varying times of the day. The association with impressionism is also relevant to the sound of Boulanger’s music, which has a strong affinity to the sound of works by Debussy in its use of orchestral color, ostinato, and subtle thematic transformation. The energetic opening theme dominates the short work, but its constant recasting through inventive orchestration avoids any sense of repetitiousness.
William Grant Still (1895-1973) is often labeled the “Dean of Afro American Composers,” but his musical vision should not be limited to the realm of Black music or Black composers. Still is one of the most important American composers, who happens to have been Black. His musical background, training, and compositions are not circumscribed by his racial identity, though it unquestionably played an important role in his compositional path. Like most other American composers of concert music, Still was educated in the tradition of the European system. He attended the Oberlin Conservatory and studied composition with leading teachers in the United States, including George Chadwick, of the New England Conservatory, and Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). It is Varèse, a French composer who spent most of his career in the U. S., that links Still with the progressive musical trends associated with the other composers on this program. It was not long after his study with Varèse that Still composed his musically progressive tone poem, Darker America (1924), and though this work doesn’t directly evoke the character of contemporary French music, its innovative use of harmony, form, and jazz and African elements undoubtedly stem from the appeal to boldness and originality advanced by the musicians of the French avant-garde. Today, William Grant Still is experiencing something of a revival, with performances of his familiar and lesser-known works appearing on concert programs around the world. Still was highly esteemed as a composer, conductor, and arranger during his career. His most frequently cited achievements include being the first African American composer to have an opera performed by a major American opera company and the first to conduct a major U. S. symphony orchestra. Still also worked with some of the most celebrated figures in popular music of his day, such as W. C. Handy, Sophie Tucker, and Paul Whiteman, and composed and arranged music for a number of Hollywood films.
Darker America was coincidentally composed in the same year as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, often hailed as one of the most important concert works to exploit elements of the music of African American culture, blues and jazz. Still’s music also integrates these musical influences but in a more personal and holistically integrated way. This powerfully expressive work is explicitly about the struggles and triumphs of African Americans and is described succinctly in a program note written by Still for the premiere of the work in 1928.
Darker America, as its title suggests, is representative of the American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer. At the beginning the theme of the American Negro is announced by the strings in unison. Following a short development of this, the English horn announces the sorrow theme which is followed immediately by the theme of hope, given to muted brass accompanied by strings and woodwind. The sorrow theme returns treated differently, indicative of more intense sorrow as contrasted to passive sorrow indicated at the initial appearance of the theme. Again hope appears and the people seem about to rise above their troubles. But sorrow triumphs. Then the prayer is heard (given to oboe); the prayer of numbed rather than anguished souls. Strongly contrasted moods follow, leading up to the triumph of the people near the end, at which point the three principal themes are combined.
The period following the First World War led to some new developments in French music, perhaps most notably in the works by a group of composers commonly referred to as Les Six. These six young composers, Artur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, GermanineTaillefere, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) were closely associated with music of the composer Erik Satie and especially the writings and artistic ideas of Jean Cocteau. Though they only sustained any cohesion as a group for a few short years, the label has characterized a loose category of French music of the period. While Milhaud and, to a lesser extent, Honneger continue to hold a place in the repertoire, it is Francis Poulenc whose music has been most widely performed and whose musical aesthetic seems to have remained associated with the essence of Cocteau’s ideals. Those principles entail the development of a distinctly French musical character, rejecting foreign influence, especially German, to concern themselves with the commonplace aspects of life, to embrace technology and machines as sources of inspiration, and to derive musical influences from such non-traditional genres as the dancehall, the circus, and jazz. Cocteau and others also had a kind of penchant for the absurd, and this can be seen in a number of works of the time, especially in works for the theater and ballet. Works such as Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) (1920) by Milhaud and Les maries de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party of the Eiffel Tower) (1921), by five of Les Six, except Durey, exhibit this quality of bizarre absurdity. The latter work describes a wedding at the Eiffel Tower with appearances by a hunter, a bicyclist, and a lion. It is in a similar vein that Poulenc’s ballet, Les Biches (1923) appears. Though not as absurdist as Les maries, much about Les Biches harmonizes with this “modernist” theatrical and musical sensibility.
Les Biches is a ballet composed by Poulenc for performance by the celebrated Ballets Russes, located in Paris. Works for the Ballets Russes had been commissioned from many of the leading composers of the early 20th century, most notably Igor Stravinsky. The company, headed by Serge Diaghilev, used leading artists, set designers, composers, and choreographers of the day to create its theatrical spectacles that were hugely successful among the Parisian audiences. The title of Poulenc’s ballet is consistent with the unconventional aesthetic of the time. The French word “biches” has a dual meaning. It literally translates as a “doe” or female deer. Its colloquial meaning is something like “darling” as a term of endearment. Poulenc capitalized on the ambiguity of the whole scenario by using this unspecific term as a title. Despite the lack of clarity, or even of plot at all, the music, arranged into an orchestral suite by Poulenc is both emblematic of its time and highly effective. Poulenc overtly derives certain material and musical forms from early times, reflective of the neo-classicism of the day as well. There is also a certain resemblance to some of the music of Stravinsky, particularly his Pulcinella ballet, also composed in a neo-classical manner and created for the Ballets Russes. Les Biches Suite consists of five short movements extracted from the complete ballet and despite its sometimes jarring juxtapositions, feels familiar. The first movement is labeled, Rondo, a classical form based on a recurring theme. Here the theme is lively and spirited interspersed with music of contrasting pathos. The second movement is simply marked Adagietto and is a mostly lyrical contrast to the buoyant Rondo. The central Rag-Mazurka is playful and energetic though those familiar with either ragtime or mazurkas will be hard pressed to recognize either. The Andantino is a relaxed and good humored movement featuring brilliant brass and wind writing. The suite closes with a Finale marked Presto, and is mostly an alternation of breathless, fanfare-like music based on the first movement’s main idea, with contrasting, and consequently humorous mock dramatic sections of music. Despite its obscure scenario, the music to the Les Biches is skillfully crafted and thoroughly accessible.
The intersection between French and Russian culture becomes manifest in the early ballets of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and perhaps most pointedly in the second of his three great Russian ballets, Petrushka (1911). In addition to the fact that the work was composed for Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet in Paris, and therefore drawing upon all of the progressive artistic trends of the time, Petrushka is a work that traces its theatrical origins to Russian symbolist theater. Symbolism as a literary movement originated in France but had important offshoots in Russia as well, dating to the late 19th century. The themes of mysticism and spiritual transcendence, characteristic of Russian symbolism, figure significantly in the scenario of Petrushka, which is probably derived from a play titled The Fairground Booth by symbolist poet Alexander Blok. The archetypal characters of the story also relate to the early history of European theater and elements of the Italian Commedia Dell’arte.
By 1911 Stravinsky had already experienced the success of The Firebird and had begun imagining ideas about what would become the Rite of Spring. He, in the meantime, began working on a projected instrumental work for piano and orchestra that eventually turned into the ballet Petrushka (in which the piano plays a prominent role). This was Stravinsky’s first true ballet for the Ballets Russes since the commission for The Firebird came to Stravinsky after virtually all of its elements had already been decided. Petrushka also surpasses Firebird in its realization of Stravinsky’s developing “Russian” modernist style. Here the revolutionary elements of Stravinsky’s musical style begin to gel: the extensive use of Russian folk music, bold new harmonies, rapid alternation of dramatically contrasting material, and the dynamic sense of rhythm now considered typical of Stravinsky’s music.
The scenario concerns the interactions of three puppets at a fair who come to life to enact a tragic vignette in which the sad clown, Petrushka, falls desperately in love with Columbine, symbolic of the eternal feminine, who finds him frighteningly pathetic. The Blackamoor, representative of empty beauty, also loves Columbine, who returns his affections. Petrushka becomes enraged with jealousy and chases the Blackamoor. Ultimately, Petrushka is killed but as the Showman comes to remove the corpse, the ghost of Petrushka appears above the theater defiantly mocking his earthly tormentors.
In 1947 Stravinsky revised the music of the ballet and created the version commonly heard today, typically as a concert suite without dance. For his ballet Stravinsky created a dazzling score of kaleidoscopic variety, modern in its musical conception, juxtaposing incongruous musical elements that nonetheless vividly capture the dramatic thrust of the symbol-laden story while remaining musically coherent as a concert work.
The ballet suite is arranged in four large sections: I. “The Shrovetide Fair, St. Petersburg/Russian Dance”; II. “Petrushka’s Room”; III. “The Moor’s Room/Waltz”; and IV. “The Shrovetide Fair, St. Petersburg – Evening/The Dance of the Nannies”; “The Peasant and the Bear”; “The Gypsies and the Merchant”; “Dance of the Coachmen”; “The Masqueraders”; “Fight (the Moor and Petrushka)”; “Death of Petrushka”; “The Policeman and the Showman”; “Petrushka’s Ghost.” © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
To succeed wildly is of course the objective of most creative artists. And to achieve such a success is often termed a triumph. Each of the works on this program is an example of a triumph in various senses, including the achievement of popular success. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture is definitely a popular work, but in his case the triumph may be more one of the spirit. By outlasting his political enemies, Shostakovich achieved a success beyond the implications of any single composition. For Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, his Ballade proved to all that he had the artistic mettle to place him at the forefront of his peers, a personal and professional triumph. Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes stands as the prototype of a new musical genre. It is a successful creation of a musical form that would serve generations of composers to follow. Finally, Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” is triumphant in almost every aspect of the word. He overcame difficult personal circumstances to create a work that stands as one of the greatest examples of its form, a work that exudes a sense of both the poetic and indomitable.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a compositional prodigy. He composed quickly and seemingly effortlessly, sometimes even writing music while engaged in conversation. Though his musical creativity was brimming, his life was plagued with difficulty. Shostakovich is one of the very few internationally celebrated composers to have lived and worked his whole career under repressive Soviet regimes, including the entire period of Josef Stalin’s tyrannical rule. More than once during that time was Shostakovich the target of vicious public political recrimination. Blackballed and humiliated in the press and by official Soviet musical bureaucrats, Shostakovich struggled to tread that fine line between artistic integrity and political acceptability. He even went so far to suppress some of his own works, knowing that their public presentation would bring down the hammer of the Soviet authority. It is in the period after the death of Stalin, in 1953, that some of those works finally came to light, and that Shostakovich composed music less restricted by the fear of official condemnation. Though still fiercely tied to the propaganda of Soviet authority, the government never again targeted Shostakovich so openly for defying the official party line in musical terms.
The Festive Overture, op. 96, is one of those works Shostakovich composed in the wake of Stalin’s death. Consequently, the overture is one of the composer’s most ebullient works, overflowing with energy and a mood of celebration. Its origins stem from a commemoration of the 37th anniversary of the Soviet revolution in 1954. The story goes that a concert to be performed by the Bolshoi Theater orchestra needed an orchestral showpiece in the form of an overture. Shostakovich was contacted for the job and he set to work. He had little time to prepare since the concert was scheduled for only a few days after he was notified of the commission. Within 48 hours the new overture was ready for rehearsal and was premiered on November 6, 1954.
The overture opens with a majestic brass-heavy fanfare suggesting something truly magnificent is about to happen when suddenly the mood turns playfully exuberant with characteristic brilliance in the winds and strings, hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style. Next the marching brasses announce the entry of a new lyrical theme in the horns mimicked by the strings. More good-humored playfulness ensues as the dynamic drops before gradually rising again setting up the return of the now patriotic sounding lyrical theme that leads headlong into the climax, which recalls the splendor of the fanfare opening. The overture ends with a breathless coda that seems supremely fitting to the frenetic pace of the entire piece.
It’s possible that some might understandably confuse British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) with the English Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who lived a century earlier and for whom the composer was named. In contrast to his celebrated namesake, Coleridge-Taylor was a rising figure in English concert music at the turn of the 20th century and an advocate for African and African American cultural identity. Most well-known for his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1891), he attracted the attention of American musicians, particularly African Americans, with whom he would later collaborate in performances during his three visits to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. This relationship strengthened Coleridge-Taylor’s sense of African identity and sympathy to the causes of African Americans. During these visits, he met with prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglas, performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Harry T. Burleigh, and the Washington, D. C.-based Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, admiringly named for the young British composer.
Coleridge-Taylor was the child of a physician from Sierra Leone and a British mother who raised him as a single parent. His mixed racial origins and outwardly African physical appearance made his path to success more challenging in an age of racial intolerance in Great Britain, but he succeeded in winning the support of influential musicians like Charles Villiers Stanford and especially Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar, the most prominent English composer of his time, has a direct connection to Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra in A minor, op. 33, composed in 1898 at the age of 23. Earlier that year Elgar had been asked by the organizing committee of Three Choirs Festival to compose a short instrumental work for the festival. Unable to meet the request, Elgar wrote back to the festival organizers, “I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men. Please don’t let your committee throw away the chance of doing a good act.” So it was thanks to this referral that the Ballade in A minor came to be written. Coleridge-Taylor made good on the commission and provided an enthusiastic work of wide-ranging character. A review of the first performance, conducted by the composer, proclaims the Ballade to be “packed so full of excitement and charm. In its alternations of barbaric gaiety with languid swaying melody, in its wayward rhythms and strange exotic harmonies, this remarkable work provokes comparisons with the best work of the Bohemian school, and emerges with credit from the ordeal of comparison.” Despite its youthful origins, Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade is a confident and accomplished work of orchestral invention. Based on three main thematic ideas, the first two being assertive and energetic balanced by a longer, lyrical idea, the work is an example of late Romantic expression and orchestral color in the vein of his models, Brahms and Dvorák, without being derivative.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) must surely be reckoned as a quintessentially Romantic composer. He was one of the greatest pianists of the century, a brilliant composer of piano music, and the creator of the musical genre known as the symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is an orchestral work that allowed composers to move away from the formal conventions of the classical symphony of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, by condensing the symphonic procedure into a single, continuous movement consisting of episodes of contrasting character. Typically, the symphonic poem is also work of programmatic character, meaning that the music is intended to represent things and ideas that are not explicitly musical, i.e., it tells a story in a more directly narrative way than non-programmatic music. Liszt’s Les Preludes (1854) is his third and most famous symphonic poem. Originally intended as the introduction to a large-scale choral work based on a series of poems by the minor French poet, Joseph Autran, Liszt later transformed it into a free-standing orchestral work and took its name from a literary work by the French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, although only the title is connected to the poem. Liszt gave the following in the way of a program:
What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?—Love is the glowing dawn of all existence; but what is the fate where the first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, the mortal blast of which dissipates its fine illusions, the fatal lightning of which consumes its altar; and where is the cruelly wounded soul which, on issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavour to rest his recollection in the calm serenity of life in the fields? Nevertheless man hardly gives himself up for long to the enjoyment of the beneficent stillness which at first he has shared in Nature’s bosom, and when “the trumpet sounds the alarm”, he hastens, to the dangerous post, whatever the war may be, which calls him to its ranks, in order at last to recover in the combat full consciousness of himself and entire possession of his energy.
During the course of the work a three-note motif consistently recurs as, in musically descriptive terms, the happiness of love is upset by turns of fate, and the refuge of pastoral existence is shattered by war. Nonetheless, the work ends with the motif resounding triumphantly, as even war has proven to have some ennobling power.
Beethoven’s last piano concerto, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E-Flat Major, op. 73, was composed during one of the many personally difficult periods of his life. The year 1809 began well for Beethoven as a group of three young, aristocratic Beethoven enthusiasts joined together to offer the composer an annuity contract that would assure Beethoven a guaranteed income. In opposition to this apparently happy development, in May 1809, Napoleon’s armies were bombing Vienna; the exploding artillery shells were probably especially painful to Beethoven’s already severely deteriorated hearing. In addition, most of Beethoven’s friends and sponsors fled the city, not returning until after the new year. Finally, due to the French military occupation of Vienna, Beethoven was unable to make his usual restorative move to the country that summer. All this personal distress was accompanied by the general economic and material hardships that afflict war-torn regions. Despite all these unpleasant circumstances, the music of the concerto does not reflect the turbulent conditions in which it was conceived.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is Beethoven’s longest and grandest work for solo piano with orchestra. Its character has more in common with the expansive “Pastoral” Symphony than the driving and explosive energy of the Fifth. Despite this more moderated character, the concerto is not conservative in its compositional detail. Striking harmonic turns, demanding piano writing and innovative formal construction are the hallmarks of this concerto. From the outset, Beethoven establishes the highly virtuosic role of the piano through the flourishes that flow out of the opening orchestral chords. The propulsive main theme is then heard, providing the basis of the ensuing orchestral introduction. This noble melody is followed by a second idea whose restrained character sharply contrasts the first theme. Throughout the movement the solo piano is tested by ever more challenging passagework. The role of the orchestra alternates between partner, servant, and rival to the soloist creating an ever-changing, dynamic relationship that draws us into the unfolding drama of the music.
The second movement begins with the restrained, almost religious sound of muted strings singing a graceful melody that prepares us for the solo piano’s almost angelic descent into the realm of the orchestra. After a series of extended trills and arabesques, the solo piano then takes up the hymn-like melody first heard in the orchestra accompanied by throbbing pizzicato strings. The theme is then played by solo winds entwined by a persistently undulating filigree in the piano before an unexpected change in harmony and mood gradually draws us into the robust Finale.
The main theme of the Finale has the character of a heavy-footed dance whose driving, infectious rhythm creates a grandly sweeping flow to the movement. True to the rondo form of this movement, this vigorous dancing theme returns time and again with ever increasing joy. The surging conclusion to the concerto is set-up by the unusual combination of piano and solo tympani who gradually slow the momentum of the music before the last flurry of activity that brings the work to its exultant close. © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.