Music undoubtedly has origins in human ritual and this fact is clearly evident in music connected to religious/spiritual practice. The two works on this program differ greatly in style and sound yet both have powerful ties to the human desire to connect with the divine. Valerie Coleman’s Wind Quintet derives its inspiration, in part, from the Afro-Cuban religious practice known as Santeria. Beethoven’s op. 132 string quartet specifically contains a prayer to the divine in its third and central movement, the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” that conjures a mood of awe and profound humility, and the entire work evokes a sense of reverence.
Valerie Coleman (b. 1970) is an American flutist and founding member of the landmark Imani Winds wind quintet, formed to help bring attention to the music of African American and other underrepresented groups’ composers. In addition to performing as soloist and chamber musician, Coleman is an active composer, many of her works created for Imani Winds. Her Afro-Cuban Concerto (2001) was originally conceived as a work for orchestra and wind quintet but was adapted for performance by Imani Winds without accompaniment in 2005. The score to the quintet includes a performer’s note, excerpted below:
Afro-Cuban Concerto is a work that focuses on Afro-Cuban rhythms, the feel of Santeria worship, and the virtuosity of wind instruments (Santeria worship has its origins in the Caribbean and is based on the Bantu and Yoruba beliefs of Western Africa combined with elements of Roman Catholicism). …. All African-derived music has a basic … feel of spirituality, passion, and rhythmic precisions [sic] that brings the essence of Afro-Cuban music to life in this piece. … performers are encouraged to improvise when they have solos (within the Afro-Cuban vernacular for this work) and embellish when the mood hits.
For the first movement, Afro, the introduction represents the collective voice of worshippers within the Santeria religion. The introduction (played by the oboe and horn) is a call to worship, followed by the traditional 6/8 clave (…the fundamental set of rhythms in Afro-Cuban music). The clave is the root of this movement and continues throughout the entire piece. At different times, each member within the ensemble takes a short solo that demonstrates a sense of improvisation over the constant clave.
The Vocalise [begins] as a prayer with the bassoon and horn blending a unison melody into a unique and soothing color. The habanera is marked through a little three-note motif that sustains the entire movement. The horn melody at the end of the work is a soaring melody that turns the prayer into a hot summer day in havana.
A powerful and brief tutti begins the Danza, with the flute solo promising a percussive and wild feeling throughout the piece. We hear the rhumba in its many variations under improvised sounding solos that give each wind instrument a chance to really cut loose, especially the bassoon. The last movement presents the biggest challenge for wind quintet, due to the quickness of the rhumba, and its demand for stability within layers upon layers of percussive rhythms. When stability is achieved, the repetitive rhythm takes on a life of its own, creating a sassy dance.
In 1822 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) accepted a commission to compose three new string quartets for the wealthy Russian patron, Prince Nicholas Galitzin. This commission inspired the composer to write in the quartet genre for the first time in over 12 years. This long period marks a time of dramatic change for Beethoven, who by then had become a celebrated figure in Europe. Since completing his last string quartet, the “Serioso,” in 1810, however, Beethoven entered a period of relatively low musical productivity, personal turmoil with the death of his brother and subsequent legal struggle over the custody his nephew Karl, dramatically worsening hearing, and generally poor health. Still in his early 50s, Beethoven was old and sick. A series of new works, though, indicated a change in musical style that heralded his so-called “late” period. Though his productivity had declined, the scope and character of this late music had expanded immensely. From this period come some of Beethoven’s most monumental works including his “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (1818) the Missa Solemnis (1823)), the Symphony No. 9 (1824), and five string quartets, opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135. The last of the quartets would prove to be his last completed composition and all were first published after his death.
Beethoven’s “Late Quartets” hold a special place in the repertoire of the genre. They are the equivalent of sacred texts. Approached with awe by performers and admired with reverence by audiences, they are the final testament of a composer who, despite many personal difficulties, sought to express the essence of the human condition. Each of the late quartets is a radical departure from the traditional quartet. Three of the five are in expanded form, consisting of more than the usual four movements. And all are written in a musical style that seems to transcend their musical age, unconstrained by convention and dedicated to embodying the ineffable.
The opus numbers of the quartets do not reflect the actual order of composition and, though the E-flat quartet, op. 127 was the first of the Galitzin group, the String Quartet in A minor, op. 132 was composed second. Begun in earnest in early 1825, his work on the quartet was halted due to severe illness that delayed progress for several months. It is this illness and eventual recovery that is the inspiration for the now famous Heiliger Dankgesang, (Holy song of Thanksgiving) that forms the centerpiece of the entire quartet. It is perhaps this direct experience of mortality that gives this music its profound sense of transcendence. As his health declined, Beethoven seems to have shed any concern for the mundane and turned his focus to the spiritual.
The A minor Quartet is the longest of the late quartets and is laid out in five movements encompassing the expansive and the succinct. The first movement begins with a hushed suggestion of an idea, pregnant with possibility, that spreads through the quartet, then abruptly interrupted by a cadenza-like outburst from the first violin leading into the dramatic first main theme of the movement. Shifts in mood and texture occur kaleidoscopically, each evoking a new expressive character. A complex human drama is set in motion. The movement ends furiously, but without a sense of resolve. The second movement is a hauntingly dancing Scherzo. It is more consistently gentle and lyrical in its singing short, but legato phrases. The Trio transports us to an otherworldly space in its almost whispered soft, high range. A more lighthearted episode interrupts the initial pathos and fragility before it too turns ominous and returns to the high, fragile music. The return of the Scherzo rounds out the movement.
The slow third movement includes a number of instructions to the players in addition to the tempo indication of Molto Adagio. The initial indication reads “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode). This is a prayer or hymn of the most sincere humility as the opening, rising gesture descends through the ensemble before landing on a series of sustained, hovering chords. The ethereal character of this music is almost beyond description. The sequence repeats, in altered versions five times, finally leading into a new section Beethoven marked, Andante, “Neue Kraft fühlend” (feeling new strength). Here a mood of ecstatic relief and joy replace the intensely reverent mood of the opening. The contrast is almost irreconcilable, yet somehow perfectly appropriate. This sequence of slow and fast sections repeats, though with some intensifying variations in each repetition. The movement concludes reverently with a varied restatement of the opening, according to Beethoven’s indication “Mit innigster Empfindung” (with the utmost, sincere feeling). This prayerful outpouring is then, incongruously, followed by a brief movement marked “Alla marcia” (in the manner of a march), that jolts us from our humble reverie. Despite the jarring contrast, the shift is reassuring and grounding in its earthy character. This movement then transitions dramatically and without interruption into the passionate Finale based on the varied return of the opening section in a kind of Rondo form. The movement is a tour-de-force of string writing with a sense of sweep and propulsion that drives the work to its emphatic conclusion. © 2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
The theme of this program of music could be summed up as “reflections” since three of the works connect to historical musical practices in various ways and the fourth work is a more personal type of contemplation. Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite employs dance types already old in his time and continued to serve as exemplars for later composers, like Prokofiev, whose Classical Symphony literally announces its acknowledgement to precedent. Similarly, Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Grosso also revives, at least, the title of a popular but anachronistic baroque instrumental category. Mahler’s Adagietto is perhaps unprecedented in style if not form, but most prominently is an intimate utterance of deep personal reflection.
The term ouverture or overture, like prelude, usually signifies a musical work that precedes a larger musical or dramatic presentation. In the 18th century, however, the term could be applied to a type of work more commonly referred to as a suite: a series of contrasting dances usually in the same key. Baroque terminology can be vague and in fact there are many titles for collections of dances. In the case of the Orchestral Suites/Ouvertures by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) the first and longest movement of each collection is titled ouverture and they follow a pattern developed in French Baroque opera based on two contrasting musical sections played in alternation, the familiar French Overture. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 is one of only four such works by the composer, known for his prolific compositional output. Like the Brandenburg Concertos, the order and impetus to these works is uncertain. The current numbering likely does not reflect chronology and it is suspected that the D major Suite is one of the later compositions of the set. The work is in five movements beginning with the Overture and features a colorful instrumentation with three trumpets, tympani, and pairs of oboes and bassoons added to the typical baroque string ensemble. Dances constitute the majority of the remaining four movements except for the second movement, “Air” (aria/song), that is among Bach’s most famous pieces thanks to a famous arrangement for violin solo called “Air on the G-String.” Three characteristic dances follow and like the Air all are in binary or two-part form common to Baroque dance types. A pair of “Gavottes,” the first bombastic and the second more lilting follows the Air. The first Gavotte returns after the second concludes. A brief but lively “Bourrée is next before the tarantella-like “Gigue” rounds out the suite.
Harkening back to the music of Bach’s time is the use of the term Concerto Grosso (literally grand concert), applied here to a work by the 20th-century English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Vaughan Williams evokes the elements of that Baroque genre in his division of the ensemble into three groups of strings (typically only two are heard in most performances). The Baroque concerto grosso usually divided the predominantly string ensemble into two groups, a larger tutti and smaller, soloistic group. Vaughan Williams composed his Concerto Grosso (1950) for the British Rural Music Schools Association and consequently tailored his work to the students who would perform the work. Each group is differentiated by the level of proficiency of the performers, so more advanced players would be in group 1, the concertino, intermediate players in group 2, tutti. The premiere of the Concerto Grosso was performed by 400 young musicians, including the 78-year-old composer in the violin section.
This Concerto Grosso is in five movements of varying type and character, also consistent with the Baroque model, though the music is contemporary and pure Vaughan Williams with its richly sonorous string sound and lyrical melodic character. The opening movement, Intrada, is bold and joyful in character. The Burlesca Ostinata has a driving rhythmic quality relieved in the middle section by a more relaxed and lyrical mood. The slow central movement is labeled Sarabande, a traditional Baroque dance movement, here moody and contemplative, if not particularly dance-like. The Scherzo returns to the rhythmic vitality and playful lyricism of the opening movements. The work concludes with a March and Reprise (of the Intrada). The March is gallant and assertive and easily transitions back to the reprise.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) composed music of extraordinary breadth and expression. From moments of horrifying terror to the most gentle and tender intimacy, in his songs and symphonies Mahler explores the full range of human emotion. While we tend to think of Mahler’s use of the orchestra as rich and colorful, in the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5, he uses only the strings and harp, but with breathtaking warmth and expressivity. Some have speculated about this movement as a love song to his beloved Alma as the music was written during the summer before their marriage, and it is filled with tenderness and heartfelt emotion. Contrastingly, the movement was performed by Leonard Bernstein at the funeral of assassinated presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, in 1968. Of that performance Jackie Kennedy, sister-in-law of RFK, eloquently expressed the following in a note to Bernstein:
When your Mahler started to fill (…it was more this sensitive trembling) the Cathedral today — I thought it the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I am so glad I didn’t know it — it was this strange music of all the gods who were crying. …your music was everything in my heart, of peace and pain and such drowning beauty. You could just close your eyes and be lost in it forever…
Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 “Classical” by Sergei Prokofiev gets its name from its deliberate stylistic association with the symphonies of late 18th-century Vienna. The overriding good-humored and lyrical qualities exhibited in this short symphony are especially reminiscent of Haydn’s works in this genre. Boundless energy is barely contained in the playful opening movement marked by regular melodic phrases, contrasting thematic ideas and strict formal adherence. A sweetly lyrical character introduces the slow movement that demonstrates Prokofiev’s ability to create an astonishing variety of musical color even with rather limited orchestral forces. The third movement uses a Baroque dance, the Gavotte, as its basis. Heavy rhythms in the strings begin this country dance before a more delicately phrased middle section changes the mood with its droning strings and a more restrained wind melody. Mercurial speed and clockwork precision make for a brilliant effect in the breathless Finale that is a virtuoso display for the orchestra. Playfulness is again the predominant character, as lightning-fast scales and dialoguing winds exuberantly carry us to the symphony’s lighthearted conclusion. © 2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
The works presented on this program of orchestral music are delightfully kaleidoscopic in their variety. Three works from three quite different composers reveal a depth of expressive and descriptive possibility. Both Grieg and Chávez are recognized for their importance as composers whose music reveals the richness of the traditional culture of their homelands. Greig, probably the most well-known Norwegian composer, was interested in bringing Scandinavian folk music into greater display. Similarly, Chávez, undoubtedly spurred by political and social upheaval, was drawn to the sounds of the indigenous peoples of his native Mexico. The differences between these two cultural sources could not be starker as represented by Peer Gynt and Sinfónia india, yet both are thoroughly compelling. The inclusion of “folk” elements is also not foreign to Brahms’ music and some of his most familiar works include “gypsy” elements, though Brahms had no ancestral tie to that culture. His First Symphony, however, is self-consciously Germanic, created in the shadow of his predecessors, and is one of the great symphonic utterances of the 19th century.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is mainly known for a handful of familiar works, most famously his tuneful and Romantic Piano Concerto and the music known by most through a pair of suites from the drama, Peer Gynt. In 1867 Henrik Ibsen wrote a play entitled Peer Gynt about a roguish vagabond troubled by life’s most essential questions of existence. Peer travels the world over in search of answers with scenes from the drama occurring in far flung places like Morocco, Egypt, living with Bedouins and Trolls, and, of course, Norway. In 1874 Ibsen asked Grieg to compose incidental music to accompany the drama. The result was some of Grieg’s most familiar and memorable music. All in all, Grieg composed some 23 pieces for the play, which he arranged into two concert suites using a total of 8 original sections. Much of the music is based on folk song and dances arranged as preludes to each of the 5 acts of the play and descriptive melodramas intended to accompany the stage action. The music to the suites has no program and the selections are arranged for musical purpose rather than narrative flow. Consequently, the order of the movements of the suites does not correspond to Ibsen’s drama. The Suite No. 1 is in four movements, each with its own distinct musical character. The first movement is a famous selection entitled “Morning,” which was originally composed as the opening to Act IV of the play. Its lovely wind melody conjures an image of pastoral calm and natural splendor, in the play depicting the majestic expanse of a North African desert. The second movement, titled “Åse’s Death,” is a mournful lament for Peer’s mother. Muted strings sing the sorrowful tune, at first softly then with growing intensity as the sense of grief becomes almost overwhelming. Gradually the tone recedes leaving the listener with a feeling of hollow resignation. The mood lightens with “Anitra’s Dance.” Anitra is a young Bedouin woman to whom Peer, acting the role of a Bedouin Shiek, has taken a shine. Anitra and two companions dance for the entertainment of the men in attendance. The final movement, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” begins innocently enough, but the music builds in speed and volume and quickly becomes menacing and fierce as Peer, who has nearly accepted a chance to become a leader of the Trolls, is nearly killed by them as he narrowly escapes with his life.
Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) is perhaps the most important Mexican musician of the 20th century. He came onto the Mexican cultural scene at a time of great upheaval in both Mexico and European music. The early part of the century was transformative in Mexico as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) brought about dramatic changes to Mexican society affecting all forms of the arts as well as social and political circumstances. One of the main consequences of the revolution was to create greater opportunities for the marginalized majority of people who were of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage, so-called mestizos. As in European music, a trend toward the incorporation of indigenous culture into mainstream society and arts resulted in the development of new and influential musical, literary, and artistic trends. Mexican novels reflected the struggles of the peasants for recognition and enfranchisement. An artistic movement exemplified by the muralists, such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957), created art with a powerful social message—art for the people that reflected their values and concerns. Similarly, Chávez was affected by a nationalist and indigenous impulse. Having had experiences with Aztec culture from early in his life, Chávez composed a number of scores that employ themes derived from or directly borrowed from various Mexican tribal peoples. In addition to his compositional career, Chávez played a pivotal role in the musical life of Mexico serving as founding music director of the Orquestra Sinfónica de México and the Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional, director of the Conservatorio Nacional de México, and as a music journalist advancing the cause of Mexican music. Ironically, Chávez spent a significant portion of his career working outside of Mexico, especially in the United States were cultivated important relationships with contemporary American composers, like Aaron Copland, and conducting various symphony orchestras here.
It was while living and working in New York City in 1935 that Chavez composed one of his most well-known and frequently performed works, his Symphony No. 2, Sinfonía india. In this work Chávez incorporates melodies taken directly from indigenous sources that provide colorful and characteristic melodies marked by irregular and shifting meters and striking rhythms, some typical of certain types of Latin American music. Perhaps most unusual in the sound of this music is the use of several unusual percussion instruments, including a water gourd (jicara de agua), the guiro, a metal rattle (cascabeles), the tenebari (string of butterfly cocoons), grijutian (string of deer hooves), and several other native drums. The music unfolds in a series of brief, continuous sections each marked by a distinctive theme. The first is energetic and comes from the Cora people. A slow, lyrical idea follows. It comes from the Yaqui tribe. The third main idea comes from the Sonora people. The first two ideas make a brief reprise before the rousing and rhythmic theme, taken from the Seri Indians, brings this vibrant and colorful work to a close.
In 1872 Brahms wrote, ” I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!” The giant Brahms is referring to is, of course, Beethoven. And the ghost of Beethoven haunts this symphony as it did Brahms’ whole career. Most obvious are the allusions to Beethoven in the choice of key. Like Beethoven’s 5th, Brahms First begins in a dark and brooding C minor before resolving in the last movement to a triumphant C major. And it is at that triumphant moment Brahms gives us a hymn-like theme strongly reminiscent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. For these and other reasons the eminent 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow called Brahms’ First “Beethoven’s Tenth.”
These resemblances aside, Brahms’ symphony is a masterwork in its own right. After the opening tense and agitated introduction, a hopeful solo oboe leads into the surging Allegro that swings from dark angst to the most tender lyricism before the pulsing introduction is briefly recalled at the end.
The second movement begins placidly with lush strings leading to a lovely theme in the oboe. More string music follows taking the reverie of the opening to a more passionate level. The movement closes with tender music led by flute, horn, and an especially mellifluous solo violin. A relaxed theme in the clarinet begins the third movement and is later recalled leading into the bolder middle section which builds in waves to its exciting climax. The return of the opening clarinet theme rounds out the movement followed by a recollection of the middle section at the close.
Tension returns once again to begin the symphony’s finale. A pair of musically contrasting sections are counterposed leading to a noble horn call over undulating strings. A new idea comes from the trombone and bassoon followed by the horn theme and then the strings begin the majestic hymn tune. The movement proceeds through exciting turns working out the themes presented in the introduction as it takes us through a complex development section where disparate themes intertwine and unravel. The movement momentarily relaxes one last time before momentum builds for the glorious conclusion. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
The pairing of works by Beethoven and Mozart provides an opportunity hear the interplay between two masters of the late-18th century. Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds is the work of a youthful protégé of Mozart. Composed at the age of 26, Beethoven was still finding his place as a composer in Vienna, a mecca for music in 18th-century Europe. Mozart composed his G minor Viola Quintet there in 1787, a masterwork by an accomplished and acknowledged genius at the age of 31. It is worth noting that Beethoven deeply admired Mozart and his music, and he sought to learn from him on his first, brief foray to Vienna in 1787, before having to return to Bonn due to his mother’s illness and death. A meeting between the youthful Beethoven and the esteemed Mozart is almost certain to have occurred, though the length and nature of their encounter is less clear. These two works also may give some insight into the personal music-making of the composers. The piano part of Beethoven’s quintet was undoubtedly first performed by him and gives some indication of his keyboard virtuosity. Mozart, a virtuoso on the piano and violin, also played viola as a chamber musician and it may well be this preference for the viola in such a setting that motivated him to compose six quintets with added viola. Finally, the depth of expression achieved by Mozart in his last quintets surely set the stage for the intensity Beethoven achieved in his own chamber music, especially his string quartets.
In 1796 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was still a young and rising figure on the Viennese music scene. He’d been in the capital city for four years composing, performing, and teaching, while gaining support from young aristocrats and building a steadily growing repertoire of smaller scale works, mainly piano sonatas and chamber music. Vienna, however, was still the city of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s hero, and Beethoven seems to have quite consciously chosen the types of works he composed and published knowing that the music of these great masters still rang in the ears of his Viennese patrons. There are few Beethoven works that so closely mimic the characteristics and qualities of its model, in this case Mozart, as the Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, in E-flat major, op. 16. A decade earlier Mozart composed his only quintet for the same ensemble, in the same key, and with the same arrangement of three movements. Both works are masterpieces, though Mozart’s was a relatively late composition (for him) and Beethoven’s is early.
Like its predecessor, Beethoven’s quintet opens with a slow introduction marked by dotted rhythms, not unlike many symphonic introductions, that builds anticipation for the first Allegro theme presented in the piano. The movement then develops in the manner of a piano concerto with most of the thematic material first heard in that instrument. Despite a few surprises along the way, the movement is delightfully classical in mood and refined in character. The Andante is once again led by the piano, but this movement is much more Beethovenian in character as the opening section alternates with new episodes led by different solo wind instruments. Each recurrence of the opening music is elaborated in the manner of variations, a technique characteristic of Beethoven throughout his lifetime. The quintet concludes with a bouncing Rondo, again led by the piano. Here too Beethoven characteristically prods us each time the jovial theme returns with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes.
When attempting to understand the motivation for composing a work for less familiar instrumental combinations, sometimes the composer’s own preferences are worth considering. In the case of Wolfgang Mozart’s quintets for string quartet with extra viola, Mozart (1756-1791) was an accomplished violist and may have envisioned himself playing such a work. We do know that the actual reason for composing the Quintet in G minor, K. 516, and its companion, in C major, K. 515, remains a mystery. Fortunately for us, he did compose them and by doing so, Mozart left two of his greatest chamber music masterpieces. Interestingly, while Mozart composed music for all types of chamber music ensembles, most critics, historians, and listeners feel that it is in the viola quintets, especially the pair just mentioned, that Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his chamber music output. The Quintet K. 516 is also one of only two major, late period works by Mozart in the key of G minor. The other is the Symphony No. 40, considered one of Mozart’s greatest symphonic masterpieces. Both share a few important similarities including a companion masterpiece in the key of C major (i.e. Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter”), an undetermined reason for their composition, and a seriousness and gravity of character unmatched in virtually all of Mozart’s other works. The two quintets were composed within a month of each other in the spring of 1787, and the symphonies in the space of two weeks in the summer of 1788.
As fascinating as the history of the music is, its compositional and expressive qualities are even more compelling. There is much speculation about the “meaning” of this music and whether the serious and reflective qualities it possesses relate to some external event in Mozart’s life. This is, of course, impossible to determine with certainty, but it is worth noting that the quintet has many exceptional features. The first movement begins with a melodic idea in the first violin that will come to dominate the movement, a rising broken minor chord followed by a descending chromatic figure, all of which creates a dark mood of both striving and tension. Even in these first eight measures Mozart has shown us the various ways his theme may be manipulated and shaped. The minor-key character of the movement is particularly unrelenting. Typically, a second theme provides relief from the minor, but in this movement, Mozart delays the appearance of the secondary key and when he does give it, it doesn’t last long. The movement ends with two abrupt, loud chords reaffirming the key of G-minor at the close. The second movement is a minuet and trio, a type of movement completely expected in Mozart’s chamber works, but usually placed third rather than second in order. This minuet is unusual for its rather “un-dancelike” character with sudden accents and fragmented phrases. The seriousness of the first movement has carried over with only the Trio section providing some relief. The slow third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, played with mutes throughout, begins with a chorale-like theme but quickly disintegrates into a brief four-note idea that continues the searching character heard in the opening movement. The following section introduces a long descending melody over a throbbing accompaniment, among the most poignant moments of the movement. The finale begins in a state of utter despair linking the last two movements emotionally, but also providing dramatic psychological contrast to the exuberantly dancing finale. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph.D.
Two composers active in the first half of the 20th century are represented on this program of brilliantly colorful music. Though there is not much overlap in terms of their personal history, two interesting and possibly related points of intersection are worth noting. Ottorino Respighi was an Italian composer with a strong sense of both history and national pride. For a brief time, Respighi lived and worked in Russia where he had the opportunity to study under the Russian master of orchestration, Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov. Serge Prokofiev was born in a Ukranian village where he received his earliest musical training. He later attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he too worked with Rimsky Korsakov. Both Respighi and Prokofiev are known for their innovative and imaginative use of the orchestra, a skill almost certainly encouraged through the influence of Rimsky.
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is one of the most well-known Italian composers of his generation. His reputation rests primarily on his series of three large-scale orchestral works celebrating his adopted home city of Rome: The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924), Roman Festivals (1928). He composed a large number of orchestral works of various types as well as 11 operas, though most of the operas are rarely performed today. A lifelong interest of Respighi’s was his study of music of the past, which led to the creation of some of his most successful works, particularly the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, pieces based on 16th century lute music. Another popular work in this category is his work titled Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) (1926). Three of the four movements of this work were originally conceived as pieces for solo piano, Three Preludes on Gregorian Melodies (1921), based on melodies taken from Gregorian Chant. Originally the piano works and their subsequent orchestration had no descriptive titles, but a friend of Respighi’s suggested the possibility of retrospectively naming the set Church Windows and together they provided brief descriptions for each movement, including a fourth composed specifically for the orchestral set. The music is varied and powerfully evocative, vividly suggesting the mood expressed in the appended descriptions.
- The Flight into Egypt
“The little caravan proceeds through the desert in a starry night, bearing the Treasure of the World.”
- St. Michael the Archangel
“And a great battle was made in the heavens; Michael and his angels fought with the dragon and his angels. But these did not prevail, and there was no more place for them in Heaven.”
III. The Matins of St. Clare
“But Jesus Christ her bridegroom, not wishing to leave her thus disconsolate, had her miraculously transported by angels to the church of St. Francis, to be at the service of Matins.”
- St. Gregory the Great
“Behold the Pontiff!…Bless the Lord…Sing the hymn to God. Alleluia!”
The connection to the past also informs Respighi’s suite for small orchestra, Gli uccelli (The Birds) (1928). Like most of his more familiar works, Gli uccelli demonstrates Respighi’s love of his national heritage and respect for musical tradition. Four of the five movements of the work are named for a type of bird, and each is adapted from works by four different Baroque composers: Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) (movements I and V), Jacques de Gallot (d. 1690), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and Anonymous. Like Church Windows, The Birds uses keyboard works as the basis for his orchestrations. The opening Prelude is introduced by a stately theme which then gives way to a free section whose themes allude to the music of the movements that follow. The second movement, “The Dove,” is a slow, graceful song led primarily by the solo oboe. The clucking, scratching “Hen” is the subject of the third movement. Dark murmurs open “The Nightingale” movement, here sung in the clear mellow tones of the flute. The suite comes to a shimmering close with the call of “The Cuckoo” before the opening bars of the suite are recalled for the colorful finish.
Of all the composers active during the existence of the Soviet Union probably none is as familiar to Westerners as Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). His scores to Peter and the Wolf, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and his “Classical” symphony are staples of the symphonic repertoire. His personal story, like so many who worked under the harsh Stalinist regime, is colored by personal and professional tragedy, yet his music is filled with humor and humanity. Prokofiev shares with Respighi an intense devotion to his homeland despite long periods of self-imposed exile yet unlike most Russian composers of his time, who either left their homeland never to return or simply never left, Prokofiev established himself in the West, living in New York and Paris between 1918 and 1935, and then returned to live in the Soviet Union. His timing could not have been worse though, returning on the eve of the first ideological assaults on Soviet composers such as Shostakovich and just a few years before the devastation of WW II.
Prokofiev was an extremely versatile composer. He was equally adept at creating large scale dramatic vocal scores, as he was with intimate solo piano works and virtually everything in between. Although his reputation does not rest primarily on his seven symphonies, his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century and remains one of his most popular works. It was composed in the summer of 1944 during a period of great productivity and personal contentment and fourteen years after his preceding effort in symphonic composition. Although it was written during the closing years of the war it is not really a “war symphony” in the ilk of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony whose program is specifically tied to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. It is rather a grand, expansive work with an overriding mood of optimism and humanity; it is “a symphony on the greatness of the human soul” as Prokofiev himself described it. Like his enormously successful “Classical” Symphony, the Fifth uses traditional symphonic forms for the structure of each movement. An uncharacteristically slow tempo coupled with sweeping thematic ideas help establish the expansive atmosphere of the thematically developed and powerfully expressive first movement. This is followed by a lighter, highly inventive and irony-tinged scherzo. The slow third movement plumbs greater emotional depths through its soaring and dissonance shaded melodies over darker, often brooding accompaniments whose character turns menacing before receding back into strangely ethereal world of the opening. The Finale begins with a recollection of the first theme of the opening movement serving as a contrasting introduction to the rather jovial character of the movement proper. A lighthearted theme heard in the clarinet returns several times throughout the movement linking its various sections. © 2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
The three works on this program share an interesting characteristic in their desire to essentially embody the cultural identity of the composers’ origin. Both Bedřïch Smetana and Antonín Dvořák are familiar names to concert goers. They are both native Bohemians, the term describing the people and culture today associated with the Czech people and language. The Butterfly Lovers Concerto of Chen and He is a more recent work that sought to bring the ancient traditions of Chinese opera to the modern concert hall.
Bedřïch Smetana (1824-1884) earned the status of cultural hero in his native Bohemia due to his efforts to create a musical style that fully embraced the manner and character of his homeland. His music is self-consciously focused on subjects that evoke a sense of Bohemian pride and identity. His most familiar works are his symphonic poem, Vltava (The Moldau), and his second opera, The Bartered Bride (1866). Both of these works are steeped in the sounds and atmosphere of Bohemia, primarily through the use of traditional folk dances of the region. The Bartered Bride is a national artistic object of pride for the Czech people because it was in this work that Smetana demonstrated the absolute musical value of his culture’s traditional music at a time when European musical culture was dominated by the Austro-Germanic tradition. In this opera Smetana takes a Bohemian story, sung in the Czech language, and suffused with the vibrant dance types of Bohemia. After an unsuccessful initial run, The Bartered Bride eventually became an international success, sealing the fortune of its creator and legitimizing Bohemian culture throughout Europe. While the folkish tale of nuptial intrigue and hidden identity is not unique to this opera, the language and the sparkling score set the stage for all future Czech composers, particularly Dvořák and Janáček.
The “Dance of the Comedians” is a characteristic example of the vibrant music from Smetana’s score. This number appears in the final act of the opera and accompanies a scene in which a circus has come to the town where the opera takes place. Smetana uses a folk dance type known as the skočná, a fast dance in duple meter, as the lively accompaniment to humorous actions of the circus performers.
Though not familiar to many audiences in the West, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai) (1959) is one of the most popular works of classical music in the world. It is certainly well known in China where it is frequently performed and widely known. Coincidentally, the earliest version of the music that was to become the Butterfly Lovers Concerto was performed in China by the Czech ensemble, the Smetana String Quartet. Members of the quartet consulted with the composers to learn to execute the techniques incorporated into the writing style intended to mimic the sound of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu and pipa. The Butterfly Lovers was created by two Chinese composers, He Zhanhao (b. 1933) and Chen Gang (b. 1935), students at the Shanghai Conservatory, with the intention of “nationalizing” the violin in China. To that end they created a work imbued in Chinese tradition, based on an ancient folktale that tells the story of ill-fated lovers that is a little bit Mulan and a lot Romeo and Juliet:
A girl (Zhu Yingtai) runs away from home disguises herself as a boy and attends school where she befriends Liang Shanbo. They study together for three years, and Zhu has fallen in love with Liang. She cannot reveal her identity but asks Liang to visit her home to marry her sister. Liang then discovers that there is no sister, Zhu is a woman, and has been promised, against her will, to another man by her father. Liang, heartbroken, soon dies. In grief, Zhu visits his grave and begs for it to open. Tremors and clap of thunder opens the grave and Zhu jumps in. Out of the grave two butterflies flutter away as the lovers are finally joined.
The concerto can be heard in three continuous sections each depicting different parts of the story. The first section deals with the friendship and affection of Zhu and Liang. Duets between solo violin and cello respectively depict their growing affection. The middle section expresses Zhu’s defiance of her father’s marriage arrangement, the sorrowful departure of Liang, and concludes with the percussive opening of the grave. The final section depicts the lovers’ transformation. The music blends Chinese and Western elements using European instruments and musical structures but colored by the violin adapted to the sounds of traditional Chinese string instruments. The composers also liberally employ the sound of the 5-note pentatonic scale, a scale type characteristic of Chinese music.
Antonín Dvořák (1840-1904) did not begin his career with the intention of exploiting his Bohemian musical background, but he found that the appeal of his music that incorporated folk melodies and dances was so great that he almost could not do otherwise. The novelty and charm of the characteristic tunes and dances of his native land afforded Dvořák a degree of fame that his extremely humble beginnings would never have foretold. One of the places where he achieved phenomenal popularity was in England, where he eventually visited and performed on nine separate occasions. Several of his most well-known works were composed for his English tours including his magnificent Symphony No. 7 in d minor, op. 70.
Although Dvořák composed a total of nine symphonies only five were published in his lifetime, those today known as Symphonies 5 through 9. Of these nine the last three are the most popular, No. 9 probably most of all, also known as the “New World Symphony” – written during his three-year stay in the United States. It is impossible to determine which of Dvořák’s symphonies is his finest, since even among the less famous six earlier works there are true masterpieces, but there are perhaps none that can surpass the Symphony No. 7 in its intensity, profundity, and sense of tragedy.
The symphony opens with a theme in the strings of unusual urgency that is sustained up to the second, more relaxed and gentle melody first heard in the clarinet. The opening idea returns to dominate the central development section and again begins the recapitulation but now in its imposingly orchestrated version, thus allowing for virtually no relaxation of the mood throughout the whole middle of the movement. A simple melody in the clarinet begins the slow movement which gradually builds in emotional intensity and expression ranging from sublime joy to profound despair. The nationalist element is most apparent in the Scherzo – a symphonic version of the Czech dance known as the furiant characterized by a fast tempo, sharp accents and shifting duple and triple beat patterns. The Finale returns to the tragic mood of the opening through its inexorable and almost menacing rhythmic character. Energetic string passages punctuated by the brasses also heighten the mood of the movement. A brief, lighter second theme relieves the mood temporarily before darker emotions return and even the final turn to D major at the conclusion does not ultimately dispel all sense of trepidation. © 2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
Unless you are a devotee of trumpet music, it is likely that the name Oskar Böhme (1870-1938) is unfamiliar. Böhme was a German-born trumpet virtuoso in a family of trumpet players, including his father and two of his brothers. He was performing as a soloist while still in his teens and held positions in various European orchestras. His performing and teaching experiences led him to a position in Russia where he played with the prestigious Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, but it is during this period that the story of Oskar Böhme’s life and career takes a tragic turn. In the late-19th century Russian conservatories were actively recruiting German-trained musicians to help elevate the level of musicianship in Russia. Böhme accepted a position in 1897, along with a guarantee of Russian citizenship. This arrangement worked favorably for Böhme for many years; however, 20 years later circumstances in Russia changed dramatically with the political realignment of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. By the 1930s Stalin’s desire to purge political dissent and opposition led to the exile, imprisonment, and execution of thousands of people, including expatriates living in the Soviet Union. In 1935, Böhme was forced to take a position in the remote Ural region of Orenburg, near Kazakhstan, where he was later tried on trumped up charges and executed in 1938.
Böhme is today most well-known for his set of 24 Études for Trumpet, still in use by aspiring trumpet players, as well as his Trumpet Concerto, op. 18 (1899), and the work performed here, the Trumpet Sextet in E-flat minor, op. 30 (1907). Böhme’s compositional style is solidly in the 19th century Romantic tradition. The music is based on traditional models of chamber music originating in the 18th century. Nonetheless, his use of brass instruments for this type of work is quite innovative and the result is a work that is both accessible and musically interesting. The instrumentation of the Sextet is somewhat unusual for brass ensemble, originally composed for four trumpets (including cornet and bass trumpet), trombone, and tuba. Contemporary performances often employ horn and bass trombone in lieu of bass trumpet and tuba. This relatively short work is in four movements, the first in a classical formal pattern with solemn introduction leading into the more lively main section. The second movement is a buoyant Scherzo and more lyrical Trio, evocative of the style of classical string chamber music. A somber slow movement follows, reminiscent of the first movement’s opening Adagio in mood and character. The work concludes with an energetic finale based on a recurring theme like the rondo form of many classical and 19th c. chamber works.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is among the most popular of the great 19th-century European composers. His music is a distinctive blend of the mainstream and the marginal, meaning, he used the models of traditional Austro-Germanic composers of his day to carry the voice of a culture that was frequently dismissed and discounted. Cultural bias against Eastern European people created obstacles for composers who sought to elevate the dignity and beauty of their ethnic traditions, but by the mid-19th century, a movement among serious composers from outside the European mainstream had taken hold from Russia and Scandinavia to Bohemia. Dvořák is, along with Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most successful of these voices from the margins to leave a permanent mark on the European musical tradition. In Dvořák’s time it was unusual for a composer from Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) to include native musical and linguistic elements into their serious compositions for fear that their works would be rejected by publishers and audiences in major European capitals like Vienna, Berlin, and even Prague, which was politically dominated by Austria. It was also a time of political upheaval as various ethnic and nationalist factions began opposing such domination. Sympathy toward the disenfranchised ethnic groups began to be expressed in various forms of artistic media and Dvořák became a prominent musical figure in this movement. His works using texts in the Czech language and characteristic folk elements, such as his hugely successful Slavonic Dances helped catapult him to international success, eventually taking him to England and the United States.
Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 is one of his best chamber works, and is in fact considered to be among the greatest works for piano and string quartet. There are at least two earlier examples of masterworks in this genre that have remained staples of the chamber repertoire: a much earlier work by Robert Schumann in E-flat (1842), and the Brahms Piano Quintet in F major, composed in 1864, more than 20 years before Dvořák’s. Interestingly, Schumann was largely responsible for launching the career of the younger Brahms. Twenty-four years later, Brahms would do much the same for Dvořák. Dvořák made an earlier attempt at composing a piano quintet in the same key in 1872. He was unhappy with the work and attempted to revise it though he was never satisfied with it. Perhaps inspired by the possibilities of the earlier attempt and the examples of Schumann and Brahms, Dvořák turned afresh to composing such a work, this time with magnificent results. The new quintet was completed in 1887 and successfully premiered in the following year. The work of a mature and confident composer, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet is brimming with the deep expression and Slavic character that are the hallmarks of his finest compositions. One could say that this work is in fact a kind of self-portrait, blending both the fluency of style and candor of expression that defined Dvořák both as a person and a musician.
The quintet is in the expected four-movement plan. The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto (fast but not too much), is expansive and impassioned with dramatic yet seamless contrasts. Echoes of Brahms may be detected here, but the often wistful character of the music, shifting freely between major and minor key, is characteristically Dvořák. The middle movements, the slow “Dumka” and the “Furiant” Scherzo, are his most overt references to Bohemian musical culture. The “Dumka” is a sectional folk song type, typically melancholy in character, believed to have originated in Ukraine. Here Dvořák alternates three contrasting musical sections into a large Rondo-like structure. The furiant is also an indigenous Bohemian dance type usually marked by shifts between triple and duple meter and was frequently paired with the dumka as a relief to the sorrowful character of the song. This furiant is marked Molto vivace (very lively) and can only be described as nothing less. The piano theme in the slower middle section provides the contrasting duple to the overriding triple feel of the outer sections. The quintet concludes with a movement of great intensity and lyricism with more than a nod to his predecessors, Schumann and Brahms, as the movement draws to its brilliant and masterful close. © Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
This concert program presents a potpourri of musical styles with composers spanning the Romantic era to the 21st century. The two larger works share some significant elements in terms of their creators’ diverse musical influences and experiences. Béla Fleck is more familiar to fans of popular music due to his recordings and performances of musical styles as wide ranging as traditional African music and bluegrass. Leonard Bernstein, despite having a career firmly situated in the classical concert hall, was a central figure in the integration of distinctive American musical elements into a cohesive compositional style. The two shorter works presented here are representatives of both the traditional and the historically marginalized. Louise Farrenc worked in France during the mid-19th century, a time when female composers rarely found acceptance in the restrictive traditional culture of Western Europe. Dimitry Kabalevsky, born a century after Farrenc, was a creative artist who lived and worked within the often-oppressive cultural confines of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Although far from a familiar name to contemporary audiences, Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was an atypically successful woman in a field almost exclusively populated by men. A contemporary of Berlioz and Chopin, Farrenc composed in all instrumental genres. She was born into an artistic family including generations of accomplished painters and sculptors including her brother, Auguste Dumont. Farrenc was also married to a well-known musician and scholar, Aristide Farrenc, whom she joined in studying the music and performance practices of past eras. Together they created a landmark 23-volume anthology of keyboard music from the previous three centuries, Le trésor des pianistes (The pianist’s treasury). Louise edited the last 15 volumes after her husband’s death in 1865. In addition to her pioneering scholarship, Louise Farrenc received an appointment to the faculty at the prestigious Paris Conservatory, where she also obtained her musical training. Her pedagogical piano collection, 30 Etudes, became part of the formal piano curriculum at the Conservatoire three years after her appointment there. Admired primarily for her keyboard and chamber music—Robert Schumann glowingly reviewed one of her keyboard works in 1836—Farrenc also composed a small number of orchestral works, including two concert overtures, the second of which is performed here, the Overture No. 2 in E-flat Major, op. 24 (1834).
It is likely that when most people think of the banjo, a sly smile will appear on their face because the instrument is often associated with loud and often raucously uncouth music. While the history of the banjo does have some humorous and bawdy associations, its lineage is long, global, and quite distinguished. Arising out of a variety of West African forebearers, the instrument became associated with both antebellum American slave culture and the popular entertainment of the minstrel show. As early as the late-19th century, attempts to “legitimize” the banjo led to the creation of a classical repertoire of transcribed European music for the instrument; by the 1920s, the banjo was the most popular instrument in America. In the mid-20th century, the instrument became the centerpiece of the new Bluegrass style as played by the virtuoso Earl Scruggs, who singlehandedly transformed banjo technique. The banjo also became associated with the folk revival of the late 40s and 50s, led by the activist-musician Pete Seger. Fast-forward to the 1980s and another performer appeared heralding a new era for the banjo. Béla Anton Leos Fleck (b.1958) has become the face of the new banjo. Named for his father’s favorite composers (Bartók, Webern, and Janáček), it would seem Fleck had little choice but to follow a musical path in life. There are few artists today in any genre more distinguished and honored than Béla Fleck. His musical interests and activities cross virtually every imaginable genre and are truly global in scope. His fluency in musical styles naturally led him to write music for traditional concert ensembles, both chamber and orchestral, featuring his chosen instrument.
Fleck has now composed three concertos for the banjo with orchestra, the first, titled The Impostor, written in 2011for the Nashville Symphony. His second is titled, Banjo Concerto No. 2, “Juno” (2016), and was given its premier under the direction of maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman. Although the title is a reference to Fleck’s young son, Juno, the work is not descriptive or autobiographical in any obvious sense. Juno follows a traditional three-movement concerto form, Fast-Slow-Fast and features the solo banjo in a more highly integrated fashion than in Fleck’s first concerto.
Dimitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987) was a contemporary of the more familiar composers of the Soviet era, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Though less well-known than those artists, Kabalevsky achieved wide success and popularity within the Soviet Union for his film music and his interest and compositions for children and musical education. In 1938 he produced his opera Colas Breugnon, op. 24 based on a novel by the French author Romain Rolland. The novel takes place in Rolland’s hometown but is set in the 16th century. Rolland tells his story of a happy-go-lucky, 50-year-old carpenter reflecting optimistically on the vagaries of life both joyful and tragic. Today the opera is rarely heard, but Kabalevsky’s colorful and energetic overture has become an audience favorite.
Like Béla Fleck, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) forged a career that defied categorization and established a legacy that places him among the most important musicians of the 20th century. He first came to prominence as a young conductor in the 1940s and was named music director of the NY Philharmonic in 1957. By then he had also had major successes as a composer having premiered his First Symphony and several works for the stage. In the same year he became music director of the Philharmonic, he also collaborated in the production of what is undoubtedly his most well-known work, West Side Story. The musical became an instant success that led to a film version in 1961 and a remake in 2021. In this work Bernstein combines a variety of popular and classical musical elements ranging from Latin dance styles to Jazz and blues, and fugue. West Side Story has become a landmark in the history of American musical theater and its choreography, by Jerome Robbins, and instantly recognizable musical score are icons of their time and place.
The success of West Side Story eventually led to a related project that resulted in the creation of a new adaptation of the music for concert purposes, Symphonic Dance from West Side Story (1960). The work unfolds the major themes from the original musical without strict regard for their order of appearance in the staged production, yet effectively communicates the dramatic flow of the story. The Symphonic Dances are presented in nine continuous sections: Prologue, Somewhere; Scherzo; Mambo; Cha-cha; Meeting scene; Cool fugue; Rumble; and Finale. © Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
Two composers named Joseph from the same time period and the same general geographical region are featured on this program. There is some evidence that the two musicians met in the early 1780s. One is a figure considered to be one of the most gifted musicians of the day and the other is Joseph Haydn. Despite the acclaim he received from his contemporaries as an equestrian, athlete, musician, and composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St. Georges (1745-1799), is for most people an obscure curiosity. Haydn, on the other hand, has been and remains one of the most frequently recorded and performed composers in music history. There are likely many reasons why their places in history are so divergent, but perhaps the most apparent is that Joseph Bologne was Black, the son of a white, French aristocrat and one of his African slaves. When Bologne was once considered for the position of director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Opera, female singers protested stating that they refused to “be subjected to the orders of a mulatto.” In contrast to Bologne, Haydn came from a humble background and worked his entire life focused singularly on music, achieving widespread fame throughout Europe. Bologne, despite his mixed-race heritage, benefitted from the noble status of his father’s family and was broadly educated and became highly proficient in the skills endemic to a European nobleman yet his fame was limited and short-lived.
Contemporary accounts describe Bologne as strikingly handsome, a fine swordsman, and master equestrian, in addition to probably having received instruction in music from some of the best musicians of his time. His musical training is subject to some uncertainty since no official records of his musical education survive, but he was a highly skilled violinist and helped lead some of the best French orchestras of the late-18th century. In fact, Bologne became the director of the Concerts des Amateurs, one of the largest and most accomplished orchestras in Europe, in 1773. As leader of this group, he gave the first performances of some of Haydn’s symphonies in Paris. Less than a decade later, in 1781, Bologne became the founder of the Concert de la Loge Olympique. As leader of this orchestra, he worked directly with Haydn in realizing the commission from the French Count D’Ogny for the set of now celebrated 6 “Paris Symphonies,” the second of which is heard on this program.
Two brief symphonies by Joseph Bologne are also included here, his Symphonies No. 1 in G major and No. 2 in D major, op. 11. Both symphonies are for ensembles characteristic of early classical symphonies, predominantly strings with a small constituent of harmonically supportive winds, usually a pair of oboes and horns. The works are both in three movements, Fast-Slow-Fast rather than the more extended four-movement plan, including minuet and trio, so common in the mature symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Nonetheless, Bologne’s handling of the forms and musical ideas is highly accomplished and musically satisfying demonstrating his clear gifts for musical invention, dramatic contrast, and overall structural integrity.
Though certainly not rare, concertos for cello are much less numerous than those for violin or piano. Vivaldi, the unrivaled master of the Baroque concerto, wrote nearly 30 solo cello concertos. Later in the 18th century Viennese classical composers seem to have been less inclined to write for cello and orchestra. Neither Mozart nor Beethoven contributed to that repertoire. For many years Franz Joseph Haydn (1733-1809) was known to have composed at least one cello concerto, the one in D major, but the composer had cataloged another for which the music appeared to be lost. In 1961 a second concerto by Haydn surfaced in a Prague library, the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in C major, Hob. VIIb:1. The theme of the first movement matched the one Haydn had entered into his catalog and the authenticity of the new discovery was assured. Cellists and audiences were delighted to discover a new work created by an established master. The work dates to the early years of Haydn’s nearly 30-year tenure at the court of Prince Esterhazy, a time when Haydn was busily developing the style and forms that would lay the foundation for Viennese Classicism, but the Baroque style was still reverberating in the age. The C major Cello Concerto is an example of this transitional phase of musical style. Like many concertos, this one was composed for a specific cellist, Joseph Franz Weigl, who was a cellist at the Esterhazy court for many years. The work is in the typical three-movement concerto pattern established in the 17th century, but Haydn manages to bring a new vibrancy to form. The opening movement is characterized by it particularly memorable main theme and closes with a brief but challenging solo cadenza. The Adagio second movement is lyrical and elegant hearkening back to the baroque roots of this style. The concerto concludes with a high-spirited and playful movement filled with technical challenges for the soloist.
Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G minor “La Poule” (The Hen). Haydn wrote this symphony as part of a group of six composed for performance in Paris in 1787. The symphonies, Nos. 82-87, have since been referred to collectively as the “Paris Symphonies.” Haydn’s fame as a great composer had spread throughout Europe despite his exclusive arrangement with his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, not to make his music available to anyone but the prince. By 1779 Prince Esterhazy realized the futility of his arrangement, which was in fact punishing Haydn economically, and allowed Haydn to sell his music to publishers. The floodgates were opened and the commissions began pouring in. One of the most appealing must have been the one from the Parisian musical organization, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique. Haydn provided six magnificent works for the commission, the best symphonies that he had written to date. He was to take full advantage of all the opportunities provided by this commission from the expert performers to the highly sophisticated audience he could expect to be in attendance. The Symphony No. 83 is a typical example. Contrasts of mood and character are exemplified in the opening Allegro spiritoso. The opening theme, as suggested by the minor key, is serious, but humorously clucking and pecking oboes and violins soon answer. The development section juxtaposes these incongruous ideas as only Haydn can. An unusually weighty and sophisticated slow movement follows, another indication of Haydn’s high expectations from his Parisian audience. It is perhaps in his Minuets that Haydn’s character is most consistently revealed—earthy, robust and good-humored. This minuet certainly lives up to our expectations with its buoyant minuet and gentler trio. Though lighter in spirit than the opening movement, the brilliantly dancing Finale tests the technical mettle of the players while challenging listeners with more sophisticated formal procedures. Despite greater demands on audience and performer, Haydn’s symphony never loses the sense of joy and vitality that makes all of his music wonderfully engaging. ©2022 Robert S. Katz, Ph.D.
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.