Dances of Galánta
Zoltán Kodály was born in Kecskemét, Hungary in 1882 and died in Budapest in 1967. He composed this work in 1933 for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, and it was first performed by that orchestra under the direction of Ernst von Dohnányi the same year. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
At the turn of the last century, Kodály and his compatriot Bartók sensed the same thing: the rich tradition of Hungarian folk music was in danger of extinction, because its practitioners were dying out. Determined to rescue their heritage, the two friends went into the field, taking dictation and recording Edison cylinders of the peasants who still knew the old tunes. Between them they preserved and published thousands of authentic Hungarian melodies.
These were considerably more exotic than was previously understood, for much of what passed as Hungarian music was corrupted by generations of outside influences. Kodály and Bartók showed the world what real Hungarian music was like. Both composers made use of these melodies (and original tunes inspired by them) in their own works. Bartók tended to use folk tunes as motivic points of departure, but Kodály often made them the destination.
Kodály spent seven years of his childhood in Galánta, a town on the well-traveled road between Vienna and Budapest. The gypsy bands that visited brought, in his words, the first "orchestral" sonorities he heard. When commissioned to compose an 80th anniversary tribute to the Budapest Philharmonic Society, Kodály revisited his youth by using melodies from a collection of authentic Galántan dance music.
Like a Hungarian dance, Kodály's work begins with a slow introduction. After a cadenza, the clarinet gives the first of the several dance tunes. This theme returns, in various guises, to punctuate the work as it flows from one dance to the next. Kodály pursues a rich variety of moods, from the utmost in delicacy to foot-stomping revelry.
Kodály's genius was in the way he could combine authentic folk melodies with classical harmonies and procedures, without corruption or condescension. Kodály doesn't just dress the peasant tunes in white tie and tails, he brings their color and enormous vitality directly to the concert hall.
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
Max Bruch was born in Cologne in 1838 and died in Friedenau (near Berlin) in 1920. He completed the first version of his Violin Concerto in 1866. He later extensively revised the work with the assistance of Joseph Joachim, who was the first soloist for the new version, premiered in Bremen under the direction of Karl Martin Rheinthaler in 1868. The Concerto calls for solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Today Max Bruch is known chiefly for this violin concerto and two works for cello and orchestra, Kol Nidre and Shelomo, yet this is but a thin slice from a long and productive career. Bruch began composing at the age of 11, won a prize for a string quartet at age 12, and continued his creative effusion until his death at 83. Along the way he produced three operas, three symphonies, dozens of songs and choral works, and much chamber music. He was also a talented conductor and respected pedagogue.
Bruch first sketched some ideas for his First Violin Concerto when he was 19, but its gestation would last a further nine years. After its completion and first performance he was dissatisfied with it and immediately began extensive revisions. Eventually he sent the score and a request for advice to Joseph Joachim, the great violinist and friend of Brahms. Joachim was encouraging, and it is likely that Bruch adopted several of the virtuoso's suggestions. When the revised score was given its premiere two years later it was with Joachim as the soloist, and the concerto entered the repertoire to stay.
Bruch wasn't even sure he should call this work a concerto because the first movement was not a sonata form. Joachim assured him that the following two movements were sufficiently formal that "the designation 'concerto' is completely apt." But this movement is unusual, even for Bruch. After a low rumbling in the timpani the orchestra and soloist trade melancholy phrases, and as the movement gets going we find that although the music is supremely melodic, there aren't the usual one or two "big tunes" that will end up dominating things. (Actually, the music seems more motivic than traditionally melodic.) At the point where we would expect to hear a development (were this a sonata form) Bruch brings back the opening music and begins a transition to the second movement, which follows without pause.
Bruch ended up calling the first movement Prelude because that's what it is: an elaborate introduction to the Adagio, the heart of the concerto. This lyric masterpiece has not just one but three magnificent themes. The second of these has been called "the melodic glory of the nineteenth century," and few will disagree. These wonderful tunes intertwine with artful dramatic pacing and culminate in a passionate climax.
The gypsy-like music of the Finale brings with it both an invitation to dance and astonishing fireworks from the soloist. The multitude of double, triple, and quadruple stops are often made to sound easy by today's virtuosi—rest assured they are not. Still, Bruch hasn't forgotten that the violin is his singer, and he makes room for one more expansive and glorious melody before he's done.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
Jean Sibelius was born in Tavestehus, Finland in 1865 and died in Järvenpää in 1957. He completed his Second Symphony in 1902, and led the Helsinki Philharmonic in the first performance the same year. The Symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Sibelius once described his method of composition in this way: "It is as if the Almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together." When we hear the first pages of his Second Symphony the metaphor becomes clear. The strings begin with velvety chords, an accompaniment in search of a melody; the woodwinds supply a jaunty tune, but each time they begin they are interrupted by the horns' more reflective music. The flutes' new idea is swept aside by an impassioned tune in the strings; the woodwinds join, but are replaced with a pizzicato string figure.
The jumbled musical fragments, like scattered tiles on the floor, have yet to be assembled.
A traditional sonata form usually presents two contrasting melodies, develops them by breaking them down into smaller bits, then brings them back in their original form. But Sibelius' sonata is utterly different. He first shows us only fragments, the individual tiles of the mosaic, one at a time. As the movement develops he combines them, fitting the tiles together in different ways. Some tiles grow in importance while others don't seem to fit the picture and fall away. The fragments collide and evolve into bigger pieces until, at last, the picture becomes clear. Sibelius achieves the same sense of unity and order given by a traditional sonata, but by means both unique and fascinating.
Sibelius is known for his vivid tone-poems, and his second movement might stand with the best of them. As the soft, pizzicato doublebasses open up a darkly magical world, the music appears to be more linear than the first movement's. But new fragments intercede, full of violent outbursts and dramatic pauses. These flare up and die away, their energy spent, and the music recedes into the mists that opened the movement.
The Scherzo is based on an ominous swirling figure that yields to a plaintive, almost static oboe melody in the trios. At the end, where one expects the final iteration of the Scherzo's material, Sibelius interjects the first three notes of the Finale's big tune and leads right into the next movement without pause. As the work unfolds this big tune is jostled by new fragments (or variants of old ones), but its primacy is never challenged. The closing pages make it triumphant. In the end the mosaic Sibelius has constructed from his scattered tiles is vivid, fresh, and powerful.
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Overture: In Nature's Realm, Op. 91
Antonín Dvořák was born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia in 1841 and died in Prague in 1904. He composed this concert overture in 1891 and led the first performance in Prague the following year. The score calls for 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
When Dvořák composed three concert overtures meant to represent the "three great creative forces of the Universe," he called them Nature, Life, and Love. He originally intended that they should be played together as a set—there is some thematic unity among the three and they do make an interesting trilogy. But he eventually decided to issue them separately, and renamed them In Nature's Realm, Carnival, and Othello.
Dvořák composed these works at his secluded home in the Vysoká forest, and his deep reverence for nature informs all of them. What's more, the main theme of In Nature's Realm appears in the other overtures, too. This links them not just musically, but philosophically as well: to Dvořák, the gentle beauty of Nature, the spirit of Life, and the joys (and jealousies) of Love were all of a piece, three facets of the human condition and of nature itself. In Nature's Realm brings us back to the source of it all.
The overture begins quietly, with fragments of a theme here and there, finally coalescing into a loud, stirring statement of the theme itself. From here we have a sonata form, but quite unlike those we're used to. Instead of primary themes and secondary themes Dvořák gives us places: a meadow, a glen, a thicket, a river. The development reminds us that there are dark aspects of nature, too. As the piece returns to its opening music, Dvořák leads us to expect a grand and noisy ending, but instead the overture gradually fades into the same distance from which it came—into the deep forest of Vysoká.
This little masterpiece is sadly neglected: the boisterous Carnival gets all the attention, and more performances than the other two overtures combined. Yet it is here, In Nature's Realm, that we find not just Nature, but also Life and Love in their purest form.
Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem
Tan Dun was born in 1957 in the Hunan province of China. He composed this work in 2014 in a co-commission from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the Taiwan Philharmonic, and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Tan led the first performance in 2015 in Amsterdam with Dominic Seldis, contrabass and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The score calls for contrabass solo, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Tan Dun's life story and musical development are bound together as one. He was born in 1957 to middle-class parents in the Hunan province of China. When the commissars of the Cultural Revolution decreed that his white-collar parents might better serve the State by working in the rice fields, he was sent to live with his grandmother in the country. She taught him to play the erhu, the traditional Chinese fiddle, and also taught him the ritual-laden ways of Chinese peasant culture. His fiddling earned him the leadership of a local Peking opera troupe and eventually a place at the Central Conservatory. It was there, at age 19, that he first heard Western music, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra on a cultural exchange tour.
"From that moment," Tan says, "I wanted to be a composer like Beethoven." His earliest compositions won him international praise but brought him afoul of the Chinese cultural establishment, which was operating like its Soviet counterpart. Before long he was denied permission to travel outside China. This ban was finally lifted when he was invited by Chou Wen-Chung to study composition at Columbia University in 1986. Since that time his works have been performed and recorded by orchestras all over the world, and he has received music's highest honors, including the Bartók Prize, the Suntory Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, and both an Academy Award and a Grammy Award for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Tan currently lives in New York.
Just as Tan's life has been a synthesis of East and West, so too is his music. A large part of his inspiration for composing his Contrabass Concerto: The Wolf was the Chinese novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. This period epic portrays the extinction of both the culture of the Mongols and of the Mongolian Wolf, an animal sacred to them. As Tan says, the work shows how the wolf was "the mirror of the human being, how we used to share one sky, one grassland. But now, the mirror is broken." In this way, both the novel and Tan's concerto speak to us about humanity's relationship with the natural world.
The concerto is in a traditional three-part form. The first movement begins quietly and otherworldly, and while the contrabass enters as part of this, it soon comes to dominate what we hear with its mournful and melancholy voice. A galloping allegro soon follows; in it we hear the running of both the wolves and the Mongolian horses in the grasslands. The soloist takes up the galloping motive and with the orchestra drives the movement to its surprising finish.
In the luminous second movement, a wolf pup laments the loss of its mother and its home. The contrabass sings it in long, elegiac lines. The running horses return to lead off the Finale, a breathtaking blend of virtuosity and sheer spirit.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 Pastorale
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. He composed his Sixth Symphony for the most part in 1807 and 1808, though there are sketches that go back as far as 1803. The work premiered in 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. The symphony's score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Beethoven carved the Fifth Symphony from marble and granite, fashioning a monument to the works of Man. In an abrupt turn, Beethoven made the Sixth from softer stuff, in homage to the works of Nature.
We often think of Beethoven as a profoundly unhappy man with much to be unhappy about. But he always found relief and renewal in his daily tramps around the ramparts of Vienna and his summers in a nearby village. The natural world was a tonic for him, his only reliable source of happiness. In the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven turned those feelings into sounds.
He called the Sixth a "characteristic symphony, a recollection of country life," adding, "more an expression of feelings than a painting." Nonetheless, he wrote painterly titles for each movement. His "recollections" of the country are simple, not grand. He takes time to ponder a single tree, a brook, a bird.
Beethoven calls the first movement Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country, and the music itself awakens with a gentle phrase that stops even before it gets going. The similar full-stop in the Fifth Symphony creates a heightened feeling of tension; here the very same technique marks the leisurely pace of Nature's world.
This sense of timelessness is carefully cultivated. Melodic and harmonic elements are simple and direct. The harmonies proceed at a stately pace, sometimes lingering on a single chord for astonishingly long periods. While listening it doesn't seem possible, but in the development Beethoven gives us the same melodic figure—taken from the second bar of the piece—repeated over seventy times. This has been likened to the "sublime monotony" of Nature itself, like the repeating patterns of the leaves in the trees. Beethoven varies the key, color, and dynamic of this figure to give the leaves their many variations of light and shade.
The second movement, Scene by the Brook, is undulating and serene. Beethoven violates his own dictum against tone-painting by depicting a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet), all marked explicitly so in the score.
Beethoven's friend Anton Schindler told how the composer enjoyed hearing the unpolished playing of village bands. Beethoven once asked Schindler if he had noticed "how village musicians often played in their sleep, keeping quite still, then waking up with a start, getting in a few vigorous blows or strokes, and then dropping off to sleep again." This is lovingly—not mockingly—related in the Scherzo, Merry Gathering of Country Folk. The oboe seems not quite ready to begin its theme, for it starts a beat late. Later, the bassoon seems to briefly wake, play three notes, and doze off again. When the clarinet takes the melody—similarly unready—it seems to waken the violas, who in turn rouse the cellos. Everyone joins in the foot-stomping rustic dance of the trios; to Beethoven, this is as much a sound of Nature as the quail or cuckoo.
The fourth movement's Thunderstorm begins not with a bang, but with the anxious calm before the storm. When the skies burst, it is with genuine fury. Up to this point Beethoven had not written a single diminished chord, nor even a passing F-minor; there are plenty now, and their presence is startling. Many composers have tried to depict a thunderstorm, but none surpass Beethoven, even those with much larger orchestras at their disposal.
When the sky clears, we hear the Shepherd's Song—Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm. A reverent hymn begins, and then the shepherd's song leads us back to fresh-scrubbed leaves, cool breezes, and the continuum of Nature. The ease and gentility of the first movement return, as if they had never left, and the thankfulness turns to joy.
Beethoven turned to the ever-constant yet always-changing face of Nature when the works of Man made him sour. That he could not hear the bird-calls or the murmuring brook didn't matter: those sounds lived deep inside him. For centuries composers have tried to evoke Nature with their music, but only Beethoven has so eloquently captured its uplifting spirit.
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Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
Gioachino Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792 and died in Paris in 1868. He composed his opera La gazza ladra in 1817 to a libretto by Giovanni Gherardini after La pie voleuse by JMT Badouin d'Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez; it was first performed at La Scala in Milan the same year. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Rossini was 25 when he wrote this opera; he was at the height of his powers and had already achieved recognition for having "reformed" opera nearly single-handedly. Of his quick rise, Rossini quipped, "I woke up one morning and found myself famous." In the next few years he composed many more operas, over forty in all. Then, having become the most famous opera composer in the world—and making a fortune in the process—he abruptly laid down his pen and composed no more. He had said all he wanted to say.
Rossini is best known for his comic masterpieces, but while La gazza ladra has many comedic moments the focus of the opera is serious indeed. The plot has its basis in what appears to be a true story: a French maid was once accused of stealing a silver spoon, an offense at that time carrying the death penalty. Only after she was convicted and executed was it discovered that the spoon had been "stolen" by a magpie who had hid it in its nest. This tale was known all over Europe, and it led to a widespread reconsideration of theft as a capital crime. In Rossini's opera the magpie's guilt is discovered before the girl is executed—happy endings being more popular—but not before much harrowing drama (and dramatic music) takes the stage.
Rossini had a certain nonchalance about overtures, frequently composing them at the very last minute and not above "recycling" them from one opera to the next. But with La gazza ladra he unleashed a real corker, full of fire and (unusual for Rossini) music taken from the opera itself. Rossini gives us a quasi-sonata form with a drum roll and military march for an introduction. The first of the major themes—the scintillating minor key passage in the strings—will be heard later as the accompaniment figure to the servant girl's lament upon being imprisoned. The music continues with a succession of tunes from the opera, including a delightfully playful section for the woodwinds and some unusual—and splendid—writing for the trombones. Rossini caps it all off with a presto of high excitement and orchestral pizzazz. Simply brilliant.
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany in 1810 and died at Endenich, Germany in 1856. He completed this symphony in 1846, and it was first performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn the same year. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
By the time Schumann composed his Symphony No. 2 (it was actually the third one he wrote), he had suffered many of his nervous breakdowns, episodes full of memory lapses, phobias, and suicidal fantasies. He composed the work during his convalescence following the most recent of these. He sketched the work very quickly, but took quite a long time to finish it. He may have seen it as a way to pull himself out of his melancholia, a kind of musical struggle to regain himself. "I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement," he wrote, "and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same, it reminds me of dark days."
The dichotomy between Schumann's personal demons and the strong, lively, and vigorous music he composed in his Second Symphony is as great as can be imagined. The slow (and quite lengthy) introduction to the first movement begins with a quiet call to attention in the trumpets. Thereafter it ranges far and wide, never visiting a theme or tonal center long enough to call it home. The Allegro that follows is full of off-kilter rhythms—it is very Brahmsian in this way—and relentlessly vigorous. The exposition is surprisingly short, while the development is quite extended. The similarly expansive coda reprises the introduction's trumpet call.
The second movement is a scherzo with two trios, opening with a famously scurrying string figure. (Famous among violinists, at least, whose duty is to work through its difficulties.) Those with an ear for such things might notice in the second trio a cleverly embedded motto on Bach's initials (B-A-C-H, or B-flat, A, C, B-natural in German parlance). Schumann had been studying Bach, which accounts for both this and the increased level of polyphony in the symphony as a whole.
The third movement's song-like Adagio is calm, poignant, and melancholic. Schumann seems to begin a fugue, of all things, in the middle of the movement, but drops it before it takes hold. A true symphonic adagio was fairly rare for Schumann; this one swells with affecting beauty.
The Finale is an exuberant finish to the whole. Its shape is unusual; Schumann seldom wrote music to fit a form, he created a form to suit the music. A variation of the Adagio's theme gets prominent treatment, and the fanfare that opened the first movement returns at the close. The energy and sense of "rightness" in this piece conceal a treasure-trove of compositional details that are far too numerous to mention but which contribute mightily to both.
After a disastrous first performance under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn (disastrous largely due to the excessive length of the program—the audience simply had no energy left for it), Schumann's Second was almost universally considered to be a great work in the nineteenth century. In modern times it has been neglected, sadly, for no reason that is apparent. It holds many beauties, and repays repeated listening. It also provokes a certain fascination in how a man who could slip so easily between madness and sanity could also have written something as lucid as this.
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Symphony No. 6 in F major, K. 43
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (he never used "Amadeus" except when making a joke) was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756 and died in Vienna in 1791. He composed this work in 1767, and it was first performed the same year in Brno, Moravia by the Mozart family and local musicians. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes 2 horns, and strings.
In the present day, when the terms "gifted" and "genius" are awarded so carelessly as to deprive them of their utility, it is refreshing to revitalize them by considering Mozart. He was the greatest pianist of his day; he had perfect pitch; his phenomenal memory allowed him to compose complete works in his head, committing them to paper only when finished. If he heard a piece or a cadenza in concert, he could go home and write it out note for note. These were some of the gifts—the genius that makes his music so consequential to this day is unexplainable.
Mozart was the prototypical child prodigy. He was picking out melodies at the keyboard at age three; by age five he was already an accomplished player. He began composing at six. His father, Leopold (a famous musician himself), knew what his son was; he taught him, developed him, and exploited him. Leopold took young Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl (also a fine musician) on grueling tours of Europe, performing everywhere Leopold might find a future post for his son or a generous donation. The children were required to perform all manner of musical tricks such as playing blindfolded or with a cloth covering the keys. Mozart's youth was spent, essentially, as a miniature adult; some say that in later years he lived out the childhood he never had.
Mozart was on the road again when he completed his Sixth Symphony, this time in Vienna, although he may have begun the piece in Salzburg. It is vigorous and sturdy, understandably a bit long on ideas and short on development. Yet there are plenty of hints of the Mozart-to-come. The opening theme of the first movement already has his characteristic two sides: the first martial and the second much gentler. And the deft minor-key development is a treat. Mozart arranged the serene Andante from a duet composed for his opera Apollo et Hyacinthus, K. 38. (Yes; he'd already written an opera, and yes, he already had enough material to be recycling it.) The third movement is a Minuet and Trio, possibly his first. The Finale is lighthearted, and you can hear Mozart having a great deal of fun with his endless extensions and closing melodies. It all seems fairly unremarkable for Mozart—until you come to find out that the composer was only eleven years old at the time.
A Kennedy Portrait
William Kraft was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1923. He composed this work in 1988 on a commission from Benjamin Zander for the Boston Philharmonic, who premiered the work in Boston the same year. The score calls for narrator, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, celeste, harp, and strings.
William Kraft was born in Chicago to Ukrainian parents who insisted on music lessons for their children. Kraft began piano lessons at age five but, as he says, it was with "an alarm clock on the piano." At fifteen his sister had him listen to a live Benny Goodman broadcast: "It blew my mind," he said, "the first great epiphany." After hearing drummer Jo Jones with the Basie band he switched to the drums, and his new course was set.
Kraft would become an outstanding percussionist, spending 25 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the last 17 as principal timpanist. He had taken his degrees from Columbia University and studied composition there. In his maturity he became well known as a composer, teacher, conductor, and percussion soloist. His awards, commissions, and other honors would fill a small book.
Kraft writes the following about A Kennedy Portrait: "When Ben Zander contacted me about the possibility of my composing a musical portrait of John F. Kennedy, I was very excited by the idea, since Kennedy had such a profound effect on me, as he did on so many others. The quotations used in this piece fall into four loosely defined areas, each separated by an orchestral interlude:
I. Brief introductory quotes expressing Kennedy's vision of America—its position and relationship to humanity.
II. Kennedy's belief in the arts—their significance and relevance to the nation's well-being; also, the effect of the arts on America's place in history.
III. Social justice and Kennedy's view of liberty and democracy.
IV. Brief concluding remarks taken from the speech Kennedy was to deliver November 22, 1963.
"The words that introduce each area are my own, the opening stemming from something Ben Zander had said at our initial meeting.
"Musically, it was impossible for me to ignore Copland's Lincoln Portrait, nor would I necessarily want to, for it is a wonderfully effective work that I have long loved and respected and one which has such a fine 'American' feel to it."
As it happens, two intervals that characterize Copland's "Americana" music—the major second and perfect fifth—were also characteristic of Kraft's. In some instances Kraft uses the major second to suggest "We Shall Overcome," while at others it is to invoke Mahler's Ninth Symphony—a work, Kraft says, "contemplates the evanescence of earthly life."
Kraft concludes: "To me, and of course to many others, the profoundly tragic trilogy of assassinations—John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—are tantamount to the assassination of the nation, for no one has more clearly epitomized the necessary concern for humanity with the courage and vision to implement that concern regardless of the potential consequences. If I have done anything to breathe new life into the words, thoughts, and image of John F. Kennedy, I am grateful."
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The Perfect Fool: Ballet Music, Op. 39
Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham, England in 1874 and died in London in 1934. He composed his opera The Perfect Fool in 1918-1922 and it was first performed the following year at the Covent Garden Theater in London under the direction of Eugene Goossens. Holst composed the ballet music that precedes the opera in 1920. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celeste, and strings.
Gustav Holst was a workaday musician. Arthritis in his hands precluded a career as a pianist, so for several years following college he made a living as a trombonist in opera and theater orchestras. Eventually he turned to teaching, sometimes at several schools at once, until he became head of the music department at the St. Paul's School for Girls in London. His duties there were so time-consuming that he had little time left for composing. The ambivalence he had about composing thus stemmed from necessity, but he also said, "Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you."
He found it a positive nuisance not to compose his short, comic opera The Perfect Fool, but alas both the audience and the critics simply found it a nuisance, period. The opera was a parody of 19th century opera conventions—and most especially those of Wagner—but it seemed there was no one who was ready to "get it." This is mostly blamed on the libretto, written by Holst himself. It's a shame, because as his daughter Imogen wrote, "There is a lot of good music locked up in this impossible framework."
Part of that framework, strangely enough, was that the opera began with a ballet in three parts: the Dance of Spirits of Earth, Dance of Spirits of Water, and Dance of Spirits of Fire. This music has escaped from its failed opera, and is often heard in the concert hall to the delight of all—including those who couldn't make heads or tails of the opera itself.
The ballet begins with a short fanfare from the trombones. This is a wizard conjuring up the spirits of earth, water, and fire needed to make a powerful love potion that he intends to use on a haughty princess. The spirits of earth make him a cup, the spirits of water fill it with the essence of love, and the spirits of fire give it a hot-blooded passion. The galumphing spirits of earth—"dancing" in 7/8 time, no less—are comically elephantine. A solo viola introduces the spirits of water, whose music is languid and dripping with color. The spirits of fire arrive abruptly and blaze their way to the end over driving timpani, whereupon this hugely evocative piece concludes with a sly wink from Holst.
Sea Pictures, Op. 37
Edward Elgar was born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, England in 1857, and died in Worcester, England in 1934. He completed this song cycle in 1899, though sketches for some portions of it date back as far as 1883. Elgar led the first performance in 1899 at the Norwich Festival with Clara Butt the contralto soloist. The score calls for contralto solo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, optional organ, and strings.
Elgar was never known as a song writer; in fact, his songs were considered second-rate. Part of this is attributed to his piano writing, which was viewed as workmanlike at best. Another part was his choice of texts, which never failed to baffle the critics. But his Sea Pictures stands above the rest, no doubt because of the power and translucence of his orchestral writing. Combined with a sensitive soloist, Sea Pictures succeeds beautifully.
Sea Pictures delivers what's on the label: a group of five songs that all allude to the sea but which have no overall dramatic connection. The five songs are set to texts by different authors, including the composer's wife, Alice, who wrote the words for the second song, "In Haven (Capri)." While there is no overall story to be told, there is a good deal of musical cross-fertilization going on to bind the work together as a whole.
The first song of the set is the "Sea Slumber Song," a gently rocking lullaby composed to a text by Roden Noel. The "mother mild" is the sea itself, and Elgar's music disturbs the tranquility of the words by reminding us of the sea's ominous power.
Elgar composed the second song of the cycle first, to a text by his wife Alice, who wrote the poem as a reminiscence of a visit to Capri before she and Edward were married. It is the simplest and most charming song of the set, and the music in the strings suggesting waves will return again in other songs.
In "Sabbath Morning at Sea" Elgar sets five of the thirteen verses of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem. The music is passionate and stirring, with heavy climaxes and dramatic textures. Some have suggested that the poem—about a woman left behind—appealed to Elgar because he himself had been left behind many years previously by a woman who went to sea.
"Where Corals Lie" brings us the most overt clue as to the subtext of the entire song cycle: the longing for death. Elgar adored the poem by Richard Garnett, perhaps because of his own recurring bouts of intense depression and his desire for release. The music here is much more sparsely scored, yet it is full of character and innumerable beauties.
"The Swimmer" brings that subtext to the fore. Adam Lindsay Gordon's poem depicts a swimmer caught in a roiling storm; he recalls the same sea when it was calm and serene; with its forces arrayed against him, he "would ride . . . where no light wearies and no love wanes." That Gordon was a suicide was not lost on Elgar, nor was the poem's imagery about a solitary soul whose strength is challenged by nature. Elgar gave the song the cycle's most expansive orchestra and the widest range to the soloist. The music is opulently descriptive, and while the quotations from previous songs may pass by unheard, they are not, perhaps, unfelt. In the end, the swimmer's longed-for release—and Elgar's music as well—are momentous and joyous.
From the Air
Kenneth Frazelle was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina in 1955. He composed this work in 2000 on a commission from the Santa Rosa Symphony, who gave the first performance the same year under the direction of Jeffrey Kahane. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Kenneth Frazelle began studying the piano at age eight, learned to play the flute and bassoon for the middle school band along the way, and was composing at age ten. He studied composition under Robert Ward at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then with Roger Sessions at Julliard.
Since that time Frazelle's music has been commissioned and performed by many prominent artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Kahane, Dawn Upshaw, Emmanuel Ax, Paula Robison, John Adams, Gilbert Kalish, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival, the Spoleto Festival, and others. Frazelle has received awards and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy in Rome, and Columbia University, and he was the winner of the 2001 Barlow Prize, the international competition administered through Brigham Young University. He has held residencies with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Frazelle writes the following about his work: "From the Air was inspired by the idea of looking down on the earth from above, a sense of hovering. This image was the inspiration for the opening adagio, in the style of an aria, which not coincidentally, is Italian for 'air.' As the introductory section gradually accelerates into a scherzo that includes two short trios, the piece moves beyond its initial inspiration and takes on a life of its own. I am often asked where inspiration comes from; I believe there is something about the creative process that is mysterious or 'from the air.'"
Suite: The Firebird
Igor Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, Russia in 1882 and died in New York City in 1971. He completed his ballet The Firebird in 1910, and it was first performed the same year in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. Stravinsky created a Suite in 1911 and then again, for a smaller orchestra, in 1919. The score of the 1919 Suite calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, optional celeste, and strings.
He was not a composer, or even a musician, but no one had more influence on the music of the early twentieth century than Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev was the impresario who organized the Ballet Russes in Paris. Over a twenty-year span he collaborated with a formidable roster of composers, including Stravinsky, Falla, Debussy, Prokofiev, Ravel, Milhaud and Poulenc, as well as artists such as Picasso and dancers such as Nijinsky. With the Ballet Russes, the very best of 20th century art came together under one roof.
Diaghilev hired Stravinsky to compose music for the Firebird when another composer failed to get the job done. Time was short—Stravinsky sent each section of the piece to the choreographer as it was composed, then joined the company for rehearsals. The premiere of The Firebird was the coming-out party of the most important composer of the twentieth century and the beginning of a famed collaboration that would last until Diaghilev's death.
The story of The Firebird is a pastiche of tales from Russian folklore. The young prince Ivan Tsarevich wanders into an enchanted garden in pursuit of the magical Firebird. Ivan captures the Firebird but she pleads to be released, telling him she will come to his aid if ever needed; Ivan releases her.
Ivan sees thirteen young princesses dancing and playing a game; he falls in love with one of them and follows them into the palace of the ogre Kashchei. When Kashchei captures Ivan the Firebird comes to his rescue. First the Firebird sends Kashchei and his retinue of monsters into a frenzied, exhausting dance, then lulls them to sleep with a beautiful Berceuse. She shows Ivan a casket with an egg containing Kashchei's soul. When Ivan smashes the egg Kashchei dies, his castle and retinue disappear, and his victims return to life. In the rejoicing portrayed in the Finale, Ivan receives the hand of his favored princess. The celebratory closing pages are some of the most thrilling music ever written.
The Firebird became the most popular of Stravinsky's works, much to the composer's chagrin. He came to resent the attention it took from his current (and very different) work, dismissing it as an "audience-pleasing lollipop." No matter—Diaghilev knew better. On the day before the premiere, as he stood with his prima ballerina, he pointed to Stravinsky and said, "Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity." And the world was on the eve of a new way of thinking about music, thanks to Serge Diaghilev.
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West Side Story: Symphonic Dances
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 and died in New York City in 1990. He composed West Side Story in 1957, and extracted the Symphonic Dances in 1960. The work was first performed in 1961 by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Lukas Foss. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celeste, and strings.
Leonard Bernstein was one of those rare musical geniuses who excelled at every musical discipline: a performer, composer, conductor and teacher, he was also a musical ambassador-at-large with the uncanny ability to make everyone he met excited about music. When friends suggested to him that he compose a "serious" musical he was absolutely the right man for the job, for jazz and popular music ran as deeply in his blood as any other kind. Many classical composers (such as Copland, Milhaud, and Stravinsky) had used elements of jazz in their works, and some popular composers (such as Gershwin) up-sized their music to fit the concert hall. None were as at home in both worlds as Bernstein, and West Side Story is his masterpiece.
The musical updates the Romeo and Juliet story to the warfare of 1950s New York street gangs. Its mastery over popular melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic styles is total: here is swing, bop, cool jazz, Latin music, ballads, and up-tempo jive. All are seamlessly integrated by a man who knew his classical procedures and who used them to give the work the kind of cohesion you'd expect from an opera by Mozart. Note how both the dangerous music of the Prologue and the love song "Maria," as different as they are, spring from the same melodic interval, the tritone. This kind of thematic unity is what separates West Side Story from the musicals of the past, and the reason why it is so effective even today.
(It's worth noting that the tritone, otherwise known as the augmented fourth or diminished fifth, is considered to be a wildly dissonant interval. It was actually referred to as Diabolus in musica—"the Devil in music"—and forbidden in church music for centuries. That Bernstein could use it as the first two notes of a love song—and a brilliant one at that—is another testament to the man's musical genius and certainly to his audacity. If you listen for them, you'll hear tritones all over the place in the music of West Side Story.)
The Symphonic Dances form a microcosm of the plot. The Prologue sets the stage for the gangs' bitter rivalry. "Somewhere," which follows, is a dream of peace and friendship, while the Scherzo continues with a vision of open space and sunshine. The Mambo breaks the spell with the competition and aggressiveness that are the gangs' reality. In the softer Cha-Cha the lovers Tony and Maria meet. The "Cool" Fugue is all about the tension created by barely-controlled anger. The Rumble brings the death of the two gang leaders, and as Tony's body is carried off in the Finale, there is still a search for that elusive "Somewhere."
Suite: Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose)
Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France in 1875 and died in Paris in 1937. He composed the piano version of Ma Mère l'Oye in 1910 and it was first performed in Paris the same year. The orchestral version was first given as a ballet in Paris in 1912. The work is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, timpani, percussion, harp, celeste, and strings.
Maurice Ravel was thought by some to have been something of a cold fish. A friend remarked, "He would rather be taken for unfeeling than to betray his sentiments." But he did have a special fondness for Mimi and Jean Godebski, the young children of a friend. To encourage their musical education Ravel composed this little suite, for piano four (small) hands, based on their favorite fairy tales. Ravel later orchestrated the suite, then turned it into a complete ballet by adding a prelude and composing transitional interludes between the movements.
The Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods lasts a mere twenty measures. It is both solemn and ethereal, as her maids realize they cannot rouse the Sleeping Beauty.
Hop-o' My Thumb recounts an adventure of Tom Thumb. Like Hansel and Gretel, Tom drops breadcrumbs as he wanders in the woods, confident that they will lead him home. But he is unable to find them, for the birds (in the guise of violin and flutes) have eaten them all.
The Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodes was made ugly by a witch, and lives in a faraway castle. In this scene she is serenaded at her bath by the pagodes, tiny people made of crystal, jewels, and porcelain. In keeping with their size, they play lutes made of walnut shells and violas made of almond shells; their music is based on the pentatonic scale, like the black keys on the piano.
In The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty speaks with a naive little waltz, while Beast replies in a grumbly contrabassoon. Listen for the triangle, for it marks the point where Beauty agrees to marry the Beast, and he is transformed into a handsome prince.
Prince Charming's kiss awakens Sleeping Beauty in The Fairy Garden, and they are joined by all the other characters in a happy fanfare.
Ravel said, "My intention of evoking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and thin out my writing." Yet his genius at orchestration turns these simple piano pieces, playable by children, into diversions of great color and imagination. At the same time he reveals in himself a surprising warmth that he would only allow children to see.
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine in 1891 and died near Moscow in 1953. He composed this concerto largely in 1921, though he used materials that went as far back as 1913. Prokofiev was the soloist in the first performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Frederick Stock in 1921. The score calls for solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings.
The first music Prokofiev wrote for this concerto was the opening theme of the second movement, which he set down in 1913; he finished the work in 1921. That seems like an awfully long time to spend on a concerto, but Prokofiev often jotted down ideas that might not come to fruition until years later. More ideas came to him in 1916 and 1918, but he did most of the work in 1921.
In the meantime he had fled Russia at the height of its revolutionary turmoil. Prokofiev knew little about politics or government, and cared even less, but a country at civil war was not a promising place to make a living. He set out for America in high hopes only to find both audiences and critics unreceptive to his music—when they weren't openly hostile to it. His next stop was postwar Paris; the city reinvigorated him but still his music went nowhere. When most of the city departed for the summer, Prokofiev did as well, but not for vacation: he set to work on the music that would give him his first big success in years—his Third Piano Concerto.
The concerto opens with a lovely and plaintive clarinet solo (soon a duet) that is taken up by the strings, but this is brief and soon eclipsed when the soloist roars out of the gate with a brilliant new theme. This actually isn't new at all, but a variant of the clarinet melody. The second theme comes from the oboe with pizzicato accompaniment, and Prokofiev spends some time with it. Eventually that brief clarinet tune returns, broader and majestic this time, and Prokofiev creates a combined development and recapitulation based on these two ideas.
The second movement is a theme with five variations. The theme itself is one of those quirky melodies that could only have come from the pen of Prokofiev, and although the variations are ingenious, they never stray very far from it.
The Finale begins with an angular theme in the bassoons that must fight to hold its own against the blustery piano and its own angularities. What is most memorable about this movement, though, is the lyrical and introspective third theme given out by the oboe at a slower tempo. This prompts further introspection—hair-raising at times—from the soloist, who makes it clear that this Finale is not a throw-away bit of frivolity. From here on, Prokofiev turns up the wick ever so gradually and the music reaches its conclusion with a blaze of orchestral and pianistic brilliance. Prokofiev had returned to the scene with a bang.
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Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23
Alberto Ginastera was born in 1916 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and died in 1983 in Geneva, Switzerland. He composed this work in 1953 on a commission from the Asociación Amigos de la Música in Buenos Aires, and it was first performed in that city the same year under the direction of Igor Markevitch. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harp, and strings.
Though he was widely considered the greatest composer Argentina had ever produced, Alberto Ginastera had a hard time making a successful career in his homeland. This had less to do with his talent—which he had in abundance—and more to do with whatever government ruled his country at the moment. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the late 1930s, but the military junta prevented him from studying in the U.S. until after World War II. He was named director of the national conservatory in 1948, but was fired by Juan Perón four years later; when Perón's government fell Ginastera took on major posts at the Catholic University and the University of La Plata. He ultimately left Argentina in 1969 to settle in Geneva with his second wife. Despite this professional roller coaster ride Ginastera composed steadily, making a mark for himself in the world of music that transcended national boundaries.
Ginastera's music and method of composition evolved throughout his career. His early works were very much inspired by folk music, while those he composed late in life were apt to contain all manner of modern techniques. His Variaciones concertantes falls somewhere between these two, but it shares one characteristic that is common to all his works: remarkable vitality.
Where his earlier works often quoted actual folk music, the Variaciones do not. "These variations have a subjective Argentine character," he wrote. "I try to achieve an Argentine atmosphere with my own thematic and rhythmic elements. The work begins with an original theme followed by eleven variations, each one reflecting the distinctive character of the instrument featured. All the instruments of the orchestra are treated soloistically. Some variations belong to the decorative, ornamental, or elaborative type; others are written in the contemporary manner of metamorphosis, which consists of taking elements of the main theme and evolving new material from it."
The twelve sections are played without pause. The Theme is for cello and harp; note how the harp plays the common open string pitches of the guitar, either in their original form (E-A-D-G-B-E) or transposed. After a string interlude, there are variations featuring flute, clarinet, viola, oboe and bassoon, trumpet and trombone, violin, and horn. After a second interlude by the wind section, the double bass reprises the theme and the full orchestra plays a final variation in the form of a rondo.
The Four Seasons, Op. 8, Nos. 1-4
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and died in Vienna in 1741. He composed this work in the early 1720s, and it was probably first performed around 1725 in Bohemia. The score calls for solo violin, strings, and continuo.
Composers have been imitating nature in their music for centuries, perhaps even millennia. What is remarkable about The Four Seasons is the form Vivaldi chose as a vehicle for such descriptive music: each "season" is, in fact, a self-contained violin concerto. Vivaldi, of course, was the master of the concerto form; he wrote several hundred of them, 220 alone for the violin. His concertos typically have three movements, fast-slow-fast, with the outer movements in ritornello form. (The ritornello is a theme played in the orchestra that returns to punctuate contrasting sections led by the soloist.) Despite the storytelling going on in The Four Seasons, these pieces also work quite nicely as concertos. They are superb solo vehicles: showy, expressive, and musically engaging.
Vivaldi was very specific about what he was trying to depict. He supplied poems at the beginning of each season that correspond closely with the music itself. They are, in fact, road maps to let the musicians know exactly what they are emulating. For the most part, the orchestral refrains in the ritornello movements tend to present a general picture of the season, leaving room for the soloist to make comments about more specific things.
The opening of Spring gives out the good cheer of the season, after which we hear a conversation among three birds—or, if you prefer, three violins. After the orchestra gives its imitation of a babbling brook, a storm enters with trembling thunder and flashes of lightning. As the clouds part, the birds return. The long, winding melody of the second movement represents a sleeping goatherd, and the insistent viola notes are the goatherd's watchful dog. The finale is a graceful shepherd's song, replete with the drone of bagpipes.
As Summer begins you can hear "men and flocks languish" in the heat: every phrase seems to droop. In the solo violin we hear first the cuckoo, then the turtledove, then the goldfinch. The loud orchestral interruption is the north wind; after the soloist depicts the shepherd's dread of the coming storm the ominous wind returns. In the second movement the shepherd is kept awake by fear and, in a low grumbling, a "furious swarm of flies and hornets." The third movement is a storm in music: there is thunder, lightning, even hail to bring down the crops.
With Autumn's "songs and dances, the peasants celebrate the joy of a fine harvest." Celebrate, indeed: the reeling soloist reveals that some, at least, have had a bit too much to drink, and as the party winds down we hear a bit of wooziness near the end. The second movement is predictable: sleeping peasants! Everyone wakes up for the hunting music of the third movement. The ritornello is quite gallant, and a good time is had by all.
Winter is crackling dry and cold, and the violin is the screech of the wind. Vivaldi specifies stamping feet and chattering teeth, though some relief comes from the second movement's cozy moment before the fire. The third movement's nervous violin is walking guardedly on the ice. A fall to the ground obtains, then the painful getting-up. The icy winds take over the movement, and take your breath away.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia, in 1840 and died in St. Petersburg in 1893. He composed his Capriccio Italien in 1880, and it was first performed the same year by the Imperial Russian Musical Society conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
"I have been working," wrote Tchaikovsky, "and during the last few days I have sketched the rough draft of an Italian capriccio based on popular melodies. I think it has a bright future; it will be effective because of the wonderful melodies I happened to pick up, partly from published collections and partly out in the streets with my own ears."
Tchaikovsky was taking a holiday in Rome at the time of the Roman Carnival. He wasn't much in the mood for the wild revelry all about him, but the air was filled with music so contagious he couldn't help but write some of it down. After completing his sketch in a single week, he completed the Capriccio Italien upon his return to Russia.
The trumpet fanfare that opens the work—later expanded in the brass—was a bugle call that Tchaikovsky heard daily, for his hotel was right next door to a military barracks. The languorous melody in the strings ruminates with the brass idea until a gracious tune is heard in a pair of oboes. From that point onward, the Capriccio is a travelogue of melody, each coming hard upon the last, culminating in a wild tarantella and a brilliant finish.
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