ProMedica Classics Series Program Notes 2017-2018

ProMedica Classics Series

PROGRAM NOTES
by Kalindi Bellach ©2017

Beethoven's Eroica / Shostakovich's Tenth / Dvořák's New World Beethoven's Emperor / The Planets / Seven Deadly Sins / Symphonie Fantastique / Classical Ellington / Bernstein and Mahler

Beethoven's Eroica

Giordano Bellincampi, conductor
Leonardo Colafelice, piano

Program:

Rossini - Overture to La gazza ladra
Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 3
Beethoven - Symphony No. 3

Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra

Giaochino Rossini completed his overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) in 1817, when he was just twenty-five years old. The story is lifted from a French melodrama, and though mostly comedic, it also contains elements of tragedy.

The story goes like this. A housemaid called Nanetta hides her father, a deserter from the army, who then gives her a spoon to help with his expenses. Nanetta sells the spoon. Meanwhile, Nanetta is holding the mayor – and his affections – at bay. Then a different spoon is found missing from the house, and Nanetta is arrested. Her father comes out of hiding to argue for her and is himself arrested, and Nanetta is found guilty of stealing the second spoon and sentenced to death. As she is being taken to the gallows, the king issues a last-minute reprieve for both Nanetta and her father. It was discovered that a magpie had been stealing shiny things, including the missing spoon, which is proven to be different from the one Nanetta sold. The king also pardons her father because he simply feels moved to do so. The story La gazza ladra is based on did not have as amiable an ending, unfortunately.

Many of Rossini’s overtures are not strictly programmatic – that is, they do not follow or foreshadow the story too much. La gazza ladra is no different, following a basic traditional form (Sonata-Allegro) in which three different themes are presented.

The overture opens with what is perhaps the most well-known element: the snare drum rolls, which can be heard coming from opposite sides of the stage. Commentator Roberto Kalb suggests that this is an allusion to the fact that both Nanetta’s father and husband are soldiers. Commentator James Keller, however, categorizes the use of the antiphonal snare drums as a reference to the opera’s “tragic overtones.” He goes on to list the other references to these overtones as the “walking-on-eggshells bit[s] in the minor mode, and a passage of ‘Rossini storm music,’” but then reminds us that this is still comic opera, and “[these elements] can be written off as prefiguring tempests in teapots rather than high-stakes judicial proceedings.”

The second theme is faster, presented in the winds. The strings accompany them, using a technique called battute, meaning to lightly “beat” the bow on the string. The theme that follows is more lyrical and is heard first in the oboe and then in the clarinet. Throughout the overture, there are long crescendos – something of a Rossini trademark. But these ones are distinctive because of how he created them: instead of having the instruments add volume, Rossini gradually adds instruments, creating a steadily building intensity.

Although La gazza ladra is most often called Opera buffa, it might be more accurate to call it Opera semiseria, a hybrid between entirely serious operas and entirely amusing ones. La gazza ladra is clearly not straight comedic opera, but contains politically relevant and near-tragic material. It’s possible that the confusion over designation comes from the fact that Opera semiseria is derived from Opera buffa. It’s also true that Rossini is most celebrated for his contributions to the Opera buffa genre. Keller explains “He had written plenty of songs and piano pieces, a substantial catalogue of sacred music, and even a handful of thoroughly serious operas on topics tragical, historical, and Biblical. But there was no getting around the fact that his most towering achievement had been as one of music’s greatest comedians, as a composer of Opera buffa.” Rossini himself wrote the following note to accompany his Petite Messe solennelle in 1863: “Thou knowest, O Lord, that I was born to write opera buffa. Rather little skill, a bit of heart, and that’s all. So be Thou blessed and admit me to Paradise.”

On its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in May 1817, La gazza ladra was promptly declared a masterpiece. Keller details one account of the performance, which describes a full five minutes of applause and shouts of “Bravo, Maestro!” Now, over a century later, it remains one of the most engaging overtures in our repertoire.

 

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Following young Serge Prokofiev’s American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1918, the American ran an article headed “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies.” Not everyone felt that way, however! A writer for the Journal, Henriette Weber, wrote that Prokofiev’s music was “big, sincere, true … [and] every man and woman there reacted to it.” Prokofiev’s debut made him a US success, so he decided to stay a while.

Soon, Cleofonte Campanini, director of the Chicago Opera, commissioned Prokofiev to write The Love for Three Oranges. It’s a testament to Prokofiev’s abrupt and extreme popularity not just in Chicago but across the States that the new opera was used to promote citrus! Unfortunately, the opera’s production was not smooth. It was during one of its stalls that Prokofiev composed the Third Piano Concerto (which, with The Love for Three Oranges, he referred to as “American”). He premiered the Third Piano Concerto on December 16, 1921. It was not as popular as his symphonic work. Prokofiev said that the audience “did not quite understand” it.

As a pianist, Prokofiev was described as both formidable and fearless, and he astonished audiences with, as fellow composer Francis Poulenc called them, his “long, spatulate fingers [that] held the keyboard as a racing car holds a track.” With those fingers Prokofiev enjoyed performing the most difficult concertos, including Beethoven’s “Emperor” and those by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The two concertos he completed while he was still at school, his first, are also quite challenging. A critic described the “ultramodern second [from 1913] … [as leaving listeners] frozen with fright, hair standing on end.” During the gap between his second and third piano concertos, Prokofiev collected a lot of the material that makes up his Third Piano Concerto. Building up a stash of sketches for eventual use was part of his compositional process throughout his life.

While the Third Piano Concerto can by no means be called “ultramodern,” its various musical elements, combined with the sincerity and simplicity of the writing, certainly qualifies it for a place in the halls of modernity. As Huscher states, “The score is a remarkable achievement, combining the brilliant, edgy momentum of Prokofiev’s previous music with a haunting new lyricism.”

Prokofiev provided his own program note for the work: “The first movement opens quietly with a short introduction (Andante). The theme is announced by an unaccompanied clarinet and is continued by the violins for a few bars. Soon the tempo changes to Allegro, the strings having a passage in sixteenth notes, which leads to the statement of the principal subject by the piano. Discussion of this theme is carried on in a lively manner, both the piano and the orchestra having a good deal to say on the matter. A passage in chords for the piano alone leads to the more expressive second subject, heard in the oboe with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is taken up by the piano and developed at some length, eventually giving way to a bravura passage in triplets. At the climax of this section, the tempo reverts to [the slower] Andante, and the orchestra gives out the first theme ff. The piano joins in, and the theme is subjected to an impressively broad treatment. In resuming the Allegro, the chief theme and the second subject are developed with increased brilliance, and the movement ends with an exciting crescendo.

“The second movement consists of a theme with five variations. The theme is announced by the orchestra alone. In the first variation, the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills, as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and the third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation Four the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation Five is energetic (Allegro giusto). It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.

“The finale begins with a staccato theme for bassoons and pizzicato strings, which is interrupted by the blustering entry of the piano. The orchestra holds its own with the opening theme, however, and there is a good deal of argument, with frequent differences of opinion as regards key. Eventually the piano takes up the first theme and develops it to a climax. With a reduction of tone and slackening of tempo, an alternative theme is introduced in the woodwinds. The piano replies with a theme that is more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work. This material is developed, and there is a brilliant coda.”

Prokofiev follows basic classical forms in each movement but also integrates his own harmonic language. This harmonic language is partially responsible for an enthusiastic following in his native Russia and for the subsequent claiming of the concerto as an early example of a national style. Musicologist Igor Glebov states in particular that this was “the beginning of a trend towards national music that would be consummated in the forthcoming Second Symphony.”

Musicologist Robert Markow cites the Third Piano Concerto as the “startling point of future evolution … In the composer’s development, such a work is a pivot point that accumulates … the best things that can be drawn from his past experience.” Markow goes on to talk about the relationship between the concertos of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, which, although they handle the element of folk music in different ways, share an “organic fusion with the greatest efforts and achievements of the Russian musical outlook, in the beautiful combination of novel invention with the power of expression, and in the typically Russian inclination to combine formal simplicity [i.e., Classical] with emotional sincerity.” The opening, described by Markow as one of “luminous and tender melancholy,” followed by the mostly joyful bulk of the piece with its consistent rhythmic clarity and diatonic idioms (the most often-cited “Russian” element) is a perfect example of this.

First recorded in 1932, the Third Piano Concerto has become Prokofiev’s most popular. As Markow explains, Prokofiev’s “extraordinarily rich talent has found its full expression in this work … [in which he] weaves the simplest elements into a sturdy fabric of unexpected sonorities.” However wonderful all the details are, however, the main point remains “that pulsing of life which is spread everywhere, and the blossoming of the joyful composerly thought which is finding the art of expression.”

 

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven announced, “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time. From today I mean to take a new road.” His Third Symphony, titled “Eroica,” was the first step on that new road. While his first two symphonies are more closely related to the works of Mozart and Haydn, his Third shows us something unique. As musicologist George Grove explains, “The Eroica first shows us the methods which [would] so completely revolutionize that department of music – the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the working-out, [and] the extraordinary importance of the Coda.” Beethoven’s Eroica is also the first time a third movement had been labeled a scherzo.

The Eroica was named in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte at the suggestion of General Bernadotte in 1798. It appeared early in Napoleon’s career; he was still known more as a “public man,” a passionate advocate for freedom and responsible for bringing order, and a great leader “to whom no difficulties were obstacles.” It was only later that his reputation as a soldier took precedence. Beethoven, having grown up in Bonn on the edges of the French revolution, had long admired republican ideals of hope and personal freedom. As Grove notes, “The feeling was in the air ... much also which distinguishes his course after he became a resident in the Austrian capital, and was so unlike the conduct of other musicians of the day – the general independence of his attitude, the manner in which he asserted his right to what his predecessors had taken as favors; his refusal to enter the service of any Austrian nobility; his neglect of etiquette and personal rudeness to his superiors in rank – all these things were doubtless more or less due to the influence of Revolutionary ideas.”

In light of this mood, it is no surprise that Beethoven was sorely and personally disappointed when Napoleon turned out to be a tyrant and “the scourge of Austria.” When the score for the Eroica was finished in early1804, Beethoven inscribed at the top the name “Buonaparte.” Beneath this was a blank space – and there’s no way of knowing what Beethoven intended to write there. In May of the same year, the senate asked Napoleon to accept the title Emperor, to which he agreed. This prompted Beethoven to exclaim, “After all, then, he is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot, to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than any one!” He ripped his title page in half and didn’t speak of the incident again until after Napoleon’s death. Grove notes that there is no reason to think the work was altered (beyond the title page). “It is still a portrait – and we may believe a favorable portrait – of Napoleon, and should be listened to in that sense. Not as a conqueror – that would not attract Beethoven’s admiration; but for the general grandeur and loftiness of his course and of his public character.”

The first movement, Allegro con brio, opens with two great staccato E-flat chords from the full orchestra, “in which all the force of the entire piece seems to be concentrated.” (Grove) This immediately gives way to the first theme, which sets the atmosphere of the movement. This theme is heard first in the cellos before being passed to the violins, and is expansive and lively. Musicologist Charles Wood points out that while this is not technically a leitmotif the way the word is defined in Wagner’s work, the concept does apply here, and we may call the first eight or nine bars the “Napoleon” motif. This first theme is also loosely related melodically to both his D Major Symphony and his Violin Concerto, as well as rhythmically to the Scherzo from Schubert’s C Major Symphony. Furthermore, although this work is set apart from his earlier symphonies, Grove explains that Beethoven is still “not free from the direct influence of Haydn, and even such individual creators as Schubert and Brahms bind themselves by these cords of love to their great forerunner; and thus is forged, age by age, the golden chain, which is destined never to end as long as the world lasts.”

Not everyone appreciated Beethoven’s use of certain newer harmonic elements, which herald the beginnings of German Romanticism. For example, composer Hector Berlioz complained of the “disjointed rhythm, [and the] rude dissonances … where the first violins strike F-natural against E... [claiming that] it is impossible to repress a sensation of fear at such a picture of ungovernable fury.” At an early rehearsal of the first movement, Ries, a student of Beethoven’s, thought that one or more musicians had made a mistake, as the harmony at a particular point seemed to him “as wrong as stealing or lying.” However, the second subject in B-flat is “a passage of singular beauty – more harmony than melody … a theme which, with its yearning, beseeching wind instruments … goes to the inmost heart like a warm pressure of the hands.”

The second movement is quite slow, and is marked Marcia funebre: Adagio assai. Breaking his long silence on the work following Napoleon’s death, Beethoven is reported to have commented that he had “already composed the proper music for that catastrophe,” referring to this movement. The title here is another innovation, as it wasn’t common to call a work a funeral march. The piece is performed sotto voce throughout, and the melody is presented in the oboe, with rhythmic support given by the horns, bassoons, and strings. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described this movement: “It was like a funeral procession in deep purple … before the grief becomes more personal and diffuse.” Berlioz also thought of this in terms of color, describing the difference between chord colors as the difference between blue and violet. He also notes the dramatic tension of the movement, and compares it to “[tracing] … the translation of those beautiful lines of Virgil on the funeral procession of young Pallas.”

The Scherzo and Trio – the Allegro vivace, alla breve comes as something of a relief following the weighty second movement. It opens nimbly, running pianissimo and staccato. The main melody has been assumed to come from a soldier’s song written by musicologist A. B. Marx, but Grove points out that the dates don’t match, so the soldier’s song was likely inspired by Beethoven. Some of Beethoven’s early sketches suggest that this scherzo may have been intended as a minuet.

The Finale: Allegro molto is interrupted by the Poco Andante, con espressione – Presto in the last movement, which has long been a puzzle in its intentions. What is it meant to convey? Is it somewhat too trivial and playful after all the seriousness of the first two movements? Grove references its sense of “daring and romance which pervade [it] … under so much strictness of form,” which gives it more weight but may not explain it. Following a performance in 1827, a critic claimed that Beethoven should have ended with the second movement, because the Finale and the Scherzo are “entirely inconsistent with the avowed design of the composition.”

But regardless, the movement is skillfully crafted, and the Poco andante is evidence that it belongs. It’s often regarded as the apotheosis of the work. The included Fugato also lends it weight. Grove describes the second subject as rough. “[It] might be the dance of a band of Scythian warriors round the tomb of the hero of their tribe.”

Following the premiere in April of 1805, a review was published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitungdetailing the work’s “extraordinary wealth of lovely ideas treated in the most splendid and graceful style, with coherence, order, and clearness reigning throughout … virtually a daring, wild, fantasia, of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution.” Beethoven himself was aware of the Eroica’s uncommon length, and published the following notice with the score: “This Symphony, being purposely written at greater length than usual should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert, and shortly after an Overture, an Air, and a Concerto; lest, if it is head too late, when the audience are fatigued by the previous pieces, it should lose its proper and intended effect.” In fact, a member of the audience at the premiere reportedly promised to pay “if it would just stop.” This certainly was not a problem felt by many, however. Schumann once said of Brahms: “He should be always thinking of the beginnings of Beethoven’s Symphonies [particularly the Third], and try to make something like them. The beginning is the great thing: once begin, and the end comes before you know it.”

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Shostakovich's Tenth

Alexander Prior, conductor
Julian Schwarz, cello

Program: 

Mussorgsky - Prelude to Khovanshchina
Liebermann – Cello Concerto (world premiere) 
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10

Prelude to Khovanshchina (Dawn Over the Moskva River)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky was fascinated with history, so when music critic Vladimir Stasov brought “The Khovansky Affair” to Mussorgsky’s attention as a possible subject for an opera, he leapt at the chance to work on it. In his 1881 essay, Stasov explained, “It seemed to me that the struggle between the old and new Russia, the passing of the former from the stage and the birth of the latter, was rich soil for drama, and Mussorgsky shared my opinion.”

The central conflict of Khovanshchina is between Peter the Great (before he was “the Great”) and the three opposing forces that stood in his way: Prince Khovansky, Golitsyn (a supporter of Peter’s sister, the regent Sophia), and the Old Believers, who prevented Peter from taking over the church. Peter triumphs over them all in the end, killing Khovansky and exiling Golitsyn while the Old Believers commit mass suicide by immolation. Mussorgsky wrote the libretto himself, and took some liberties with the story.

Despite his excitement over Khovanshchina, the composition of the opera progressed extremely slowly, and remained partly unfinished upon his death. Act II is incomplete, and Act V is only sketched out. Also, Mussorgsky never got around to orchestrating the Prelude, leaving only the piano reduction. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a friend of Mussorgsky’s and an admirer of his music, completed the first version of the opera in 1881-82 following Mussorgsky’s death.

The other accepted orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina was completed in 1959-60 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who loved Mussorgsky’s work and took the task of finishing Khovanshchina very seriously. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, who, for the most part, assembled and elaborated on Mussorgsky’s sketches, Shostakovich studied both sources extensively and revised things as he saw fit. The finished work was so important to him that he gave it an opus number in his own catalogue. In addition to these two versions of Khovanshchina, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky also did a partial reconstruction of the original score in 1913 at the request of Sergei Diaghilev in Paris.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina is titled “Dawn Over the Moskva River,” and opens delicately. Contrary to the title, the curtain rises to reveal the Red Square rather than the river. The oboe has the first melody, set against the backdrop of ascending scales in the violins. As the music becomes more animated, the bells sound and then fade away. Commentator Richard Freed notes that, “It is not a sunburst, but the gradual coming of daylight that is evoked…” In a letter from 1873, Mussorgsky describes the Prelude as “dawn over Moscow, matins with cock-crow, the patrol, the taking down of the chains…”

Commentator John Mangum points out that the peaceful atmosphere of the opening is almost completely “untroubled by the history about to unfold over the course of the opera, reinforcing the fact that nature and the events of daily life, regulated by the ringing of church bells, go on regardless of the machinations of politics.” Commentator Mark Rohr agrees, adding that, “… for Mussorgsky, the real Russia lay in what he called the ‘black, unfertilized earth of its people.’”

Structurally, Mussorgsky’s Prelude is characterized by thematic transformation. While it is basically a folk song with variations, each ephemeral variation makes excellent use of the traditional variants found across repetitions of a folk tune. That is, Mussorgsky’s variations are more similar than the theme and variations form usually indicates.

Despite the fact that Mussorgsky never completed his orchestration of the Prelude, he did leave some indications of how he wanted to score it. Rimsky-Korsakov went his own way a little, and orchestrated it in his own style. Though it might not seem like a problem, commentator James Leonard explains that the Prelude is “… orchestral in its essence, and Rimsky’s orchestration, with its bright woodwinds and light brasses, with its tempo rubato and its languorous tempo, makes the work seem more like a pastoral than a city scene, more like a light elegy than the prelude to a historical tragedy…”

Mussorgsky dedicated Khovanshchina to Stasov, and the Prelude was premiered in an early form in 1866. Tonight, you will be hearing Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration, which is scored for three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, five trumpets (three are offstage), three trombones, tuba, piano, harp, and strings.

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 132
Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961)

My Cello Concerto, Op.132 was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras including the Toledo Symphony, the Jacksonville Symphony, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MA), and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (OH). Written for cellist Julian Schwarz, the short score (outline) of the concerto was completed in August of 2017 and the orchestration completed a month later.

I set the concerto in the customary three movements. The first has several sections, as indicated by the marking Recitativo lento – Andante piacevole ed appassionato – Allegro molto – Larhissimo – Andante – Allegro. The work opens with an accompanied cadenza for the cello, which directly leads into the Andante piacevole ed appassionato with the cello singing a long-phrased lyric melody over a glistening accompaniment. A breathlessly virtuosic Allegro follows. A return of material from the opening cadenza leads us back to the Andante before ending the movement with one last Allegro flourish.

The second movement is a heart-felt, extended Largo, and the finale movement, Allegro energico, alternates between menacing and exuberant music in a rondo-like form that highlights the soloist’s virtuosity.

The concerto is scored for two flutes (the second doubling piccolo), two oboes (the second doubling English horn), two clarinets, 2 bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, one trombone, three percussionists playing a variety of instruments, piano (doubling celesta), harp, strings, and solo cello.

Symphony No. 10
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

“Music is the most widespread form of avoiding any answers to the age, heaven, and future, the most popular method of spiritual masking, thanks to the preciousness of sound, with the aid of which even materialized ordinariness makes itself heard.” This quote from Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak aptly illustrates Shostakovich’s work. Although Shostakovich is known, perhaps better than most, for his ability to turn pain into an incredibly powerful musical experience, this Tenth Symphony is more honest and even more raw than his earlier works. For example, consider his First Symphony, written and premiered just after the 1948 purges. It’s possible that the lack of a pervading tragic element at its end was due to his fear of retaliation. His Fifth Symphony also bowed to the need to protect himself, this time by altering the rhetoric surrounding the piece rather than the music itself. The Tenth Symphony, though, is permeated with the hope kindled by Stalin’s death (March 5, 1953).

The Tenth Symphony as a whole, and the second movement in particular, is a portrait of Stalin, whom Shostakovich described as “evil run amok.” Commentator David Hurwitz points out that “like the First Violin Concerto… [it] has a confident mastery about it that tends to silence criticism [of Stalin].” In this symphony, Shostakovich displays a masterful use of orchestration, creating a great variety of colors and textures. The clear depth of thought behind the work matches the excitement it creates.

Shostakovich structures the Tenth Symphony carefully and, as in some of his other works, follows traditional, large-scale forms both overall and within movements. Hurwitz uses the example of the Fourth Symphony to tell us what’s going on in the Tenth: “Part of the impact of the music’s coruscating and garish exterior stems from its ability to present a simple basic structural idea as a bewildering collage of seemingly unrelated events.” Furthermore, in the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich “builds on his experience in writing the Ninth, with its classical design, and combines exceptional formal clarity with an expressive range and impact more characteristic of the heroic Fifth.”

The first movement, Moderato, opens with a slow introduction (in keeping with sonata form structure). Shostakovich makes an interesting deviation from the norm, however, by setting the entire movement in the same moderate tempo, with only small adjustments to highlight the music’s expressive qualities. This is a departure from his usual style; many of his other large works build momentum as they progress. The Tenth Symphony instead builds tension, heightening it over time. This is so effective, at least in part, because of Shostakovich’s discipline in holding the tempo back. Hurwitz describes this progression as “[striking] the listener as a single, unified thought, perfectly proportioned and inexorable in its grandeur and forward drive.” Listen especially for the bass instruments, which repeat Shostakovich’s “motto,” and to the horns, which lead the brass in the inverted version of the same. The clarinet also has a lovely plaintive theme following the opening string statements.

The next section brings in the first dancelike element, supported by a more chromatic harmonic palate. Hurwitz describes the “unstable tonality [giving] a curiously fretful quality that can aptly be called tipsy anxiety.” He goes on to note Shostakovich’s unique ability to portray every shade of “feigned happiness or false cheer.”

The second movement is marked Allegro, and it is the most widely appreciated of the work. According to Shostakovich himself, this movement is a portrait of Stalin. Musicologist Solomon Volkov explains the connection to Stalin: “The wild and frightening scherzo, which overwhelms the listener, is a musical portrait of Stalin. Shostakovich himself told me this … the main evidence that this interpretation is not his later invention can be found, as usual, in the music … the great master of hidden motifs and quotations and juxtapositions of rhythmic figures. The ‘Stalin’ part of the Tenth Symphony is based in great part on Shostakovich’s music for the film Fall of Berlin (1950), in which the ruler was a prominent character.”

Besides the “Stalin” music, Shostakovich continues to weave his personal motto - the four notes D-E-flat-C-B - into the fabric, as he does in every movement. It follows a basic arc form, and Hurwitz describes it as a “graphic descent into madness.” Shostakovich’s comment about this movement representing “evil run amok” can be seen especially clearly in his use of major tonalities in each of the climaxes, suggesting the victory of evil, represented by the “Stalin” music. Hurwitz describes this as “one of the most exciting and physically exhilarating pieces of music ever written.”

The third movement is an Allegretto, but the tempo marking is not completely truthful. The third has the character of a slow movement, but yet it allows some livelier outbursts. The main melody references both the First Violin Concerto and the Leningrad Symphony. Shostakovich introduces a waltz-like paragraph in the winds (with triangle), which he interrupts with a horn call. Shostakovich’s use of a horn motif has been the subject of much debate among musicologists. Possible explanations include that it was used for its pastoral nature (relating to the Scene aux champs from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique), was used in relationship to Mahler’s Second Symphony, and that it was based in Russian folk/ritual tunes (specifically with its use of the perfect fourth interval). Musicologist David Fanning calls it “the most enigmatic feature of the entire symphony” and states that it must have been of great personal importance to Shostakovich for him to have inserted it where he did. According to musicologist Nelly Kravetz, Soviet musicologist Lev Mazel comes closest to the truth when he defines the horn insert as a series of “remote reminiscences, some kind of inner summons coming from the depths of the human heart.”

Actually, this points to the actual truth – that the horn theme is based on the name Elmira Nazirova, a student of Shostakovich’s in 1947. The composer corresponded regularly with Elmira for several years while he was writing the second and third movements of this symphony. We know this now because Shostakovich explained it in a letter to Elmira on August 29, 1953. Elmira’s theme melodically complements Shostakovich’s motto very well, and as Kravetz explains, “the tragic significance of Elmira’s monogram is revealed in its interval structure … because of the tonal ambiguity [it] leads the theme into a different emotional mood. There is a sense of loss of orientation and a feeling that this road does not lead anywhere. The last rising fifth … [feels like] a question were hanging in the air without an answer.”

This moodiness acts as a foil for the intensity of the first two movements. Hurwitz says, “In short, it’s vintage Shostakovich in that emotionally ambivalent, ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ mode that no other composer has ever tapped to quite the same degree (Mahler knew it also).”

The finale is in two parts: Andante – Allegro. A main thematic element of the movement comes straight from the third movement’s rising fifths adapted from Elmira’s theme. Immediately following the opening, the main theme of the Allegro can be heard in the clarinet. Hurwitz describes the second theme as a “gruff Russian dance on the strings, with cellos and basses offering yet another tune in three-note phrases deriving from the motto, both right side up as well as upside down.” This theme beneath the theme is quite similar to the “Stalin” music of the second movement and becomes more prominent across the development section. As Stalin’s theme becomes more evident, Shostakovich pits his motto against it. Volkov describes this as “a direct duel … which the Shostakovich theme wins … the theme D-Es-C-H, executed with maniacal stubbornness by various instruments … concludes the symphony, as if the composer is repeating the assertion: And I’m alive!” The mask is finally discarded. The recapitulation brings us back to the introductory material, but the atmosphere is warmer now, no longer fearful.

Twice during his life, Shostakovich experienced public humiliation and censure as a result of his work. The first time was following the premiere of Lady Macbeth, after which he wrote no more operas. The second resulted in his Tenth Symphony. Musicologist Leonid Maximenkov explains: “[Though] contemplated several years earlier, [the Tenth Symphony] did not see the light of day until after Stalin’s death.” While Shostakovich’s incorporation of his life into his music is not new, this symphony is different, reflecting his surroundings and circumstances more clearly and concretely than ever before. Volkov compares the Tenth Symphony to Stravinsky’s triumph at the end of Firebird over Kashchei the Immortal (an evil sorcerer from a Russian fairy tale).  He goes on to say that although all of Shostakovich’s symphonies are “true novels of their time,” the Tenth is “first and foremost infinitely changeable, flexible, multifaceted music; with room for a smile, and sorrow, and pure enchantment.” Shostakovich himself undoubtedly said it best when he claimed that he “wanted [only] to express human passions and feelings.”

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Dvořák's New World

Rune Bergmann, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Program: 

Mozart - Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro"
Brahms - Violin Concerto
Dvořák - Symphony No. 9 “New World”

Overture to the Marriage of Figaro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro was the first of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and was completed in 1786. It is based on the second part of the Beaumarchais Figaro Trilogy, picking up where Rossini leaves off in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. At the opening, Figaro is all set to marry Susanna, but of course the wedding is put on pause because of various inevitably funny obstacles.

The creation of Le nozze di Figaro was not smooth. Da Ponte had to get special permission to finish it after an early version of the libretto was banned, and the opera had only a few shows in Vienna before Mozart was forced to take Figaro to Prague, where it enjoyed a warmer reception. In a letter to his father from 1787, Mozart writes: “…Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro; nobody goes to any opera but Figaro; everlastingly Figaro!” He completed his “Prague” Symphony quite soon after this, and was then commissioned to write Don Giovanni.

Unlike some others of its time, the sparkling Overture to Figaro does not clearly reference themes from the opera to come. It does prepare us for the tone of the opera, though, which is humorous, quick, and clever. The Overture begins softly, with a swift introductory melody that explodes into a full tutti as the piece takes off.

The Overture is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings.

 

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Notes by Rachel Barton Pine

When Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms met in 1853, the twenty-one-year-old Joachim was already an established violin virtuoso and composer. The extremely gifted Brahms, two years younger, was virtually unknown. They quickly became close friends and began a musical interchange that lasted throughout their lives.

Brahms and Joachim challenged each other constantly, trading counterpoint exercises along with their correspondence. In 1853, they roomed together in Göttingen, and Brahms began to study orchestration with Joachim. Joachim served as a mentor to Brahms, introducing him to Schumann and other leading musicians of the day.

Throughout their friendship, Joachim was unwavering in his support of Brahms’s compositions. He performed his chamber works, premiering many of them, and conducted his symphonies. Joachim was particularly fond of the the Violin Concerto. He described the work, which Brahms dedicated to him, as one of “high artistic value” that roused in him “a peculiarly strong feeling of interest.”

Brahms began composing his Violin Concerto in the summer of 1878, during a vacation on Lake Wörther in Pörtschach, Carinthia (Austria). On August 22, Brahms sent the manuscript of the violin part to Joachim with this note: “Naturally I wish to ask you to correct it. I thought you ought to have no excuse – neither respect for the music being too good nor the pretext that orchestrating it would not merit the effort. Now I shall be satisfied if you say a word and perhaps write in several: difficult, awkward, impossible, etc.” Thus began one of the most intriguing musical exchanges in history.

By the time Joachim premiered the concerto in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, the piece had undergone considerable changes. Two middle movements had been removed and replaced by a newly written Adagio, resulting in the three-movement concerto we know today. (Both of the original middle movements are now lost. Many scholars think that the Scherzo may have been converted into the Allegro appassionato of the Second Piano Concerto.) The score was passed back and forth at least a half dozen times before the premiere, and the two friends’ debate over revisions, which is clearly evident in the surviving manuscript, has been left for posterity. In the end, Brahms incorporated most of Joachim’s suggested orchestral changes but considerably fewer of his revisions to the solo violin part.

The first movement of the Brahms Concerto follows the example of both Joachim and Beethoven in integrating the solo part with the orchestral writing. Often the solo violin plays counter-melody while other instruments play the main material. Brahms left the composition of the cadenza to the performer. Joachim wrote his own cadenza, which remains the one most frequently performed, though there is some evidence that Brahms had a hand in its creation. Brahms wrote to Elizabet von Herzogenberg of an early performance, “The Cadenza sounded so beautiful at the actual concert that the public applauded it into the start of the Coda.”

The Brahms Concerto is often described as “masculine,” due in large part to its robust first movement. I am continually awed by the majestic and inexorable qualities of such sections as the opening solo and the broken octaves in the development. If the Beethoven Concerto captures the beauty of God’s creation, the Brahms Concerto conveys its magnitude and power.

Many in the first generation of violinists exposed to the concerto did not recognize its brilliance. Referring to the second movement, Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate complained that he had to stand on stage while the oboe played the only good melody in the whole piece. This comment illustrates the difference between the straightforward melodic concept of the Franco-Belgian virtuoso school and the more complex treatment employed by Brahms and his musical compatriots. Simple in structure, this movement contains some of the most profoundly beautiful music ever written for the violin.

Brahms drew inspiration for the third movement from the Finale of Joachim’s “Hungarian” Concerto. Here Brahms’s rhythmic vitality and melodic exuberance evoke the same mood as do other Hungarian-inspired works, but without relying on gypsy tunes or the gypsy scale. Unlike the headlong rush that concludes the Joachim Concerto, the poco piu presto at the end of Brahms’s Concerto calls for a marchlike, steady beat, and even implies a slight ritard in the final bars. The concerto ends with D Major chords that confer a feeling of genuine, well-earned triumph.

I have been fascinated with the Brahms Concerto since my earliest violin lessons. I began studying it when I was 14, and it rapidly became a mainstay of my repertoire. It was with the Brahms Concerto that I won several of my international prizes and made many of my debuts in Europe, America, and Israel. It remains one of the most fulfilling works I perform.

 

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

The second half of the nineteenth century was not a particularly good period in the German symphonic tradition. The number of symphonies being written dwindled as composers concentrated on other forms. Richard Wagner famously claimed that the symphony was dead as Europe tried to recover from the half century of political unrest in the wake of the Napoleonic wars.

The flip side of the post-war confusion was a surge in nationalistic sentiment, which resulted in a number of commissions; This effort to reclaim and/or redefine elements special to national cultures impacted the work of a number of composers, including Antonín Dvořák. Although, as musicologist David Hurwitz notes, Dvořák was especially successful at reconciling the genre’s “classical roots with the Romantic love of virtuoso display, heightened emotion expression, integration of ethnic or national musical elements, and colorful exploitation of the full resources of the modern orchestra,” he was not a musical revolutionary. On the contrary, Dvořák loved the symphonic tradition, and his music skirts the divide between “respectful homage and originality of form and content.” In Europe, Dvořák was known especially for his compositions that made use of Slavic folk music, a usage that would serve him well abroad as well.

In 1893, Dvořák accepted a posting as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City. Part of his charge during his tenure there was to write a new work reflecting his impressions of America. This work became his Symphony “From the New World,” or simply, “New World.”

As we can see from his extensive use of folk music in his earlier works, Dvořák held a deep-seated conviction that folk music was key to developing an authentic national voice or style in music. For America, he believed that this folk music was best represented by Negro and Native American Indian themes. Needless to say, this opinion was highly debated, but Dvořák had plenty of support to work as he wished.

One of Dvořák’s students, Harry Burleigh, played a very important role in the conception of the “New World” Symphony and is credited with introducing Dvořák to the songs that he finally used in the work. In his own program note on the 'New World' Symphony, Burleigh wrote: “There is a tendency in these days to ignore the negro elements in the “New World” Symphony, shown by the fact that many of those who were able in 1893 to find traces of negro musical color all through the Symphony, though the workmanship and treatment of the themes was and is Bohemian, now cannot find anything in the whole four movements that suggests any local or negro influence, though there is no doubt at all that Dr. Dvořák was deeply impressed by the old Negro Spirituals and also by the Foster songs.

“It was my privilege to repeatedly sing some of the old Plantation songs for him at his home in E. 17th St. and one in particular, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” greatly pleased him, and part of this old Spiritual will be found in the second theme of the first movement of the Symphony…. The similarity is so evident that it doesn’t even need to be heard; the eye can see it. Dvořák just saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes.”

Music critic James Huneker reportedly remarked, half joking, that maybe Dvořák only came to the United States to “rifle us of our native ore.” However, he didn’t actually copy the melodies but used them as aesthetic inspiration (with the possible exception of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as mentioned by Burleigh).

In the first movement, Dvořák makes a point of integrating his melodic material strictly into the traditional forms. Peress uses the term “old-fashioned,” and explains that “however unusual, [it] has as much right to be used as part of a large classical design as any theme by Beethoven.” The exposition presents the main thematic material, and Dvořák cleverly incorporates a bit of call and response into the first subject. The second subject in the flute is a mirror theme and the first reference to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dvořák calls for the exposition to be repeated, something he hadn’t done in previous symphonies.

The second movement, which Peress calls “the famous largo,” features a lovely chorale in the brass and one of the most well-known solos for English horn in the repertoire. “Attempting to describe it is like trying to analyze the taste of a ripe peach … [it represents a] primal realm of musical being … [with] pristine simplicity of utterance.” Burleigh tells us that Dvořák used “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” verbatim here: “It was not an accident. He did it quite consciously…. He tried to combine Negro and Indian themes.”

Burleigh also sheds light on another important reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha":

"Pleasant was the journey homeward!/ All the birds sang loud and sweetly/ Songs of happiness and heart’s-ease;Sang the bluebird, to Owaissa,“Happy are you, Hiawatha,/ Having such a wife to love you!”/ Sang the robin, the Opeechee,/ “Happy are you, Laughing Water,/ Having such a noble husband!”

Burleigh claimed that Hiawatha “had a great effect on him and he wanted to interpret it musically.”

The third movement begins similarly to some of Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances,” and the scherzo character brightens things in the wake of the Largo. The main folk reference in this movement appears in the Trio section, which features a tune similar to “Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother’s House We Go.

The finale opens with a marchlike melody underscored by what Peress calls Dvořák’s “most graphic train tunes … [in reference to the] huffing and puffing continuation in triplets on the strings and horns.” The image is topped off with the “hiss of escaping steam” at the end of the section, rendered by the suspended cymbal. The secondary melody is presented by the clarinets and is a lovely foil to the mechanical element of the trains. In the development section, Dvořák revisits all the principal themes from the previous movements before heading into the recapitulation, where the brass chorale with timpani reinforces the climax. Peress describes the transition to the coda as “mournful,” and the “ensuing grinding dissonances in the brass, produced by the collision of the main theme of the finale with the first movement’s motto, offer the greatest surprise of all: this is actually a tragic finale, like the Seventh [Symphony’s].”

Huneker praised Dvořák for his “fresh, vigorous talent … [he] was a born Impressionist, and possessed a happy colour sense in his orchestration.” Unfortunately, Dvořák didn’t write any more symphonies after this one, which became his farewell to the genre.

The “New World” Symphony is scored for pairs of flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboes (one doubling English horn), clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, and trombones, and bass trombone, tuba, four horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings.

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Beethoven's Emperor

Stewart Goodyear, piano
Giordano Bellincampi, conductor

Program:

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5
Brahms - Symphony No. 2

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

It’s ironic that Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto bears its title. While Beethoven, inspired by the young Napoleon’s political ideas, initially dedicated his Third Symphony to the French general, he famously scratched out this dedication upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. The concerto is in fact dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, a longtime patron of Beethoven’s who had fled Vienna due to the Napoleonic wars.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the renowned writer and composer, remarks on “the E-Flat Concerto, Op. 73, which the wrathful republican ghost of Beethoven forbids me to call by its popular English title of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto.” He considered the title “vulgar” and refused to use it.  However, musicologist Victor Lederer aptly points out that the name is “welded so tightly to the work that it stands as identification and little else…. [And] majesty … [is] evident in all three movements.”

In this concerto, Beethoven’s voice is unmistakable, with less evidence of Mozart’s or Haydn’s influences than in his earlier piano concerti. This is immediately apparent from the first three majestic, fortissimo chords that immediately give way to unfolding piano cadenzas, establishing the work’s harmonic base. This launches a movement that is one of Beethoven’s longest, characterized by extraordinary power and composure. Lederer writes that it is “without question an epic utterance.”

The orchestra then presents the main theme in a proud, march-like manner that Lederer refers to as a sort of all-pervading “Olympian calm.” The timpani is prominent, reinforcing the idea of the piece’s martial bearing. After the piano’s second entrance, Beethoven gives us the development section. Listen for the gorgeous melodies passed between the solo piano and the woodwinds. The cadenza for this movement is Beethoven’s own.

The second movement patiently unfolds a gentle theme in B Major. The strings, muted by rubber or wooden mutes on the bridges of their instruments, give a cooled, almost shimmering effect to the “hymnlike second movement … hypnotic in its … tranquil beauty” (Lederer). In this movement, the piano acts as a delicate filigree, soaring over the plucked strings and touching certain chords with soft phrases.

The last movement is a rondo, a form that typically alternates a main theme with contrasting episodes.  In this case, however, there are no contrasting episodes! Tovey notes, “The closing rondo, again one of Beethoven’s largest essays in the form, is an immense and intoxicating dance…. No question that Bartok, composer of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, knew this wonderful page!” He goes on to note that one of the main things that makes this concerto so effective is Beethoven’s “power of conveying an impression of vastness in a short time…. Thus, Beethoven maintains his powerful structural grip all the way to the final notes of this vast rondo movement.”

The whole concerto is massive in breadth and in both technical and musical difficulty. Lederer jokingly says that no one would describe is as intimate, but this doesn’t preclude it from being counted as one of the greatest contributions to the repertoire, and one of Beethoven’s best.

The “Emperor” Concerto is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, as well as timpani, strings, and solo piano. The Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig premiered it in November 1811.  

 

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

Though he took nearly two decades to write his First Symphony, Johannes Brahms completed his Second during the summer of 1877 in only a few months while he was visiting the southern Austrian countryside. Musicologist Walter Frisch suggests that the generally sunny character of the Second Symphony owes something to the pastoral setting in which Brahms found himself.

This sunniness is a bit of a departure for Brahms, whose work in general, whether melancholy or joyful, usually aims for the intense, exhibiting a fierceness that is somewhat tempered here. Brahms described the Second Symphony to his friend, music critic Eduard Hanslick, as “so cheerful and lovely that you will think I wrote it specially for you or even a young lady!”

The Second Symphony is extraordinarily successful with audiences. Though Brahms has a reputation as an exacting musical craftsman, he had a soft spot for an unforgettable melody. The melodies of this symphony owe a debt to both folk song and art song. Musicologist David Hurwitz explains, “In his second symphony, Brahms takes a major step toward reconciling the Romantic love of self-contained, beautiful melodies with the demands of large-scale form, and he does it in the most radical, indeed obsessive way possible.”

Though this symphony abounds with radiantly hummable melodies, the structures that support these melodies are meticulous and elaborate. Underneath the gentle melodic contours, Brahms is continually varying his time signatures, slipping between duple and triple meters (between two and three pulses per section of music).  He uses elaborate rhythmic subdivisions to give a lilting quality to the phrase, maintaining momentum and creating contrast without upsetting the simplicity of the melodic line.

The first movement is marked Allegro non troppo – lively, but not too fast. It opens with a different timbre than any of Brahms’s other symphonies. Brahms calls for a tuba instead of the usual contrabassoon. The tuba adds a different touch of color and weight to the brass section, while the absence of the contrabassoon lightens the woodwinds, balancing the whole. Balance is incredibly important to Brahms, and we see him working to attain it on both large and small scales throughout the Second Symphony.

Despite the overall character of optimism there are moments of underlying tension. Conductor Vincenz Lachner reportedly asked Brahms, “Why do you throw into the idyllically serene atmosphere … the rumbling kettledrum, the gloomy lugubrious tones of the trombones and tuba? Would not that seriousness which comes later … have had its own motivation without these tones proclaiming bad news?” Brahms defended his choices, explaining that he “wanted to manage without [in the first movement].... [but] would have to confess that [he was] a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us.”

The Adagio non troppo is one of Brahms’s most original and harmonically expressive works. The tempo indication “Slowly, but not too much” allows for an increased flexibility in the phrasing, and the phrases seem to flow forward and pull backwards without regard to regular bar lines. The melody begins on the upbeat, and persistent syncopation highlights the free-floating nature of the melody. Of all of the movements, this one may be the most emotionally ambiguous, and reveals more of itself upon repeated hearings.

The Allegretto grazioso (briskly, gracefully) is the shortest movement in any of Brahms’s symphonies. It opens in the woodwinds, accompanied by string pizzicato (plucked strings). The first theme is graceful (as its title indicates) and spun out with clever phrase extensions and unexpected continuations. Brahms recollects bits of the earlier two movements and admits some hints of his melancholy, opening “another world that cannot easily be shut out.” Frisch suggests that this is “essentially [a conclusion to] that shadowy world of the adagio.”

The Allegro con spirito – lively and spirited – is even more straightforward and probably the most easily read of the four movements. It opens in the strings, with an intense, whispered passage played sotto voce and piano. Everyone playing together so purposefully in the subdued dynamic gives the impression of huge force held in check. Frisch points out a lovely detail in the horns and trumpets as they “gently touch the first note only, like a brief flash of light.” The full orchestra bursts in then, and the celebration begins. The largamente section that follows manages to broaden the sound rather than slow or diminish it. Tovey likens the recapitulation to “the grey daylight on a western cloud-bank opposite the sunrise.” It is true that a lot of commentators seem to get hung up on the cloud shadows that Tovey mentions – that is, the darker moments – but it wouldn’t be real Brahms if these shadows weren’t there. Frisch describes the overall character as one of “prevailing cheerfulness and … genuine jubilation,” and though hints of the Adagio do creep in to provide an element of reflection, Hurwitz calls this finale “the giddiest music [Brahms] ever wrote.”

This symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, and four horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

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The Planets

Manuel López-Gómez, conductor

Program:

Strauss - Also sprach Zarathustra
Holst - The Planets

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896)
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)

“For I am he, from the heart and from the beginning, drawing, drawing toward me, drawing up to me, raising up, a drawer, trainer, and taskmaker who once bade himself, and not in vain: ‘Become what you are!’” – Nietzsche

Though he shares a last name and a love for the waltz with the composer of the Blue Danube, Richard Strauss is not related to the “Waltz King,” and is best known for his operas, including Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, and Salome, and for his tone poems, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Ein Heldenleben, and Also sprach Zarathustra. He also had an extensive conducting career in Europe and America. His work is generally considered representative of the late German Romantic tradition and the early modern era. Composer Gustav Mahler, too, is in this category, and together they essentially continued where Richard Wagner left off in terms of orchestration and harmonic language.

Early in Strauss’s career, tone poems were not yet a mainstream form. Strauss had written various chamber pieces and two symphonies by the time he met Alexander Ritter, composer, violinist, and Wagner’s nephew-in-law; it was Ritter who suggested to Strauss that the traditional symphonic form might be a thing of the past and that the symphonic poem might present an interesting alternative. In 1896 (following his conversations with Ritter) and in fairly rapid succession, Strauss completed Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, followed by Till Eulenspiegel and Also sprach Zarathustra (or Thus Spake Zarathustra).

Strauss was a thoughtful composer, well-read and academically inquisitive. He was intimately acquainted with the work of Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Goethe. Nietzsche was controversial, but not nearly so well-known at that time. So what led Strauss to choose Nietzsche’s text as inspiration for his tone poem? We’re certain he didn’t come up with the idea completely on his own – rather, he was aware of Mahler’s interest in Nietzsche’s work, and though he was fascinated by the subversive elements of parody lurking beneath Nietzsche’s philosophy, he also saw an opportunity to scoop his fellow composer and capitalize on the buzz that was building around Nietzsche, beginning in 1882 when the philosopher declared, “God is dead.” Strauss began work on Also sprach Zarathustra in February, which, as musicologist Charles Youmans points out, is right in the “heart of the conducting season.” Normally, Strauss composed in the summer, when he had more time. Strauss also slipped tidbits to the press in order to build the hype for his Also sprach Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra addresses a number of controversial questions about God, humankind, and our place in the natural universe. Conductor Marin Alsop describes Nietzsche’s “tome” as “a series of allegorical parables about the life of the prophet Zarathustra, delivered gospel-style in a series of 80 vignettes, all ending with the words, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra.’” In short, Nietzsche tried to encourage people to reconsider their beliefs, especially those that seemingly excused them from good behavior, and to take responsibility for themselves.

In Also sprach Zarathustra, which he called a “tone poem freely after Nietzsche,” Strauss takes Nietzsche’s work in eight main sections, with an introduction and epilogue. It’s worth mentioning that some scholars argue that the introduction is its own section, making nine sections.

Strauss gives a nod to Wagner, loosely adopting his use of leitmotifs (small musical phrases that represent people, places, feelings, etc.). He uses three main motives in Also sprach Zarathustra, representing nature, longing, and disgust.

The opening section, Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (“Introduction, or Sunrise”), is, as Alsop calls it, “one of the most recognizable musical excerpts in history.” It begins in the lowest regions of the orchestra and gives way to brass fanfares using perfect intervals in C Major. Alsop notes, “There is no mistaking that when Stanley Kubrick chose this opening music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his desire was to elicit that same emotional response from viewers: to contemplate the vastness and possibility of the universe.” There may also be ties to Beethoven in this “sunrise.” In a letter to Hans von Bülow, Strauss expressed a need to connect more deeply with “the Beethoven of Coriolan, Egmont, the Leonore III Overture, of Les Adieux, above all with late Beethoven, whose complete oeuvre, in my opinion, could never have been created without a poetic subject.”

Von den Hinterweltlern (“Of Those in Backwaters/ Of the Backworldsmen”) opens in the celli, with bass and organ. In this section Strauss marked the four following sections from Nietzsche’s text: Then the world seemed to me the dream and fiction of a God; colored/ vapor before the eyes of a discontented God./ Thus I too once cast my deluded fancy beyond mankind, like all/ afterworldsmen. Beyond mankind in reality?/ Ah, brothers, this God which I created was human work and human madness, like all Gods!/ He was human, and only a poor piece of man and Ego: this phantom/ came to me from my own fire and ashes, that is the truth. It did not/ come to me from the “beyond!”/ Listen rather, my brothers, to the voice of the healthy body: this is a purer voice and a more honest one.

The subsequent four sections are Von der großen Sehnsucht (“Of the Great Longing”), Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (“Of Joys and Passions”), Das Grablied (“The Song of the Grave”), and Von der Wissenschaft (“Of Science and Learning”). In Der Genesende (“The Convalescent”), Strauss reprises material from the beginning, leading ever upward, referencing Nietzsche’s words, “‘Now I die and decay;’ you would say, ‘and in an instant I shall be nothingness. Souls are as mortal as bodies.’”

Das Tanzlied (“The Dance Song”) is dominated by a violin solo, and Nachtwandlerlied (“Song of the Night Wanderer”) adds the high flutes and piccolos to emphasize the tonality of B Major, a marked dissonance to the C Major that prevailed in the beginning. This is a tension that goes unsolved. Youmans suggests that this could be a nod to Wagner and his “transfiguring cadence of the ‘Liebestod.’”

Strauss’s Zarathustra also has undeniable ties to Goethe’s Faust. Youmans explains: “Creative difficulties often brought to mind analogous situations in Goethe … At the shattering moment of Zarathustra’s breakdown, Strauss added to his short score a quotation of the Earth Spirit from Faust, Part I: “Du gleichst dem Geist den du begreifst, nicht mir” (“you resemble the spirit you imagine, not me”).”

Also sprach Zarathustra is scored for a large orchestra, including piccolo, three flutes (the third doubling piccolo), three oboes, English horn, clarinet in E-flat, two clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet in B-flat, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns in F and E, four trumpets in C and E, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bell on low E, organ, strings, and two harps.

 

The Planets
Gustav Holst (1874–1934)

Holst is one of the most beloved twentieth-century English composers and was a proponent of the Second English Renaissance. He is most known for his orchestral suite The Planets (1914–16), and for his oratorio, The Hymn of Jesus (1917). Christened Gustavus von Holst, he broke any ties with his German heritage before World War I.

Holst’s The Planets was inspired by his love of astrology. It is in seven “movements” – and here, we have to use the term a bit loosely. The movements are all part of the same work, but each is also self-contained – like a character sketch. These movements don’t depict the physical planets so much as their personalities, astrological and mythological attributes, and moods.

Holst explains: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle of each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it used in a broad sense.”

Holst opens the suite with Mars, the Bringer of War, started in 1914 and completed in 1916, just before the fighting broke out in WWI that August. (Holst did not work on or complete the movements in strict order.) Annotator Michael Steinberg notes, “The association of Mars and war goes back as far as history records. The planet’s satellites are Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror), and its symbol combines shield and spear.” Holst represents the power of Mars with relentlessly pounding rhythms grouped in fives beneath a melodic figure that undulates, swells, and descends without seeming to reach its goal.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace follows, composed at the same time as Jupiter, in the autumn of 1916. Venus is a bright point in our skies and has been associated in many cultures with the goddess of beauty and fertility since about 3,000 BCE. In his book The Planets: Their Signs and Aspects, Noel Jan Tyl explains that “when the disorder of Mars is past, Venus restores peace and harmony.” Holst uses a much thinner texture here, calling on the harp and celesta to create a light expansiveness that contrasts directly with Mars’ weight.

The third movement is Mercury, the Winged Messenger (1916). Mercury is traditionally the god of merchants, thieves, and travelers, and his Greek counterpart, Hermes, is also associated with shepherds, luck, and athletes. As the messenger of the gods, he is responsible for showing the dead the way to the underworld. Holst depicts Mercury with a light scherzo in compound meter, and gives it an unsettled feeling by placing accents on weak parts of the beat. This is the shortest movement.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity depicts the largest planet in our solar system, named for the god of heaven. Steinberg notes that Jupiter is also known as “the light-bringer, the rain god, the god of thunderbolts, of the grape and the tasting of new wine, of oaths, treaties, and contracts, and [it is he] from whom we take the word ‘jovial.’” Holst’s writing in this movement sounds especially English, and it became the unmistakable favorite of audiences. In fact, Holst set the central theme to the words “I vow to thee, my country” in 1921.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is the fifth movement. For centuries, Saturn was the farthest planet in the solar system and was generally thought of as an old man. Tyl tells us that Saturn represents “man’s time on earth, his ambition, his strategic delay, his wisdom toward fulfillment, his disappointment and frustrations.” Holst remarked on several occasions that this was his favorite movement.

In 1781, after the invention of the telescope, Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. In the astrological context, Uranus is associated with the powers of change, originality, and individuality, as well as with astrology. Holst’s Uranus, the Magician depicts an unpredictable and intelligent trickster, and was completed along with Saturn and Neptune in 1915. 

The final movement is Neptune, the Mystic. Steinberg notes, “When Holst wrote his suite, Neptune, discovered in 1846, was the extreme point in our solar system.” Neptune, in mythology, has power over horses and the sea, while in astrology Neptune has more to do with mystery and distance and is given a strong connection to other worlds. Steinberg points out that “Neptune is invisible to the naked eye … At the end, the music dissolves in the voices of an invisible chorus of women.” This chorus sings without words, growing out of nothing and then disappearing. Holst uses long held tones in a soft dynamic with slow-moving melodic interjections (more atmospheric than concrete) to create a sense of endless space unfolding.

Earth is not represented in Holst’s Planets, nor is Pluto, which wasn’t considered a planet until 1930; Holst had little interest in going back to add a movement. Composer Colin Matthews took it upon himself to compose Pluto, the Renewer as an addendum to Holst’s suite, and it was performed regularly until Pluto’s demotion to the status of dwarf planet in 2006.

With or without Pluto, Holst’s Planets is a wonderfully colorful set of character pieces filled with vivid melodies and textures. The Planets calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo and one also doubling alto flute), three oboes (one doubling bass oboe), English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, orchestra bells, chimes, celesta, two harps, organ, strings, and (in Neptune) an offstage chorus of female voices.

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Seven Deadly Sins

Anja Bihlmaier, conductor
Storm Large, vocal
Hudson Shad Quartet, vocals
Nicholas Adamski, poetic performer and master of ceremonies

Program:

Rodgers - Carousel Waltz
Lehár - Gold and Silver Waltz
Gade - Jalousie
Strauss, Jr. - Wine, Women, and Song
Saint-Saëns - Bacchanale
Weill - Seven Deadly Sins

Carousel Waltz
Richard Rodgers (1902–1979)

From their first collaboration on Oklahoma! in 1943 until Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers and Hammerstein were either responsible for or influential in every major innovation in Broadway. Both had successful careers before they worked together, and both had several productions under their belts – most notably, perhaps, was Hammerstein’s work on Show Boat, the first full-length musical to feature a serious plot and to use songs that were necessary to the narrative and not simply put in to cover set changes. Oklahoma! also included plot-relevant dance.

In Carousel, the partners decided to do away with the traditional overture and instead opened the musical with a pantomime scene set to the Carousel Waltz (1945). Hammerstein had a fondness for cutting-edge plot elements – Show Boat was the first racially integrated musical – and Carousel was no exception, with its story of an antihero, a concept new to Broadway, and its focus on the issue of domestic violence.

The Carousel Waltz is a purely instrumental piece and was originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille. It’s scored for two flutes, piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, three trumpets, four horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings, and piano.


Gold and Silver Waltz
Franz Lehar (1870–1948)

Lehár's Gold and Silver Waltz was commissioned by Princess Metternich of Vienna for her Gold and Silver ball in January 1902. In making the commission, she asked for something “especially fine.” Commissioning a named waltz for a ball was becoming a tradition during the princess’s time and would typically be performed first, to open the evening’s dancing. Unfortunately, Lehár's waltz didn’t make much of an impression; it gained fame later as the fame of its composer grew, and as Gold and Silver balls gained popularity across the Western world.

Lehár's writing is delicate, balanced, and controlled, featuring grace notes in the winds reminiscent of bird calls. Well-placed use of the triangle and harp arpeggios adds brightness and elegance. Lehár varies and builds the texture throughout, bringing the piece to a fully satisfying end.


Jalousie: Tango Tzigane
Jacob Gade (1879–1963)

Gade was primarily a composer of and innovator in the genre of film music. He was born in Vejle, in southern Denmark, where he studied violin and played with his father’s folk band. When he was 16 he moved to Copenhagen to study composition. While there, he began conducting at several theaters, including the Palads Cinema, where he worked consistently with a twenty-four-piece orchestra. It was for this group that he composed Jalousie: Tango Tzigane (Jealousy: Gypsy Tango), in 1925, to accompany the film Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Jalousie has two main themes, the first in D Minor and the second in D Major, and both are set over the traditional tango rhythm. Gade conducted the premiere of Jalousie himself at the Copenhagen premiere of Don Q.

American conductor Arthur Fiedler subsequently recorded Jalousie with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and it took off. It is now considered a standard in the repertoire, and has been used in Hollywood several times. It is unequivocally Gade’s most popular work, although he also wrote other tangos, including the Romanesca Tango in 1933.

Gade claimed that the inspiration for the Jalousie came from a “sensational news report of a crime of passion” that stuck with him. Gade’s music is carefully scored, and calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.


Wine, Women, and Song
Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)

The waltz and the Strauss name are inextricably linked. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Strauss II began writing a new kind of waltz – one filled with a new energy and intricacy and set into varying phrase lengths rather than the traditional multiples of four bars.

Strauss continued to use the traditional outline of a slow introduction followed by waltz pairs and finishing with a coda. However, he lengthened the sections to create a larger piece. Editors Chris Woodstra and Gerald Brennan describe Strauss’s orchestration as “picturesque, especially in his introductions, while that of the waltzes themselves approaches a Mozartean clarity.”

Strauss’s choral waltz Wein, Weib und Gesang, Op. 333 was composed for the Wiener Männergesang-Verein, and premiered in February 1869. It is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two clarinets, bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

The introduction is grand, and the waltzes that follow quote some of the opening gestures. Strauss gives melodic material to the inner voices (not standard practice in waltzes), creating an especially rich sound. He took the title for this waltz from the saying, “Who loves not wine, women, and song remains a fool his whole life long.” The text is by Josef Weyl (1821–1895).  

 

Bacchanale from Samson et Delila
Camille Saint-Saens (1835–1921)

The opera Samson et Delila is undoubtedly one of Saint-Saens’s most popular works. Saint-Saens’s original plan was to write the story of Samson and Delilah as an oratorio (not staged), but the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire talked him into making it into a full opera. While he was working on it, Saint-Saens performed sections at the piano for some of his friends, who mostly seemed confused by the work. Discouraged, he put the opera on hold for a while. However, he picked it up again after the successful staging of his opera La princesse jaune in 1872, finally finishing Samson et Delila in 1876. Unfortunately, no French theater (including the Paris Opera) would touch the work because of the treatment of its biblical subject matter, so the premiere was put off until its performance in Weimar the following year.

The exotic Danse Bacchanale is the most frequently performed excerpt from Samson et Delila. Taken from the final act, the Bacchanale features Delilah dancing wildly for Samson before he’s chained, blind, to the temple pillars. It begins with an oboe solo that sets the stage for the orchestra to overlay a soft pulse. Woodwinds and strings carry the dance theme forward, punctuated by the percussion.


Seven Deadly Sins
Kurt Weill (1900–1950)

Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins is a ballet chanté, or “sung ballet.” The piece was commissioned by Englishman Edward James for his ballet company, Les Ballets, and for his wife, dancer Tilly Losch. Weill proposed splitting the lead into separate singing and dancing roles to add a part for his own wife, singer Lotte Lenya. Both Weill and James were estranged from their wives at the time, and this project was meant to serve as an effort at reconciling.

The Seven Deadly Sins was written in collaboration with the writer Bertolt Brecht in the midst of intense political uproar. Brecht and Weill had already collaborated quite successfully in the past, most notably on The Threepenny Opera. In 1933, the project was put on hold briefly while Weill left Germany for Paris to avoid the coming war, and while Brecht moved to Vienna. Later, Brecht followed Weill to Paris. This was the last big project that Weill worked on while living in Europe; he emigrated to the United States soon after. It was also his last project with Brecht.

Weill uses elements from popular music in the Seven Deadly Sins, specifically references to barbershop quartet. However, he also references classical forms, such as the chorale. In the Seven Deadly Sins Brecht tells the story of Anna I, the singer, and Anna II, the dancer. The Annas are really two sides of the same person.

The Annas are sent away from home by their family to earn money to build a house; they travel to six different cities. Anna II succumbs to sin in each, always in a way that obstructs her goal, forcing Anna I to solve the problem. Annotator John Mangum points out the irony of this, since the Annas’ goal is “by no means virtuous. To make their fortune, men are seduced, robbed, blackmailed, and driven to suicide by the two Annas … Brecht’s message is clear. Capitalist ambition is the greatest Deadly Sin, and ultimately, in a capitalist world, the wages of such sins is success.”

Seven Deadly Sins opens with the Introduktion: Andante sostenuto. Anna I lays out the story and tells us about Anna II: “Actually, we’re not two persons, only one.” Mangum describes Anna I as levelheaded and cautious, while Anna II, according to biographer Jurgen Schebera, is “the dancer, the girl degraded into a commodity.” Anna I also introduces her family in this section.

In Faulheit (“sloth”), marked Allegro vivace, Anna’s family talks about her, explaining that she’s never been a hard worker. “Idleness,” they say, “is the mother of all vices.” This section is set as a chorale to underscore the family’s prayer for God’s help in keeping Anna on the right path. The pace slows a bit for Stolz (pride) to Allegretto, quasi Andantino. In this section, the Annas visit Memphis. Anna II has acquired new clothes along with work as an exotic dancer. She tries to elevate what she does to art status, but her customers do not appreciate these efforts. Weill sets this as a waltz.

Zorn (“wrath”) takes place in Los Angeles. The Annas’ family complains that they have not been getting enough money, and Weill supports this with the indication Molto agitato. Anna is working at a movie studio, and things seem to be going well. Then, Anna II sees an act of cruel injustice and reacts rashly, after which she loses her job. Weill sets the action as a foxtrot.

Völlerei (“gluttony”) is marked Largo. It begins just after the Annas’ family has received word that the Annas are in Philadelphia. Weill casts the family here as a barbershop quartet, and they warn Anna to be careful about what she eats, since she’s making more money than before and has signed a contract promising not to gain even a gram of weight!

Unzucht (“lust”) takes place in Boston, where Anna II has fallen in love with poor Fernando but is also seeing the wealthier Edward. Anna I insists that Edward will not tolerate this behavior, so Anna II leaves Fernando. In Habsucht (“covetousness” or “avarice”), the Annas have moved to Baltimore. While there, the family learns that Anna II has been driving men to commit suicide by ruining them financially. The family worries that the Annas might have become too greedy.

Neid (“envy”) is set in San Francisco. Anna II slowly comes to the conclusion that she will not be able to achieve happiness, at least not the way other people seem to, until she can forego “worldly pleasures.” The Finaletto: Andante sostenuto features the two Annas as they return to Louisiana. The house is finished and they are now reunited with the family.

Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins was published in 1955. It includes a translation of the text by Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden. Unfortunately, Brecht’s blatant critique of capitalism rendered the work something of a flop in America. However, Weill went on to have much more success in Broadway. He went so far as to stop listing some of his earlier works to avoid negatively influencing his Broadway career.

Seven Deadly Sins is scored for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, banjo (or guitar), strings, soprano, and vocal quartet comprised of two tenors, baritone, and bass.

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Symphonie Fantastique

Alain Trudel, conductor
Jon Nakamatsu, piano

Program:

Liszt – Totentanz
Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

This performance features three works, each of which incorporates the Dies irae (“day of wrath”). The Dies irae derives from a Latin hymn melody traditionally performed as part of the Catholic Requiem (funeral) Mass. The origin of the hymn’s melody is debated, although it’s generally accepted that it was composed by either a Franciscan priest in the early thirteenth century or by a lector at what was to become the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the Angelicum, around the same time. However, although the melody we know today as the Dies irae can only be definitively traced back to the thirteenth century, it’s likely older, possibly having been first composed by St. Gregory the Great, who served as pope in the sixth century. St. Gregory composed a staggering amount of musical liturgy, helping to codify the repertoire that became known as Gregorian chant.

Many composers have lifted elements from the Dies irae melody, quoted it extensively in their works, or taken inspiration from the text. Besides the three you will hear tonight, these composers include Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and later, Witold Lutoslawski and George Rochberg.

The text of Dies irae is in medieval Latin. It describes the trumpet calling souls before God at the time of the Last Judgment, when the saved will rise into heaven and all others will be sentenced to eternal damnation and hellfire.

Day of wrath and doom / impending. / David’s word with Sibyl’s / blending, / Heaven and earth in / ashes ending. / Oh, what fear man’s/ bosom rendeth, / When from heaven the / Judge descendeth, / On whose sentence all / dependeth. / Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth; / Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth; / All before the throne it bringeth. / Death is struck, and nature quaking, / All creation is awaking, / To its Judge an answer making. / Lo, the book, exactly worded, / Wherein all hath been recorded, / Thence shall judgement be awarded. / When the Judge his seat attaineth, / And each hidden deed arraigneth, / Nothing unavenged remaineth. / What shall I, frail man, be pleading? / Who for me be interceding, / When the just are mercy needing? / King of Majesty tremendous, / Who dost free salvation send us, / Fount of pity, then befriend us! / Think, kind Jesu! – my salvation / Caused Thy wondrous Incarnation; / Leave me not to reprobation. / Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me, / On the Cross of suffering bought me. / Shall such grace be vainly brought me? / Righteous Judge, for sin’s pollution / Grant Thy gift of absolution, / Ere the day of retribution. / Guilty, now I pour my moaning, / All my shame with anguish owning; / Spare, O God, Thy suppliant groaning! / Through the sinful woman shriven, / Through the dying thief forgiven, / Thou to me a hope hast given. / Worthless are my prayers and sighing, / Yet, good Lord, in grace complying, / Rescue me from fires undying. / With Thy sheep a place provide me, / From the goats afar divide me, / To Thy right hand do Thou guide me. / When the wicked are confounded, / Doomed to flames of woe unbounded, Call me with Thy saints surrounded. / Low I kneel, with heart’s submission, / See, like ashes, my contrition, / Help me in my last condition. / Ah! That day of tears and mourning, / From the dust of earth returning / Man for judgment must prepare him, / Spare, O God, in mercy spare him. / Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest, / Grant them Thine eternal rest. Amen.

Totentanz

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

Liszt was one of the best performing concert pianists of his time. Despite his self-assured virtuosity as a performer, though, he was not confident as a composer. He was incredibly busy with touring and performing, and therefore had little time for composing. A significant portion of his compositional output was necessarily devoted to piano works, especially sets of variations on works by other composers, which he could perform on concert tours. These pieces are technically demanding and featured the pianist (Liszt himself) heavily.

Liszt retired from performing in the late 1840s and accepted a position as a music director. This enabled him to spend more time composing and, more importantly, studying composition. He was already skilled at writing for the piano, but now he worked hard to develop his orchestration skills. He had a fastidious nature, and would work and rework pieces, seemingly unable to decide when he had gotten them right. Sometimes he even sought advice from veritable strangers, which would then send him back to the drawing board. Scholars can now trace the stages of most of his compositions, and many now exist in multiple versions.

Commentator Don Anderson notes, “Like many of his contemporaries, Liszt was fascinated by the macabre.” The idea of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” first appears in medieval European art. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga explains, “There entered into the realm surrounding the idea of death a new, grippingly fantastic element, a shiver that arose from the gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror.” Death (and love) is also one of the most often used thematic elements in European Romanticism.

In 1838, Liszt saw a fourteenth-century fresco in Pisa, Italy, called “The Triumph of Death.” It shows the figure of Death flying toward her victims, scythe in hand. Liszt’s biographer, Lina Ramann, claims that this fresco was the inspiration behind Totentanz. However, as commentator John Mangum points out, another probable source of inspiration for this work is a series of woodcuts illustrating the dance of death. This view is supported by several early writers about the work, some of whom were friends of Liszt. In addition to whichever visual he contemplated while writing Totentanz, Liszt also used the Dies irae theme, and his treatment of it pays proper homage to its origins in plainsong. The Totentanz is subtitled “Paraphrase on ‘Dies irae.’”

Liszt began work on Totentanz in 1839. This was not Liszt’s first compositional encounter with the Dies irae; he had written a piano arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique several years earlier, which also uses the theme. Incidentally, Berlioz also conducted the premiere of Liszt’s first piano concerto; the two were lifelong friends.

In 1853, Liszt wrote to Hans von Bülow (his then son-in-law), to whom Totentanz is dedicated: “I have just finished reworking my two concertos and Totentanz in order to have them copied definitively.” However, Totentanz was no exception to Liszt’s perfectionist nature, and further revisions were to follow in 1850. Totentanz wasn’t published until 1865.

Totentanz is a set of six variations on the Dies irae melody. Formally innovative, it’s presented as a single movement (even though it does have sections of varying tempi, as a traditional concerto or symphony would). Furthermore, the orchestra and solo parts are far more intertwined than is usually the case for a piano concerto at this time, and Mangum points out that Liszt “often use[s] other instruments (flute, clarinet, and viola, especially) [more] soloistically.” Despite its dark subject, Liszt does not fail to include a sweeter set of emotions in Totentanz that contrasts beautifully with the Dies irae. These sections are lyrical and introspective, and inevitably interrupted. As commentator Steven Ledbetter points out, “Though some of Totentanz shows Liszt in his most diabolist mood, there are romantic touches as well, and the canny range of moods contributes to making this brief, concertolike piece one of its creator’s most dramatic works.” Totentanz has sometimes been called Liszt’s third piano concerto, and it definitely measures up to the other two concerti in breadth and depth, but it hasn’t reached the same level of fame.

Totentanz was premiered at the Hague in 1865 by Hans von Bülow, who was also a prominent music writer and critic. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, and solo piano.

 

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

Like Liszt, Rachmaninoff was one of “the great performers.” As a child he was enrolled on a scholarship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Unfortunately, he displayed a prodigious lack of interest in practicing, which nearly resulted in the Conservatory withdrawing his scholarship – at which point his uncle, pianist Aleksandr Ziloti, intervened. Ziloti took young Rachmaninoff to the Moscow Conservatory to begin at the preparatory school, where he was accepted into the studio of a notoriously strict teacher, Nikolai Zverev. Zverev succeeded in motivating Rachmaninoff to take his studies more seriously, and soon the boy was ready for the program at the Conservatory proper, where he entered Ziloti’s studio. From this point on, he made rapid progress, quickly developing a reputation as a performer with an impressive technique, a polished sound, and excellent interpretation skills.

Rachmaninoff composed four piano concerti during his career, sometimes with years between his compositions. Like Liszt, his career as a performer interfered with his composition career. He also frequently conducted. He once commented, “When composing, I am a slave. Beginning at nine in the morning I allow myself no respite until after eleven at night.” This suggests that multitasking was not his strong suit, and therefore composing couldn’t possibly be accomplished when there were other demands on his time.

Composed in the summer of 1934 at him home near Lucerne, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, similar to Liszt's Totentanz, stands as a sort of fifth piano concerto, even though technically it is not. The Rhapsody appeared quite late in his output, with the only two remaining major works being his third symphony, in 1936, and the Symphonic Dances in 1940–41, both of which use the Dies irae theme. While the Rhapsody was still on the writing table, Rachmaninoff wrote a letter to his friend Vladimir Vilshau: “Two weeks ago I finished a new piece. It is called Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in the Form of Variations on a Theme of Paganini (the theme on which Liszt and Brahms based their sets of variations). It is a very long piece, about twenty or twenty-five minutes. That is the size of a piano concerto.… the composition is very difficult, and I should start practicing it, but with every year I become more and more lazy about this finger work.”

The theme to which Rachmaninoff refers is from the Caprice No. 24 in A minor for Solo Violin, by the legendary violinist, Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840). Commentator Jonathan Kramer describes Paganini as “the great violinist who in essence invented virtuosity.” Rachmaninoff was interested in this aspect, surely, but also in the Faustian rumors surrounding the violinist. Paganini reportedly displayed such a freakish facility with his instrument that people who saw him perform attributed to him dark powers, claiming that he must have sold his soul to have achieved such perfection. His physical appearance did not help this opinion; he is described as a “gaunt … emaciated figure cloaked in priestly black” with spiderlike fingers. It was later discovered that Paganini himself planted this gossip about a deal with the devil. It had captured people’s imaginations, and provides some connection to the Dies irae theme Rachmaninoff incorporates.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody is set in twenty-four variations, opening with an introduction that spins out Paganini’s main motive. The variations are arranged in three broad sections, roughly emulating the fast-slow-fast pattern of a traditional concerto.

In the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff used several more contemporary techniques, which couched as variations, work really well. First, he uses a touch of pointillism (dividing thematic material between several instruments, which together form a sort of composite theme). He also sometimes presents the variation before the theme, a practice that became more popular later in the century. The Dies irae first appears in Variation 7 over the Paganini theme in the bassoons and celli. He takes us through several more variations, including a sort of loose cadenza, a waltz in the minor tonality (Variation 12). Variation 14 is marchlike, but remains in the triple meter of the waltz. This creates an intriguingly unsettling effect. The next three variations move forward with increasing virtuosity.

The center section, beginning in Variation 18, is the most effusively “romantic” in the work. Although some claim that this luscious melody is Rachmaninoff’s own, it is, in fact, an inversion of Paganini’s theme and appears in a major tonality. This unreserved sentiment can’t help but remind us of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and the climax in this section is one of the most cathartic and lovely in the literature.

Variation 23 sees a return to Paganini’s theme before the Finale in Variation 24. Instead of expanding toward the end as we might expect from Rachmaninoff, he leads us in that direction and then drops unexpectedly with a quick reference to the introduction, showing his humorous side.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody won instant popularity following its 1934 premiere, after which Rachmaninoff continued to perform it regularly on tour, both at home and abroad. The piece is scored for solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, suspended cymbals, harp, and strings.

 

Symphonie fantastique

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

“But let me tell you, you are not acquainted with love, although you say you feel it strongly. That’s not the rage, the fury, the delirium which takes possession of all our faculties and makes us capable of anything.”

– Hector Berlioz

Berlioz is a composer with a somewhat unusual musical background. His father was a medical doctor near Grenoble, and it was generally accepted and expected in the family that young Hector would follow his father’s career path, so the boy’s musical talent was largely overlooked. He was given some instruction on guitar and flute, but his training was less than rigorous.

Berlioz attended medical school briefly in Paris before enrolling, in 1826, in music classes that prepared him for the composition program at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1830, he won the Prix de Rome on his fourth try for his La Mort de Sardanapale, a cantata annotator Michael Steinberg describes as “long forgotten.” Unlike La Mort de Sardanapale, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is primarily memorable for its inventiveness. The first of his four symphonies, Symphonie displays some musical elements that were and still are quite shocking. Steinberg suggests that, “His unorthodox musical background surely contributed to his nonconformist musical language.”

Symphonie fantastique is a programmatic work – that is, it’s accompanied by a story and explained by it. In this case, this program was much longer and more closely detailed than early audiences would have been used to. Programmatic works had certainly been written before (Steinberg cites Beethoven’s “Pastoral”), but “the images [in Symphonie fantastique] are depicted with such vibrant specificity as to become downright cinematic.”

No doubt Berlioz was inspired by Beethoven’s conviction that a symphony could be kindled by a poetic idea, as he’d heard both the Third and Fifth symphonies not long before composing Fantastique.) This nudges at the delineation between abstract representation and literal depiction – an idea still being explored today.

Another thing that is new in Berlioz’s work is that his program doesn’t merely tell a story about a series of events (although it does that too) but ventures to describe states of mind. Steinberg explains that the Symphonie fantastique is “an extraordinary example of self-exploration and self-expression, a work of autobiography.”

Berlioz took inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique from two main sources: the author François-René Chateaubriand and from William Shakespeare. In September 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet in Paris. There he saw the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. It was love at first sight – for him! He also fell in love with the poetry of Shakespeare. Even though the plays were performed in English, a language Berlioz barely understood, he wrote, “I come now to the supreme drama of my life … Shakespeare, coming up on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt.”

Berlioz’s love for Harriet Smithson went unrequited at first, and her violent rejection devastated him. Finally, he became engaged to nineteen-year-old Camille Moke. This romance wasn’t destined to last, though, and Berlioz went to Italy for a short time, and found upon his return that Camille had left him for another man. Berlioz promptly plotted their murder, to be followed by his own suicide, but apparently only got as far as Nice before coming to his senses and abandoning the plan. And anyway, he was still in love with Harriet, with whomhe had yet toactually spend any time in person.

In April 1830, Berlioz wrote to his friend, the poet Humbert Ferrand, that he’d written “the last note” of his Symphonie fantastique. The work follows the story of a man who sees and falls hopelessly in love with a woman who seems to be everything he’s ever wished for. He thinks of her obsessively and, despairing of ever being loved in return, tries to poison himself with opium. Under the influence of the drug, he dreams that he’s been condemned to death for murdering his beloved, and watches his own execution. Finally, witches – one of which is his beloved – dance on his grave, celebrating his death.

Berlioz himself tells us that his intent was not only to “tell stories or paint pictures … but rather to explore emotions.” He does this masterfully, and displays huge creativity in the process. One way he shows his creative genius is through his inclusion throughout the symphony of the Idée fixe. This is somewhat similar to Richard Wagner’s use of leitmotifs – the main difference between them being that while a leitmotif is used to represent a person, place, or idea and generally appears as itself in various contexts, Berlioz’s Idée fixe is subject to thematic transformation. That is, he plays with the thematic material, molding and shaping it to fit the context of each use.

Needless to say, Berlioz’s Idée fixe represents Harriet, and his feelings toward her. Each movement or episode is titled (again, like Beethoven’s “Pastoral”). The first, Rêveries – Passions, displays the Idée fixe as the main theme, and illustrates in a fairly general manner Berlioz’s emotional state. Un bal is the first hint at literal depiction, describing not so much the feeling of a ball but what it might be like to actually be at one. The third movement is called Scène aux champs and suggests the sweet piping of shepherds. Berlioz sets this as a lovely duet between English horn and offstage oboe. The bucolic scene is interrupted by disquieting thoughts of the beloved, and the movement is underpinned by the distant thunder of the timpani. In the Marche au supplice, or “March to the scaffold,” the protagonist enjoys final thoughts of his beloved before he is guillotined. Berlioz includes a grisly detail in the strings’ descending G minor arpeggio, played pizzicato, that represents the “dropping of a severed head.” The final movement, Ronde du sabbat, is the farthest from traditional symphonic structures of any of the movements, and features a number of strange sounds. These are meant to represent noises coming from the assembled characters. When the Idée fixe and beloved arrive, the new setting is intentionally grotesque. It’s in this movement that Berlioz uses the Dies irae theme. Listen for it initially in the bells and the low brass.

Berlioz provided his own program note at the Symphonie’s premiere in 1830, adamant that “the distribution of this program to the audience, at concerts where this symphony is to be performed, is indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.”

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being h has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

 The melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations - this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain - all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. - But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the  sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idee fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of hosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. - A roar of joy at her arrival. - she takes part in the devilish orgy. - Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn formerly sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

Following the premiere of Symphonie fantastique, during which Berlioz performed on percussion, Berlioz was finally granted a meeting with Harriet, who was in the audience. She had had no idea before the premiere that the piece she would be hearing was his or that she was its primary subject, and was moved afterwards to reconsider her earlier rejection. In a letter to Franz Liszt, Berlioz wrote: “I had a meeting with H. S.… Everything about her delights and enthralls me; when she avowed her feelings openly, I was alarmed and driven nearly mad…. There is no question of our marrying at the moment. I shall never leave her. It is my destiny. She understands me. If it is a mistake, I must be allowed to make it; it’s impossible to put up a continued resistance to emotions of this kind. Yes, I love her! I love her! And my love is returned. She told me so … she has a heart like Juliet’s; here indeed is my Ophelia. When I’m unable to see her, we write each other as many as three letters a day, she in English, I in French. Oh, my dear fellow, there is justice in heaven after all! I used not to believe it. It is to my art, to my brain, that I owe her love! My beloved symphony! She, she, H. S. was the one I needed; my existence is complete. Hers is the heart which answers to mine.”

The two were married in 1833. But the marriage was not followed by marital bliss. Berlioz’s family, to whom he was devoted, did not approve of his bride, and the couple did not speak a common language. The marriage collapsed in 1844. Harriet’s career had already been over for some time, and she had taken up drinking. Berlioz took care of her until she died in 1854 – he never did completely leave her – and around this time he composed his Mort d’Ophélie.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is, according to Langford, “one of the most revolutionary works in the entire history of the genre, calling into question as it does the most fundamental assumptions of traditional symphonic rhetoric and design.” Robert Schumann said of the work, “Right side up, this symphony resembled such inverted music … at last struck with wonderment.” Felix Mendelssohn did not approve the work at all: for such a “cultured, agreeable man … he composes so very badly.” But, as Steinberg notes, “Berlioz strove to write ‘new music.’ He succeeded. The Fantastique, that most amazing of first symphonies, sounds and behaves like nothing ever heard before.”

Symphonie fantastique is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, bass drum, field drum, cymbals, chimes, two harps, and strings.

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Classical Ellington

Sara Jobin, conductor
Natasha Paremski, piano
Lauraine Carpenter, trumpet

Program:

Ellington – Nutcracker Suite
Gomez – Latin Jazz Suite for Trumpet and Orchestra*
Schoenfield – Four Parables
Ellington – Harlem

*World premiere

Nutcracker Suite (1960) and Harlem (1950)

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974)

“There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” – Duke Ellington

Born in Washington, DC, composer, pianist, and bandleader Duke Ellington was the son of pianist parents. He began taking lessons when he was seven. His mother took great pains with his cultural education, wanting him to grow up with good manners and an understanding of the elegant life, and so as a child, when Ellington displayed real poise, his friends began calling him “Duke.” He talks about his friend Edgar McEntree calling him this first: “I think he felt that in order to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”

Ellington became more serious about the piano in his teens, and at that time began taking lessons in harmony and learning to read sheet music. Both of these skills enabled him to start gigging. In 1916 he was offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for art, but he turned it down in favor of freelancing – putting groups together and playing as much as possible. This took time, of course, but a modicum of success followed. Unlike most groups performing at that time, Ellington’s groups played for both black and white audiences – a rarity in a still-segregated society.

Despite being established in DC, Ellington decided to move to New York, specifically, Harlem. This turned out to be a fortuitous move, but again, success was not immediate. So by the early 1920s, Ellington appeared to have taken a step back in his career, once again playing whatever gigs he could find and hustling pool on the side. Then finally, Ellington landed a four-year contract with the Hollywood Club – his big break – and it was during this time that his reputation as a bandleader began to solidify. After a number of performances at the Hollywood, in 1927 he was offered the opportunity to also perform at Harlem’s Cotton Club, when another artist turned down the spot. The Cotton Club recorded and broadcast their performances, and this gave Ellington a national audience. Big band music was on the rise at that time, and as commentator David Dicaire explains, Duke Ellington’s orchestra “appealed to a crowd that wanted to really swing [such as the youth who wanted to forget the economic hardship of a country facing the depression] and as a result, jazz developed into a more sophisticated music that included complex arrangements utilizing the immense talents of musicians to maximum effect.” Gradually, this came to be called “concert jazz.”

Concert jazz, or symphonic jazz, developed into a prominent musical trend in the 1930s and ’40s, continuing into the ’50s. Think George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. As an idiom, concert jazz incorporates more subgenres than jazz alone, and includes jazz, music from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, “light” classics (“pops”), and several other genres. From classical symphonic music concert jazz took something of its character. Musicologist John Howland details these elements as “music’s heightened theatricality, its comparatively complex multithematic forms, structures, and especially its ‘sophisticated’ introductions, interludes, and codas, its unexpected modulations and dramatic cadenzas, and its emphasis on orchestrational and stylistic variety … the hybrid symphonic jazz sound developed an unusual cultural breadth … the proponents of symphonic jazz sought to endow contemporary popular music with an aura of glamour and elevated cultural refinement.”

But concert jazz was more than simply a mix of musical idioms; it was a style that helped to bridge the racial gaps in high society, closely relating as it did to both black and white New York.

In the early 1940s, Ellington began to collaborate with composer, arranger, and pianist William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn (1915–1967). Ellington called Strayhorn his “writing and arranging companion,” and their musical partnership lasted until Strayhorn’s death – almost three decades. Throughout their collaboration, Strayhorn remained somewhat in the shade beside the sunny Ellington, who sometimes joked from stage, saying things like, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work, but I get to take the bows.” It’s true that Strayhorn’s was the mind behind many of the band’s most famous songs. In his biography of Strayhorn, David Hajdu notes, “It’s a correction to the myth of the singular creative genius, a message about how the great names in our collective consciousness owe tremendous debt to people we’ve never even heard of … the ease in which the press anointed Ellington as a genius bought into the traditional view of the creative process … it’s seeing the genius as blessed by the muses, gifted by something supernatural or divine.” As with everything, the truth was more complicated.

In 1960, Ellington and Strayhorn released the album The Nutcracker Suite, featuring jazz interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) The Nutcracker arranged by Ellington and Strayhorn. For the first time in over twenty-five years, Strayhorn appeared on the cover with Ellington. The cover also presents Ellington, Strayhorn, and Tchaikovsky as equal composers of the Suite. Some members of Ellington’s orchestra expressed doubts about the project, but it turned out to be one of his most important recordings.

One element that likely contributed to the success of The Nutcracker Suite is the way in which Ellington crafted the individual parts for specific members of his orchestra rather than for a specific instrumentation. This is something he was always excellent at. Unfortunately, the success of the The Nutcracker Suite was somewhat short-lived, and it dropped into relative insignificance.

“We would now like to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem … It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood towards the 125th Street business area … You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands.” – Ellington

In 1950, the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) commissioned a series of compositions for the NBC Symphony to depict New York City. He commissioned Ellington to write the piece illustrating Harlem, which Ellington accepted and worked on mostly in the spring of 1950. Ellington’s Harlem, also called A Tone Parallel to Harlem, or Harlem Suite, describes a complex and diverse community. 

It’s interesting that Ellington chose to designate the work as a “tone parallel” rather than calling it more conventionally a “tone poem.” Perhaps his sidestepping a clear reference to European classical tradition that the term “tone poem” would represent was a nod to his roots in jazz. However, despite his excellent use (as always) of jazz idioms, there are certain uniquely classical elements even in the version for big band. This is not unusual for concert jazz, though.

Harlem is organized in episodes, each of which describes a different aspect of community life. Howland writes, “Harlem’s descriptive program vibrantly juxtaposes pious church scenes and a nightclub floor show, a street parade and a funeral, and depictions of both 125th street (Harlem’s commercial heart) and the community’s Spanish neighborhood … the closing episodes of the work are said to depict Harlem’s increasing demands for racial equality and civil rights. In sum, for Ellington, Harlem represented a microcosm of African-American experience.”

Harlem begins with a slow introduction led by a solo trumpet. This opening motive is meant as a musical representation of the word Harlem, and forms the thematic base of the work. Ellington uses a call-and-response pattern, which influences the texture throughout. Also throughout, Ellington manages to combine jazz and classical elements fairly seamlessly. Howland explains, “Harlem displays a far more integrated motivic technique than the earlier, self-conscious motivic saturation textures that were seen in Reminiscing in Tempo or Black, Brown and Beige.

Ellington leaves plenty of space in Harlem for solo improvisations, and the Harlem motive creates coherence and connectivity across them. This was no doubt aided by having his own band members on stage in what he described as a sort of “concerto grosso” setting (a term referring to a concerto having a group of soloists rather than only one). The big band and the symphony alternate their statements, though the saxophones are never really missing from the color.

Something else that helped the stylistic fusion was Ellington’s use of arrangers. While the musical ideas and big band version was his, he freely admitted that he didn’t know much about the instrumentation or capabilities of a full symphony – the background of symphonic musicians can be a factor in crossover music. In a 1956 interview with journalist Carter Harman, Ellington said, “Well, I don’t know that much about the symphony orchestra, frankly…. Writing for the symphony orchestra is a technique, you know. And, rather than expose myself completely to all this sh*t, I mean, I just turn it over … I make a six-line score and give it to Luther [Henderson] and let him do it … with suggestions, you know … I mean the things are good as they are.”

Ellington’s comments raised the unfortunate question of credit. Luther Henderson (1919–2003) discusses a bit of what led up to the first orchestrated performance of Harlem: “I wanted to be sure I got credit for what I’d done. And Duke, he said to me, ‘Yes, oh yes. Of course.’ But when I went down to Carnegie before the concert to see if my name was in the program, it was not…. I didn’t like him for that. Which was very hard on me. Because I loved the Duke.” This was probably not an intentional oversight, and later performances did credit Henderson.

Ellington’s works usually follow some sort of program, but Harlem and Black, Brown and Beige are far more detailed. Most of the connections are not superliteral, though, and can be difficult to spot at first listen. Howland explains further, “Harlem is built through a progressive sequence of contrasting musical topics and moods – or, rather, individual musical strains – that loosely suggest the musical narrative behind Ellington’s supposed community tour.”

Though the original program notes, written (by prominent jazz writer Leonard Feather, describe Harlem from a stationary point, the later version (included below) has more in common with a virtual “tour of this place called Harlem,” as Ellington called it.

“When you arrive in Harlem, … you discover first that there are more churches than cabarets, and when you really get to know Harlem, you know that it’s like any other community in the world, … with people, some plain and some fancy, some living luxuriously, others not so luxuriously, some urbane, some sub-suburban, laughing, crying, and experiencing a million different kinds of ups and downs. So the piece of music goes like this: (1) Pronunciation of the word “Harlem,” itemizing its many facets from downtown to uptown, true and false; (2) 110th Street, heading north through the Spanish neighborhood; (3) Intersection further uptown – cats shucking and stiffing; (4) Upbeat parade; (5) Jazz spoken in a thousand languages; (6) floor show; (7) Girls out of step, but kicking like crazy; (8) Fanfare for a Sunday; (9) On the way to church; (10) Church – we’re even represented in congress by our man of the church; (11) The sermon; (12) Funeral; (13) Counterpoint of tears; (14) Chic chick; (15) Stopping traffic; (16) After church promenade; (17) Agreement a cappella; (18) Civil Rights demandments; (19) March onward and upward; (20) Summary – contributions and coda.”

Howland calls Harlem “masterly … [written] in the apogee of Ellington’s mature, post-symphonic jazz conception for external form, and Ellington’s richest exploration of thematic development.” Throughout his career, Ellington’s output included over a thousand compositions, so this is high praise. Awarded a posthumous Pulitzer in 1999, Ellington (along with Strayhorn) is credited with elevating jazz to an art form equal to other traditional and more (at least at the time) established genres. He is, to quote Dicaire, “one of the most important personages in not only 20th century jazz, but also across the entire spectrum of music.” 

Latin Jazz Suite for Trumpet and Orchestra
Alice Gomez (b. 1960)
Notes by Merwin Siu

The Director of Programs for the San Antonio College Department of Music, Alice Gomez has served as composer-in-residence of the San Antonio Symphony, the Midland-Odessa Symphony, the Performing Arts Center of Gallup, New Mexico, and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Her compositions draw inspiration from Latin, African, and Native American roots, as well as Aztec, Mayan, and Middle Eastern. Gomez seeks to explore the spirit of ethnicity through the language of contemporary music, highlighting the essence of the various cultures.

Gomez’s Latin Jazz Suite was originally written for either trumpet or tuba and percussion. One of the primary inspirations behind it is the Cubop jazz movement of the 1940s and ‘50s, when artists such as Dizzy Gillespie (trumpeter) and Mario Bauza (clarinetist) incorporated elements of Cuban popular music into their jazz, altering the course of American jazz.

Performer and educator George Palton describes the piece as “agile, accented, syncopated, and brilliant,” and notes that Gomez’s background as a percussionist is obvious in the aggressive rhythms that permeate the work.

Our Principal Trumpet player, Lauraine Carpenter, performed the full Latin Jazz Suite on the Aeolus Festival in Toledo in 2003.  Gomez has selected three of the five movements for tonight’s performance – Guaguanco, Afro-Cuban, and Cubop.

 

Four Parables
Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947)
Notes by Merwin Siu

Currently Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, Paul Schoenfield taught at the University of Toledo shortly after receiving his doctorate. In 1983, Schoenfield premiered his Four Parables with the Toledo Symphony; it has since been championed by many contemporary pianists, including Jeffrey Kahane and Andrew Russo. Natasha Paremski pays tribute to the 35th anniversary of the world premiere with this performance.

In his own notes for Four Parables, Schoenfield writes: “A friend once suggested to me that I take some life experiences and set them to music. The result was the Four Parables for piano and orchestra written during 1982 and 1983. Each of the four movements musically treats an actual life encounter along the lines that I imagine an author would develop a story. In this case, almost all the aspects of the music (style, harmonic language, texture and even form) were determined by the encounters and my own reflections upon them.

“The opening movement, Rambling Till the Butcher Cuts Us Down, was a response to a debate surrounding the release of an aged quadriplegic murderer from prison. The murderer had disposed of his victims in a particularly heinous fashion, and now the courts were deciding what further purpose prison could serve a quadriplegic in his seventies. The gruesomeness of the whole incident raised in me not so much the question of why evil exists, but the teleological argument of why anything exists at all and the irreverent feeling that perhaps we are in some cosmic zoo performing inane acts for our spectators.

Senility’s Ride originated under a different title, ‘Der Erlkönig,’ referring to Goethe’s poem [and Schubert’s famous song based on it]. While living in Vermont I had met a man who was slowly going senile. In his sounder moments he would reflect on his present condition and his youth. Nostalgically, he would speak of his past vigor, his love of dancing, his life in South America, and how now this had all been taken away. During one of my last conversations with him he mused somewhat philosophically, ‘Life is tantamount to a burlesque show.’

“The Elegy was written in memory of an acquaintance who, being convinced by religious fanatics that seeing a physician was unnecessary, died needlessly during young adulthood. The rituals, which were later related to me, conjured up the form and most of the material of this movement.

“The finale, Dog Heaven, a jubilant Allegro molto, was inspired by an encounter with two children whose mother had gotten rid of the family pet as a punishment. To assuage their pain, I made up this fanciful story about a jazz club in ‘Dog Heaven,’ a place where the streets are lined with bones and there is a fire hydrant on every corner.”

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Bernstein and Mahler

Giordano Bellincampi, conductor
Merwin Siu, violin

Program:

Mendelssohn – Overture 'Ruy Blas'
Bernstein – Serenade after Plato’s Symposium
Mahler – Symphony No. 1 “Titan”


Overture to Ruy Blas

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

Mendelssohn explains the genesis of his Overture to Ruy Blas in a letter to his mother, written in 1839: “You want to know how it went with my overture for Ruy Blas? [Several] weeks ago, a request came to me from the Theater Pension Fund (a really good and charitable institution here that was producing a benefit performance of [Victor Hugo’s] Ruy Blas) to write an overture and a song to be included in the play, because they expected they would see better sales if my name was advertised above the title. I read the play, which was so absolutely ghastly and beyond contempt that you wouldn’t even believe it, and I decided [not] to compose an overture … and only give them the song. The performance was supposed to be Monday [about a week earlier]. On the previous Tuesday, the people came to me, thanked me profusely for the song, and said that it was too bad that I hadn’t written the overture. But they said they realize that one needs time to write a piece like that, and that next year they would try to give me more notice. That rankled me. I gave it some thought that evening and began my score. Wednesday was rehearsal all morning, Thursday a concert, but I still had the overture to the copyist early on Friday, rehearsed it Monday, first three times in the concert hall, then once in the theater, and then that evening the infamous piece was performed, and it was all so much more fun than I’ve ever had writing one of my pieces. On the next concert, we performed it again by request; I didn’t call it the ‘Overture to Ruy Blas,’ though, but the ‘Overture for the Theater Pension Fund.’”

Despite the extremely short time during which Mendelssohn composed this piece, Overture to Ruy Blas (for despite his abject disdain for the play, the title stuck) displays all the compositional fluency and prowess that we’ve come to expect from him. The piece is skillfully crafted and orchestrated. However, Mendelssohn was less than satisfied with it, and despite thinking it “fun” to work on, he never had it officially published.

Mendelssohn’s Overture is, as commentator Joseph Stevenson puts it, “a blood-and-thunder affair of generalized Romantic era emotionalism, with a troubled introduction, a furious opening theme … and a lot of violence in working out.” Its display of extroversion is somewhat out of character for Mendelssohn, who usually worked a little more within the bounds of subtlety. Stevenson suggests that Mendelssohn’s Overture does not really have all that much to do with the play’s subject, which makes complete sense considering Mendelssohn’s feelings about it.

Why did Mendelssohn dislike Hugo’s play so much? Commentator Geoffrey Decker claims that it has to do with Mendelssohn’s upbringing. “Having come from a family well-cultured in literature, art, and philosophy, the high body count, murder, and intrigue in Hugo’s play may not have been the only thing leading to the composer’s declaration.” In this light, Mendelssohn’s cavalier approach to his Overture may take on a layer of irony. In fact, as Stevenson notes, “Although in C minor, the carefree energy … sounds more like the magical moments of … A Midsummer Night's Dream of thirteen years earlier than [the Overture to Ruy Blas].” Regardless, Mendelssohn’s Overture is effective as a “curtain-raiser.”

The Overture follows basic sonata form – the conventional choice at that time. Mendelssohn opens with a slow and dignified introduction, in which the strings hint at the outline of the main thematic material to follow. This opening motive is repeated and leads into the second theme, presented in the clarinet, bassoon, and celli. The themes appear in order in the development section, and Mendelssohn finishes the Overture with an energetic coda.

The Overture is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium)

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)

“Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.” – Plato, Symposium

Bernstein is often lauded for his genius, but what’s unique about him is that he was not a genius only at one or two things but at many, including but not limited to conducting, teaching, writing, and composing. The 1950s, during which this piece was written, was also a very good decade for him; arguably his best works, including Candide and West Side Story, come from this period. Incidentally, he exceeded in sheer volume composers such as Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms, landing more in the vicinity of Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner. For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an enormous amount of music. Moreover, Bernstein was a master craftsman. He worked meticulously on each project, and often revised extensively.

He worked on Serenade in the summer of 1954 along with Candide. He wasn’t calling it Serenade yet; it was originally titled “After Plato’s Symposium” – a work primarily concerned with outlining and understanding the nature and purpose of love. In the Symposium, Plato explores these concepts through speeches delivered by the great minds of the day at a symposium or banquet. The speeches praised Eros, god of love and son of Aphrodite, and each speaker in turn was to build on the elements, both strong and weak, of the previous speaker.

Bernstein constructs his Serenade in the same way, introducing new ideas and elements in each section that are based on the last, and ever refining his ideas. Jack Gottlieb, a long-time friend and mentee of Bernstein’s, calls this “melodic concatenation.” This idea of evolution and melodic transformation plays out especially clearly in melodic contours in the solo violin part. Commentator David Hurwitz also points out, “The concerto is the perfect medium to realize in music the idea of a dialogue between an individual speaker, in this case the solo violin, and a larger audience (the orchestra).”

Bernstein’s Serenade is not technically a concerto, though, even though some call it that. Rather, it is written in the form of a serenade, a term intimately connected to the idea of love. In Italian, sereno, “serene,” also implies an outdoor performance – possibly another tie to Plato’s Symposium. Bernstein colors the Serenade with some Stravinsky-esque elements (Stravinsky was also interested in Classical, Greek, literary, and mythological themes). This development toward a deeper neoclassicism was something of a trend especially in the first half of the twentieth century, though chiefly in Europe.

In a 1986 interview with biographer Humphrey Burton, Bernstein explains the title of the Serenade: “Originally called Symposium, [but I] was dissuaded from that title because people said it sounded so academic. I now regret that. I wish I had retained the title so people would know what it is based on … it’s one of Plato’s shortest dialogues and it’s on the subject of love. It’s seven speeches, at a banquet, after-dinner speeches, so to speak. By Aristophanes, by Agathon, by Socrates and himself … it’s really a love piece.”

The first movement, based on speeches by Phaedrus and Pausanias, is marked Lento; Allegro marcato. Bernstein compares this movement to “a lyrical oration in praise of Eros,” and it features an examination of the concept of duality and relationship between two parts. Opening with a slow fugato, the structure brings to mind Johann Sebastian Bach’s pairings of preludes and fugues. The opening motive is also the first thought toward Maria in West Side Story. The Allegro marcato section provides an unofficial introduction to the greater part of the Serenade.

The second movement is scored without percussion, whose function is partially fulfilled by the harp, giving more of a sense of punctuation than solid delineation. This speech belongs to Aristophanes and is marked Allegretto. This text, according to Bernstein, takes the position of “bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairly-tale mythology of love … the atmosphere is one of quiet charm.” The melodic contour here hints again at Maria, a theme that returns throughout the Serenade. The main theme in the cello and solo violin slowly evolves into the accompaniment for the next theme, presented in the violas as a diminutive set of variations.

The following Presto describes the speech of Eryximachus, who is talking, Bernstein tells us, about “bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.” Hurwitz calls this music “dry, [with a] cartoonish wackiness.”

The Adagio is a lovely, warm, gentle illustration of Agathon’s extolment of every aspect of love and its effects. Set as a simple three-part song, this movement is reminiscent of some of the more touching moments in Mahler. Only the strings, harp, and timpani are called for here.

The final movement, marked Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace, is the most complex of the Serenade. As Bernstein explains, in this movement, “Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).” Hurwitz points out that this last movement also contains the Serenade’s most tragic music, and it’s based on the saddest theme presented thus far: the melody of the previous movement’s B section.”

Now, there’s a problem with the programmatic element in the Serenade. While Bernstein clearly talked about the Serenade being inspired by Plato’s Symposium, he also claimed, “there is no literal program for the Serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, the Symposium. The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The ‘relatedness’ of the movements does not depend on common thematic material but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.”

This on its own isn’t necessarily sufficient to cause a “problem,” but Burton also suggests the possibility that Bernstein actually introduced the movement titles and other references to Plato later in the composition process. This idea is the result of certain discrepancies in order and character between the text and the music, which at least introduce the possibility that Bernstein later superimposed the Platonic structure over his mostly developed piece. Bernstein’s correspondence from this time also makes reference to an unnamed concerto, which could mean he named it later.

In spite of these uncertainties, the Serenade is a wonderful piece. Hurwitz calls it “pure Bernstein … [with] all the dash and soul that we expect in a major violin concerto.” Bernstein himself liked it a lot. In a letter to composer William Schuman he shared, “I’ve finished the Serenade … and it looks awfully pretty on paper, at least. The Italian critics will hate it; but I like it a lot.” This comment about the critics was not unusual; Bernstein was often very aware of most people’s reactions (real or perceived) to his “funny modern music.”

As Burton notes, the Serenade “can also be perceived as a portrait of Bernstein himself. Grand and noble in the first movement, childlike in the second, boisterous and playful in the third, serenely calm and tender in the fourth, a doom-laden prophet and then a jazzy iconoclast in the finale.”

Bernstein’s Serenade was premiered by violinist Isaac Stern and dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky (with whom Bernstein had studied at Tanglewood) and Koussevitzky’s first wife, Natalie. Bernstein himself conducted the premiere with the Israel Philharmonic at Teatro La Fenice in Venice in September 1954.

The piece is scored for solo violin, harp, timpani, percussion (snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, Chinese blocks, chimes), and string orchestra.

Symphony No. 1 “Titan”

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

“The language of music has then approached that of the word, but has communicated immeasurably more than word is able to express.” – Mahler

It’s fitting that we move from Bernstein to Mahler, as Bernstein was one of the sole proponents of Mahler’s music in the mid-twentieth century. Distinguished conductor Seiji Ozawa explains, “Very few people were playing Mahler until Bernstein started grappling with him so passionately in the early sixties.” This struck him as surprising because, “First of all, I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use. And from the orchestra’s point of view, the Mahler symphonies are the most challenging pieces ever.”

To some, Mahler, specifically in his First Symphony, is viewed as the catalyst for musical modernism. Musicologist Charles Youmans explains, “In the view of Carl Dalhaus, European musical modernism began in 1889, with Strauss’s Don Juan and Mahler’s First Symphony. Looking beyond the works’ fundamental differences … Dalhaus perceived a common vision of contemporary music, built on overt, challenging programmaticism. Gone was the dreamy ellipticism of Liszt. Music would now evoke the physical, the ethnic, the sexual, the violent, all in gruesome detail using an ultra-precise pictorial technique derived from Wagner and Berlioz.”

Mahler was one of the very greatest conductors of his time. He was also very fond of the music of Anton Bruckner, who in turn, was strongly influenced by Richard Wagner. The time was ripe for a step forward in musical programmaticism, and Mahler was every bit as involved in this movement as Strauss, at least early in his career. His spirits were considerably dampened, though, by the less-than-enthusiastic and sometimes downright cruel reception of his first two symphonies. For example, some complaints following the premiere of the “Titan” included comments such as “bizarre,” “meaningless,” and “[a] stunning hodgepodge of painful cacophony.”

Perhaps more painful still was the accusation that Mahler must be one of those conductors who was incapable of composing. He bore all of this for a time, but years later he finally lost his temper at a dinner party and declared, “Death to programs!” emptying his glass of wine out onto the table. He reportedly continued, “Away with programs, they arouse false impressions. Leave the public to their own thoughts about the work they are about to hear, do not force them to read while they are listening and fill their minds with preconceived ideas! If a composer himself has forced on his listeners the feelings which overwhelmed him, them he has achieved his object.”

Mahler composed his First Symphony over a six-week period in Leipzig, where he was conducting rehearsals for his opera Pintos, for which he was gaining national recognition. During this time, Mahler spent much of his spare time in the company of the Weber family (the composer Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson). He wrote, “[the Webers are] more to me than anything else … the world then had a refuge for me…. When I had completed the first movement – it was toward midnight – I ran to the Weber’s and played it to them both, whereupon they, to fill in the first A harmonies on the violins, had to help me out in treble and bass on the piano. All three of us were so enthusiastic and happy … I had no finer hour with my first symphony.”

From a letter to his parents written shortly after, we can infer that Mahler clearly had no idea that his Symphony would not be well received. “Well, today my work was completed and I can say, thank the Lord, that it has turned out well. I hope to take another large step forward with it…. With the performance, of course, I shall have no difficulty as I am already a ‘famous’ man.” He was referring to his recognition for Pintos.

Now that the Symphony was finished, it needed a title. Mahler wanted to call it something “grand and striking” in keeping with its size and import. He briefly considered something from the work of E. T. A. Hoffman (1776–1822), but he didn’t own a copy of Hoffman’s work and didn’t want to call his symphony after something he didn’t fully understand. So he settled instead on a reference to Jean Paul’s (1763–1825) Titan, a novel published in four volumes between 1800 and 1803 and spanning about nine hundred pages. The book followed the life of its hero, Albano de Cesara and his rise to power. Mahler’s reference to it is somewhat misleading, however. While Mahler did use the novel’s title for a while, he only intended his symphony to mirror the heroic archetype and not the actual character, Albano. Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahler’s violist friend, adds, “[Mahler] has long ago eradicated this title and all other superscriptions of his works, because he found that people misinterpreted them as indications of a program. For instance, they connected his ‘Titan’ with Jean Paul’s. But all he had in mind was a powerfully heroic individual, his life and sufferings, struggles and defeat, at the hands of fate. ‘The true, higher redemption comes only in the Second Symphony.’”

Mahler’s high aspirations for his First Symphony can also be seen in the instructions he provided the orchestra prior to its first performance: “I beg you … only the fullest compliment of strings. But no passengers…. In the first movement the greatest of delicacy throughout (except in the big climax). In the last movement the greatest power … The third movement humoristically (in the macabre sense). The trio in the scherzo quite gently and tenderly. The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!”

Needless to say, the first rehearsals were not easy. Music writer and critic Ferdinand Pfohl describes Mahler in rehearsal as “Mahler the inexorable … [he] kept them to the most precise execution, as if for one of Beethoven’s symphonies. For him there was no such thing as an easy work, whether his own or somebody else’s. He regarded all music as equally difficult.”

Mahler’s First Symphony is arranged in two main parts, each containing two movements. The first part originally contained three movements, but the second one (called “Blumine”) was later retracted. Part I is titled “From the Days of Youth, Flower-, Fruit, and Thorn-pieces.” The first movement is “Spring without End,” and depicts the awakening of nature following winter’s sleep, with distant bird calls and flourishes, according to annotator Phillip Huscher, that sound “over the gentle hum of the universe.” Mahler weaves in a bit of the second song from his Songs of a Wayfarer here, which he transforms throughout. The beginning of the song text is: As I walked across the field this morning, / the dew still hung on the grass; / the gay finch spoke to me: / “Hey you! Well? Good morning! Hello! / You there! / Isn’t the world becoming beautiful? / A lovely world? / Chirp! Chirp! Beautiful and lively. / Oh, how I like the world!

The next movement is a scherzo and trio, which Mahler calls “In Full Sail.” It is a ländler, and the subject is related to text from one of his early songs, “Hans und Grete.” Dance around, around! / Let whoever is happy weave in and out! / Let whoever has cares find his way home. The trio section follows and seems to represent more cares than joys before the scherzo material is repeated. Listen for the quasi-Klezmer smudging of pitches in the violins in this movement.

Part II is titled “Commedia Humana” and opens with the third movement. This a funeral march “in the manner of Callot” and was called “Aground.” In this movement, Mahler was inspired by a picture of “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession,” a common Austrian children’s tale in which the forest animals provide merry accompaniment to the procession of a woodsman’s coffin being carried to its final resting place. This movement, perhaps more than any of the others, upset early audiences. It can be a little strange at first listen even to more contemporary audiences. Mahler was aware of this, however, and he indicates that this movement should be performed “with parody.”

The final movement is called “Dall’ Inferno” and is marked Allegro furioso. It illustrates, according to Mahler, the “sudden eruption of a heart wounded to the quick.… It is simply the cry of a wounded heart.” Mahler revisits moments from the first movement here, but the context has shifted from the beginning of the story to the culmination of the struggle. This triumph is achieved in the “paradise” chorale, which brings us to “the wonderful remembrance of the hero’s youth.” Musicologist A. Peter Brown likens it to a Dantean inferno followed by the victory of entering paradise.

Mahler’s First Symphony was premiered in 1889. It was met with varying degrees of apathy and dislike. Mahler’s friend Friedrich Lohr wrote, “Now, just after hearing the Symphony for the first time, and hearing it with very deep emotion, I am very glad to be hearing it again tomorrow ... in particular, the dynamic forcefulness of the work’s expression of tragic emotion came as an unpleasant shock … the attacca leading into the last movement so alarmed an elegant lady sitting next to me that she dropped everything she was holding on to the floor.”

Lohr was not alone in his opinion of the work. The Neues Pester Journal published a review announcing their disappointment: “We regret having to say that the expectations that had been raised by the work were not fulfilled. If one had not known from Mahler’s splendid achievements as a conductor that he is a sensitive musician of varied tastes, intimately familiar with the masterpieces of all stylistic periods, one would not have gathered this from his symphony. Judging from the title ‘symphonic poem,’ and from our genial Director’s known predilections for the most radical advances of the ‘new romanticism,’ one should also have been prepared for extravagances of all sorts; at the very least, however, one would have expected interesting and meaningful things in that style. Instead, we heard music which, aside from occasional eccentricities, did not rise above the level of the ordinary (at best!) in any department – melody, harmony, or orchestration…. If we now sum it all up by way of a general impression, we cannot put it any other way but that Mahler, who is in the very first rank as a conductor, also resembles that group in that he is no symphonist.”

This negative reception surprised Mahler, who thought it his “most spontaneous and daringly composed” work thus far. In speaking to his wife, Alma, about conducting the “Titan” he exclaimed, “Damn it all, where do people keep their ears and their hearts if they can’t hear that!”

It’s necessary to ask, then, what it is that makes this music difficult to listen to? Mahler does call for larger than usual orchestral forces, but he handles them extremely well. Novelist Haruki Murakami, in conversation with Seiji Ozawa, once posited, “What I think I may be hearing is a tendency to carry the music forward emotionally in a traditional fin-de-siècle Viennese way, accepting chaos as chaos.” Ozawa responds that “the fact is that … before Mahler, if you had two motifs going at the same time – theme A and theme B – there was a clear distinction between primary and secondary. In Mahler, though, the two are completely equal. So the musicians who are playing theme A have to put their heart and soul into playing theme A; and the musicians playing theme B have to put their heart and soul into playing theme B – with feeling, with color, everything … in the case of Mahler, the important thing is not so much to learn it, as to immerse yourself in it.”

At its core, Mahler’s music is so much about the sound and how it’s used to create an atmosphere and an emotion. Mahler’s work was a huge part of the impetus behind the progress of symphonic tradition. As Brown notes, “Together with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern he was to have a profound effect on musical history … for Mahler, each symphony does indeed represent a world.”

Mahler’s “Titan” is scored for four flutes, three piccolos, four oboes, English horn, four clarinets, two E-flat and bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, seven horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings.

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