2019-2020 Masterworks Series Program Notes

ProMedica Masterworks Series

by Kalindi Bellach ©2019

Mahler's Fifth / The Composer is Dead / Dvořák's Cello Concerto / Rachmaninoff's Third / Carmina Burana / Love Songs

Mahler's Fifth


Trudel – Rhea
Korngold – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony No. 5

Alain Trudel (b. 1966)

(program notes by Alain Trudel)

In April of 2007, after a concert with Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, I met a volunteer with that organization, Andrea Alexander, who had been dedicated to that organization for over forty years. The first thing that struck me about her was her engaging and positive attitude. She had an important anniversary coming up, and decided to commission me to write a short piece for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I tried to musically transpose her vitality and personality into this short work.

The title Rhea refers to the ancient Greek goddess, mother of Zeus, wife of Kronos, and daughter of the sky and the earth. Rhea is one of the most respected divinities in Greek mythology. Her entrance was always preceded by fanfares and drums.

The piece builds from a simple triplet rhythm that evolves into three sections. The first section is all about sheer energy, with the material “travelling” throughout the orchestra. The triplet rhythm then becomes the pulse on which a chorale, introduced by the horns in unison, is built. The final part of the work starts with a substantial timpani solo introducing a fanfare played by the trumpets, who are positioned in the hall. As the conclusion approaches, the brass section is more and more prominent until they play (all standing) the final chords, as if greeting the great Rhea.

Rhea is dedicated to Andrea Alexander. May her love for the arts inspire us all in these challenging times.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the son of Julius Korngold, the preeminent music critic and writer for the Neue Freie Presse, and a friend and advocate of the composer Gustav Mahler. Julius had a very clear and singular grasp of Mahler’s music, and loved it deeply, remarking that Mahler was “a brilliant technician, virtuoso orchestrator… [and] in possession of a gloriously deep musical spirit.” Julius famously showed Mahler nine-year-old Erich’s first cantata, to which Mahler promptly responded, “a genius!” Michael Haas, author and research director of the Jewish Music Institute for Suppressed Music, notes that this reaction was completely understandable, as “the young Korngold was a unique composing prodigy who had an instinctive grasp of the most modern musical styles of the day.” The composer Richard Strauss wrote, “One’s first reaction upon learning that these compositions are by a boy, is of fear—and of concern that such a precocious genius should follow a normal course of development. The firmness of style, mastery of form, individuality of expression, and command of harmony are amazing.” 

Julius’s profession must have affected Erich, but he nevertheless went his own way, preferring to take inspiration from Johann Strauss, Jr. and Giacomo Puccini rather than Mahler. His opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was completed when he was just twenty, and was very successful. Korngold also arranged for and conducted new productions of various Strauss operettas, and became acquainted with the stage director Max Reinhardt. Haas explains, “This turned out to be a life-saver, as it was with Reinhardt that Korngold first went to Hollywood [where his arrangement of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was such a success that it eventually led to a contract with Warner Bros.] where he soon became the star among film composers…. After the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, Korngold lost his original home base and settled permanently in Los Angeles.” 

It was in this same year that the Nazis closed the Neue Freie Presse because it was managed by a primarily Jewish staff. By this point, Julius had quieted himself somewhat on his previously impassioned defense of Mahler’s brand of modernism, but was no less vocal about what real (modern) music was, or on what Erich should be writing, which was definitely not film music. Erich, however, thought film music a perfectly legitimate artistic choice, explaining, “When there are sequences when the eye, and not the ear, is the primary object, then the composer has his fling in the writing of incidental background music. In this branch of musical writing there have been some of the finest examples of orchestral music which our age has produced.” Julius never came around on this, and continued to push Erich towards “real” music. Erich’s concessions to his father’s wishes were not many. Included among them are the third string quartet and the violin concerto. 

Erich began work on his violin concerto between 1937 and 1939, but shelved it until finally finishing in 1945. He composed it at the request of the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who was a friend of his family’s from Vienna. Unfortunately, Huberman was in poor health by the time the concerto was finished and couldn’t give the premiere, which was taken up instead by the legendary Jascha Heifetz. 

Despite its official status as “real music,” the concerto is also intertwined with Korngold’s film music. This is partly a stylistic point, but Korngold also lifted some of the themes directly from his film scores. While these are usually lusciously orchestrated in their natural habitat, here Korngold has cleared away everything extra and given the melodies space to stand on their own. 

Korngold’s violin concerto is in three movements. The opening theme in the first movement is drawn from the score to Another Dawn, released in 1937. In the concerto, it feels much more expressive than in the film. The other prominent reference in this movement is from Juarez (1939). Annotator Paul Horsley points out, “[the first movement] contains much of the orchestral color and harmonic restlessness of [Richard] Strauss’s tone poems; in fact throughout the Concerto one is reminded of the spirit of those pieces.” 

At first glance, the material for the second movement does not seem to be based directly on anything Korngold had previously written. However, Annotator Benjamin Picard notes, “almost the entirety of [the second movement]… is based on a single motif, paraphrased from Korngold’s Oscar winning score to the 1936 epic costume drama Anthony Adverse. The theme is never quoted exactly in the concerto, instead, its characteristic rising quality is used as a recurring feature throughout the movement.” The third movement uses elements from The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and from various folk influenced musics. 

Though Korngold did not find as much in common with Mahler’s music as with Strauss’, there are elements from both composers here. Annotator Peter Laki explains, “this approach brought Romantic concerto-writing to new life at a time when most modern composers and critics were ready to bury it.” Korngold doesn’t seem to have had similar concerns about the fate of the classical music tradition in the face of modern music. During an interview in 1926, he remarked, “My musical creed may be called the inspired idea. With what displeasure one hears this concept nowadays! And nevertheless: how could the artificial construction, the most exact musical mathematics, triumph over the moving principle of the inspired idea!”

Despite Korngold’s confidence and Heifetz endorsement, the violin concerto was not immediately well-received, but since then it has enjoyed ever increasing popularity. It is dedicated to Alma Mahler, and calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings, and solo violin. 

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Sir Donald Francis Tovey described Gustav Mahler as “a great man and no less than a martyr to his artistic sincerity.” This attribute manifested itself in many ways throughout his life, but none more so than in his music, on which he refused to compromise. Mahler was equally adamant about the autonomy of the music, believing that the music should stand on its own, that it is the job of the conductor to translate the music for the listener to interpret. 

Though Mahler acknowledged that his music was not always easily accessible to the audience, he usually refused to provide a concrete explanation. In a letter from 1896, he replies to a request for program annotation, conceding only partially, “In spite of everything, it is therefore good that at the beginning, when my style is still foreign to him, the listener be provided with a few signposts and milestones along his journey, or shall we say: a map of the stars to comprehend the night sky with its shining worlds. But such an exposition cannot offer more. A person must fasten upon something he knows, or he gets lost…”

The only thing Mahler asks of his listeners (at first) is that they listen openly. He wrote, “At a first performance… the principal thing is to give oneself with pleasure or displeasure to the work, to allow the human-poetic in general to affect one, and if one then feels drawn to it, to occupy oneself with it more thoroughly…. One must bring along one’s ears and heart and, not least, surrender willingly…. A bit of mystery always remains – even for the creator!” 

Mystery notwithstanding, few of Mahler’s symphonic works follow as clear an emotional path as this fifth symphony, which he finished in 1902. It is his first symphony in which he does not incorporate a vocal element. While this absence of text might seem to make its meaning less clear, annotator David Hurwitz argues that this instead clarifies the music as music. He explains, “The previous three symphonies, which combined movements having a sung text with those for orchestra alone, necessarily force discussion in the direction of explaining the way in which the various parts with words relate to the parts without them. Here, on the other hand, Mahler has the option of being as specific or as vague with his musical imagery as he likes and of leaving the interpretation of what it all means up to each listener.” 

Julius Korngold, a music critic and friend of Mahler’s, writes: “We must inevitably turn to two other composers who are central in helping us understand Mahler: Berlioz and Bruckner. Their symphonic styles also wrestle in a similar way with the infiltration of poetic ideals. Mahler studied with Bruckner, and thus one hears not only the foundation of solemn religiosity which intensifies into insistent speculation, but also a child-like naivety in certain passages – all of this is present in addition to quite obvious compositional similarities. Nevertheless, Mahler’s true progenitor is Berlioz, with whom his similarities simply mount up. As with Berlioz, we find with Mahler the tendencies to resort to representational means… the far-flung sound fantasies; the mixture of the bizarre with the exalted and primitive… the sulphuric bolts of irony.”

The lack of a vocal element is not the only thing that is new to Mahler’s symphonic work in his fifth. Musicologist A. Peter Brown notes, “The Fifth Symphony makes a decided break with these two works [the third and fourth symphonies]. To be sure, Mahler reuses thematic material from Symphony No. 4 in Symphony No. 5, but his approach to the symphony as a genre has changed decidedly.” Some of these shifts include an almost complete lack of reference to Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a set of songs that he worked on over years, and which he often referenced in his instrumental works. 

Brown speculates that this may have been a decision influenced in some way by meeting and marrying Alma Schindler (1901-1902). Most of the information that we have about Mahler’s personal life and compositional process comes from Alma’s diaries, and, before this, from Mahler’s close friend, violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Bauer-Lechner’s records seem to be far more accurate and complete, since Mahler himself wrote many of them, while Alma sometimes altered her accounts to present herself differently. 

Annotator Michael Steinberg writes about how another aspect that makes this work new is a shift in the poetic inspiration: “In the First Symphony, the orchestra plays long passages from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies actually include singing. While the Fifth also alludes to three of Mahler’s songs, it is essentially an instrumental conception. This movement toward the purely orchestral is tied to another change in Mahler’s work. Except for a few brief departures, Mahler for thirteen years had set only texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. But in July 1901, he composed his last Wunderhorn song and turned to the writings of Friedrich Rückert, setting six of his poems that month and next…. With that change of literary inspiration, a certain kind of ‘open’ Wunderhorn lyricism disappears from Mahler’s symphonies. The music becomes leaner and harder….”

Mahler’s fifth symphony, composed alongside his burgeoning relationship with Alma, was completed in 1902. It is in five movements, which are divided into three parts resting upon the monumental scherzo. This scherzo is not only the centerpiece of the symphony, but was the first movement that Mahler completed. Bauer-Lechner called it “a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life.” In its position as the fulcrum of the symphony, it seems as if this person described by Bauer-Lechner has triumphed over the trials of part I.

The opening funeral march begins with a trumpet fanfare based on an Austrian military signal. This gesture is also used by Haydn and later by Mendelssohn, among others. When the orchestra enters, the atmosphere darkens quickly. The trumpet fanfare returns intermittently, which Hurwitz suggests is reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Mahler’s first movement resolves uncertainly.

Out of this opening movement comes its inverse. While the first movement is mostly slow with bursts of forward motion, the second moves more quickly with occasional pauses for breath. This movement (as well as the first) features a brass chorale, now in a more optimistic cast. The timpani bring this movement to a close alone, with Mahler’s pointed notation of “correct tuning!”

The third movement is an incredibly large scherzo, and Mahler has indicated that this movement is Part II of the complete work. This is the movement that concerned Mahler most in terms of tempo. The counterpoint is detailed, and the individual parts are not easy, which caused Mahler to worry that conductors might take too aggressive a tempo and accidentally erase its finer features. Mahler himself stated that the tempo was correct when everything could be heard. After the first performance of the work, Mahler wrote: “[The first rehearsal] went off tolerably well. The scherzo is the very devil of a movement. I see it is in for a peck of troubles! Conductors for the next fifty years will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it; and the public – Oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble in ruin the moment after? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?”

Part III begins with the fourth movement, the Adagietto for strings and harp, which is one of the most well known works that Mahler ever produced. Hurwitz writes, “… it inhabits a special world of tenderness…. The string writing is what might be described as warmly diaphanous…” According to Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, this Adagietto was “the composer’s declaration of love to Alma.” In the conductor’s score the following is inscribed: “How I love you, / You my sun / I cannot tell you in words / I can only lament / My yearning / And my love for you / My happiness!”

While Mahler is extremely detailed in some aspects of his notation, certain others (despite his instructions) are still debated. In this movement, the tempo is somehow still something of a question mark. Mahler indicated that he intended for it to be slow, and Steinberg explains, “The diminutive in the title of the famous fourth movement refers to its brevity and is not meant as a qualification of its adagio-ness…” However, he goes on to also articulate what is often used as the basis for the argument to perform it at a more flowing tempo. “The Adagietto is cousin to one of Mahler’s first Rückert songs, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’—‘I am Lost to the World.’… our knowledge of the song, which ends with the lines ‘I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song,’ confirms our sense of what Mahler wishes to tell us in this page of his symphony.”  

The rondo finale interrupts the end of the Adagietto. The opening of this movement is based on one of Mahler’s early songs called “Lob des hohen Verstandes” or “In praise of a lofty intellect.” The song describes a singing competition between a nightingale and a cuckoo that is judged by a donkey. The movement continues through the episodes of the rondo to its conclusion. Hurwitz describes it as “a finale that justifies everything that has come before but… doesn’t require a text or any other sort of verbal explanation to do it.” 

Thus far, I’ve neglected to mention Mahler’s use of polyphony in this symphony. Brown indicates that Mahler’s wonderful double fugue, inverted counterpoint, and layering of themes must be connected to his study of Bach’s music in 1901. Mahler wrote about Bach’s work to Bauer-Lechner, calling it “the greatest polyphony that ever existed…. His polyphony is a marvel beyond belief, not only for its own, but for all times.” Mahler also wrote to her about Bach’s chorales in particular, and how versatile and relevant they were to artists everywhere. Brown also notes that these must be the inspiration for the chorale that serves as the climax for the finale of the fifth symphony. This exploration into the possibilities of polyphony contributes to this symphony’s freshness, which Mahler called the “ganz neuer Stil” or “completely new style.” As Brown explains, “[Mahler] had to revise the orchestration because of his new more polyphonic approach, which required both transparency and new colors. ”

Mahler conducted the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne at the premiere of his fifth symphony in 1904. Soon after, a review appeared in the Rheinische Musik-und Theater-Zeitung stating, “It must be said that Mahler is considerably less original in invention than in execution, and this disparity, which becomes the more prominent as the dimensions of his works increase, renders unalloyed enjoyment quite impossible… Mahler’s art is the art of a great solitary… something wild and elemental…” German conductor Bruno Walter explains, “He [Mahler] has had enough now of struggling with weapons of music for a philosophy of life…. [and] is now aiming to write music as a musician. Thus the Fifth Symphony is born, a work of strength and sound self-reliance, its face turned squarely towards life…. Nothing in any of my conversations with Mahler and not a single note point to the influence of extra musical thoughts or emotions upon the composition of the Fifth. It is music, passionate, wild, pathetic, buoyant, solemn, tender, full of all the sentiments of which the human heart is capable, but still only music, and no metaphysical questioning, not even from very far off, interferes with its purely musical course.” 

Mahler’s fifth symphony calls for the fewest number of woodwinds in relation to brass and strings than any of his others, and includes four flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

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The Composer is Dead


Rossini – Barber of Seville Overture
Dukas – Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Daugherty – Tombeau de Liberace
Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
Stookey & Snicket – The Composer is Dead

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

The name of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini is synonymous with opera. As a composer, he was indebted to Mozart for the clear structure and character of his work. However, in his own right, Rossini remains separate and distinguished as the best and most often performed composer in the tradition of opera buffa, or comic opera. 

Rossini composed The Barber of Seville in 1816, when he was just twenty-three. The timing of this was not ideal. The story is based on the play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, initially conceived in 1722 as an opera comique. There was already a musical setting available that was popular and had been performed across Europe and even in the US and Mexico. Despite Rossini’s best efforts to explain before the premiere that his opera, which he was planning to call Almaviva, followed a different approach, the first performance was poorly received. Happily, reservedness on the part of the audience did not last long, and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville emerged as an audience favorite, running more than five hundred performances in Berlin alone. The dramaturge Kelley Rourke notes, “In 1825, Manuel García (the first Almaviva) brought a production to New York – [it became] the first opera to be performed in Italian there.” 

Cesare Sterbini provided the libretto, and music writer Max Derrickson notes both it and the play for its “perennial themes, giddy wordplay, mad-capped action and lively characters. The addition of Rossini’s hallmark musical technique of creating a long, insistent build-up of orchestral sound over a repeating figure (ostinato) helps propel the action into wonderful and hilarious climaxes. These ‘tempests in teapots’…” 

The action follows the young Count Almaviva, who is in search of true love with Rosina, the ward of the silly and self-important Dr. Bartolo. Drama, disguise, and absurdity ensue, and everything ends happily as it must. 

Interestingly, the overture we have now is not the original. Some researchers insist that the original was lost shortly after the premiere and Rossini had to cobble together another in time for subsequent performances. Rossini mentions the overture in a letter in which he also gives advice on how best to compose one: 

“Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty. I composed the overture to Otello in a little room in the Barbaja palace wherein the baldest and fiercest of directors had forcibly locked me with a lone plate of spaghetti and the threat that I would not be allowed to leave the room alive until I had written the last note. I wrote the overture to La Gazza Ladra the day of its opening, in the theater itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text out the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window. I did better with The Barber. I did not compose an overture, but selected for it one that was meant for a semi-serious opera called Elisabetta. The public was completely satisfied…”

In light of this, it makes perfect sense that the overture we know now as that belonging to The Barber of Seville does not share thematic material with the opera that comes after. However, that hardly seems to matter in the face of its excellence. According to Derrickson, “[Rossini] nearly single-handedly transformed the operatic overture into a discreet and flourishing work of art in its own right.” Furthermore, Verdi wrote, “I can’t help thinking that, for abundance of real musical ideas, for comic verve, and truthful declamation, The Barber of Seville is the finest opera buffa in existence.”

Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, and strings. 

Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

French composer Paul Dukas does not have a large output compared to some of his contemporaries, and nearly all of his laurels were bestowed in honor of his wonderfully descriptive L’Apprenti sorcier or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Dukas attended the Paris Conservatory and won the Prix de Rome several times. He later became a professor at the conservatory, both of composition and orchestration, and worked as a music critic for several publications. Researchers claim his fastidious nature is the reason for his small number of works. While it may have kept him from a more prolific output, his precision was certainly a quality that served him well as both a professor and a critic.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was composed in 1897, not long after
Dukas finished his Symphony No. 1. It is considerably lighter than any full symphonic work, and is based on Goethe’s folk-poem Der Zauberlehrling (translated literally as “the magic apprentice”). 

Musically, Dukas mirrored Goethe’s text, beginning the piece quietly at the point in the story when the sorcerer leaves for the day. He presents the principal theme almost right away, floating amidst wispy chords in the strings with gentle punctuation from the flute. The clarinet, oboe, and flute pass the theme amongst themselves. There is some debate over which character this melody represents. Is it the apprentice, the enchanted broom, or even the enchantment itself? Perhaps it’s all three! With a single strike to the timpani, we are thrown forward into the first iteration of the march. It’s in a fast triple meter that feels like a clumsy scherzo. 

When the apprentice realizes he’s lost control of the enchanted broom and tries to chop it down, it simply divides in two. Here, where Goethe has the doubled brooms move twice as fast, Dukas alludes to this by rushing the music. At the moment the apprentice’s charms overcomes him, the sorcerer returns and restores order. 

Dukas premiered The Sorcerer’s Apprentice at the Societé Nationale de Musique almost immediately after he finished writing it in. Its wit, humor, and excitement, alongside its well-crafted construction, made it an instant success. Most famously, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was used in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice. 

After The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas became even more particular and exacting with his music, and withheld much of it from publishers, even going so far as to destroy some. Instead, he assisted in publishing new editions of the works of Baroque masters, including Jean-Philippe Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti, and François Couperin. 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, strings, harp, and percussion. 

Michael Daugherty (b. 1954)

(program notes by Michael Daugherty) 

The pianist and entertainer known as Liberace is one of the most intriguing American icons for crossing over, in more ways than one. Dressed in spectacular furs and rhinestone costumes, Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1993) was famous for performing polkas, Broadway tunes, and arrangements of the classical piano repertoire accompanied by a Las Vegas showband. In my tribute to Liberace, I do not treat popular music as a foreign intrusion into the abstract idiom of contemporary classical composition. Starting from the vernacular idiom, I have composed
Le Tombeau de Liberace (1996) as a meditation on the American sublime: a lexicon of forbidden music. The first movement, “Rhinestone Kickstep,” conveys the feeling of strutting down the glittering cement streets of Las Vegas, in boogie-woogie rhythms. The second movement, “How Do I Love Thee?,” comes from the well-known sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, frequently recited by Liberace during his performances. In “Sequin Music,” the arpeggiated piano riffs are based on a sequence of musical notes which I noticed on the wall of Liberace’s famous piano-shaped swimming pool. The effect of the cadenza is dodecaphonic: after all, Liberace’s Los Angeles mansion was not so far from Schoenberg’s neighborhood. The composition concludes with “Candelabra Rhumba,” a pianistic tour de force that recreates the excitement of a Vegas showband, keeping the candles on Liberace’s candelabra lit.

Le Tombeau de Liberace is scored for solo piano, flute and piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, and strings. 

Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Russian composer Modeste Mussorgsky, while possessing excellent compositional instincts and ideas, struggled with the concept of polish and the habit of leaving his works unfinished. He did not publish many works, and his friend, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, usually completed what he did publish. Mussorgsky chiseled away at his musical poem, Ivanova noch’ na Lïsoy gore (“St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain”) at several points in his life, but was unable to complete it, and never heard it performed by orchestra. Researchers speculate that this lack of determination, apparently a continuing problem for him, was due to problems with alcohol. 

In a letter to his friend Nadezhda von Meck in 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote, “With regard to Mussorgsky, as you very justly remark, he is ‘used up.’ His gifts are perhaps the most remarkable of all, but his nature is narrow, and he has no aspirations toward self-perfection. He has been too easily led astray by the absurd theories of his set and the belief of his own genius. Besides which, his nature is not of the finest quality; he likes what is coarse, unpolished, and ugly.”

Mussorgsky took inspiration from the eastern-European myth about the witches’ Sabbath of St. John’s Eve, the gist of which is an extravagant celebration of the holiday, replete with a collection of witches, sorcerers, demons and ghosts assembling about a lonely (and usually flat) mountaintop. It is generally accepted that the version of the story with which he was most familiar was Gogol’s, though he had access to others also. 

Mussorgsky outlines the work: “(1) An underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness followed by appearance of Satan and (2) his adoration. (3) A Black Mass. (4) Joyful dancing of the Witches’ Sabbath. All of which is ended by the ringing of a church bell and the appearance of dawn.” Mussorgsky later remarked, “[Night on Bald Mountain] is, in form and character, Russian and original; and I want to feel sure that it is thoroughly in keeping with historic truth and Russian folk tradition.”

However, Mussorgsky’s version of his own work is not the one most often heard. He wrote several different versions, the first of which wasn’t performed until the 1920s, and wasn’t published until the late 1960s.  The first iteration is for piano, and was finished in 1867 on St. John’s Eve. In 1872 he rearranged it by adding chorus for the operatic version (further revised) several months later. 

In 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted the Russian Symphony Society of St. Petersburg in the premiere of his orchestration. Besides arranging it for orchestra, he also made substantial cuts, and softened the ending. Annotator Robert Markow describes this version: “[Rimsky-Korsakov’s] involvement amounted to smoothing out what he considered to be Mussorgsky’s stylistic irregularities and ‘problems’ of orchestration. He also shortened it by about two minutes and completely changed the ending, which in the original is savage and furious. However, the musical world is slowly realizing that Mussorgsky’s own style, rough-hewn and unpolished as it may be at times, has its own unique appeal.”

This last sentiment, especially, is shared by many, including composer Claude Debussy, who said, “No one has given utterance to the best within us in tones more gentle or profound: he is unique, and will remain so, because his art is spontaneous and free from arid formulas. Never has a more refined sensibility been conveyed by such simple means; it is like the art of an enquiring savage discovering music step by step through his emotions.” 

Like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a version of Night on Bald Mountain, arranged by conductor Leopold Stokowski was used in Disney’s Fantasia (1940). 

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, strings, and harp. 

Nathaniel Stookey (b. 1970) 
Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler (b. 1970) 

Lemony Snicket’s (the nom de plume of Daniel Handler) The Composer is Dead is a children’s book describing a murder mystery in which the composer is the victim. It is set to music by Nathaniel Stookey, and was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony in 2006. In Snicket’s story, the “very handsome and intelligent” Inspector searches for the murderer by interrogating every instrument in the orchestra. The narrator speaks all the parts, and by having the Inspector question each of the musicians, Handler and Stookey are able to introduce them all,  to animate them and to detail their rolls within the orchestra. They also cleverly define a few musical terms along the way. 

Conductor Edwin Outwater, who led the premiere and the subsequent recording, remarked, “I think thematically, both in the text and the music, the underlying message… [is] the orchestra is an organism quite full of personality and variety.”  

Though The Composer is Dead was primarily intended for children, it was important to both Stookey and Handler that it be readable and compelling to adults as well. In an interview following the premiere, Handler explained that the intention was ideally to help introduce the orchestra and classical music to those unfamiliar with it and re-introduce it in a fresh and fun way to those who were familiar. Stookey added, “I wanted to write a piece for skeptics, and… I was addressing my own generation even more than my children’s generation…. Most of [the people I know], don’t really find classical music that engaging or exciting, partly because they don’t know it and they haven’t been exposed to it. They see it as being remote, rule-bound, and often they see it as lacking emotional immediacy… which [we who love it] can’t understand at all. But we wanted to reach those people with something that would be… engaging without being trite.” What he and Stookey achieved is unique – part children’s book and part musical mystery comedy. Outwater remarked, “The thing I love about this piece is that it’s pretty sophisticated… even the little kids who don’t get the music jokes… [are] into it.”  

With pieces like Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (among others) already established in the “educational” repertoire, The Composer is Dead could have flopped predictably. Music critic Daniel Kushner writes, “[Peter and the Wolf] is arguably the most iconic piece of music for young audiences in the classical repertoire…. However, the addition of Nathaniel Stookey’s composition for narrator and orchestra… the Prokofiev classic, as well as Britten’s… now have some serious competition.”  

Stookey claims the most characteristic and remarkable part of the piece is the opening “death” theme in the brass, played just when the narrator says “the composer is dead.” This theme haunts through the work. Use of motives like this helps the audience to recognize and isolate certain instruments. Handler acknowledges the elevated status of Peter and the Wolf, but also regrets its shortcoming, “pedagogically, it doesn’t really introduce you to the orchestra…. If you didn’t know what a flute sounded like, you still won’t know…. That was our goal – to have it that you could honestly walk in and not know what any of the instruments were, and you could come out knowing…”  

Perhaps the finest feature of the piece, the “funeral march,” is not technically Stookey’s, but a sort of collage of other works that the composer has called “a complete [musical] mind Sudoku.” This collage is the centerpiece of the work, and includes references to the music of twelve major composers such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. Take care to listen for the Dies Irae theme.  

There is some concern over where The Composer is Dead belongs in terms of genre. Stookey explains, “It’s an unfortunate thing about orchestras… there tend to be these pretty strong divisions between what is pops, and what is classical, and what is education, and things that cross lines – it’s a little hard to know where they go.” There is, however, a sort of sub grouping that we could call “light classics.” A lot of film music also sits well in this category. Outwater notes that this piece defies labeling, “It’s always a challenge to write a new work that keeps its integrity for so many different people who have so many different agendas for it…. And the really successful pieces kind of transcend all of them somehow.” 

As with all new music, success can be fickle and fleeting, but The Composer is Dead has enjoyed many performances since its premiere in 2006. It is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and narrator. 

Notes from Stookey and Handler included in the score follow: 

Composer note –  

“I hope I’m not giving away too much by saying that The Composer is Dead ends with a funeral march… Classical composers have always had a preoccupation with death, partly because we are human, like you, partly because we grapple with the mysteries of the universe, partly because death sells records and always has… Someday you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren that you appreciated a living composer before that living compose became, like all composers, dead.” 

Librettist note –  

“I have been asked if I might say a word or two about the text of The Composer is Dead, and the one or two words are ‘Boo hoo.’ The story – which, as far as I know, is absolutely true – is so heartbreakingly glum that I cannot imagine that you will be able to listen to it without dabbing at your tears with a nearby handkerchief.” 

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Dvořák's Cello Concerto


Smetana – The Moldau
Price – Mississippi River Suite
Dvořák – Cello Concerto

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Young Bedřich Smetana demonstrated prodigious musical aptitude at a young age. An accomplished pianist by the time he was six years old, he composed the first of his large orchestral works as a teenager. Up until this time, he had not had access to the most thorough musical training, and felt it necessary to remedy the gaps in his knowledge. 

In 1840, Franz Liszt was on a concert tour of Europe. One of his recitals so inspired young Smetana that it colored both his philosophy and his compositions, and soon after, they began corresponding. Deciding the time had come for further training, Smetana moved to Prague, where he made a living teaching piano while studying composition and counterpoint. Smetana had his first published work in 1851. As we can appreciate today, his lack of early formal training didn’t present a significant obstacle.

Throughout his life, Smetana displayed a strong sense of nationalism in his works. Annotator James Keller points out that this is likely a direct result of the civil war in Bohemia that broke out. With the new government maintaining a crushing control over its people, Smetana moved to Sweden in 1856. Though he was comfortable in Sweden, he did not find professional success there, and returned to Prague where he became increasingly important to the musical life of the city, working sometimes as a composer, but more often as a conductor and a critic.

Smetana composed Vltava, the second tone poem of his Má Vlast in 1874, the same year in which he started losing his hearing. From start to finish, he took only a few weeks, and it was premiered the following spring by Adolf Čech and the Prague Provisional Theatre Orchestra. For several years, Smetana himself had directed this group, but stepped down because of increased hearing loss. Author Brian Large explains, “[Smetana] had completely revitalized Prague’s artistic life and laid the foundations of modern Czech music. Now fifty, he was quite deaf…. He suffered continual pain, with the same rushing in the ears which had tormented him in the weeks [preceding his hearing loss].” Smetana himself wrote, “I cannot go out and have my ears wrapped in cotton wool since I must have complete quiet…. I can hear nothing at all. How long will this last? …. [The rushing] remains… and continues day and night without ceasing. It is even stronger when my head is active and less noticeable when I am quiet. When I compose it is always in evidence.” The situation did not improve. Despite what must have been unbearable, Smetana continued to compose. Large notes, “At one of the saddest periods of his life he managed to overcome adversity and misfortune, concentrating his creative powers to celebrate, in Má Vlast, the glories of Bohemia. In this cycle he transforms shadows of personal darkness and misery to a paean of praise.” Musicologist A. Peter Brown agrees, calling Má Vlast “technically skillful, esthetically captivating, and in many ways deeply original…”

Vltava is a wonderful example of what is called ‘program’ or ‘programmatic’ music. This means that the music tells a story without text, and is representational in various ways of a place or narrative. The alternative is ‘absolute’ music, or music that is written without a narrative or image in mind. Smetana wrote, “Absolute music is impossible for me in any genre…. I am no enemy of old forms in music, but I am against them today… hitherto existing forms are finished.”

Vltava is often thought to have been inspired by a trip Smetana took with his friend Moric Anger, who remembers, “[Smetana] heard the gentle poetic song of two rippling streams. He stood there deep in thought. He sat down, stayed motionless as though in a trance. Looking around the enchantingly lovely countryside he followed to Otava, accompanying it in spirit to the spot where it joins the Vltava, and within him sounded the first chords of the two motifs which intertwine, and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.”

Smetana writes about Vltava: “Two springs pour forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, one warm and gushing, the other cold and peaceful. Coming through Bohemia’s valleys, they grow into a mighty stream. Through the thick woods it flows as the merry sounds of a hunt and the notes of the hunter’s horn are heard ever closer. It flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands where a wedding feast is being celebrated with song and dance. At night, wood and water nymphs revel in its sparkling waves. Reflected on its surface are fortresses and castles—witnesses of bygone days of knightly splendor and the vanished glory of martial times. The Moldau swirls through the St. John Rapids, finally flowing on in majestic peace toward Prague to be welcomed by historic Vyšehrad. Then it vanishes far beyond the poet’s gaze.”

Vltava opens with two flutes weaving the first motive together, underpinned by gentle pizzicato in the violins and harp. The clarinet joins in reverse and describes the different temperature of the streams. The lower strings lend strength to the water, helping to express the “mighty stream.” And finally, the violins and woodwinds burst out with the main theme. This theme is present throughout as Smetana leads us along the course of the river.

Some years after completing Vltava, Smetana wrote, “Today I took an excursion to the St. John Rapids where I sailed in a boat through the huge waves at high water: the view of the landscape on either side was both beautiful and grand…. I have completed in these three years of deafness more than I had otherwise done in ten; besides many piano pieces, I have written the tetralogy for large orchestra with the title “Vlast” (Vaterland)… these pieces have been performed in Prague with unexpected success, and the great climax in the coda of “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields” is persuading me not to finish here, but to enlarge the cycle with other movements….”

Vltava is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953)

Like Smetana, Arkansas born Florence Price showed great musical promise at a young age. Having graduated from high school at only fourteen, Price attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where she studied piano and organ performance, as well as composition with George Whitefield Chadwick. After completing her degree at NEC, Price moved back to the South to take up teaching posts in Georgia and eventually Arkansas.

In 1912, Price married prominent civil rights attorney Thomas Price. The couple had two daughters, and relocated to Chicago in the late 1920s because of rising racial tensions and violence. It was here that Price’s musical career began to flourish. She took additional courses at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago Musical College, and the University of Chicago, joined the R. Nathaniel Dett Club for Music and Allied Arts, and became a part of the city’s robust African-American artistic landscape. Price had her first publications by McKinley and G. Schirmer, and got steadier work performing organ for silent films and orchestrating and arranging pieces for radio broadcast. 

The Chicago Symphony premiered her E Minor symphony in 1932, making Price the first African-American female composer to be performed by a major orchestra. The premiere was greeted with accolades; a writer from the Chicago Daily News called it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”

Nevertheless, her race and gender were ongoing sources of professional difficulty for Price, and in a letter to Boston Symphony director Serge Koussevitzky in 1943, she wrote, “Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, frothy, lacking in depth, logic and virility… Add to that the incident of race—I have Colored blood in my veins—and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” Scholar, tenor, and Price specialist Marquese Carter notes, “Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm… While [she] was quite proud of her accomplishments, she always felt like there was a limitation on the reception of her music, because of her race and because of her gender.”

Violist and composer Jonathan Blumhofer calls the fact that most of today’s orchestral literature is written by so few people one of the “enduring ironies of classical music,” and it has surely been to its detriment. He goes on to point out, “Even so, Price’s initial symphonic success didn’t break the taboos surrounding her gender and race. However, she continued to compose prolifically and was performed more widely…. Clearly, she was a composer to be reckoned with: a musician with a strong, distinct voice, who had something to say, and whose work appealed to an impressive cross-section of prominent musicians of her day.”

Price’s music, in general, was both inspired and influenced by her black heritage, something she showed by incorporating traditional songs and spirituals. Carter explains, “You may not hear direct quotation, but you will hear playing around with pentatonicism, playing around with call and response, some of these organizing principles that African-American scholars like Amiri Baraka have pointed out as indicative of black musical discourse.” Price’s Mississippi River Suite, composed in 1934, makes excellent use of some of these elements, usually in a less subtle manner than she employs in some of her other works.

Many critics and writers compare it to Smetana’s Vltava in terms of its programmatic nature and the program itself, which follows a similar narrative. In her Mississippi River Suite, Price describes the journey of a boat as it travels south on the river, as well as the various spectacles encountered along the journey. It is structured in four parts as the boat moves through Native American lands towards the jazzy New Orleans.

In the first section, listen for the bird sounds. As the journey continues, Price features the percussion more heavily. Once we’ve reached New Orleans, she weaves together quotes from Negro spirituals, and bits of jazz and other popular music. The spirituals she uses include “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Stand Still, Jordan,” “Go Down, Moses,” and “Deep River.” Mississippi River Suite is dedicated to Price’s mentor, Arthur Olaf Anderson. 

Price composed over three hundred pieces during her lifetime, and following her sudden death in 1953, most of her music was largely ignored. Recently, there’s been a resurgence, but it’s still not programmed as often as it could be. As Blumhofer notes, “Today, when fresh thinking about traditional assumptions relating to race and gender is starting to affect noticeable social change, there’s maybe some cause for optimism… Has her time… finally come? One certainly hopes so.”

Mississippi River Suite is scored for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1895)

Antonín Dvořák would never have written his second cello concerto if he hadn’t come to America, which never would have happened if it weren’t for Mrs. Jeannette Thurber. Married to a wholesale grocer, she used her considerable resources to promote the arts in general, and music in particular. Mrs. Thurber was responsible for establishing the National Conservatory of Music, the directorship of which being Dvořák’s reason for coming to the United States.

In 1892, when Dvořák arrived in the United States, the Viennese cellist Victor Herbert was the cello professor at the National Conservatory. In addition to being an excellent cellist, Herbert was also a composer and conductor, though his fame as a composer was not as developed as Dvořák’s, who by this time was incredibly well known. Annotator David Hurwitz points out that he was also “one of the few composers whose music entered ‘the international mainstream’ during his life…. Reputations tend to wax and wane… Dvořák’s case is different. He never had to be discovered… (as did Bach and Mahler).”

For several years before his move to the US, Dvořák’s friend Hanuš Wihan had begged him for a cello concerto. However, Dvořák had decidedly mixed feelings about the instrument, and didn’t want to write a concerto for it. Dvořák wrote, “The cello is a beautiful instrument, but its place is in the orchestra and in chamber music. As a solo instrument it isn’t much good. Its middle register is fine—that’s true—but the upper voice squeaks and the lower growls. The finest solo-instruments, after all, is—and will remain— the violin. I have also written a cello concerto [many years earlier], but am sorry to this day I did so, and I never intend to write another…” Upon moving to America, Dvořák took on a heavy teaching and administrative duties, inevitably leaving less time for composing.

In 1894, Dvořák’s second year at the National Conservatory, he attended the premiere of Herbert’s second cello concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Dvořák’s emanuensis, Joseph Jan Kovarík, describes the composer’s reaction to Herbert’s performance: “Dvořák, who admired Herbert as a ‘cellist, was very anxious to hear the work. We attended the Friday afternoon’s public rehearsal, as the doctor rarely cared to go out evenings. After Mr. Herbert got through the concerto, all that Dvorak said was ‘that fellow played wonderfully’—his exact words. Nothing more was said of the playing or the composition.” Music writer Jan Smaczny adds, “it seems... that Herbert’s Concerto showed [Dvořák] the possibilities…”

In the spring of 1894, Dvořák renewed his contract with the National Conservatory, and began work on his new cello concerto. There is nothing overtly American in the work, unlike others from his catalogue around the same time, but there are elements inspired by folk music from Dvořák’s homeland. Annotator Phillip Huscher suggests that this lack of Americanism in the cello concerto was the first sign of Dvořák’s homesickness. He travelled home to Bohemia the following summer, and requested to be excused from his contract. He completed the concerto while still in New York, but revised it several times thereafter.

Huscher points out that at the time of composition, Dvořák cannot have been familiar with more than a handful of other concertos for the instrument, as the repertoire is far from extensive. He had written a concerto earlier, but did not like it, thinking the cello’s sound not equal to a full orchestra. However, the orchestration in this second concerto is full without being overpowering.

The first movement features wonderfully wide phrases, and what musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey calls “one of the most beautiful passages ever written…” for the horn. 

The second movement was incredibly personal for Dvořák. Shortly after beginning work on the concerto, he received word that his sister-in-law and first love, Josefina, was ill. As an homage to her he included elements of one of her favorite songs from childhood, “Kez duch muj san” (“Leave me alone”) that he’d set earlier in his Four Songs, Op. 82.

The rondo finale is mostly boisterous in spirit, but while he was working, he received news of Josefina’s death and revised the movement, adding the plaintive coda that draws in elements of both the first movement and Josefina’s song. Dvořák wrote, “The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . . then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.”

The concerto was premiered in London in the spring of 1896, with Dvořák himself conducting. It had originally been slated for Wihan to perform, but Wihan had requested the addition of a cadenza in the third movement, which would have replaced the tribute to Josefina, and this reportedly upset Dvořák enough for him to give the performance to Leo Stern instead. Following one of the early performances, Brahms reportedly said, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a Violoncello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!”

Hurwitz writes, “Few works dominate their genre the way Dvořák’s Cello Concerto does. No other concerto for the instrument even comes close in size, expressive depth, melodic richness, and formal perfection…. Taken along with the Bach Cello Suites, it defines the career of the modern virtuoso.”

Dvořák’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, and strings.

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Rachmaninoff's Third


Geminiani – Concerto Grosso No. 2
Higdon – Concerto for Orchestra
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762)

Italian composer Francesco Geminiani began his musical training very early, taking violin lessons first with his father, and eventually with the celebrated violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli. It’s probable that he also studied with Alessandro Scarlatti. Following his training with Corelli, Geminiani, now recognized as a leading virtuoso in the area, moved to Naples to take up the position of concertmaster with the opera orchestra there. 

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, England was rising to a more prominent position on the European cultural scene, thanks mostly to George Frideric Handel, also a former student of Corelli’s. Geminiani travelled there in 1714, and performed for George I accompanied by Handel on the harpsichord. The performance was an success, and Geminiani gained the support of the Royal Court, as well as other powerful and wealthy patrons. In no time at all, he was the leading authority on all things violin. He performed often, and was also a prolific composer and author. Perhaps his most important published work, “The Art of Playing the Violin” (1731), is still used today. 

Geminiani based many of his early works on those of his former teacher, Corelli, including this concerto. This was probably out of both respect for his teacher and a desire to capitalize on his popularity. In 1726, essayist Roger North wrote, “Then came over Corelly’s first consort that cleared the ground of all other sorts of musick whatsoever… by degrees the rest of his consorts, and at last the conciertos [Op. 6] came, all of which are to the musitians like the bread of life.” It was on Corelli’s Sonatas for violin, Op. 5, that Geminiani based his first set of concertos. 

In the Baroque concerto, as opposed to the concerto in the Classical or Romantic periods (and certainly later), there is less emphasis placed on a single soloist. Instead, the Baroque concerto features two groups of performers conversing and forming the overall narrative together. They are called the ripieno (the larger group) and the concertino (smaller). It is a form derived from the Baroque trio sonata, which traditionally featured two solo instruments plus continuo (accompaniment). Having a slightly larger group gave the composer a bit more flexibility in terms of harmony and texture, a flexibility that Geminiani uses very well. 

Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 is listed as the second of his Opus 3 concertos, which are his most popular works. He dedicated them to the King, and worked on them from about 1720 to 1730, finally publishing in 1733. The historian Charles Burney writes, “[these concerti] established his character, and placed him at the head of all the masters then living.” 

They were in high demand, one scholar going so far as to “[credit him] with having set English musical taste on the right path by encouraging the study and performance of Corelli’s music, and with having made an important contribution to the forming of an English school of violinists and composers.” In these works, he pays tribute to his teacher and expands upon the material provided. These concerti are included in his most beloved works. This evening’s selection is scored for strings and continuo.

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)

“For me music speaks to a part of each person that is hard to define with words. The truth is, there is not a way to anticipate or even explain this. And while the reason for composing is different for each person who creates music, for me it’s about communicating with something indefinable within musicians and audience members. That’s spiritual communication and a true inspiration for composing.” - Jennifer Higdon

According to her friend Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, Jennifer Higdon’s music is “inclusive, accessible, and embracing. That is exactly who she is, and that authenticity is extremely appealing.” This directness of musical language is due in part to Higdon’s lack of traditional musical training in her early education. Higdon remarked, “It influenced the way I think about orchestration now. I’m always aware of sudden changes in sound… There are times when I try to make those changes… You wouldn’t think that I would still be having a reaction to it, but there’s so much color…” 

When Higdon was a child, her father fostered her artistic and musical talents, an influence that continues now. Higdon explains, “… As I’m moving in to writing new pieces, I can also still feel his [my father’s] presence. I think a lot about what he speaks to in terms of art. What is the art? What does it mean? What’s art supposed to do? That question is different for every artist and the answer is also different but my dad… gave me a lot of different ways of thinking about it so I’m finding myself thinking a lot about my own childhood, where my art experiences came from, what he exposed me to, what kinds of things we built as kids… before I ever got to music, I was making different kinds of visual arts and that stuff really left an impression on me […] because it comes up so vividly… and so I think about what is art…. But when I think about my studies with George Crumb and the extended techniques I sometimes use in my piece… I don’t think I would have used those had my dad not talked about… how any kind of sound can be music and I don’t think I would have thought it had I not studied with George Crumb who uses unusual sounds in his pieces so I would kind of see the path of my composition from my dad to where I am now.”

Higdon went on to study at Bowling Green State University and at Curtis Institute with David Loeb and Ned Rorem. Higdon explains that Loeb provided a thorough grounding in history and theory, while Rorem focused more on use of the the voice and phrasing. She also studied philosophy, and practices placing music before its theory, saying, “What do the [different] types of music have in common? Melody, Rhythm, Harmony. What they don’t have in common… there isn’t an exclusivity between either genre, but usually musical events (and the speed in which they unfold) run at different speeds. In terms of writing for a broader audience… I don’t think I have more understanding than any other composer. Music is communication. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.”

Higdon composed her first work for full orchestra, Shine, in 1995 for the Oregon Symphony. A few years later, the Philadelphia Orchestra issued a call for scores, announcing a forthcoming commission in honor of their centennial season. Someone suggested that she apply for the commission, and she submitted Shine as the required example. Higdon recalls hearing about the commission, saying, “I forgot about it, and about one month later [after she had shown them Shine] I was walking down the street… and the first flute player, Jeffery Khaner was running down the street, jumping up and down motioning to me. He goes tearing across three lanes of traffic, almost getting hit, and he said, ‘the Philadelphia Orchestra is going to commission you.’

“I’m sure there [were] probably mumblings and grumblings [in the Philadelphia music circle]. There had to be… in a city with… some amazing composers and I had literally just come out of graduate school…. Thank goodness there was a gap from the time they asked me to write it [to] when the premiere [occurred] because I needed that time to adjust my thinking. It was too much pressure. I would have been in trouble if I had to turn out that piece within a year.” 

The orchestra officially commissioned Higdon in 1998, and requested a premiere date in 2002. As professor Christina Reitz notes in her book on Higdon, Higdon found the genre of concerto for orchestra intimidating. How could she not? Those illustrious composers who had already contributed to the genre include Zoltán Kodály, Roger Sessions, Witold Lutosławski, Joan Tower, and of course, Béla Bartók. Higdon explains, “I stopped listening to… those [Lutosławski and Bartók] works. I would never be able to make my own kind of Concerto for Orchestra; I was afraid that my head would be replaying their music. So I intentionally stayed away from those pieces for four years. I was aware of them, but, boy, I tried not to think about it.” Reitz points out that even though Higdon claims any parallels between her Concerto and those of the composers mentioned above are unintentional, they do exist. 

While some of Higdon’s works are distinctly programmatic, describe narratives, and bear descriptive titles, Concerto for Orchestra is not one of them. Instead, the material is inspired by various musicians in the orchestra, and by different places and pieces of music that are important to Higdon. For example, there are elements of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, one of the first pieces Higdon remembers listening to, and the second movement feels of water to Higdon because she was writing while travelling along various lakes and oceans, though there is no literal reference. Higdon also notes that her Concerto was composed in the order that ideas occurred to her, and not in chronological order of movements. Reitz also describes the work as “mystical… [an affect] primarily achieved through unorthodox instrumentation such as the water gong, Chinese health reflex bells, and crystal glasses.”

Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is in five movements, just like Bartók’s. The first movement, which was actually the last to be written, calls for the full ensemble, and plays around a lot with varying tempos. Higdon called the opening “the most terrifying moment,” and explains that she was not thinking a lot about tonality here, whether it was tonal or atonal. “When I was writing, I was literally just thinking about the intervals. 

The second movement was inspired by the famously luxurious sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s string section. “The entire movement came from that saying ‘the Philadelphia string sound…. I wanted that to be a slow movement. I fought that for the longest time… but the only music coming to me was fast and finally… I caved into it. But the entire time I was convinced it wasn’t going to work until we got through the first night’s performance. I thought I’d write something lush and slow. It wasn’t happening probably because I wrote slow music in the third movement [first].” In this movement, Higdon showcases the various capabilities of the stringed instruments, especially pizzicato and various contrasting sound qualities. “I was thinking about pizz versus arco, thin versus thick, the solo strings. I was debating sound…. It’s kind of [a] romping along sort of feeling. It really is a dance for strings…. I wanted to write longer lines for the strings. I went into Curtis… and I asked the kids in my class… ‘How long can you do these [pizzicato] at this speed without hurting yourself?’ They said, ‘Well you’ better only do it a beat or two because that’s actually pretty fast.’ It was a practical consideration to keep from hurting the players. It looks like a dance because it’s getting handed off and I didn’t realize that because I stayed backstage in most of the performances. The people who were in the balcony could actually see the trade-offs, but it’s just a practical consideration of what would be dangerous for the players because they could hurt themselves easily at that speed.”

The third movement is softer and part of the reason Reitz described the work as mystical. It was also the first to be composed. Higdon says, “So many of the players were asking me for solos or wanting things specifically so… I decided [the third movement] was just going to be solos featuring the principal players. This piece was so big I knew that I had to go with whichever felt instinctively like the first movement to write [and] because I had the most ideas for the solos, I just started there… otherwise I never would have started, I was too nervous about it.” In this movement, Higdon reacts to the individual musicians in the orchestra, highlighting each of them with motifs that describe their musical personalities and quirks. She opens with harmonics in the strings, explaining that she thought “that’s an interesting sound… magic to set up the solos.” 

In the fourth movement, Higdon features the percussion section, and includes the harp, piano, and celesta. She says that she chose this instrumentation because “the percussion section is the one section of the orchestra that has developed the most in the twentieth century. It’s the one section that has added instruments, and the skill of the players has probably developed more than in any other section. I decided to make a movement which would have the quietest sounds in this entire piece in the percussion…. And because Don Liuzzi the timpanist wanted to play percussion.” In addition to the quietest sounds, this movement also boasts the slowest tempo in the whole piece. It opens with the vibraphone and crotales, and goes on to use several pitched percussion instruments along with the harp and celesta, who play percussively. Higdon uses the non-pitched percussion to push the tempo forward. One particular feature of this movement that is especially lovely is Higdon’s use of bowed percussion, where she instructs the musicians to use a bow for a stringed instrument (usually a heavier bass bow) to activate the percussion instrument. This usually produces a very clear, still tone similar to a crystal glass. Higdon explains, “I wanted him [Maestro Sawallisch, the conductor] to hear that not all percussion was loud…” While composers generally use percussion instruments as support and punctuation for other instruments’ lines, they are, as a family, capable of the widest variety of sounds. 

The fifth movement moves in on the heels of the fourth, without pause, and closes the arc of the piece by referencing the previous movement. Higdon articulates, “It had to be something that wrapped everything up. I also want[ed] some swing in that last movement… but I knew the conductor who was eighty-two wouldn’t exactly be able to swing so I had to figure out a way to write it so that it would swing on its own… I know that everything in my brain was connected from the previous movements though [be]cause that’s just the way my brain works.”

Higdon discusses the first rehearsals and the premiere of the new Concerto with Reitz: “We went into the Kimmel Center, it’s a brand new hall in Philadelphia and… the audience is… basically empty, it’s just a lot of seats and suddenly you hear these notes that you’ve labored over for quite some time coming out the orchestra but what’s interesting is for a composer… when it’s first done… it never sounds like you think it’s going to, there’s no way that it can because the musicians are learning the music…it sounded to me at first like kind of a cacophony of sound coming from the stage. It was amazing because it was the Philadelphia Orchestra and… I could not comprehend that the sounds were going to kind of mesh into what I had written on the page… my first rehearsal was [short]… they didn’t rehearse the whole thing but I wasn’t even sure [then]… if it worked and I don’t know if that was from the amount of adrenaline in my system or was it the orchestra learning the music since it’s brand new… so as the days went on as we got closer and closer to the premiere, it started to sound closer to what I thought it probably would sound like.

“I was so nervous [at the premiere] that I didn’t sit out in the audience. So the orchestra allowed me to sit backstage… I realized… I was completely unknown, so I was thinking to myself… [is the audience] going to want to hear this piece? What happens backstage at an orchestra concert is, there are a lot of people standing back there as soon as the music starts, once the conductor walked out on the stage, everybody disperses, they go off, they’ve got stopwatches, they know when to come back, when the end of the piece is. So then I was alone backstage and… my entire life was passing in front of my eyes. I thought, ‘Well, it was a good run, you know.’ And I actually was sitting there pondering to myself, I thought, ‘Well, geez… it was like twenty years ago that I actually had… that first basic theory class, and maybe I could have done better.’ I’m sure time was moving pretty quickly for me and I could hear the audience applauding and people re-gathered backstage because the conductor was coming off. Someone came back there with a towel for the conductor and someone had some water and he came off the stage and… he motioned to me like, ‘You’re going to walk out with me.’ I don’t know why I didn’t think of this but he took me out onto the stage and the entire audience got up on its feet.”

Despite its excellence, Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is programmed far less frequently than some of her other orchestra works, particularly Blue cathedral. Higdon suggests that this is due to Blue cathedral being a shorter piece and therefore fitting well onto the first half of a concert program, as well as the large and varied instrumental forces required for Concerto for Orchestra. The Concerto is also very difficult to prepare and put together. 

The premiere of Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra launched her to international fame almost immediately. Perry Tannenbaum from the American Record Guide wrote, “Higdon is so brilliant a colorist that her music teems with beguiling ideas. It would be churlish to criticize. A rigorous sense of purpose sparks this concerto from the outset.” Following its UK premiere, Andrew Clark added, “… a fine impression it made, thanks to Higdon’s tingling sonorities, her superb technical confidence and the bright, blazing energy of her idiom…. Higdon uses her material with such variety and resourcefulness that nothing outstays its welcome. She is not afraid to wear debts on her sleeve—English string tradition in the first two movements, flash-brass Bernstein in the finale—but she recasts their sound-world in her own upbeat image…. [the middle] movement, a kaleidoscope of spangled colours and solo turns… but Higdon’s coup de grace is the fourth movement, a magical merry-go-round of tuned percussion, harp, triangle and bells. The challenges she sets her musicians are so pleasurable it must have seemed like a day out for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.”

Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is scored for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, piano, celesta, timpani, percussion, and strings. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

In 1906, Sergei Rachmaninoff moved to Germany from Russia with his family. His career had been successful, if a little rocky, up until then, and he was a respected conductor and the best pianist of his time. He was also a prolific composer, and had produced two piano concertos, various chamber and solo piano works, a slew of songs, and three operas. Additionally, he’d completed the first of his three symphonies, the rejection of which caused him such anxiety and anguish. Annotator Michael Steinberg explains the reason for the Rachmaninoffs’ move as “an attempt to take himself out of circulation [as a performer, so that he might have more time for composing], and he chose the beautiful Saxon capital [Dresden] because he and his wife had become fond of it on their honeymoon four years earlier.” 

Rachmaninoff wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 while preparing to embark on a concert tour of the United States, where he planned to premiere the work. Steinberg notes that he must surely have been anxious about writing this piece, since overcoming the aftermath of his first symphony and composing the second concerto and second symphony had been such a battle for him. To make things even more daunting, those works had been awarded many accolades, and the pressure was on for him to live up to expectations. Rachmaninoff’s tour began in November of 1909, and he premiered his new piano concerto on the 28th of that month with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society. 

Rachmaninoff made wonderful and notable starts to each of his piano concertos. The third is different in its simplicity. Rachmaninoff achieves a wonderful balance in this concerto, and in this movement in particular, between the solo part and the full orchestra. Annotator Steven Ledbetter notes, “The theme and its rustling accompaniment both play a role in the progress of the movement…. This begins a dialogue between the soloist and orchestra…” Rachmaninoff reportedly told musicologist Joseph Yasser that the theme had come to him “already made” and essentially “wrote itself.” This was not the case with the accompanimental material. Rachmaninoff said that he was looking for a specific sound, and was thinking of the solo part “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” 

The second movement, the Intermezzo, is marked adagio, and incredibly expressive. It opens with the orchestra alone playing a phrase that is interrupted by the entrance of the solo part. Rachmaninoff spins out the themes in a series of variations around what Steinberg calls “a featherlight waltz that perhaps represents Rachmaninoff’s memory of a similar interruption in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.” Listen for the melody in the bassoon and clarinet in this movement. Rachmaninoff also uses this movement to move between various harmonies, finally coming back to the opening, which the soloist interrupts with a short cadenza that prepares us tonally for the Finale.

The Finale is brilliant, virtuosic, and spirited. Ledbetter describes it as “sunny by turns… [with] increasingly ornate miniature variations,” and Steinberg as a “torrent of… invention.” In this movement, Rachmaninoff ties the whole work together by referencing the first two movements. 

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a tall order for any soloist, being wickedly technically difficult, as well as lengthy and unrelenting for the soloist. Steinberg notes, “few pianists would agree with Rachmainoff’s own estimate that the Third Concerto is ‘more comfortable’ than the
Second. Moreover… Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsibe musician who knows how to blend, accompany, and listen.” 

Following the premiere, Rachmaninoff performed the concerto again with Walter Damrosch a few days later at Carnegie Hall. Though it was received warmly, it was not quite as instantly popular as the second concerto. Critics seem to have agreed that the concerto was just too long and had too much going on. The New York Herald pointed out, “its length and difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” Nevertheless, it was well within Rachmaninoff’s own powers. He continued his tour, both performing and conducting, and was offered the opportunity to conduct the Boston Symphony on a permanent basis. He declined, explaining, “I am weary of America and I have had more than enough… Just imagine: to concertize almost every day during the three months! I have played my own compositions exclusively. I was a great success and I was recalled to give encores as many as seven times. This was a great deal, considering the audiences there. The audiences are remarkably cold, spoiled by the guest performances of first-class artists, those audiences which always seek something extraordinary, something different from the last one. Their newspapers always remark on how many times the artist was recalled to take a bow and for the large public this is the yardstick of your talent, if you please.” Indeed, the New York Herald did include that very information in the review of the premiere: “Mr. Rachmaninoff was recalled several times in the determined effort of the audience to make him play again, but he held up his hands with a gesture which meant that although he was willing, his fingers were not. So the audience laughed and let him retire.”

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings. 

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Carmina Burana


Vivier – Orion
Orff – Carmina Burana

Claude Vivier (1948-1983)

Perhaps the most well-known Canadian composer in the classical tradition, Claude Vivier composed Orion in 1979. Based at least in part on the composer’s experiences and travels in Asia and the Middle East, Orion is vivid, vibrant and authentic. Vivier creates a textured landscape both fantastic and familiar.

The Montreal Gazette calls the piece an “exercise in wild-and-wooly otherness,” and continues on to label Orion “wildly spontaneous yet true to itself…. String tremolos and a bold trumpet statement made traditional romantic statements at the start.”

The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, percussion (including Chinese gong, metal plates, and temple bells), harp, and strings.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)

German composer Carl Orff was brought up in a musical family, and showed an early aptitude for composing. Despite a respectable compositional output, Orff is primarily remembered as an educator and the author of Schulwerke (school work), a teaching method based around the concept that music should be taught in conjunction with physical movements, building on the natural rhythms of speech. This book was very popular and the teaching method is still influential today. 

Up until the late 1920s, Orff composed works informed by contemporary styles, especially the post (German) Romantic and French Impressionist. He was also influenced by Arnold Schoenberg’s work with twelve-tone technique. While he was composing and writing, Orff accepted the position of conductor of the Munich Bach Society, and began to spend more time with the choral music of earlier composers, including Monteverdi, and, of course, Bach.

In 1935, Orff was introduced to a collection of some two hundred secular poems and various texts found in the monastery of Beuren (near Munich). They were written in the thirteenth century under the title Carmina Burana, or “Songs of Beuren,” and published in 1847 by Johann Andreas Schmeller. These poems provided a very colorful window into Medieval life and thought, and are often offensive to the Church in various ways. Orff was immediately interested. He chose twenty-four of the poems and immediately set to work on Carmina Burana, which he called a “scenic cantata,” as it was originally intended to be performed on stage with dancers and mime. He completed the work in 1936, noting music was only part of the performance: “I have never been concerned with music as such, but rather with music as ‘spiritual discussion,’ …. Music is the servant of the word, trying not to disturb, but to emphasize and underline.”

In the New Grove Dictionary, H. Krellmann wrote, “[Orff’s] intention seems to be to create a spectacle…” The place to best present such a spectacle seemed to be the theater, but not one as we probably think of it now. Orff wanted not only to simplify music, but also the theatrical experience. Traditional staging, scenery, and costumes were restricted such that one might appreciate the raw elements of the drama.  

Orff’s Carmina Burana is in three main sections, bookended by a prologue and epilogue. He opens with the Wheel of Fate, illustrated by a repetitive rhythmic figure. The first main section is titled Primo Vere (Spring), and is characterized by a rustic and earthy quality. The second section, In Taberna (In the Tavern) and the third section, Cour d’Amours (Court of Love), present some of the more risqué texts extolling the virtues and pleasures of love. In Taberna features only male voices. Dr. Richard Rodda notes, “Along with a hearty drinking song are heard two satirical stories: Olim lacus colueram (‘Once in lakes I made my home’) [sung by the swan turning on the spit]—one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces in the tenor repertory—and Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis (‘I am the abbot of Cucany’).” Cour d’Amours features two main characters, Blanziflor and Helena, whose music is gentler and sweeter. Alas, the lovers’ music is abruptly curtailed by “the intervention of imperious fate, as the… chorus, like the turning of the great wheel, comes around once again to close the mighty work.” (Rodda)

In addition to its various characters and musical features, Carmina Burana is permeated with the theme of Fate or Fortune, Empress of the World, described as a great wheel, ever turning. This image is a unifying force in the work overall. “The wheel of fortune turns; dishonored I fall from grace and another is raised on high…” Rodda explains, “It is this bald juxtaposition of antitheses—the most rustic human pleasures with the sternest of cosmic admonitions—coupled with Orff’s elemental musical idiom that gives Carmina Burana its dynamic theatricality.”

Though Carmina Burana does represent a stylistic shift in Orff’s work, he does not entirely abandon his roots, continuing instead to incorporate the expansive lyricism and some harmonic chromaticism with more grounded rhythms and simpler melodic material. While some felt that he had compromised too many musical elements—one critic going so far as to call him “a rich man’s banjo player”—the majority of audiences embraced the work.

Rodda points out the parallel between Orff and the American composer Aaron Copland, noting that they were both “searching for a simpler, more direct musical expression that could immediately affect listeners. Orff’s view… was more… philosophical than that of [Copland], who [sought] a music for the common man, one related to the everyday world.” Orff wanted to draw people away from their everyday world and show them a larger and interconnected world instead. To this end, Orff called Carmina Burana his “Opus 1,” and renounced everything else he’d written up until that point.

According to Canadian music writer Rick Phillips, Carmina Burana “is neither lofty nor intellectual, and it could never be called tiresome or dull. The appeal of the work has always been its down-to-earth, primal directness, making it one of the most human of all choral compositions.” Orff explains, “The simpler and more reduced to essentials a statement is, the more immediate and profound its effect.”

Carmina Burana is scored for two mixed choirs, children’s choir, three soloists (soprano, tenor, and baritone). The orchestra includes three flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, three clarinets with bass clarinet and piccolo clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, two pianos, percussion, and strings.

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Love Songs


Boulanger – Of a Sad Evening
Mahler – Songs of a Wayfarer
Brahms – Symphony No. 4

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger, called “Lili,” was often ill as a baby, and was diagnosed with what is now called Crohn’s disease when she was still a toddler. She was immersed in music from an early age; her father was a composer who taught at the Paris Conservatory, her mother was a professional singer, and her older sister Nadia was already showing great promise as a composer. Even as a small child, Lili would go with Nadia to her music theory classes at the conservatory, and later lessons with organist Louis Vierne. She also played piano, violin, cello, harp, and sang. 

When she was a little older, Boulanger began studying composition, first with her sister, and then with Georges Caussade and Gabriel Fauré. In 1912, she entered a piece for the prestigious Prix de Rome, and became the first woman to receive the prize in 1913. This award resulted in a publishing contract, along with the requirement that she travel to Italy to compose. However, her health was deteriorating rapidly, and she dictated her final work, Pie Jesu for Soprano, String Quartet, Harp, and Organ to Nadia. 

Boulanger composed D’un Soir Triste (“Of a Sad Evening”) in 1918, shortly before her death. She was twenty-four years old. It was intended as a companion piece to her D’un Matin de Printemps (“Of a Spring Morning”). Conductor and director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Joann Falletta remarks, “you can take it for what it is. It’s very beautiful on its own. It draws the audience into a quiet world.” 

D’un Soir Triste is a softly melancholic piece, and is delicately crafted. Stylistically, Boulanger was influenced by a variety of musical sources, including the French Impressionist movement, Medieval plainchant, and avant-garde modernism. Though her work always has a tonal base, her harmonic language is sometimes adventurous.  

Following Boulanger’s death, her sister Nadia shelved D’un Soir Triste until shortly before her own death in 1979. Consequently, it has only come into the repertoire recently. Falletta explains, “We probably wouldn’t know Lili without Nadia today…. She was constantly talking about her sister…. It’s a great tragedy, what she would have written if she had been healthy and lived…. she was so advanced harmonically… pushing the envelope, but not in the way Debussy did. Debussy was floating away from harmony altogether, but she was building a very dense harmonic structure.” 

Falletta, who worked on reconstructing the D’un Soir Triste from Boulanger’s score, wrote, “The handwriting was almost illegible… she was so sick, and her penmanship was really weak. It was her goodbye to the world… the writing on the manuscript becomes ever weaker and more indistinct, until it’s difficult to make out the notes.” It seems that Nadia added all the “extra” markings, such as articulations, dynamics, etc., in. 

Boulanger was not just a talented composer, but also worked incredibly hard at her craft. Known during her lifetime just as much for being ill as for her musicianship, she nevertheless lived as fully as she could, even volunteering for the war effort whenever she could. Commentator Kyle Gann remarks, “That, rather than the ‘poor little thing,’ was the true Lili Boulanger.” 

Nadia stopped composing after her sister died, but instead became a teacher, and became one of the most influential teachers of composition in the twentieth century. Her students include composers Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass, to name only a few.

D’un Soir Triste is scored for two flutes, three oboes and english horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celeste, and strings.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler wrote the poetry and music for his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in 1883. The work as a whole is characterized by a simplicity reminiscent of folk song. Annotator Max Derrickson points out that the translation “Songs of a Wayfarer” might not be entirely accurate, and the German actually refers to a travelling apprentice. Apparently, it was usual for a young craftsperson to travel while offering their expertise for free or for less money while perfecting their work. Derrickson claims that Mahler himself could be the wayfarer in the poems as he was himself travelling at the time. After listening to some of Mahler’s later work, however, it becomes clear that Mahler uses grand imagery to communicate meaning, both specific and abstract. With this in mind, it seems unlikely that he wrote the Songs specifically about himself.

Leading up to his composition of the Songs of a Wayfarer, Mahler was staying in Kassel and working with the opera at the theater there. He was a gifted conductor, and used this time to become even more intimately familiar with vocal genres, which certainly informed his work on the Songs. However, Mahler also colored his work himself, and took only what was useful and authentic. 

Songs of a Wayfarer has four movements, each a setting of one of Mahler’s poems. They are Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my beloved is married), Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I went this morning over the field), Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife), and Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The two blue eyes of my beloved). 

As he did throughout his career, Mahler saved snippets of material to be used in other pieces. Mahler scholar Norman Lebrecht remarked, “[he was] storing up materials and experience for a big statement,” in this case, his Symphony No. 1, in which elements of the Songs can be found. Specifically, the opening of Ging heut Morgen übers Feld in the first movement of the symphony and excerpts from the fourth song in the slow movement of the symphony, famously contrasting with Frère Jacques. 

Mahler orchestrated the Songs around 1890, and revised further a few years later. Derrickson writes, “[The Songs] possess these intellectual compositional marvels, yet they speak to us with great emotional force, and they transport us… to a world beyond our ordinary perception.”

The Dutch singer Anton Sistermans premiered the Songs in Berlin in 1896. They are scored for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and solo voice. 

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

“In art it is not possible to practice mere craftsmanship in the strict sense of the word. Inspiration plays an unlimited part in the elegance of construction of the well-marked divisions of a work. Mere determination to produce something is necessarily fruitless. This is most clearly demonstrated in most of the work of Brahms…. The thoughts are those of intimate and tender musicality. While melodic contours and rhythms are very individual, they are closely related to those of Schubert and Schumann…. It seems as though the composer is ceaselessly plagued by the desire to do as Beethoven did. But the charming essence of his inspiration is not compatible with that of those broad, fiery, almost disorderly developments that spring directly from Beethoven’s themes, or, more properly, gush forth from his inspiration. Brahms acquired his craft by study, something his predecessor Schubert lacked by nature. He did not merely discover it in himself…. In Brahms: clear and direct inspiration, sometimes lively, sometimes melancholy, scholarly broad speech, difficult and well-developed working out of an idea.”

- Maurice Ravel

In 1872, Johannes Brahms famously declared, “I shall never write a symphony! You can’t imagine what it’s like to hear such a giant [Beethoven] marching behind you.” However, several years later, Brahms was able to overcome his fear and finally publish his first symphony, which had been over two decades in the making. Once this first leap was taken, though, Brahms composed the next three in relatively quick succession. 

Annotator James Keller writes, “Each is a masterpiece and each displays a markedly different character. The First is burly and powerful, flexing its muscles in Promethean exertion; the Second is sunny and bucolic; and the Third, though often introspective and even idyllic, mixes in a hefty dose of heroism. With his Fourth Symphony, Brahms achieves a work of almost mystical transcendence born of opposing emotions: melancholy and joy, severity and rhapsody, solemnity and exhilaration.”

Brahms composed his Symphony No. 4 over two summers in the Alps near Vienna in 1884 and 1885, and felt that his environment influenced his composition. In a letter to renowned conductor Hans von Bülow, he wrote that his new symphony “tastes of the climate…” and his close friend Clara Schumann remarked, “It is as though one lay in springtime among the blossoming flowers, and joy and sorrow filled one’s soul in turn.”

Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 is set in the traditional four movements, as are his three earlier ones. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is very melodic, with long singing lines and a great depth of power. Here, Brahms shows his incredible talent for using only a musical snippet to inspire everything. Here, everything comes out of the first four notes breathed by the strings. Annotator Larry Rothe describes the opening voice, “at once resigned and searching and its broad phrases are transformed for a moment into a nervous figure in the winds before growing into a lament of deep yearning.”

As he sometimes did with his other works, Brahms played through some of the score at the piano for some close friends. At the end of the first movement, the critic Eduard Hanslick remarked, “I feel as if I’ve been beaten up by two very intelligent people.” This supported Brahms’s worry that people would not understand his new work. In the end, though, Hanslick changed his opinion, saying that the symphony was so carefully crafted and structured that it needed more than one listen in order to absorb. 

The second movement is marked Andante moderato, and opens in the horns. The theme is passed around, eventually culminating in the cellos. Rothe explains, “The opening movement was tragedy on an epic scale. The second movement is the response, offered in more human proportions. The great song at the heart of this Andante serves as a calmative to the stunned and anguished music that precedes it.”

The Allegro giocoso is a scherzo, and this movement is the first time Brahms included such a movement in a symphonies. (In the first three symphonies, Brahms included slower and gentler dancelike movements.) The movement opens with a great burst of sound, and the emphasis is such that the meter isn’t immediately clear. The style is very much a nod to Beethoven. 

The finale movement is Allegro energico e passionato – Più allegro. Brahms reached backwards in time for his formal inspiration, and used the passacaglia, in which a chord progression (this one from J. S. Bach’s Cantata No. 150) is the basis for a set of variations representing different characters. 

In addition to Hanslick’s initial misgivings about the Symphony No. 4, Brahms’s close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg also voiced concern. Though she respected Brahms and his music, she also commented, “… it seems to me as if a great master had made an almost extravagant display of skill.” Between these comments and another suggestion that he rewrite the better part of the work, Brahms had every right to his apprehensions about the first performance. 

In the fall of 1855, Brahms contacted his friend Hans von Bülow, the conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, about performing his fourth symphony. Von Bülow accepted the performance. During the rehearsal process, he wrote, “Difficult, very difficult. No. 4 [is] gigantic, a law unto itself, quite new, steely individuality. Exudes unparalleled energy from first note to last.” Brahms himself conducted the premiere in 1885, and he had worried unnecessarily. The audience received each movement of the “new tragic symphony” with enthusiasm. One of the audience reported that after everyone left, the Duke of Meiningen remained behind with various members of court to hear the first and third movements a second time. In his official review, Hanslick wrote, “Brahms is unique in his resources of genuine symphonic invention; in his sovereign mastery of all the secrets of counterpoint, harmony, and instrumentation; in the logic of development combined with the most beautiful freedom of fantasy.” This sentiment was echoed by the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who described Brahms as one whose art comes from both brilliant creativity and scholarly accomplishment. 

Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, percussion, and strings. 

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