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Program Notes - Apr. 21, 2007


 

España
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 – 1894)

 

For many, Emmanuel Chabrier’s rhapsody for orchestra, España, is the quintessential embodiment of Spanish musical style. That a Frenchman could so capture the essence of the Spanish Zarzuela sound is remarkable. Unlike his other music (which sounds unmistakably French) most audiences – not knowing his nationality – would assume it came from a composer who grew up somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula.

Yet, this work is the result of a trip that he and his family took for an extended holiday. He returned from the vacation obsessed with the sounds that he had heard, and Espa ña is essentially a catharsis – “getting it out of his system”, as it were. More than a quarter of its measures contain the F-major chord that denotes the base key (this static focus on a single chord is a distinctive characteristic of Spanish Zarzuela music). No other work that he composed comes close to it.

It is almost legendary that Chabrier was captured by the erotic images of the ladies that he encountered on his trip (this, in spite of the fact that his wife accompanied him!) A quote from a letter home captures the essence of his fascination: “Since coming to Andalusia I haven't seen a really ugly woman ... I won't let on what these women display, but they display it beautifully.” Other quotes from his letters are even more colorful.

The brilliant orchestration of the version we now know belies the fact that it was originally written for piano. His original inspiration seems to translate well between media. The piano piece is clever and energetic, the orchestral work is spectacular for its instrumental color and its most memorable theme even made the transition to American popular music: the 1950’s tune “Hot Diggity!” (“Hot, diggity-dog, ziggity-boom what you do to me …”). Coincidentally, the lyrics are a perfect connection to Chabrier’s initial impression of the Spanish senoras!

When he first composed España, Chabrier was an “unknown.” After its debut, he was acclaimed as a rising star on the French musical scene. Although he wrote several operas, much chamber music and various orchestral pieces, he never again quite equaled the success of this orchestral rhapsody. Perhaps he should have emigrated to Spain. For sure, he would have found satisfaction in the experience.

 

A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, op. 34
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)

 

 Benjamin Britten is considered the outstanding English composer of his generation, the second wave of truly twentieth-century composers to arise in the British Isles. He was perhaps the first composer of major stature to break away from the idiom that had been established by such greats as Elgar, Holst, Stanford and Parry. Their music, really an extension of the Romantic era, is sometimes unfairly brought to mind as the essence of English music. Britten, by looking beyond the current styles of his own homeland to the developing trends in continental European music (especially such different musical idioms as those of Bartok, Berg and Stravinsky) proved that English music didn’t have to “sound English.” Britten’s mature style is as cosmopolitan as it is unique.

His mother was a talented amateur singer, and Britten was drawn to composing at a young age. He was totally without guidance, writing songs and other small works, until one of his pieces attracted the attention of Frank Bridge at age eleven. Bridge took the child under his wing and turned him from a naïve talent into a rather polished budding young composer. Bridge, who by this time had become somewhat of an experimentalist composer himself, was also probably responsible for Britten breaking away from the harmonic traditions of the preceding generation of English composers. At the same time that he taught his young protégé traditional harmonic language he also introduced him to some of the more avant-garde musical tendencies developing in continental Europe. Eventually, Britten enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where he developed into a fine pianist. However, his studies of composition with the rather traditional John Ireland disappointed Britten, and he left the RCM without ever completing his degree.

Britten emigrated to the United States in the late thirties, but achieved little success here. Rediscovering his roots, he returned to England in 1942. A conscientious objector during the war, he spent much of his time composing music that explores the depths of the human psyche, such as his War Requiem. Drawn from this genre, his 1945 opera Peter Grimes became the first truly successful British opera (other than the lighter works of Gilbert and Sullivan) in almost a century. Its success immediately propelled him to the forefront of British composers. The next few years were his most prolific and successful period.

Britten composed in two rather distinct styles. His “serious” style was frequently austere and intellectual. Though full of powerful musical expression, it is nevertheless sometimes unapproachable and hard to appreciate for many audiences. However, his more “populist” style is very listenable and has been enjoyed by audiences far beyond the shores of the British Isles. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is one of his most famous works in the easily approachable genre. Its alternate title, Variations and a Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, reveals it to be a wonderfully crafted piece of “pure music.” However, Britten also had a long-standing desire to bring music to young people. Indeed, he wrote a large body of works intended to be performed by school children and amateurs, to give them some serious music to perform that was within reach of their undeveloped skills. It was in this light that he undertook to give the Variations and Fugue a dimension beyond simply well-crafted music.

The piece opens with a simple, direct statement of the original Purcell theme by the full orchestra. Then, in succession, each of the major families of instruments presents the main theme (generally without much modification) by itself. First woodwinds, then brass, strings and finally percussion display the combined sounds of their sections. After the listener has had a chance to hear each of the major groups as a blended chorale, Britten then presents the individual members of those groups. Each instrument plays a variation – constructed from the original theme, but often vastly different in character – that shows off some aspect of the unique sound of that instrument. Finally, Britten constructs a brilliant fugue, progressively incorporating each instrument in essentially the same order that they had been previously introduced. The interplay of themes in the fugue eventually builds back up to a glorious climax – into which he cleverly brings back the original melody that started the whole journey.

For his contributions in returning English music to the prominence it had not enjoyed since the days of Handel, Britten was the first English composer to be elevated beyond Knighthood (a distinguished honor in itself) to the peerage. In his final year of life he was named Lord Benjamin Britten, a Life Peer and honorary member of the House of Lords. This brilliant work performed today, which sounds so easy and carefree but which is so complex and difficult, illustrates why he merits the honor.

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, op. 104
Antonin Dvořák (1841 - 1904)

Antonin Dvořák is arguably the greatest Czech composer, and one of the most celebrated composers of his era in all of Europe. He had long been established as the greatest symphonist (other than Brahms, whose symphonic output was much smaller) of his age, and was recognized as one of the world’s greatest composers. As such, he was invited to be the Director of the newly created National Conservatory of Music of America. The conservatory’s patroness, Mrs. Jeannette M. Thurber, had hoped to build the credibility of the fledgling program and simultaneously bring into existence an American stylistic movement in composition, both in one bold move. She saw Dvořák as the perfect means to achieve her goals, and aggressively pursued him.

He eventually accepted the American invitation and moved to New York. During his first year in America he composed his most famous work, the New World Symphony (no. 9) and several smaller pieces, but no significant solo works. In fact, more than fifteen years had passed since Dvořák last attempted a major concerto (his Violin Concerto). Upon returning to New York after a European vacation, he attended a performance of Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto and was immediately inspired.

Although Dvořák had previously considered the cello as most suitable for solo passages only in its middle range, the Herbert concerto convinced him of its potential for beauty in its extreme upper and lower registers as well. Stealing time from his other duties directing the Conservatory, he composed (over a span of three months) what is generally acclaimed the greatest concerto for the instrument, and one of his own masterworks. A few years later, Brahms who was by then a close friend as well as Dvořák’s greatest champion, read through its score for the first time. He is frequently quoted as saying “Why on earth didn’t someone tell me it was possible to write a cello concerto like this one? If I had known, I’d have written one myself long ago.”

In the Cello Concerto, Dvořák employed a long-established formal structure for the first movement of the work. A long introduction precedes the soloist’s first entrance. In it, the clarinets introduce the main subject which grows in intensity and vigor to a powerful climax, before it gives way to a magical second subject (sung by the French Horn). This has so much the character of a folk tune that it might have been inspired by the same spirituals that Dvořák incorporated into his New World Symphony. Eventually, the solo enters and works its way through both themes, developing them into a showpiece of virtuosity without losing their song-like character.

The second movement features the soulful and melancholic aspects of the cello. Most of the melodies here were invented for the piece, but one was his own earlier song “Let Me Be Alone,” from op. 82. This was the favorite melody of his beloved sister-in-law Josephina, who was in ill health when Dvořák returned from Europe. Toward the middle of the movement, a simple statement of Josephina’s song is followed by a heart-rending development of its themes by the cello. Immediately afterward, a trio of French horns solemnly states a chorale based on the movement’s opening theme, as if to express transcendental hope in the face of impending tragedy. When his sister-in-law passed away during the composition of the concerto, Dvořák completely revised the last movement to include a recapitulation of her favorite song as a memorial to her.

The finale contrasts all of the moods from the earlier parts of the work, from love song to playful expressiveness, from nobility to melancholia to utter indomitability. Nowhere else in his entire output is the Czech composer so prolific at inventing the perfect tunes to satisfy such a wide range of expressive needs, as in this concerto. This single work seems to encompass all aspects of his genius at once. Although the soloist has ample opportunity to display virtuoso technique, it is still the beauty of the melodies that captures the audience. It took a composer of Dvořák’s level of genius to see for the first time the potentiality of the cello that we now consider obvious. Since that first inspiration, many major composers have produced powerful concerti for this beautiful instrument, but none has surpassed this magnificent example.


Vetrate da Chiesa (Church Windows) , op. 150
Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1836)

Since the time of Rossini, serious Italian music has centered around the opera. While giants like Rossini, Verdi and Puccini created their stage masterpieces several generations of lesser composers tried – but failed – to establish an equivalent presence in orchestral music. The lone major exception was Ottorino Respighi. His three famous tone poems (Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals) have earned a place in the orchestral repertory which challenges almost any other composition for sheer sonic audience appeal.

Respighi’s early education (in the European lyceum system) for twelve years at the Liceo Mucicale at Bologna led him quite naturally into a musical career. Although he was trained in all aspects of music, his early interesting composing cannot be disputed. Immediately after graduating, he traveled to St. Petersburg, where he studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov. However for the first dozen years or so he was unable to support himself by composing. He played piano and in the string sections of several musical organizations throughout Italy, although not as a virtuoso soloist. During this period he produced several minor works as well as a few larger orchestral pieces, but no major successes. All were competently composed, but none captured the fancy of the Italian public. Nevertheless, his personal style was developing all along.

His composing career took a turn for the better when he was appointed in 1913 to the position of Professor of Composition at the St. Cecilia Conservatory, in Rome. Now having more time available to compose, he was able to bring his style to maturity. He burst onto the international music scene with his brilliant tone poem The Fountains of Rome (recently performed by the Immaculata Symphony). Almost overnight his public perception was transformed from ‘minor composer who merited little attention’ into ‘emerging giant of the musical world.’ The success of Fountains also made him financially independent, so that he no longer needed to augment his income by other musical activities.

Inexplicably, it took him seven years to follow up this initial success with The Pines of Rome, which cemented his reputation and is now probably his best known work. Its success established him as a major talent, and his career took off. Although he continued his position at the Conservatory, he resigned as its Director. This allowed him to spend far less time in administrative duties and much more in composing, although he continued to teach composition.

Immediately after the success of Pines, he threw himself into several major projects, one of which was another four-movement tone poem in a very similar style, Vetrate da Chiesa (Church Windows). Like Pines and Fountains – indeed like Respighi himself – the music is perhaps naïve and childlike, rather than complex and cerebral. Its sensory appeal is visceral and direct. Its melodies burn their way into the listener’s subconscious, and few people leave a performance without its tunes continuing to run through their mind as they go. Its appeal is so direct that it is surprising that Church Windows has not established as strong a position in the repertory as Pines and Fountains.

Vetrate da Chiesa is an orchestral re-working of a piano piece he had written long ago called Three Preludes on Gregorian Themes, done in the same orchestral style as the more famous tone poems. Not surprisingly, it draws heavily on Gregorian chant for a few of its melodies (including several direct quotations from chant) and as the starting point to invent new melodies that are perfectly compatible in style. Like Pines and Fountains, each of the four movements depicts a specific subject – in this case a stained glass window from a major cathedral. Since the subjects of his inspiration were not all in Rome, he couldn’t give the tone poem a Roman title as an exact parallel to Pines of Rome,Fountains of Romeand Roman Festivals. Nevertheless, it probably should be thought of as the fourth tone poem of a grouping with the famous Roman trilogy.

The subjects of the stained glass windows became the subtitles of the four moments: TheFlight into Egypt, Morning Prayers of Santa Chiara, Michael the Archangel (portrayed as a warrior, with a fiery sword, casting the fallen angels into Hell) and Pope Gregory the Great. Given the importance of Gregorian chant to his musical inspiration, it is only fitting that Respighi portray Pope Gregory in the final movement. It is a dramatic tribute to one of the historically most important leaders of the Roman Catholic church, ending with an outpouring of orchestral power which rivals anything else that Respighi – who must be acknowledged as the greatest modern Italian orchestral composer – ever wrote.

 

 

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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