Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture
(b. Brooklyn, New York, 1898; d. Hollywood, California, 1937)
Arranged by Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981)
Composed in 1934-1935; arranged in 1941.
Premiered on September 30, 1935 in Boston.
Instrumentation: piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps and strings.
Duration: approximately 24 minutes.
The Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 marked George Gershwin's debut as a serious composer. A year later, DuBose Heyward, a poet and writer from Charleston, South Carolina, published a novel titled Porgy loosely based on a local character called "Goat Sammy," a Negro cripple who got about town in a goat cart. Goat Sammy was known to many as a beggar on the city's streets, but Heyward was struck by a news article in 1924 reporting that the man had been arrested on a charge of aggravated assault in a crime of passion. Heyward thought it extraordinary that "the object of public charity by day, had a private life of his own by night. It was a tempestuous life, and in it were the seeds of human struggle that make for drama." Porgy became a best-seller. Gershwin read the book in September 1926, and he was so excited by its potential for the musical stage that he immediately dashed off a letter to Heyward suggesting that they collaborate on turning it into an opera. The writer responded eagerly and positively to Gershwin's suggestion, but told him that he and his wife, Dorothy, were just then working the novel into a play, and that any operatic adaptation would have to wait until their drama had been staged. A delay was inevitable on Gershwin's side anyway because he was just then reaching the pinnacle of his success as a Broadway and concert composer, and the demand for his music and shows was continuous — Oh, Kay!, both versions of Strike Up the Band, Funny Face, Rosalie, Treasure Girl, Show Girl, Girl Crazy and Of Thee I Sing, as well as the Piano Preludes, An American in Paris, the Second Rhapsody and the Cuban Overture all appeared within the next five years. The Heywards' Porgy was produced by the Theatre Guild in 1927, and became one of the dramatic hits of the Broadway season.
In March 1932, Gershwin wrote to Heyward expressing his interest in reviving the plans for a Porgy opera. Heyward, who hoped that a collaboration with America's most popular composer would afford some relief from the financial difficulties he was experiencing in those early Depression years, was eager to move ahead with the project, but he was disappointed to learn that Gershwin could not begin work until at least January of the next year. A further difficulty arose in September 1932 when Al Jolson told Heyward that he wanted to play Porgy in blackface in a musical version created for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Kern and Hammerstein were soon engaged on other projects, however, and Jolson's plan fell through. Finally, on October 26, 1933, seven years after he had first proposed the idea to Heyward, Gershwin signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to compose the music for an opera based on Porgy.
Heyward had already been working for some time on ideas for the libretto of Porgy and Bess. (The expanded title was used to distinguish the opera from the stage play.) From his home in Charleston, where he preferred to write, he started sending scenes to Gershwin in New York in November 1933. Gershwin, however, who had just committed to do a grueling 28-day/28-concert/28-city tour in January and February celebrating the tenth anniversary of the premiere of his Rhapsody in Blue, had little time for composition just then, and he told Heyward he could not begin serious work until February, though he did sketch the melody for Summertime during a visit with friends in Palm Beach in December. Heyward invited the composer to come to Charleston after the tour, but Gershwin had contracted to do a twice-weekly radio broadcast, and the composer convinced the librettist to visit him in New York in April instead. Heyward worked with George and his brother, Ira, who had agreed to help with the lyrics, for about a month before returning home.
When his radio series finished in June, Gershwin was at last able to travel to Charleston to see the people and scenes which were the subjects of Porgy and Bess. He rented a ramshackle cottage on Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles from Charleston, and was joined a few days later by the Heywards. Gershwin was thoroughly immersed in the project by that time, and DuBose later wrote, "James Island with its large population of Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and furnished us with ... an inexhaustible source of folk material. But the most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals, or watched a group shuffling before a cabin or country store, was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration." At a local prayer meeting, Gershwin was fascinated by an energetic kind of unaccompanied vocal music known as "shouting," which Heyward described as being based on "a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands ... indubitably an African survival." Gershwin joined the "shout" and "stole the show from their champion 'shouter,'" much to the amusement of the congregation. Though the visit was important for establishing the venue and some aspects of the opera's musical style, Gershwin, occupied in that vacation season with swimming, sunning and socializing, actually got little work done on Folly Island.
Gershwin returned to New York on July 22nd, and he worked for the next year on Porgy — the orchestration, entirely his own, was not completed until September 2, 1935, just four weeks before the opening in Boston. The Theatre Guild had begun preparations for the premiere by late 1934, when Rouben Mamoulian, who directed the stage version of Porgy, was engaged as producer and Todd Duncan, a voice teacher at Howard University in Washington, D.C., accepted the title role. Anne Brown, a 20-year-old student at Juilliard, was cast as Bess, Warren Coleman as Crown and John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life. Porgy and Bess was a great critical and public success in its out-of-town tryout at Boston's Colonial Theatre beginning on September 30, 1935, but its running length of three hours and the difficulty of Porgy's part necessitated extensive cuts and reworkings. By the New York premiere on October 10th, tremendous expectation had accumulated around Gershwin's adventurous work (the major dailies sent both their drama and music critics to the Alvin Theatre that evening), but, despite an enthusiastic reception from the audience, the reviews were mixed. Ticket sales declined, and Porgy and Bess closed in New York after just 124 performances. However, its great songs — Summertime; It Ain't Necessarily So; I Got Plenty o' Nothing; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York and a half-dozen others — immediately became standards of the pop repertory, and maintained the show's reputation until 1942, when a new Broadway production had a longer run than had any other revival to that time. An American company toured with the show throughout Western and Eastern Europe, the Near East, Mexico and South America continuously from 1952 to 1956; in February 1955, the troupe appeared at La Scala in Milan, making Porgy and Bess the first opera by a native American composer heard in that hallowed auditorium. In 1975, Gershwin's original score, with its recitatives and cuts completely restored, was given in a concert performance and recorded by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra; this complete version was staged a year later by the Houston Grand Opera Company, taken on tour and brought successfully to New York. In 1985, a full half-century after it was premiered, Porgy and Bess was finally given the ultimate establishment imprimatur when it was first staged at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Piano Concerto in G
(b. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France, 1875; d. Paris, 1937)
Composed in 1929-1931.
Premiered on January 14, 1932 in Paris, with Marguerite Long as soloist and the composer conducting.
Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 22 minutes.
Ravel's tour of the United States in 1928 was such a success that he began to plan for a second one as soon as he returned to France. With a view toward having a vehicle for himself as a pianist on his return visit, he started work on a concerto in 1929, perhaps encouraged by the good fortune that Stravinsky had enjoyed concertizing with his Concerto for Piano and Winds and Piano Capriccio earlier in the decade. Both to polish his keyboard technique and to extend his repertory — he seems to have harbored a desire to be a virtuoso pianist into his last years — Ravel spent much time and effort in those months practicing the works of Liszt and Chopin. Many other projects pressed upon him, however, not the least of which was a commission from the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the First World War, to compose a piano concerto for left hand alone. Ravel set aside the tour concerto for some nine months to work on Wittgenstein's commission.
Ravel commented to a friend, the musicologist M.D. Calvocoressi, about having both scores on his desk at the same time: "Planning the two concertos simultaneously was an interesting experience. The one in which I shall appear as interpreter is a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects.... I had intended to entitle this concerto 'Divertissement.' Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so, because the very title 'Concerto' should be sufficiently clear. The concerto for left hand alone is very different...." As it happened, Ravel was unable to find time to prepare the solo part when the new two-hand Concerto was finished in autumn 1931, so he approached his long-time interpreter Marguerite Long with the request that she undertake the premiere. Having prodded Ravel for some time to write just such a work, she readily accepted. Ravel was so excited by the fine reception given to the Concerto at its first performance in January 1932 that he told Calvocoressi he wanted to take it on an around-the-world tour. He and Madame Long did not get quite that far, but they did have a four-month tour that spring that went to several cities in central Europe and England. Despite Ravel's initial enthusiasm for traveling with the Concerto, however, the rigors of the trip seem to have taken a heavy toll on his always-delicate health, and later that summer he started suffering from a number of medical setbacks that culminated the following year in the discovery of a brain tumor. His health never returned, and the Concerto in G was the last major score that he completed.
Ravel told John Burk, program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that "he felt that in this composition he had expressed himself most completely, and that he had poured his thoughts into the exact mold that he had dreamed." In addition to the spirit of grace and pure entertainment that he hoped to achieve with this work, Ravel also drew on another important influence — that American export then sweeping Europe, Le Jazz Hot. The jazz-inspired effects of rhythm and instrumentation in the Concerto's outer movements pay homage both to the music of George Gershwin, whom Ravel had met several years before, and to Ravel's past and projected tours of America. Robert Kotlowitz commented, however, that these qualities may also reflect a wider social phenomenon: "Gershwin's Concerto in F had been composed five years before Ravel's and there is little doubt that Ravel was familiar with it. But the G major is not Gershwin slavishly followed. It is not even Gershwin used as a model. It is the period itself — a little giddy, daring in a playful way, impertinent, sentimental, restless — that fills Ravel's Concerto as it fills Gershwin's."
The sparkling first movement of the Concerto in G opens with a bright melody in the piccolo that may derive from an old folk dance of the Basque region of southern France, where Ravel was born. There is even some evidence that this movement and the finale trace back to an aborted piano concerto on Basque themes on which Ravel had worked right after the First World War. There are several themes in this exposition: the lively opening group is balanced by another set that is more nostalgic and bluesy in character. The development section is an elaboration of the lively opening themes, ending with a brief cadenza in octaves as a link to the recapitulation. The lively themes are passed over quickly, but the nostalgic melodies are treated at some length. One melody is given as an atmospheric cadenza for harp; another as a trill-filled solo for the pianist. The jaunty vivacity of the beginning returns for a dazzling coda filled with flashing figuration shared by the upper winds and the solo trumpet.
When Ravel first showed the manuscript of the Adagio to Madame Long, she commented on the music's effortless, flowing grace. The composer sighed, and told her that he had struggled to write the movement "bar by bar," that it had cost him more anxiety than any of his other scores. It is impossible to hear Ravel's toil in this lovely, ethereal music, whose haunting simplicity is reminiscent, according to Arbie Orenstein, of the "archaic lyricism" of Eric Satie's works. The movement begins with a long-breathed melody for solo piano over a rocking accompaniment. The piano weaves delicate strands of filigree around the lovely theme as it passes into the orchestra. The central section of the movement does not differ from the opening as much in melody as it does in texture — a gradual thickening occurs as the music proceeds. The texture then becomes again translucent, and the opening melody is heard on its return in the plaintive tones of the English horn. Tender string harmonies bring this magical movement to a quiet close.
The finale is a whirling showpiece for soloist and orchestra that again recalls the energetic world of jazz. Trombone slides, muted trumpet interjections, shrieking exclamations from the woodwinds abound. The episodes of the form tumble continuously one after another without time for even a breath on their way to the work's abrupt end.
An American in Paris
Composed in 1928.
Premiered on December 13, 1928 in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch.
Instrumentation: piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three saxophones, two bassoons,
four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta and strings.
Duration: approximately 16 minutes.
In 1928, George Gershwin was not only the toast of Broadway, but of all America, Britain and many spots in Europe, as well: he had produced a string of successful shows (Rosalie and Funny Face were both running on Broadway that spring), composed two of the most popular concert pieces in recent memory (Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F), and was leading a life that would have made the most glamorous socialite jealous. The pace-setting Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 had shown a way to bridge the worlds of jazz and serious music, a direction Gershwin followed further in the exuberant yet haunting Concerto in F the following year. He was eager to move further into the concert world, and during a side trip in March 1926 to Paris from London, where he was preparing the English premiere of Lady Be Good, he hit upon an idea, a "walking theme" he called it, that seemed to capture the impression of an American visitor to the city "as he strolls about, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere." He worried that "this melody is so complete in itself, I don't know where to go next," but the purchase of four Parisian taxi horns on the Avenue de la Grande Armée inspired a second theme for the piece. Late in 1927, a commission for a new orchestral composition from Walter Damrosch, music director of the New York Symphony and conductor of the sensational premiere of the Concerto in F, caused Gershwin to gather up his Parisian sketches, and by January 1928, he was at work on the score: An American in Paris. From March to June, Gershwin was in Europe, renewing acquaintances in London, hobnobbing with Milhaud, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Ibert, Ravel and Boulanger in Paris (Ravel turned down Gershwin's request for some composition lessons, telling him that anybody making as much money as he did hardly needed instruction), meeting Berg, Lehár and Kálmán in Vienna, and working on An American in Paris as time allowed. He returned to New York in late June to discover that the New York Symphony had announced the premiere for the upcoming season. The two-piano sketch was finished by August 1st, and the orchestration completed only a month before the premiere, on December 13, 1928. An American in Paris, though met with a mixed critical reception, proved a great success with the public, and it quickly became clear that Gershwin had scored yet another hit.
For the premiere, Deems Taylor collaborated with the composer to produce the following insouciant description of An American in Paris:
"You are to imagine an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts without preliminaries and is off at full speed at once to the tune of The First Walking Theme, a straightforward diatonic air designed to convey the impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety. Our American's ears being open, as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxicabs seem to amuse him particularly, a fact that the orchestra points out in brief episodes introducing four real Paris taxi horns.
"Having safely eluded the taxis, our American apparently passes the open door of a café where, if one is to believe the trombone, La Maxixe is still popular. Exhilarated by this reminder of the gay 1900s, he resumes his stroll through the medium of The Second Walking Theme, which is announced by the clarinet in French with a strong American accent. Both themes are now discussed at some length by the instruments, until our tourist happens to pass a church, or perhaps the Grand Palaís — where the Salon holds forth. At all events, our hero does not go in.
"At this point, the American's itinerary becomes somewhat obscured. It may that he continues down the Champs-Elysées, and that when The Third Walking Theme makes its eventual appearance our American has crossed the Seine and is somewhere on the Left Bank. Certainly it is distinctly less Gallic than its predecessors, speaking American with a French intonation as befits that region of the city where so many Americans foregather. 'Walking' may be a misnomer for despite its vitality, the theme is slightly sedentary in character and becomes progressively more so. Indeed, the end of this section of the work is couched in terms so unmistakably, albeit, pleasantly blurred as to suggest that the American is on a terrasse of a café exploring the mysteries of Anise de Lozo.
"And now the orchestra introduces an unhallowed episode. Suffice it to say that a solo violin approaches our hero (in the soprano register) and addresses him in the most charming broken English; and his response being inaudible — or at least unintelligible — repeats the remark. This one-sided conversation continues for some little time. Of course, one hastens to add, it is possible that the whole episode is simply a musical transition. This may well be true, for otherwise it is difficult to believe what ensues: our hero becomes homesick. He has the blues; and if the behavior of the solo trumpet be any criterion, he has them very thoroughly. He realizes suddenly, overwhelmingly, that he does not belong to this place, that he is that most wretched creature in all the world, a foreigner.
"However, nostalgia is not a fatal disease — nor, in this instance, of over-long duration. Just in the nick of time the compassionate orchestra rushes another theme to the rescue, two trumpets performing the ceremony of introduction. It is apparent that our hero must have met a compatriot; for this last theme is a noisy, cheerful, self-confident Charleston, without a drop of Gallic blood in its veins. For the moment, Paris is no more; and a voluble, gusty, wise-cracking orchestra proceeds to demonstrate at some length that it's always fair weather when two Americans get together, no matter where. Walking Theme Number Two enters soon thereafter, enthusiastically abetted by Number Three. Paris isn't such a bad place after all: as a matter of fact, it's a grand place! Nice weather, nothing to do until tomorrow, nice girls. The blues return but mitigated by the Second Walking Theme — a happy reminiscence rather than a homesick yearning — and the orchestra, in a riotous finale, decides to make a night of it. It will be great to get home; but meanwhile, this is Paris!"
Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Composed in 1909-1912.
Premiered on June 8, 1912 in Paris, conducted by Pierre Monteux.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, alto flute, two oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon,
four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, two harps, strings.
Duration: approximately 17 minutes.
The Ballet Russe descended on Paris in 1909 with an impact still reverberating through the worlds of art, music and dance. Its brilliant impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, went shopping among the artistic riches of the French capital, and soon had gathered together the most glittering array of creative talent ever assembled under a single banner: Falla, Picasso, Nijinsky, Fokine, Bakst, Monteux, Stravinsky, Massine, Debussy, Matisse, Prokofiev, Pavlova, Poulenc, Milhaud. Early in 1910 Diaghilev approached Maurice Ravel with a scenario by Fokine for a ballet based on a pastoral romance derived from the writings of the 5th-century Greek sophist Longus. In his 1928 autobiographical sketch, Ravel wrote, "I was commissioned by the director of the Russian Ballet to write Daphnis et Chloé, a choreographic symphony in three movements. My aim in writing it was to compose a vast musical fresco, and to be not so much careful about archaic details as loyal to my visionary Greece, which is fairly closely related to the Greece imagined and depicted by French painters at the end of the 18th century. The work is constructed like a symphony, with a very strict system of tonality, formed out of a small number of themes whose development assures homogeneity to the work." Ravel's refined view of Daphnis through the eyes of Watteau was at variance with the primitive one held by others on the production staff, especially Léon Bakst, who was doing the stage designs. There were many squabbles and delays in mounting the production, and, as a ballet, Daphnis had a lukewarm reception at its premiere at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris on June 8, 1912. Ravel's score, however, was greeted with enthusiasm, perhaps because the orchestra was the only facet of the production that was completely prepared. The music immediately entered the repertory of the world's orchestras and has remained one of the most popular of 20th-century scores, though the ballet is rarely seen.
One of the marks of a great musical work is the way in which it creates and envelops the listener in its own characteristic world. Ravel, through his masterful orchestration, sensitivity to color and atmosphere, and careful construction, created such a sound world in his Daphnis et Chloé. Ravel's world is one of elegant sensuality and dream-like refinement, one which grew from the composer's idealized vision not so much of Greece as of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles and its precise etiquette governing life and love. The young lovers of the ballet are not ancient primitives, but pink-cheeked shepherds who have stepped from a delicate canvas of Fragonard to amuse Le Roi Soleil. In considering the wondrous effect of Daphnis, Jean Cocteau wrote, "It is one of those works that land in the heart like a meteorite, from a planet whose laws will remain forever mysterious and beyond our understanding." Igor Stravinsky called it "one of the most beautiful products of French music."
The ballet opens in a meadow bordering a sacred wood on the island of Lesbos. At the right is a grotto which contains an altar graced by statues of three Nymphs chiseled from the surrounding natural stone. A great boulder in the left background suggests the shape of the god Pan. Greek youths and maidens enter with wreaths and flowers to place at the altar of the Nymphs as the shepherd Daphnis descends from the hills. His lover, Chloé, crosses the meadow to meet him. They join the young Greeks in a solemn dance before the altar. The girls are attracted to the handsome Daphnis, and dance seductively around him, inciting Chloé's jealousy. Chloé, in her turn, becomes the object of the men's advances, most particularly a crude one from the clownish goatherd Dorcon. Daphnis' jealousy is now aroused, and he challenges Dorcon to a dancing contest, the prize to be a kiss from Chloé. Dorcon performs a grotesque dance, and is jeered by the onlookers. Daphnis easily wins Chloé's kiss with his graceful performance. The crowd leads Chloé away, leaving Daphnis alone to lapse into languid ecstasy. Lycenion, a seductive young woman, steals upon Daphnis, and tries to excite his interest by letting slip several of her veils, but he remains indifferent. She withdraws.
Daphnis' attention is suddenly drawn to the clanging of arms and shouts of alarm from the woods. Pirates have invaded and set upon the Greeks. Daphnis rushes off to protect Chloé. In the melee, Chloé has returned to the altar of the Nymphs, but her prayers to them go unanswered, and she is captured. Daphnis returns to find her torn scarf. He curses the gods for having failed to protect his lover, and falls senseless at the entrance to the grotto. An otherworldly light envelops the scene as the Nymphs come to life. They descend from their pedastals, and, in a slow, mysterious dance before the large rock, supplicate for help from the god Pan, whose form emerges from the clouds as night falls.
In Scene Two, set on a jagged seacoast, the brigands enter their hideaway laden with booty. They perform a barbaric war-dance before their chief, Bryaxis, and fall exhausted. Chloé, hands bound, is led in. Bryaxis attempts to woo her, and orders her to dance. She implores her abductors for pity in her dance, pleading for her release. When the chief refuses, the sky grows dark, and Pan, arm extended threateningly, appears upon the nearby mountains. The frightened pirates flee, leaving Chloé alone.
Scene Three is again set amid the hills and meadows of the ballet's first scene, where Daphnis is still prostrate. It is sunrise. Herdsmen arrive, and revive Daphnis with the news that Chloé has been rescued. She appears, and throws herself into Daphnis' arms. The old shepherd Lammon explains to them that Pan has saved Chloé in remembrance of his love for the Nymph Syrinx. In gratitude, Daphnis and Chloé re-enact the ancient tale, in which Syrinx is transformed into a reed by her sisters to save her from the lustful pursuit of Pan, who then made a flute from that selfsame reed — the pipes of Pan — upon which to play away his longing. The dance grows more animated until Chloé abandons her role as Syrinx and falls into Daphnis' arms. The two lovers approach the altar of the Nymphs. A group of maidens enters dressed as bacchantes, followed by a band of young men. Daphnis and Chloé embrace tenderly, and join in the general joyous tumult that ends the ballet.
From the complete ballet, Ravel extracted two Suites comprising some two-thirds of the work's length. The Second Suite parallels the action of the ballet's final Scene: Daybreak, Pantomime of the adventure of Pan and Syrinx, and the concluding General Dance.
©2015 Dr. Richard E. Rodda