Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Overture to Goethe's Egmont, Opus 84
Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Composed in 1810.
Premiered on June 15, 1810 in Vienna.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings
Duration: approximately 9 minutes.
"The first casualty when war comes," observed Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, "is truth." So when Napoleon invaded Vienna in May 1809, convinced that the Austrian Empire was the major stumbling-block to his domination of Europe, it is not surprising that censorship of literature, of the press, and of the theater were instituted immediately. The months until the French departed in October were bitter ones for the Viennese. The value of the national currency dwindled, food was in short supply, and freedoms were limited. Soon after the first of the year, with Napoleon's forces gone, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for the production of a series of revivals of the dramas of Schiller and Goethe, the great figures of the German stage. Appropriately, two plays that he chose dealt with the oppression of a noble people by a foreign tyrant, and of the eventual freedom the patriots won for themselves — Schiller’s William Tell and Goethe's Egmont.
Beethoven was commissioned to write the music for Goethe's play. (Adalbert Gyrowetz was assigned William Tell. Rossini's setting of the tale was still two decades in the future.) Egmont, based on an incident from 1567, depicts the subjugation of the Netherlands to the tyrannical Spanish rulers, the agony of the people, and their growing defiance and dreams of liberty, and ends with Count Egmont's call for revolution and his vision in the moments before his execution of eventual victory. Beethoven approached his task with zeal, out of both his unmitigated respect for the author and his humanist's belief in the freedom and dignity of man.
The theme of political oppression overthrown in the name of freedom was also treated by Beethoven in his only opera, Fidelio, and the musical process employed there also served well for Egmont. The triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, is portrayed through the overall structure of the work: major tonalities replace minor at the moment of victory; bright orchestral sonorities succeed somber, threatening ones; fanfares displace sinuous melodies. Devoid of overtly dramatic trappings, it is the same emotional road he travelled in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. The incidental music to Egmont mirrors the plight of the Dutch people and their determination to be free, finishing with a Siegessymphonie, a "Symphony of Victory." The Overture compresses the action of the play into a single musical span. A stark unison begins the introduction. Twice, stern chords from the strings are answered by the lyrical plaints of the woodwinds. An uneasy hush comes over the last measures of this solemn opening. The main body of the Overture commences with an ominous melody in the cellos. A storm quickly gathers (note the timpani strokes), but clears to allow the appearance of the contrasting second theme, a quicker version of the material from the introduction. The threatening mood returns to carry the music through its developmental central section and into the recapitulation. The second theme is extended to include passages cloaked in the burnished sound of horns and winds. A falling, unison fourth followed by a silence marks the moment of Egmont’s death. Organ-like chords from the winds sustain the moment of suspense. Then, beginning almost imperceptibly but growing with an exhilarating rapidity, the stirring song of victory is proclaimed by the full orchestra. Tyranny is conquered. Right prevails.
Violin Concerto No, 1 in G Minor, Opus 26
(b. Cologne, 1838; d. Friedenau, near Berlin, 1920)
Composed in 1865-1866.
Premiered on April 24, 1866 in Coblenz, with Otto von Königslöw as soloist and the composer conducting.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 23 minutes.
Max Bruch, widely known and respected in his day as a composer, conductor and teacher, received his earliest music instruction from his mother, a noted singer and pianist. He began composing at eleven, and by fourteen had produced a symphony and a string quartet, the latter garnering a prize that allowed him to study with Karl Reinecke and Ferdinand Hiller in Cologne. His opera Die Loreley (1862) and the choral work Frithjof (1864) brought him his first public acclaim. For the next 25 years, Bruch held various posts as a choral and orchestral conductor in Cologne, Coblenz, Sondershausen, Berlin, Liverpool and Breslau; in 1883, he visited the United States to conduct concerts of his own choral compositions. From 1890 to 1910, he taught composition at the Berlin Academy and received numerous awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. Though Bruch is known mainly for three famous compositions for string soloist and orchestra (the G minor Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy for violin, and the Kol Nidrei for cello), he also composed two other violin concertos, three symphonies, a concerto for two pianos, various chamber pieces, songs, three operas and much choral music.
The G minor Violin Concerto brought Bruch his earliest and most enduring fame. He began sketching ideas for the piece in 1857, when he was a nineteen-year-old student just finishing his studies with Ferdinand Hiller in Cologne, but they only came to fruition in 1865, at the start of his two-year tenure as director of the Royal Institute for Music at Coblenz. The piece was not only Bruch’s first concerto but also his first large work for orchestra, so he sought the advice of Johann Naret-Koning, concertmaster at Mannheim, concerning matters of violin technique and instrumental balance. The Concerto was ready for performance by April 1866 with Naret-Koning slated as soloist, but illness forced him to cancel, and Otto von Königslöw, concertmaster of the Gürzenich Orchestra and violin professor at the Cologne Conservatory, took over at the last minute. This public hearing convinced Bruch that repairs were needed, so he temporarily withdrew the Concerto while he revised and refined it during the next year with the meticulous advice of the eminent violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (who was to provide similar assistance to Johannes Brahms a decade later with his Violin Concerto). Joachim was soloist in the premiere of the definitive version of the Concerto, on January 7, 1868 in Bremen; he received the score’s dedication in appreciation from Bruch. The Concerto was an enormous hit, spreading Bruch’s reputation across Europe and, following its first performance in New York in 1872 by Pablo de Sarasate, America. Its success, however, hoisted Bruch upon the horns of a dilemma later in his career. He, of course, valued the notoriety that the Concerto brought to him and his music, but he also came to realize that the work’s exceptional popularity overshadowed his other pieces for violin and orchestra. “Nothing compares to the laziness, stupidity and dullness of many German violinists,” he complained to the publisher Fritz Simrock in a letter from 1887. “Every fortnight another one comes to me wanting to play the First Concerto; I have now become rude, and tell them: ‘I cannot listen to this Concerto any more — did I perhaps write just this one? Go away, and play the other [two] Concertos, which are just as good, if not better.” Bruch’s vehemence in this matter was exacerbated by the fact that he had sold the rights to the G minor Concerto to the publisher August Cranz for a one-time payment, and he never received another penny from its innumerable performances. In a poignant episode at the end of his life, he tried to recoup some money from the piece by offering his original manuscript for sale in the United States, but he died before receiving any payment for it. The score is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
The G minor Violin Concerto is a work of lyrical beauty and emotional sincerity. The first movement, which Bruch called a “Prelude,” is in the nature of an extended introduction leading without pause into the slow movement. The Concerto opens with a dialogue between soloist and orchestra followed by a wide-ranging subject played by the violinist over a pizzicato line in the basses. A contrasting theme reaches into the highest register of the violin, and is followed by scintillating passage work of scales and broken chords for the soloist. A stormy section for orchestra alone recalls the opening dialogue, which softens to usher in the lovely Adagio. This slow movement contains three important themes, all languorous and sweet, which are shared by soloist and orchestra. The music builds to a passionate climax before subsiding to a tranquil close.
The finale begins with eighteen modulatory bars containing hints of the upcoming theme before the soloist proclaims the vibrant melody itself, enriched with copious multiple stops. A broad melody, played first by the orchestra alone before being taken over by the soloist, serves as the second theme. A brief development, based on the dance-like first theme, leads to the recapitulation. The coda, with some ingenious long-range harmonic deflections, recalls again the first theme to bring the work to a rousing close. Though a true showpiece for the master violinist, the G minor Concerto also possesses a solid musicianship and a memorable lyricism that make it a continuing favorite with both performers and audiences. Sir Donald Tovey succinctly summarized the talent of the composer of this work by simply saying, “It is not easy to write as beautifully as Max Bruch.”
(b. Brooklyn, New York, 1898; d. Hollywood, 1937)
Composed in 1932.
Premiered on August 16, 1932, conducted by Albert Coates.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 10 minutes.
When Aaron Copland returned from the sun-baked visit south of the border that inspired El Sálon México, he wrote, “Other tourists will pull out their snapshots to show you what a country looks like, but a composer wants to show you what a country sounds like.” Only the year before, in 1932, George Gershwin left the frantic bustle of his beloved New York City for a holiday in Havana and, like Copland, returned home with his own musical postcard. Gershwin planned to swim and play tennis and visit the gaming halls to relax from the pressures attendant upon the Broadway successes of Strike Up the Band, Girl Crazy and Of Thee I Sing and the composition of such orchestral works as An American in Paris and the Second Rhapsody. His fame, however, preceded him, and he was showered with constant attention from the Cubans, including a moonlight serenade by a sixteen-piece rumba band beneath the window of his Almendares Hotel suite.
Before Gershwin left Havana, the idea for an orchestral work based on Cuban music was spawned. He acquired a number of native percussion instruments for the score and had them shipped back to New York, since his immediate plan was to continue on to Europe. However, the death of his father on May 14th forced him to return home, where work on the Cuban Overture gave him an outlet for his grief. Like most musical works, however, this one gives no clue to its creator’s immediate feelings, and there is no touch of sorrow in the finished product. The score was originally named Rumba, but the composer changed it after the premiere because, he wrote, “When people read Rumba they expect the Peanut Vendor or a like piece of music. Cuban Overture gives a more just idea of the character and intent of the music.”
The Lewisohn Stadium program on which the Cuban Overture was premiered was the first all-Gershwin concert anywhere. Though the composer thought the open-air setting dissipated some of the work’s orchestral color and percussion effects, he wrote a friend the next morning, “I really believe that last night was the most exciting I ever had. First, because the [New York] Philharmonic Orchestra played an entire program of my music, and second, because the all-time [attendance] record for the Stadium was broken. I have just gotten the figures: 17,845 people paid to get in, and another 5,000 were at the closed gates trying to fight their way in - unsuccessfully." As further testimony to the enduring popularity of Gershwin’s music, it should be noted that when subsequent Lewisohn Stadium records were set - in 1937 and 1941 - they were also for all-Gershwin concerts.
The evidence of Gershwin’s interest in composing serious concert music dates from the epochal Rhapsody in Blue of 1924. The Piano Concerto followed a year later, and during the intervening years, he made a determined effort to expand both his compositional technique and his knowledge of music history. He studied theory and counterpoint with the noted Russian pedagogue Joseph Schillinger, and collected scores and recordings of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Sibelius and others. He subscribed to the periodical New Music, and was especially interested in the recent compositions of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The increasing mastery of his craft is evidenced by the Cuban Overture without, however, sacrificing any of his characteristic melodic or rhythmic invention. Though the music reflects both his serious aspirations and the influence of the dances he heard in Havana, it is unmistakably jazz-age American and unmistakably Gershwin.
The Cuban Overture opens with a brilliant flourish and a heady rhythmic vitality. A number of themes are presented - sometimes successively, sometimes simultaneously - in one of Gershwin’s richest displays of texture, melodic invention and orchestration. A clarinet cadenza serves as transition to the work’s central section, a languid dance based on the habanera that brings visions of a sensual Latin señorita charming the handsome, young American visitor. The music builds to a strong peak culminating with a held note and a quick rhythmic punctuation which usher in the return of the themes and rhythmic vitality of the opening section. A brief coda of pyramiding chords draws this brilliant orchestral travelogue to a close.
“Porteñas Primavera” from Las Quatro Estaciones Porteñas (Spring from The Four Seasons)
(b. Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 1921; d. Buenos Aires, 1992)
Arranged by Fabio Mechetti
Composed in 1984 and 1968.
Duration: approximately 10 minutes
The Argentinean tango, like American ragtime and jazz, is music with a shady past. Its deepest roots extend to Africa and the fiery dances of Spain, but it seems to have evolved most directly from a slower Cuban dance, the habanera (whose name honors that nation's capital), and a faster native Argentinean song form, the milonga, both in duple meter and both sensuously syncopated in rhythm. These influences met at the end of the 19th century in the docklands and seamier neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, where they found fertile ground for gestation as the influx of workers streaming in from Europe to seek their fortunes in the pampas and cities of South America came into contact with the exotic Latin cultures. The tango — its name may have been derived from a word of African origin meaning simply "dance," or from the old Castilian taño ("to play an instrument"), or from a type of drum used by black slaves, or from none of these — came to embody the longing and hard lives of the lower classes of Buenos Aires, where it was chiefly fostered in bawdy houses and back-alley bars by usually untutored musicians. The texts, where they existed, dealt with such forlorn urban topics as faithless women, social injustice and broken dreams. In the years around World War I, the tango migrated out of the seedier neighborhoods of Argentina, leaped across the Atlantic to be discovered by the French, and then went on to invade the rest of Europe and North America. International repute elevated its social status, and, spurred by the glamorous images of Rudolph Valentino and Vernon and Irene Castle, the tango became the dance craze of the 1930s. Tango bands, comprising four to six players (usually piano, accordion, guitar and strings) with or without a vocalist, flourished during the years between the Wars, and influenced not just the world's popular music but also that of serious composers: one of Isaac Albéniz's most famous works is his Tango in D; William Walton inserted a tango into his "Entertainment with Poems" for speaker and instruments, Façade; and Igor Stravinsky had the Devil in The Soldier's Tale dance a tango and composed a Tango for Piano, which he also arranged for full orchestra and for winds with guitar and bass.
The greatest master of the modern tango was Astor Piazzolla, born in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, a resort town south of Buenos Aires, on March 11, 1921, and raised in New York City, where he lived with his father from 1924 to 1937. Before Astor was ten years old, his musical talents had been discovered by Carlos Gardel, then the most famous of all performers and composers of tangos and a cultural hero in Argentina. At Gardel's urging, the young Astor moved to Buenos Aires in 1937, and joined the popular tango orchestra of Anibal Troilo as arranger and bandoneón player. Piazzolla studied classical composition with Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires, and in 1954, he wrote a symphony for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic that earned him a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the renowned teacher of Copland, Thomson, Carter and many other of the best American composers. Boulanger, as was her method, grounded Piazzolla in the classical European repertory, but then encouraged him to follow his genius for the tango rather than write in the traditional concert genres. When Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1956, he founded his own performing group, and began to create a modern style for the tango that combined elements of traditional tango, Argentinean folk music and contemporary classical, jazz and popular techniques into a "Nuevo Tango" that was as suitable for the concert hall as for the dance floor. He was sharply criticized at first by government officials and advocates of the traditional tango alike for his path-breaking creations. "Traditional tango listeners hated me," he recalled. "I introduced fugues, counterpoint and other irreverences: people thought I was crazy. All the tango critics and radio stations of Buenos Aires called me a clown, they said my music was 'paranoiac.' And they made me popular. The young people who had lost interest in the tango started listening to me. It was a war of one against all, but in ten years, the war was won." In 1974, Piazzolla settled again in Paris, winning innumerable enthusiasts for both his Nuevo Tango and for the traditional tango with his many appearances, recordings and compositions. By the time that he returned to Buenos Aires in 1985, he was regarded as the musician who had revitalized one of the quintessential genres of Latin music, and he received awards from Down Beat and other international music magazines and from the city of Buenos Aires, as well as a Grammy nomination for his composition Oblivion. Piazzolla continued to tour widely, record frequently and compose incessantly until he suffered a stroke in Paris in August 1990. He died in Buenos Aires on July 5, 1992.
In 1984, Piazzolla went to Rome to compose the score for director Marco Bellocchio's screen version of Luigi Pirandello's drama Enrico IV, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale. "The theme in Henry IV," wrote John Humphreys Whitfield of the University of Birmingham, England, "is madness, which lies just under the skin of ordinary life and is, perhaps, superior to ordinary life in its construction of a satisfying reality. The play finds dramatic strength in its hero's choice of retirement into unreality in preference to life in the uncertain world." Bellocchio thought that Piazzolla found "a very strong point of contact" in the character of the King, which he captured in the deeply nostalgic number Oblivion written for the film.
Among Piazzolla's most ambitious concert works is Las Quatro Estaciones Porteñas ("The Four Seasons"), published originally for piano solo in 1968 and later arranged for his own ensemble (he often used one of the movements to open his concerts) and for strings and piano. "Porteñas Primavera" (Spring) is the third of the four movements, and like the other movements, is not specifically pictorial, as are Vivaldi's well-known precedents, but are instead general evocations of the changing seasons in Piazzolla's native Argentina.
Four Dances from Estancia, Opus 8a
(b. Buenos Aires, 1916; d. Geneva, 1983)
Composed in 1941.
Premiered on May 12, 1943 in Buenos Aires, conducted by Ferruccio Calusio.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, percussion, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 15 minutes.
Alberto Ginastera, Argentina's most famous and widely performed composer, was the outstanding creative figure in South American music following the death of Villa-Lobos in 1959. Ginastera's career was divided between composition and education, and in this latter capacity he held posts at leading conservatories and universities in Argentina and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. His musical works, many written on American commissions, include three operas, two ballets, six concertos, eleven film scores, eight orchestral works, various vocal and choral compositions, and much music for chamber ensembles and piano. Ginastera traveled extensively to oversee the presentation of his scores and to adjudicate major musical competitions. For his contributions to music, he was honored with many awards, including memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ginastera divided his works into two stylistic categories. The first ("Nationalism") includes his music before the mid-1950s, which displays overt influences of Argentine musical traits and themes. He modeled the rhythms and melodies of these works on the folksongs and dances known as musica criolla, though he seldom used literal quotations. This nationalistic music is imbued with the symbolism of the pampas and the "gauchesco" tradition, for which Ginastera became the leading musical spokesperson. Ginastera's second style ("Neo-Expressionism") began around 1958, and encompassed most of his later compositions, works characterized by such modernist devices as polytonality, serial writing, use of quarter-tones and other micro intervals, and an extension of instrumental resources. All of this technical jargon sounds rather imposing, but these techniques lend to the music a power of expression reinforced by expert craftsmanship that is always tantalizing to the ear. Ginastera's later works bear a strong affinity with the expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, which was itself an extension of the great European Classical-Romantic tradition. Ginastera's compositions mark him as one of the most important members of the international community of composers, and demonstrate the manner in which he was able to combine the melodic and rhythmic resources of the folk music of his native Argentina with the compositional idioms of the great modern masters.
Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, became familiar with Ginastera's first ballet, Panambi, during the company's tour of South America on 1941. Recognizing the young composer's genius, Kirstein commissioned from Ginastera Estancia, a stage work for the Ballet Caravan with a scenario based on Argentine country life. Though the company was disbanded the following year before it had performed the new work, a suite of dances from the score was given on May 12, 1943 at Buenos Aires' Teatro Colón which confirmed Ginastera's position as a leading figure in Argentine musical life. (The full ballet was not staged until 1952, at the Colón.) In extracting the suite from Estancia, Ginastera omitted the songs for baritone based on texts from the great epic poem of the "gauchesco" literature, Martin Fierro, and several pastoral scenes. Except for the gentle second dance, Danza del trigo ("Dance of the Wheat"), the symphonic suite, comprising Los trabajadores agricolas ("The Workers of the Land"), Los peones de hacienda ("The Cattle Men") and Danza final: Malambo ("Final Dance: Malambo"), is brilliant and driving, largely built on short, recurring rhythmic and melodic patterns that accumulate enormous energy.
The preface to the score notes, "The deep and bare beauty of the land, its richness and natural strength, constitutes the basis of Argentine life. This ballet presents various daily aspects of the activities of an 'estancia' (Argentine ranch), from dawn to dusk, with a symbolic sense of continuity. The plot of the ballet shows a country girl who at first despises the man of the city. She finally admires him when he proves that he can perform the most rough and difficult tasks of the country."
©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda