All posts by wpadmin

On This Sweet Day

With such a prayer, on this sweet day,
As thou may’st hear and I may say,
I greet thee, dearest….  John Greenleaf Whittier, “Benedicite”

And we greet you, with music colored by all the lights and shadows of the heart, from simple joie de vivre to the elegant traceries of dance to profound meditation: Benedicite!

Josef Reicha (1752-1795)  Parthia in F
This piece for wind dectet (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns) was composed around 1780. “Parthia” is a cognate of the Italian musical term “partita,” which designates a suite of contrasting movements originally based on dance rhythms. Reicha was concertmaster of the court chapel orchestra in Bonn, which included a young violist named Beethoven!

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)  Serenata per piccolo complesso (Serenade for small ensemble)

Painting of a Serenade by Carl Spitzweg

Rossini is known today almost entirely for his operas, but he wrote in many other genres as well, including chamber music. A “serenata” was originally a piece sung and played out of doors in the evening on festive occasions like birthdays or weddings. By Rossini’s time the serenade had become a form of concert music. One reviewer called this one “a well-behaved trifle” because it lacked the pathos and grand gestures of Rossini’s operatic music. It consists of a theme with brilliant variations featuring the first violin, the oboe, the flute, the clarinet, and the cello in turn, with “a rather raucous conclusion for all instruments.”

 

 

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)  Eclogue for Piano and Strings, Op. 10

A painting illustrating an eclogue

Finzi, by contrast, never wrote anything the least raucous or trifling. He began the Eclogue in 1928-29, intending it to be the slow movement for a concerto that he never completed. Its first performance was at a memorial concert in 1957 following his death.  It is “large and serious in spirit, a rapt but not untroubled meditation,” as one commentator described it. The title came from Finzi’s editors (his widow, son, and best friend) as they prepared the manuscript for posthumous publication. An “eclogue” is an archaic form of pastoral poetry, often cast as a dialogue between shepherds. The “conversation” in Finzi’s Eclogue takes place most obviously between the piano and the string orchestra, but it can also be heard speaking back and forth between the higher and lower registers of the piano. The poetic title is especially fitting, for Finzi was a serious student of English literature and especially of poetry, with a personal library of three thousand volumes.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)  Jubilate Deo, arranged by Michael Kemp

Michael Praetorius

Jubilate Deo is a “canon,” a musical form that uses imitation as its organizing principle. One group of voices (or instruments) introduces a melody, and then other voices (or instruments) join and repeat the melody at stipulated regular intervals, creating overlapping layers of sound. The repetitions may go on as long as desired, making canons ideal for processionals and recessionals. Michael Kemp’s arrangement casts Jubilate Deo as a six-part canon, each group entering one measure after the preceding group has begun.

 

 

 

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)  Four Slovak Folk Songs

Bartók recording folk music

Early in his career Bartók collected thousands of folk melodies and folksong texts and made choral arrangements of many of them. This cycle of four short songs arranged in 1917 is the only choral work that Bartók ever composed with piano accompaniment. It was probably intended for amateur singers. The first song is a dialogue between a cold-hearted mother and her daughter, who is despondent at the prospect of being forced to marry a foreigner. The second is a hay-making song, and the third and fourth are dance tunes.

 

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)  Ave Maria

Marian devotions at a wayside shrine

At one point in his career Bruckner conducted a group of male singers, the Frohsinn Society, for whom he wrote his first choral works. The Ave Maria, which is considered his first masterwork, was written for them and first performed in 1861 by the Frohsinn Society with a women’s choral group added. The text is an intercessory prayer to the Virgin Mary that has been used in Catholic devotions since the 15th century.

 

 

 

Randall Thompson (1899-1984)  Alleluia

The “new” Music Shed at Tanglewood

Thompson may hold the all-time record for last-minute delivery of a commission. In 1940 he accepted the task of writing a choral fanfare for the grand opening of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. He was busy with another commission at the time and didn’t begin work on the Tanglewood piece until a week before the opening.  The day arrived, but the promised score did not. A large chorus and its director stood by waiting to rehearse. Finally, 45 minutes before the ceremony, the music was delivered. When the director got his first look at the score, in which the single word “Alleluia” is repeated more than sixty times, he reassured his singers, “Well, text at least is one thing we won’t have to worry about.” By all accounts the intrepid musicians made a very good job of it, and the piece has become Thompson’s best-known work. It is not, however, a fanfare. In that summer of 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson found himself unable to compose anything of a festive sort. He produced instead a slow, serious, introspective anthem. Later he explained, “The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)  The Gondoliers

Painting of a gondolier

In the last decade of his life, long after he had retired from composing operas, Rossini wrote what he called with characteristic self-deprecating humor his péchés de viellesse (“sins of old age”). Composing, he said, was for him an addiction; whenever he was in good health, he could not stop himself from doing it. These “sins” amounted to more than 200 pieces for voice, for piano, and for chamber ensembles. Rossini and his wife had settled in Paris, and they held a salon every Saturday evening where the cream of Parisian society gathered to hear music and socialize. The performers were all well-known professionals, and much of the music was Rossini’s own and newly composed. A typical program consisted of twelve or more numbers, of which ten might be by Rossini. To keep pace with this volume of weekly musical consumption, he sometimes recycled songs by giving them new texts and new titles. The Gondoliers is one such.  It was originally a setting for alto voice of a lover’s plaint, Mi lagnerò tacendo, by the poet Pietro Metastasio. Rossini was no poet; his new lyrics clearly show his priorities: “Primo la musica, dopo le parole!” (“Music first, then the words!”). But the song is melodically very appealing, with a declamatory central section and a piano part that is brilliant and technically demanding. Rossini, a stellar pianist, was often the accompanist on these occasions.

Classical Grandeur

Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

“Grandeur: splendor and magnificence, especially of appearance or style.”

The compositions on this program are magnificent-sounding works by three of the very greatest composers in the Western classical canon. Their stories show that they are grand in other ways as well, some of which may not be immediately apparent. We’ll begin with an overture, a good way to embark on a musical journey!

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Overture to Goethe’s “Egmont,” Opus 84

Beethoven

Beethoven

On June 15, 1810, an audience at the splendid Burgtheater in Vienna heard the words of Europe’s greatest living playwright (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) along with musical interludes by Europe’s greatest living composer (Beethoven). What a grand conjunction of cultural giants!

The theater commissioned the score, and so intense was Beethoven’s reverence for the great old man of German letters that he reportedly took no payment for the work. This was an astonishing concession for someone who was as punctilious about money as Beethoven.He later made a gift of the manuscript to Goethe, a grand gesture of respect.

Burgtheatre

19th-century image of the Burgtheater, Vienna

The complete incidental music for Egmont consists of the overture plus nine other numbers, including two songs for solo soprano. The complete music is only occasionally performed nowadays, but the overture is a concert staple. While it is completely effective when heard as a piece of “absolute music” (music that represents nothing outside itself), commentators agree that it has a “program” that foreshadows the events of the drama to come. Some go so far as to call it a “tone poem” that tells the story in music.

Johann Goethe in 1811

Johann Goethe in 1811

The plot of Goethe’s drama: Goethe based his play on the history of a 16th-century Flemish revolt against Spanish rule. Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a Flemish national hero who led the resistance against Spain and was beheaded in the Brussels marketplace in 1568. His antagonist in Goethe’s play is the Duke of Alva, also based on an historical figure. Although the real Count Egmont had a wife and at least eight children, Goethe supplied his hero with a fictional love interest named Clara.

The play has been described as an example of the early Romantic “Sturm und Drang” (literally, “storm and drive”) movement in German literature because of its emphasis on the idealistic, unflinching character of its martyred hero and on extremes of emotion. (Clara, for example, poisons herself in despair when she fails to free her beloved from prison.) At the end, although Egmont himself is dead, his spirit lives on in triumph as his countrymen overthrow the Spaniards.

Lamoral, Count of Egmon

Lamoral, Count of Egmont

Aside from Goethe’s authorship, the theme of the play was compelling to Beethoven for other reasons. For one, his own ancestors were Flemish. And, although the drama had been written a number of years earlier, its plot contained strong reminders of the political and military situation in Beethoven’s Vienna, which had been occupied by the French since May of 1809. Many of the city’s elite, including the court, had fled, but Beethoven chose to remain behind. He must have seen obvious parallels between Goethe’s villainous Duke of Alva and the invading Emperor Napoleon.

Beethoven’s opera Leonore (AKA Fidelio) contained similar themes: a woman desperately trying to free her imprisoned lover, and the victory of freedom over tyranny.

Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809

Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809

The “program” of Beethoven’s overture: Ever since its first performance, critics have identified narrative passages in the overture, but they haven’t always agreed on what they represented. The most detailed program I have found is by Jeff Counts, annotator for the Utah Symphony:

“You hear, in the deep strings, the Spanish judges prosecuting [Egmont]. You hear, in the plaintive wind, his [mistress] pleading for mercy for him. You hear, in the fortissimo staccato notes of the brass, the verdict of guilty being given. A final piano pleading in the first violins. The whole orchestra in unison on a single note is the sentence of death. A forte fall of a fourth in first and second violins is the executioner’s sword coming down. [A long pause occurs at this point. “Death could be expressed by a silence,” Beethoven noted in his sketches for the work.]  Triple piano, building to a massive fortissimo, an exhilarating passage in the major key…tells us that Count Egmont’s spirit, and all he fought for, lives on; that the people of the Netherlands ultimately threw out the rapacious invader…. Darkness has given way to light, freedom has triumphed over oppression.”  These last were the grand conceptions pervading all of Beethoven’s most significant works.

The Egmont Overture has been used as theme music on many occasions of high seriousness, notably at a memorial service for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Orchestra, Opus 56a

Brahms in 1888

Brahms in 1888

Once, when encountering Brahms after he had grown a beard, a critic quipped that his original face was as hard to recognize as was the theme in many of his variations. Hearing a theme as it is transformed in numerous ways through a series of variations always requires some concentration of musical memory, but in these the challenge is that the eight variations are based more on the general shape of the theme and on the harmony than on the specific notes of the original melody.

Brahms treats the theme-and-variations form as a vehicle for display of compositional technique. In fact, the grandeur of this work lies in the way Brahms spins a catchy but by no means profound melody into something monumental. One scholar called it “a compendium in microcosm…of Brahms’s compositional craft and musical aesthetics…, as well as a phenomenal artistic amalgam of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic formal and stylistic components.” That’s a lot of musicological and historical baggage to pack into seventeen minutes, but Brahms managed it splendidly.

The Haydn variations marked a transition point for Brahms as he ended a phase of intense output of choral and vocal works and moved on to the composition of his four symphonies.The Haydn Variations, which were first performed in Vienna in 1873, were both a critical and a popular success, and even the perfectionistic Brahms himself was satisfied with them. They encouraged him finally to complete and perform his first symphony, more than twenty years after he had begun working on it.

The origins of the theme are a bit obscure. Supposedly a friend, who was working on a biography of Haydn in 1870, showed Brahms a divertimento for wind instruments, the so-called “St. Anthony Chorale,” that was attributed to Haydn.

An arrangement of the St. Anthony Chorale for brass quintet:

Scholars now dispute Haydn’s authorship, but the actual composer has never been established. The melody may be a folk tune used in popular celebrations honoring St. Anthony of Padua. In his first statement of the theme, Brahms honored the original orchestration by using a choir of wind instruments over a bass for low strings.

Haydn was one of the composers Brahms most revered. An early biographer has suggested that the “St. Anthony” title in itself also would have appealed to Brahms. His close friend Anselm Feuerbach had made a painting called The Temptation of St. Anthony in 1855, a canvas that Brahms particularly admired.

Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Various legends of the saint have been mined to produce elaborate allegorical and metaphysical “meanings” for Brahms’s work. One of the most florid of these schemes describes the diversity of the variations in images like the following: “Like a religious procession with fluttering banners…dazzling shafts of light…the depths of a ghastly abyss…a host of airy skirmishers…the advance post of the devil…fog brewing over chasmal depths…a pale, piercing light on the whitish-gray fermenting substance…dainty flower garlands…a swarm of roguish, insect-like sprites…fiery serpents…a Leda who awaits her swan…the quintessence of the bliss of all living creatures…the hostile tumult of the assaulting sons of hell.” It’s unlikely that any such grandly picturesque conceits ever crossed the composer’s mind, since Brahms was no lover of program music.

What did occupy his mind to magnificent effect were the technical means of producing a musical tour de force, a display of voluntarily chosen and triumphantly conquered difficulty. For instance, variation four (a skittery-sounding section in a minor key) contains an example of “double counterpoint at the ninth,” a feat of musical gymnastics which is supposed to be technically impossible. (For an understanding of this, you will need to consult an intelligence finer than mine. I refer you to Donald N. Ferguson’s Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners and wish you luck.) Another example appears near the end of the piece: Variation eight (if you’ve lost count, it begins in a minor key, in triple meter, with the strings muted) has an incredible finale. You’ll know it has arrived when the strings remove their mutes and the music returns to a major key and a march rhythm. The finale is built upon a five-measure basso ostinato (literally, “obstinate bass”) repeated over and over by the low strings (like the recurring bass figure in Pachelbel’s Canon in D). Above this, Brahms spins yet another set of sixteen five-measure continuously unfolding variations before concluding with a brilliant coda. To make a very flippant analogy, this is somewhat like sixteen clowns jumping one after the other out of a very small car as it careens around a circus ring. Fortunately, in neither case is it necessary to know how it’s done in order to enjoy it!

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Excerpts from Messiah, with orchestration by Mozart

Everyone knows about the grandeur of Messiah:

  • Its theme is the most momentous imaginable: the redemption of humankind.
  • Its texts are taken from some of the most revered Old and New Testament scriptures.
  • It’s the most frequently heard choral masterwork in the repertoire.
  • It has brought even royalty to their feet for the “Hallelujah” chorus.
  • It has inspired performances by gargantuan forces.

See more about these superlatives, as well as some workaday and even comic facets of its history, in “FAQs about Handel’s Messiah.

Pioneer Spirit of America

“Look Away over Yandro¹”: Voices from the American Past | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

Music on this “Pioneer Spirit” program arose in response to some of the harshest experiences in our nation’s history: Wars of revolution and rebellion. Enslavement. The Great Depression. The McCarthy era. The loneliness of the frontier. Death far from home and family. Yet the music also speaks with energy and purpose, indomitability, and a kind of rugged beauty. Every composition in this program is historically informed, drawing upon traditional American musical genres: hymns, folksongs, spirituals, dance tunes, and old popular songs.

¹”Yandro” is the old name of a remote North Carolina mountain. Its exact location is no longer known.

Roy Harris (1898-1979): Symphony No. 4: Folksong Symphony

Throughout my lifework, my purpose has been to affirm tradition as our greatest resource, rather than to avoid it as our greatest threat. R.H.

Roy Harris at the piano with George Lynn in 1965, Princeton Junction.

Roy Harris at the piano with George Lynn in 1965, Princeton Junction

Roy Harris was born in a log cabin on Feb. 12 (Lincoln’s birthday), 1898, in Oklahoma Territory on acreage claimed by his father in one of the last Oklahoma land rushes. One of his grandfathers had ridden for the Pony Express; the other was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher.

Among Harris’s very early memories was one of his father whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in a lively, energetic way as he went out to work in his potato fields in the morning and then hearing the same tune rendered in slow, weary fashion as he returned at night. This old Civil War song is the basis of the last movement of the Folksong Symphony.

I was brought up with simple folk attitudes by my pioneer parents. Folk music was as natural to our way of life as corn bread and sweet milk. My mother played the guitar and we hummed along with her after supper on the front porch or in the kitchen….When I began to study music, I decided that composers were folk singers who had learned to write down the songs that took their fancy; and that therefore folk songs could be recast to suit a composer’s purpose, and that they could be legitimately used to generate symphonic forms. R.H.

Sheet music cover for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Sheet music cover for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Harris added to his first-hand knowledge by intensive research in the collections of printed and recorded folk music in the Library of Congress. He was in contact with scholars and performers in the field, like John and Alan Lomax and Burl Ives. Harris was already known as an “Americanist” composer when in 1940 his colleague Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music, commissioned a work for chorus and orchestra. This became Harris’s fourth symphony. Its main documentary sources were two important musical anthologies: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, collected by John and Alan Lomax, and The American Songbag, compiled by Carl Sandburg.

The Folksong Symphony is less like the familiar Classical or Romantic four-movement symphonies of the European tradition than it is a sequence of inter-related tone poems, with texts supplying a narrative arc of departure, loneliness, and possible return. There are seven short movements, symmetrically arranged. The first and last are fast, aggressive, and boisterous. The second and sixth are slow and regional in character. The third and fifth are lively instrumental interludes. The central fourth movement is another slow one.

The first movement is about striking out westward, with a fond look back over the shoulder at “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The second, “Western Cowboy,” combines two songs about death in the wide-open spaces: “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “As I Walked Out in the Streets of Laredo.” The third movement, for strings and percussion, uses an original theme imitating hoedown fiddling along with snatches of “The Irish Washerwoman,” a traditional Irish jig. Movement IV, “Mountaineer Love Song,” is a poignant setting of “He’s Gone Away,” with alternating male and female voices lamenting their separation. The yearning phrase “Look away over Yandro” comes from this movement. The fifth movement, another dance but this time for full orchestra, combines “The Birds’ Courting Song” and “Jump Up, My Lady” and subjects both tunes to increasingly complex variations. Movement VI, “The Trumpet Sounds in My Soul,” is based on a fragment from “Steal Away to Jesus.” This is one of the few African-American spirituals that can be traced to its originator, a former slave named Wallace Willis. It speaks of deliverance by either escape or death. A long orchestral introduction suggests fear and the brutal oppression of enslavement, with occasional rays of hope voiced by a trumpet playing a major triad in a different key. The last movement, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” is about returning from war. Its minor key tinges the prospect of reunion with uncertainty.

Harris went on to write many other compositions using folk materials, but this symphony is the most vivid illustration of his conviction that “folk songs were like the Good Earth, to be cultivated by musicians according to their tastes and skills.”

David J. Westfall (b. 1941): Ode to the American Spirit (World Premiere)

David Westfall

David Westfall is currently at work on a full-scale opera called The Patriot, about the life and times of George Washington. His interest in the early history and literature of the United States (his father was an American history teacher) led to a desire to portray personalities, events, and values of those times in musical form. Westfall wrote Ode to the American Spirit, along with three other overtures, as a way of mapping out some of his ideas before beginning work on the opera itself, which is now well under way. Like the other compositions on this program, the Ode reaches back to music from an earlier period, in this case “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”). This patriotic hymn served as an unofficial national anthem for nearly 100 years until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was formally adopted as such in 1931.

The last eight measures (“Land where my fathers died,” etc.) are quoted very prominently near the end of the Ode, and there are also certain intervals in the writing for cellos and basses and a horn motif at the beginning of the piece that are related to the “America” theme. The Ode begins in a minor key and changes to an exuberant C-major by the end. A choral excerpt added especially for this performance is taken directly from a wedding celebration scene in the first act of the opera. A group of townspeople have come by to congratulate a pair of newlyweds, and the hostess invites them to the wedding banquet, provided they sing first. “Hail to the Land of the Free” is the song they sing for their supper. See more about David Westfall’s life and multi-faceted musical career.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989): Suite from “The Plow That Broke the Plains”
For a brief while in the 1930s, to propagate its domestic programs, the Roosevelt administration went into the movie business. The film The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) tells a grim saga of overgrazing and over-farming in the Great Plains and makes the case for New Deal programs aimed at aiding refugee families devastated by droughts and dust storms. Virgil Thomson’s original score was a crucial element. Because sound technology was relatively new, it would have been almost impossible to lug recording equipment into the field to capture voices and ambient sounds on location. Besides, the budget from the Farm Services Administration (a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was minuscule. So the documentary was conceived as a silent film, with grandly poetic voiceover narration and a near-continuous musical score.

Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

Director Pare Lorentz commissioned the score from Thomson after first considering Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. Thomson was willing to do the job for $500, which was as far as Lorentz’s budget would stretch, and both director and composer agreed on the idea of “rendering the landscape through the music of its people.” While the film was being cut, Thomson pored over collections of cowboy songs and settler folklore, gathering tunes and ideas. The completed film needed twenty-five minutes of music, and it was needed in a week for the recording session. Thomson demanded two weeks. With the help of an assistant to fill in orchestration, the work was done, with instrumental parts extracted and copied, on time. Lorentz, who Thomson said was “musically sensitive to the last degree,” re-cut his film so that “photography, words, and music…seem…to be telling, all at the same time, the same story.” The film was a critical and popular success and played as a 30-minute short alongside feature films all across the U.S.

The score uses familiar tunes like “The Streets of Laredo” and “Git Along Little Dogies,” sometimes straightforwardly and at other times as themes for contrapuntal development. The sound track is a patchwork of dances, hymns, neo-medieval counterpoint, and, to evoke the Great Plains, chorale-like passages with widely spaced harmonies (a style that would soon influence Copland). In 1942, Thomson condensed the soundtrack into an independent orchestral suite, which is only about half as long as the film music. It consists of six segments, played almost without pause: “Prelude,” “Pastorale (Grass),” “Cattle,” “Blues (Speculation),” “Drought,” and “Devastation.” Oddly, the final segment, which shows displaced farm families streaming westward out of the Dust Bowl, is accompanied by a sad habañera. Perhaps the fact that so many were headed to Southern California, with its Spanish-inflected culture, explains this poignant choice.

A recording of the Suite accompanied by exemplary stills from the movie:

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Two Songs from “The Tender Land”

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland always regretted that he never composed a grand opera. He did, however, write what might be called a chamber opera, The Tender Land, a small-scale work intended either for television or for collegiate opera workshops.

Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharecropper’s wife

Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharecropper’s wife

 

 

Copland was born in Brooklyn, trained in Paris, a resident of Manhattan, and a world traveler. His biographers have not fully explored how someone so urbane came to display such an affinity in his music for the agrarian American past. But we know from Copland’s autobiography that the immediate inspiration for The Tender Land was a book by James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is about the lives of impoverished Alabama tenant farmers, with riveting photographs by Walker Evans. Two portraits in particular, one of a grim-faced sharecropper’s wife and another of her young, still hopeful-looking daughter, came to life as characters in the opera. Its plot portrays a close-knit, bucolic rural community unraveling amid suspicion and enmity toward outsiders.

Lucille Burroughs, daughter of Allie Mae Burroughs

Lucille Burroughs, daughter of Allie Mae Burroughs

In 1953 Copland himself had been the target of such xenophobia. He was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and questioned about his musical activities abroad on behalf of the U.S. State Department. The implication was that he must have been one of a multitude of “subversives” said to be using official activities as a cover for plotting with foreigners to undermine the U.S. government. It is true that, in common with many artists and intellectuals back in the 1930s, Copland had been leftist in his sympathies, but he had never joined any political party. The experience of being interrogated and accused without evidence was fresh in his mind as Copland completed The Tender Land, and the libretto bears the marks of it.

Senator McCarthy in 1954

Senator McCarthy in 1954

 

The two songs featured on this program contain no hint of the opera’s unhappy ending, however. “Stomp Your Foot” is a high-stepping hoedown song, used for a party scene in the opera. Copland said he adapted “Ching-a-Ring Chaw,” an old minstrel tune, for this number.

 

 

“Stomp Your Foot” scene from the opera:

“The Promise of Living,” the first-act finale, expresses Copland’s ideals of communal solidarity. For one of its themes, he used a 19th-century revivalist hymn tune, “Zion’s Walls.” It recurs several times, first sung by basses (“For many a year we’ve known these fields”) and tenors (“We plant each row with seeds of grain”), then by altos (“Give thanks there was sunshine”), and in the final passage it is played by the orchestra. The slower-moving “The promise of living” theme started out as Copland’s own counter-melody to the hymn tune and then, as he tells it, proceeded to take over. The Tender Land opera exists in several different versions, and so do these two songs. They are most often performed with four-handed piano accompaniment. The fully orchestrated version that we are using is rarely heard.

Music Around The World

February 10, 2017, 7:30PM Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

  • Britain: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (1936)
  • France: André Caplet (1878-1925) Suite Persane (Persian Suite) (1900)
  • Germany: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) (1887/88)

Imagine traveling in a great arc from Yorkshire to London, across the Channel to Le Havre and Paris, then taking a northeasterly jog to Hamburg, rejoining the trajectory of the arc in Vienna and going on through Hungary and Romania, crossing the Black Sea to Iran, and finally passing through Pakistan to the Punjab. It would take this journey of over 6,000 miles to visit all the birthplaces of this evening’s music.

At the western end of the arc are the native countries of tonight’s three composers. But André Caplet was a Frenchman who wrote Persian-sounding music, and Brahms was a German who lived in Austria and wrote Hungarian-inflected music with the label “Gypsy” tacked onto it. Only Vaughan Williams stuck to musical sources solely from his homeland.

rvwstatuehead

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The melodies upon which he based the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes were “Eventide,” composed in 1861 by William Henry Monk, a Londoner, and “Dominus Regit Me,” written in 1868 by John Bacchus Dykes, who was born in Yorkshire. Protestants know these hymns as “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide” and as one of the settings for “The King of love my Shepherd is.” “Abide with me” is frequently sung at vespers services and at funerals. Both tunes appeared originally in Hymns Ancient and Modern, which, with numerous revisions and supplements, was the standard hymnal of the Church of England for 150 years.  

Listen to this arrangement of “Abide With Me” sung by the King’s College Choir:

Here is a video of “The King of Love” sung by the choir and congregation in Westminster Abbey at Princess Diana’s funeral:

For an agnostic, Vaughan Williams was very involved with religious music. He composed many pieces for liturgical use, and some of his finest concert works for chorus use sacred texts. He began his career in 1895 as organist and choir director at St. Barnabas church in London, a job which he disliked but from which he later admitted he had learned a great deal, especially about what constitutes successful music for voices. He resigned four years later when a new vicar insisted that he take Communion, which, as a nonbeliever, he could not in good conscience do. In 1904, when he was not yet a household name but was known in musical circles for his field work in collecting English folk songs, he was recruited to be the musical editor in charge of revising the Anglican hymnal. Vaughan Williams didn’t particularly want that job, either, but he accepted it because he saw it as a way of helping to return one important strand of English music to its native roots. Like the other editors of the new hymnal, he felt very strongly that “the miasma of the languishing and sentimental” accretions of Victorian hymnody needed to be dispelled from Anglican worship music. He and his contemporaries in the English Musical Renaissance aimed to create a purely English musical idiom to rival those of the Continent, particularly of Germany. The Royal College of Music, where Vaughan Williams had trained, was the center of this movement.

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English Hymnal of 1906

In a nation with an Established Church, a new hymnal is a Very Big Deal, carrying with it an aura of ecclesiastical and royal authority. In an era before broadcast music, the average citizen was likely to encounter and participate in serious music only in church. Vaughan Williams felt very keenly the responsibility of artists to work for the benefit of the larger society, so he labored on and off for thirty years on the English Hymnal and its successors and offshoots that were intended for use in schools and colleges. His reasons were aesthetic and cultural, not religious: as one music historian put it, “Vaughan Williams had more of a mind to put Anglicans in touch with the English Musical Renaissance than with the Almighty.”

His agnosticism notwithstanding, Vaughan Williams’ lifelong admiration and love for the liturgy and musical traditions of the Church of England were vital in his compositional thinking, and the music of the hymn-book runs like an ever-present stream through his creative life. The Two Hymn-tune Preludes are only two of several dozen smaller works partly or entirely based on English hymns and carols, and many phrases from hymn melodies found their way into his major works as well. In movement one, “Eventide,” listen for the hymn melody in the oboe, joined by the high strings. In movement two, “Dominus Regit Me,” you will hear the melody first in the high strings and then the flute. The limited instrumentation (single winds, horn, and strings) is entirely in keeping with the peaceful feeling of these preludes.


It’s only a short trip eastward across the English Channel from London to Le Havre, André Caplet’s early home. He is said to have been born on a boat sailing across the estuary of the Seine. (One hopes it was calm weather.) He was the seventh child in a family of very modest means. To help make ends meet, by age twelve he was working as a rehearsal pianist at the Folies-Bergère in his hometown. He began studies at the Paris Conservatoire when he was eighteen and began conducting professionally while he was still a student. He won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship in 1901, besting Maurice Ravel in this competition for young composers. That same year, his Suite Persane (Persian Suite) was performed, in a concert dedicated solely to his music. After he returned to Paris at the end of his Prix de Rome studies, Caplet met Debussy, and the two became close friends.

Caplet and Debussy

Caplet (on left) with Debussy

Caplet assisted Debussy as a transcriber, orchestrator, and proofreader. He was so assiduous in this last role that Debussy declared him “le tombeau des fautes” – “the graveyard for errors.” It is for his collaboration with Debussy that Caplet is most remembered: his orchestration of Debussy’s piano piece Clair de Lune is the most widely performed example of Caplet’s work. Caplet is not known to have traveled any farther east than Germany, but, like many of his contemporaries and Debussy in particular, he was much influenced by sights and sounds brought to Paris by the International Expositions of 1889 and 1900. The Middle Eastern and Asian pavilions had kindled a rage for all things “Oriental,” and Caplet followed the fashion by using Persian-inflected scales for his suite. It is an example of Caplet’s Romantic early style. In his words, the first movement, entitled “Scharki,” “is an erotic nocturne, whilst in the second, as in a misty distance, darting ghosts approach and take on human form to laugh in the sweet joys of love…they bloom in postures of grace and pleasure…becoming human, they seem to diffuse the odours of flowers and sunbeams. In the third movement dancing fakirs fall in weariness, ecstasize, and then leap all the more furiously.”  

Caplet’s suite was chosen for performance at America’s first chamber musical festival in 1918. The journal Musical America reported that the first movement was “a weird native air, in unison, and developed in a scintillating style. ‘Scharki’ is a Persian word meaning ‘anything done in an Eastern style,’ a song or ballad in this instance. The second section is entitled ‘Nikawind’ [a name that is transliterated in a bewildering variety of ways], after the name of a place in Persia.”  This is Nahavand on today’s maps, a small city in northwestern Iran. There is a family of scales named Nahawand that are used in Arabic music. One of them uses the following intervals: 1-2-flatted 3d-4-flatted 5th- 6-flatted 7th. (Beginning on C, this would be C D E-flat F G-flat A B-flat C.) Caplet used this scale in his Suite. The exact translation of the third-movement title, “Iskia Samaisi,” has eluded me, but “Sama” is a Sufi religious ceremony, part of which is the ritualized spinning of whirling dervishes (Caplet’s “dancing fakirs”).

Here is a video of this ceremony:

The Suite Persane is scored for double wind quintet, an instrumental group that many of us have never before seen or heard. There are two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. To the question of why the French horn, a brass instrument, is included in a woodwind quintet, one wag has answered, “Because it got lucky.” A more serious answer is that its warm, mellow sound blends very well with the timbres of the woodwinds. There is a fairly substantial literature for double wind quintet: 360 compositions are listed in one recent bibliography. However, a very large number of them are arrangements or transcriptions rather than works, like Caplet’s, composed specifically for this ensemble of instruments.


The sources of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder are the most widely dispersed of all the pieces on tonight’s program, ranging from Germany through Eastern Europe and the Balkans and still farther eastward, possibly all the way to India. In 1853, when Brahms was 20, he went on tour as accompanist to the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi.

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Brahms (standing) and Reményi

They performed in villages and byways, with Brahms improvising piano accompaniments as Reményi dazzled audiences with his fiery playing of traditional Magyar melodies. They picked up songs from peasants they met along the way and added these to their repertoire. This three-month tour was one of the formative experiences of Brahms’s early years. For the rest of his life he would return repeatedly to music “alla zingarese” (“in Gypsy style”). It can be heard in his Hungarian Dances and in certain movements of his chamber and orchestral works.

The Hungarian Dances (which were originally piano duets) and his earlier song cycles for vocal quartet and piano, the Liebeslieder Waltzes, had been extremely successful. This was an era when home entertainment centered about the piano, with family members and friends singing and playing for each other. Brahms must have had an inkling in 1887 when he began composing the Zigeunerlieder that the combination of “Gypsy” style and piano/vocal format would be another commercial success. He made sure of it by insisting on publication before Christmas to capture the gift-buying market, and this opus netted him a small fortune.

The source material was an anthology of 25 Hungarian folksongs with piano accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. Brahms used very little of the melodic material; when he did, he modified the tunes such that none of them uses a traditional Gypsy scale. The rhyming German translations were made by Brahms’s friend Hugo Conrat, based on literal versions provided by the Conrats’ Hungarian-born governess, Fräulein Witzl. The first performance was at one of Conrat’s household musical soirées, with the Fräulein as honored guest. The song cycle begins with an invocation: “Ho, Gypsy, strike your strings and sing of my faithless maiden!” The songs that follow are about flirtation and desire, rejection and parting – love in all its moods.

Granted that the words came from traditional sources, what makes these “Gypsy” songs, if Brahms used little of their original music?

  • The 2/4 meter and the dotted rhythms typical of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance.
  • The lack of upbeats: all vocal phrases begin on the downbeat, because in Hungarian there are no unaccented first syllables.
  • In the tremolando and arpeggiated passages of the accompaniment, imitation of the cimbalom, a large hammered dulcimer common in Hungarian bands.
  • Widely-spaced melodies, often moving downward.

In this old film of csárdás dancers, see if you can spot the cimbalom player, in white shirt and dark tie, behind the violinists in the band. And catch the flamenco-style heels on the men’s dancing shoes:

Here’s a close-up view of an atmospheric performance by a cimbalom soloist, backed by bass and violin:

What is or is not authentic “Gypsy” music (i.e., music of the formerly nomadic Romani people) and what is traditional Magyar (i.e., ethnic Hungarian) music, and whether or how the two are related is a matter of ongoing debate. In Brahms’s day, apparently no distinction was made: the music of Hungarian peasants was “Gypsy” music regardless of who was making it. “Gypsy,” incidentally, is a somewhat derogatory nickname attached to the dark-skinned Roma, who at one time were thought to have come from Egypt. Recent DNA research shows that the Roma actually migrated out of the Punjab regions of Afghanistan and northwestern India about 1500 years ago, eventually reaching Europe, where today they are the largest minority group. Traditionally, many Roma made a living as itinerant musicians, influencing and being influenced by the indigenous music of their surroundings. For instance, Spanish flamenco music is of Romani origin. “Original” Romani music, uninflected by the musics of the countries the Roma have passed through, is quite rare.

Here is the Romani anthem, which uses a traditional melody:

It is clear that Brahms intended the Zigeunerlieder for a solo quartet. The sonority of today’s concert pianos makes it practicable for small choruses to perform the songs, remain in balance with the accompaniment, and yet retain the intimate feel of “Hausmusik.”   

Winter Holiday Sounds

DECEMBER 3, 2016 Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): Suite Pastorale

Edouard Manet painting of Chabrier

Portrait of Chabrier in 1880 by his close friend Edouard Manet

Emmanuel Chabrier was death on other people’s pianos. Yet he was in great demand in the fashionable salons where the artistic and literary avant-garde of Paris congregated in the 1880s. One eyewitness reported, “He played the piano as no one has ever played it before, or ever will. The sight of Chabrier, in a drawing-room full of elegant women, advancing towards the fragile instrument and then playing his España in a blaze of broken strings, hammers reduced to pulp and splintered keys, was indescribably droll, and a spectacle of truly epic grandeur.” One wonders whether the pianos’ owners thought it was quite so droll.

Born in the Auvergne in central France, with its distinctive regional traditions of music and, especially, dance, Chabrier had moved to Paris as a teenager, where he prepared for and entered a career in the French civil service. He studied composition, largely on his own, in his spare time. He was already a formidable pianist. His fellow composer Vincent d’Indy ranked him with Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, which was high praise indeed.

España, the piano-wrecking composition mentioned above, was a flamboyantly percussive warhorse piece.  Orchestrated and transferred to the concert stage, it was a popular sensation, cementing Chabrier’s growing reputation as a composer and affirming his decision to leave his bureaucratic post to devote all his time to music.

Another piano composition, Dix Piѐces Pittoresques, was not only a popular success but also earned great respect from the French musical cognoscenti, who regarded it as groundbreaking. It anticipated, especially in its harmonic language, Debussy and Ravel. Each of its ten movements was dedicated to a different “Mademoiselle” or “Madame.” I have been unable to identify these ladies. Perhaps they were society hostesses. It would be nice to think that the dedications were Chabrier’s way of atoning for the murder of their pianos. Descriptive titles for each piece were supplied after the fact by someone other than the composer, perhaps Chabrier’s publishers, who knew that atmospheric names meant more sales. Chabrier himself had no particular interest in writing tone poems or program music. If his music conjured a particular kind of scene in the minds of listeners, well and good, but that hadn’t been his aim in writing it.

Chabrier orchestrated four of the Piѐces Pittoresques to form the Suite Pastorale in 1888. “Idylle” is a lyrical conversation carried on mainly among the winds. Chabrier said, “I shape my musical rhythms with my Auvergnat clogs,” and those clogs can be heard stamping out the rhythms in “Danse villageoise,” which has the rustic flavor of his native province. “Sous bois” (“In the woods”) is perhaps the most “pittoresque” movement. It evokes the murmur of a gentle breeze in a forest. Over a 16th-note ostinato figure in the cellos, leaping arpeggios form a fragmented melody ornamented with grace notes. The “Scherzo-valse” is a romp that sounds more like a hornpipe than anything we might think of as a waltz, with lots of rushing arpeggiated passages for solo winds. The Suite overall is happy-sounding music, lively and full of contrasts and orchestral color.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Magnificat

Finzi never wanted to write a Magnificat. He had spent too many of his student years in the organ loft at York Minster, assisting his teacher Edward Bairstow and sitting through “innumerable dreary automatic magnificats.” In a large cathedral, services that include the Magnificat are sung daily. There are thousands of settings of this text, and not all of them can possibly be distinguished, so Finzi had plenty of opportunity to get tired of them.

York Minster, where Finzi heard too many magnificats

York Minster, where Finzi heard too many magnificats

But this was Finzi’s first commission from overseas, for the combined choirs of Smith and Amherst Colleges. His career as a composer had been interrupted by the Second World War and further constrained by the overwhelming presence of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the older generation of British composers and of Benjamin Britten in the younger. So, hoping for new audiences, Finzi accepted the commission, even though he didn’t feel he could “throw any new light on the words” and even though the deadline was short. He barely finished it in time. He wrote the concluding “Amen” in the car on the way to the post office to make a zero-hour submission to the publisher. (Perhaps this helps account for the fact that the lovely “Amen” is only one page long.)

A painting of Mary chanting the Magnificat

A painting of Mary chanting the Magnificat

The text of the Magnificat is also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary. It appears in the Christian New Testament (Luke 1:46-55), where Mary utters these ecstatic words of praise and gratitude for having been favored by God. It is part of the narrative of Jesus’ nativity. The title is the “incipit” (first word) of the text in its Latin version. In form and content, the Magnificat is patterned on the hymns of praise in the Hebrew Psalter and elsewhere in Hebrew scripture. It is one of the most ancient Christian hymns and has been part of the liturgy of services and daily devotions since the earliest days of the church.  In Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, it is spoken, chanted, or sung as part of the daily liturgy. In Eastern Rite churches, it is sung weekly, and some Protestant churches also use it in worship, especially during Advent services in the four weeks before Christmas.

Consequently there has been a great demand over the centuries for musical settings of the Magnificat. Early on, it was chanted to the traditional Gregorian psalm tones. Beginning in the Renaissance, we find Magnificat settings attributed to specific composers. More than 230 such composers have been identified, from the 14th century to the 21st, and among them they have produced countless Magnificats. Orlando de Lasso alone wrote more than one hundred.

Finzi was specifically asked for a non-liturgical Magnificat, so he didn’t set the Gloria Patri (“Glory Be to the Father”) text that nearly always follows the Magnificat in services. Any solos needed to be sung by members of the chorus, and an organ accompaniment was specified (Finzi later scored it for full orchestra). It was first performed at a candlelit Christmas Vespers concert at Smith College on Dec. 12, 1952. The men of the chorus, who were from Amherst seven miles away, were put to considerable discomfort by their participation. They had to hitch-hike to rehearsals and then back again late at night in frigid December weather. So they well deserved to be featured in the passages Finzi wrote for male voices alone.

Finzi’s setting is characteristic of his choral style in certain ways: frequent metrical changes that faithfully reflect the rhythms and stresses of the text, one note per syllable (except for the melismas on the words “holy” and “Amen”), and broadly-spaced melodies. It is atypical in the extent to which words, phases, and even verses are repeated. The main theme moves up and down over a span of an octave and a fourth. It is stated by the orchestra at the outset and then becomes the choral phrase “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” which appears throughout the piece like a leitmotif but is never exactly the same twice. Finzi introduces new musical material for every verse of the text, not only for the chorus but in the orchestral parts as well, which add another layer of meaning to the words. Notice, for instance, the lilting dancelike figure that underlies “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden” and the rippling parallel thirds and sixths that accompany “He remembering his mercy.” The musical word-painting is striking in jumpy, emphatic passages such as “He hath put down the mighty” and “He hath scattered the proud.” A long series of descending chords on the repeated word “blessed” is later echoed by an even longer sequence on “forever.” The music reaches such a point of repose here that one thinks it must be over. But after an extremely long pause, there comes a very soft, slow “Amen.”

The English text Finzi used is the version found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Finzi Trust recently commissioned composer David Bednall to extend Finzi’s Magnificat for liturgical use by setting the “Gloria Patri” and the “Nunc Dimittis.” The latter text is known as the Song of Simeon (“Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”), another ancient hymn that traditionally follows the Magnificat. These pairings are familiarly known as “Mags and Nuncs.” The new Finzi/Bednall work was performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester this past July and seems to have been well received, so Finzi’s Magnificat may now have a new life beyond the concert hall. Unlike the “innumerable dreary automatic magnificats” he endured as a student, Finzi’s setting is without question a distinguished one. He reportedly considered it to be no more than workmanlike, but perhaps its warm reception led him to reconsider that judgment, for he thought highly enough of it in the end to orchestrate its accompaniment before he died in 1956. View a short photobiography of the composer.

John Rutter (b.1945): Gloria

Glorias come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. The smallest is the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), also known as the Angelic Song heard by shepherds according to the Nativity narrative in Luke 2:14. The medium-sized one is the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father), also known as the Lesser or Minor Doxology. As long as we’re luxuriating in pedantry, we may as well mention that the name “Doxology” comes from two Greek words: “doxa” (“glory”) and “logia” (“saying”). The largest Gloria uses the Angels’ Song to get started and then continues with a number of non-scriptural but very ancient verses that comprise one of the oldest hymns of praise in the Christian liturgy. This jumbo Gloria, known of course as the Greater Doxology, is part of every musical version of the Mass and has also been set independently by many composers, including Vivaldi in 1715 and John Rutter in 1974.

John Rutter in an interview, Sept. 24, 2012

Rutter’s work was not taken very seriously in his native England in the 1960s and 1970s because his musical language is, as he puts it with some asperity, “rooted in tonality, with now and again an actual tune.” European musical circles at the time were ruled by the advocates of serial and twelve-tone compositional techniques, who had no time for such outmoded concepts as “keys” and “melodies.” So Rutter was happy to receive a commission from the U.S., where music had not proceeded quite so far down the Road to High Modernism and where he believed his work might receive a more sympathetic hearing. The commissioning group was the Voices of Mel Olson, a fine amateur concert choir in Omaha. Olson’s requirements were very specific: he requested a concert work for SATB chorus that would be accessible but challenging; be about twenty minutes long; use a familiar text, preferably a sacred one; have an instrumental accompaniment, but not require a full orchestra, since there was no budget for that many players; require no professional soloists; and have “a positive, ‘upfront’ quality so that a non-specialist audience could enjoy it at first hearing.”

Far from being intimidated or constrained by these specifications, Rutter with typical modesty claims that the piece was practically written for him. He chose the Latin text of the Greater Doxology because of its familiarity and because the language would make it accessible to choirs all over the world. He chose brass choir, supplemented by organ and timpani, for the accompaniment because he believed excellent brass players must be numerous in the American Midwest. He’d heard that there was a strong regional tradition of brass playing stemming from the large number of high school and college marching bands in that part of the country. (Indeed, many who grew up in that era remember that, if you wanted to hold your head up socially but couldn’t be a football player or a cheerleader, you had better be in the band.) Besides, Rutter says, alluding to the Nativity story that surrounds the Gloria in excelsis Deo, “The angels might play harps the rest of the year, but on Christmas night I’m sure they’d be playing trumpets.” And, just to clinch the deal: “Decibel for decibel, you get best value out of a brass group.”

Rutter conducted the first performance himself. He has directed many choirs and founded one, the Cambridge Singers, who are featured on many recordings of his work. He expresses fondness for the thousands of non-professional singers who have performed his compositions through the decades: “The particular thing you get with adult amateur choruses, of course, is that sense of ‘I’ve had a rotten day at the office [but] I’m going to just get rid of it all tonight and go home feeling raised up at the end of my rehearsal.’”

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The Gloria in Gregorian chant, but not the melody Rutter used; the notes go the wrong way

Rutter has said that the three movements of the Gloria roughly correspond to the structure of a traditional symphony, and he describes their moods as “exalted, devotional and jubilant by turns.” He acknowledges the influences of William Walton in the first movement, of Stravinsky in the second, Poulenc in the third, and of Gregorian chant threading through the whole. The very first choral entry, he says, is the most straightforward presentation of the chant melody. (If any curious souls are inspired to ferret out the exact melody he used, they will have their work cut out. The Liber Usualis, the standard compilation of Gregorian chants, in modern notation runs to about 1500 pages, and I have been unable to fathom its indexing system or even whether it has one.) Perhaps something ought to be said about the long series of fourths that ascends through the brass ensemble several times in the first movement. Philadelphia-area listeners may hear in it something resembling the fanfare from “Move Closer to Your World,” the Channel 6 Action News theme. No doubt it’s a common enough device to build momentum and excitement before a big entrance, but in any case Rutter would be unlikely to be troubled by the comparison. He is openly proud of his eclecticism: “It’s not my gift to be an explorer, opening the way to new sound worlds, new kinds of musical expression. I’m more of a magpie. I gather sounds in the air around me and in some sort of way make them my own. I think what I’ve probably been brought into the world to do is to cheer people up. And maybe to bring consolation. And healing [alluding to his Requiem]. [B]ut there’s also a need for joy – which is always there, always waiting to be released into our midst.”

Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947): A Carol Symphony

He was the Leonard Bernstein of his time and place, a frenetically active musical polymath: piano soloist, accompanist, orchestrator, conductor, composer, academic, reviewer, and administrator. He was Music Director of the BBC after the Second World War, the most important musical post in England at the time because of the enormous importance of broadcast music in the cultural life of the nation.

But today the name of Victor Hely-Hutchinson is not well remembered, and the Carol Symphony, composed in 1927, is one of only a few of his compositions that are still performed. One reviewer described the compositional strategy of the Carol Symphony as taking a few well-known carols and “symphonizing them by dissolving them in ostinato figures, of which the chief is a cross between Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’ and an English country dance tune.” This sounds as if it might be faint praise, but the review was in fact an admiring one.

During his lifetime, Hely-Hutchinson was known as a composer of light classics and music for radio, television, and film. He was a brilliant improviser who could extemporize on a theme in the style of just about any composer. During his school days at Eton, he had amused his fellows by improvising musical portraits of them. He captured their personalities so adroitly that no one ever had any trouble guessing who the subject was. This facility shows in the Carol Symphony, where the first movement theme is “Adeste Fideles” in the style of a Bach chorale prelude, the second movement is a scherzo on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in a manner similar to the Russian School of Rimsky-Korsakov or Balakirev, and the finale uses “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and a reprise of “Adeste Fideles” in a contrapuntal style reminiscent of Charles Villiers Stanford. The slow movement is a three-part form, with the outer sections based on the “Coventry Carol” and the central trio on “The First Nowell.” This particular section was used as theme music for a BBC radio adaptation of John Masefield’s children’s book The Box of Delights and again for a film version of the story. The first movement was used on the BBC every morning during the Christmas season throughout the 1940s and 1950s, so many Britons have a nostalgic connection to this music. YouTube shows that people are still using A Carol Symphony as background music for Christmas slideshows, and that is immortality of a sort!

Music for Romantics

APRIL 16, 2016 CONCERT — Music for Romantics / Loann Scarpato

The Romantic period in Western music history was long – about 100 years from the early 19th century on into the 20th – and so densely populated with composers, virtuosi, genres, and forms that it is impossible to characterize succinctly. Advances in the design and fabrication of musical instruments increased their power and brilliance, and ensembles grew in size. The sound and configuration of players that we think of as “orchestral” began in the Romantic era. The palette of instrumental color and the dynamic range available to composers expanded tremendously, encompassing effects from the ethereal shimmer of tremolando strings at the very edge of audibility to an overwhelming wall of sound punctuated by the blare of brass and undergirded by thundering percussion. Composers took advantage of these capabilities for many purposes, one of which was the full-on expression of emotion. In European literature and visual arts, the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and balance had given way to an aesthetic that favored freedom of individual expression, the more intense the better, and music followed suit. Certainly emotion had not been absent from earlier music, but beginning with Beethoven composers used everything at their disposal to portray the heights and depths of human feeling, and audiences were happy to be carried along, not only applauding and cheering but weeping, fainting, and even sometimes rioting as the occasion moved them.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Preludio Sinfonico in A, Opus 1
One very direct musical correlate of emotion can be found in melody, especially when sung by the human voice or an instrument approximating it, and one of music’s greatest melodists was Giacomo Puccini. He could easily have been a character in one of his own operas. He was an unruly youngster, often expelled from school for misbehavior, and even as a conservatory student he was fined for skipping classes. Left fatherless at five, he helped his mother support their large family by earning money as soon as he could. At sixteen he was playing the organ in local churches and scandalizing the faithful by weaving operatic hits into his voluntaries. Like the young Brahms, he moonlighted as a pianist in altogether less reputable establishments, where he acquired the lifelong smoking habit that would eventually kill him. To keep himself in tobacco, he pilfered organ pipes and sold them for scrap metal. Then, to disguise the thefts, he had to improvise some rather odd music during services. Instead of assuming his father’s old position as church music director in his hometown of Lucca, Puccini headed for the bright lights and big cities of the opera world. His personal life was so chaotic as to lead one biographer to create a dedicated index entry for “Puccini, Giacomo – Affairs and scandals,” and there are quite a few listed. He was equally undisciplined in his work habits, preferring to hunt, drink, and play cards. He and a friend cheated by humming tunes whose pitches were a code that told what cards they were holding. Puccini composed so fluently that he was able to get away with procrastinating until the eleventh hour, and then he scrawled out his commissions in such haste that his illegible scores were the despair of copyists and publishers. After his operas made him wealthy, he owned multiple homes and liked fine clothes and fast cars, which he sometimes crashed. He wrote relatively little non-operatic music, most of it early in his life and none of it well-known, but it all sounds as if it belongs on the stage.

If, for instance, one were to imagine the Preludio Sinfonico as an opera scene and then asked to describe what sort of a scene it was, probably most people would say it sounded like a love scene, one with some pathos and yearning, perhaps involving unrequited love, or lovers parting, or lost love remembered. It was composed in 1882 as an examination piece for the Milan Conservatory when Puccini was 24. Although it owes something to Wagner and Massenet, who were both extremely popular in Italy at the time, it is recognizably Puccini from first note to last. The long melodic line seems to unspool endlessly, rising and falling back repeatedly without ever quite coming to rest. This is music that projects an intensely inward state and thus is “Romantic” to the core.

Listen to a performance by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Schindler.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) Helios Overture, Opus 1Helios

A painting of Helios in his chariot

“Silence and darkness – then the rising sun with a joyous song of praise – it wanders on its golden way – and sinks quietly into the sea.”

This is the inscription the Danish composer wrote in the score of his Helios Overture. It’s an example of a new genre that arose during the Romantic era, the free-standing concert overture, often with an extra-musical “program” or plot (like, for instance, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture that we performed in May 2012 or the Brahms Academic Festival Overture from Dec. 2012). Nielsen wrote the piece in 1903 while on a trip to Athens. From his room overlooking the Acropolis he could see the sun rising out of the Aegean and was inspired to set to music the legend of the Greek sun-god. Each day, according to the myth, Helios drove across the sky in a gleaming golden chariot pulled by four fiery horses. Along the way he kept track of his great herds of white cows and sheep (the clouds) as well as the doings of mortals on the earth below. At day’s end he boarded a ship with his chariot and tired team. They rested during the night as they sailed back around the world to Helios’ eastern palace, where they would begin their journey anew. The piece is a great crescendo-diminuendo, rising out of the darkness in C to a scintillating climax in E and then returning to shadows and back to C. Oddly, at its first performance it was not altogether well received, because to listeners accustomed to excesses of bombast and sentimentality, it didn’t sound “Romantic” enough.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Karelia Suite, Opus 11: Movement 3, “Alla marcia”

Coat_of_arms_of_historical_province_of_Karelia_in_Finland.svgThe Karelian coat of arms

This is an example of another phenomenon of the Romantic era, the use of music as a vehicle for the expression of nationalist feelings. Finland in Sibelius’ day had had a long history of domination first by Sweden and then by Russia. A movement for Finnish independence was gathering strength, and Sibelius was right in the thick of it. In 1893 he was asked to write incidental music for a series of historical tableaux to be presented at a “lottery soirée,” a form of entertainment cum fundraiser cum political rally that has no counterpart today. Ostensibly held to benefit various charities, these gatherings were actually demonstrations of Finnish solidarity in the face of Russian hegemony, with music, drama, dancing, plenty of eating and especially drinking, and hundreds of door prizes. Lavish tableaux vivants dramatized Finnish myths, history, and landscapes to the accompaniment of specially composed music.

Karelia is a region of southeastern Finland, much contested between Sweden and Russia, that represented the cradle of Finnish civilization, the homeland of its ancient myths and epics, and the symbolic center of the burgeoning nationalist movement. The “Pro Carelia” lottery included eight tableaux depicting events in Karelian history from 1293 to 1811. The soirée, the elaborately produced scenes, and Sibelius’ music were a smashing success with the well-lubricated audience. By the time the evening ended with the singing of the Finnish national anthem, Sibelius said the music could barely be heard for the cheering, stamping, and shouting. He later arranged three of the musical episodes into the Karelia Suite. The “Alla marcia” depicted troops marching to besiege an ancient castle. Sibelius originally titled this section “March to an Old Motive,” but the old tune has never been found. Taken out of context, this is “easy listening;” in its original setting, it was immensely effective protest music.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Messa a Quattro Voci con Orchestra (Messa di Gloria)

Lucca-italy-Torre_Guinigi-view6A view of Puccini’s home city of Lucca in Tuscany

Puccini wrote the Mass in 1880 as his graduation piece for the first music school he attended in his Tuscan hometown, Lucca. The “Credo” movement had been composed two years earlier. He wasn’t required to submit a liturgical composition; an instrumental or theatrical piece would have been equally acceptable. But given his work habits, perhaps it’s not surprising that he chose a composition for which a third of the labor had already been done. The Mass clearly shows the melodic gifts that would make Puccini’s operas so affecting, as well as his assured handling of instrumental color and texture. It’s particularly gratifying for the choral singers, to whom Puccini assigns passages that in an opera would be solos or ensembles sung by the principals: the “Crucifixus” and “Et unam sanctam” sections of the “Credo,” for instance, and the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” part of the “Gloria.” Musical programming practices seem to have been quite free in Italy at the time, even when performances took place in church, where Puccini’s Mass had its only hearing during his lifetime. On that occasion, he inserted a completely unrelated composition into the middle of the Mass, because it suited the event (the feast day of Lucca’s patron saint). In that spirit, we are taking the “Gloria” movement out of its liturgical sequence and performing it last, because it makes a most suitable finale.

Arrivals

DECEMBER 6, 2015 CONCERT — Arrivals: Music of Anticipation and Celebration / Loann Scarpato

The eagerly awaited return of spring … a regal procession of visitors from faraway lands … a goddess arising from the sea … the late year turning to a season of festivity and hope … the blinding glory of a heavenly messenger … the advent of a Messiah … all of these make their entrances in the music on this program.

Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Among the treasures displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are paintings by the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510). Respighi turned three of them into sound-worlds in the Botticelli Triptych. Each movement is only a few minutes long, but each tells a story framing the single moment captured in each painting. Here is the first painting:
primavera

Primavera (Spring) allegorizes the arrival of the season using figures from Roman mythology. (Their faces, however, are portraits of various members of the powerful Medici family who ruled Florence in Botticelli’s day, one of whom commissioned this painting, possibly as a wedding gift.) The painting “reads” from right to left: Zephyrus, the god of winds, possesses Chloris, a nymph associated with verdure, who is transformed into Flora, the goddess of spring. Venus, the deity of love and fertility, with her blindfolded son Cupid above, presides over the dance of the three Graces. Meanwhile, Mercury, god of the month of May, holds the clouds at bay.

Respighi was a formidably erudite man who spoke twelve languages and liked to relax from the rigors of composition by reading treatises on theoretical physics. In his own field, he had a specialist’s knowledge and an antiquarian’s love of early music. He often used archaic modes, melodies, and rhythms in his own compositions, such as the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. Primavera uses several medieval tunes as thematic material. One is a 12th-century Provençal troubadour song honoring the May Queen called “A l’entrada del tens clar” (“At the arrival of the bright season”). Watch a performance by a group re-enacting the original use of the song as an accompaniment to dancing:

The second painting:
Adoration of the Magi

L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi) shows the moment in the Nativity story when the Three Kings kneel before the Holy Family in the stable and present their gifts. The canvas is crowded with dozens of figures and horses (but no camels!). Their garb and trappings are not typical of ancient Judea but of Quattrocento Florence. Again, many of the faces are portraits of illustrious Florentines, including the donor of the painting and the artist himself at the extreme right.

Respighi’s music seems to narrate the entire round-trip journey of the Wise Men. The movement begins with a bassoon solo in a swaying rhythm over a steadily plodding four-beat pulse. It is soon joined by the oboe and then by the flute in rapid arabesques. The prominence of woodwinds in the orchestration, the exotic-sounding intervals in the theme, and the melismatic passages seem intended to create an “Oriental” ambiance. (Rimsky-Korsakov used similar elements for the same purpose in Scheherazade. Respighi would have known it; he studied with Rimsky for a time, and the brilliance of Respighi’s orchestration is often cited as one result.) The meter shifts to a five-beat measure, and the flute and bassoon play the plainchant Advent antiphon “Veni Emmanuel,” which is still sung today as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Toward the end of the movement, another bassoon solo sounds like a lullaby. It is a popular 18th-century Italian Christmas carol, “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (“You Came Down from the Stars”).

Listen to a tenor sing it in a simple arrangement with piano:

The third painting returns to the world of Roman mythology:
Birth of Venus

La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) might better be called “The Arrival of Venus,” for it shows the sea-born goddess on the point of stepping out of her scallop shell and coming ashore after having been blown across the waves. Zephyrus is back, propelling Venus toward the land, where she will assume the mantle (literally – one of the Three Graces is waiting with it) of an idealized queen of earthly love and beauty. Art historians debate whether the face of Venus is or is not a portrait of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, “la bella Simonetta,” a celebrated Florentine beauty of Botticelli’s day who died while still quite young. The painter must have had very strong feelings for her, for he had himself buried at the foot of her tomb.

This movement is essentially one long, slow crescendo. A dotted, oscillating rhythm, suggesting little dancing waves, underlies every measure up to the last. The themes of the movement use the typical irregular meters of the dance music known to have been played at the Florentine court during Botticelli’s time. The themes pass back and forth among instruments until, at the peak of the crescendo, all play in unison (except the piano, celeste, and harp, which push the dotted figure into higher and higher registers). There is a breathless pause before the movement ends quietly.

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons: Winter by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Vaughan Williams in 1954:
Vaughan Williams 1954In 1950, more than 22,000 women throughout the British countryside, all amateurs, were learning this music in their local village choirs. They were preparing for a series of competitive auditions to determine which choirs would sing in the London premiere of Vaughan Williams’ new cantata for female voices. After three rounds of adjudication at county, regional, and national levels, 3,000 women sang the work in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, with conductor Sir Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Vaughan Williams was a strong supporter of amateur music-making. As much as half of his compositional output is intended for non-professional musicians, young and old, singers and instrumentalists alike. He was also a champion of English folksongs and folk-carols and used them extensively in his compositions. (The Fantasia on Greensleeves is one very well known example.) He made over three hundred arrangements of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Continental folksongs and carols, most of them collected in the field by himself or by his colleagues in the English Folk Revival movement. With Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, Vaughan Williams was returning musical gifts to the descendants of the very same rural population from which they had originally sprung.

“Winter” is the concluding section of this four-part folksong anthology. The first tune is the “Children’s Christmas Song” from Yorkshire. It was originally performed by itinerant singers as part of the custom of “wassailing,” the boisterous old practice, at the turn of the year, of drinking to the health of next summer’s crops. The second song, “Gloucestershire Wassail,” toasts the farm animals and the farmer’s family as well. “In Bethlehem City,” from Northamptonshire, is a ballad version of the Nativity story, with a refrain (“Then let us be merry…”) that marks it as a true carol in the original sense of a song meant to accompany a dance. The “Sussex Mummer’s Carol” is the ending of the entire seasonal cantata: mummers and wassailers traditionally ended their performances with some version of “God bless the master of this house” in hopes of receiving a reward for their singing and miming.

Christmas Songs and Carols for Men’s Voices
A “world premiere” occurs when a composition makes its debut on the concert stage for the very first time anywhere. This is the case with no fewer than four of the songs in this group of arrangements for male voices. The set opens with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a spiritual collected and published by John Wesley Work III in 1907. It is known to have been sung by enslaved African-Americans as early as 1865.

Next, the premiere compositions: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a 16th-century German hymn harmonized by Michael Praetorius, here newly arranged for male voices by our conductor Michael Kemp. “Morning Star,” based on the Moravian hymn tune “Hagen,” was originally written by Michael’s late father John S. C. Kemp for mixed choir; Michael Kemp created the arrangement for men’s chorus.

“Candlelight, Burning Bright” was composed by Michael’s late mother Helen Kemp and was originally for children’s voices; the new arrangement for men is Michael’s. The Academy Chorale also has a composer in the alto section: Nancy Gifford’s “Keep Our Christmas Merry” was variously inspired by a poem on an old Christmas card; a cold, snowy Christmas season that “kept” well into January; and the 14th-century German carol “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.” It is a most artful blending of old text and old music with an original theme and lyrics by Ms. Gifford.

This section concludes with arrangements by Howard Helvey of two traditional carols for male chorus and four-handed piano. “Fum, Fum, Fum” is a Catalan carol of the 16th or 17th century. The onomatopoetic syllable “fum” may be intended to imitate the sound of a drum or the strumming of a guitar. “Ding Dong Merrily on High” sets a modern text to the tune of a 16th century French carol.

Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven on High) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
For a century and a half, this splendid music was unperformed, unheard, unpublished, unrecorded, and unknown except to Mendelssohn scholars. It was only thirty years ago that it was published and began to have a performance history, even though it was composed 185 years ago and its musical antecedents go back nearly half a millennium.

Martin Luther wrote the chorale (hymn) “Vom Himmel hoch,” most likely in 1534, as a “children’s song on the Nativity of Christ.” Here is an early published version:
VomHimmel00007012

The text is a paraphrase of Luke 2:8-18, the story of an angel appearing to shepherds to tell them of the birth of Christ in nearby Bethlehem. Engraving of the scene by Jan Sadeler:
An angel appears to some shepherds...

The chorale may have been intended to be staged as a masque or a play, with certain verses sung by the “angel” and others by “shepherds.” It became one of the most popular Lutheran chorales and remains familiar in English as the Christmas hymn “From heav’n above to earth I come.” Here is the melody:

Mendelssohn’s treatment is directly modeled on a form used by J.S. Bach, the “chorale cantata,” in which each short movement (six in this case) sets one or more verses of the chorale text, and movements alternate between chorus and soloists. Mendelssohn composed nine chorale cantatas between 1824 and 1832, none of which was published during his lifetime. The earlier ones may have been student pieces, but From Heaven on High was composed in 1830/31, at the same time as the First Symphony, the Hebrides Overture, and The First Walpurgis Night, which places it among the works of Mendelssohn’s early maturity (even though he was still only 21!) The chorale melody is very prominently used in all three choral movements.

The question of Mendelssohn’s personal beliefs always arises in connection with his religious music. The religious affiliations of the Mendelssohn family were varied and complex. Originally Jewish, most members of the generation before Felix converted to Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. Felix was baptized as a child and lived as a confirmed Lutheran. Conductor and music historian Leon Botstein believes that Mendelssohn attempted in his music to bridge the two faiths and reconcile his Judaic ancestry with his identity as a Christian musician. Botstein suggests that Mendelssohn saw Christianity as “a universalization of Judaism,” and certainly there is evidence in the music, especially the oratorios (Paulus, Isaiah, and the fragmentary Christus), to support that view.

The Master’s Stepchildren

APRIL 25, 2015 CONCERT — The Master’s Stepchildren: Neglected works of Beethoven / Loann Scarpato

Little-known…, scarcely discussed… (even in the central Beethoven literature), rarely programmed…, one of his least-known instrumental works…, unjustly neglected… – it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the compositions on this all-Beethoven program have been largely overlooked. It is not that they are unworthy of attention, but that they have been eclipsed by the glamour and clangor of the symphonies and larger choral works. Let us introduce these more modest relatives of the Ninth Symphony, the Eroica, and the Missa Solemnis, for they are well worth knowing.

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt), Op. 112. Text: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In Beethoven: the Music and the Life, a 600-page book, scholar Lewis Lockwood devotes only a single sentence to this short masterpiece. Yet its superbly-crafted music and text are dramatic and colorful, and so is its back-story.

The poet Goethe was becalmed at sea on a voyage from Sicily to Naples in 1787. As his ship was passing the Isle of Capri, the wind died, leaving the vessel unable to make way against a treacherous current carrying it toward the cliffs of the island’s southern shore. The captain sent out a longboat with rowers to tow the ship out of danger, but the attempt failed because the current was so strong. The panic-stricken passengers knelt on the deck, wailing and praying for deliverance, while the crew seized oars and poles in a desperate effort to hold the ship off the rocks as long as they possibly could. Practically at the last second, a breeze sprang up and shipwreck was averted. Goethe published his short poem Meeresstille (“Becalmed at Sea” is a better translation than the more literal “Calm Sea”) in 1795. He paired it with the contrasting poem Glückliche Fahrt, expressing profound relief as the wind rises, the crew springs into action, and the ship gets under way once more.

A view of the cliffs of Capri where Goethe nearly lost his life

Beethoven knew and loved Goethe’s poetry, as did Mendelssohn, Schubert, and numerous lesser composers who were also inspired by this pair of poems. He wrote a short cantata (a vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment) setting these texts in 1814-1815 and dedicated it to the poet. How a composer who had never sailed could depict so vividly Goethe’s dead air and glassy sea, followed by unleashed winds and dancing waves, is marvelous. Commentators often point out that the transformation of deathlike stasis (or imprisonment, or isolation) into action and triumph is a characteristic progression in Beethoven’s music, as he felt it to be in his life, with its struggles against deafness and depression.

Beethoven’s vocal music sometimes makes almost superhuman physical demands on its performers, so it has become commonplace to imagine that he must have harbored some sort of grudge against singers. There is a conspicuous example of this singer-unfriendliness in Meeresstille when the sopranos are required to make an upward leap of an octave plus a fourth to a high A and sustain it over twelve excruciatingly slow beats, all the while decreasing the volume to piano. Then, six measures later, they must do it again! (The other voice parts have the same slow, sustained decrescendo, but their leaps are not as wide.) However, it may be that Beethoven placed such extreme challenges before his singers not because he wished to torment them but because he admired and had confidence in their abilities. On the back of the title page to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Beethoven copied the following lines from Homer: “Among all the peoples upon the earth, singers are entitled to be cherished and to their share of respect, since the Muse has taught them her own way, and since she loves the company of singers.”

The Creatures of Prometheus (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus). Ballet, Op. 43
This is Beethoven’s only extended ballet score and the only 19th-century music written for an independent (i.e., non-operatic) ballet by a major composer until Tchaikovsky. Yet aside from its overture, it is seldom programmed.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was best known for stealing fire from Mt. Olympus, for which he was punished by being chained to a rock while a vulture perpetually gnawed at his liver. A less grisly and less familiar part of the Prometheus legend is his role as creator of the human race, and that was the subject of a ballet by the celebrated choreographer and dancer Salvatore Viganò, for which he commissioned music from Beethoven in 1800.

Ballet evolved from the courtly dances of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, becoming a part of the spectacle of plays and operas, with professional dancers replacing courtiers. By Beethoven’s time, ballet was becoming an independent performance art that told a story, generally drawn from Classical mythology, using pantomime and tableaux (“living pictures” composed of silent, motionless performers). The libretto for Viganò’s ballet has been lost, but contemporary accounts suggest the following scenarios for the excerpts heard on this program.

Following the overture there is an introduction, in which Prometheus, carrying the fire he has stolen from Mt. Olympus, flees the fury of Zeus. He had fashioned a man and a woman from clay; he touches these inert figures with his torch and brings them to life.

  • No. 2: Disappointed because his creations possess neither grace, intelligence, morality, nor feeling, Prometheus wants to destroy them.
  • No. 3: Instead, he decides to take them to Parnassus, so that Apollo and the Muses can instruct them in the arts of civilization.
  • No. 8: A dance, one of several set-pieces for various mythical characters, for Bacchus and his followers.
  • No. 10, Pastorale: A suite of rustic dances featuring the god Pan.
  • No. 14: A solo dance for the female “creature.”
  • No. 16, Finale: Festive dances honoring Prometheus.

The last movement is the most significant in Beethoven’s musical development. He used its theme two years later as the basis for a massive set of piano variations and again in the finale of the Third Symphony, the Eroica. The Prometheus ballet combines two of the philosophical themes that preoccupied Beethoven throughout his life, the ideal of the revolutionary Hero and the progress of humanity from ignorance and bondage to enlightenment and joy. The Creatures of Prometheus may be largely absent from the concert hall, but choreographers continue to set ballets on Beethoven’s score: you can see a montage of scenes, complete with pyrotechnics:

 

Mass in C Major, Op. 86
This elegantly beautiful work suffered at the outset by comparison with Haydn’s late masses, which were very different in spirit. For later audiences, it has been overshadowed by the immense Missa Solemnis and the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven was aiming to fill very large shoes when in 1807 he accepted a commission from Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy to compose a mass for the name-day of his wife, Princess Marie. The memory of the magisterial late masses of Haydn, produced annually for the same occasion, was still fresh at the court. (We performed the last of these, the Harmoniemesse, in May, 2013.) Beethoven was by this time quite deaf, and rehearsal sessions were contentious. The court musicians, in particular the singers, were uncooperative, even going so far as to boycott rehearsals. The music failed to please the Prince, and Beethoven, feeling ill-used, departed the court abruptly and in high dudgeon.

Although Beethoven followed many of the formal conventions, such as using fugue for certain texts, which were standard in the mass settings of the day, his treatment must have been different enough to confound the expectations of his patron and the rest of the court. For instance, there was no instrumental introduction followed by a declamatory opening choral statement. Instead, the basses softly begin the Kyrie unaccompanied and are joined gently by the rest of the choir and a reduced orchestra. There were no lengthy solo or quartet passages. Instead, the solo voices arise out of and blend back into the choral texture. There was no jaunty, assured ending. Instead, Beethoven uses the same prayerful, questing theme for the final Dona Nobis Pacem that he used for the Kyrie at the beginning. Producing mass settings compliant with the tastes of their aristocratic patrons had pushed composers in the direction of quasi-operatic display. Although there are plenty of bravura passages in Beethoven’s setting, in his hands the mass begins to sound more like the expression of personal religious feeling, colored by an intense and original sensibility.

Beethoven in his study, ca. 1811

Days, Nights, Seasons

MARCH 1, 2015 — Days, Nights, Seasons / Loann Scarpato

March concert snowed out – but was repeated on May 21, 2016

Like scenes in a drama, each of the compositions of this program is set in a particular time and place – but not always in this world!

We begin at dawn on a summer day in the Swiss Alps, with Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été (“Summer Pastorale”). We hear impressions of rosy clouds above the Alps, glacier breezes swaying the fir trees, birdsong, and a village awakening. Honegger wrote this short symphonic poem while vacationing in Wengen, at the foot of the Jungfrau, in 1920. (Take a look at this postcard view of Wengen in 1905.) It won, by a huge majority, an “audience favorite” prize at its first performance and has been popular ever since. In the lively middle section, listen for a clarinet melody that sounds like an echo from the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It is repeated by the flute and later by the strings. There are some ambiguous chords here and there – it wouldn’t be Honegger without them – but overall this music is gentle, melodic, and happy.

Now we travel about 600 miles westward and find ourselves in Brittany, the northwestern corner of France. Look at this painting of a Breton landscape. Henk Bädings, an immensely prolific Dutch composer very well known in his day, wrote the Trois Chansons Bretonnes (“Three Songs of Brittany”) in 1946. At the time Bädings was under censure by the postwar Dutch government for having accepted an important post from the Nazi-controlled authorities during the German occupation. (He had replaced a Jewish incumbent as director of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague.) The Trois Chansons are settings for chorus and piano of three poems by Théodore Botrel, a native Breton singer, songwriter, and poet of the previous generation. Bädings’ musical language at this time was Romantic, expressive, light, and brilliant, with some resemblances to Debussy. Later he ventured into microtonality and electronic music.

In the first song, La nuit en mer (“At Night on the Sea”), fishermen spending the night offshore, alone on the immense ocean with only the “sad reflection” of a lighthouse to remind them of land, plan to sleep on deck under the stars and dream of their loved ones. In the morning at high tide they will return triumphant with a fine catch! Men’s and women’s voices alternate; rocking figures in the piano accompaniment and rising and falling whole-tone scales, in thirds, in the women’s parts suggest the ocean swells.

Now comes an extreme change of scene, to an autumn evening in Purgatory. La complainte des âmes (“Complaint of the Souls”) is a six-part a cappella prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary. The “souls of those who no longer exist” are languishing in Purgatory, “fire above, fire beneath,” because their friends and relatives on earth have not prayed sufficiently to release them. There are sighs, pleadings, cries of despair, and dark mutterings about “ungrateful children.”

The last song returns to a much happier place, a rustic landscape in summer at sunset. In Soir d’été (“Summer Night”), a romantic young man woos his girlfriend Lison by describing to her, in extravagantly sensuous language, the beauty that surrounds them. At this magical hour, he claims, “even the Evil One tires of blasphemy and becomes a little nicer.” The choral writing consists of patterns of alternating eighth- and sixteenth-notes in tempos from fast to slow, creating moods that range from dance-like and eager to dreamy and swooning. The piano accompaniment is light and sparkling, full of arpeggios, grace notes, and trills.

A particular challenge for the chorus is that each song is in a different key, and the opening pitches of the second and third songs are uncued. Since the second song is unaccompanied, if pitch is not established and maintained exactly throughout, by the time the piano enters in the third song, inadvertent bi-tonality could result! The piano parts are demanding, wide-ranging, and seem to have been conceived for very large hands.

Flying across the Atlantic and inland, we come to an American scene, one which involves a bit of mistaken identity. Aaron Copland was always amused when people claimed they could hear “the coming of spring” or “the voice of Appalachia” in his famous ballet score, for he had neither a region nor a season in mind when he composed Appalachian Spring. His own title for the work had been Ballet for Martha; the choreographer Martha Graham named it Appalachian Spring right before its premiere in 1944. She claimed the title had nothing in particular to do with the ballet. She had simply liked the sound of the phrase when she encountered it in a poem. (In the poem, The Dance by Hart Crane, “spring” refers not to a season but a source of water.) However, the picture of time and place conjured by the title is strongly supported by both music and staging, so we find ourselves on an isolated homestead in the hills of western Pennsylvania, early on a spring morning in the first half of the 19th century. What will be performed at this concert is the third iteration of the work. The original ballet score for thirteen instruments was so well received (it won a Pulitzer Prize) that Copland arranged it into a concert suite for full orchestra, altering some portions of the original that he thought were “more interesting choreographically than musically.” Later still, he reduced the scoring of the suite, retaining its altered musical structure, back down to the original thirteen instruments. He divided the suite into eight large sections, describing their relationships to the scenes of the ballet as follows:

  1. Introduction, very slowly: The eight characters (a Pioneering Woman, a Husbandman, his Bride, a Revivalist preacher, and his coterie of four female Followers) come onstage one by one.
  2. Quickly: A sudden burst of A-major arpeggios in unison strings starts the action. Quick figurations convey a mood of elation. Bell-like chiming notes on the piano introduce a slower-moving, hymnlike theme in the strings beneath the surface bustle.
  3. Moderately: Duet for the Bride and the Husbandman, a scene of tenderness and passion. (Graham herself danced the role of the Bride. In many ways, the ballet is a love letter to Erick Hawkins, a much younger dancer who originated the role of the Husbandman. He was Graham’s lover and later her husband.)
  4. Fast: A folksy dance for the Revivalist and his flock, suggesting square dances and country fiddlers.
  5. Suddenly quick: A solo dance for the Bride, in which she imagines her future, including motherhood, with emotions of joy, fear, and wonder.
  6. As at first (slowly): A transitional passage using themes from the introduction.
  7. In double time: Another dance for the Husbandman and the Bride, to variations on the Shaker hymn tune Simple Gifts. (Copland was either unaware or unconcerned that he was using Shaker music most inauthentically! The Shakers were a strictly celibate group, among whom marriage and most all other forms of contact between the sexes were forbidden. Copland wanted to use the flowing melody, which had been composed to accompany dance in Shaker worship, to convey the plain, God-fearing virtues of the American frontier. The hymn does date from about the same period in which the ballet is set.)
  8. Moderately (like a prayer): The Bride takes her place among her neighbors, and at the end the couple are alone, quiet and strong, in their new home with their future before them.

It’s fascinating to watch films of the ballet to see how the spare, open esthetic of music, choreography, and set (by sculptor Isamu Noguchi) complement each other, giving a sense of great space and firm purpose. (Again, be aware while watching that the ballet score and the suite differ in some respects.) The two videos on YouTube are black-and-white, so lighting changes are not readily apparent, but some sources say that the action takes place over the course of a whole day.

Film of the ballet Appalachian Spring with the original cast:

Click here for the: Cover art from the piano/vocal score of Serenade to Music.

Back across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and back 350 years, the last act of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice takes place on a still, moonlit night on the grounds of a fine estate on the Italian mainland not far from Venice. The heavy action of the play is over; only a few loose ends remain. Portia, the mistress of the estate and the play’s heroine, is expected momentarily. Offstage, music is playing to welcome her home. As they await her return, the characters onstage discourse on music. Their talk ranges from “the music of the spheres” (the Pythagorean notion that the motions of heavenly bodies produce an ideal harmony that imperfect humans cannot perceive) to the effect of music – or its lack – on human character: “The man that hath no music in himself…is fit for treasons….Let no such man be trusted!”) They note how the stillness of the night intensifies the effect of the music: “Soft stillness and the night become [i.e., enhance] the touches of sweet harmony.” A moment of gentle comedy occurs when Portia approaches, hears the music, learns that it is coming from her house, and immediately silences it! (Perhaps it was too loud, or not so skillfully played?) She softens her command with a graceful allusion to the Greek myth of Endymion, the handsome shepherd beloved by the moon goddess: “Peace, ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion and would not be awaked.”

The eminent British conductor Sir Henry J. Wood commissioned Ralph Vaughan Williams to write a piece for Wood’s Jubilee celebration, marking his 50th year on the podium, in 1938. Wood asked for a composition for orchestra and sixteen particular singers with whom he had worked closely over the years. Vaughan Williams chose the text (apparently the passage had long been known as Shakespeare’s Serenade to Music), gave it that same title, and divided it into short solos for each of the sixteen singers, alternating with tutti passages. This is “bespoke” music to such an extent that the singers’ initials appear in the score, indicating not only which solos but which of the eight or twelve choral lines they are to sing. Each solo was written to fit (to “become,” in Shakespeare’s usage) the character of each voice. For instance, the first and last soprano solos, on the text “of sweet harmony,” ascend in pianissimo slowly up an octave to a lingering high A. High pianissimo, clear but not large tone, and great breath control were hallmarks of Isobel Baillie, for whom these exposed, unaccompanied passages were written. She was a trouper, with over a thousand Messiahs to her credit, but she confessed to having “lost a deal of weight worrying about those three bars.” In our concert the solos will in some cases be divided differently from the way the composer did, but with the same concern for vocal color. Listen, for example, for the menacing rumble of a bass solo and how its low register “becomes” the text: “The motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus.” One soaring passage, originally designated a solo, will be sung by all of the soprano voices. It ascends the same octave as before to high A, but over eight measures rather than three. The text, spoken in the play by Portia, could plausibly be taken as the key to the entire drama: “How many things by season seasoned are to their right praise and true perfection!” In his play on multiple meanings of the word “season,” Shakespeare tells us that circumstances color our perceptions, judgments, and actions – or should do, if they are to be “becoming.”

Pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was present at the first performance of the Serenade to Music. Eyewitnesses reported that this famously severe man was moved to tears by hearing it.

Mendelssohn Duet

DECEMBER 6, 2014 CONCERT — A Mendelssohn Duet / Loann Scarpato

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (Op. 11)
Composed between 1824 and 1829, Felix Mendelssohn’s first “official” symphony was actually his thirteenth. As a student he had already written twelve string symphonies, but this one also included winds, brass, and percussion instruments. Mendelssohn‘s confident handling of full orchestral forces marked his mastery (at age fifteen!) of the symphonic genre. Influences of both past and contemporaneous composers are present: Weber’s overture to Die Freischütz in the stormy opening, Haydn’s late symphonic slow movements in the Andante, Beethoven’s scherzos in the Menuetto, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in the opening theme of the finale, Bach in its double fugue section, and Beethoven again (e.g., the 5th Symphony) in the propulsive major-key ending. Even in his teens, Mendelssohn possessed a distinctive voice combining the elegance and balance of Classicism with the harmonic richness and rhythmic turbulence of early Romanticism.

Felix Mendelssohn: The First Walpurgis Night (Op. 60), “Druid’s” Last Stand
Historical Background
Spring comes late to the Harz Mountains of central Germany, particularly to their highest peak, the Brocken, one of the snowiest places in northern Europe. From time immemorial, its treeless summit has been the scene of ceremonial bonfires kindled on the night of April 30th/May 1st to welcome the coming of spring. Similar May Day celebrations took place throughout pre-Christian Europe, and a popular spring carnival continues annually in the Harz Mountains to this day. The earliest revelers on the Brocken were nature worshippers enacting spring fertility rites and honoring an “All-Father” identified with the god Odin or Wotan. When in the late 8th century the Frankish ruler Charlemagne set out to Christianize his Holy Roman Empire, the pagan Saxons were forbidden, on pain of death, to worship their old gods. Christian guards stationed in the mountains denied access to the sacred sites.

At the same time, a less militant form of conversion accompanied the establishment of monasteries and convents. An English Benedictine nun (Walpurga or Walburga in the Catholic calendar of saints) arrived in the region as a missionary in 748 and became an important abbess. She was canonized on May 1, 870, and, as often happened when the Christian calendar overlaid pagan seasonal rites, one of her feast days became associated with the ancient May Day observances. The similarity of her name to “Walburg” (or “Waldborg”), an old local fertility goddess, no doubt helped secure her veneration. One of Walburga’s saintly attributes is as a protectress against witchcraft. Yet the eve of her feast day, Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night), came to be a kind of springtime Halloween, when graves opened and the dead walked and witches cavorted with the Devil. How did this transformation occur? In spite of the best efforts of Charlemagne’s soldiers and the benevolent missionaries, pagan practices continued in secret. Legend has it that the nature worshippers had learned enough about Christian superstitions to disguise themselves as witches and devils, frightening the Christians out of the mountain heights and enabling the old rituals to take place unhindered.

The Text
This, at least, is the “fable-like history” that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) depicted in the ballad-poem Die erste Walpurgisnacht in 1799. Goethe had first visited the Brocken in 1777; there is still a hiking trail approximating his route to the summit. Goethe wrote the poem expressly to be set to music as an extended vocal composition, with a cast of characters personifying the conflict between Christians and pagans. Goethe called the latter “Druids,” although there is no chronological or geographic coincidence of that priestly Celtic caste with the pagan Saxons of the Harz region. Druidism was a popular theme in early Romanticism, however, identified with the forces of nature and resistance to the constraints of “civilization,” and the poem clearly shows that Goethe’s sympathies were with the heathens.

Composition, Performance, and Publication History
Goethe asked his musical adviser, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, to set the text. At length, when Zelter could do nothing with it, he turned it over, with Goethe’s approval, to his precocious pupil Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Zelter had taken Mendelssohn to meet Goethe in 1821, and an affectionate friendship had developed between the twelve-year-old prodigy and the venerable poet, sixty years his senior. They last saw each other in 1830, the year when Mendelssohn began work on his setting of Goethe’s poem. He completed an early version of the piece in February of 1832, and it was performed privately (probably in piano-vocal format) that October at one of the Sunday musicales held in his family home. Mendelssohn conducted the first full-scale public performance with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in Berlin in January of 1833, where it was well received.

Mendelssohn later became dissatisfied with the work and revised it extensively between 1842 and 1844, changing the orchestration to add piccolo, bass drum, cymbals, and trombones, and making many alterations to the vocal parts. He conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the premiere of the revised version on Feb. 2, 1843. It was published as his Opus 60 in 1844. Because of the complexity and number of revisions between the first and final versions of the score, no critical edition was published until 2010, when Bahrenreiter issued an authoritative edition of the revised version in both piano-vocal and full score. It includes the English-language text created under Mendelssohn’s supervision by his favored translator William Bartholomew for the 1844 London edition of the score. In addition, Mendelssohn’s copyist Eduard Henschke made an arrangement of the entire piano-vocal score for piano duet, which was approved by the composer and published in 1845. The work was very popular with the public and critics alike. A staged version was presented in 1860 (well after Mendelssohn’s death) and was so successful that it became a staple of the theater repertoire not only in Germany but in Vienna and Paris as well.

Other Issues
It is easy to see the attraction of the text for Mendelssohn. He was an adept musical scene-painter whose imagination was ignited by nature’s grandeur (as in the Hebrides Overture), secret midnight gatherings in mist-shrouded forests (the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and sacrificial fires (“The Fire Descends from Heav’n” from Elijah). He wrote to his sister Fanny that Die erste Walpurgisnacht “can really be fun; for the beginning there are plenty of spring songs and such; then, when the watchmen raise a ruckus…the witches spook is added and you know I have a particular weakness for that.” When he began the composition at age 21, it seems to have been the wild setting and the drama of the conflict that he found most compelling. Later, when he began to sense deeper themes in the poem, he wrote to Goethe for an explanation. The reply, couched in abstractions, suggests that Goethe saw the story as an instance of dialectical struggle between opposed historical forces; the doomed but valiant attempt of an indigenous worldview to preserve itself seems to have been what interested him.

The Brocken was the locus of another sort of struggle during the 20th century, when again it became forbidden territory. The Harz Mountains straddle the former boundary between the two Germanies, with the Brocken just inside the border of the GDR. During the Cold War, it was used as a listening post for surveillance and espionage by both the East Germans and the Soviets. For more than a generation, until reunification in 1990, the mountain was off-limits to all but military personnel. On the day the fences came down, 100,000 people trekked to the summit in a symbolic freedom walk. Once again, the old order was restored. The area is now a national park and tourist attraction.

Oceans of critical ink have been spilled in debating the extent to which Mendelssohn, a devout Lutheran, may have been influenced in his musical choices, especially in the large choral works, by his Jewish heritage. With respect to Die erste Walpurgisnacht, scholarly opinions have come down confidently on any and all sides of this interesting question. On the one hand, it has been stated that The First Walpurgis Night is a thinly disguised critique of anti-Semitism, with Druids standing in for European Jews. At the other extreme are those who argue that the piece is just what it appears to be on its face, a quasi-historical fable based on German folk legend that capitalized on the Romantic fascination with the supernatural. Post-modern analysis of the work has plunged into theoretical thickets dense with discussion of “identity and alterity,” “cultural topoi,” and “pan-diegetic effects.” Whether the composition can usefully be regarded as an example of “socially engaged artistic discourse” may be open to question; what is not is that The First Walpurgis Night is a cracking good story set to very exciting music.

Musical Structure
The piece is often called a secular cantata, but Mendelssohn began calling it a “symphony-cantata” because of its extended orchestral introduction and the fact that the nine vocal movements proceed without pause. The Overture is unusual in that it is not a potpourri of themes or, like a movie trailer, a preview of the scenes to come; the story really begins here with a depiction of wild winter weather on the Brocken, followed by a transition to the spring thaw. Two melodic “cells” are introduced that develop into some of the themes of the succeeding movements. One pattern consists of the notes sol-do-re-mi ascending, often beginning on an upbeat, often including a repeated note, and often stated at the beginnings of themes or important lines of text. The other is a descending chromatic passage, usually beginning on the second or sixth degree of the scale, often when the text expresses fear, conflict, or aggression.

The Plot
Overture: Allegro con fuoco – Quasi l’istesso tempo (in A minor)
Winter storms give way to the spring thaw.

No. 1: “Now May again breaks Winter’s chain” – L’istesso tempo – Allegro assai vivace (A major) – Tenor soloist, women’s chorus, full chorus
The pagan Saxons greet the spring and prepare to go up the mountain to make their annual sacrifices to the “All-Father.”

No. 2: “Know ye not a deed so daring dooms us” – Allegretto non troppo (in D minor) – Alto soloist, women’s chorus
An old pagan woman warns that their Christian oppressors will kill them if they’re caught. The other women echo the warning.

No. 3: “The man who flies our sacrifice deserves the tyrant’s tether” – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, men’s chorus
A Druid (i.e., a pagan priest) urges defiance of the Christians, and the other men agree.

No. 4: “Disperse, ye gallant men” – Allegro leggiero (in E major) – Full chorus
The pagans send guards stealthily into the forest to protect the approaches to their sacred site.

No. 5: “Should our Christian foes assail us” – Recitative – Andante – Allegro moderato (in G minor) – Bass soloist, men’s chorus
One of the pagan guards suggests impersonating demons to scare away the Christians. The others run with the idea.

No. 6: “Come with torches brightly flashing” – Allegro molto (in E minor) – Men’s chorus, women’s chorus, full chorus
All join in a raucous, mocking masquerade of a “Witches’ Sabbath.”

No. 7: “Restrain’d by might” – L’istesso tempo – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, full chorus
The Druid priest and other pagan worshippers light the sacred fire and offer their prayers to the All-Father.

No. 8: “Help, my comrades” – Allegro non troppo (in C minor)
Meanwhile, a Christian soldier spies the ersatz “witches” in the mountain mists, and he and his terrified men flee.

No. 9: “Unclouded now, the flame is bright” – Andante maestoso (in C major) – Full chorus, baritone soloist
The Druid priest and all the pagan worshippers hail the divine light of the sacrificial fire and proclaim that it will shine forever.