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Opera High Notes

Program Notes for May 4, 2019 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

Opera is a hybrid art form. It uses vocal and instrumental music, the theatrical arts of acting, scenery, costume, lighting; and, often, dance to tell a story. For most audience members, the high points are undoubtedly the spectacular arias and ensembles sung by the principal characters. But the less-applauded choral and orchestral portions serve important dramatic and logistical purposes. They move the story along by providing a sense of time and place and by setting a mood. The crowd scenes involving the chorus and the orchestral overtures and interludes have practical functions as well. Latecomers get seated during an overture; principal singers sometimes get a rest or a costume change during a choral number; audiences are re-engaged after an intermission by the prelude to the next act. Each of the numbers presented on this concert program fills at least one of these roles and sometimes several.

Richard WAGNER: “Freudig begrüssen” (Arrival of the Guests) from Tannhäuser (1845)

Landgrave (Count) Hermann of Thüringia

The title character is a medieval German minnesinger (“love-singer”), one of the knightly poets and minstrels who composed and performed songs of courtly love. There was an historical Tannhäuser, but little is known about him other than the legends that grew up around him. Wagner used those legends, along with the lore of the minnesingers’ song contests, to create a musical drama about conflict between chaste and erotic love. The opera provides plenty of musical declamation on both sides of that aisle, and both Sigmund Freud and Queen Victoria admired it. In the “Arrival of the Guests” scene, a parade of noble couples enters the singers’ hall of Wartburg Castle to greet their host, Landgrave (Count) Hermann. Castle, hall, and count are all historical, and so also may be the singers’ contest that is about to begin.

Tannhaüser from a 14th-century anthology of minnesinger poetry

Wartburg Castle

Photo by H.U. Schmitt of the Singers’ Hall in Wartburg Castle

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Overture to King Stephen (1811)

This was not a fully-staged opera, but rather commissioned incidental music for a partly-spoken, partly-sung drama about the first king and sainted national hero of Hungary. The occasion was the opening of an elaborate new theater in Budapest in 1811, and the ulterior motive was flattery of its royal patron, the Habsburg Emperor Franz I. Beethoven seldom engaged in nationalistic writing, but there are two Hungarian-flavored themes here: an andante con moto introduced by a solo flute and a syncopated presto reminiscent of a whirling folk-dance. It is said that on his deathbed the 11th-century King Stephen lifted the Holy Crown of Hungary with his right hand and prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect his subjects. After he was canonized by Pope Gregory VII, his right hand and arm became holy relics. The crown was spirited out of Hungary during World War II for safekeeping and stored at Fort Knox until 1978.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis of the “Holy Right” hand of St. Stephen

King Stephen I of Hungary

The crown of Hungary

Giuseppe VERDI: “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco (1841)

Painting by Gebhard Fugel of the Babylonian Captivity

This, Verdi’s third opera, is the Biblical story of the “Babylonian Captivity,” when the ancient Israelites were captives of the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzer II after his forces invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.E. In a dungeon in Babylon, the enslaved Hebrews sing nostalgically of their homeland.  At some point this chorus gained the status of a patriotic hymn, and periodically it is proposed as Italy’s national anthem. It was sung in the streets of Milan as Verdi’s funeral procession passed, and it’s one of the very few opera choruses that is routinely allowed an encore, with audiences sometimes encouraged to sing along.

Verdi’s funeral procession in 1901

Georges BIZET: “Les voici!” from Carmen (1875)

Painting of a Toreador and admirer

This opera about a fiery Spanish gypsy, her fickle loves and violent death, is set in the streets and taverns of 19th-century Seville. Crowd scenes in operas often serve to depict a social milieu which makes the drama of the main characters credible. The “Entrance of the Toreadors” from Carmen is an example. It’s not only a spectacle, with street urchins capering about and cheering crowds welcoming the parade of alguaciles (public officials), chulos, banderilleros, and picadors (all members of the quadrilla, the team that assists each matador).  It’s also a demonstration of the rock-star popularity of bullfighters in Seville, something Bizet’s French audiences may not have been familiar with. Carmen is nothing if not a show-off, so of course she wants to flaunt very publicly her spot on the arm of the acclaimed espada (swordsman) Escamillo, thereby setting in motion the ensuing tragedy.

1875 French illustration of Carmen

Alexander BORODIN: “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor (1887)

Painting of Igor’s defeated army

Borodin’s only opera is an historical drama about a medieval Russian prince who was defeated and captured by the Polovtsian Khan Konchak. Konchak is trying to persuade Igor to become his ally, so he treats his captive as an honored guest and stages a grand entertainment in his honor, the ballet scene from which the “Polovtsian Dances” are drawn. Two different groups of people are represented by the chorus in this scene. The group singing “Glory, honor to our Khan!” are Konchak’s own people. The group singing the “Stranger in Paradise” theme are slaves who have been abducted by Konchak’s raiders and are forced to dance for his guests. They sing of their homeland far to the south.

In the camp of Konchak

Video of a staging by the Kirov Opera and Ballet

Giacomo PUCCINI: Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (1893)

Set design for Act 2: Geronte’s house in Paris

This tragic opera was Puccini’s first great success. The title character, a naive country girl, has fallen in love with an impoverished student, Des Grieux, but she is enticed away from him to become the pampered mistress of a wealthy old Parisian, Geronte. Des Grieux finds Manon in Paris and she agrees to run away with him. But Geronte discovers their plan and has Manon arrested for “stealing” the lavish jewels he has given her. The penalty is deportation to the French colony of Louisiana, which, for some reason, Puccini imagined to be a desert. The intermezzo is played between acts two and three, where there is a major scene change from Geronte’s elegant house to a squalid waterfront prison.  

Set design for Act 3: Waterfront

Manon’s death in Louisiana (which Puccini imagined as a desert)

Giuseppe VERDI: “Triumphal Scene” from Aida (1871)

Poster for Aida

One of the elements of grand opera is spectacle, the visual grandeur provided by towering sets, ornate costumes, lavish props, and the movement of many people, both singers and supernumeraries, on and off and around the stage. Sometimes there are even animals involved, and ballets are a common part of such scenes. One of the grandest spectacles in opera is the “Triumphal March” in Aida. It includes ranks of soldiers, captives in chains, dancers, chariots, horses, even elephants — whatever the stage can hold, the production budget can provide for, and the building inspector permits. It also displays, musically and choreographically, the power of a kind of corporate character, the Chorus of Priests, whose implacable, stepwise treading theme recurs at the end of the opera when the priests condemn the hero and, unwittingly, the heroine to death. The most over-the-top staging of this scene on record was mounted in an open-air stadium in Shanghai in 2000. It employed a cast of 2200 humans, an elephant, camels, lions, tigers, and horse-drawn racing chariots. The audience of 50,000 watched through binoculars.

Photo by FSJKler of a 1999 German production

Trumpets custom-made for the opera

Video of the scene from a production in Verona

Dancing with Brahms

Program Notes for February 9, 2019 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Opus 16

Brahms in about 1855

Brahms was young and in love when he began composing the second Serenade in 1858. His long, close relationship with Clara Schumann, wife and then widow of Brahms’ musical godfather Robert Schumann, was in the process of resolving itself into a loving friendship that continued to the end of Clara’s life. (What it had been before Brahms made it clear, after Robert’s death in 1856, that he could not or would not marry Clara is an issue that has kept biographers, not to mention psychoanalysts, busy ever since.)

Clara Schumann in 1859

At any rate, freed of the expectation of marriage to Clara, Brahms proceeded to become engaged to Agathe von Siebold, a dark-haired professor’s daughter with a lovely soprano voice.  Clara retained enough romantic feeling for Brahms to be jealous when she observed the pair embracing: “He left me alone with words of love and devotion, and now he falls for this girl because she has a pretty voice.” (At the time, Clara was 39 to Brahms’ 25, with seven children aged four to seventeen; Agathe was 23.)

Agathe von Siebold

But Clara seemed to put aside her resentment when Brahms sent her three movements of the Serenade on her birthday. She critiqued the work as carefully and as generously as she ever had. About the central “Adagio” movement, she wrote to him, “I cannot find the words to express the joy it has given me….  I can only imagine something beautiful, as though I were gazing at each filament of a lovely, rare flower: it is most beautiful!” When the Serenade was published, Brahms dedicated it to Clara. She even made a private arrangement of it for solo piano which remained known only to specialists until it was finally published in 2012.

Brahms composed the Serenade during two fall/winter seasons he spent at the court of Prince Leopold III in Detmold, Germany.

Leopold III of Detmold

Here he served as piano teacher, court pianist, and conductor of the court’s women’s chorus. Clara Schumann had previously held the post of piano teacher there and had recommended Brahms as her successor. Brahms’ compositions up to this point had consisted mainly of works for piano and for voices. But his mentor Robert Schumann had declared publicly in 1853 that Brahms would be the next Beethoven, so the European musical world was expecting a symphony from him, a prospect which terrified the young composer. “You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” he wrote. The court appointment in Detmold temporarily relieved some of that pressure and also put Brahms in proximity to an excellent orchestra for the first time. The second Serenade is the first of his works to have been conceived at the outset with the sound of an orchestra in mind. Brahms had two other orchestral pieces in the works at this time, but the first Serenade in D Major (Opus 11) started as a piece for wind ensemble, and the first piano concerto (Opus 15) began as a sonata for two pianos.

The instrumental serenade had developed in the 18th century as a form of light music designed to be played in the background for social gatherings and meals. It was a hybrid of chamber and orchestral music with the older suites of courtly dances. It contained anywhere from three to ten movements and often used unusual combinations of instruments. The great examples of the form, well known to Brahms, were the serenades, divertimenti, and “night music” of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Hummel. Brahms’ orchestration is quite unusual: two flutes, piccolo (used only in the finale), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, violas, cellos, and basses (no violins). Brahms never wrote another composition for this particular combination. The wind and brass parts form an independent ensemble to which strings are added for contrast and counterpoint. The thematic lead is always in the winds, with violas and cellos often doubled in response.

Scroll down to “Johannes Brahms” and listen to short audio samples of the main themes in each of the five movements. Go here for an analysis with notated themes: Click on the front cover image, then scroll down to view pages 135-138.

Uncharacteristically, Brahms composed the second Serenade practically in one go. He wrote, “I felt absolutely blissful while working. I have rarely composed with such exhilaration — the music flowed so sweetly and gently inside me that I was filled with joy through and through.” This lightness of spirit is clearly audible in the dancelike passages of the Serenade: in the fast Czech-influenced cross-rhythms of the second-movement “Scherzo,” with its waltzing trio section; in the “Quasi menuetto” fourth movement, absolutely undanceable (at least as a minuet — is this a Brahmsian joke?) because of its duple meter; and in the exuberant march of the finale. The middle-movement “Adagio” is much more serious, constructed in the archaic form of a passacaglia, a set of variations (eight in this instance) over a reiterated bass figure.

The work was first performed in 1860 in Brahms’ home town of Hamburg, with the composer conducting. Its early reception was mixed, but Brahms revised and published it both in the orchestral version and in an arrangement for piano, four hands. “Too long for an overture and too short for a symphony” and later regarded as a negligible “practice piece” for the later symphonies, it struggled to find a place on concert programs. But in the age of recorded and broadcast music, it has found an appreciative audience on its own very considerable merits.

Before the Serenade was completed in 1859, Brahms got cold feet about his impending marriage to Agathe, and the engagement was broken off. Agathe fled her home in Göttingen to become a governess in Ireland, and she and Brahms never met again. Five years later, he seems to have felt remorse over his treatment of her, for he encoded her name in the pitches of a climactic passage in his second string sextet. Eventually Agathe married happily. Brahms never married at all.

Liebeslieder Walzer (Lovesong Waltzes), Opus 52

Eleven years passed. Brahms still hadn’t written the long-expected symphony, but he was gaining a favorable reputation with the public for his songs and for his piano, chamber, and choral music, especially Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). And he was in love again, although not for the first time since his broken engagement to Agathe von Siebold. The Liebeslieder are settings of translations and imitations of folk poetry, mostly Russian, Polish, and Magyar, from a collection called Polydora by Georg Friedrich Daumer. Their main subjects are the raptures and despairs of love. Brahms’ settings appear to have been written for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie, who was eight or nine years old when Brahms first met the Schumanns as a young admirer of the older composer. By the time Julie was sixteen or seventeen, Brahms had developed amorous feelings for her.

Julie Schumann

(Yes, you remember correctly — he had first been in love with her mother Clara!) Brahms’ emotional relationships with women were many and complicated. Some, as with Agathe, were brief infatuations; some were lifelong, as with Clara; some led to proposals; none led to marriage. (Seth Houston, in his dissertation on the Liebeslieder, resorted to a spreadsheet to keep them all straight.)

“Brahms and waltzes!” marveled the music critic Eduard Hanslick. “The two words stare at each other in positive amazement on the elegant title-page. The earnest, silent Brahms…North German, Protestant…unworldly…writing waltzes! There is only one word that solves the enigma, and that is…Vienna!”

The “elegant title page”

Brahms had been spending his winters in Vienna since 1862, and he finally moved there permanently in 1869, the year he wrote the Liebeslieder. Vienna was southern, cosmopolitan, Catholic, influenced by Italy, famous for its musical flowering in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The waltz was quintessentially Viennese, a combination of dance form and musical composition, the symbol of a gay and elegant age. It was established as a genre by the Strauss family and became an international phenomenon.

Video of a Viennese waltz

Brahms had composed a set of sixteen waltzes in 1865 (Opus 39) for piano, four hands.  He had just finished editing a set of Schubert’s Ländler, an older type of Viennese dance, also in triple time. Ländler typically moved at a slower pace than the headlong waltz, and Brahms’ waltzes are slower, too. The Opus 52 Liebeslieder are specifically marked “Im Ländler-tempo.”

The ländler scene from “The Sound of Music”

Brahms had edited a second set of Schubert ländler in 1869, just before starting to compose his Liebeslieder, and he contemplated editing yet another group in 1872, which precipitated his Neue Liebeslieder (Opus 65). Although Brahms called them “trifles” when writing to his publisher, the Liebeslieder are very artful in their structure and thematic writing, far from glib or formulaic. Brahms was a great admirer of the “waltz king,” Johann Strauss II, and Opus 52 no. 9 alludes to Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz, both in its text (“On Danube’s border”) and in some of its musical details.

Brahms and the “Waltz King” in 1884

Brahms called all of his song collections “bouquets,” and he took great care in ordering them and in the relationships of the keys and moods of the individual pieces. He did acknowledge after publication of Opus 52 that he’d made a mistake with No. 3, that it should have been in A rather than in B-flat. The eighteen songs are designed to be performed either in their entirety or as two sets of nine or three sets of six, if desired. If the latter option is chosen, then the order of the second set is switched to 10-11-12-7-8-9 to keep No. 9 as a conclusion. Brahms felt so strongly about the ordering of his “bouquets” that when a literary compilation of all his song texts was assembled, he insisted that the poems be published in performance order, not grouped by their authors as the editor preferred. Brahms labelled Opus 52 a “piano duet with voices ad libitum,” indicating that the piano parts could stand alone. In 1870 he even made an orchestral suite incorporating eight of the Opus 52 Liebeslieder. The voice parts in the original were intended for a solo quartet of singers. The Viennese middle class, with its love of musical entertainments, was rapidly expanding in Brahms’ day.  The vocal-quartet form was very popular for larger domestic gatherings, convivial salon evenings used as venues for amateur singing and playing. Today, the Liebeslieder are well served by the sonority and power of the modern piano, balanced by a small chorus, and they remain one of his most-performed compositions.

After the relaxed, almost effortless feeling of Opus 52, there came a great change.  Brahms apparently never overtly declared his feelings for Julie Schumann, yet he was devastated when he learned that she was engaged to an Italian nobleman, Count Victor Radicati Marmorito. Incredulous, Clara wrote in her diary, “Did he [Brahms] really love her?  But he has never thought of marrying and Julie has never had any inclination toward him.” His response to this crushing disappointment was the great, anguished Alto Rhapsody (Opus 53), which Brahms called “a bridal song for the Countess Schumann, but with rage do I write such things — with anger!” After three years of marriage and two children, Julie died at age 27 of tuberculosis. As Clara Schumann was Brahms’ first love, Julie was his last. From a slender, smooth-cheeked youth with a high-pitched voice, he aged into a gruff, portly curmudgeon with a bristling beard, redolent of cigars and brandy.

Brahms in 1889

Clara Schumann died of a stroke in 1896. Brahms was stricken down with grief and survived her by less than a year.

Great Music for Great Words

Program Notes for December 1, 2018 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

An image of the first edition of the King James Bible, 1611

Any list of English-language masterpieces would need to include the King James Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The music on this program was composed to accompany passages, spoken and sung, from these literary Everests.

Paradise Lost, first edition

A portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio edition of his play

Gerald FINZI (1901-1956): Suite from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Opus 28b

Composition of the Suite
This began as incidental music for a 1946 BBC radio broadcast of Shakespeare’s play. Designated Finzi’s Opus 28, it was scored for a studio orchestra of sixteen instruments. Normally a slow and methodical composer, Finzi had only three weeks to execute the commission. He managed to finish it just in time — at 4:00 AM the day before the performance! Its transparent textures and articulation show that the composer was thinking of what would carry well through the studio microphones out onto the air. He composed additional music a few years later for an open-air staged version that needed musical coverage for the play’s many entrances and exits. Later yet he published four songs from the play for solo voices as Opus 28a and the present ten-movement suite for orchestra as Opus 28b. He explicitly expected theater directors to pick and choose from the movements those that best suited their productions.

The First Folio edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost

When Finzi arranged the Suite for concert performance, the need for balance and contrast among the movements overrode the chronology of the play. Still, it’s possible to find the correspondences between musical passages and specific events in the drama. These major characters are personified at different places in the music:

  • Ferdinand, the idealistic King of Navarre, and his lords
  • The sharp-witted Princess of France and her ladies
  • Armado, a “fantastical Spaniard,” a broadly comic figure
  • Moth, Armado’s saucy page
  • Holofernes, a long-winded schoolmaster

The plot of the play
Watch a tongue-in-cheek animated synopsis:

Ferdinand and the men of his court have sworn to abstain from the company of women for three years in order to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. He’s forgotten that the Princess of France is coming on a diplomatic visit as an emissary of her father, the aged French monarch. When she and her ladies arrive, Ferdinand and his lords fall deliriously in love with them and try to weasel out of their vows. Hypocritical Armado is the worst of all, and his impudent page Moth mocks him at every turn. The ladies are equally infatuated. There follows a typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities, misdirected love letters, overheard soliloquies, a masked ball, and a play-within-a-play, mixing low humor with high-minded, even noble, sentiments. But this comedy ends on an unusually serious note when the Princess is recalled to France by news of her father’s death. On parting, all agree to meet again in a year, if their loves endure. No wedding marches end this comedy, only two minstrel songs as the characters file offstage.

The musical program
No. 1 / “Introduction”: The opening brass fanfare is a flourish to welcome the Princess of France. The noble, gracious music that follows depicts Ferdinand’s court. A twisting, divided cello theme belongs to the “fantastical Spaniard” and troublemaker Armado.

No. 2 / “Moth”: A jaunty solo clarinet theme characterizes Armado’s page Moth, a “strutting, independent small creature.” A melancholy tune for solo viola accompanies a song that Moth sings at the behest of his lovelorn master.

No. 3 / “Nocturne”: This somber music accompanies the news of the death of the French king near the end of the play, so from this point on, the order of movements in the Suite diverges from the succession of events in the play.

No. 4 / “The Hunt” is light and airy music, as if coming mostly from a distance. In the play, the hunt takes place offstage while dialogue continues in the foreground.

No. 5 / “The Dance” is stilted and a bit artificial, in the stately measures of a court ball. The dancers are the masked royals. They mock each other flirtatiously — but they’re all flirting with the wrong people!

No. 6 / The scherzo, “Clowns,” is a quodlibet or medley of themes representing “the pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest [a poor, itinerant, uneducated clergyman], the fool, and the boy,” characters who stage a play-within-a-play for the entertainment of the royals, somewhat like the play put on by the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience of royals mocks the inept performance. After all the foolery, the movement ends with an unexpectedly soft, serious-sounding chord, which is Holofernes “the pedant” chiding the audience for its discourtesy: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” This is the moment in the last act when the mood of the play begins to turn away from farce.

Nos. 7-9 / The three “Soliloquies” are sometimes performed together as a unit without the other movements. Finzi’s original scoring was light enough that actors could speak their lines over the music. The texts are three somewhat overwrought poems that the lovesick noblemen have composed to send secretly to the objects of their affections.

No. 10 / The “Finale” is a rondo, a musical form in which a theme returns several times with contrasting material in between. It depicts the lords disguised as Russians (“frozen Muscovites,” the princess calls them) leaping and whirling and kicking up their heels during the masked ball.

Watch a 1975 BBC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost:

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): The Creation

Inspiration Haydn made lengthy stays in London to present subscription concerts in 1791-92 and again in 1794-95. He was in his early 60s in those years and at the height of his powers and fame as a composer. During these visits he heard Handel’s oratorios and was greatly impressed and moved by them, especially Messiah. Reportedly he wept when he heard the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Libretto Haydn wished to write an oratorio of his own and was encouraged in this ambition by his London concert promoter, who gave him an English-language libretto entitled The Creation of the World. This word-book had been meant for Handel, but he had never used it. Its author is unknown, and no copy has survived. The text is based mainly on the first chapters of Genesis and a few Psalms from the King James Bible and on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, specifically Book VII.

Haydn took the libretto with him when he returned to his home city of Vienna in 1795. He had it translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy Imperial functionary and important musical patron. Van Swieten said that he “followed the general outlines of the original piece” but changed many details when he saw fit. Haydn spent all of 1797 and part of 1798 composing The Creation (Die Schöpfung in German). Van Swieten ensured funding for a series of private performances in 1798 and the first public performance in 1799. It was an immediate popular and critical success and has never left the repertoire in 200+ years.

Portrait of Haydn in 1799

Because Haydn wanted his oratorio to be performed in England as well as in Europe, van Swieten presided over the first known instance of a major musical work published with bilingual text. But Haydn’s music had been crafted to fit the rhythms and phrasing of the German, and van Swieten wasn’t up to the job of making the English text fit well with the music. “It is lamentable to see such divine music joined with such miserable broken English,” was the opinion of one early English critic.

To be fair, Milton’s high-flown language already contained enough inverted word order to make it a kind of Yoda-speak, and van Swieten only made it worse. So for more than 200 years English-language singers and audiences have had to put up with such tangled syntax as “The wonder of his work displays the firmament,” instead of the more natural word order “The firmament displays the wonder of his work,” and “Today that is coming speaks it the day, the night that is gone to following night,” lines that might be intelligible in German, where case endings help clarify the grammar, but which are mystifying in English. Several subsequent translations have tried to repair some of the damage, including the 1957 version by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.

Milton’s plot or “argument”  The archangels Raphael (bass soloist), Uriel (tenor), and Gabriel (soprano) relate how and wherefore this world was first created; that God, after the expelling of Satan and his Angels out of Heaven, declared his pleasure to create another world, and other creatures to dwell therein…; perform[ed] the work of Creation in six days: the Angels [the rank-and-file heavenly host, i.e., the chorus] celebrate with hymns the performance thereof….

The general narrative pattern is that for each day of Creation, the relevant prose passages of Genesis are given by one of the soloists in recitative, followed by a commentary in unrhymed verse either as a solo aria or as an ensemble of soloists, and then there is more recitative leading to a chorus of praise. The choruses that end Part I, which covers Days 1-4, and Part II, encompassing Days 5 and 6, are the longest and grandest.

Word-painting  [For those with scores and a taste for fine detail, movement and measure numbers are given in brackets.]  A striking musical feature of The Creation is its word-painting, AKA “text-painting,” “tone-painting,” or “naturalism.” This is a kind of musical onomatopoeia, where musical passages are made to sound like the thing they represent. It was widely used by composers in Haydn’s day and earlier to evoke the natural world — its scenery, weathers, plants, and animals — and to suggest human characteristics as well.

The orchestral introduction, the “Representation of Chaos,” contains chromatic ambiguity of a kind that wouldn’t be heard again for another 60-some years, in Wagner’s Tristan. In fact, the musicologist Nicholas Temperley points out that the famous “Tristan chord” appears [in the first half of measure 6] very early in the movement. [The pitches are A-flat, D, F#, B-natural, i.e., augmented 4th, augmented 6th, augmented 9th, and the chord is inverted.]

In this video, the “Tristan” chord is heard at 0:47, just before the ascending triplets in the bassoon:

Haydn himself said to a friend, “You have certainly noticed how I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is, that there is no form in anything in the universe yet.” Temperley regards this rendering of the idea of Chaos as possibly the greatest compositional challenge of Haydn’s career. Seven sketches of the movement survive, showing how much trouble he took with it. The successive iterations show him going farther and farther in postponing “the resolutions that you would most readily expect.”

Haydn showed no one, not even his collaborator van Swieten, the page of score depicting the birth of light [in Chorus mvt1 mm81-89/Orchestra mvt2] until a rehearsal a few days before the first performance. The tonality changes unexpectedly from C-minor to C-major, the dynamic from pp to ff, the texture from unaccompanied choral phrases punctuated by string chords to full forces on the word “light.” Haydn must have known what a powerful moment this would be and have wanted to keep it a surprise as long as he could. Even after the piece had become well known, audiences continued to greet this passage with thunderous applause.

Watch a performance of this movement. Spoiler alert: the moment described above occurs at 2:05:

Here is a sound spectrograph [of m86 choral] at the word “light.” [The horizontal axis represents time, the vertical axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color represents the intensity of the relative frequencies.] It shows in graphic form that Haydn created an exact sonic analogue to a sudden burst of great light!

In Paradise Lost, Milton spends many pages casting Satan and his minions out of the realms of light. Haydn dispatches them much more efficiently, needing only part of one aria (“Now vanished”) and one chorus [choral mvt2/orch mvt3]. Wildly churning chromatic scales and slashing staccato arpeggios depict the “rage and horror” of their “monstrous fall.”

In The Creation, Haydn often created a kind of musical guessing-game for his audiences by using passages of tone-painting before the relevant text was sung. For instance, in the accompanied recitative “In shining splendor” [chor12/orch13], the ascending string lines and a crescendo from pp to ff suggest the rising sun well before the tenor soloist has sung a word. Then there is a softer and slower passage to accompany the moon and a measure and a half of tremolando for the shimmering stars.

Illustration by John Martin of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars

The trio “In fairest raiment” [chor18/orch19] has fluid 16th-note passages to “paint” brooks and springs, rapid high-pitched turns and scales to show the flight of birds, and, in the lowest instruments, turns followed by upward-leaping octaves to depict breaching whales.

Movement 21 contains musical portraits of eight different animals:
1. [In measures 9-12] the lion roars in trills played by low instruments.
2. [In mm13-17] a series of rapidly ascending scales depict the “lightning leap of a tiger.”
3. [In mm19-26] a bouncing Presto passage in 6/8 introduces the stag.
4. [In mm28-34] a galloping rhythm portrays “the noble steed.”
5-6. [Mm 40-50] are a pastorale for flute and bassoon, setting a peaceful scene for grazing cattle and sheep. (At the fermata in m53, some soloists have felt entitled to make this line “bleat” a little.)
7. Tremolando strings [in mm54-57] sound like “a host of insects.”
8. Slithering, chromatic cello lines in [mm58-64] mimic the movement of a worm.

This kind of rather literal-minded musical imitation went out of vogue in the Romantic era, when it began to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and naive. In 1859, fifty years after the premiere, Hector Berlioz wrote scathingly of his “profound antipathy” to The Creation:
Its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C which dazzles one like a Carcel lamp [a particularly brilliant type of oil lamp]... — they make me want to murder somebody….  I wouldn’t give an apple for the privilege of meeting Eve in the woods; I am sure she is stupid enough to bring shame to the good God, and is just what her husband deserves…

Note that this vitriol came from a composer who was, in his turn, a half-century later deemed “incapable throughout his life of writing a line of music without a text or a programme.” And that critic was Paul Dukas, famed for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a work so thoroughly programmatic that one hardly needs images of Mickey Mouse to follow the story in the music. What goes around….

A performance of The Creation in 1808, honoring Haydn the year before he died. He is seated in center foreground, wearing a black hat. Note the small performing forces.

Composer’s summing-up  Fortunately Haydn was long gone by the time musical fashion moved on. He was proud of the work he presciently considered a masterpiece that would endure and simultaneously humble about his gifts. In response to a fan letter admiring The Creation, he wrote: “A secret voice whispered to me: ‘There are in this world so few happy and contented people, sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source in which the man bowed down by care, or burdened with business matters, will for a while find peace and rest.’”

His labour’s not been lost.

Music Inspires

Program Notes for May 5, 2018 Performance by Loann Scarpato

Johannes Brahms (1832-1897), Hungarian Dances, nos. 17, 20, 19

The melodies that Brahms arranged into his Hungarian Dances were the music of a displaced people. Thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Hungary ended up in Brahms’s home city of Hamburg and in the German countryside. Among them were many Romani (“gypsies”), with their distinctive songs and dances. Passed down through the improvisatory tradition of itinerant musicians, these melodies may have disappeared if Brahms and others had not brought them out of ethnic cafes and crossroads encampments into drawing rooms and concert halls. They survive as “art music” even though the “authentic” styles of their original performers are largely unrecoverable.

A modern performance of one of the songs from Hungarian Dance no. 19:
Solti Károly – Kis szekeres, nagy szekeres.wmv – YouTube

“Ride On, King Jesus”, Traditional spiritual

Jubilee Singers
The original Fisk Jubilee Singers

Similarly, the spirituals sung by enslaved African-Americans may have faded away with the deaths of their originators and the dispersal of their descendants. But, beginning in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed concert versions of this music in the North and in Europe, and it has become a gift to the world.  In “Ride On,” the image of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem is taken from the New Testament Passion narrative. The spiritual expresses the jubilant expectation of following a heavenly king to freedom and glory, a goal which “no man can hinder.”

“It Is Well with My Soul”, Late 19th-century hymn

Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford, a once-wealthy Chicago lawyer, wrote the words to this hymn after being buffeted by a succession of personal tragedies. First he lost his only son, and then the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined him financially. Finally, his wife and four daughters were shipwrecked in the Atlantic; only his wife survived. En route to join her in England, Spafford wrote these words as his ship passed over the spot where his daughters had perished.

Richard Smallwood (1948-), “Total Praise”

Gospel singer/songwriter Smallwood calls the composition of this song “a teaching moment from God.” At a dark time in his life, he sat down at the piano for a few hours and “Total Praise” is what emerged. Smallwood calls this a song of “valley praise” (as opposed to “mountaintop praise”), expressing the conviction of the faithful that God is to be praised at all times and seasons, in trouble as well as in triumph.

A performance with the composer at the piano:
Total Praise – Richard Smallwood – YouTube

“My Lord, What a Mornin’”, Traditional spiritual

The Day of Judgment, as foretold in the Christian New Testament, is when heaven and earth will be shaken and trumpets will sound to summon the dead to rise and the righteous to sit at God’s right hand. To enslaved African-Americans, the Judgment Day represented deliverance and vindication and hope.

A performance by Marian Anderson:
Marian Anderson – My Lord, What A Morning (Spiritual) – YouTube

“Hold On!”, Traditional spiritual

The agrarian image of guiding a plow to make the furrow straight is a metaphor for perseverance on the straight-and-narrow path of faith and encouragement on the journey toward freedom. An altered version using the words “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” became one of the anthems of the American Civil Rights Movement.

A performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock, with photos from protest marches:
Sweet Honey In The Rock – Eye On The Prize – YouTube

“We Shall Overcome”, Traditional spiritual/Protest song

This mighty river of a freedom anthem, which the Library of Congress calls “the most powerful song of the 20th century,” has many tributaries. Its headwaters flow from the antebellum spiritual “No More Auction Block” through a late 19th-century black Southern hymn “I’ll Be All Right” and another called “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Southern labor activists, both black and white, sang a version called “We Will Overcome Some Day.” It became the marching and solidarity song of civil rights movements in the U.S. and around the world.

A performance by Odetta of the root spiritual, “No More Auction Block”:
Odetta – No More Auction Block For Me – YouTube

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), Legends, nos. 1-5

Originally composed as a set of ten piano duets, the Legends were so popular that the publisher requested orchestrated versions. Dvořák never explained the meaning of the title. One biographer suggested that the devout composer might have been inspired by legends of various saints. Lyrical in mood and quite short, they are steeped in the spirit of Dvořák’s native Bohemia.

A performance of Legends, no. 1 in the original version for piano, four hands:
Antonín Dvořák: Legendy (Legends) op.59, N°1.Allegro non troppo …

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), “Hallelujah” from Christ on the Mount of Olives, Opus 85

A painting of Christ on the Mount of Olives

Beethoven’s only oratorio (an unstaged dramatic work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra) is rarely performed today. It depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion as he struggles to accept his agonizing fate. The final chorus is an anthem of praise that has achieved an independent life in religious services and concert programs.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), “Sanctus” from Requiem, Opus 48

Portrait of the composer

For much of his life Fauré was a church organist and therefore called upon to accompany innumerable burial services. His Requiem departs from long tradition in its emphasis on prayers of comfort and blessing rather than fear of divine judgment. In response to critics he wrote, “Someone has called it a lullaby of death. But altogether my Requiem is as gentle as I am myself.” Fauré laid the foundations of what we call “impressionism” in music. The “Sanctus” is a good example: over an ethereal, undulating orchestral accompaniment (newly expanded by Michael Kemp) and a soaring solo violin, two blocks of choral voices (cherubim and seraphim?) call to each other across the heavenly kingdom.

“In Bright Mansions Above”, Traditional spiritual

To enslaved people, whose families were so often torn apart, reunion with loved ones in one’s lifetime or after death must have been a fervent, anguished hope. Many spirituals, like this one, incorporate Biblical images and phrases. Roland Carter’s arrangement closes with a chant on the Gospel text, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”, Early 20th-century song

James Weldon Johnson

Calling it “The Negro National Anthem,” the NAACP adopted this as its official song in 1919. It began as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, the principal of a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida. Five hundred schoolchildren recited it at an assembly on Feb. 12, 1900 (Lincoln’s Birthday), at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest speaker. Principal Johnson’s brother and musical collaborator, John Rosamund Johnson, composed the music soon after.

“Amazing Grace”, 18th-century hymn

“Amazing Grace” in an 18th-century hymnbook

The text is a poem written by the Anglican curate John Newton, who in his youth had been the blasphemous, profane captain of a slave ship. He was converted after a seemingly miraculous deliverance from shipwreck. The hymn as we know it is set to the traditional folk tune “New Britain.” It’s estimated that it is played or sung ten million times each year. So as we sing it together tonight, imagine the 27,396 other performances taking place around the world today!

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.’”

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.