Category Archives: Vaughan Williams

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.”   


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

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

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

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

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

The second painting:
Adoration of the Magi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaughan Williams 1954
Vaughan Williams in 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Days, Nights, Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film of the ballet Appalachian Spring with the original cast:

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

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

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

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