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.