Program Notes

Program Notes

Haydn’s Symphony No. 90

Kodaly’s Háry János Suite

Stravinsky’s The Firebird

May 13, 2017
7:30 PM

As unlikely as it may seem, the three works on this all-orchestral program share at least one significant point of intersection, Paris. Despite the diversity of national origins of Joseph Haydn (Austria), Zoltán Kodály (Hungary), and Igor Stravinsky (Russia), Paris, and its role as a dominant European musical center of gravity, figures in each of the works and lives of the composers heard on this concert. Paris has long been a world cultural capital dating at least to the time of the creation of the Medieval Gothic style in the late 12th century. French musical history also connects to the time of Notre Dame Cathedral, with other peaks occurring during the 17th century age of Absolutism, 19th century Grand Opera, and fin-de-siecle Paris, where the avant-garde in the arts found a welcome home.

Joseph Haydn (1733-1809) composed symphonies throughout his long and productive career. In fact, Haydn was just a little younger than some of the earliest creators of the symphony as a genre and he contributed mightily to its development. This is so much the case that he is often labeled “Father of the Symphony” because of the enormous advancement seen in his works over a period of more than 40 years. Many of Haydn’s symphonies were composed in sets, usually of 3 or 6, as was common in the period, and most were composed while he was a servant at the court of the wealthy Hungarian Esterhazy family between 1761 and 1790. Haydn’s most famous symphonies are the two sets he composed for his journeys to London after leaving the employment of the Esterhazys. Just before the end of his time with Esterhazy, Haydn received a commission for three new symphonies from a French nobleman, the Comte d’Ogny, for performance for the “Concert de la Loge Olympique,” a concert sponsoring group in Paris. A few years earlier Haydn received a commission for 6 symphonies for the Loge Olympique. Those works are now commonly known as the “Paris Symphonies” (nos. 82-87). Of the three new Parisian works, Symphonies 90, 91, and 92, the last is the most famous, subtitled “The Oxford,” because Haydn chose it to be performed at Oxford University where he was given an honorary degree. The first of the group is the Symphony No. 90 in C major. While Haydn’s “London Symphonies” are considered the pinnacle of his symphonic output, these three antecedents are no less accomplished in quality or character. The hallmark of Haydn’s musical style is the convergence of exquisite craftsmanship, engaging melodic invention, brilliance of formal logic, and plain old good humor. The Symphony No. 90 fully exhibits all of these elements.

Following the slow introduction, fairly standard practice in Haydn’s later symphonies, the exuberant music launches into its lighthearted opening theme in the strings. A second theme first presented in the flute and echoed in the oboe sets a contrasting lyrical mood. Energetic intensity marks the whole movement with bold harmonic turns and rhythmic vibrancy. The second movement, Andante, is a series of 5 variations on a classically elegant theme. Here Haydn features various wind instruments as well the solo cello, and the element of silence. At a few points in this movement the dynamic dramatically decreases and long silent moments appear, perhaps a foreshadowing of something that occurs later in the symphony. The third movement follows the standard Minuet and Trio pattern of classical symphonies though the occasional unexpected turn and a lovely oboe solo keeps things interesting. Fans of Haydn’s music will surely be familiar with his good-natured sense of humor, such as the loud outbursts in his “Surprise Symphony” or the mewing, woozy glissandos in the trio of his Op. 33 no. 2 string quartet. This finale is vigorous and high spirited, but pay attention because Haydn has a surprise in this symphony, too.

Although Haydn was born in Austria, his patron was Hungarian and consequently Haydn lived for at least part of his career in Hungary, which is the national origin of Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), composer of the Háry János Suite (1926). Kodály’s name today is most frequently uttered in tandem with his more famous compatriot, Béla Bartók. Together they worked on studying, cataloging, and classifying Hungarian, and other regional styles, of folk music. Though his compositional output is smaller and less well-known than Bartók’s, Kodály was nonetheless a very capable and accomplished composer. In addition to a small number of well-known works, Kodály is also closely associated with ideas and practices associated with children’s music education, commonly known today as the “Kodály Method.”

Following his work with Bartók, Kodály spent time in Paris where he became enthralled with the music of the “impressionist” composer, Claude Debussy. Debussy was one of the most influential musical figures in Europe around the turn of the century and many composers, particularly from Eastern Europe, were attracted to his unconventional approaches to harmony, melody, rhythm, and tonal color. Kodály’s music is influenced by Debussy without sounding derivative or imitative of the French master. In 1926 Kodály composed his opera, Háry János, based on a Hungarian literary character in the manner of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In the same year, he adapted some of the music into the suite we hear performed on this program. The six sections illustrate various episodes from the eponymous hero’s tale of far-fetched heroism and unlikely romance.

The Háry János Suite opens with “Prelude: The Fairy Tale Begins,” and Kodály’s orchestral representation of a sneeze. According to Hungarian folklore when someone tells a story and one of the hearers sneezes, it is proof the truth of the tale. The serious music that follows relates to János’s claim to have fought with and subdued Napoleon himself. Next is the “Viennese Musical Clock,” a musical interpretation of the marvelously animated mechanical clock with carved soldiers dutifully moving in and out of view above the street. The third section is a sentimental “Song” in the traditional Hungarian style revealing Kodály’s interest in both folksong and impressionism. Section four is titled “The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon.” and is the fantastical account of our hero’s vanquishing of the French army and ultimately confronting Napoleon himself, who appears as a massive figure forced to bow before his conqueror. A Hungarian “Intermezzo” follows in the form of a csárdás or traditional Hungarian dance featuring the cimbalom, a Hungarian hammered dulcimer. The closing section is the “Entrance of the Emperor and his Court,” Háry’s naïvely distorted impression of Hapsburg Imperial pomp and splendor.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is considered one of the towering figures of 20th-century music. Born in imperial Russia, he was the son of a celebrated bass singer in the St. Petersburg, Mariinsky Opera. Stravinsky was steeped in Russian musical culture, both classical and traditional. His teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was a doyen of the Russian nationalist school of composition. Despite this Russian pedigree, it is Paris that made Stravinsky a household name. It was there that the Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) was in residence under the directorship of impresario, Serge Diaghilev, and lead dancer/choreographer, Vaclav Njinsky, and where the leading artists of the period created many of the masterworks of the early 20th century. The kinds of ballets produced there were those favored by French audiences bringing the exotic and fantastic to the stage. As a Russian company, Diaghilev sought to exploit sources unknown to the Continental audiences such as Russian folklore and mythology.

The scenario for Stravinsky’s first ballet, The Firebird (1910), was handed to him in virtually complete form leaving little question about this work’s origins. Nonetheless, the music that he created for the danced and mimed action is both a tour through the recent past of Russian music history and a glimpse into the future. For this ballet, Stravinsky used not only some compostional techniques of his Russian predecessors, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Russian folk songs—a key element of Stravinsky’s later style and a particularly appropriate device for a work based on Russian folklore.

Despite its dependence on earlier models, The Firebird is probably Stravinsky’s most frequently performed work. While some of the appeal of this music comes from its connection to the colorful Russian musical tradition, a more distinguishing quality stems from Stravinsky’s imaginative treatment of the orchestral palate. Stravinsky’s penchant for unique instrumental combinations and extreme registers is already present in this youthful work.

Within a year after the original production of The Firebird Stravinsky decided to make an arrangement of sections of the original ballet as an orchestral suite. In 1919 he made a second suite in five sections excerpting popular dances from the full ballet. In 1945 Stravinsky made a third and final version of the suite, the one performed here, that includes 10 sections: Introduction—The Firebird and its dance—The Firebird’s variation; Pantomime I; Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; Pantomime II; Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; Pantomime III; The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); Infernal dance of King Kashchei; Berceuse (Lullaby); Finale

The story of The Firebird is a classic myth about the forces of good and evil represented by Prince Ivan Tsarevich and Kashchei the sorcerer, respectively. The Firebird itself is something of a good fairy

who helps Tsarevich bring about Kashchei’s demise. In later years Stravinsky recalled the occasion of his first triumph:

A moment of unexpected comedy occurred near the beginning of the performance. Diaghilev had had the idea that a procession of real horses should march on stage—in step with, to be exact, the last six eighth notes of bar eight. The poor animals did enter on cue all right, but they began to neigh and whinny, and one of them, a better critic than an actor, left a malodorous calling card. The audience laughed, and Diaghilev decided not to risk a repetition in future performances. That he could have tried it even once seems incredible to me now—but the incident was forgotten in the general acclaim for the new ballet afterwards.

I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion, and was recalled several times. I was still on stage when the final curtain had come down, and I saw Diaghilev coming towards me, and a dark man with a double forehead, whom he introduced as Claude Debussy. The great composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him. Some years later, when we were sitting together in his box at a performance of Pelléas, I asked him what he really thought of The Firebird. He said, “Que voulez-vous, il fallait bien commencer par quelque chose” [Well, you had to start with something]. Honest, but not extremely flattering. Yet shortly after The Firebird premiere he gave me his well-known photo (in profile) with a dedication “à Igor Stravinski en toute sympathie artistique.

©2017 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.