Symphonic Poetry: Stravinsky's Petrouchka - November 13, 2021

At the beginning of the 20th century, the place that was unquestionably ground zero for musical experimentation, the development of new ideas, and home to the artistic avant-garde in Europe was Paris. Not that there weren’t important things happening elsewhere on the continent, but the concentration of artists, writers, dancers, and musicians who brought a new and distinctly modern sensibility to their work were living and creating there. This is true for the period shortly before the First World War and continuing into the 1930s, before the rise of European Fascism. Although only three of the four the works on this program are French in origin, they all are tied in significant ways to the musical trends and innovations that developed there. Following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Europe underwent a political and social realignment with the creation of a unified Germany for the first time in history and a humiliated, formerly dominant France. The political and military consequences helped to set the stage for the devastation of WWI, but curiously, the artistic atmosphere of France and Paris in particular saw a renaissance of sorts, in part as a reaction against German culture. Artistic movements like Symbolism and Impressionism invigorated French art before the turn of the century. Even more experimental trends like Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, and later Neo-classicism took hold in the early decades of the 20th century. Each of the works heard on this program has a connection to one or more of these seminal artistic trends.

For most people knowledgeable about modern French music the name Boulanger is familiar in the figure of Nadia Boulanger, the influential composition teacher who shaped the ideas and attitudes of some of the 20th-century’s greatest composers including some of the most important names in American music such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, and Quincy Jones. But Nadia had a younger sister, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who died at the age of 24. Unfortunately, Lili was plagued by poor health from an early age, which led to her premature death, but not before she was able to demonstrate a prodigious musical talent. Lili and Nadia were born to an esteemed musical family; their father, Earnest Boulanger, won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1835. Following in their father’s footsteps, Nadia and Lili both contended for the prize, which included a year-long residency in Rome. Nadia was unsuccessful, but Lili won in 1913 at the age of 19, making her the first woman composer to achieve that distinction. The outbreak of WWI in the summer of 1914 interrupted Lili’s residency and study in Rome and she was only able to complete her tenure following the end of the war. By the time she returned to Rome, her health had already declined considerably.

Despite her short career, she was able to amass a fairly sizeable body of compositions including the cantata Faust et Hélène for which she was awarded the Prix de Rome, and a number of choral and vocal works along with some instrumental pieces. During the last months of her life, she composed her most well-know work, Pie Jesu (1918) and a pair of instrumental pieces, D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning). She had grown so weakened by this time, she had to dictate the music to her sister Nadia who committed the music to paper. The two latter works originally took shape as chamber works for small groups, the D’un matin de printemps appearing for flute or violin and piano as well as a version for piano trio. Lili then reworked the piece for orchestra, though the orchestral version is not simply an arrangement of the chamber version but rather a reinterpretation, not unlike some impressionist paintings that address the same subject but at varying times of the day. The association with impressionism is also relevant to the sound of Boulanger’s music, which has a strong affinity to the sound of works by Debussy in its use of orchestral color, ostinato, and subtle thematic transformation. The energetic opening theme dominates the short work, but its constant recasting through inventive orchestration avoids any sense of repetitiousness.

William Grant Still (1895-1973) is often labeled the “Dean of Afro American Composers,” but his musical vision should not be limited to the realm of Black music or Black composers. Still is one of the most important American composers, who happens to have been Black. His musical background, training, and compositions are not circumscribed by his racial identity, though it unquestionably played an important role in his compositional path. Like most other American composers of concert music, Still was educated in the tradition of the European system. He attended the Oberlin Conservatory and studied composition with leading teachers in the United States, including George Chadwick, of the New England Conservatory, and Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). It is Varèse, a French composer who spent most of his career in the U. S., that links Still with the progressive musical trends associated with the other composers on this program. It was not long after his study with Varèse that Still composed his musically progressive tone poem, Darker America (1924), and though this work doesn’t directly evoke the character of contemporary French music, its innovative use of harmony, form, and jazz and African elements undoubtedly stem from the appeal to boldness and originality advanced by the musicians of the French avant-garde. Today, William Grant Still is experiencing something of a revival, with performances of his familiar and lesser-known works appearing on concert programs around the world. Still was highly esteemed as a composer, conductor, and arranger during his career. His most frequently cited achievements include being the first African American composer to have an opera performed by a major American opera company and the first to conduct a major U. S. symphony orchestra. Still also worked with some of the most celebrated figures in popular music of his day, such as W. C. Handy, Sophie Tucker, and Paul Whiteman, and composed and arranged music for a number of Hollywood films.

Darker America was coincidentally composed in the same year as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, often hailed as one of the most important concert works to exploit elements of the music of African American culture, blues and jazz. Still’s music also integrates these musical influences but in a more personal and holistically integrated way. This powerfully expressive work is explicitly about the struggles and triumphs of African Americans and is described succinctly in a program note written by Still for the premiere of the work in 1928.

Darker America, as its title suggests, is representative of the American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer. At the beginning the theme of the American Negro is announced by the strings in unison. Following a short development of this, the English horn announces the sorrow theme which is followed immediately by the theme of hope, given to muted brass accompanied by strings and woodwind. The sorrow theme returns treated differently, indicative of more intense sorrow as contrasted to passive sorrow indicated at the initial appearance of the theme. Again hope appears and the people seem about to rise above their troubles. But sorrow triumphs. Then the prayer is heard (given to oboe); the prayer of numbed rather than anguished souls. Strongly contrasted moods follow, leading up to the triumph of the people near the end, at which point the three principal themes are combined.

The period following the First World War led to some new developments in French music, perhaps most notably in the works by a group of composers commonly referred to as Les Six. These six young composers, Artur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, GermanineTaillefere, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) were closely associated with music of the composer Erik Satie and especially the writings and artistic ideas of Jean Cocteau. Though they only sustained any cohesion as a group for a few short years, the label has characterized a loose category of French music of the period. While Milhaud and, to a lesser extent, Honneger continue to hold a place in the repertoire, it is Francis Poulenc whose music has been most widely performed and whose musical aesthetic seems to have remained associated with the essence of Cocteau’s ideals. Those principles entail the development of a distinctly French musical character, rejecting foreign influence, especially German, to concern themselves with the commonplace aspects of life, to embrace technology and machines as sources of inspiration, and to derive musical influences from such non-traditional genres as the dancehall, the circus, and jazz. Cocteau and others also had a kind of penchant for the absurd, and this can be seen in a number of works of the time, especially in works for the theater and ballet. Works such as Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) (1920) by Milhaud and Les maries de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party of the Eiffel Tower) (1921), by five of Les Six, except Durey, exhibit this quality of bizarre absurdity. The latter work describes a wedding at the Eiffel Tower with appearances by a hunter, a bicyclist, and a lion. It is in a similar vein that Poulenc’s ballet, Les Biches (1923) appears. Though not as absurdist as Les maries, much about Les Biches harmonizes with this “modernist” theatrical and musical sensibility.

Les Biches is a ballet composed by Poulenc for performance by the celebrated Ballets Russes, located in Paris. Works for the Ballets Russes had been commissioned from many of the leading composers of the early 20th century, most notably Igor Stravinsky. The company, headed by Serge Diaghilev, used leading artists, set designers, composers, and choreographers of the day to create its theatrical spectacles that were hugely successful among the Parisian audiences. The title of Poulenc’s ballet is consistent with the unconventional aesthetic of the time. The French word “biches” has a dual meaning. It literally translates as a “doe” or female deer. Its colloquial meaning is something like “darling” as a term of endearment. Poulenc capitalized on the ambiguity of the whole scenario by using this unspecific term as a title. Despite the lack of clarity, or even of plot at all, the music, arranged into an orchestral suite by Poulenc is both emblematic of its time and highly effective. Poulenc overtly derives certain material and musical forms from early times, reflective of the neo-classicism of the day as well. There is also a certain resemblance to some of the music of Stravinsky, particularly his Pulcinella ballet, also composed in a neo-classical manner and created for the Ballets Russes. Les Biches Suite consists of five short movements extracted from the complete ballet and despite its sometimes jarring juxtapositions, feels familiar. The first movement is labeled, Rondo, a classical form based on a recurring theme. Here the theme is lively and spirited interspersed with music of contrasting pathos. The second movement is simply marked Adagietto and is a mostly lyrical contrast to the buoyant Rondo. The central Rag-Mazurka is playful and energetic though those familiar with either ragtime or mazurkas will be hard pressed to recognize either. The Andantino is a relaxed and good humored movement featuring brilliant brass and wind writing. The suite closes with a Finale marked Presto, and is mostly an alternation of breathless, fanfare-like music based on the first movement’s main idea, with contrasting, and consequently humorous mock dramatic sections of music. Despite its obscure scenario, the music to the Les Biches is skillfully crafted and thoroughly accessible.

 

The intersection between French and Russian culture becomes manifest in the early ballets of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and perhaps most pointedly in the second of his three great Russian ballets, Petrushka (1911). In addition to the fact that the work was composed for Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet in Paris, and therefore drawing upon all of the progressive artistic trends of the time, Petrushka is a work that traces its theatrical origins to Russian symbolist theater. Symbolism as a literary movement originated in France but had important offshoots in Russia as well, dating to the late 19th century. The themes of mysticism and spiritual transcendence, characteristic of Russian symbolism, figure significantly in the scenario of Petrushka, which is probably derived from a play titled The Fairground Booth by symbolist poet Alexander Blok. The archetypal characters of the story also relate to the early history of European theater and elements of the Italian Commedia Dell’arte.

By 1911 Stravinsky had already experienced the success of The Firebird and had begun imagining ideas about what would become the Rite of Spring. He, in the meantime, began working on a projected instrumental work for piano and orchestra that eventually turned into the ballet Petrushka (in which the piano plays a prominent role). This was Stravinsky’s first true ballet for the Ballets Russes since the commission for The Firebird came to Stravinsky after virtually all of its elements had already been decided. Petrushka also surpasses Firebird in its realization of Stravinsky’s developing “Russian” modernist style. Here the revolutionary elements of Stravinsky’s musical style begin to gel: the extensive use of Russian folk music, bold new harmonies, rapid alternation of dramatically contrasting material, and the dynamic sense of rhythm now considered typical of Stravinsky’s music.

The scenario concerns the interactions of three puppets at a fair who come to life to enact a tragic vignette in which the sad clown, Petrushka, falls desperately in love with Columbine, symbolic of the eternal feminine, who finds him frighteningly pathetic. The Blackamoor, representative of empty beauty, also loves Columbine, who returns his affections. Petrushka becomes enraged with jealousy and chases the Blackamoor. Ultimately, Petrushka is killed but as the Showman comes to remove the corpse, the ghost of Petrushka appears above the theater defiantly mocking his earthly tormentors.

In 1947 Stravinsky revised the music of the ballet and created the version commonly heard today, typically as a concert suite without dance. For his ballet Stravinsky created a dazzling score of kaleidoscopic variety, modern in its musical conception, juxtaposing incongruous musical elements that nonetheless vividly capture the dramatic thrust of the symbol-laden story while remaining musically coherent as a concert work.

The ballet suite is arranged in four large sections: I. “The Shrovetide Fair, St. Petersburg/Russian Dance”; II. “Petrushka’s Room”; III. “The Moor’s Room/Waltz”; and IV. “The Shrovetide Fair, St. Petersburg – Evening/The Dance of the Nannies”; “The Peasant and the Bear”; “The Gypsies and the Merchant”; “Dance of the Coachmen”; “The Masqueraders”; “Fight (the Moor and Petrushka)”; “Death of Petrushka”; “The Policeman and the Showman”; “Petrushka’s Ghost.” © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Opening Night - Triumph: Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto - October 9, 2021

Program Notes

To succeed wildly is of course the objective of most creative artists. And to achieve such a success is often termed a triumph. Each of the works on this program is an example of a triumph in various senses, including the achievement of popular success. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture is definitely a popular work, but in his case the triumph may be more one of the spirit. By outlasting his political enemies, Shostakovich achieved a success beyond the implications of any single composition. For Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, his Ballade proved to all that he had the artistic mettle to place him at the forefront of his peers, a personal and professional triumph. Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes stands as the prototype of a new musical genre. It is a successful creation of a musical form that would serve generations of composers to follow. Finally, Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” is triumphant in almost every aspect of the word. He overcame difficult personal circumstances to create a work that stands as one of the greatest examples of its form, a work that exudes a sense of both the poetic and indomitable.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a compositional prodigy. He composed quickly and seemingly effortlessly, sometimes even writing music while engaged in conversation. Though his musical creativity was brimming, his life was plagued with difficulty. Shostakovich is one of the very few internationally celebrated composers to have lived and worked his whole career under repressive Soviet regimes, including the entire period of Josef Stalin’s tyrannical rule. More than once during that time was Shostakovich the target of vicious public political recrimination. Blackballed and humiliated in the press and by official Soviet musical bureaucrats, Shostakovich struggled to tread that fine line between artistic integrity and political acceptability. He even went so far to suppress some of his own works, knowing that their public presentation would bring down the hammer of the Soviet authority. It is in the period after the death of Stalin, in 1953, that some of those works finally came to light, and that Shostakovich composed music less restricted by the fear of official condemnation. Though still fiercely tied to the propaganda of Soviet authority, the government never again targeted Shostakovich so openly for defying the official party line in musical terms.

The Festive Overture, op. 96, is one of those works Shostakovich composed in the wake of Stalin’s death. Consequently, the overture is one of the composer’s most ebullient works, overflowing with energy and a mood of celebration. Its origins stem from a commemoration of the 37th anniversary of the Soviet revolution in 1954. The story goes that a concert to be performed by the Bolshoi Theater orchestra needed an orchestral showpiece in the form of an overture. Shostakovich was contacted for the job and he set to work. He had little time to prepare since the concert was scheduled for only a few days after he was notified of the commission. Within 48 hours the new overture was ready for rehearsal and was premiered on November 6, 1954.

The overture opens with a majestic brass-heavy fanfare suggesting something truly magnificent is about to happen when suddenly the mood turns playfully exuberant with characteristic brilliance in the winds and strings, hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style. Next the marching brasses announce the entry of a new lyrical theme in the horns mimicked by the strings. More good-humored playfulness ensues as the dynamic drops before gradually rising again setting up the return of the now patriotic sounding lyrical theme that leads headlong into the climax, which recalls the splendor of the fanfare opening. The overture ends with a breathless coda that seems supremely fitting to the frenetic pace of the entire piece.

It’s possible that some might understandably confuse British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) with the English Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who lived a century earlier and for whom the composer was named. In contrast to his celebrated namesake, Coleridge-Taylor was a rising figure in English concert music at the turn of the 20th century and an advocate for African and African American cultural identity. Most well-known for his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1891), he attracted the attention of American musicians, particularly African Americans, with whom he would later collaborate in performances during his three visits to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. This relationship strengthened Coleridge-Taylor’s sense of African identity and sympathy to the causes of African Americans. During these visits, he met with prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglas, performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Harry T. Burleigh, and the Washington, D. C.-based Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, admiringly named for the young British composer.

Coleridge-Taylor was the child of a physician from Sierra Leone and a British mother who raised him as a single parent. His mixed racial origins and outwardly African physical appearance made his path to success more challenging in an age of racial intolerance in Great Britain, but he succeeded in winning the support of influential musicians like Charles Villiers Stanford and especially Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar, the most prominent English composer of his time, has a direct connection to Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra in A minor, op. 33, composed in 1898 at the age of 23. Earlier that year Elgar had been asked by the organizing committee of Three Choirs Festival to compose a short instrumental work for the festival. Unable to meet the request, Elgar wrote back to the festival organizers, “I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men. Please don’t let your committee throw away the chance of doing a good act.” So it was thanks to this referral that the Ballade in A minor came to be written. Coleridge-Taylor made good on the commission and provided an enthusiastic work of wide-ranging character. A review of the first performance, conducted by the composer, proclaims the Ballade to be “packed so full of excitement and charm. In its alternations of barbaric gaiety with languid swaying melody, in its wayward rhythms and strange exotic harmonies, this remarkable work provokes comparisons with the best work of the Bohemian school, and emerges with credit from the ordeal of comparison.” Despite its youthful origins, Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade is a confident and accomplished work of orchestral invention. Based on three main thematic ideas, the first two being assertive and energetic balanced by a longer, lyrical idea, the work is an example of late Romantic expression and orchestral color in the vein of his models, Brahms and Dvorák, without being derivative.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) must surely be reckoned as a quintessentially Romantic composer.  He was one of the greatest pianists of the century, a brilliant composer of piano music, and the creator of the musical genre known as the symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is an orchestral work that allowed composers to move away from the formal conventions of the classical symphony of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, by condensing the symphonic procedure into a single, continuous movement consisting of episodes of contrasting character. Typically, the symphonic poem is also work of programmatic character, meaning that the music is intended to represent things and ideas that are not explicitly musical, i.e., it tells a story in a more directly narrative way than non-programmatic music. Liszt’s Les Preludes (1854) is his third and most famous symphonic poem.  Originally intended as the introduction to a large-scale choral work based on a series of poems by the minor French poet, Joseph Autran, Liszt later transformed it into a free-standing orchestral work and took its name from a literary work by the French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, although only the title is connected to the poem.  Liszt gave the following in the way of a program:

                 What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?—Love is the glowing dawn of all existence; but what is the fate where the first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, the mortal blast of which dissipates its fine illusions, the fatal lightning of which consumes its altar; and where is the cruelly wounded soul which, on issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavour to rest his recollection in the calm serenity of life in the fields? Nevertheless man hardly gives himself up for long to the enjoyment of the beneficent stillness which at first he has shared in Nature’s bosom, and when “the trumpet sounds the alarm”, he hastens, to the dangerous post, whatever the war may be, which calls him to its ranks, in order at last to recover in the combat full consciousness of himself and entire possession of his energy.

During the course of the work a three-note motif consistently recurs as, in musically descriptive terms, the happiness of love is upset by turns of fate, and the refuge of pastoral existence is shattered by war.  Nonetheless, the work ends with the motif resounding triumphantly, as even war has proven to have some ennobling power.

Beethoven’s last piano concerto, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E-Flat Major, op. 73, was composed during one of the many personally difficult periods of his life. The year 1809 began well for Beethoven as a group of three young, aristocratic Beethoven enthusiasts joined together to offer the composer an annuity contract that would assure Beethoven a guaranteed income. In opposition to this apparently happy development, in May 1809, Napoleon’s armies were bombing Vienna; the exploding artillery shells were probably especially painful to Beethoven’s already severely deteriorated hearing. In addition, most of Beethoven’s friends and sponsors fled the city, not returning until after the new year. Finally, due to the French military occupation of Vienna, Beethoven was unable to make his usual restorative move to the country that summer. All this personal distress was accompanied by the general economic and material hardships that afflict war-torn regions. Despite all these unpleasant circumstances, the music of the concerto does not reflect the turbulent conditions in which it was conceived.

The Fifth Piano Concerto is Beethoven’s longest and grandest work for solo piano with orchestra. Its character has more in common with the expansive “Pastoral” Symphony than the driving and explosive energy of the Fifth. Despite this more moderated character, the concerto is not conservative in its compositional detail. Striking harmonic turns, demanding piano writing and innovative formal construction are the hallmarks of this concerto. From the outset, Beethoven establishes the highly virtuosic role of the piano through the flourishes that flow out of the opening orchestral chords. The propulsive main theme is then heard, providing the basis of the ensuing orchestral introduction. This noble melody is followed by a second idea whose restrained character sharply contrasts the first theme. Throughout the movement the solo piano is tested by ever more challenging passagework. The role of the orchestra alternates between partner, servant, and rival to the soloist creating an ever-changing, dynamic relationship that draws us into the unfolding drama of the music.

The second movement begins with the restrained, almost religious sound of muted strings singing a graceful melody that prepares us for the solo piano’s almost angelic descent into the realm of the orchestra. After a series of extended trills and arabesques, the solo piano then takes up the hymn-like melody first heard in the orchestra accompanied by throbbing pizzicato strings. The theme is then played by solo winds entwined by a persistently undulating filigree in the piano before an unexpected change in harmony and mood gradually draws us into the robust Finale.

The main theme of the Finale has the character of a heavy-footed dance whose driving, infectious rhythm creates a grandly sweeping flow to the movement. True to the rondo form of this movement, this vigorous dancing theme returns time and again with ever increasing joy. The surging conclusion to the concerto is set-up by the unusual combination of piano and solo tympani who gradually slow the momentum of the music before the last flurry of activity that brings the work to its exultant close. © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.