Radio Broadcast Performance - April 24 & 25, 2021

The German composers, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, are staples of the orchestral repertoire. The two shared a special bond musically and personally. Brahms became an intimate of the Schumann family, mentored by Robert Schumann while in his twenties, and remained a close confidante to Schumann’s wife, Clara, for the next forty years. Though musically distinct, Brahms and Schumann are central figures of 19th-century German Romanticism. Adding contrast to this program is a work that complements its companions as a reflection of a distinctive time and place. Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebreaks is a late work by this too infrequently heard American master. Drawn from the lives and experiences of African American culture, Price’s work provides variety and an opportunity to appreciate anew one of the most important and accomplished voices in American music of the mid-20th century.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is known to have had a keen interest in music of the past. Aside from his well-known infatuation with Beethoven, his interests reach further into the Baroque in the music of J. S. Bach and even beyond to the Renaissance. Brahms collected and studied scores of past masters, including works as far back as the 16th-century composer Palestrina. Given his interest in his musical predecessors, it hardly comes as a surprise that his interest was piqued when, in 1870, a musicologist friend showed Brahms a manuscript then believed to be a newly discovered work by the giant of Viennese Classicism, Joseph Haydn. The work, a wind octet, intrigued Brahms and he hand copied the second movement, which was titled “Chorale St. Anthoni.” Up to this point in Brahms’ career, he had not composed much orchestral music, but he had written several impressive sets of variations for piano or piano duo based on themes of earlier composers. Included among them are themes from Handel, Paganini, and Robert Schumann. It seems that his original intent was to create another work in this vein as the first version of his “Haydn Variations” is for two pianos (op. 56b). But Brahms immediately set out to orchestrate these variations and in doing so he created one of the great free-standing sets of orchestral variations in the repertoire, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a. Given the apparent provenance and identification of the original chorale theme, one would think that the origins of this work by Haydn would eventually come to the fore, but by the mid-20th century the authenticity of the “Haydn” theme was in serious doubt. Even the title “Chorale St. Anthoni” is obscure as no such chorale is known in the Lutheran repertoire, the “chorale” being the Lutheran equivalent of the Protestant hymn. As a kind of historical footnote, Brahms’ Haydn Variations are something of a precedent as there many examples of single movement variations for solo keyboard and variation movements for chamber groups, concertos, and orchestral works, but few antecedents to this example.

Brahms may have initially been attracted to the somewhat unusual theme due to the odd phrase lengths of the opening portion. Typical classical melodies are shaped into balanced two, four, or eight measure sentences, but this melody is made up of two five-bar sections. The second “half of the theme moves more conventionally in a slightly new direction before recalling to the original idea. This structure remains essentially intact through each of the eight variations that follow. While the classical march-like character of the theme evokes Haydnesque Vienna, the variations transport us to a more Romantic era. The first variation throbs and surges with expressive passion. Variation 2 conveys something of the minor-keyed Magyar impetuosity that Brahms was so fond of. The third variation emphasizes a long, gently lyrical and embellished melodic character in the winds. The next variation turns somber and reflective. A change in meter and tempo has the winds again leading with sinuous counterpoint in the strings. Variation 5 abruptly changes the mood with rhythmically energized strings and unexpectedly accented patterns tossed about the orchestra. Next is a transformation led by the horns suggesting a kind of hunting scene with the orchestra galloping through an excited pursuit. The gently lilting seventh variation is a moment of repose and calm with characteristic Brahmsian melodic invention, tender and slightly wistful. Mystery and darkness pervade the spectral eighth variation with is twisting, winding, intertwining lines. For the work’s finale, Brahms borrows from his historical bag of compositional tricks using the form of a chaconne, which is itself a kind of variation technique. In this section Brahms creates a shortened bass line derived from the original theme and repeats it over and over. Each repetition leads to a new transformation of the basic theme and creating a conclusion that first builds in power and intensity, recedes into intimacy, and ultimately concludes in a mood of glory and good spirits. It is a movement of compositional mastery.

Had she been born a few generations later, Florence Price (1887-1953) would undoubtedly be a household name in American concert music today, so distinguished is her artistic achievement. A native of Little Rock, AR, Price’s accomplishments, largely achieved before the Second World War were rare for women musicians, let alone a Black woman composer. Her family was well-respected in her community, her father a doctor in the segregated South. Her first musical training was by her mother and her gifts were apparent from an early age. She eventually enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music where she studied with prominent musicians such as the composer George Chadwick and received degrees in piano instruction and organ performance. After obtaining college teaching positions in Arkansas and Atlanta, she eventually moved to Chicago to escape the restrictive racial conditions of the Jim Crow era South. During her time in Chicago her career began to flourish. She continued to study composition, develop relationships with other African American musicians and composers, and write music. In the 1920s her music started attracting attention within the wider community of American classical music and in 1932 she won prestigious Wannamaker prizes for two of her compositions, her Piano Sonata in E minor and her First Symphony, also in E minor. Symphonies by women composers were relatively unheard of at the time and her recognition for this work helped establish Price as a leading figure in American concert music. In 1933 the symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This was the first symphony by an African American woman composer to receive a performance by a major symphony orchestra. Price soon came to the attention of other leading Black composers and performers, particularly the soprano, Marian Anderson, who frequently performed arrangements of songs and spirituals made by Price. In all she composed more than 300 works in a wide variety of genres from solo keyboard and organ works, to songs, concertos, and four symphonies. Along with contemporaries William Grant Still (1895-1978) and William Dawson (1899-1990), she formed the core of prominent Black American musicians active between the World Wars and whose music conveys the cultural vitality of the African American experience.

Price’s composition Dances in the Canebreaks (1953) is a prime example of her synthesis of the music of African American culture with the art music of the European concert hall. Originally composed as a suite for piano, it is one of Price’s last compositions, completed just a few months before her death. The work was orchestrated by William Grant Still after Price’s death. The title of Price’s work is something of a curiosity as the phrase “canebreaks” is not one in common use today. The phrase is a reference to the antebellum agricultural South where uncultivated fields had to be cleared for the planting of cotton. Tall stalks, or canes, would have to be cut down by slaves. This arduous task would take days and, presumably at night, the slaves might make some time for amusement, singing and dancing in the freshly cut field, in the “canebreaks.” Price’s music then is a kind of evocation of these escapist moments using older popular dance types as the basis for her three-movement suite. The first dance, “Nimble Feet,” is an easy-going, playful ragtime piece, full of syncopation and steady marching bass. The middle movement, “Tropical Noon,” is slower, in a miniature 3-part form with brief coda, with a persistent rocking rhythmic accompaniment to its relaxed ragtime melody. Last is “Silk Hat and Walking Cane,” described as a “cake walk,” a type of ballroom dance related to the later musical style of ragtime, that was frequently performed by slaves in a manner subtly mocking their unsuspecting owners. The music here is a gently descending theme of cheerful sentimentality evoking the exaggerated high steps of the cakewalk. Still’s orchestration brings all of Price’s finely crafted themes and counterpoint to its full realization through colorful instrumental combinations.

Those familiar with the life and career of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) know that he was a brilliantly creative figure whose wide-ranging interests make him a kind of emblematic figure of 19th-century German Romanticism. He was devoted to literature and his music can really only be fully appreciated in the context of his literary proclivities, especially the poetry of Jean Paul Richter. As a critic, Schumann was among the first to recognize the genius of both Chopin and the young Brahms. He wrote laudatory reviews of their works and abilities well before their names were known to the general public. He is also known for his troubled psychological challenges that ultimately led to his attempted suicide and institutionalization at the end of his life. He was an insightful and influential critic and skilled pianist and conductor.

Also familiar are his near obsessive compositional activities that caused him to focus intensively on particular musical genres for extended periods during his life. In 1840, the year of his marriage to his beloved Clara Wieck, Schumann composed over 100 songs. In 1842-3 his focus turned to chamber music, producing string quartets, a piano quartet, and the great piano quintet. Between these two periods came an immersion in orchestral composition. Clara had previously commented in a letter to her husband that his ideas were more suited to the symphonic idiom that the smaller piano pieces that he had been composing. Perhaps with that impetus he set out composing some orchestral works, which, during that year, included no fewer  than two symphonies, the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, the Symphonette, and the first drafts of what would become his Piano Concerto in A minor. The second of the two ultimately completed symphonies is the one in D minor, known today as the Symphony No. 4, op. 120. The later number is a result of the fact that Schumann undertook extensive revisions in 1851, after the completion of his 3rd Symphony.

The symphony opens in a mood of dark uncertainty. Suspended chords, slow-moving lines, and pulsing tympani, wander to an uncertain point of arrival. A theme gradually begins to take shape over groaning basses as the music eventually lightens building on the theme built of a paired-note motif that dominates the texture. The darkness returns as the development section ensues moving through a series of new keys and generating a new sense of urgency in the strings. The remainder of the movement seems to lead from one climax to the next, avoiding the expected return of the opening. Schumann creates a conclusion to the movement that is a constantly unfolding process all built on the essential ideas heard at the outset.

The second movement, Romance, begins immediately without break after the first. (Schumann asks to have all movements played continuously in his 1851 revision.) A somber duet between solo cello and oboe establishes the mood of the dreamlike movement. A recollection of the opening movement’s turmoil follows. The movement’s middle section features a floating violin solo gracefully descending from some angelic height. The movement concludes with a return to the somber song of the cello and oboe.

The mood of the Romance is abruptly interrupted by the assertive and insistent dancing rhythm of the Scherzo, although this dance has something of the dance macabre to it. Schumann finds light here too, especially in the delicate violin filigree theme of the Trio sections. A repetition of the Trio forms a kind of transition to the finale as the music slows to near stasis, somewhat reminiscent of the similar place in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Schumann’s finale lurches headlong into its triumphant mood by recalling the paired note theme of the opening movement. A rising theme leads the orchestra through a series of new keys though the mood is mostly buoyant. As the movement moves towards its conclusion Schumann increases the tempo, introduces a fugal treatment of the theme, and with a few ominous interruptions, creates an irresistible surge of energy that sweeps the orchestra to its breathless and surging conclusion. © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Radio Broadcast Performance - March 27 & 28, 2021

There are few artistic figures in history whose name stirs as much controversy as Richard Wagner (1811-1883). Notorious for the conduct of his personal life, his infidelities with married women, and, perhaps most infamously, his racist and anti-Semitic ideologies, have contributed to a large body of analytical and critical writing about him. It would be easy to dismiss such a character on these grounds, yet as a composer and aesthetic philosopher Wagner compels us to struggle with this dichotomy. His more unpleasant characteristics aside, he is one of the most influential creative figures of the entire 19th-century. Love him or hate him, every artist of the era was forced to contend with him. Lines of association were drawn among musicians and audiences dividing supporters of Wagner and Brahms, whose 4th Symphony appears on the second half of this program, into opposing camps. The influential Viennese music critic, Eduard Hanslick, a fierce supporter of Brahms and severe critic of Wagner, served to inflame and exacerbate the divide, despite the fact that Brahms and Wagner harbored no personal or artistic animosity toward one another.

Wagner’s music and musical ideas were in fact progressive, revolutionary even. He set out to create what he immodestly labeled “The Music of the Future” in an essay written in 1860. Two decades earlier he conceived a work that perhaps most firmly set him on the path to the creation of this new music in his opera The Flying Dutchman. In The Flying Dutchman we begin to see and hear the beginnings of an approach to opera that will result in the “Music Dramas” of his later career. Wagner’s libretto is, according to the composer, a poetic conception rather than a mere narrative adaptation of the long-standing Dutchman myth. The music is highly thematic, anticipating the idea of “leitmotif” that permeates his later works. It even disrupts the traditional formal structure of opera, as the original version of the opera was conceived in one continuous act. He later revised it to a more conventional three-act plan. Perhaps most indicative of Wagner’s new conception is heard in the opera’s intense and dramatic overture. He even wrote theoretically about the “new” style of overture in 1841, the same time that he was composing The Flying Dutchman, saying: “The main challenge in…the overture is to render the drama’s characteristic idea through independent musical principles…The composer will do well for the intelligibility of the dramatic intention if he works into his overture characteristic motives, figures or rhythms borrowed from the opera.” While the use of themes and material in the overture drawn from the opera is not new in music history, Wagner’s intent in creating an intimately integrated orchestral introduction takes this idea to a new level. Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman has actually been described as a complete version of the story fully realized in the ensuing dramatic presentation. It certainly uses the music associated with the main characters and elements of the story and presents them in a kind of synoptic overview. The short version of the scenario is that a Dutch sailor attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope vows to succeed even if it takes till the Final Judgement Day. Satan hears him and gleefully accepts the challenge and the sailor is doomed to wander the seas eternally unless he can find redemption in the true love of a woman. The Dutchman is permitted to go ashore only once every seven years to find such a love. He finally does find his redemptor in, Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sailor, who vows undying love. Mistakenly convinced of her infidelity, the Dutchman sets off for another seven years. Senta, still devoted to the Dutchman, throws herself from a cliff thereby releasing him from his curse and uniting them in eternity.

In 1853 Wagner created a program for a series of concert performances of the overture and it corresponds closely to the action of the opera itself.

The terrible ship of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ is tossed about by the storms; it approaches the coast where it lands, and where its captain has been promised he might one day find happiness and salvation;

We perceive the sympathetic strains of this promise of redemption … the accursed one listens, sombre and despondent;

Tired and longing only for death he steps ashore, while his crew silently battens down the ship, likewise exhausted and weary of living.

How many times has not the unfortunate one gone through with this routine! … How many times, bitterly disappointed, has he not had to set sail once again on his endless, senseless sea-voyage!

A spry and hearty ship sails by; the Dutchman harks to the merry carefree singing of its crew … he causes his ship to storm furiously past theirs, terrifying and intimidating that happy crew into silence and fright

Then a light breaks through the night; … For a moment it is extinguished, then flares up again; the seafarer fastens his gaze on this beacon and steers for it with vigorous determination through wave and current. What draws him on so powerfully is the glance of a woman, radiating a sublime pity and divine sympathy.

The wretched man collapses before this divine apparition, just as his ship shatters into pieces;

But the Dutchman rises from the waves, safe and sound, the victorious redemptrix leading him by the hand toward the rosy dawn of sublime love.

Max Bruch (1838-1920) is a composer whose reputation relies primarily on a small handful of well-loved works, despite having had a long and productive career. He composed in virtually all genres, was a well-respected conductor, and was an influential teacher. His music is marked by a characteristic German Romanticism: expressive, colorful, and expansive, but ultimately Bruch was a conservative, reflecting the musical aesthetics or more classically oriented composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann as compared to the more progressive style of Wagner, and it is this stylistic alignment that may have sealed his relatively obscure fate. Roughly contemporary with Johannes Brahms, Bruch staked out the same musical territory as that celebrated composer and consequently his reputation is eclipsed by him.

Bruch’s most famous work is his Violin Concerto, in G minor, op. 26, a work that has become a staple in the violin repertoire and receives frequent performances by leading violinists. His other frequently performed work is a concert work for cello and orchestra, the Kol Nidrei, op. 47, composed around the same time as the work heard on this program, the Scottish Fantasy, op. 46. These works share some interesting characteristics, most notably the intensely expressive writing for the solo string instrument, and the derivation of the main thematic material from preexisting and ethnically specific sources, the former based on the ancient Hebrew prayer chanted on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and the latter an adaptation of four Scottish folk songs. In borrowing these musical themes for his compositions, Bruch was participating in a common practice of the later 19th century of deriving classical concert works from folk-based sources. For many 19th-century composers, this folk influence was an expression of a nationalist identity, a desire to recognize the value of folk music from marginalized European cultures. Examples can be seen in the music of Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorák, all of whom use music of their native culture to enliven their works. Bruch, German by birth and training, was neither Jewish nor Scottish, so his music occupies a kind of curious space on the periphery of this nationalist impulse. His fascination with things Scottish is part of a long personal engagement with that culture’s art and literature as well as an extension of a tradition shared with some other German composers, including Beethoven, who relatively late in his career arranged a series of Scottish folk melodies. Bruch had earlier become enamored of the literary works of Walter Scott and it is probably this influence that fired his imagination and inspired him to write his Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp with Free Use of Scottish Folk Melodies, op. 46, though he never visited Scotland before composing his Scottish Fantasy in 1880. Bruch also puts an emphasis on the role of the harp at various points in the work as a partner to the solo violin, probably intended to reflect the composer’s belief that the harp had particular importance in traditional Scottish music. The work is dedicated to the Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, but was given its premiere by legendary violinist and dedicatee of the Brahms Violin concerto, Joseph Joachim, whose performance Bruch claimed to have “ruined” the piece due to “carelessness” and lacking necessary technique. A later performance by Sarasate proved much more to the composer’s liking.

The Scottish Fantasy is a work that shares similar characteristics with the 19th-century symphonic poem mixed with the traditional concerto. It is in four continuous movements of contrasting tempo and character and is more concerto than symphony, though it lacks an extended cadenza for the soloist. Much like Smetana’s famous Moldau, most sections are linked by recurrences of the first main theme of the work. This theme, the Scottish tune, “Auld Rob Morris/Through the Wood, Laddie,” is, in the opening movement, preceded by a lengthy, slow, and somewhat ominous sounding introduction, the orchestra and solo violin providing a prelude of dramatic narration before introducing the richly expressive folk melody in the solo violin. The second section is labeled Scherzo and is based on a dance tune called “The Dusty Miller,” a lively, rhythmically energized movement featuring droning string accompaniments and virtuosic solo passagework. The conclusion of the enthusiastic dance is abruptly interrupted by the transition to the third movement, again based on the “Auld Rob Morris” theme. The third movement is an intensely lyrical fantasy based on the tune, “I’m Down for Lack of Johnnie,” sweetly sentimental and touched with melancholy. No transition links the slow movement with the emphatic and infectious finale based on an old Scottish song called, “Scots wha hae,” spun out in short, folkish phrases of 4 and 5 bar segments. Invigorated by characteristic “Scotch snap” rhythms, the solo violin part becomes increasingly demanding until a new expressive idea enters providing relief as the harp accompanies the solo. The movement continues to unfold these two ideas, the solo violin part becoming steadily more intricate and technical. Just as the movement seems to reach its expressive climax, Bruch recalls the original “Auld Rob” theme, before a final statement of the “Scots wha hae” brings the work to a rousing close.

Our program concludes with one of the most profound examples of tragic emotional expression found in 19th-century symphonic music. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98, is in many ways his most unusual symphony in its novel combination of old and new elements.

In addition to being one of the greatest composers of 19th-century, Brahms was also a dedicated student of the music of earlier eras. During much of his career he worked with music publishers preparing editions of the works of various composers of past centuries. We also know that he studied the music of Palestrina, the Italian late-Renaissance master, while working on his German Requiem and had recently completed an edition of Bach’s Cantata 150 around the time of his work on the Symphony No. 4.  He had also been strongly affected by the performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor at about this same period. The music of the Baroque, and Bach in particular, have significant repercussions for the Fourth Symphony, especially in its final movement. It is in this movement that Brahms makes use of the Baroque dance form known as the passacaglia. This type of dance typically consisted of a number of variations set over a continuously repeating bass line. In the case of Brahms’ passacaglia, the bass line is a slightly altered version of an eight-chord progression borrowed from Bach’s Cantata No. 150 and is clearly stated at the very outset of the last movement of the symphony.

The Symphony No. 4 is a product of Brahms’ mature period; it exudes the kind of autumnal warmth and poignancy typical of his late compositions. The first movement sets a tone of urgency through its breathless opening theme in the strings, and, though it is soon taken over by more confident strains, the sense of restlessness is never completely displaced. As the movement inevitably unfolds, the logic of its massive structure becomes clear as contrasting themes appear and later return, reminiscent of the elegant design found in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, now imbued with a level of emotional drama not encountered in their works.

The mellow tones of horns and winds introduce the serene melody of the largely reposeful slow movement. The tranquil mood is later briefly interrupted by a new, imitative and accented variation of the opening melody, once again introducing a sense of the restlessness encountered in the first movement. This disturbance is then climactically followed by one of Brahms’ most sublime and gorgeous melodies in the strings allowing us to momentarily experience the radiant serenity that one encounters only in a Brahms slow movement.

The third movement jolts us out of the dreamy calm of the preceding movement with a boisterous and joyful, march‑like, scherzo. Here Brahms pushes the limits of traditional symphonic practice by writing a movement that is clearly more emphatic and weightier than typical scherzos by using a marching duple pattern rather than the expected triple.  A slower middle section gives brief respite from the ebullience surrounding it, recalling the grace and calm of the second movement. It is short lived though, as we are once again swept up by the energy and drive of the returning triumphal march.

It is in the Finale that the tragic fate of the symphony is finally sealed. The inexorable repetition inherent in the passacaglia form, the heartbreaking character of the theme itself along with its ensuing impassioned and touching variations convey the sense of tragedy throughout most of the movement. The variations unfold in three large sections distinguished by changes in tempo, the middle section feeling somewhat slower before the pace again quickens to the end of the movement; the symphony ends in the atypical and sobering minor key.  ©2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Radio Broadcast Performance - February 27 & 28, 2021

“The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”  –Antonín Dvorák (1893)

More than a century ago the celebrated Czech composer, Antonín Dvorák, called attention to the rich and vital character of African American music. Dvorák had been recruited to become the director of a new music conservatory in New York City with the intent of helping to create a school, both literally and figuratively, of American music. The institution of slavery was abolished more than a generation prior, and Reconstruction, the attempt to integrate freed slaves into American society, eventually collapsed in 1877. Despite the continued suppression of African Americans’ full participation in the political and economic life of American society, their contribution to American culture has been both persistent and profoundly consequential. The story of race and culture in the U. S. since the end of the 19th century is anguished and hopeful, tragic and inspirational, and filled with great promise and crushing disappointment.

Unfortunately, few white American musicians heeded Dvorák’s prophetic advice. With a few notable exceptions, the mainstream of American concert music continued to embrace European traditions as the basis for developing an American Classical Music. While most popular musical genres of the 20th century were built solidly on a foundation of African American musical culture (Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Country, Swing, Gospel, R & B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hip Hop), the “art” music of the period remained relatively closed to influence and representation from Black musicians and composers. Some American composers did appreciate the rich source of inspiration lying untapped in Black musical culture. George Gershwin, Charles Ives, and Leonard Bernstein all recognized the value of this distinctly American musical tradition. A small number of Black American composers also rose to relative prominence in the early part of the 20th century, including Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), Florence Price (1887-1953), William Grant Still (1895-1978), and William Dawson (1899-1990), but they and their music remain relatively obscure and infrequently performed. But things do change over time. As the country and our society evolves toward acknowledging the gift and virtues of our inherent diversity, the artistic creations of all people, regardless of the particulars of identity, are finding a place within the larger sphere of the American experience. The works on this program give voice to the utterances of those not fully recognized from the past, those actively creating in the present, and that prophetic vision from the outsider.

One of the freshest figures in composition today is the youthful yet prolific composer Kevin Day (b. 1996). Day has already composed over 150 works in a variety of musical genres from Jazz to contemporary classical concert works. The son of two musical parents, Day holds a degree in music performance from Texas Christian University and is currently working on a Master’s in Composition from the University of Georgia. At only 24 years of age, he has already had works performed by prominent ensembles and musicians around the world and is the recipient of numerous commissions and accolades including a BMI Student Composer Award. As a performer Kevin Day is a low brass specialist and jazz keyboard player, despite having never formally studied piano, and has composed for a variety of brass and wind ensembles. He currently serves as composer-in-residence at the Mesquite Symphony Orchestra in Mesquite, TX. Day’s music ranges from the powerfully introspective and reflective to the exuberant and celebratory. His recent composition, Lightspeed (Fanfare for Orchestra) (2019), is definitely in the latter category. This brief work for orchestra was commissioned for the Washington and Lee University Symphony Orchestra. The piece features two main contrasting ideas, the first a mercurial, heavily accented, rhythmically asymmetrical theme first played in the strings and punctuated by percussion. A second, calmer, lyrical theme in the strings, evocative of a John Williams western melody, follows and builds to a return of the throbbing opening idea. The series repeats again with a closing section based on the opening theme now heightened by a triumphant, chorale-like melody in the brass before a resoundingly syncopated percussion closing flourish.

One of the most intriguing, accomplished, yet underappreciated American composers of the past century is William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still was a part of some of the most significant cultural developments in the U. S. from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, to making arrangements for prominent white musicians like Sophie Tucker, Paul Whiteman (dubbed the “King of Jazz”), and Artie Shaw, as well as composing Broadway musicals, and studying under leading musical thinkers of the period including George Chadwick (director of the New England Conservatory) and especially the French composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1865), an avatar of the early 20th-century avant-garde. Still was recognized by peers as one of the leading composers and musicians of the day and his accomplishments place him as among the most significant musicians in American history, often called the “Dean of American Music.” His Afro American Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1931) was the first symphony by a Black composer to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra. Still also composed eight operas. In 1949 his second opera, Troubled Island, was the first opera by a Black composer to receive its premiere by a major American opera company.

Musically, Still emphasized the essential characteristics of the blues as the basis for his compositions including the use of altered scales and modes and irregular melodic phrases. He believed the blues to be a pure expression of African American culture, writing that they “are the secular music of the American Negro and are more purely Negroid than many spirituals. They show no European influence at all.” Despite this urge to find a truly authentic Black voice in his music, Still’s works exhibit a connection to the European concert tradition as well. His orchestrations are rich and inventive, and his forms build on that existing tradition. His Serenade for Orchestra (1957) is a work of intense and expressive lyricism. The languid opening theme, defined by an insistent descending interval before serenely rising, is accompanied by a gently strumming harp. A new idea follows in the flute, now rising to a brighter space. The opening idea returns with its slightly bluesy inflections before pushing into the third section, now energized with a pulsing rhythm and short repeated phrases echoing the descending motto heard at the start of the work. An extended transition brings us back to a final utterance of the now familiar opening section, calm, tinged with melancholy and reminiscence along with a closing surge of passion and light.

Like William Grant Still, Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) is a composer who consciously occupies two musical spaces, the world of Western classical concert music and the musical culture of Black America. Hailstork is today an elder statesman of American concert music with a large repertoire of works in a wide variety of genres. He was trained in the classical tradition having completed two undergraduate degrees, one at Howard University and the other at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with the American composer David Diamond and earned a Master of Music degree. In 1971 he earned his Ph. D. from Michigan State University, where he also taught music classes. Hailstork followed in the footsteps of many 20th century American composers by studying composition with the famed pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, at the American Conservatory in Fontainbleu, France. He is consequently thoroughly versed in the musical style he refers to as the Euro-American concert tradition and much of his music is a complex and subtle interplay of influences, both classical and African American. Describing his own experience as an African American composer, Hailstork has said:

I like to tell people that I’m a cultural hybrid and sometimes it’s agonizing… And then I just said to myself, “Look, I accept myself as a cultural hybrid, and I know I have trained in Euro-classical skills and I also am very interested — and since I went to school in an African American college — I am aware of that culture too. And I use them both.

Some of his most recent works are open tributes to aspects of the Black experience, such as his tribute to William Grant Still, entitled Still Holding On (2019), premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and A Knee on the Neck (2021), a requiem for George Floyd.

Hailstork’s academic career led him to Norfolk, VA, first as a professor of music at Norfolk State Colleg, a historically Black college, and later joining the faculty at Old Dominion University. Living in Norfolk also afforded him the opportunity to develop a relationship with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. It is through this relationship that the Two Romances for Viola and Orchestra (1997) came into existence. According to Hailstork:

The Two Romances are dedicated to violist Beverly Baker (viola section leader of the Virginia Symphony) and conductor, JoAnn Falletta. Athough I sketched the pieces during the 1980s, I had put them aside because of their old fashioned lyricism. Years later, when Beverly told me that she and JoAnn had discussed a possible orchestral setting of my other work for Beverly, (Sanctum), I suggested these two pieces instead. So, with Maestra Falletta’s interest, and Beverly’s encouragement, I polished them up for performance.

The Two Romances are simple, straight forward, tranquil pieces in ABA form. In the first one, the flute and violins present a pastoral theme, which is then taken up by the viola. A repeated figure in the harp begins the middle section. Finally, the opening motive returns in greatly lengthened note values in the violins.

After a short introduction in the violins and harp, the solo viola enters with the main melody of Romance No. 2. Bassoon and oboe solos begin the middle section which develops motives from the main theme. The introduction returns, with darker harmonies and orchestration, but, gradually, the coloring lightens, and the piece closes with the same delicacy which concluded the first movement.

 

“… It is a Czech music through which speaks my native country, but without my time in America I could never have created it.” –Antonín Dvorák (on his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”)

The notion of music with a national identity is fairly familiar to most people, though a clear description of how music manifests this identity is somewhat more elusive. Is it the national origin of the composer that is mostly responsible, or are there particular musical characteristics that sound “Italian,” or “German,” or “Latin American,” etc.? This can be a difficult question to answer since it involves a number of distinct and variable elements and we can’t possibly resolve the issue here; however, the question of musical identity has attached itself to the music of Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) in general, and to his great Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95, “From the New World,” in particular. Dvorák had established himself as a composer with bona fide nationalist inclinations, his music richly colored by the rhythms, dances, and melodies of his Bohemian (Czech) homeland, and as a leading voice in European concert music. It was no doubt partly due to this strong sense of cultural identity in his music that Mrs. Jeanette Thurber contacted Dvorák with an enticing offer. Thurber, herself a graduate of the Paris Conservatory, had the financial means to become one of the most significant patrons of music in the United States. Her interest in Dvorák was for him to bring his international acclaim and insights into the advancement of a national musical idiom to a new venture, the creation of a National Conservatory of Music of America, located in New York City. To attract the composer to the position Thurber offered the impressive salary of $15,000 per year (25 times his annual income at the time, and the equivalent of over $400,000 in contemporary value!). He would also be accorded time to work with the best young American composition students and flexibility to continue to pursue his composing interests. Dvorák ultimately agreed to the offer and in 1892 began his three-year sojourn in the “New World.” It proved a very productive and profitable period for the modest, fifty-year-old figure from the margins of mainstream European society. During his time in the U. S., Dvorák produced some of his most well-known and beloved works, including his “American” String Quartet, the Cello Concerto, and his “New World Symphony.”

While Dvorák touted the rich potential available to American composers found in various native musical styles, especially African American and Indian music, there has been considerable confusion regarding the “American” character of his last symphony. It’s known that he was interested in composing an opera on an American subject, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855), though interest in this project by no means implies a real knowledge of Indian musical culture and traditions. In addition, it was long assumed that the symphony’s famous slow movement was a borrowed melody from a Negro Spiritual that Dvorák may have learned from one of the conservatory’s most gifted students, the African American singer, Henry Thacker Burleigh. While it is true that Burleigh exposed Dvorák to the repertoire of Negro Spirituals, Dvorák’s theme is of his own creation. The title and lyrics of “Goin’ Home” are actually a later version created by another American student of Dvorák.

All this is to acknowledge that Dvorák’s symphony is, as the title implies, a Bohemian composer’s reflections on his view “From the New World” as he understood it. Dvorák could no more write an “American” symphony than he could a “Martian” one. He was thoroughly a Czech composer and this work is first and foremost a Czech symphony, though not without hints of his American experience. The music is nonetheless powerful and expressive and, in his homesickness and yearning to return to his native land, Dvorák tapped into a deeper connection between himself and the disenfranchised people of this country whose music and culture he found so richly compelling.

The four-movement plan of the “New World Symphony’ follows the pattern of the majority of Romantic symphonies, and all but one of Dvorák’s nine. The first movement, Adagio-Allegro molto, is one of the composer’s most inventive and imaginative creations of dramatic and melodic invention. Memorable themes abound as the music shifts from moments of surging power to tender intimacy, all energized by a vibrant Bohemian rhythmic character.

Perhaps Dvorák’s most famous symphonic work is the Largo, second movement of this symphony. A brass chorale, solemn and devout, transporting the listener to a world apart from the earthy vigor of the opening movement, introduces the now familiar English horn solo, tenderly singing the melody later to become known as “Goin’ Home.” The contrasting middle section feels less confident, searching, and melancholy. The mood is then broken by a brief joyful dancing theme that leads back to the soulful English horn melody, now even more intimately orchestrated, framed again by the brass chorale and concluding in the deep, humming voice of the double basses.

The Scherzo third movement, Allegro vivace, with its jarring tympani strokes, jolts us back with a gesture reminiscent of second movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Here the incessant dancing rhythm suggests both the world of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Dvorák’s homeland. The contrasting sections are all Czech in their folkish melodic character, though the rhythmic drumming also evokes the sacred drumming of Indian dance. Listen, too, for the horn calls that recall the opening theme of the first movement, lending unity to the span of the symphony.

The symphony’s finale, Allegro con fuoco, is a fitting conclusion to this epic adventure. Growling opening chords surge upward to the highest range of the orchestra leading to the triumphant main theme in the brass. The drama of the opening movement is revisited here, though perhaps with a greater sense of agitation overall. Dvorák’s mastery of the form is exhibited in the inventive ways he moves effortlessly from one idea to the next with a complete sense of inevitability. Before the movement concludes he will recall themes from the opening Allegro, the Largo, and the Scherzo. The symphony concludes with a final full statement of the movement’s opening theme before racing off the exhilarating close, whose final chord is sustained and directed to fade to silence. © 2021 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Radio Broadcast Performance - November 28 & 29, 2020

Concert programs, like the works on them, are like mirrors reflecting the times in which they appear. There are many elements to consider in attempting to strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the new and the old, the culturally relevant and the canonically affirmed. The works on this program encompass a vast swath of musical and cultural history and point toward the future of the ever-changing landscape of the concert music scene. It has become clear that the concert hall should become a place for new voices to be heard alongside the proverbial warhorses. Music, like all artforms, is a living, breathing, changing endeavor, this must be acknowledged and celebrated. Programs representing diverse experiences and perspectives enliven and vitalize our musical experience.

What better way to open a concert than with a fanfare? Fanfares have a very long history and have served as the herald of an important or ceremonial event, typically with blaring flourishes played on trumpets and other brass instruments. Often fanfares were associated with royalty, to announce their presence at an event, and their use of military instruments like trumpets and drums were symbols of the worldly power of monarchs. When Aaron Copland composed his Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), he was explicitly disrupting the norm of the function of the fanfare as tribute to elite power by paying homage to the “Common Man.” In the parlance of 1940s America, “Man,” with a capital M, was understood to stand for all people without regard to gender, yet, the implicitly exclusive gendering of humanity is still evident. Copland’s fanfare is a work of great power and expression, resonating with the spirit of its time as the world was gripped in a struggle against rising European fascism. Its effects are still palpable to our sensibilities nearly 80 years after. As times change and we move toward an even more expansive conception of humanity, music, too, changes to address this expansive vision. It is in this context that the fanfares of contemporary composer Joan Tower (b. 1938) find their place. She has very deliberately titled her 6 works, Fanfare to the Uncommon Woman.

Joan Tower

After a nearly 60-year career, Tower is today part of the group of well-established American composers including contemporaries like Philip Glass (b. 1937) and Steve Reich (b. 1936). Coming into maturity as a serialist during the turbulent 1960s and bolstered by an energized Women’s Movement in the 1970s, Tower was a leading figure as, at the time, one of a very few female composers in one of the world’s oldest “old boys’ clubs.” Today her dynamic and inventive music has become a regular part of the orchestral and chamber music repertoire. Among her more frequently performed works are the series of ‘fanfares” that she has been writing since the 1980s, the first appearing in 1986. Of its origins, Tower has said:

… I was reading a lot of the feminist books. I was really on board with that. And then the Houston Symphony came along and said, “We’d like you to write a fanfare.” And I said, “OK, a fanfare, what the hell is a fanfare? Oh yeah, it has a lot of brass, I think.”

So then I started thinking about Copland and the only fanfare I knew, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the title really bothered me. For the “common man?” What the hell is that? It’s kind of elitist. So, I had to turn that one around. An “uncommon woman” means a woman who takes risks, who is adventurous.

Since that first commission, Tower has added five more fanfares, all of varied instrumentation, and composed for different occasions and dedicated to different women.  The last fanfare was composed in 2014. The Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, no. 5 (1993), was composed for a group of four trumpeters at the Aspen Music Festival and in honor of Joan W. Harris, for whom, along with her husband, Irving, an Aspen Music Festival Concert Hall is named.

Of her six Fanfares, No. 5 is perhaps the most traditional sounding of the set. Its use of a quartet of trumpets hearkens back to the piercing tone of the stereotypical blaring brass calls that the idea of a fanfare evokes. Though relatively short, this piece is much longer than a mere fanfare and begins in a mood of reflection as the opening solo trumpet pronounces its slow descending motive, the others gradually joining as if slowly awakening. Faster rhythms ensue and are taken up in the ensemble as the texture thickens and real fanfare-like trumpet calls appear. In the second half Tower creates a series of dazzling effects layering varied ideas and picking up speed as the quartet, rhythmically unified, bring the brief work to its regal conclusion.

One of the more prominent voices of a younger generation of composers working today is Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981). Montgomery is an African American female who grew up in New York City in an artistic home. Her father is a musician and her mother a theater artist. Montgomery started playing violin at the age of four and continues to perform as a soloist and chamber musician. Her background as a performing classical musician informs her own music in important ways. She understands the classical repertoire from a performer’s perspective and writes for strings very idiomatically, which contributes to the sonorous quality of many of her works. Montgomery received her undergraduate training in violin at the Juilliard School and later received a masters in Composition for Film and Multimedia from NYU.

Jessie Montgomery

For Montgomery, identity is a part of her musical expression, though identity is not a singular quality as a woman, an African American, a violinist, and an American. These are elements that she explores in a variety of her compositions, and her works manifest these various identities through a wide range of influences from jazz and European classical music, to spirituals and improvisation. Her professional web page includes the following highlighted statement:

“Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Montgomery has been a longtime member of the Catalyst String Quartet and the Sphinx Virtuosi, both groups an outgrowth of the Sphinx Organization dedicated to advancing the careers of young Black and Latinx classical musicians. Her popular, brief string composition, Starburst (2012) was composed for the Virtuosi. According to Montgomery,


“It was written for the Sphinx Virtuosi tour to be an encore. I was definitely trying to experiment with color, and trying to get as many quick, bright gestural colors as I could out of the ensemble. We had to rehearse it a lot because there are a lot of challenging ensemble issues for such a short piece” 

In her own note on the composition she writes:

This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst: “the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly” lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premieres the work, The Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind.

One could reasonably argue that all of Haydn’s symphonies are “miracles” in that they are endlessly inventive, creative, revelatory, and inspirational, but only one of his symphonies, the Symphony No. 96 in D major, is actually given the nickname “The Miracle,” and as it turns out, it has been misapplied! By the time Joseph Haydn (1733-1809) came to compose his last two sets of symphonies, he was recognized throughout Europe as the greatest living composer and most important symphonist of the late-18th century. After serving as resident composer for three decades at the opulent aristocratic court of the Hungarian Esterhazy family, Hadyn was relieved of his position in 1790 and free to relocate and pursue whatever interests appealed to him. Although financially independent, opportunities would certainly appear for Haydn and almost immediately after leaving the service of the Esterhazys he was approached with an offer from the expatriate German violinist and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon, to go to London. The rest, of course, is familiar history in which Hadyn ventures to London, arriving on New Year’s Day of 1791, where he spends the next year and a half being feted by adoring audiences, observing the lives and habits of early industrial-age Londoners, receiving princely sums for his compositions and performances, and composing many of his most celebrated works. This first London adventure was such a success that Hadyn made a repeat journey in 1794, staying again well into the following year.

King’s Theatre, London

Part of the compositions created for the London audiences in 1791 were a set of six new symphonies, numbers 93-98, the first of the “London Symphonies.” Their numbering does not reflect their actual order of composition and the Symphony No. 96 was the first of the new symphonies composed for the occasion. Its subtlety, energy, and mastery are fully on display for what must have been an anxiously anticipated event for all concerned. Curiously, the nickname “Miracle” has become attached to this symphony, but it is only through an error of memory. The name is associated with an event that happened at the premiere of the Symphony No. 102 where a large chandelier crashed to the seats in the center of the hall, but no one was injured, hence the “miraculous” sparing of audience life and limb. The title has nothing whatsoever to do with the work’s musical qualities.

Despite the predictable outer appearances of this classical symphony, Haydn provides many interesting details that keep the music lively and engaging. The opening movement is preceded by a slow introduction that entices through drama and charm leading into the genial Allegro of the movement proper. Haydn provides at least one surprise as the development section seems to conclude with an extended pause, but the recollection of the opening theme that follows is in the wrong key and leads to more development before the actual recapitulation ensues.

The gem of this symphony is probably the highly soloistic Andante featuring solo violins and various wind instruments. But the music is a mixture of the playful and serious as the carefree theme tossed from section to section leads to dense counterpoint. The concluding interplay of solo violins recalls some of Haydn’s symphonies from decades earlier.

A robust Minuet and Trio follows the Andante with exuberant string writing in the Minuet balanced by gentle lyricism from the solo oboe in the middle Trio section. The concluding movement is a rollicking Rondo whose opening theme, presented coyly in the strings, only heightens our expectation of the forceful episodes that follow in alternation with the recurring opening idea. The movement ends with a surging, irresistible energy that surely gave Haydn’s London audiences plenty to cheer about.

It would seem that for Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) music was at least as personal as the expressions we see the comments quoted from the modern composer Jessie Montgomery. In his case, the confessional quality of his works seems filled with trouble, turmoil, and heartache. His Symphony No. 5 in E minor, op. 64 is to some extent a continuation of Tchaikovsky’s personal narrative expressed in his Fourth Symphony, though the perspective has changed during the intervening years. Tchaikovsky seems to have had some kind of program in mind, but what exists of it in his surviving documents is too fragmentary to be of much use to us today. As in the Fourth Symphony, Fate also plays an important role in the Fifth, and the recurrence of the opening theme in each movement seems to be a recognizable reference to this idea. The difference in perspective here seems to be a resignation to an unavoidable fate that is now governed not by malevolence and sorrow but divine providence.

The somber opening of the first movement presents the dirge-like fate theme in the clarinets sparsely accompanied by the strings. This theme consists of two basic parts, a characteristically descending second half, preceded by a more rhythmic figure of alternating long and paired short notes that is believed to have been borrowed from an opera by the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. Glinka’s original, unquestionably known by Tchaikovsky, carried the words “Do not turn to sorrow.” This slow introduction is soon replaced by the wistful flowing first theme of the Allegro. Momentum builds as the whole orchestra becomes involved with this sardonically dancing idea. A brief second theme strives upward in the strings and soon launches into the three-note third idea. Extended syncopated phrases in the winds and

Mikhail Glinka

strings lead into the development, which ingeniously juxtaposes the three main ideas of the movement.

The second movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s most poetic creations. Atmospheric string chords set up the beautifully poignant horn solo. Soon clarinet and oboe join and lead off in a new direction. A passionate theme in the clarinet begins a new section that climaxes with the shattering return of the fate idea from the first movement. The forces regroup around the horn and oboe ideas only to be rebuffed once again by fate. The movement closes with strings gently recalling the earlier oboe theme.

A breezy waltz, tinged with sentimentality, serves as the basis for the third movement. The opening section returns after each new episode until just before the end, the clarinets and bassoons once again whisper the mocking fate motive.

Fate introduces the massive Finale whose carefully planned climaxes are Tchaikovsky at his most vehement. A slashing theme in the strings begins the Allegro vivace as the unrelenting drive of this movement is relieved only briefly by the skipping theme presented in the winds. New themes, mostly derived from earlier motives, rise up to participate in the nearly ecstatic momentum of this movement which leads to a majestically culminating statement of the fate theme. The symphony concludes with one last headlong rush with trumpets triumphantly blaring the opening movement’s first Allegro theme as a closing fanfare. And with that reference, the circle of this program is closed. © 2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Triple Play: Brahms 4 - October 18, 2020

The year 2020 was supposed to be one of celebration and remembrance. Orchestras across the globe were set to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of history’s most beloved composers, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Perhaps appropriately, fate would have it otherwise. The Coronavirus pandemic has seemingly changed everything. Everything, that is, except the power, beauty, and ultimately, the humanity of Beethoven’s music. This concert is a celebration of his musical legacy and the indomitable spirit that we all recognize in it and in ourselves. We come together to share in its unifying and sometimes challenging message that life can be difficult, but we are compelled to forge ahead, to take stock, to mourn our losses, and celebrate our triumphs. In a time of great challenge and profound uncertainty, we come together to hear a vision of transcendence, of beauty, and of the struggle to come to terms with that which cannot be fully expressed in words. Music reminds us to be fully present in all that we experience so that we may learn and grow from it. Beethoven seems to understand as well as any of the greatest artists the sorrow, loss, fear, joy, ecstasy, and the unexpected that constitute our lives. Beethoven, it turns out, may be the perfect composer for our day, and in that sense, the coinciding of his 250th anniversary with the events of this historic year may in fact be more than merely fortuitous.

Coriolanus at the Walls of Rome or Veturia Pleading with Coriolanus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

The name Coriolan or Coriolanus would be completely obscure but for the artistic creations of two of Europe’s greatest creative figures, William Shakespeare and Beethoven. Shakespeare wrote a play about the ill-fated Roman general almost exactly two centuries before Beethoven composed his concert overture to a play on the same subject by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. Collin’s play, written in 1802, would have remained as obscure as its subject if it were not for Beethoven’s frequently performed Overture to Coriolan, op.62, composed in 1807. Despite the relative obscurity of Coriolanus and his story, it has interesting lessons to teach about history and Beethoven’s times. Coriolanus lived in the 6th – 5th century BCE, before Rome had achieved any of its later “greatness.” The plays tell a story of a general who rises to power but, due to his authoritarian and elitist ideals, is rejected by the citizens. Coriolanus flees Rome only to join forces with his former enemies with the intention of returning to punish his countrymen and women. As his army is about to unleash their fury on the city, Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, beseeches him to turn his army away. He follows his mother’s desires and ultimately relents, when, according to Collin’s version, the tyrannical leader, left with no recourse, takes his own life.

It is very possible that there is something of the Shakespearean in Beethoven’s overture as it is marked by high drama and expressive intensity, but Beethoven was already wary of the despotic notions of political leaders and may have seen Coriolan as another opportunity to express his disdain for leaders who become absorbed with their own power and lose their humanity. His “Eroica” Symphony is famously known originally to have been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but after Napoleon crowned himself emperor (3 years before Beethoven composed Coriolan), he violently scratched out the dedication, realizing that the French general had become drunk with power.

Musically the Coriolan Overture is situated both chronologically and aesthetically in the heart of Beethoven’s “heroic” period. It was composed around the same time that he was working on his landmark Fifth Symphony, and it shares with that symphony some noteworthy characteristics. It is written in the same portentous key of C minor. It begins with pure drama, the opening charged with thunderous chords in the entire orchestra, and then a violent and agitated theme associated with the title character. A second main theme in E-flat major, like the lyrical theme in the symphony, provides dramatic contrast and pathos, probably intended to evoke the pleading of Volumnia. Unlike the turbulent Fifth Symphony with its incessantly blaring triumphant conclusion, however, Coriolanus’ tragic demise leads to a musically somber and wistful close.

Well before Coriolan and toward the end of his Early compositional period, by 1800 Beethoven was reaching a significant level of material and creative success in Vienna. He had successfully addressed all of the major instrumental forms of his illustrious predecessors, Mozart and Haydn, and was about to put his own mark on music history through his innovations in these same forms. One other element, peculiar to Beethoven, was also becoming more apparent: his gradually worsening deafness. Beethoven’s letters from this period reflect both of these conditions with particular emphasis on the anxiety induced by his hearing loss and his sense of resignation and “defiance to my fate.” This kind of heroic duality in Beethoven’s character is one of the most familiar aspects of his most well-known works and is immediately apparent in his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is a landmark work for its progressive approach to the genre despite its apparent indebtedness to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in the same key. While the concertos share keys and even similar thematic ideas, Beethoven’s concerto presages the Romantic piano concerto in its more extensive introduction to the first movement and the dynamically dramatic relationship forged between solo and orchestra. The insistently minor-keyed, ominous theme heard at the outset is the most pervasive idea of the movement. It is presented first by the orchestra and then solo piano, used in the development and the solo cadenza; in full or fragments, its strains are virtually ever present.

The noble second movement is introduced by the solo piano with its elegant aria-like theme soon taken up by the orchestra. The piano continues with an elaboration of the theme before leading into the more unsettled middle section led by flute and bassoon. The piano once again returns, gradually recalling the opening mood and theme.

The closing Rondo finale is introduced by the piano with the recurring theme that forms the basis of the movement. Following each appearance of the theme new sections of varying and contrasted material are explored usually led by the piano and occasionally enlivened by virtuosic solo flourishes. A particularly beautiful section is led by solo clarinet which is then followed by dramatic fugato on the rondo theme. The final solo cadenza leads directly into the jubilant closing coda.

Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92, has inspired more than its share of flights of fancy from the “apotheosis of the dance” to a “bacchic orgy.” Whatever the particular scenario or image, all seem to attempt to convey some element of ecstatic outpouring. The pure rhythmic impulse of this symphony certainly rivals or even surpasses that of his revolutionary Fifth Symphony. While the Seventh comes near the end of Beethoven’s incredibly productive “heroic period,” it shows no sign of the impending slow-down in creative activity and his accompanying personal difficulties. It also coincides with the period that culminates with Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved,” the woman with whom Beethoven was deeply in love and who apparently, for a time, returned his feelings. Could there be an element of the elation that accompanies deeply felt romantic involvement in this symphony? We will probably never know. The correlation between Beethoven’s personal circumstances and the character of a given musical work can at times seem contradictory. Nonetheless, whether inspired by his muse or some more corporeal source, the Seventh Symphony is an expression of boundless energy tinged with profound tragedy.

The dramatic, slow introduction, initiated by a series of resonant chords followed by insistently rising scales, barely restrains the simmering energy ultimately released in the exuberant Vivace section led by the gaily piping theme in the solo flute. The incessant rhythm of the flute theme dominates the entire movement building a sense of sweep unmatched in Beethoven’s music. A more somber mood characterizes the powerfully expressive theme and variations presented in the second movement. Here a melody of the most banal character is masterfully transformed into a theme of great depth and profundity. The propulsive rhythmic energy returns once again in the Scherzo third movement. Beethoven evokes images of an exuberant country-dance reminiscent of his Pastoral Symphony. A more relaxed and sustained flow in the Trio section, featuring a bucolically undulating second horn solo, provides a brief respite from the movement’s generally delirious enthusiasm.  The exhilarating Finale – abruptly introduced by the orchestra’s incisive and potential-laden chords – unleashes a sense of relentless ferocity that is almost ecstatic in its furiously swirling and unbridled energy. © 2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.

Opening Night: A Celebration of Beethoven - September 5, 2020

The year 2020 was supposed to be one of celebration and remembrance. Orchestras across the globe were set to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of history’s most beloved composers, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Perhaps appropriately, fate would have it otherwise. The Coronavirus pandemic has seemingly changed everything. Everything, that is, except the power, beauty, and ultimately, the humanity of Beethoven’s music. This concert is a celebration of his musical legacy and the indomitable spirit that we all recognize in it and in ourselves. We come together to share in its unifying and sometimes challenging message that life can be difficult, but we are compelled to forge ahead, to take stock, to mourn our losses, and celebrate our triumphs. In a time of great challenge and profound uncertainty, we come together to hear a vision of transcendence, of beauty, and of the struggle to come to terms with that which cannot be fully expressed in words. Music reminds us to be fully present in all that we experience so that we may learn and grow from it. Beethoven seems to understand as well as any of the greatest artists the sorrow, loss, fear, joy, ecstasy, and the unexpected that constitute our lives. Beethoven, it turns out, may be the perfect composer for our day, and in that sense, the coinciding of his 250th anniversary with the events of this historic year may in fact be more than merely fortuitous.

Coriolanus at the Walls of Rome or Veturia Pleading with Coriolanus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

The name Coriolan or Coriolanus would be completely obscure but for the artistic creations of two of Europe’s greatest creative figures, William Shakespeare and Beethoven. Shakespeare wrote a play about the ill-fated Roman general almost exactly two centuries before Beethoven composed his concert overture to a play on the same subject by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. Collin’s play, written in 1802, would have remained as obscure as its subject if it were not for Beethoven’s frequently performed Overture to Coriolan, op.62, composed in 1807. Despite the relative obscurity of Coriolanus and his story, it has interesting lessons to teach about history and Beethoven’s times. Coriolanus lived in the 6th – 5th century BCE, before Rome had achieved any of its later “greatness.” The plays tell a story of a general who rises to power but, due to his authoritarian and elitist ideals, is rejected by the citizens. Coriolanus flees Rome only to join forces with his former enemies with the intention of returning to punish his countrymen and women. As his army is about to unleash their fury on the city, Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, beseeches him to turn his army away. He follows his mother’s desires and ultimately relents, when, according to Collin’s version, the tyrannical leader, left with no recourse, takes his own life.

It is very possible that there is something of the Shakespearean in Beethoven’s overture as it is marked by high drama and expressive intensity, but Beethoven was already wary of the despotic notions of political leaders and may have seen Coriolan as another opportunity to express his disdain for leaders who become absorbed with their own power and lose their humanity. His “Eroica” Symphony is famously known originally to have been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but after Napoleon crowned himself emperor (3 years before Beethoven composed Coriolan), he violently scratched out the dedication, realizing that the French general had become drunk with power.

Musically the Coriolan Overture is situated both chronologically and aesthetically in the heart of Beethoven’s “heroic” period. It was composed around the same time that he was working on his landmark Fifth Symphony, and it shares with that symphony some noteworthy characteristics. It is written in the same portentous key of C minor. It begins with pure drama, the opening charged with thunderous chords in the entire orchestra, and then a violent and agitated theme associated with the title character. A second main theme in E-flat major, like the lyrical theme in the symphony, provides dramatic contrast and pathos, probably intended to evoke the pleading of Volumnia. Unlike the turbulent Fifth Symphony with its incessantly blaring triumphant conclusion, however, Coriolanus’ tragic demise leads to a musically somber and wistful close.

Well before Coriolan and toward the end of his Early compositional period, by 1800 Beethoven was reaching a significant level of material and creative success in Vienna. He had successfully addressed all of the major instrumental forms of his illustrious predecessors, Mozart and Haydn, and was about to put his own mark on music history through his innovations in these same forms. One other element, peculiar to Beethoven, was also becoming more apparent: his gradually worsening deafness. Beethoven’s letters from this period reflect both of these conditions with particular emphasis on the anxiety induced by his hearing loss and his sense of resignation and “defiance to my fate.” This kind of heroic duality in Beethoven’s character is one of the most familiar aspects of his most well-known works and is immediately apparent in his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is a landmark work for its progressive approach to the genre despite its apparent indebtedness to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in the same key. While the concertos share keys and even similar thematic ideas, Beethoven’s concerto presages the Romantic piano concerto in its more extensive introduction to the first movement and the dynamically dramatic relationship forged between solo and orchestra. The insistently minor-keyed, ominous theme heard at the outset is the most pervasive idea of the movement. It is presented first by the orchestra and then solo piano, used in the development and the solo cadenza; in full or fragments, its strains are virtually ever present.

The noble second movement is introduced by the solo piano with its elegant aria-like theme soon taken up by the orchestra. The piano continues with an elaboration of the theme before leading into the more unsettled middle section led by flute and bassoon. The piano once again returns, gradually recalling the opening mood and theme.

The closing Rondo finale is introduced by the piano with the recurring theme that forms the basis of the movement. Following each appearance of the theme new sections of varying and contrasted material are explored usually led by the piano and occasionally enlivened by virtuosic solo flourishes. A particularly beautiful section is led by solo clarinet which is then followed by dramatic fugato on the rondo theme. The final solo cadenza leads directly into the jubilant closing coda.

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Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92, has inspired more than its share of flights of fancy from the “apotheosis of the dance” to a “bacchic orgy.” Whatever the particular scenario or image, all seem to attempt to convey some element of ecstatic outpouring. The pure rhythmic impulse of this symphony certainly rivals or even surpasses that of his revolutionary Fifth Symphony. While the Seventh comes near the end of Beethoven’s incredibly productive “heroic period,” it shows no sign of the impending slow-down in creative activity and his accompanying personal difficulties. It also coincides with the period that culminates with Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved,” the woman with whom Beethoven was deeply in love and who apparently, for a time, returned his feelings. Could there be an element of the elation that accompanies deeply felt romantic involvement in this symphony? We will probably never know. The correlation between Beethoven’s personal circumstances and the character of a given musical work can at times seem contradictory. Nonetheless, whether inspired by his muse or some more corporeal source, the Seventh Symphony is an expression of boundless energy tinged with profound tragedy.

The dramatic, slow introduction, initiated by a series of resonant chords followed by insistently rising scales, barely restrains the simmering energy ultimately released in the exuberant Vivace section led by the gaily piping theme in the solo flute. The incessant rhythm of the flute theme dominates the entire movement building a sense of sweep unmatched in Beethoven’s music. A more somber mood characterizes the powerfully expressive theme and variations presented in the second movement. Here a melody of the most banal character is masterfully transformed into a theme of great depth and profundity. The propulsive rhythmic energy returns once again in the Scherzo third movement. Beethoven evokes images of an exuberant country-dance reminiscent of his Pastoral Symphony. A more relaxed and sustained flow in the Trio section, featuring a bucolically undulating second horn solo, provides a brief respite from the movement’s generally delirious enthusiasm.  The exhilarating Finale – abruptly introduced by the orchestra’s incisive and potential-laden chords – unleashes a sense of relentless ferocity that is almost ecstatic in its furiously swirling and unbridled energy. © 2020 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.