Program Notes

Program Notes – Classics II, Britten’s War Requiem

November 11, 2018

 

“When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion.”

― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

 

“I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn.”

― Wilfred Owen

 

November 11, 1918 is known throughout Europe and the United States as Armistice Day, the day the leaders of the German army agreed to cease fighting and withdraw their troops from foreign lands after four years of carnage. That day marked the end of what was then called, “the war to end all wars.” That phrase seems quaint to us today knowing that in less than 20 years, Europe, once again, would be sliding into a conflict even more calamitous than World War I. War and armed conflict have continued to plague the world, even after the horrific toll of the first two World Wars. World War I was different from previous conflicts, though. Mechanized warfare including tanks and airplanes, chemical weapons, and the nightmare of trench warfare all came to be the symbols of the war whose extent and brutality had not been anticipated.

Nov. 11, 2018 marks the centennial of the end of the “Great War.” It is a day to commemorate the events of 1914-1918 as well as the conflicts that have occurred subsequently. It is a day to remember those who fought and died, and also to reflect on both the sacrifices and suffering caused by war, and ultimately, the apparent futility of these conflicts. We should use such occasions to think about the past, understand its consequences, and consider ways to avoid the mistakes societies have fallen victim to time and time again.

Such reflection would likely be appreciated by the British composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) who composed his War Requiem in 1961. Britten’s Requiem, considered by many to be his masterpiece, is a cautionary statement rather than a glorification of war. A committed pacifist, Britten objected to participating in the Second World War and found his potential participation in the acts of ghastly destruction completely inimical to his essential creative impulse. As an artist, Britten’s pacifism wasn’t political, it was inherent. War was as contrary to his nature as anything could be.

The origin of the War Requiem came from a commission to Benjamin Britten to compose a work to commemorate the completion of a new cathedral in Coventry, England. The magnificent medieval Coventry Cathedral, dating back to the 14th century, was destroyed during a German bombing raid in 1940. The new structure was built alongside the ruins of the old structure and was completed in 1962. The commission awarded to Britten came in 1960 with the composition completed in 1961.

Britten’s War Requiem is a work of intense contrasts and, consequently, profound juxtaposition. At the heart of the Requiem is the contrast between the public and the personal, the ritualistic and the intimate. The work is called a war requiem, implying a general acknowledgement of war and its inherent sacrifice on a broad scale, yet Britten dedicated his War Requiem to not to a nation or collective but to four individuals he knew personally, three of whom, Roger Burney, Michael Halliday, and David Gill, were killed in action during WW II. The fourth, Piers Dunkerley, was captured in 1944 and served as a POW, only to later take his own life years after the war. The juxtapositions continue in the use of the Requiem’s texts. The ancient Roman Mass for the Dead, or Missa pro defunctis, serves as the structural body of the work. These texts have been used by many composers since medieval times, including the most famous examples by Mozart and Verdi. The Latin texts are the ritualized public proclamations regarding human mortality, divine judgement, and hope for eternal rest and peace. In contrast to these formalized texts, Britten inserted a series of nine poems by the English poet, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was himself a casualty of the war, killed in action exactly one week before the Armistice, on November 4, 1918. Owen’s poetry is powerfully expressive of the utter inhumanity and futility of war, penned while serving on the battlefield and while recuperating from injuries sustained there. His words touched Britten deeply as they conveyed the intensity of his own hatred and sorrow for the purely destructive character of military conflict.

The contrasts and symbolism of the War Requiem are also realized in Britten’s use of distinctive arrangement of instruments and voices. The work calls for both a full orchestra and a separate chamber orchestra, mixed chorus, boys choir, and a trio of solo voices: soprano, tenor, and baritone. These forces are divided mainly according to function. The full orchestra, chorus, boys’ choir, and soprano soloist perform the six traditional requiem sections: Introit, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Libera me. The tenor and baritone sing the settings of the nine Owen texts accompanied by the chamber orchestra. There is one poem for each Latin text section with the exception of the massive Dies irae, which includes four.  The male voices represent two soldiers evoking and intoning the words and thoughts of the poet who, through Britten’s brilliant arrangement and musical setting, seems to be commenting on the Latin texts.

There is another layer to the symbolism of the voices Britten chose to write for. He had very specific performers in mind when composing the vocal parts. The baritone was to be the German, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, the tenor, Britten’s life-partner, Peter Pears, and the soprano was to be the Russian, Galina Vishnevskaya. The trio represents the main military players in WW II, Britain, Russia, and Germany, but here gathered in a musical reconciliation of sorts. Unfortunately, Vishnevskaya was unable to attend the premiere because Soviet officials objected to her participation in such an overtly “political” artistic statement at a time when Britain and Germany stood in opposition to the Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall had just been completed the previous year). English soprano, Heather Harper, filled in at the last minute to sing at the Requiem’s premiere.

Musically the War Requiem is laden with symbolism, yet Britten’s handling of the symbolism is so artistically rendered that it is never pedantic or heavy-handed. One essential musical element is the central role of a particular musical interval, a pair of notes spanning a musical space. In this work, the crucial interval seems to be the “tritone,” ironically heard in the clanging (church) bells at the opening of the requiem. The tritone is the musical interval so abhorred by medieval church musicians it was labelled “the devil’s interval” and forbidden from use, to be avoided at all cost. At the conclusion of the requiem Britten brings together all the instruments and voices and uses Wilfred Owens’ final poem, left unfinished at his death, “Strange meeting.” The convergence of the Latin text, “In paradisum,” following the closing line of “Strange meeting,” in which two battlefield enemies meet in Hell, presents a troubling and psychologically dramatic conclusion to a work devoted to the perplexing nature of humanity’s persistent resorting to inhumanity. The War Requiem concludes in desolate silence following the closing words of the requiem mass: “Requiescant in pace. Amen,” Rest in Peace, along with the tolling tritone bells. © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD

Program Notes – Classics I, Opening Night

October 6, 2018

A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.

–Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

 

This year, around the country and around the world, people are celebrating the life and work of Leonard Bernstein. He was born 100 years ago, a fact that seems almost inconceivable to those old enough to remember him before his death in 1990. Through his many recordings and hours of video footage, it sometimes feels like he is still around. The vibrancy of his life and thought continue to inspire nearly thirty years after his passing. Centenaries and similar occasions provide opportunities to reconsider and reevaluate the legacy of significant figures in history. As a result, there has been much recent celebration and discussion of Bernstein, or “Lenny,” as he liked to be called. The fact that his centenary is being so universally recognized is some indication that his place in music history, and especially American musical culture, is apparently secure.

Lenny is in many ways a uniquely American figure, yet that distinction doesn’t do justice to his exceptional qualities. There are few comparisons to be made with this person whose interests, genius, and mastery extended so widely. Composer, conductor, pianist, educator, entertainer, writer, philosopher, and political lightning rod, constitute a short list of his notable accomplishments. Probably Bernstein’s greatest legacy today, however, remains his extensive catalog of recordings of inspiring musical interpretations of orchestral repertoire conducting the world’s greatest orchestras. Most significant among this achievement is his championing of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. In the history of Mahler appreciation there is before Bernstein and after Bernstein. Before Bernstein, Mahler was a marginal, infrequently performed eccentric. Today, Mahler is a staple of the orchestral repertoire. We can, in large part, thank Bernstein for this awakening. And like Mahler, Bernstein struggled to balance lucrative positions as conductor with work as a significant composer.

For Lenny, success as both composer and conductor came early in life. Bernstein burst onto the scene as a conductor when he filled in at the last minute for Bruno Walter (coincidently, Mahler’s old friend) with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. The concert was broadcast nationally and landed Bernstein on the front page of the New York Times. Fifteen years later Bernstein would be named music director of the NY Philharmonic, the first American-born conductor to lead a major U. S. orchestra. By then Lenny had already established a reputation as successful composer and enormously gifted educator. His ballet Fancy Free (1944), the musical adapted from it, On the Town (1944), Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957) all solidified his status as a leading composer for the theater.

As an educator Bernstein’s most enduring achievement came with the nationally televised Young People’s Concerts series between 1958 and 1972 with the N Y Philharmonic. Bernstein had a captivating and insightful understanding of music and a matchless ability to communicate with audiences of all ages, always enlightening and never condescending. He also led a groundbreaking series of lectures on music at Harvard, his alma mater, he titled The Unanswered Question, named for a work by Charles Ives, whose music Bernstein also helped bring to prominence. He is the author of several important books on music, most famously The Joy of Music (1959), still in publication nearly 60 years after its first printing. For most musicians, any one of these achievements would have been sufficient to establish themselves as outstanding. Today we marvel at this prodigious life and celebrate his gifts to the world.

In 1953 the celebrated playwright, Lillian Hellman, contacted Bernstein with the idea of setting Voltaire’s short novel Candide (1759) as a work for musical theater. The auspicious collaboration between these two artists would suggest the likelihood of commercial success for their production, but despite such a high-powered creative team, supplemented by contributions by the author, Dorothy Parker among others, such success has eluded Candide since its original run in 1956. Reviews of the original production were mixed, though Bernstein’s score received near universal praise. Despite the best efforts of some of the most talented artists of the era, Voltaire’s unusually conceived novella seemed to defy adaptation to the stage. A month before its premiere, Bernstein wrote:

 

 Voltaire’s satire is international.  It throws light on all the dark places, whether European or American.  Of course, it’s not an American book, but the matters with which it is concerned are as valid for us as any — and sometimes I think they are especially valid for us in America.  Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority — aren’t these all charges leveled against American society by our best thinkers? 

 

The musical appeared at a crisis period in American history. The Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the House Un-American Activities Committee were in full swing. Hellman herself had been called before the HUAC and undoubtedly saw Candide as a vehicle for political commentary. In trying times, satire can be an effective weapon against tyranny, but it doesn’t guarantee success. While Candide the musical/operetta languishes, despite numerous attempts at revival, the score, and especially the brilliantly whimsical overture, continues to enjoy great popularity. The music to the overture is Bernstein at his virtuosic sweet spot: tonally colorful, rhythmically vibrant, and melodically charming.

While Candide came fairly early in Bernstein’s career, the Divertimento for Orchestra appears relatively late, in 1980. The work was composed on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the orchestra’s centennial and was premiered at the opening concert of the 1980-81 season. Though often associated with New York City because of his work on Broadway, with the N Y Philharmonic, and having a home there for many years, Bernstein was a born and bred Bostonian, having attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard, and being mentored by BSO conductor Serge Koussevitsky at the Berkshire Music Center. Strong ties indeed and this work is clearly a reflection of those very personal connections. Each of the eight brief movements is a kind of musical vignette with some connection to the orchestra or the composer. The first movement, “Sennets and Tuckets,” Elizabethan terms for types of theatrical fanfares, includes a musical motif of two notes, B-C, “Boston Centennial,” found in each of the other seven movements. The “Waltz” is a dual reference to Tchaikovsky in its irregular meter, and Koussevitzky, who was a great fan of his 6th Symphony. Next is the “Mazurka” for winds with a brief recollection of the oboe cadenza in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, followed by the “Samba,” with its characteristically vibrant rhythms. The “Turkey Trot,” based on music Bernstein had composed earlier in his career, is followed by “Sphinxes” and “Blues,” the latter of which alludes to many of Bernstein’s earlier works. The Divertimento concludes with “In Memoriam; March: The BSO Forever,” where the slow opening is a tribute to the line of great conductors and musicians of the BSO who had passed on, followed by a parodistic march exuberantly celebrating the great orchestra.

Though appearing last among the Bernstein tributes on this program, On the Town was among his earliest triumphs as a composer. The Broadway musical turned movie was originally conceived as a ballet titled Fancy Free (1944), by the iconic choreographer, Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), with whom Bernstein would later work to create West Side Story (1957). In the process of adapting the ballet to the musical, Bernstein composed a completely new score inspired by various popular musical styles from blues to ballads. The show and the music proved hugely successful and were adapted into a movie in 1949 featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, though much of Bernstein’s music is omitted from the film. In 1945 Bernstein created a short suite of excerpts from the musical titled Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. The storyline of both the ballet and the musical center around three sailors on 24-hours leave in New York City; the Dance Episodes has a more musically conceived structure. The first episode, “Dance of the Great Lover,” is the character Gabey’s fantasy of a romantic encounter, is energetic and buoyant. The second part, “Pas de Deux” is more introspective and bluesy in character and features one of Bernstein’s soaring lyrical tunes, “Lonely Town.” The final episode features the show’s most famous theme “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.” More complex and varied, this closing episode is a musical portrait of the bustling and colorful city that inspired its creation.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) remains among the most popular composers of the later 19th century. He is beloved by American audiences, in part because he spent several years (1891-94) here leading a new music conservatory in New York City and he left a small number of works that are reflections of his American experience that are some of his most frequently performed works. These include the String Quartet, op. 96, “The American,” the String Quintet, op. 97, and his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”  Also conceived and mostly composed in the U. S. is his celebrated Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, op. 104 (1895). Dvořák’s reputation today is based on a body of musical works heard as an expression of his Bohemian (Czech) culture. Even his “American” works, which borrow themes and styles associated with types of American music, remain essentially Bohemian in character. The Cello Concerto is an example of this, possibly an expression of the composer’s homesickness after a long absence.

While the repertoire of cello concertos is considerably smaller than that for violin, there are nonetheless a number of excellent examples from the time of Antonio Vivaldi through contemporary times. Among all these concertos, it is Dvořák’s that stands as the crowning achievement. It is epic in scope, clocking at over 40 minutes in performance, and sweeping in intensity of expression. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto exudes an essential Bohemian character in its lyricism, rhythmic vitality, and melancholy. It is a work tinged with the tragic and the dark, brooding voice and plaintive high register of the cello embody the full range of the work’s emotional palette. Cast in the standard three-movement form, the opening in expansive symphonic style features some of Dvořák’s most memorable and expressive themes. The last two movements are colored by the tragic death of Dvořák’s sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, whom he had courted before ultimately marrying her sister. The slow, middle movement is tender and folk-like in its lyricism and deeply expressive exploring the entire range of the cello. As a tribute to the ailing Josfina, Dvořák included the melody from one of her favorite songs, “Kéž duch můj sám” (Leave me alone), from his Four Songs, op. 82 in the middle section of the movement.

The finale begins with a dancing Slavic Rondo theme recurring between sections of contrasting and virtuosic passagework for the soloist. After learning of the death of Josefina, Dvořák revised the closing section of the movement to include a reminiscence of “Leave me alone,” lending a sadly personal note to the concerto’s finale. © 2018 Robert S. Katz, PhD