Basically Beethoven Festival 2016

Program Notes by Carnell Simmons

July 31, 2016

Many of Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) piano works capture the visual beauty of life through sound. L’isle joyeuse (The Island of Joy) is a happy, exuberant, and thrilling work inspired by a Rococo painting titled L’Embarquement pour Cythere (The Embarkation for Cythera) by Jean-Antoine Watteau, which depicts a party of revelers leaving the mythical island of Cythera, the birthplace of the goddess Venus. Debussy’s work has a frenzied, frantic nature but maintains a solid foundation through a strict compositional structure. It opens with shimmering notes that outline the whole-tone scale, a six-note scale pattern that reappears throughout the piece. After the harmonic transition, a sentimental waltz changes the meter but leaves the listeners stuck with the previous pitch center. This piece eventually increases in tempo and texture as it revisits the beginning’s refrain.

Carl Vine (b.1954) is an Australian composer of contemporary classical music. Since 1975, Vine has worked as a pianist and composer with a number of theatre and dance companies, symphonies, and choral ensembles. Sonata No. 1 is a two-movement piece written with virtuosic piano technique and modal chord sequences. In the opening section of the piece, intoxicating chords build into a hypnotic sound cloud that is interrupted by sparse staccato notes. The movement ends with a reprise that acts as deep exhale after the thunderous, fast-paced staccatos.

Throughout his life, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had a special fondness for Hungarian folk and gypsy music. This influence permeates much of his work, especially the four-hand piano piece Hungarian Dance No. 4 in F Minor. This comes from his first set of dances published in 1869. The work begins poco sostenuto, providing a longing melody that blends rich harmonies and delicate phrases. This beautiful opening transitions to a brisk vivace section that bounces back and forth with the reprise from the first section. This piece, along with others from the set, played a strong role in Scott Joplin’s studies with Julius Weiss and ultimately the creation of ragtime.

While Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was summering at the home of Count Johann Karl Esterházy, a Hungarian noble of the Austrian Empire, he composed Three Marches Militaires. Perhaps the most beloved march within the set is the first, which is commonly referred to as Schubert’s Marche Militaire. The four-hand piano piece is written in ternary form with a central trio in the key of G Major that leads to a reprise of the main march theme in the key of D Major. The piece received a new audience thanks to its inclusion in the classic 1932 Walt Disney animated short Santa’s Workshop.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music), published posthumously, is one of the most cherished works of the classical era. The opening Allegro section begins energetically and is a brilliant example of the sonata form with a well-planned alternation of themes, development, and a complete return to the original form. The second-movement, Romanze, features a beautiful main theme followed by a passionately romantic middle section which sets up the return of the main theme. Minuet and Trio displays Mozart‘s ability to make simplicity beautiful, and follows the common minuet-trio-minuet da capo form. The spirited Rondo finale, like the Allegro, is written in sonata form and concludes the work in a festive manner.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) generated a prolific output of spellbinding music without regard for financial gain or his legacy. Toward the end of his life, even as sickness made him increasingly isolated, Schubert’s music remained fresh. Two months before his death, Schubert composed his final instrumental work, String Quintet in C Major, op. 163, D. 956. This piece has become an essential masterpiece of the string chamber music repertoire. Schubert’s most sublime composition was written for an unusual configuration of two violins, viola, and two cellos, enhancing the richness of the quintet’s lower register and emulating the depth of a full orchestra. The first movement Allegro ma non troppo is expansive, accounting for more than a third of the total length of the four-movement piece and capturing a lifetime of emotion through its use of crescendos and decrescendos, yearning melodies, and unison pizzicatos. The dramatic Adagio movement recalls the calm preceding a storm, before introducing agitated motifs and beautiful sonorities from each instrument’s middle register. After the heart-rending Adagio, a lively Scherzo creates a sound screen that is later interrupted by the Andante sostenuto. The quintet ends with a brilliant Allegretto that quotes Hungarian dance tunes in the main theme and grows increasingly nostalgic. With one foot in Hades and the other in Paradise, Schubert has truly composed a mythical, visionary, frightening, and intoxicatingly beautiful affirmation of his life.

July 24, 2016

Raga pantuvarali is an ancient melodic scale that has been used for a myriad of compositions in south Indian classical, or Carnatic, music. This 17th century southern Indian Carnatic raga was largely popularized by the works of the 18th century Saint Thyagaraja, a prolific and legendary composer in the Carnatic music tradition. An improvised raga like this is often performed at the beginning of a traditional Carnatic concert and is characterized by its evocative and meditative qualities, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of pathos and desperation. In the raga the listener will hear semi-tone pitches, considered the most harmonically dissonant, that do not follow westernized scale sequences.

Dr. Elizabeth J. Start (b.1959) holds undergraduate degrees in mathematics and cello from Oberlin College and Conservatory, a master’s degree in cello and theory/composition from Northern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Chicago. Olden Times is the last movement from Suite (2008) for violin and mridangam; the other movements are Overture/Procession, Tango, and Dalliance. Suite was originally written for Rohan Krishanmurthy on mridangam and Ayano Aishi on violin. Since its premiere, it has been transcribed for cello and mridangam. The suite was patterned on Baroque-era suites which typically contain a collection of dance works in the order of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. This final movement is reminiscent of a Bach partita and also draws on dance rhythms inspired by music of the Renaissance and Medieval eras.

Though born in Italy, José Bragato (b.1915) has dedicated his life to creating classical music influenced by Argentine and Paraguayan folk music. Bragato joined the Jacopo Tomadini Conservatory in Udine, Italy, to study piano, but due to the aftermath of World War I he and his family emigrated to a village outside of Buenos Aires in 1927. After the move, he began studying cello at the Manuel de Falla National Conservatory of Music. Bragato had a very promising start and began to compose, perform, and travel as a virtuoso cellist. While traveling, he played with some of Argentina’s most outstanding tango orchestras. Because of his exceptional talent, Bragato was asked by band leader Astor Piazzolla to join his Octeto Buenos Aires and his Sextango ensembles in 1954. This marked the first time a cello soloist was part of the ensembles. “Graciela y Buenos Aries” for cello and piano is a prime example of the influence of the Nuevo Tango movement that Piazzolla spearheaded. The piece shows Bragato’s versatility at combining popular and classical music.

Throughout his life, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had a special fondness for Hungarian folk music and gypsy music. This influence permeates many of his works, especially his Hungarian Dances which were published in 1869 and 1880, totaling 21-pieces. Hungarian Dance No. 17 was originally written for four-hand piano in the key of F-sharp minor. This transcription for violin and piano has been transposed down a half step to the key of F-minor. The piece highlights the violin with a lyrical melody and jaunty flourishes.

Pavane in F-sharp Minor, op. 50 is a slow processional based on a court dance common in 16th century Spain. This piece was composed in the late 1880s by French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and was originally written for piano and chorus. In the summer of 1887, Fauré composed an orchestral version of the piece at Le Vésinet, a commune in a wealthy suburb of Paris. The listener will hear the ebb and flow of harmonies and melodies as the piece climaxes to an optimistic and elegant conclusion.

Of the three piano trios in Ludwig von Beethoven’s (1770-1827) first opus, Piano Trio in C Minor, op. 1 No. 3 is considered the boldest and most virtuosic of the set. The trio begins with an Allegro con brio movement, featuring the Sturm und Drang style which was prevalent in German literature and art of the late 1700s. Sturm und Drang translates literally as “storm and drive,” and the aggressive passages in the first movement reappear in the final movement. The second movement, Andante cantabile con Variazioni, is a simple theme with five variations marked by elegance and wit that transitions into the Menuetto & Trio Quasi Allegro. The lightweight and refreshing Menuetto demonstrates the transparent nature of the key of A minor and Beethoven’s lighter side. In the dramatic last movement, Finale: Prestissimo, each instrument seems to compete for emotional intensity. The work eventually settles into a pianissimo that acts as a sweet sigh of release to the pompous finale.

Paul Schoenfield (b.1947), a native of Detroit, is on the music faculty at the University of Michigan. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Arizona and earned a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University. He has traveled and performed around the world. For his compositions, Schoenfield has received several grants from institutions including Chamber Music America and the Juilliard School. His passion for combining jazz and classical elements is heard in his lively Finale from Café Music. He has said about the piece:

 “the idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting-in one night [as] the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio which plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music — music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement. Café Music was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and received its premiere during a SPCO chamber concert in January 1987.”

July 17, 2016

World War I begins on July 28, 1914. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was profoundly affected by the war and was unable to compose for over a year because of it, writing “unless one’s directly involved with the war; it makes thought very difficult.” The French composer, who represents the transition of late romantic music into the 20th century, was in his early 50s at the beginning of World War I. During this time, he composed his Cello Sonata in D Minor: one of the three completed sonatas of his planned “Six Sonatas pour diverse instruments” series. It is divided into three short movements. Prologue is slow, free flowing, and more modal than tonal. It opens with an impressionistic chord structure that eventually develops into a mix of major and minor tonalities. The Sérénade incorporates mandolin-like pizzicato, giving this movement an exotic twist. As the suspenseful Sérénade concludes, the Finale breaks out in a jaunty melody with dissonance and small reminisces of the pizzicato from the earlier movement. Debussy eventually returns to D Minor, giving resolution to this declamatory piece.

One of Spain’s most prominent composers from the early 1900s was Enrique Granados (1867-1916). This neo-romantic Spanish composer lived around the time of Debussy and created masterful works that exuded similar expressive styles. Orientale is the first movement from his composition, Three Spanish Dances. Listen for a light piano motif that is enhanced by strong, connected lines in the cello part.

Giovanni Sollima (b.1962) is influenced by a wide range of compositional techniques. His piece, Lamentatio, is composed in a minimalist style. He incorporates singing lyrical lines and vigorous repetitive themes that almost embody a jazzy bass line. The listener will easily become intoxicated by this exciting style of playing and the high energy of his bombastic melodies.

Danza ritual del fuego, better known as Ritual Fire Dance, is a movement from the El Amor Brujo ballet, which translates to “The Bewitched Love.” This popular piano arrangement is full of fast-paced tempos, trills, and ornamentation similar to that of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was an influential Spanish composer noted for his expressive romanticism. This transcription features the cellist as the solo voice with a piano accompaniment that spans the harmonic depth of a small orchestra. This movement tells of Candela, a gypsy girl who is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. She performs a ritual to vanquish him and send him forever into the fires of hell. The listener will hear fast paced notes that evoke her continuous whirling and dancing in circles.

When a work is composed without an opus number, it often means that the composer never intended for the work to be published. Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) piece Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein is an example of a composition that Beethoven did not plan on publishing. While Beethoven may not have considered these variations very important in his compositional repertoire, they are still incredibly creative and show the lighter side of his personality. The piece is filled with repetitive motifs that develop and expand with each variation.

Musical, humorous, modern, and innovative are all words that come to mind when we think of the sounds of Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland first played his Scherzo Humoristique, better known as “The Cat and The Mouse,” at a student performance while he was very young. This etude combines sixteenth notes, glissandi, grace notes, chromaticism, erratic rhythms, and impressionism to evoke the playful nature of a cat and mouse. At this point in his life, Copland was studying in Manhattan with Rubin Goldmark, a well-known but conservative musician who had nothing much to say about Copland’s new “modernist” style of writing. Copland left Manhattan to study with Nadia Boulanger in France, and at the end of his first year in Paris, he was approached by Jacques Durand, Claude Debussy’s publisher, who asked to publish Scherzo Humoristique and pay Copland 500 francs. Copland was astonished at this accomplishment and wrote, “I was so delighted that Debussy’s publisher wanted my piece. I would have given it to him for nothing.”

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) composed The Swan as part of The Carnival of the Animals, and it has become one of the most famous pieces played by cellists around the world. This beautiful, graceful, and somewhat melancholy transcription for duo piano contains a melody that personifies a graceful swan.

Circling overhead, a crow has been following the wanderer. Is it waiting to feast on his carcass? Will this crow, unlike his beloved, stay with him till he dies? This poem titled “Die Krähe,” which translates to “The Crow,” inspired Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who was renowned for composing lied or art songs. Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, which includes Die Krähe, is famous for its vivid musical portraits of the pains of love, impending death, and loneliness. This piece is an example of the expressive nature of Schubert’s music and the depth of his empathy.

Flight of the Bumblebee was composed as an orchestral interlude by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) for the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. In the original opera there was a vocal line, although the piece is almost never performed with a vocal line today. Flight of the Bumblebee is recognizable by its fast pace, frantic style, and nearly uninterrupted sixteenth notes. It is frequently performed as a showpiece to display a musician’s dexterity.

Composed in the early 1900s, Oiseaux Tristes (which translates to “Sad Birds”) is the second movement from Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Miroirs. This piece, dedicated to and premiered by pianist Ricardo Viñes, is regarded as one of Ravel’s major works, not only because of its duration, but because it conveys his creative and expressive style of Impressionism.

Franz Liszt (1811-1866) was born in eastern Hungary (present day Austria). Despite spending most of his formative years in Paris, Liszt had a deep love for his homeland and was fascinated by gypsy music. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is a dazzling interpretation of gypsy melodies, and is the second of 19 rhapsodies that Liszt composed over the course of his life. Liszt borrowed the term “rhapsody” from literature in an effort to indicate the “fantastic epic quality” of his music, and based his composition form on the style of the Hungarian national dance, the czardas. Listeners will recognize this piece from its many uses in cinema and cartoons, most notably Tom and Jerry and the dueling pianos scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The piece was originally written for piano in 1847, but was quickly scored for orchestra once its popularity soared.

When ragtime music is combined with Broadway tunes, tap dancing, rock ‘n’ roll, and suggestions of impressionism, you get William Bolcom’s (b.1938) The Serpent’s Kiss from The Garden of Eden. This is one of four pieces that tells the biblical story of the fall of man. Through the use of ragtime, the work conjures images of the infamous serpent as he surveys the destruction of the world.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) composed the Firebird Suite between November 1909 and May 1910, it was first performed as a ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera in June 1910. By chance, Diaghilev had heard Stravinsky’s music for the first time just two years earlier, at a concert in St. Petersburg. Diaghilev immediately invited the 20-year-old composer to assist in orchestrating music for the 1909 ballet season in Paris. This dazzling music by the daring young composer was Stravinsky’s first large-scale commission, and since it was an immediate hit, it was quickly followed by two more large-scale works for ballet and orchestra: Petrushka, which enhanced his reputation, and The Rite of Spring, which brought him notoriety. Though The Rite of Spring made Stravinsky revolutionary, the Firebird is a work of such brilliance that even if he had written nothing else, Stravinsky’s name would still be known today. This transcription features two pianos and six hands in an energetic and virtuosic adaptation by Basically Beethoven Guest Festival Director Alex McDonald.

July 10, 2016

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic Era. During his short life, he wrote waltzes, mazurkas, nocturnes, and other piano pieces. Chopin is credited as the innovator of the musical ballade; a short, simple song of natural construction, usually in the narrative or descriptive form. It formerly had a wider description and was applied to music set to a romance or historical poem, and also to a light kind of music used both in singing and dancing. Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, op. 23 is a beautiful example of a ballade with expressive musical lines that exemplify the three stanzas and envoi that recur throughout the poem format. It is one of only four ballades composed by Chopin. His inspiration came from Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic ballads about Polish history and folklore. The piece is filled with nostalgic waltz-like themes, passionate interludes, and virtuosic leaps.

In 1910, Thirteen Preludes for piano, op. 32 was composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). He was born into a musical family and took up piano at age four. At 19, he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory and had already composed several piano and orchestral works. Rachmaninoff left Russia after the Russian Revolution and moved to the United States. Prelude in G-sharp Minor, op. 32 No.12, part of the Thirteen Preludes series, is a mournful and intoxicating duet, with the right and left hand each offering a piece of the story. Throughout the piece, ideas are beautifully flourished and the listener can picture the image of a starry night with shimmering light against pristine waters. This idea permeates from the right hand as the left plays a strong melodic line throughout.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French impressionist composer, pianist, and conductor. As a composer, Ravel developed his own style by combining elements of Baroque, neoclassicism, and improvisation. Gaspard de la nuit: Trois poème pour piano d’apres Aloysius Bertrand is a suite for piano inspired by the French Romantic poems of Aloysius Bertrand. The first movement, Ondine, is based on the story of the water nymph Ondine who sings to lure a man to her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. The man explains that he is married to a mortal and refuses, then Ondine vanishes into the lake. Ravel incorporates these themes through the progression of the story, introducing and developing the setting and characters.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is regarded as one of the major 20th century composers. Prokofiev  graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory and made a name for himself as a budding composer-pianist. He achieved high praise for his furiously dissonant and virtuosic works. In his late teens, Prokofiev wrote a series of bombastic piano pieces that defied the trend of romantic classical music; one of these compositions was a short 3-minute work titled “Suggestion Diabolique” op.4 No.4. This is an impetuous piece with highly chromatic and dissonant harmonic lines. The listener can easily hone in on the continuous chromaticism, and imagine the sensation of spinning uncontrollably and then ending with an unexpected halt.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was 21 years old when he moved to Vienna from Bonn, Germany, to study with the musical giant Joseph Haydn. Haydn’s guidance, along with the influence of musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, are present in Beethoven’s early compositions, including Quintet for piano and winds in E-flat Major, op.16. The allure of the woodwind serenades coupled with violent contrasting dynamics convey the versatility of the composition and the influence of Beethoven’s mentors. The first movement, Grave-Allegro ma non troppo, begins slowly and solemnly and ends in with a controlled, fast pace. The second movement, Andante cantabile, begins with a moderate tempo while providing a flowing, graceful, and singing nature with full expression. The final movement, Rondo-Allegro ma non troppo, is composed in the rondo form, introducing a prominent theme at the beginning of the movement, then reintroducing the theme several times while alternating with contrasting themes. The piece concludes in the allegro style heard in the first movement.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997) was a French neoclassical composer, pianist, and orchestrator. Françaix was naturally gifted with the ability to add personality to his compositions. Maurice Ravel told young Françaix’s parents, “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can posses, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.” Françaix’s virtuosity in performance, pedagogy, and composition bloomed while studying at the Conservatoire of Le Mans and with Nadia Boulanger, teacher to other composers like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. L’Heure du Berger roughly translates to “Happy Hour” which explains the translated titles of each movement: The Old Dandies, Pin-Up Girls, and The Nervous Children. This piece offers humorous melodies by the wind players that personify scampering children, dancing ladies, and the good ol’ days at the pub.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) was a Hungarian composer of contemporary classical music. Bagatelles are short unpretentious instrumental compositions; his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet are derived from a set of short solo movements from Musica Ricercata, which means “research music.” He wrote these 11 pieces, between 1951-1953, in Communist Hungary. Prior to its performance in 1956, the Hungarian government banned the last movement of the piece. Ligeti moved to Austria later in the late 1950s and began to explore a more avant-garde style of writing that he could not explore while in Hungary. His unique composition style coupled with fervent melodies and driving repetitive rhythmic patterns are what make his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet exciting to listen to. The six bagatelles each have characterizing traits including septuple notes and meters, strong rhythmic unisons, and majestic harmonies that enchant the audience.

Did you know?

Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor op.23 was a crucial element in the 2002 film The Pianist starring Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role.

During one of his American tours, Sergei Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — which he turned down.

György Ligeti’s compositions Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem were used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Bancroft Family Concerts, 2015-2016

May 14, 2016

Sonata in D Major for Cello by Pietro Antonio Locatelli

Despite the fact that he was a pioneering violin virtuoso of 18th century Italy, Locatelli doesn’t make it into all the music history books today. By the age of 14, Locatelli was employed at Santa Maria Maggiore in his hometown of Bergamo. Two years later, he departed to study in Rome. By his mid-20s, he had gained a reputation throughout Europe as a first-rank virtuoso. In 1729, Locatelli settled in Amsterdam, where he became active in the publishing business, overseeing the printing of all his works. In Amsterdam, where he lived for the last 35 years of his life, he never performed in public and he took no pupils. Locatelli makes an appearance in the opening line of Patrick O’Brien’s 1969 historic novel Master and Commander, “The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.” However, there are no quartets by Locatelli.

Sonata for Violoncello by George Crumb

When George Crumb appeared on the American musical scene in the 1970s, he seemed to be the composer many had been anticipating. In an age when complex and dissonant works were everywhere, Crumb offered a dark, brooding Romanticism and an unparalleled sensitivity to sound. His music connected to audiences of all ages and backgrounds and confirmed his philosophy “that music surpasses even language in its power to mirror the innermost recesses of the human soul.” Crumb, a quiet, yet warmly eloquent personality from Charleston, West Virginia, eventually became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania where he retired after teaching composition for more than 30 years. During the mid-1950s, after studying with composer Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan and a year in Berlin, Crumb felt his compositions had secured a place in the repertoire. The Sonata for Violoncello is one of the first such pieces. Reminiscent of both Romanticism and the music of Bela Bartok, the Sonata is in three movements: a fantasia, a set of variations, and a toccata.

Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F Major, op. 99 by Johannes Brahms

German composer and pianist, Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, and became the great master of symphonic and sonata style in the second half of the 19th century. During a summer retreat in 1886 near Lake Thun in Switzerland, Brahms composed the Cello Sonata in F major, op. 99 written for Robert Hausmann, the cellist of the Joachim String Quartet. In a postcard written during his first week in Switzerland, Brahms writes to his future biographer, “I’m happy with my decision; it’s absolutely magnificent here. By the way, I’d also just mention that there are a ton of Biergartens …”

This fiery and passionate sonata is now considered standard repertoire for the cello. The slow movement, a haunting adagio affettuoso, is in the remote key of F-sharp major, with a more turbulent middle section in F minor. F minor is also the key of the stormy scherzo, where the major mode is reserved for the more lyrical and subdued trio section. The finale is a rondo and the shortest of the four movements.

April 2, 2016

Three Songs of Innocence by Arnold Cooke

This work is one of several pastoral pieces written for this trio combination. Three Songs of Innocence follows William Blake’s text in depicting a rather cheerful life in the English countryside — pipers, shepherds, and village gatherings on, as he wrote, “the darkening Green.” Cooke studied with Paul Hindemith in Berlin and later taught in England at the Royal Manchester and Trinity Colleges of Music.

Three Vocalises for clarinet and soprano by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Brahms, Mozart, and others wrote for clarinet much of what is now standard repertoire during the final years of their lives. Likewise, Vaughan Williams composed Three Vocalises in his last year. In this series of songs, the voice is used instrumentally, accompanied by and intertwining beautifully with the clarinet’s clarion range.

Peregi Verbunk by Leo Weiner

Written to be performed by violin, clarinet, or viola, Weiner’s csárdás (a traditional Hungarian folk dance) features a simple tune transformed with increasing speed and complexity through three distinct dances based on a verbunkos (a style of music used in army recruitment). “Pereg” refers to spinning or rolling. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Monti’s Czardas for violin are popular examples of this style. Weiner studied with Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.

Insomnia, from Three Ages of Women by Lee Hoiby

A Michigan native who trained as a concert pianist, Hoiby found his career path through an invitation to study composition at the Curtis Institute of Music. His late Romantic style exhibits influence from Franz Schubert with lyrical, arching phrases. Jazz elements are frequently included, as can be heard in the smoky “Insomnia.”

Waltz from Faust, Concert Paraphrase by Charles Gounod, arranged by Franz Liszt

Over his prolific career, Liszt wrote many transcriptions from operas of his day. These transcriptions served to bring others’ works (at least popular excerpts) to a larger audience. Gounod’s opera Faust was originally delayed for a year because another drama based on the same work of Goethe was staged during the original intended premiere. However, Gounod’s Faust became one of the most successful operas of the late 19th century, opening the Metropolitan Opera house in 1883 and remaining one of its most popular presentations for years afterwards. Rather than directly transcribing a scene, Liszt chose excerpts from Gounod’s work and rearranged them to create a balanced musical work. This piece focuses on the waltz that ends Act 2 in which Faust, with the help of Méphistophélès, meets Marguerite for the first time. The opening waltz (“Ainsi que la brise légère”) gives way to the second section where Méphistophélès’ advises Faust about Marguerite (“Allons! À tes amours je le vois, cher docteur, Il faut prêter secours! ”). In the third, most intimate section, Liszt takes literary license by juxtaposing the first encounter of Faust and Marguerite during the waltz (”Ne permettez-vous bras, ma belle demoiselle… ”) with their love duet in Act 3 (“O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux!…”). Liszt bases a transition into the recapitulation (”Valsons! Toujours!”) on the theme of the second section, creating a symmetry of episodes. The coda (“Jusqu’à perdre haleine, Jusqu’à mourir…”) follows Gounod’s own, but then digresses into a show of virtuosity of both technique and composition, creating the simultaneous sense of utmost liberation and horror. 

“O mio babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini

“Piangero la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare  by George Frideric Handel

“Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini

An aria is when an opera character reflects on his or her feelings in song. There is usually no new plot development during an aria: those kinds of exchanges are reserved for a recitative. “O mio babbino caro,” from Gianni Schicchi, is sung by Lauretta to her father in an attempt to convince him to let her marry the boy she loves, Rinuccio. “Piangero la sorte mia,” from Giulio Cesare, is sung by Cleopatra. Her brother Tolomeo has ordered Cleopatra to prison. Devastated by this, Cleopatra contemplates where fate has lead her and how, once she is dead, she will come back and haunt her brother. “Quando m’en vo” is an aria sung by Musetta, a soprano, from the second act of La Bohème by Puccini. In an attempt to make Marcello jealous she is explaining and displaying how desirable she is to other men. 

 

“Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden” from Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler, arranged by Arnon Zimra

The text for this lovely work is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, a German collection of songs and poems published in the early 1800s. Mahler originally wrote this piece, translated as “The Heavenly Life,” as a free-standing art song. It became the underpinning for both his third and fourth symphonies. This arrangement beautifully uses three instruments to bring alive passages juxtaposing an innocent perspective and bucolic scene with darker music and text regarding death, which is signaled each time by sharp bell tones in the clarinet.

— Robin Korevaar

March 12, 2016

Stravinsky wrote L’Histoire du soldat (A Soldier’s Tale) just five years after Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), which is remarkable considering the stylistic differences between the two pieces. The work was written in 1918 while Stravinsky was exiled in Switzerland, avoiding both World War I and the Communist Revolution in his homeland of Russia. As contemporary economic realities made it increasingly hard to program his large ballet scores, Stravinsky collaborated with Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz to write a piece incorporating theater, dance, and music that would transport easily from venue to venue. This could secure more performances of Stravinsky’s music. Inspired by a collection of Russian folktales published by Alexander Afanassyev, they chose a Faustian story about one soldier’s encounter with the devil. The piece was produced with the help of Swiss financier Werner Reinhart. The first performance was conducted by Ernest Ansermet in September 1918, at the Theatre Municipal de Lausanne. It was the only performance of the season, because all subsequent productions were canceled due to the great influenza outbreak.

The story opens with the soldier Joseph on leave from his duties, pausing during his long journey home to relax and play his fiddle by the side of the road. The devil appears and convinces the soldier to trade his violin for a magic book that predicts stock market activity, which would bring the soldier untold riches. However, the violin is a metaphor for his soul, and in the process of acquiring unlimited wealth the soldier loses everything meaningful in life. He is alienated from his fiancée and mother, and the devil prohibits him from reclaiming what he once had. He has several run-ins with the devil throughout the story, where he is manipulated into missing the opportunity to reclaim his soul.

Eventually the soldier is given the chance to rescue a princess and win her hand in marriage, but he must contend with the devil who tries to stop him. Joseph realizes that he will have to beat the devil at his own game, so he challenges the devil to a game of cards with the intent to lose all of his ill-gotten riches. The soldier correctly surmises that by losing everything material he will regain his life’s meaning. The devil is tricked into vainly winning it all, and Joseph miraculously rescues the princess and wins her hand.

A chorale follows, in which the narrator asserts the importance of real values, rather than the false value of material wealth. But the action does not end at the moral of the story. The devil has warned Joseph that if the soldier ever leaves the castle of the princess, the devil will take possession of Joseph’s soul. At the urging of his new wife, Joseph relents and journeys back to his village. As he approaches the door of his mother’s house, the devil is there waiting to take him away.

Commenting on the significance of L’histoire du soldat, music critic Andrew Porter wrote:

It is worth recalling some of the things that went into its making. One was a dream: Stravinsky dreamt of a young gypsy sitting by the roadside and playing a fiddle to her child with long sweeps of the bow. On waking, he recalled the motif she played, and used it in the ‘Little Concert’ section (played by the Soldier after he regains his fiddle); Another was a memory: of standing in a street in Seville with Diaghilev and listening to a “bullfight” band – cornet, trombone, and bassoon – playing a pasodoble (a lilting Hispanic dance). Then a big band came blaring down the street and drowned out the little one. This lies behind the ‘Royal March.’

There are Lutheran chorales: There is a tango – a sexy dance that was becoming popular in Switzerland. And there is jazz: Stravinsky had never heard any jazz, but Ansermet had come back from an American tour with some sheet music, and from it Stravinsky – in the ‘Ragtime’ and ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ – imagined what it might sound like. From folk tales (which are mirrors of human experience), from dreams and memories, from diverse musical sources that span the ages, an inspired work was created – international, timeless. Its masterly economy, conciseness, and precision have made it unfading. It can be enjoyed and re-enjoyed on many levels – for its tunes, its bright instrumental color, its cunning formal structures, and its curiously moving drama. They all work together. The piece gets under its listener’s skin. On the simplest level, the fiddle represents the Soldier’s soul and the percussion the machinations of the devil. In the final number, ‘The Devil’s Triumphal March,’ violin and percussion start out together. At the chilling close, the violin fades out, and only a dry drumming is heard.

February 20, 2016

The comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, or The Bourgeois Gentleman, premiered in 1670, poking fun at both social-climbing, boorish city-dwellers and the vain, snobbish aristocrats. Molière wrote the libretto, Pierre Beauchamp choreographed the work, and Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote the music. Lully, originally from Italy, became music director for Louis XIV in 1661 and subsequently ruled the musical life of the French court. He profoundly influenced and shaped the evolution of French Baroque music and is credited with raising the standards of French instrumental music. The chaconne (a repeated bass line with variation in the melodic voices) and march from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme heard today perfectly encapsulate Lully’s elegant French Baroque style.

In 1636 at the age of 16, Isabella Leonarda entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola convent, where she remained until her death in 1704. She composed a wide variety of sacred works including motets, sacred Latin dialogues, psalm settings, responsories, Magnificats, litanies, masses, and sonata da chiesa (instrumental sonatas for the church). Sonata Dudecima is the only solo sonata from Opus 16 and makes use of the rich harmonies prevalent in the polyphonic style of music at Sant’Orsola. The two slow recitative-like movements contrast with the more dance-like nature of the remaining sections.

Giovanni Felice Sances began his musical studies as singer and composer at the Collegio Germanico in Rome from 1609 to 1614. His first opera, Ermiona, was staged in Padua and starred the composer himself as one of the vocalists. In 1636 he moved to Vienna, where he sang as a tenor at the Imperial Court Chapel. In 1649, during the reign of Ferdinand III, he was appointed vice-Kapellmeister under Antonio Bertali. Together they staged numerous Italian operas in Vienna. Sances also composed sacred works and chamber music. In 1669, he was promoted to Imperial Kapellmeister upon Bertali’s death. In 1673, due to Sances’ poor health, his deputy Johann Heinrich Schmelzer took on many of his duties. Sances died in Vienna in 1679.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was a virtuoso violinist and court composer at the Habsburg court where he became close friends with his patron, Emperor Leopold I, and rose to the ranks of nobility. In 1660, one traveler referred to him as “nearly the most eminent violinist in all of Europe.” He was the foremost Austrian composer of instrumental music of his day and had an important influence on his most famous student, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644–1704). Schmelzer’s Lamentosopra la morte Ferdinand III was composed in tribute to Austrian Emperor Ferdinand III upon his death in 1657. Fechtschule (Fencing School) was written in 1668 and consists of a number of dance movements. The Fechtschule movement depicts a fencing match, and swashbuckling swords can be heard in the rapid notes of the violins. Musical balm is applied to wounds in the final Bader Aria.

Very little is known about Marco Uccellini’s life. Born in Forlimpopoli, Italy, he studied in the Assisi seminary. From 1641 to 1662, he was musical director of the Este court in Modena and, from 1647 to 1665, was the maestro di cappella at Modena’s cathedral. Later in life he became maestro di cappella at the Farnese court in Parma until his death. While employed by the Farnese family, he composed operas and ballets, but none of this music survives. Today, he is primarily known for his instrumental music. His sonatas for violin and continuo continued the development of an idiomatic style of writing for the violin that expanded the instrument’s technical capabilities and expressive range. Much of this was transferred into his other chamber music, including music for violin. Bergamesca refers to a type of rustic Italian dance which became the basis for melodic and harmonic inventiveness in 17th century instrumental works of the same name.

The great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell is arguably most famous for his operas Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen. He did, however, produce an astonishing array of compositions in many other genres, including instrumental chamber music, works for harpsichord, organ pieces, royal odes, anthems, and many songs and music for the stage. Purcell’s songs combine expressive harmonies with English prose to create evocative works of art. In Music for a While, which uses a text by John Dryden, he employs the favorite Baroque technique of the ground bass (repeated bass line) and creates a vivid image of snakes dropping from Alceto’s head by the use of silence between repetitions of the word “drop.” His setting of the folksong Sweeter than Roses is part of the incidental music to Pausanius, the Betrayer of his Country. Consisting of a slow arioso section followed by a more animated section, the passion of the text is highlighted though the use of turns, trills, and melismatic passages in the melody.

 Biagio Marini, an Italian composer and instrumentalist, is best known for his expertly crafted instrumental music. Beginning his career as a violinist at St. Mark’s in Venice, he worked under Monteverdi. In 1621, he became a court musician in Parma, then Brussels, Brescia, and Venice. The origin of the term passacaglia is derived from pasar (to walk) and calle (a street), suggesting a promenade.

 —Kristin Van Cleve

January 23, 2016

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor, L140 by Claude Debussy

Considered to be the founder and leading advocate of musical Impressionism, Claude Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Debussy began composition studies in 1880, and in 1884 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome. He wrote successfully in most genres, adapting his distinctive compositional language to the demands of each type of composition. Toward the end of his life, Debussy planned a group of six sonatas for different instruments. He lived to complete only three: the Violin Sonata is the last. Debussy was appallingly depressed by World War I, not just by the slaughter, but also by the degenerative effect it had on people. In increasing pain from cancer, he found progress on the Violin Sonata extremely difficult and it took him much longer to compose it than the other two. Debussy wrote, “Spurred on by my dear publisher, this sonata will be . . . an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.” The premiere took place on May 5th, 1917, with Debussy himself at the piano. It was his last public performance. Debussy died on March 25th, 1918. His funeral procession weaved through the deserted streets of Paris during the German aerial bombardment.

Duetto in D Major for Cello and Contrabass by Gioacchino Rossini

Gioacchino Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy, in 1792. His father, Giuseppe, was a well-known town trumpeter and his mother was a singer. At the age of 6, Rossini began to play triangle in his father’s band and by 14, he had composed his first opera. With his rapid composition technique, Rossini composed 39 operas during his life including his masterpiece The Barber of Seville, which he wrote in just 12 days. Internationally idolized as a composer of comic opera, Rossini was invited to become musical director of the Theatre Italien in Paris. Before settling in Paris, Rossini spent a few months in London during 1824 where the aristocracy heralded him as Europe’s most beloved composer. During this time, the Duetto in D Major was commissioned by David Salamons, a wealthy banker. For this work, Rossini had in mind the great contrabass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti. Although Rossini modestly titled this work as a duet, it is really a full sonata in three movements with proportions expected in any classic chamber work.

 

Piano Quintet in C minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams is arguably the greatest composer Britain has seen since the days of Henry Purcell. In a long and extensive career, he composed music notable for its power, nobility, and expressiveness. Perhaps his music represented the essence of England. After the death of his first wife Adeline in 1951, the 79-year-old Vaughan Williams moved from his longtime home in the Dorking countryside to London’s Hanover Terrace. The packing and unpacking caused Vaughan Williams to explore a number of his old manuscripts, including the unpublished Piano Quintet in C minor of 1903. Scored for the same instruments as Schubert’s famous “Trout” Quintet, it clearly shows the influence of nineteenth-century music throughout the work. The Quintet was not published during Vaughan Williams’ lifetime, largely because he continually revised it. After 1918, the Quintet disappeared. Upon the composer’s death in 1958, his second wife Ursula gave his manuscripts to the British Library on the condition that they were not to be performed. The  embargo was lifted in the 1990s and a new edition was published, and we are fortunate to hear this little-known composition today. The piece reflects the explorations of a young composer experimenting with the sonorities of chamber music. For example, the slow movement provides a reflective pause in the midst of the constantly modulating excitement of the outer movements, and is similar to Vaughan Williams’ mature works.

DID YOU KNOW?

Fuel was scarce in France during World War I: you had to be very rich to obtain coal to heat your home. Debussy, who was constantly broke, offered to write his coal merchant an original composition. Surprisingly, the offer was accepted and the merchant went home with Debussy’s last composition, appropriately titled Evenings Lighted by Burning Coals.

Rossini was a foodie and a well-regarded amateur chef. Even today, there are a number of “alla Rossini” dishes on haute cuisine menus throughout the world.

Ralph Vaughan Williams boasts the distinctively southern English pronunciation of his name. “Ralph” is pronounced “rayf,” which rhymes with “safe.”

November 21, 2015

Suite Italienne by Igor Stravinsky

Charming and witty, Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne is the composer’s adaptation of themes from his neoclassical ballet Pulcinella, premiered in 1919. The ballet was based on an Italian commedia dell’arte libretto from the early 18th century. Many of the themes in the score were adapted by Stravinsky from manuscripts attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi, but now known to be written by a variety of Pergolesi’s contemporaries. Rather than simply transcribing them, however, Stravinsky retains these simple, tuneful, and beautiful melodies with their bass lines while supplying his own surprising harmonies and rhythms.

Trois Pièces by Nadia Boulanger

Born in Paris in 1887, Nadia Boulanger grew up among the musicians of the Paris Conservatory, where her father taught voice. She composed music until 1918 and then turned to conducting. In 1937, she was the first woman to conduct the Royal Philharmonic, and broke the gender barrier with almost every other major orchestra. She is best known for teaching an entire generation of composers including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Thea Musgrave, Quincy Jones, and Philip Glass.

These three colorful compositions were originally transcribed from three short virtuosic organ pieces, and are somewhat reminiscent of the music of Debussy and Messiaen. The first is a transcription of an improvisation, the second is a long canon with a reference to pre-Baroque music, and the last uses a modal scale with a flattened second, giving the work a “gypsy” feel.

Trio in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was one of the leading musicians of the Romantic period. The son of a Hamburg musician, Brahms received piano, cello, horn, harmony, and composition lessons from an early age. He made his first public appearance at ten years old, performing chamber works by Mozart and Beethoven. The Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8, on today’s program, was composed in 1854. At the urging of his publisher, Brahms produced a revised version of the work in 1889. It is quite a treat to hear the original version today because the 1890 revision is far more commonly performed.

During the composition of this work, Brahms was notified that his friend Robert Schumann had attempted suicide. Brahms completed this trio after traveling to the Dusseldorf home of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Trio is melancholy and introspective, its expansive melodies rendered even more beautiful by an underlying sense of emotional agitation. Given the circumstances under which this piece was composed, the sense of unrest is even more poignant. In addition to being his first major work, the Trio was also the first of Brahms’ pieces performed in the Americas. The young American pianist William Mason discovered the piece while studying in Germany, brought the newly published score back to America with him, and premiered the piece in New York in November 1855. Considering Brahms’ penchant for destroying completed works, it is amazing that this early work survives at all. No one knows how much music Brahms actually wrote. Almost suffocating under the weight of Beethoven’s legacy, Brahms destroyed many complete works, including 20 string quartets, before completing his first published quartet, Op. 51, in 1873.

October 24, 2015

Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 by Felix Mendelssohn
One of the most important early Romantic composers, Mendelssohn blended Romantic sentiment and fantasy with a Classical-period economy, clarity, and poise. Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio, Op. 49, with the exception of a childhood trio, is his first work for violin, cello and piano. The trio was written in 1839 while Mendelssohn was living in Leipzig as a composer and chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Robert Schumann described the Trio as “the Master Trio of the Present”, and declared that “Mendelssohn is the Mozart of the 19th century.”

In this trio, Mendelssohn demands the utmost skill of his players. The Trio begins with a grandly arching, tender melody announced by the cello over the background of a restless piano motif. The second movement is a lyric, poetic song in the style of Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words” (“Lied ohne Worte”). In contrast, the Scherzo movement evokes the magical fairy world of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The weighty Finale is begins with a quiet, covered tone to finally emerge with a bright, triumphant flourish into D major.

Piano Trio No 4 “Dumky” in E minor, Op 90 by Antonín Dvořák
This is the last of Dvořák’s folk-music-filled Bohemian trios for piano, violin, and cello
distinguished by the subtitle of “Dumky” (plural of dumka). A dumka is a Slavic (specifically Ukrainian) folk song marked by abrupt changes of character from melancholy to festive. Listen for the moody contrasts within each movement, especially in the finale, as the music alternates between C major and C minor.

In 1892, soon after the Trio’s premiere, Dvořák moved to New York City to head the newly formed National Conservatory of Music of America. As an advocate of folk-music infused compositions, he was selected to help establish a federally funded tuition-free national conservatory to preserve the Native American and African American music of the USA. During his visit to America, Dvořák spent the summer at the Czech village of Spillville, Iowa influencing the composition of his “New World Symphony” and his “American” string quartet.

2015 Basically Beethoven Festival

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