Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Brahms' Most Personal Requiem

Johannes Brahms (in his beardless 30s)
While I was checking out videos of Brahms “German Requiem” on YouTube, several of them were prefaced by ads more annoying than usual, not all of which you could skip after 5 seconds. Several of them were for rock star Ariana Grande's current “Honeymoon” Tour and, while I know nothing of her, her status in today's pop culture or her singing, my primary objection was to the loudness and nature of the ad and the complete disconnect it had with the music I was searching for – the gentle final movement of the Brahms Requiem.

It would be snide to mention the first thing that came to my mind was the opening of Brahms' second movement: For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flowers of grass.

The second thing was that in April of 1865, Brahms had already sketched three movements of his Requiem-in-progress – 150 years ago this month.

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This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in a performance of one of the great choral works of the repertoire, joined by the Susquehanna Chorale and the choirs of Messiah College (prepared by their conductor, Linda Tedford). The soloists are soprano Jane Redding and baritone Grant Youngblood. The performance will be sung in English.

The concerts at the Forum are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with pre-concert talks by Dr. Timothy Dixon an hour before each performance.

The program opens with the first symphony by Kevin Puts who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012 for his opera, Silent Night. Just this past month, he had another opera premiered, based on a play that, when I saw it as a film in the '60s, I thought would make a great opera, The Manchurian Candidate.

From his website, the composer (whose name, btw, is pronounced with the "u" like the “oo” in book) writes this about his 1st Symphony:

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My first symphony was composed in 1998-99 for the California Symphony and premiered on February 28, 1999 by the California Symphony conducted by Barry Jekowsky. I was a doctoral student at the Eastman School of Music when I wrote it. One night I was driving from Rochester, NY to Bowling Green, OH for a performance and I heard a woman call in to a radio station and request the song Still Standing by Elton John. She wanted to dedicate it to a friend who was just getting over the pain of a divorce, and I started thinking about the resiliency of human beings. I had the idea to write a piece which drew its inspiration from the states of an emotional crisis—listlessness, turmoil, shock, denial, the memory of a kind of naive bliss and sense of invulnerability, and finally, the elation of overcoming and the regaining of stability and confidence.

Musically, the symphony marks the beginning of my interest in “panoramic” one-movement forms, conceived in the romantic tradition in the sense that they are reactions to certain things I am thinking about or experiencing in my life. This is a break from the style of previous works in which I was concerned simply with musical elements and their development—in other words, “absolute music”. The harmonies and compositional devices of these earlier works are still alive and well in this newer, freer, and more varied style, but the approach is different and, I think, truer to who I am as a person and a musician.
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You can hear a two-minute sample from the symphony by following this link.

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A Requiem is a “Mass for the Dead” in the Catholic liturgy, though similar services exist in other religions but are not called by the Latin term which derives from the text, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – the word requiem comes from the word meaning “rest” or “repose.”

In addition to praying for the soul of the dead, the original liturgy includes the famous Dies irae or “Day of Wrath” which lets the living know all the torments of Hell that await those who do not go to Heaven. It is this movement that provides the most intense drama in those musical settings of the Requiem we're most familiar with, like the ones by Mozart or Berlioz, but particularly the one Verdi completed in 1874 which most critics complained was more operatic than suitable for the church.

Even Beethoven contemplated writing one, telling friends he thought Mozart's was “too wild and awesome” (in the old sense of the word) and wanted to compose one that was, by comparison, “more subdued.”

So after his mother died in February of 1865, Johannes Brahms planned a work in six movements that would not be a standard Requiem, using the liturgical text as it was traditionally set in Latin. He would write it “in the vernacular” (in his case, German) and set texts from various books of the Bible (the work's subtitle is “To Words of the Holy Scriptures”) using Martin Luther's translation (the 1534 German-equivalent of the English-speaker's 1611 King James version) including some lines from the Apocrypha as well. Shortly after the first performance, he decided to add another movement, this one with a soprano solo to balance the two with a baritone solo. Unlike traditional Requiems, the choir sings almost throughout. Even from the earliest sketches of the piece, he called it his "so-called German Requiem," meaning "A Requiem in German" as opposed to what you'd normally expect.

Brahms' Requiem is nothing like what you'd normally expect.

(In this manuscript copy of the text, Brahms has written out the texts for all seven movements but even though they're written in order, he marks the movements by Roman numerals in such a way that, at this point, he had changed the new soprano solo movement to IV and crossed out the "I" to make the original 4th Movement, "V"... eventually switching them back again.)

It had been on his mind for a while – certainly, since the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann in 1856 – but no doubt the death of his mother made the 31-year-old composer think a little more seriously about the meaning of death. Rather than just translating the Requiem text into German, his choice of texts reflected his agnostic approach to humanism. It was, he said, a “Human” Requiem rather than one based on divine Christian dogma.

Where the Latin text begins and ends with a prayer to grant the dead peace from their earthly life, Brahms begins his, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” before eventually concluding with comforting lines from Revelation, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,” as if to let those of us left behind know, “everything will be alright.”

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There were initially to be six movements.

While some people assume the Requiem was inspired by his mother's death, this doesn't seem to be necessarily the case. The fact the soprano solo text has been described as “specifically
occasioned by the death of his mother” as one so often reads, it was composed three years after her death and three years after he had begun work on the Requiem in the first place. Up to that point, he had felt it was complete.

But then, following the premiere of this six-movement version in April, 1868, Brahms' first composition teacher, Eduard Marxsen, suggested he should add the soprano solo movement by way of contrast to the baritone solos. The now familiar complete version was then premiered later that year, in September, in Zurich.

Even if this movement were not an immediate response to the death of his mother, the composer was certainly aware of the final line of the text he chose to set: As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

Not long after Brahms had returned to Vienna following his mother's funeral in his hometown of Hamburg (he arrived two days too late to say good-bye to her), he wrote to Clara Schumann, “When this sad year is over, I shall begin to miss my dear good mother ever more and more.” Beyond that, it seems, he said little about her in his letters, then or afterward.

In fact, Brahms never spoke about the relationship of the Requiem to his mother and “growled” (as Jan Swafford puts it in his biography of Brahms) “whenever anyone asked him about it.”

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Here is a complete performance of Brahms “A German Requiem” recorded in concert at the Vienna Musikverein in 1997 with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the Swedish Radio Choir & Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, with soprano Barbara Bonney and baritone Bryn Terfel.

The yellow marks in the time line indicate the starting point for the different movements. If you don't have time to listen to it all in one sitting, you can come back to the yellow marks to resume viewing the video.

(Be prepared: there might be ads within the video, between some of the movements – I'd gotten ones that were of the “skip-in-5-seconds” variety so hopefully, annoying as they are, they won't too destructively intrusive, however insensitive. I was tempted to use another video but this really is such an incredible performance.)

The choral entrance in the opening of Brahms' Requiem
The translations of Brahms' German text is adapted from the King James Bible and may differ from other translations you could find or might hear this weekend.

1st Movement: Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

A gently contemplative opening that unfolds from almost nothing, its “immense subtlety wrapped in noble simplicity.” You might notice that Brahms emphasizes the darker sounds of the orchestra in terms of register by not using the violins, relying on the rich sounds of violas, cellos and basses.

2nd Movement: For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

This movement isn't so much a funeral march as a funeral sarabande, a slow dance in triple time, that was originally intended for Brahms' first attempt at writing a symphony, sketching material shortly after his mentor Robert Schumann's failed suicide attempt in 1854 (much of this became part of his D Minor Piano Concerto). Clearly there is an obvious connection in this music which the audience at that Good Friday premiere would have been unaware of, except for one person sitting in the front row – Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann's widow and a close friend and continuing inspiration to Brahms. Between her concert tours and frequent health issues (not to mention being mother to seven children), she almost didn't make it for the premiere, arriving right before the dress rehearsal, much to Brahms' relief.

3rd Movement: Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.

This movement begins with a despairing tone, the first appearance of the baritone soloist, but it ends ultimately in joy, with a choral fugue on a “pedal tone” (a repeated, sustained D in the bass).

Technically this was something several friends (including Clara Schumann) had advised Brahms against but he stubbornly stuck to his guns. Unfortunately, at a performance of the first three movements in Vienna – a kind of concert try-out – the timpanist got carried away and played his part fortissimo, drowning everybody out so that at the end, the audience was so confused, many people hissed, giving rise to the idea their reaction to the whole piece was unfavorable. One critic, though, after mentioning the first two movements were “met with unanimous applause” (which means, yes, they were applauding between movements), described the ending as experiencing “the sensations of a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train.” Consequently, before the completed work was premiered in Bremen, Brahms made substantial changes in the orchestral texture, paying specific attention to the timpani's printed dynamics!

Clara Schumann
4th Movement: How beautiful are they dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee.

This is undoubtedly the best known section of the Requiem. Shortly after he had sketched this movement, Brahms sent a copy to Clara who was concertizing in London at the time, saying “it is probably the least offensive part”!!!

Given the years of difficulties following her husband's suicide attempt and his being hidden from her in an asylum miles from her and their children until his death over two years later, with the challenges of touring to earn money to support her family, not to mention her own health problems – this was also a difficult time in her friendship with Brahms – Clara sat their, the audience behind her, able to see only the musicians with Brahms on the podium, wondering what kind of magic he had managed to create. She wrote in her journal the next day, “It was such a joy as I have not felt for a long time.”

Brahms' Mother
5th Movement: And ye now therefore have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.

This is the soprano solo that was added after the Bremen premiere. It is difficult not to imagine, though, given that last line, that Brahms was not thinking of his mother when he chose this text. But if you read it right, it is not his mother comforting him, but him the composer comforting the listener – or perhaps Clara – as his mother had comforted him (if you can follow that). It doesn't get more personal than that.

At the time he completed this piece, Brahms was not known as a composer of orchestral music, having produced only the two early Serenades and his 1st Piano Concerto. His 1st Symphony would only be finished in 1876 even though he'd been working on a first symphony since 1854. Primarily, aside from a few pieces of chamber music, the world knew him as a composer of piano music (championed by Clara) but mostly of songs and short choral works. He was, also, in his mid-30s, so one would expect a future for him, already acclaimed as he was. But who knew that when they first heard this music?

6th Movement: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. ...then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory? Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

This is the dramatic high-point of the work, just as the 4th Movement (“How beautiful are they dwelling places”) could be the understated emotional high-point. But the sound is almost archaic (to one barely familiar with the music written before Bach); even the look of the score reminds one of Palestrina, though to us it sounds nothing like anything but Brahms.

Unlike the traditional Baroque oratorios and masses of the Classical period, this is not a work with arias for soloists interspersed between choral movements. Only the soprano solo takes on the sense of an aria (despite the supporting role of the chorus). But in this next-to-last movement, the baritone solo is once again woven into the whole. And again, it ends with a large-scale fugue in the manner of George Frederic Handel, joyful and triumphant.

Today, we might think nothing of this, but in Brahms' day, writing a fugue was an exercise in academicism. Most composers learned the skill required to do so but few could make it sound like a natural expression of themselves. To his listeners, fugues in which composers showed off what they'd learned probably sounded archaic primarily because it sounded unnatural in its musical context – don't get me started on Tchaikovsky's fugues in the 2nd String Quartet or the “Manfred” Symphony. But Wagner once paid Brahms the compliment that, after hearing him play his “Handel” Variations which ends with a massive and virtuosic fugue, no one could write a fugue like that these days – before adding something to the effect “if one would want to do such a thing.”

7th Movement:Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.

Instead of a finale in the usual sense, this final movement returns to the comforting simplicity of the opening; the spiritual highlight of the piece, perhaps – not the Paradise of the Catholic Requiem Mass (Brahms himself stated he did not believe in life-after-death), but the peace of a deep and eternal rest.

While many, at the first performance, wept during this movement including Clara Schumann, someone leaving the cathedral ran into Brahms' father, Johann Jakob, a slight old man though only in his early-60s who was proud of his son even if he didn't understand his music. Asked what he thought of his son's work, he responded, having just taken a pinch of snuff, “It didn't sound bad.”

Brahms' humanist “German Requiem” earned an unparalleled success, rare for a composer only in his early middle-age and helped establish his career as more performances were scheduled across German-speaking Central Europe. Some were confused by its lack of Christian content (references specifically to Christ) leading one conductor to insert the aria “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Handel's Messiah between the last two movements.

George Bernard Shaw, himself an avid Wagnerite, would later say, “it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker.”

And while the musical world still awaited proof that Brahms was, as Schumann had predicted, the heir to Beethoven, the Requiem cemented his career as nothing he'd so far composed had managed to do. Schumann's often maligned enthusiasm, however, would be proven true – at least to his fans – eight years later when the world finally heard his Symphony No. 1.

But I wonder if he would have had the confidence to complete that work if he had not won some kind of recognition for what he was doing, had it not been for this most personal and heartfelt, gentle masterpiece.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Prokofiev, the Pianist with Fingers of Steel

This weekend's Masterworks Concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features Richard Strauss' tone-poem A Hero's Life (which you can read about in this earlier post) plus Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major with Rising Stars Concerto Competition winner, Kathryn Westerlund the soloist, and Romanian-born composer, George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody No. 1" to open the program. The concerts are this Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at the Forum. There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. 
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Of all the works Prokofiev composed, his 3rd Piano Concerto is probably the most frequently played, aside from the likes of Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical Symphony," or the March from The Love of Three Oranges.

Earlier this season, you may have heard excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet. The main reason Stuart Malina decided to schedule a second work by the same composer in the same season was the performance given by pianist Kathryn Westerlund when she won the most recent “Rising Stars Concerto Competition” co-sponsored by HSO and Messiah College.

The Prokofiev 3rd “is one of hardest pieces to play,” Malina told David Dunkle of the Carlisle Sentinel, “and she pulled it off with such dazzling ease. I would never even attempt to play it.”

Kathryn appeared on NPR's “From the Top” at the age of 13 as a cellist and has been a member of the Hershey Orchestra cello section since 2011. Now 18, she is studying both piano and cello at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

(You can read this interview with Kathryn in last September's Harrisburg Magazine. The photograph (see left) was taken by Howard Hartman for this article.)

Not to put any pressure on our soloist, but here is a 1977 performance by Martha Argerich with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra which has some great close-ups of the pianist's hands, for those of you who can't get enough of that from your seat on the left-side of the hall. You'll see why this is not a concerto for the faint-of-heart.

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When Sergei Prokofiev was a toddler, he watched his mother play the piano and decided he wanted to do that, too. Around the time he was 5, he brought her a piece of paper and said “Here is a Chopin Mazurka I have written for you. Play it for me.” Unable to read his notation, she started to play an actual Chopin Mazurka, but the boy insisted she play the one he composed, not that one. So, she began teaching the boy how to notate music so other people could play it.

That's how his music lessons began.

His first composition was an “Indian Galop” in F Major except there was no B-flat in it as there would normally be. He was reluctant to “tackle the black keys” of the piano, he explained; perhaps his hands couldn't reach them, yet. Or maybe he was just being different, already preferring sounds that weren't what people expected.

Soon, he could play pages of Mozart and the easier Beethoven sonatas and loved improvising for the family and their guests. If his audience began to talk to each other instead of listening, young Sergei would stop abruptly and leave the room.

Prokofiev & "The Giant"
At 9, he composed an opera (for piano) called “The Giant” (see photo, left) and then two more, one called “On the Desert Island” and the other “The Feast in the Plague Year” which consisted mostly of an overture which he then, when the family traveled from their home in Eastern Ukraine to visit Moscow, played for Taneyev, one of the leading composers in Moscow who had studied with Tchaikovsky.

In 1902, a young student of Taneyev's replaced the first composition teacher Prokofiev had – one who was too tedious with his rules – but Reinhold Gliere, during his summer visits to the family's home, found ways to inspire the 11-year-old boy who soon began composing a symphony. Finding Gliere's four-square rules and bland modulations distasteful, he also began composing piano pieces with more dissonant harmonies and unusual meters.

Eventually, his mother decided to take him to St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, where he was favorably viewed by Alexander Glazunov, one of the leading composers in Russia, then, and invited to audition for the conservatory. Following a young man “with a small beard who had with him only a single romance [song] in his baggage,” Prokofiev, now 13, carried in two music cases bulging with four operas, a symphony, two sonatas and a large number of piano pieces.” The head of the school, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was impressed.

Prokofiev by Matisse, 1921
Fast forward to 1921 when Prokofiev is now 30, having written, among other things, his wildly popular “Classical Symphony” and garnered a reputation as a Bad Boy of Russian Music. He was acclaimed as a pianist but found himself hampered by the possibilities of making a living in the new post-revolution Soviet Union. Rachmaninoff had become a Scandinavian refugee in 1917 before settling in America.

Technically, you could say he began work on what would become his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1913, shortly after finishing the 2nd, sketching a Theme with Variations that eventually became the new concerto's middle movement. Material from a string quartet from 1917 also found its way into this slowly gestating piece.

Remember that Prokofiev in 1912 was a musical rebel, performing his first two piano concertos which were dismissed with comments like “To hell with this futuristic music! The cats on the roof make better music!” He performed his own highly chromatic and dissonant piano pieces and gave the first local performances of Arnold Schoenberg's new 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 from 1909.

But in 1917, he composed a symphony of Haydnesque clarity, even if that in itself – so unexpected – was the idea of “rebelling.” He himself called it the “Classical Symphony,” “as if Haydn were alive and composing today.” It was mostly written during those uncertain times between the February Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Tsar and the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. During this same summer, Prokofiev began his 1st Violin Concerto.

Another work he started was a “white note” quartet in which all the musical material could be played on the “white keys” of the piano (though why one would then write it for string quartet seems odd). But he put it aside, also, mostly out of boredom with his present situation during this post-Revolution period.

Believing that Russia had no use for music at the time, immersed in the life-or-death struggle of its Civil War, Prokofiev applied for permission to leave his homeland for America. The Arts and Education Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky told him, "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way.”

And with that, Prokofiev boarded a train across Siberia, then boarded a ship across the Pacific to arrive in San Francisco in August, 1918.

Prokofiev, NYC 1918
A debut concert in New York City seemed promising and he was offered a commission for a new opera to be premiered in Chicago. This became The Love of Three Oranges but it was already in rehearsal when the premiere was postponed following the death of the company's director. Spending all this time working on the opera meant he was not performing and therefore not earning money, so he found himself in financial difficulties. His playing was constantly being compared negatively to Rachmaninoff's more lyrical style and so, uncomfortable with life in America, Prokofiev decided to leave for Paris in 1920 where there was a large population of Russian ex-patriots.

There, he met up once more with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev who commissioned a new ballet from him – called Chout or “The Buffoon.” During a holiday on the coast of Brittany, Prokofiev returned to his earlier sketches for that Theme & Variations and that “white note” quartet and came up with his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, completed in July of 1921.

Now, C Major is basically a “white note” key – and even though the opening melody in the clarinet is all “white notes,” it's not clearly C Major. And once the piano takes off, whatever might seem like C Major (or any other key) has so many “non-white notes” harmonizing it, was it really C Major?

As he was working on the concerto, Prokofiev received a visit from the Russian poet, Konstantin Balmont, whose poetry he had set frequently in the past. After hearing the composer play through his new concerto, Balmont recorded his impressions in verse, which ended,

Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.

Prokofiev returned to America to give the concerto its world premiere in Chicago with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony on December 16th, 1921. Then, two weeks later, he conducted the belated premiere – finally – of The Love of Three Oranges.

Both the Piano Concerto and the opera were fairly well received but when the production was taken to New York City the following February, critical reaction to both concerto and opera proved huge disappointments to the composer. The opera was mostly met with comments like “Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings" and "The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it.” At a cost of $130,000 for the production, one critic complained that that was about $43,000 per orange. It did not receive another production in America until the New York City Opera mounted it in 1949.

Koussevitsky conducted the Piano Concerto in Paris in 1922, at which time it was well received and soon went on to become a staple of the repertoire, as far as modern concertos were concerned. Prokofiev, the “man with steel fingers,” performed it often and it was the only one of his concertos he recorded – with Piero Coppola in London in 1932. While it might not be the most precise performance between soloist and conductor or even the most well-balanced recording available, but still, it is the composer playing the piano: you can hear the third movement, here.

One further anecdote about Prokofiev from this time-period as we sometimes wonder what it might've been like to be in a room with two of the most famous living composers of the day.

When he was in Paris in 1922, Prokofiev (see photo, left, with Diaghilev and Stravinsky) was again meeting with the impresario Serge Diaghilev about a revival of his ballet Chout when Diaghilev wanted to hear The Love of Three Oranges. So Prokofiev proceeded to play it for him. However, Igor Stravinsky, who was also present, refused to listen to any more after the first act.

When he accused Prokofiev of "wasting time composing operas," Prokofiev shot back that Stravinsky "was in no position to lay down a general artistic direction, since he [was] himself not immune to error." As Prokofiev wrote in his diary, Stravinsky "became incandescent with rage" and "we almost came to blows and were separated only with difficulty. ...[O]ur relations became strained and for several years Stravinsky's attitude toward me was critical."

Eventually, Prokofiev and Stravinsky patched up their friendship, though Prokofiev was often critical of Stravinsky's neoclassical "stylization of Bach." On the other hand, Stravinsky publicly described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day – after himself, of course.

So I found it amusing, after doing some on-line searching, to discover Gabriel the grandson of Prokofiev was having his new violin concerto premiered at the London Proms this past summer, conducted by Marius Stravinsky, a “cousin five times removed” of the famous composer.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, March 16, 2015

March Madness: Richard Strauss and a Hero's Life

A Hero's Life is one of the major works of the symphonic repertoire, and a highlight of any orchestra's season. It's on the program of the Harrisburg Symphony's Masterworks Concert this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm, with Stuart Malina conducting - along with George Enescu's 1st Romanian Rhapsody and the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev with Kathryn Westerlund, the most recent winner of the Rising Star Concerto Competition.

You can hear a complete performance of Strauss' epic tone poem in this post, read a little about how the music is "put together" - and find out what was going on in the composer's life when he wrote it. You can read about Prokofiev's piano concerto, here.
Richard Strauss on a sled
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This weekend should see better weather than last month's Masterworks Concert did – it will now be officially Spring and the temperatures will be considerably warmer: no chance of snow or ice (though I am still tempted to knock on plastic-laminated artificial wood substitute as I say that...).

And this concert is entitled “A Hero's Life” because the major work on the program – if not of the season – is a tone poem by Richard Strauss called “A Hero's Life” or, in German, Ein Heldenleben.

Thinking back to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony which opened the season, the first thing that might come to a music-lover's mind who is not already familiar with Strauss' monumental work might be “who is the hero?”

(If the first question to come to your mind is “what is a tone poem,” let me say it's an orchestral work inspired by some non-musical source like a poem, a novel, a painting, or even nature. It's usually in one movement, “tells a story” (sort of) and might contain several different sections of contrasting moods to give you the impression of its story or characters. But of course, it can also be much more than that, so let's leave it there, for now...)

Strauss in 1890
When Strauss, a busy conductor as well as composer, started thinking about this piece, he was deep into work on another tone poem, Don Quixote (you can read more about that piece which the HSO performed in 2012, in an earlier blog-post, here), and thought a more serious hero than Cervantes' knight might work as a good, musical contrast. Originally he was going to call it Held und Weld or “Hero and World” but by the time he started in on it in the summer of 1898, it had become “A Hero's Life”- Ein Heldenleben.

Most writers will tell you the hero is the composer himself, though he's a far from heroic figure in reality. Consider, though, since he originally intended it as a companion to Don Quixote, perhaps it's the composer as he envisions himself?

He never really said “I'm the hero,” but he did tell people the “hero's companion” is definitely a musical portrait of his wife, Pauline, whom he'd just married in 1894. So if the hero's wife is his wife, how is he not the hero?

But I digress...

A work of some 40-50 minutes in length, it is divided into six segments which he identified as

1. The Hero
2. The Hero's Adversaries (a tongue-firmly-in-cheek portrait of his critics)
3. The Hero's Companion (that is, his wife)
4. The Hero in Battle (with his critics)
5. The Hero's Works of Peace
6. The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation.

Now, whether Strauss is or is not his own hero, here, let's point out that in the next-to-the-last section – the Hero's Works of Peace – Strauss includes thirty musical quotations from nine of his own compositions.

Yeah. So, if you were asked, “who do you think the Hero is,” what would you think?

Now, Don Quixote also concludes with the knight's “retirement from the world” but don't forget, when he completed Heldenleben, Strauss was only 35 years old – hardly retirement age. Whether this is a musical autobiography or an unparalleled example of artistic hubris is beside the point: given its genesis in Cervantes' quintessentially self-deluded hero, I think we're missing the point by taking it too seriously.

The 1st Page of Heldenleben
A monumental work regardless, it would be a major piece on any orchestra's season, not just because of the size of the orchestra – if you thought the January concert with its almost chamber-like proportions was a small orchestra, that was helping to prepare for this concert's budget – but because it is technically difficult for the individual players. Orchestral parts (like the horn and cello theme at the opening and later for the basses) or solos (like the extensive violin solos for the concertmaster) are found regularly on audition lists for major orchestras. Trust me, every musician on this stage is excited by the challenge of seeing Heldenleben on the program – and no doubt they're quite familiar with its highlights from auditions past.

The works is scored for 3 flutes, 1 piccolo; 3 oboes, 1 English horn (doubling 4th oboe); 2 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet; 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon; 8 (count 'em, 8) horns (+ 1 assistant principal), 5 trumpets (+ 3 offstage trumpets), 3 trombones, 1 tenor tuba, 1 tuba; timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum, cymbals, tam tam; 2 harps; and a large string section (Strauss specifies 64 players). That's 103 players plus the percussionists.

In this performance, Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at a concert in Munich.

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0:59 – performance begins with “The Hero.”
5:30 – “The Hero's Adversaries” (where the Hero is beset by his critics, portrayed by nattering woodwinds)
9:14 – “The Hero's Companion” (she is portrayed by the violin solo and the composer said she is a musical portrait of his wife who, as Strauss wrote to a friend, “is very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute” – it begins almost as if she's come to the hero's rescue. Every time I hear the section beginning at 10:30, I imagine the Hero (his theme in the bass register) starting a conversation with her and then by 11:00 having trouble getting a word in edgewise – but it soon turns into an extended love-duet. Except at 20:49, memories of the pesky critics ruin the hero's contentment.)
21:44 – The Hero in Battle (off-stage trumpets sound the call and the battle begins.)

While Strauss later removed these “movement subtitles” from the printed score and the programs, it's not clear where the Battle ends and the next section begins, but certainly the tide has turned by
30:32 – The Hero's Works of Peace (with the arrival of a very heroic horn melody which happens to be from his first major success, Don Juan.)

This complex section consists mainly of those 30 quotations from earlier works, some of which might be treated like the passage beginning at 33:00 with the lyrical oboe theme from Don Juan against the bass clarinet of Sancho Panza from Don Quixote and a bit of Till Eulenspiegel in the clarinet – all in 3 measures! There are 8 quotes from his opera Guntram (1893) which most people now would not recognize (his first “famous” opera wasn't written until Salome in 1905), 5 from Don Quixote (1897), 4 from both Don Juan (1888) and Death & Transfiguration (1889), 3 from Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), 1 from Till Eulenspiegel (1895), and one each from two songs, all jumbled together and overlapping in an amazing contrapuntal display.

36:14 – The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation. (If it hasn't already begun, the final section probably begins here.)

Initially, Strauss concluded the work with another quietly contemplative ending much as he had done with most of his earlier tone-poems (think Death & Transfiguration, Zarathustra, or Don Quixote). When an old friend of his complained of this over breakfast, Strauss asked for paper and pen and then and there (“amidst the tea and toast”) scribbled down the ending we now hear, inspired by the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra (is there a pun, there?) though it's hardly the bombastic “faster-and-louder” victorious ending his friend had probably hoped for.

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So what was going on in Strauss' life when he composed his evocation of a hero?

Page from Heldenleben sketches
The idea, as I said, had occurred to him in the midst of composing Don Quixote in 1897. He certainly intended it as a companion piece to Quixote even though he only conducted them on the same program once. Having premiered Quixote in March of 1898, he then began sketching his Hero after arriving in June for a much-needed vacation in Marquartstein in the Bavarian Alps with his wife and infant son.

He had married Pauline de Ahna, a soprano, in 1894. Their son Franz (though known as “Bubi” throughout his life), was born April 12, 1897. The three of them and their domestic bliss would figure prominently in his next tone-poem, his Symphonia domestica (which even includes a scherzo depicting Baby in his bath) not completed until 1903.

Wedding photo of Mr. & Mrs. R. Strauss
In mid-July, Strauss – who had recently conducted several performances of Beethoven's Third Symphony – wrote to his publisher, “Beethoven's Eroica is so little beloved by our conductors [today] that it is now rarely performed, that to fulfill a pressing need I am composing a largish tone-poem entitled Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but yet it is in E-flat (the same key as Beethoven's symphony) with lots of horns which are always a yardstick of heroism.” He hoped to have a completed work in hand by New Year's Day.

Indeed, many of Strauss' works originated with the idea of creating a match to a favorite masterpiece of the past: his opera Guntram, in which his wife had sung the female lead at its poorly received premiere a month before their wedding, had been his take on Beethoven's Fidelio; Der Rosenkavalier was planned as his answer to Marriage of Figaro and The Woman without a Shadow became his equivalent of The Magic Flute. And so add Heldenleben as his Eroica to the list.

Keep in mind that in the late-1800s, audiences assumed Beethoven's hero was really more likely himself than Bonaparte. Whether Strauss' approach is an autobiographical work or not, it is not, certainly, a serious study of German heroism. That, he would probably point out, had been what Wagner wrote in his story of Siegfried and The Ring of the Nibelung.

Keep in mind, also, Strauss later mentioned to a writer-friend that he found himself “no less interesting than Napoleon.” Without the context much less a tone of voice, it would be nice to give him an ironical benefit of the doubt, here, but... uhm...

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Strauss completed the short score (a first draft of the piece with suggestions of the final orchestration) on July 30th, 1898, the day Bismarck (speaking of German heroes) had been dismissed as chancellor by the German emperor, then finished the full score on December 1st by which time he had changed jobs, rather suddenly moving from his post as conductor at the Munich opera to now conducting at the Berlin opera, a major change in his life.

Though Strauss dedicated his new piece to the young conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Strauss conducted the world premiere (as befitting a hero) himself with the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra on March 3rd, 1899. Surprisingly, the first American performance was given by the Chicago Symphony and Theodore Thomas in 1900 but it didn't reach England until 1902 when the composer conducted it in London.

Romain Rolland, Paris 1914
Not surprisingly, many critics were not pleased by the work – for one thing, not getting the joke at their expense. But many people in the audiences “roared their approval.” Romain Rolland, the great French author (and Germanophile) wrote of one of the earliest performances he'd attended, how he saw “people shudder... suddenly rise to their feet and make violent and unconscious gestures.” He himself “experienced this strange intoxication, the dizziness of this heaving ocean... [that] for the first time for thirty years, the Germans had found their poet of victory.”

Of the composer, Rolland wrote “I was right to see in him that heroic pride, which is on the verge of becoming delirious, of that contemptuous Nietzscheism, of that egotistical and practical idealism, which make a cult of power and disdains weakness.”

As would prove one of his greatest weaknesses later, in dealing with the Nazis, Strauss was a political innocent, naïve and self-centered. When Rolland asked him his thoughts about the Boer War in South Africa, Strauss sided with the English only because he thought they were “very civilized” and “very agreeable when you're traveling.” When he was in Egypt, for instance, he explained “I was very glad the English were there instead of the Egyptians: one is always sure of finding clean rooms, every comfort...” Taken to task for this limited viewpoint by the pacifist Rolland, Strauss said, “Oh, I don't know anything about it; I don't think about it; Egypt doesn't exist when I am not there.”

So much for a hero...

We tend to forget that Till Eulenspiegel is a symphonic poem about a buffoon and is itself full of “buffoonery.” There is much in Don Quixote that is not to be taken at face-value – the whole idea of the Don's quest, his adventures, his grasp of reality – in which the whole piece is, in effect, a comedy (though a very touching one: Quixote may be a figure of ridicule but musically, at least, he is never ridiculous).

Because of our concepts of what a hero should be – and perhaps because of the work's association with one of the greatest symphonies in the repertoire – we forget that Heldenleben was conceived as a companion to Quixote and tend to overlook the comic aspects of the piece. Too much is made of the composer's arrogance, positing himself as The Hero of the piece when, it would seem in hindsight, he might have been having a little fun at his own expense.

Certainly, his primary aim was to entertain his audience and the piece's ultimate popularity was only one aspect of the music that proved problematic with, say, Strauss' on-again/off-again friendship with Gustav Mahler, another composer/conductor with whom he is often paired.

Mahler struggled for every bit of success and dealt with far worse criticism than Strauss ever did and suffered from a kind of hatred and persecution Strauss knew nothing about. Born Jewish into an anti-Semitic society, Mahler also had to contend with the struggle of rising above the lower-middle-class life of his childhood, something else the well-off Strauss had never experienced.

Another demerit thrown against Strauss was his “greed.” In most cases, it would be considered “good business,” trying to get the most money for his music he could get. He grew up in a well-enough-to-do family but lived on fairly frugal terms because his father, working hard for his money, was also well aware of its often fleeting existence.

It is interesting to note that during the same summer he was composing A Hero's Life, Strauss was negotiating with publishers and other composers to create a national organization to protect composers like the copyright society that already existed for writers. Given Germany's fractured history lacking any political unity until 1871, it was impossible to maintain any sense of fairness in the publishing business – and Beethoven certainly had his issues with selling pieces to two different publishers only because there was no copyright convention that would protect him otherwise. By the time the German Empire superseded the weak cultural confederation of German states that existed since Feudal times, there was a need for such a convention to help German composers and so Strauss set about using his fame and authority to establish one. Remember that the most successful of German composers at the time, Johannes Brahms, had died in 1897.

Make no mistake he was primarily doing this to “protect his own merchandise” and to give himself a greater advantage, but nonetheless without his efforts – sending out his open letter to 160 German-speaking composers on July 23rd, 1898, while he was in the midst of completing Ein Heldenleben – there would have been no Genossenschaft Deutscher Tonsetzer, the first ever German society established to protect and administer composers' performing rights which ensured better incomes for all German composers – Strauss included.

Granted, Strauss was as tactless about money as he was about anything else. Being raised frugally in the midst of financial prosperity made him realize that money brought status and respect, two things he valued more highly than the money itself. It may have seemed a bit like Don Quixote tilting at windmills to get such an organization created in the first place, but whatever his motives may have been, in the moment perhaps he felt himself to be a bit of a hero after all.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cesar Franck and his Single Symphony

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina open with a Latin American dance by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, continues with a "Spanish symphony" that is really a violin concerto by Edouard Lalo with soloist Augustin Hadelich returning to Harrisburg for the performances, and then concludes with one of the great Romantic symphonies from the late-19th Century.

The concerts are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum in Harrisburg. The pre-concert talks with Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge begin an hour before each performance.

You can read more about the Lalo and listen to clips of the Symphonie espagnole as well as some performances by Augustin Hadelich in this earlier post.

(Incidentally, the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra will be giving their Winter Concert on Monday, February 23rd at 7pm at the Forum, with a performance of the complete "New World Symphony" by Antonin Dvořák. You can read David Dunkle's article for the Carlisle Sentinel, here.)
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Cesar Franck at the Organ, 1885
Like Lalo, César Franck's reputation in the concert hall is based on only a few works, his only symphony, one of the great “war-horses” of the repertoire, the Violin Sonata, and the Symphonic Variations for Piano & Orchestra. It might be surprising to realize these were all written in a span of three years, between 1885 and 1888. Considering he died in 1890, it's almost as if, once he had achieved success, his career, barely begun, was cut short at the age of 67.

Franck's Symphony in D Minor is one of those works that is easy to play badly. I have heard more performances where I was convinced the conductor thought it should be nicknamed “La turgide” or “Le tedieuse” (which are not French for turgid or tedious)... It's not just the tempos – the famous 2nd movement is not a true slow movement: it's marked Allegretto, a moderate tempo – but also understanding where his harmony is headed, often converted into a mass of directionless chords with no tension to resolve, merely spinning to fill time. It can make a world of difference.

So, I was happy to find this recording on YouTube with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. I hope it will give you a more positive feeling about Franck's symphony than the one I've grown up with...

(The 2nd movement begins at 17:09, the finale at 27:06.)

This is a three-movement symphony – not the usual four-movement format – where the middle movement takes on the roles of both slow movement and scherzo. There's nothing particularly “jocular” about Franck's scherzo section (as indeed, some of Brahms' scherzos are more laid-back intermezzos) but it gives you the necessary contrast between the dramatic first movement and the triumphant third.

English Horn (left), Oboe (right)
The most famous complaint against the symphony at its premiere – it was not well received – was its use of the English horn (an alto oboe, basically), a voice perfectly suited to the range and mood of the 2nd movement's main theme (listen to the clip above, beginning after 17:09). Traditionalists, even in 1888, were shocked – shocked, I say – at its appearance in the orchestra. Symphonies didn't have English horns in them!

Others were uncomfortable with Franck's melodic and harmonic language, very chromatic in a dark and slithering way. Where most tunes are built on a mixture of step-wise and triadic motion, Franck's often creep up or down half-step by half-step, as if the melody unwinds rather than unfolds, coiled around close but often remote-sounding harmonic motion.

You may also hear people talking about its “cyclical” form which has nothing to do with slowly-spinning harmonies. Basically, this refers to themes from previous movements being restated in the last movement. While most of Franck's themes germinate from similar sounding motives – the very opening reminds people of the questioning motive of Beethoven's last quartet, “Must it be?” – in the manner of Franz Liszt's “thematic transformation” (particularly in his tone-poem, Les preludes). But Beethoven had brought back previous themes in last movements (most famously to open the 5th Symphony and, with a different approach, in the finale of his 9th), something Anton Bruckner, another organist-composer, was doing in his latest symphonies (he had completed his 8th by 1887 but it wasn't performed until 1892).

When I mentioned to Stuart Malina last year that I've never been fond of the Franck, he immediately responded with his usual enthusiasm that he has always loved the piece. Given his ability to communicate that sense to his audience, I'm looking forward to his changing my mind.

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Young Cesar Franck
If Edouard Lalo's first lasting success came when he was 50, Cesar Franck was also something of a late-bloomer, though not for lack of trying.

Not quite 7 weeks older than Lalo, Franck was born in Liege, Belgium (then part of the “United Netherlands”) and following his first concerts there at the age of 12, his father was intent on turning his boy into a child prodigy along the lines of Mozart. The subsequent assault on Parisian audiences went unnoticed by the press but he stayed to begin his son's studies with those who taught the likes of Berlioz, Liszt and Gounod.

Had his father hoped for great things from his son? After all, he had named him “César-Auguste” and what child would want to go through life with the name “Caesar Augustus,” something the critics were quick to pounce on.

Young Franck produced a prodigious amount of music, most of it overlooked, but the disaster of his oratorio Ruth in 1846 prompted him to focus more on becoming an organist and teacher rather than a composer or concert pianist. That and his interest in marrying a woman his father thought “unsuitable” led to a bitter break with his family when he was 23 – and to the composer dropping the imperious “Auguste”...

As an organist and a practical-minded choir director, he sometimes supplied a number of pieces the position required out of necessity. In 1872, he composed the Panis angelicus which is still frequently performed and recorded. Franck would turn 50 that year.

His talent for improvisation led to a more serious attempt at resuming his latent compositional interests. One might say he was a composer who had an Early Period and a Late Period but no Middle Period. Eventually, when he was appointed the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, his organ class became an unofficial composition seminar that year, especially with his newly arrived student, Vincent d'Indy.

Franck then completed an oratorio, Redemption, which, badly performed, was a flop, leading to bitter disappointment. He would later revise it but this version wasn't performed until six years after the composer's death by which time, perversely, it was hailed as a great success!

But he continued to compose – his constantly evolving harmonic language especially inspired by having heard the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He wrote a considerable number of organ works but also some large-scale choral works like Les béatitudes (already begun in 1869) which he completed in 1879. His Piano Quintet, which he'd already been working on at the same time, was eventually premiered in 1880 with none other than Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano.

Unfortunately, they were stylistic opposites, Saint-Saëns the conservative and Franck among the Liszt-inspired avant-garde. Though he played brilliantly, Saint-Saëns made no secret of his dislike of the work: when Franck handed him the score with a dedication to him, one story goes, Saint-Saëns left it behind in the dressing room. Another story indicates Saint-Saëns sight-read the piece at the concert and became visibly more uncomfortable with the music as it went on (and it is over a half-hour long). He then stormed off the stage, ignoring the applause and the composer's effusive thanks for a “brilliant performance.” The work was certainly “ultra-expressive” emotionally and so harmonically advanced, people said it would make them blush to hear such “erotic” music coming from a church's organ loft.

Still, he persevered. In 1886, he composed two works – the Violin Sonata in A Major (one of his most successful peices) and an openly sensuous orchestral tone-poem, Psyché (as in the myth, “Cupid and Psyche”). A festival of his latest works the next year was jointly conducted by the composer (not a terribly effective conductor) and the unsympathetic Jules Pasdeloup, one of the leading conductors in Paris, yet the composer seemed to be the only one involved who was not embarrassed by the performances.

Then he began sketching what would become his first symphony and another opera. By this time, he was... 65!

As it turned out, it would be his only symphony.

At the time, his career as a performer was on the rise: in addition to weekly improvisation concerts at his church, he was now becoming recognized, once again, as a concert pianist. Psyché was revived and successfully received. He was working on a number of works for organ and had a cello sonata on the back burner.

As the story goes, he was on his way to give a lesson in the summer of 1890 when he was hit by a bus. That's not quite accurate as he was in a horse-drawn cab which was hit by a horse-drawn trolley, but most people seem to think he was run over by or at least knocked down by this trolley. He received enough of an injury that he had a fainting spell but still proceeded to his student's house. Later, walking became painful and there were other health issues that forced him to cancel lessons or going to concerts. In the fall, he resumed his Conservatory schedule but soon caught a cold which developed into pleurisy and pericarditis, whether or not his immune system (as we would call it today) had already been weakened by the after-effects of his accident. He died, then, a month and two days before his 68th birthday.

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There has always been a cultural antagonism between France and Germany (or rather, the German-speaking lands united by language if not by politics), visible during the Baroque era in the keyboard pieces of Rameau and Couperin compared to the works of Bach and which continued through the Classical and Romantic eras.

German music was generally considered more technical in terms of form, harmony and, especially, counterpoint and in general was considered to be more abstract and intellectual. The French viewed their music (if not their art in general) as more entertainment, more sensual (as in, oriented toward the senses) and more involved with surface appeal than integral structure (for instance, one of the hallmarks of the French Baroque, the detailed intricacy of melodic ornamentation).

These are, of course, generalities. Even more of a generalization would be comparing German (especially Prussian) punctuality (what was I reading lately where a German character was apologizing profusely for being a few minutes late?) to a certain French laissez faire vagueness. This might be more evident in French impressionism versus German abstraction or, musically, in the so-called impressionistic music of Debussy compared to the atonality and serialism of Schoenberg. The symphony, by nature, was German and the French had very little interest in its structural complexities: most French symphonies would be more like Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, barely a symphony at all by Germanic standards (compared to Mendelssohn) or the sprawling literary canvases of his Romeo et Juliette or of the cosmopolitan Franz Liszt's based on Dante and Faust.

In fact, between the time Robert Schumann wrote his last completed symphony, the Rhenish, and Brahms finally completed his 1st, there are no major symphonies in the repertoire written between 1850 and 1876, not counting early symphonies by Bruckner or Tchaikovsky or those by composers rarely heard on modern orchestral programs like Raff or Berwald. 

In France, there are no symphonies of any consequence between Berlioz writing in the 1830s and Saint-Saëns' 3rd Symphony (the “Organ” Symphony) of 1886. There are, however, two “symphonies” by Frenchmen to be mentioned – Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole which is really a violin concerto (and which is on the first half of this weekend's concert) written in 1873 and the Symphony on a French Mountain Air by Franck's pupil Vincent D'Indy which is a work for piano and orchestra (if not technically a concerto) based on French folk songs which dates from 1887.

Saint-Saëns was considered a reactionary composer in his day who, because of his interest in Germanic forms like the symphony, was often referred to as “the French Beethoven.” In France, this was not necessarily considered a compliment.

Then, in 1888, César Franck completed his Symphony in D Minor – three years after Brahms completed his 4th, the same year Tchaikovsky wrote his 5th, a young conductor named Gustav Mahler completed his 1st and a year before Antonin Dvořák wrote his 8th. For the French, Franck was too much influenced by the harmonies of Richard Wagner (who died in 1883) and Franz Liszt (who died in 1886) on the one hand and his expansion of classical structure inherited from Beethoven on the other.

Just for chronology's sake, I'll close by mentioning that four years after Franck died, a Frenchman named Claude Debussy composed his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the first major works in the new school known as “impressionism” with its vague sense of harmony and its thoroughly French view of the beautiful surface.

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Despite its tepid reception except from his supporters, Franck wrote to a friend immediately after its premiere, “What a lovely sound it makes! And what a splendid reception it had!”

When another friend asked him, considering the opening's similarity to Beethoven's “Must it be?” motive and the triumphant ending, if the symphony had been inspired by some literary work or dramatic idea (as many mid-19th Century symphonies would have been). He replied “No, it is just music, nothing but pure music. At the same time, while composing the allegretto, especially the first phrases of it, I did think – oh, so vaguely – of a procession in the olden times.”

Then he added, “I have been very daring, I know; but you wait till next time, I shall go much farther in daring then!”

Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to have a next time...

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Violinist Augustin Hadelich Returns to Harrisburg

If you've heard Augustin Hadelich play Mozart and Beethoven concertos with us in seasons past, you'll already know this weekend's performances are not to be missed. This visit, he'll be playing an old favorite, the “Symphonie espganole” by Edouard Lalo. Also on the program, the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez and, on the second half, the great Symphony in D Minor by César Franck.

The concerts are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

If you haven't heard Hadelich before, then here are a few videos to get you up to speed, thanks to YouTube: first, a general introduction in which he's playing bits of Paganini's Violin Concerto in D as well as the Lalo Symphonie espagnole and Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”); the second clip promotes a recent recording released last March of the violin concertos by Jean Sibelius and Thomas Adès.
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Hadelich was born in Italy of German parents though he became an American citizen this past September (you can read about his playing “America the Beautiful” at his naturalization ceremony, here).

So it's appropriate he's playing a French composer's “Spanish Symphony” that's really a violin concerto.

Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole hardly needs any expert analysis to explain the work to its audience (actually, I don't think any music needs expert analysis to explain it to its audience though some background material might be informative enough to enhance the experience of hearing it).

And it hardly needs any more an endorsement than the comment made by composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, writing to his friend and patron, Mme. von Meck, about the piece when it was still “new music” and then knowing the influence it had on him:

“Do you know the Symphonie Espagnole by the French composer Lalo? The piece has been recently brought out by that very modern violinist, Sarasate. It is for solo violin and orchestra, and consists of five independent movements, based upon Spanish folk songs. The work has
given me great enjoyment. It is so fresh and light, and contains piquant rhythms and melodies which are beautifully harmonized.... Lalo is careful to avoid all that is [routine], seeks new forms without trying to be profound, and is more concerned with musical beauty than with traditions.”

He had come across the piece while recuperating in Switzerland when his friend and former student, Josef Kotek, a violinist, returned from a trip to Berlin with an armload of new scores, including this piece by Lalo which had been premiered three years earlier. Tchaikovsky played through the piece with Kotek and was so delighted, he decided to put aside the piano sonata he was composing and start a brand new work, a violin concerto which he finished in less than a month.

If you're not already familiar with this very popular concerto, here are its five different movements played by five different performers.

1st Mvmt, Allegro non troppo - Anne Akiko Meyers, NHK Orchestra of Tokyo, Marek Janowski –

2nd Mvmt, Scherzando – Zino Francescatti, New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropolos –

3rd Mvmt, Intermezzo (which is sometimes omitted from performances or recordings, for some reason) – Henryk Szeryng, Monte Carlo Philharmonic, Edouard van Remoortel –

4th Mvmt, Andante – Itzhak Perlman, L'Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim – (please ignore the illustrations which, other than being by the Spanish painter, Goya, have nothing to do with the music and may prove disconcerting....)
(with the most obvious inspirations for Tchaikovsky's concerto)

5th Mvmt, Rondo, Allegro – David Oistrakh (1955), Philharmonia Orchestra, Jean Martinon –

There's an old joke that some of the best Spanish music is by French composers – pointing to Ravel who wrote his Bolero on a Spanish dance and his even more Spanish-flavored Rapsodie espagnole among other pieces; Debussy's Iberia, George Bizet's Carmen, and of course Lalo's Symphonie espagnole

One could argue the blood lineage for Ravel, whose mother was Basque, and for Lalo, whose family originated in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of what is now Belgium) in the 16th Century, descended from Spaniards who lived there during a particularly low period in the Low Countries' history when Belgium and Holland were called “The Spanish Netherlands.” It appears, according to Lalo's son, that their Spanish heritage was reinforced by several of the men marrying women from Spain, though none of the general biographical references I can find about Lalo even mention his mother...

He was born in Lille in the northernmost part of France, close to the Belgian border, his father a military man who had fought under Napoleon. Though Lalo's musical interests were at first encouraged – he studied violin and cello at the conservatory in Lille – when he wanted to pursue it as a career, his father put his militaristic foot down and so young Edouard, at the age of 16, ran off to Paris to pursue his dream!

It was also for the great Spanish violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, that Lalo wrote this symphony-concerto, and it was probably more a bow to Sarasate's nationality than it was an out-pouring of the composer's ethnic roots.

If anything, this work is less a symphony, at least as we think of it, but in France during much of the 19th Century, the symphony as a form was unpopular, especially after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Between Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique (by no means a typical symphony even for the 1830s) and 1873 when Sarasate premiered Lalo's latest work, there were few symphonies by any French composers in the repertoire.

I'll get more into that with the one and only Symphony by Cesar Franck which concludes this concert program.

Lalo initially pursued a career as a performing musician, playing in orchestras (some conducted by Berlioz) and forming a string quartet, playing the viola, then later the 2nd violin, which through the 1850s championed forgotten or unknown works (at least in France) of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. During this time, he composed his own string quartet as well as two piano trios (a medium long neglected in France), plus two symphonies which he apparently destroyed. All of this looks more to German influences than French and it may go a great way to explain why he was also completely overlooked as a composer.

Discouragement was increased in 1866 when (now 43) he composed an opera for a competition that not only failed to win the prize but, despite some interest in Paris and Brussels, was never performed. Not surprisingly, bits of this opera showed up in at least five works later on.

Following the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War which brought down the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III, the French government pumped money into the national arts scene, hoping to revive interest in French art (music, theater, and dance especially), similar to an organization that supported painters a decade earlier. This had a major impact on Lalo despite his being considered “too Germanic” as a composer.

His first real success, then, was a Violin Concerto in F Major which was played by Pablo de Sarasate who liked it enough to request another work which became the Symphonie espagnole and not the Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. It became an immediate success – and there's not a bit of Germanness in it from beginning to end. It remains his most frequently performed work.

Curiously, there were two other works for violin and orchestra that tried to ride the Symphonie's coat-tails – a Fantasie norvegienne of 1878 (later adapted as an orchestral Rhapsodie norvegienne) and, the following year, the Concert russe or Russian Concerto. Like many sequels, these fell flat at the box office.

Incidentally, once Camille Saint-Saëns began producing symphonies in Paris, Lalo once more tried his hand at a real symphony in the symphonic tradition in 1886. And that brings us to Cesar Franck and his Symphony in D Minor. You can listen to a complete performance of the symphony and find out more about its biographical background in this second post, here.

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But first, a bit of an encore from violinist Augustin Hadelich. Here are video clips of him performing a work by the violinist Pablo de Sarasate based on “Gypsy Airs,” known in German as Zigeunerweisen with pianist Akira Eguchi.

and while we're at it, why not another encore – the 24th of Nicolo Paganini's 24 Caprices for solo violin.

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A historical footnote.

Harrisburg Symphony, November 1931
Lalo's Symphonie espagnole was first played by the Harrisburg Symphony at its second concert ever – in November, 1931, conducted by George King Raudenbush. This photograph is the oldest known photo of the Harrisburg Symphony which gave its first concert on March 19th, 1931.

Sadah Shuchari, 1928
The soloist was Sadah Shuchari and though I can't tell you too much about her, her real name was Sadie Schwarz, she was born in 1908 in Connecticut, and she graduated from Juilliard. In 1928, she made a recording for the Victor company of Glazunov's Mélodie arabe and Kreisler's Sicilienne and Rigoudon with piano accompaniment. There's a New York Times review (which I can no longer access) of a 1931 performance, a month before her Harrisburg appearance, in which she performed Wieniawski (I'm assuming the 2nd concerto).

Though I can't locate it now, I recall reading her performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto with no less than the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem Mengleberg in 1928 after she was awarded the Schubert Centennial Prize was essentially more than she could handle (but she was, at the time, a 19-year-old student). A Penn State newsletter includes a listing for a recital there which, when I checked the date, must've been when she was 12 years old. Later, she would go on to teach and perform in Dallas.

Okay, and now, on to Cesar Franck. (To be continued...)

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mozart's Cold Weather & Mendelssohn's Sunny Italy

Vienna's Mozart Monument - in the snow...
This weekend's Masterworks Concert features Stuart Malina playing Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor (K.466) and Bohuslav Martinů's Sinfonietta La Jolla - you can read more about both of these works in the previous post - as well as conducting the Italian Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn on the second half - tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 3pm. Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge will assist by conducting the Martinů. Dick Strawser offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.
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So you think it's cold, now?

When Mozart finished writing the D Minor Piano Concerto Stuart Malina both plays and conducts this weekend, “Vienna suffered a cold spell that lasted until the beginning of March, with heavy snowfall and temperatures so low that several people froze to death.”

Farm Show Weather aside – and that usually meant nasty amounts of snow in years past – a high barely 20° is one thing (at least Sunday's is expected to, if we're lucky, reach the Freezing Point), but the wind chills we've been experiencing across much of the country bring to mind that meteorological villain from last year, Paula Vortex...

While I'm not sure if musicologists have studied the impact of Central Heating on Concert Halls in late-18th Century Vienna, Volkmar Braunbehrens continues describing that cold February of 1785 in his book, “Mozart in Vienna”:

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“Despite the weather, Mozart's piano had to be taken out of the house to a concert every other day. ...In late March and early April there was again heavy snowfall, and Leopold Mozart [who was visiting his son at this busy time] contracted a severe cold. Yet attendance at the opera, theater, and [Masonic] lodge functions continued, all in miserable weather.”
– (Volkmar Braunbehrens: Mozart in Vienna (1781-1791). R. Piper, Munich, 1986. Timothy Bell, translator)
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Two friends shooting the freeze...
Knowing Mozart himself was dealing with bitter cold temperatures 230 years ago might not make us feel any better today, but certainly the music on this program should help warm us up as we head into the Forum or make the drive home. I rather doubt any carriage the Mozarts had access to back then was any warmer than a modern automobile.

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Mendelssohn was not only inspired by his visit to sunny Italy in 1830 to write what became his 4th Symphony – for once, the nickname “Italian,” so obvious, was given to it by the composer – much of it was composed while he was there.

That summer, Mendelssohn had begun another long, leisurely tour comparable to his trip that took him to England and Scotland the year before, where he'd stood in Mary Queen of Scot's chapel in Edinburgh and wrote down a theme that eventually found its way into his “Scottish” Symphony and where he experienced an enormous cave off the coast of the Hebrides where he wrote a letter home and added a theme that soon became the opening of Fingal's Cave.

Returning to the Continent, he was already at work on a new symphony – the one, however, that would become known as the “Reformation.”

After stopping in Weimar to visit Goethe, the 21-year-old composer left Munich where he composed his 1st Piano Concerto and then, by way of Milan where he met Mozart's son Karl who was a diplomat living there (and whose friends had very low opinions of Shakespeare's comedies, the lowest reserved for A Midsummer Night's Dream), arrived in Venice in early October. He went to Bologna and Florence with the idea of spending the winter in Rome where he arrived at the beginning of November.

View of the Cathedral of Florence, late October, watercolor by Felix Mendelssohn

“Like all fugitives from the dank north,” according to George Marek's biography, Gentle Genius: the Story of Felix Mendelssohn, “he marveled at the blue skies of Tuscany, the wealth of flowers still blooming, the opulence of the villas and palaces.”

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(...in this YouTube posting, chosen more for the images than anything else, the name of the conductor is not mentioned: it appears to be the Budapest Philharmonic and, if you follow enough links, a recording conducted by Rico Saccani)
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Once settled in Rome, he wrote home about his “small, two-window house on the Spanish Steps, No. 5. The sun shines warmly the whole day long. In my room on the first floor there is a good Viennese piano. ...When in the morning I come into this room and the sun sparkles brightly on my breakfast (in me a poet was lost), I feel wonderful at once. Is it not late autumn? Who at home would dare to ask for warm, clear skies, grapes or flowers? After breakfast, I set to work, I play and sing and compose until midday. After that, the whole immeasurable Rome lies before me like an exercise in enjoyment.”

And it was here – then – that he began work on the greatest souvenir one could imagine from such a journey, his Symphony in A Major, the one called “The Italian Symphony.”

One of the things I'll mention in my pre-concert talk an hour before each performance will be another detail of his visit to Rome – how he met the young French composer, Hector Berlioz, who was revising his newest work, which, rather than being called “Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 14,” has always been known as the Symphonie fantastique.

This caricature of Berlioz was drawn in Rome, so at least it's a fairly representative view of that composer at the time he and Mendelssohn were sitting in the taverns drinking wine and sharing their views on Shakespeare and modern music. Some sources indicate the caricature is Mendelssohn's own, but others don't mention it, so I'm not really sure. Regardless of their aesthetic differences, they became good friends and Berlioz always championed Mendelssohn's music to the readers of his Paris newspaper and Mendelssohn frequently conducted Berlioz's music in Germany and London even though he professed to not understanding it.

Curiously, it took Mendelssohn a while to finish this symphony of his: while in Rome, he'd left the slow movement go, hoping to find some inspiration when he went even further south to visit Naples (which he did). But still, the work wasn't completed until he returned to Berlin, struggling with it until 1833. Though he conducted it several times, he never published it, meaning to revise it. He did re-work the first movement but always meant to get back to the rest of it. He never conducted it in Germany and in fact never published the work in his lifetime, always dissatisfied with it!

Odd, for a work so many music-lovers as well as critics find to be, in a word, “perfect.”

– Dick Strawser