Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Don's Deeds, Part 3: Meet Don Quixote!

Fiona Thompson
This month’s Masterworks Concert is called “The Don’s Deeds” and the Don in question is one of the most beloved literary characters ever created, Don Quixote. The musical setting is by Richard Strauss, a work that is often considered a cello concerto – well, it has a prominent and demanding solo part for the cello – and a tone poem, which means “music inspired by a story” or “telling a story in music.”

The Harrisburg Symphony’s principal cellist, Fiona Thompson, is the soloist in performances you can hear at the Forum on Saturday, April 14th at 8pm and Sunday, April 15th at 3pm.

The other day, conductor Stuart Malina and I had a chance to sit down and talk about this amazing – and challenging – work. 

You can hear our podcast about Don Quixote here.

You can hear our podcasts about the other two works on the program on earlier posts: for Khachaturian's Spartacus and for Copland's Billy the Kid.

Picasso's Don Quixote & Sancho Panza
Strauss completed it in 1898 and called it neither tone poem nor concerto but “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character – for Large Orchestra.” He doesn’t even mention “For Cello and Large Orchestra” because the idea, as Stuart points out in our conversation, is that the cello part was intended for the orchestra’s principal cellist, not a guest soloist as you’d usually have for a standard concerto. There are also prominent solo parts for the principal violist and the concertmaster.

This performance of the complete work – with guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma in a “standard concerto location” rather than the principal cellist sitting with the cello section; the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, performing at Carnegie Hall – is part of a PBS “Great Performance” presentation recorded live-in-concert and includes a prefatory interview with Yo-Yo Ma plus the backstage host Peter Jennings. The principal violist is Roberto Diáz. The music begins at 5:00 into the first clip.

Throughout the piece, the composer indicated certain “plot-elements” which are used here as “subtitles” for the broadcast. In our performance at the Forum, these will be projected as “supertitles” on a screen over the orchestra.

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Clip #1:

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In telling the story of Miguel de Cervantes’ knight, Strauss presents various musical ideas that help set the scene: “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant."

How do you describe this in music? Though the composer doesn’t specify what every musical phrase means – if it means anything at all – the opening phrase is so much like an invitation to listen to this musical tale, how can one resist?

Or, as it occurred to me at other times, the equivalent of “once upon a time” or even the gentleman Don Alonso Quijano settling down in his library to read some of his beloved books?”

Actually, considering the opening few notes becomes the Don’s Theme later on, I’m tempted to view this as the Don’s normal state: by the time we hear the solo cello playing a more aggressive version of this simple rhythmic motive, it is the mind of our gentleman, now unhinged!

Certainly, different musical ideas present themselves like some of the quotes from his favorite novels which Don Alonso likes to throw around.

These are novels about the great knights of chivalry, a golden age long past but which lives in these popular chivalric novels he loves to read. Is the long viola section’s melody at 6:10 one of those knight’s he’s reading about and the following oboe solo at 6:30 an image of that knight’s lady? And what about the sudden interruption of the brass at 7:09? Some danger? The knight prepares to rescue the damsel-in-distress and, judging from a courtly fanfare in the brass at 7:46, succeeding. This is interspersed with a violin solo – a character? the narrator? the idea of chivalry itself? Or is it the Don’s imagination taking fire as he sits back and lets all these thoughts take hold of him?

It doesn’t really matter – and is that only my interpretation, what the music “says” to me? – but you’ll notice, starting around 8:37, how these musical ideas (not really yet themes) start to tumble over one another, just as the Don’s mind switches freely from memories of this favorite novel to that one, as Cervantes describes the scene in the opening pages of his tale.

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Clip #2:

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It isn’t until the second clip that we actually get to hear the solo cello. But first, there’s a very important version of Quixote’s motive – at 0:34 in the brass – which will figure very prominently throughout the piece – already changing at 1:19 to a new major-chord resolution at 1:30; then, after another wild and complex tumult, once more at 1:45 increasing into a long tense dissonance that – at 2:17 – is left hanging, opening the way for the solo cello’s entrance. Perhaps this use of the Don’s Theme might be specifically attached to his idea of chivalry? Certainly, when it appears this way, it always seems to be a significant “idea.”

Don Quixote has arrived, playing his “theme of knightly character.”

Notice that it sounds militant and determined. Yet this is the same motive that so graciously opened the first measure of the music (clip #1, 5:00)

Cervantes (1547-1616)
In Cervantes’ story, the gentleman (whose real identity is only hinted at) loses his mind from reading all these fanciful tales of knights-in-shining-armor rescuing damsels-in-distress while fighting against evil (usually in the form of enchanters) that he determines this is the life for him: he will become a knight-errant (that is, a wandering knight) with its complete code of ethics and conduct. He will become, in fact, Don Quixote of La Mancha. For lack of a better steed, he will take his old nag Rocinante and ride forth with a largely improvised suit of armor (the first helmet is so flimsy it breaks; the second one was “taped” together in such a way, he couldn’t take it off, even to eat). And every knight has a lady, one he dedicates himself and all his quests to. He remembers a beautiful girl in neighboring Toboso and he will call her Dulcinea (from the word “dulce” or sweet).

Incidentally, we think of Don Quixote as a crazy old man – tall, skinny (scrawny, even), a long thin beard as Cervantes describes him – but I hesitate to point out Cervantes also says on page 1, “our gentleman is approaching 50 years of age.” (Uhm, well… okay, then…)

So, does that mean this whole story is what we’d call a Mid-Life Crisis?

Now, there’s a problem because he hasn’t been officially knighted. In his first foray into the world, he finds a castle (actually, a decrepit country inn) where the lord of the castle (actually, the inn-keeper) and two beauteous ladies of the court (more like “of ill repute”) whom he asks to hold the ceremony that will make him officially a knight. The inn-keeper/lord dubs him “Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”

by Gustav Doré

 Officially, he didn’t meet Sancho Panza until his second outing. Sancho is a neighbor of his, a poor man as squat and round as Quixote is tall and gaunt (in fact, Panza means ‘paunch’). He is portrayed by the principal violist and there’s a rather jaunty, comical (even cartoon-like) melody associated with him that is usually heard in the tenor-tuba and/or bass clarinet (at 3:29) which serves to introduce the Sancho himself (perhaps the tuba tune epresents his equally faithful but unlikely donkey? Certainly, Don Quixote had misgiving about accepting Sancho as a squire because he could recall no knight in the literature who had a squire who rode a donkey). Anyway, one thing about Sancho, asides from his unending faith in his master, he loves to chatter away.

At 4:37, the first variation begins: Don Quixote and Sancho ride off in search of adventure. At 5:00, we hear a theme in the violins that could be his image of the beautiful and mysterious lady to whom he dedicates his quest, Dulcinea.

Their first encounter with evil involves giants (by 5:00, the cello has been whipping that militant-sounding motive into an increasing frenzy) though Sancho, ever the realist, sees only a bunch of windmills on the hillside.

by Gustav Doré
Just then, a gust of wind set the windmill’s arms in motion and Quixote, “commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, asking that she come to his aid at this critical moment, and well protected by his shield, with his lance in its socket, charged at Rocinante’s full gallop and attacked the first mill he came to; and as he thrust his lance into the sail, the win moved it with so much force that it broke the lance into pieces and picked up the horse and the knight, who then dropped to the ground and were very badly battered.”

Strauss depicts this (5:54-6:02) in an upward rush in the cello, a quick downward glissando in the harps and a thud in the bass drum, all the while slow moving woodwinds reflect the slow, stately inevitability of the windmills’ turning arms. Notice how, in the subsequent moments, the solo cello slowly pulls himself back together.

After dusting himself off, Quixote continues his adventures as (beginning with the 2nd variation at 7:20) he sees an army approaching. But, Sancho points out, it’s merely a herd of sheep. Nonsense, the Don is convinced: “do you not hear the neighing of horses, the sound of the drums?” The only thing Sancho Panza hears is the bleating of sheep.

“It is your fear,” Quixote tells him, “that keeps you from seeing or hearing properly, because one of the effects of fear is to cloud the senses and make things appear other than they are.”

Then he fixes his lance and rides off down the hill like a flash of lightening. Sancho calls after him, “Your grace, come back – I swear to God you’re charging sheep!”

What do you hear at 7:41? Neighing of horses and the beat of drums? Or… sheep?

In one of the works most cinematographic sequences, Strauss incorporates various “new” techniques for the brass players to represent the bleating of the sheep.

Strauss in 1904
Though many of Strauss’ first listeners found this passage “offensive,” how could they not see the humor in it, especially as the sheep scattered once Don Quixote and his horse (c.8:23) were charging amongst them?

This is like a film score without the film – you can enjoy the music purely as music (though what the heck is all that noise in the brass all about?) or you can imagine the scene Strauss suggests. Is it carrying “realism” too far?

At 9:00, the third variation begins which is one of those conversations between the Don and his squire in which Sancho questions his master about various things and the knight lectures him about the chivalric life and its code of honor. Notice how Sancho’s blustering viola outbursts (9:25, 9:37, 9:49) are answered by the solo violin (not a character, here: perhaps the narrator? Or maybe just a nice violin solo?) and gradually calm down – is he accepting the chivalric argument? Keep in mind, to a poor peasant, chivalry is more than a long dead life-style – even as a romantic concept, it has no relevance to his own experience.

In the 3rd Video Clip, this discussion continues

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Clip #3

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with an eloquent rebuttal by the solo cello and an on-going conversation with all three solo strings – concertmaster, principal violist and the cellist. Sancho certainly becomes more eloquent than we’ve heard him before (c.1:03 through 2:39). Again, notice that chivalric setting of the motive in the brass beginning dramatically at 2:46 before resolving beautifully into the major tonality at 3:04: Quixote rhapsodizing over the ideals of chivalry? And the appearance of the oboe theme (6:37) could be a reminder of his idealized lady, Dulcinea, followed (at 6:50) by the tenor tuba’s version of Sancho Panza’s donkey, a bit of every-day reality. It again ends with that chivalric version of the Don’s Motive.

Obviously, mid-life crisis or not, he’s quite passionate about it, even if we think he’s a bit off his rocker.

In the next variation (No. 4) – preceded by a Sanchian outburst (8:00) started by the bass clarinet – we are back on the road where Don Quixote and Sancho meet a band of penitents (pilgrims) singing a plaintive chant (8:40 – oh, nice pun, Strawser) who are carrying an icon which the Don mistakes for an abducted maiden. Don Quixote de la Mancha to the rescue!

The next variation (at the start of Video Clip #4) is one of the many vigils in Cervantes’ story. Knights are always holding night-time vigils over their armor. In this one, while Sancho the squire sleeps near-by, Don Quixote dreams of his distant Dulcinea, a long meditation for solo cello.

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Clip #4

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At 2:16 & 2:50, the harp glissandos probably represent his vision of Dulcinea (remember those wavy shots used in old movies to initiate flash-backs?). Certainly, it’s one of the most sublime and most human moments in the entire story, so far.

Something happens in Cervantes’ novel around this point in Strauss' music. Aside from the fact that Cervantes published Part One in 1605 and Part Two ten years later, after the first volume had proven such a success (also to avoid losing out to other writers producing their own sequels). While the first is primarily comical – even farcical – the second part is more mature and wiser, in a sense (Cervantes was 57 when he completed the first part; when he published Part Two, he is now 68), dealing more philosophically with, for instance, the importance of deception and an awareness of reality.

In Part Two, Sancho is pressured into finding Dulcinea and (at 4:43) brings back three dirty peasant girls, telling his master they are Dulcinea and her ladies-in-waiting transformed by some odious enchanter. (It was, after all, the most common explanation Quixote used for his own misconceptions about windmills, sheep and otherwise harmless monks. But this time, the Don sees only peasant girls. Notice the collision at 5:23 of Sancho’s solos with the dance-music and tambourines of the peasant girls (along with other motives).

This leads into the next variation at 6:06, the “Hoax of the Flying Horse.” The Don and Sancho are placed on wooden horses and blindfolded, made to believe they are riding through the air. The music, even including a “wind machine” (usually a cylindrical drum with slats rubbing against a fabric covering when turned by a handle) – it’s that green thing on the right at 6:32 – which gives a realistic description of something so unrealistic, complete with whooshing woodwinds and a soaring version of the theme.

But speaking of deceptions (this is one of many pranks played on the hapless pair), listen to the rumbling basses and long sustained trombone chords which represents the ground they never leave.

At 7:15, the imaginary mode of transportation changes from flying horses to a magic boat. As it gets more tempestuous, they eventually capsize (c.8:05). Are the plucked strings starting at 8:22 drops of water dripping off them as they clamber onto shore? Well, maybe…

But at 8:38, that passage in the flutes and clarinets is a transformation of the chivalric version of the Don’s theme, no?

The next variation (starting c.9:00) is Don Quixote’s encounter with two monks whom he sees as sorcerers. At 9:16, we meet two bassoonists sounding very monk-like but who are rudely interrupted by a bad edit and continued in Video Clip #5,

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Clip #5

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where they are then attacked by the Don. In this case, rather than being a soloist, the cellist is the principal of the cello section (as often happens). /// The last variation begins immediately (0:10). Poor Don Quixote, bruised but never beaten, has now been challenged by the mysterious Knight of the White Moon (who in reality is his neighbor) and in the military fanfares (0:20) that intrude on the Chivalric Motive, Quixote who after one last stand, alone on one note (0:42), is quickly defeated.

In all of these encounters, Quixote always loses – more errant knight than knight-errant, he is constantly knocked off his horse by windmills, by shepherds, even by monks. This time, there are terms to the contest: if he loses, Quixote must return to his home and give up his knightly career.

At 1:00, over the pounding of drums and an intense climax, the dejected Quixote is led away by Sancho Panza (2:12) and returns home.

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Clip #6

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In a miraculous moment – the ending of Clip #5 and the start of the last clip – Don Quixote regains his sanity and (at 3:22) would appear to be back to normal with the return of the very opening’s original “once-upon-a-time” music. However, he is losing his strength and after a beatific passage (beginning at 4:40) quietly loses his last battle (at 6:12).

It is this ending – both in Cervantes’ original and in Strauss musical condensation of it – that raises the character from being a comic figure (in fact, the epitome of "the loser") to being, perhaps, Everyman, anybody who has ever fought against the status quo, fought for a deeply held ideal, wished to create a better world but was always met (and overpowered) by reality. We laugh at the situations he ends up in, shake our heads in disbelief (I mean, he really is a menace to society) not only at each outcome but at the fact he picks himself and keeps on going. But it is this ending where most of us will probably nod in recognition, if not for ourselves for others we might know.

In the story, one last bit of realistic awareness: Don Quixote, now restored to being Don Alonso Quijano, left everything in his will to his niece on one condition: that she never marry a man who reads chivalric romances…

Dick Strawser

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Aside from the illustrations by Gustav Doré (Don Quixote & Sancho Panza; Attacking the Windmill) from 1863, the iconic portrait by Pablo Picasso dates from 1955. The strange and rather evil-looking photograph of composer Richard Strauss was taken in 1904 (seven years after Don Quixote and a year before he shocked everybody with his opera Salome) by Edward Steichen.

It is also interesting to note that Miguel de Cervantes died a day before William Shakespeare.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Don's Deeds, Part 2: Billy the Kid

Aaron Copland
This month’s Masterworks Concerts may be called “The Don’s Deeds,” focusing on Richard Strauss’ tone poem inspired by Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote but two other works were inspired by real people: the slave Spartacus and the legendary Wild West outlaw, Billy the Kid.

The concerts are April 14th at 8pm and April 15th at 3pm at the Forum with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony. Principal cellist Fiona Thompson is the soloist in Strauss’s Don Quixote. I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. 

Stuart and I sat down to talk about the music on this program the other day. Here’s our podcast for our conversation about the Suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet, Billy the Kid, one of three ballets by Copland that helped define the American Sound.

(You can read more about Spartacus here – and about Don Quixote here.)

Photograph of Billy the Kid
The music one usually hears in the concert hall is the orchestral suite that Copland arranged from the complete ballet, compromising several scenes that serves as a kind of condensed version of the ballet’s scenario. It opens with the image of pioneers crossing the broad prairies (much as Billy did as a child, his mother leaving the slums of New York City behind to find a new life, eventually, in New Mexico), then, during a street scene, Billy’s mother is accidentally shot (Billy kills the murderer and runs off: his life of crime has begun and with it, his legend).

In the next scene, “The Prairie at Night” (the desert might be more appropriate), Billy, now older and already well-known as an outlaw, is playing cards with Pat Garrett (he would become the local sheriff but there was never any proof that Garrett and The Kid were actually ever friends). In another scene, Billy is arrested by a posse which includes the famous “shoot-out” scene, depicted in rhythmic gun-fire in the percussion and brass. Billy is captured – the townspeople celebrate – but he later escapes, only to be killed by Pat Garrett. The final scene takes us back to the stark opening music of the prairie.

Here’s a “video” of the complete orchestral suite in three clips with Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops.

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Orchestral Suite: Part 1 – the Open Prairie – Street in a Frontier Town
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Part 2 – Prairie Night & Gunfight
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Part 3 – Celebration of Billy’s capture – Billy’s Death – The Open Prairie
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Aaron Copland was approached by Lincoln Kirstein to write a ballet on an American story, something not too complicated that his travelling dance company, the Ballet Caravan, could take on the road. He gave Copland a scenario based on the life of the legendary outlaw, Billy the Kid, and a volume of Old West folk songs. Copland was not enthusiastic and probably would have declined the project except some of the tunes began to grow on him.

In the early-1930s, Copland – born in 1900 and after studying in Paris during the ‘20s with Nadia Boulanger – was writing works that had difficulty finding both performers and audience. After his “Short Symphony,” completed in 1933, he decided – perhaps naturally headed toward what most musicologists refer to as a more mature composer’s “middle period” – his style needed reconsidering. The problem was finding how to do this without just pandering to popular taste.

His music was becoming perhaps too complex (in both rhythm and texture) and he started examining the music he liked, beginning with the classics. He thought “an ideal music” could combine Mozart’s “spontaneity and refinement” with Palestrina’s “purity” (particularly in its textures) and Bach’s “profundity.” Among his contemporaries, Stravinsky was his hero but he also found energy in jazz even though his 1926 Piano Concerto wasn’t as successful as its most obvious influence, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” written two years earlier.

After a trip to Mexico, he created a “musical post card” of his visit to a famous saloon (where, he said, signs warned patrons not to through cigarette butts on the floor as many of the woman walked barefoot), employing several popular songs of the region that would give the music “authentic local color.” This was his El Salon Mexico which he wrote in 1936.

The following year, he wrote a piece he called “Music for Radio,” about as generic and abstract a title as one could imagine. The good radio people decided it needed a spicier title (always about ratings) so they held a contest to find a better name. The winner heard the music of the wide-open prairies in it and suggested calling it “Saga of the Prairies.” Eventually, Copland chose to call it “Prairie Journal,” even though that was not his original intent.

Yet that sonority of open chords, often lacking the thirds that define major- or minor-ness and often moving in parallel or block harmonies, came to imply the “American Sound.”

In Billy the Kid, written the year after that, one could argue the inclusion of Old West songs like “The Ol’ Chisolm Trail,” “Get Along, Li’l Dogies,” and “Good-Bye, Ol’ Paint” (Copland said he almost used “Home on the Range” but “I had to draw the line somewhere…”) would be enough to give it an American sound, marking this ballet as American as Stravinsky’s Petrushka was Russian because of its use of several Russian folk songs (mostly unknown to American audiences, anyway).

Copland at MacDowell
At any rate, reluctant initially or not, Copland ended up creating one of his most enduring works and one of the first that would label him as a “truly American composer,” whatever that means. Ironically, the son of Russian immigrants (his father, a Lithuanian Jew, changed the family name from Kaplan to Copland while awaiting trans-Atlantic transportation to their new home) who grew up in Brooklyn is considered an “American” because of three “Western” ballets – in addition to Rodeo, the ballet originally called “Ballet for Martha” [Graham] and later rechristened Appalachian Spring might be the wilds of Pennsylvania in the early 19th Century (little did he know there were no Shakers in Pennsylvania to warrant including the tune “Simple Gifts,” one of the highlights of the score). It’s interesting to see the last page of the score of Billy the Kid, and realize, for all its western-isms, it was composed not while vacationing in Arizona but in Paris and New York and completed in December, 1938, at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough NH.

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For history buffs interested in the story of Billy the Kid – born William McCarty and later calling himself William Bonney – here is Pat Garrett’s own account of the death of an outlaw who captured the American imagination:

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I then concluded to go and have a talk with Peter Maxwell, Esq., in whom I felt sure I could rely. We had ridden to within a short distance of Maxwell's grounds when we found a man in camp and stopped. To Poe's great surprise, he recognized in the camper an old friend and former partner, in Texas, named Jacobs. We unsaddled here, got some coffee, and, on foot, entered an orchard which runs from this point down to a row of old buildings, some of them occupied by Mexicans, not more than sixty yards from Maxwell's house. We approached these houses cautiously, and when within earshot, heard the sound of voices conversing in Spanish. We concealed ourselves quickly and listened; but the distance was too great to hear words, or even distinguish voices. Soon a man arose from the ground, in full view, but too far away to recognize. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, a dark vest and pants, and was in his shirtsleeves. With a few words, which fell like a murmur on our ears, he went to the fence, jumped it, and walked down towards Maxwell's house.

Little as we then suspected it, this man was the Kid. We learned, subsequently, that, when he left his companions that night, he went to the house of a Mexican friend, pulled off his hat and boots, threw himself on a bed, and commenced reading a newspaper. He soon, however, hailed his friend, who was sleeping in the room, told him to get up and make some coffee, adding: 'Give me a butcher knife and I will go over to Pete's and get some beef; I'm hungry.' The Mexican arose, handed him the knife, and the Kid, hatless and in his stocking-feet, started to Maxwell's, which was but a few steps distant.

When the Kid, by me unrecognized, left the orchard, I motioned to my companions, and we cautiously retreated a short distance, and, to avoid the persons whom we had heard at the houses, took another route, approaching Maxwell's house from the opposite direction. When we reached the porch in front of the building, I left Poe and McKinney at the end of the porch, about twenty feet from the door of Pete's room, and went in. It was near midnight and Pete was in bed. I walked to the head of the bed and sat down on it, beside him, near the pillow. I asked him as to the whereabouts of the Kid. He said that the Kid had certainly been about, but he did not know whether he had left or not. At that moment a man sprang quickly into the door, looking back, and called twice in Spanish, 'Who comes there?' No one replied and he came on in. He was bareheaded. From his step I could perceive he was either barefooted or in his stocking-feet, and held a revolver in his right hand and a butcher knife in his left.

He came directly towards me. Before he reached the bed, I whispered: 'Who is it, Pete?' but received no reply for a moment. It struck me that it might be Pete's brother-in-law, Manuel Abreu, who had seen Poe and McKinney, and wanted to know their business. The intruder came close to me, leaned both hands on the bed, his right hand almost touching my knee, and asked, in a low tone: -'Who are they Pete?' -at the same instant Maxwell whispered to me. 'That's him!' Simultaneously the Kid must have seen, or felt, the presence of a third person at the head of the bed. He raised quickly his pistol, a self-cocker, within a foot of my breast. Retreating rapidly across the room he cried: 'Quien es? Quien es?' 'Who's that? Who's that?')

All this occurred in a moment. Quickly as possible I drew my revolver and fired, threw my body aside, and fired again. The second shot was useless; the Kid fell dead. He never spoke. A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath, and the Kid was with his many victims.
--- (Pat Garrett: The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882, republished 1954)
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- Dick Strawser

The Don's Deeds, Part 1: I'M Spartacus!

Aram Khachaturian
This month’s Masterworks Concert features “musical portraits” of three famous characters – two were actual “real” people and the other is one of the great literary creations of Western literature.

The concerts are Saturday, April 14th at 8pm and Sunday, April 15th at 3pm at the Forum.

Stuart Malina and I recently had a chance to chat about each of these pieces.

The program is called “The Don’s Deeds” for Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, but the two “living legends” are Billy the Kid, the famous American bad guy of the Wild West, and our first pod-cast topic, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, Spartacus.

You can listen to the "Spartacus" podcast here. (The other works will be covered in additional posts.)

As we talk about the role of “musical depiction” and whether one needs to understand the story or not, no – you don’t have to know Spartacus’ history to appreciate the music and you don’t even have to know the plot to enjoy the music Aram Khachaturian wrote for his ballet about him.

(For those of you looking at that name and wondering – it’s pronounced Ah-rahm’ catch-uh-TOOR-yun in the standard American mispronunciation: officially in Russian, the accent would be on the last syllable, catch-uh-toor-YAHN.)

Khachaturian was a leading composer of the Soviet Union, largely overshadowed by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. Born of Armenian descent in the Caucasus region of what was then the Russian Empire, he was seventeen when the area became a Soviet republic. He went to Moscow the following year and though he had no musical training – just exhibiting what could be an innate musical talent – he entered the Gnessin Academy, essentially Moscow’s answer to, say, the Curtis School of Music, first taking cello lessons and then, at 22, composition lessons.

Incidentally, a more recent student at the Gnessin was Igor Zubkovsky who started his studies as a cellist, there, and played the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto with the Minsk Symphony when he was 12. He’s currently the Harrisburg Symphony’s assistant principal cellist. His stand partner, Fiona Thompson, will be the featured soloist for Strauss’ Don Quixote on this program.

So, anyway, by the 1930s Khachaturian had become a recognized composer both at home and abroad. His ballet Gayane became an international success largely because of one short excerpt, the “Sabre Dance.”

In 1950, Khachaturian toured Italy as a guest-conductor and came back with the idea of writing a ballet about Spartacus. He completed it in 1954 and it was premiered the following year.

While Gayane’s “Sabre Dance” is his most familiar work, the beautiful Adagio from Spartacus is perhaps his “second-most famous” piece – as Stuart calls it in the pod-cast, “one of those guilty pleasures.” Once you get beyond the usual suspects – Pachelbel's Canon, the 1812 Overture, Ravel's Bolero – it was one of the most frequently requested pieces on my "Requests Nights" when I worked as a public radio announcer.

Inspired by the story of the slave who led a revolt against the Roman Republic around 70 BC, the ballet follows the “gist” of the conflict with lots of opportunities for Khachaturian’s lyrical voice as well as his exotic colorings, mostly from his Armenian heritage. There are dances for Greek and Egyptian slaves, scenes set in a market-place with merchants from around the Mediterranean, and even a dance for a bunch of pirates, including another Saber Dance for some Thracian soldiers (the lezginka, a common dance from the Caucasus Mountains, performed with swords – hence the more generic idea of “Sabre Dance,” not just the one from Gayaneh). In the midst of the political turmoil and all these rowdy and colorful scenes to expand on the story’s setting, there is this gorgeous love-duet between Spartacus and his wife, Phrygia. (In ballet, the term “adagio” refers less to tempo than to an extended sequence of “slow,” lyrical dancing.) Here is the scene from the Bolshoi Ballet’s production: 
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As is typical with many composers who want to salvage some of their best efforts for a work that can only be appreciated in a more limited setting – an opera house or a ballet theater – Khachaturian crafted three different suites of excerpts from the complete ballet so they can be enjoyed in the concert hall. The second of these suites opens with the famous Adagio: it forms about half the entire suite, followed by a market-place scene with a dance for the merchants, a Roman courtesan, a “general” dance for people in the market, which then is interrupted by Spartacus’ entrance, a quarrel, something labeled the “treachery of Harmodius” before concluding with a “Dance of the Pirates.”

To be honest, I’ve just read a three-page plot synopsis of the complete ballet and nowhere did it mention Harmodius or anything that would even resemble a market-place scene! Since there was a drastic revision of the original 1950s production involving a revised scenario and some new music presented in 1968, perhaps these scenes were removed from the ballet in the new version.

At my pre-concert talk (an hour before each concert), I’ll be getting more into the historical background of the ballet in Khachaturian’s life. I’ll be posting that information at a later date.

Incidentally, most people in the United States would be more familiar with Spartacus from a variety of “gladiator flicks” which may (or may not) use the original Spartacus’s story as a starting point. To many Americans “of a certain age,” Spartacus means Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas as the leader of the slave rebellion, Laurence Olivier as the Roman Crassus, and Tony Curtis as a fellow slave.

The most famous scene, however, is this one when the Roman general offers to give the just-captured slaves their lives (rather than crucifying them as was the standard punishment for many criminal offenses in those days) on the condition they identify their leader, Spartacus.

As Kirk Douglas goes to stand up, Tony Curtis, seated beside him, stands up first and shouts out, “I’M Spartacus!” He’s quickly joined by other slaves until the entire valley is ringing with shouts of "I'M Spartacus!" This selfless solidarity has become one of the great iconic scenes in Hollywood history.

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 - Dick Strawser