Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tantalizing Tales from Shakespeare to Scheherazade

For centuries, composers have loved telling stories in music - and audiences have loved listening to them! In this week's program with the Harrisburg Symphony, you'll get to hear some great tales from Shakespeare's Othello to the "Arabian Nights" along with some tantalizing soundscapes for harp with our own Rebecca Kauffman as the soloist.

So come and listen to some great story-telling with Stuart and the orchestra – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum!

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If you don’t think the ability to spin a good tale could save your life, listen to the story of Scheherazade!

The main (or largest) work on this program is the popular suite, Scheherazade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff in which he tells four tales associated with the “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” the popular collection of stories that helped keep Scheherazade alive. You see, her husband, the Sultan… well, here’s how Rimsky-Korsakoff described it in his introduction to the music this inspired:

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“The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Sheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales [leaving each one incomplete only to be finished the next night] over a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.”
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Rimsky-Korsakoff - 1880s
Each movement bears the title of what sounds like a story:
The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,
The Tale of the Kalendar Prince,
The Young Prince and the Young Princess,
and then finally, to conclude, the most detailed description of all,
Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.

While each of the four movements of this suite are full of picturesque details and vivid musical gestures that could easily depict specific images in these tales, the composer didn’t “set” any specific story to music. It’s not like – at the end – it’s “four down and nine-hundred and ninety-seven to go.”

Here’s the complete suite, each movement performed by different conductors and orchestras:

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1st Movement: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy, recorded 1978)

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II. The Tale of the Kalendar Prince (Academy of St. Cecilia Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov)

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III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess (Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev)

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IV. Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman (Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner)

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Even though each of the four “tales” is given a title, that wasn’t the composer’s original intention. Initially, he was going to call them by more abstract titles since they were not really “musical portraits” of any specific stories. There’s no indication which of the myriad princes and princesses who fall in love during the course of the Sultana’s life-saving tales are the ones depicted in the third movement and there are actually three different stories involving “the Prince Kalendar” (who is not, as I always thought as a child, a prince you’d find on a calendar), so is this any particular one or a compilation to condense the Prince into one musical portrait?

You can read the composer's own words behind the composing of Scheherazade, here.

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Also on the program are two of the most beloved pieces in the harp repertoire: Claude Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane (usually translated as Sacred and Profane [or, better, Secular] Dances) and Maurice Ravel's Introduction & Allegro. Our soloist is the orchestra's principal harpist, Rebecca Kauffman. You can read Sean Adams' interview with her at the Patriot-News website, here.

Two composers famously labeled “Impressionists” may not be telling stories in their music directly but they are often inspired by stories or visual images.

There are probably few composers more visually oriented than Claude Debussy who, even as a child, collected “Oriental knick-knacks and objets d’art and [later] filled his home with sketches and paintings. He was also an inveterate visitor to art galleries and museums, loving – needing – to look at pictures” [from Victor Lederer’s “Debussy: A Quiet Revolutionary”]. Most of his works – at least until later in his career – are given image-oriented titles, or at least titles that evoke images or moods or… well, “impressions.” Much of the idea of Impressionism is the vagueness of the line, not its clarity, and one of the ways Debussy accomplished this in his music was through, first of all, “softer” sounds and harmonies that, to us, sound “softer” than what we’re used to because, in most cases, they don’t work the same way – he creates great “washes of sound” out of chords that do not move harmonically the way other composers would normally use them – or, more importantly, resolve them – and so it becomes this kind of aural “floating world” which can be enjoyed on a purely sensual level (meaning “of the senses”) without needing to resort to intellectual abstractions like counterpoint, form and other aspects of scholarly analysis.

At least, that’s the way it works in some pieces, though, inconveniently, not for everything he composed. He was a miniaturist – Chopin was one of his early influences both as a composer and a pianist – and in short pieces, you can express such ideas without challenging the “attention span” of listeners who might get antsy after too much sensual immersion. There are few large-scale works by the mature composer but those – like his “symphonic suite” La Mer (The Sea) – are not devoid of larger-scale issues.

Debussy by the Sea - 1904
But we don’t need to get into all that technical stuff to enjoy these two short dances. He was, in fact, in the midst of finishing up La Mer when the piano manufacturing firm founded in 1807 by Ignace Pleyel wanted a new work to showcase its recently released “chromatic harp” and initially to serve as a competition piece for harp students at the Brussels Conservatory.

In 1897, Debussy had already orchestrated two of the three Gymonpedie by his friend, another Quiet Revolutionary, named Erik Satie, originally short piano pieces inspired by paintings on ancient Greek vases and a supposition of what their music might have sounded like.

So in 1904, Debussy may have been thinking of these pieces and that inspiration for his own “Sacred Dance,” the first of this pair written for the lucky harp students in Brussels.

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A student performance at the Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands: harpist Remy van Kesteren entered the conservatory at the age of 10 and graduated in 2010 after winning a prestigious international competition in Israel. This performance was recorded in April 2010.

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The conductor Ernest Anserment recalls Debussy describing a piano piece by the little-known Portuguese composer Francisco de Lacerda (1869-1934) that inspired his "Sacred Dance," though nothing else has ever been found to substantiate this (there is a famous anecdote attributed to Debussy about somebody challenging his piano-playing abilities, writing a chord with both hands in the extreme registers of the piano and one note in the middle register which Debussy then played with his nose; the only reference I can find about Lacerda is a family anecdote regarding his finding the same solution to the same challenge). While his influence from Satie is equally possible, it is also still essentially conjecture.

The sacred dance is then answered by a secular dance – a waltz, in this case – which the French word “profane” might make us think too diabolically as the opposite of “sacred.”

Whether they imply stories or not, they evoke images – priestesses dancing in a sacred grove in Ancient Greece; couples dancing the waltz in fin de siècle Paris – or, at least, give us the impressions of images in which beauty is its own excuse for being, if nothing more. Of course, behind it all, is an exercise in challenging harpists’ playing technique.

Maurice Ravel is usually linked with Debussy the way we talk about Mozart and Haydn (to pair two similar composers) or even Brahms and Wagner (two very dissimilar and often contentious composers, stylistically). They are contemporaries and may have had similar stylistic goals as students but pursued their own solutions. Ravel may have been more “story”-oriented than Debussy with his visual images (music inspired by paintings) but he was also capable of dealing with purely abstract solutions to the challenge of filling time with musical sounds.

Ravel & Lily Laskine - 1935
Though still nominally a student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1905, the younger Ravel appreciated and supported Debussy’s music and his innovations – especially in his controversial opera, Pelleas and Melisande – but Ravel, when later asked about La Mer said, rather pithily, “If I had the time, I would re-orchestrate La Mer.”

It was around this same time that factions appeared in the musical public supporting one or the other and often antagonizing each other at concerts. C’est la vie.

So, if a manufacturer can commission a composer like Debussy to write a piece to show off their product, a competing manufacturer could do the same. Shortly after Debussy’s two Danses where performed, the Paris-based piano and harp company of Érard commissioned “the other famous French composer du jour” Maurice Ravel for a piece to showcase their “double chromatic pedal harp” for students of the Paris Conservatoire.

Though originally a “septet” with flute, clarinet and a string quartet, it’s essentially a little harp concerto rather than genuine chamber music where all parts are created equal. While it was difficult finding a reasonable performance on You-Tube of the orchestral version – as we usually hear it, these days – here is a performance with Gréta Ásgeirsson and Boston Accompanietta conducted by Taichi Fukumura:

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Typical of Ravel, he wrote it in a hurry because he was soon to leave on a boating trip with friends. As the story goes, while hurrying to buy some new clothes for this last-minute trip, the newly completed score under his arm, he accidentally left the manuscript behind on the counter. Fortunately, the tailor was an amateur musician and kept the piece. The outcome varies, depending on who’s telling the story: some say Ravel nearly missed the departure time, going back to retrieve the score; other say he missed the boat because he was arguing with the tailor who wanted, apparently, to keep it himself.

Though the work was completed in June, 1905 – he had recently finished the piano pieces called Miroirs and, before that, his song cycle, Sheherazade which we almost heard with the Harrisburg Symphony a couple seasons ago – it wasn’t premiered until 1907. By that time, he was writing the Rapsodie espagnole and, two years later, the ballet Daphnis and Chloe.

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The story of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello is well known – and, among musicians, for the opera it inspired Verdi to write in the mid-1880s (he originally called it Iago, by the way, after its villain) – but the symphonic poem that Antonin Dvořák wrote when he turned 50 is not often heard in the concert hall.

Dvorak & Family in NYC, 1893
It is part of a trilogy of “concert overtures” – that is, a story-inspired dramatic work for orchestra not meant to open the curtain on an opera, as we normally expect from seeing the word “overture” – all written in succession in the early 1890s. They were to be about “Nature,” “Life” and “Love.” The most famous of these is the middle one, known as the “Carnival Overture,” one of Dvořák’s most frequently performed works; the first one is called “In Nature” or “In Nature’s Realm.”

But as for “Love,” Shakespeare’s Othello might seem an unlikely starting point, though, of course, it is love that fuels Othello’s jealousy and leads him to kill his wife for her imagined but non-existent infidelities. Even while he was working on it, Dvořák thought about at least giving it another title but ended up sticking with the Shakespearean allusion.

And certainly the work is not an abstract piece of music given a seemingly depressing title (I mean, as far as the idea of “Love” is concerned).

As Blair Johnston has written in program notes I found on-line,

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The Othello Overture is a fine piece, from the rich pseudo-archaisms of the very opening (the impression of the Renaissance is palpable in Dvořák’s archaic harmonization of the opening phrase), to the violent jealousy of the Allegro con brio that follows shortly thereafter, to the vicious murder of Desdemona (the specific moment of the murder is actually indicated by Dvořák on the score), to the fevered final bars when Othello, pushed to the edge of his sanity, forgives Desdemona and kills himself. The work is very possibly the most grim of all Dvořák’s compositions -- the biting dissonance of the last bars, and in particular one moment at which we are treated to the shock of F sharp, G natural, D natural, and D sharp all at the same time -- and as a result it has never matched its immediate predecessor, the Carnival Overture, Op. 92, in popularity.
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It may not be as popular as Carnival but then, it is not as populist as Carnival, either. It may actually be a technically better composition, for all that, but who can deny Carnival’s lively enthusiasm and easy-to-love tunes? On the whole, each of the overtures is a different approach to solving the usual compositional challenges, even with common themes involved (for instance, heard at 2:32 in the video, below): how do you create variety and unity at the same time? As In Nature’s Realm may be pastoral and folksy in nature (no pun intended – well, okay… intended) and Carnival is the brilliant evocation of celebration that it is, Othello then is the dramatic side of the coin, however that love may turn out.

Again, the issue of finding a reasonable performance – especially a live one – that is also a good recording on You-Tube leads me to this one, posting the recording by Libor Pesek with the Czech Philharmonic. If not a live orchestra to watch, it gives no distracting images and allows you to use your own imagination while listening to the piece.

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Part 1

Part 2

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In the two years leading up to Othello and its companions, Dvořák completed his popular 8th Symphony and the “Dumky” Piano Trio. Shortly after premiering his three overtures in Prague, Dvořák accepted the job running the National Conservatory of Music in New York City where he would soon compose his most enduring work, his 9th Symphony (“From the New World”) and the “American” Quartet.

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By the way, if anybody's wondering, Rimsky-Korsakoff was a Russian composer and so his name is actually spelled in Russian Никола́й Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков. Since this has to be transliterated into something the average Westerner can read, it's usually spelled phonetically - the final "v" often becomes "v" or "ff" in English and German or, confusingly, "w" in French (which is pronounced like "v"). Consequently, the name of our starring sultana - in Russian as Шехерезада - is usually spelled in German as "Scheherazade" though Ravel set poems about her and spelled it, in French, 

Shakespeare's Moor is Othello - but in Italian, whether it's the opera by Verdi or Rossini, it's Otello.

- Dick Strawser