Friday, February 7, 2014

Beethoven's Fourth: Among Giants

Beethoven in 1806
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features three works: the world premiere of an orchestral work by Steve Rudolph commissioned by the Symphony Board to celebrate Stuart Malina's 50th Birthday (you can read about it, here); the greatest of the cello concertos with Zuill Bailey returning to Harrisburg to make his debut with the orchestra, playing Dvořák's concerto (you can read about it, here); and a symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven that should need no introduction but usually needs some background since it's not one of those you usually hear that often.

Saturday's concert is at 8pm and Sunday's is at 3pm in the Forum, and assistant conductor Greg Woodbridge will be offering the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance.

And if you haven't already read it, here's a link to Ellen Hughes' article for the Patriot-News.

Here, Stuart Malina talks about the February Masterworks concert, Romancing the Cello, recorded at last September's "Season Preview" held at Harrisburg's Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

This performance of the complete 4th Symphony of Beethoven is taken from a DVD that includes both the 4th and the 7th, and while I'm not going to tell you don't listen to the 7th, you can sample the 4th here with the legendary Carlos Kleiber and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, recorded in 1983: the performance begins at 0:53 after that long walk down the steps, and ends at 34:32.
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You can also hear a different performance by Kleiber for comparison's sake on these “audio-clips” posted at YouTube as well, movement by movement, recorded in 1982 with the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich's National Theater.

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1st Mvmt:

2nd Mvmt:

3rd & 4th Movements:

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Robert Schumann once wrote about Beethoven's 4th Symphony as being “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants,” and while this comment has fallen before political correctness these days, his description is apt if you consider his context.

The Norse giants, symbols of Capital-R Romanticism even before Wagner began The Ring of the Nibelung, would be the 3rd Symphony, the mighty Eroica, initially intended as a Bonaparte Symphony and the 5th Symphony with its “Fate Knocks at the Door” Motive and its Victory Over Tragedy conclusion.

By comparison to these two symphonies, unlike any composed before if not since, the 4th Symphony appears to be a more Capital-C Classical symphony without any sense of a program, abstract in the nature of symphonies by his teacher Haydn (who, when this was composed, was still alive), less extroverted not only in its nature – neither heroic nor dramatic – but also in its form. It might be exuberant the way many Haydn symphonies are exuberant but it is never the wildly emotional drama that Beethoven's contemporaries heard in the other two and considered chaotic, especially the 3rd which to many seemed interminably long. If people in those days ever said “But you can't do that” about a symphony, they would've been saying it about the 3rd & 5th.

The problem is, if you compared the 4th Symphony to what Haydn had written a little over a decade earlier and certainly to what Beethoven's own contemporaries were writing, it is still a bold, challenging statement to what a classical symphony could be, breaking boundaries of its own.

It's just that, after the 3rd and then looking back on it with the 5th (and of course even later after the Bacchic frenzy of the 7th and the sublime monumentality of the 9th), the 4th seems pretty tame to us.

Another thing writers about Beethoven Symphonies tell us is something like “Beethoven developed the habit of writing monumental works in his odd-numbered symphonies and saving his more personal, less exploratory [read, perhaps, 'less interesting'] statements for the even-numbered symphonies.”

But in hindsight, while that may seem a fairly accurate stereotype as stereotypes go, it was not Beethoven's intent.

And we know that because he began writing the 5th Symphony immediately after the 3rd – wait, to save some confusion, let's refer to them by their tonalities or nicknames. He began writing the C Minor Symphony immediately after the Eroica only to put it aside to write the B-flat Symphony. Then he finished the C Minor while already sketching the Pastoral which, when they were first performed had their numberings reversed.

So, when Count von Oppersdorf requested a symphony from Beethoven in 1806 while he was in the midst of sketching the C Minor, that one (first begun) might've become the 4th Symphony and the B-flat, assuming he'd write it next, would've become the 5th.

And then later, since the C Minor and the Pastoral were premiered on the same concert, if Beethoven had been concerned about this odd and even-numbered business, he wouldn't have called the Pastoral his 5th and the C Minor the 6th.

Perhaps that's why Beethoven's 4th has become one of the least performed of Beethoven's nine symphonies: because it doesn't seem to match the standards of these giants we have come to revere, and we find, by comparison, those less “bombastic” (or out-going) works like the 2nd, 8th and even the 6th (which at least is popular because of its “story,” in itself revolutionary) less magnificent.

Had it been written by a composer like Josef Weigl who was one of the most frequently performed composers in Beethoven's Vienna at the time, it would undoubtedly be called Weigl's masterpiece.

(Weigl, however, was almost exclusively an opera composer: we tend to forget that, despite Beethoven and Schubert and later Brahms, the Viennese were not generally fond of symphonies - too abstract for their tastes: opera was where the money was at and that was why Beethoven expended so much effort on his one opera which had the bad luck to fail there three times.)

By the way, if Schumann thought it comparable to a classical Greek statue of a demure maiden, Hector Berlioz – himself a rather over-the-top Romanticist most (in)famous for his Symphonie fantastique – thought the slow movement of Beethoven's 4th must have been written by the Archangel Michael and not a mere human!

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I've heard from music lovers that Beethoven must have been “relaxing” after completing the momentous, ground-break Eroica, saving up energy for the 5th. The implication is often that this is “laid-back” Beethoven or that he was not inspired to write “great music” because these other works took so much out of him.

We tend to forget, today, that composers often worked “in sets.” Haydn would write 6 string quartets and publish them as a set. Beethoven would do the same with his first six quartets of Op. 18, published in 1800. Even though Mozart wrote his six quartets “dedicated to Haydn” consecutively, they appeared as a set of six quartets – the use of individual catalogue numbers courtesy of Mr. Köchel also emphasizes the individuality of these quartets.

Haydn often wrote groups of symphonies – there are a dozen “London Symphonies” but they were composed in two sets of six each, composed for different seasons on his London tours.

Since these were meant to be heard in some sort of context – if not all on one evening, perhaps all in one season – this required a certain sense of variety. In terms of quartets, one might be a “concertante” one where it was like a mini-concerto for the 1st violinist; another might be a more “symphonic” one (certainly, in the case of Beethoven) where the four players were more tightly integrated and the form more developed; another might be pastoral or dramatic (usually the only one in a minor key), lyrical or light-hearted.

When we hear Mozart's “Little” G Minor Symphony, we wonder what anxieties the 17-year-old composer must have been going through but it was really a young composer who was writing the expected “storm und drang” piece because that's what he chose to write, whether he was feeling particularly stressed-out or not. In the last three symphonies Mozart composed, the “Big” G Minor is the tragic piece and again we think of Mozart, the starving artist dying at the age of 35, though when these were composed, he had no idea he'd only have three more years to live. This was his attempt to write a “dramatic” symphony between the lyrical E-flat and the sublime grandeur of the one later dubbed “The Jupiter.”

Beethoven, it seems, often conceived his symphonies in pairs – the 5th (eventually) became a companion piece with the 6th and their natures (no pun intended) are very different because they're meant to be very different: one is dramatic, the other lyrical. The 7th and 8th were conceived as a pair, one totally extroverted (probably the happiest music he ever composed) followed by one more refined, reticent and (by comparison) introverted.

We also know that Beethoven planned two more symphonies in his last years – and it was the 10th that was supposed to have a choral finale before he decided to set the “Ode to Joy” for the 9th. The sketches for the 10th which can never be successfully realized indicate an expansive but again quite different approach than we hear in the 9th.

The 4th, however, is a bit of an odd-man out. We know nothing of its sketches – for instance, bits of later pieces often appeared in earlier sketch books, where a theme from one symphony stands beside a theme used (and intended for) a different symphony. But that doesn't exist for this symphony. Even the original manuscript apparently is lost – it was once owned by Mendelssohn and housed in the family library in Berlin but where it is now, I'm not sure.

Beethoven had been invited to spend the summer of 1806 at the Silesian estate of one of his long-suffering patrons, Prince Lichnovski where one of the other visitors was Count Franz von Oppersdorf, a relative of the prince's, who heard a performance of Beethoven's 2nd there and immediately commissioned Beethoven to write him a new symphony.

Though he'd already begun working on the 5th at the time and had composed at least its 1st movement, Beethoven put this aside for some reason to write an entirely new one. Apparently he felt the 5th would take more time to do his ideas justice. Or perhaps he thought the Count (or his orchestra) couldn't handle what became the 5th...

At any rate, he completed the work that same summer – a short time, given Beethoven's usual mode of writing – and it was premiered the following March in Vienna, then published with a dedication to the Silesian nobleman who'd commissioned it.

It's interesting to look at the other pieces Beethoven was working on at the same time. Again, we usually think of a composer working on one piece, finishing it, then going on to the next piece and so on. But Beethoven was an inveterate multi-tasker – look at this list of works also composed in 1806:

- the 2nd version of the opera Leonore (later, Fidelio) with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 (premiered in March, 1806)
- the String Quartet in C, the 3rd of the Three Razumovsky Quartets (completed in the spring of 1806)
- the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G (completed in the summer of 1806)
- the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat (completed in the fall of 1806)
- the 32 Variations in C Minor for solo piano (written in the fall of 1806)
- and last but far from least, the Violin Concerto in D Major (completed in December of 1806).

The 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto are both lofty, lyrical works far from the storminess of either the 3rd or the 5th Symphonies - yet he was working on the 5th in 1805, not returning to it until 1807 and completing it the following year, basically working on it over a four year period.

Basically, hardly the schedule of somebody “relaxing” or “unwinding” after having completed the Eroica in 1804.

You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he was writing this symphony as well as the Violin Concerto in two separate posts at my blog Thoughts on a Train, here and here.

And you can also read about a similar conundrum with two other of Beethoven's even-numbered symphonies which the Harrisburg Symphony performed in recent seasons: the Pastoral here and the 8th Symphony, here and here.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Romancing the Cello: Dvořák and His Concerto

(a not wintry scene with cellist)
This weekend, Zuill Bailey – who's performed frequently in the Central Pennsylvania region in the past – makes his debut with the Harrisburg Symphony in a concert that also offers us a world premiere as well as something as tried and true as a Beethoven Symphony (though not one of the most familiar ones).

In addition to the cello concerto by Antonin Dvořák, the program also includes Steve Rudolph's brand new work, The Gift (which you can read about in this earlier post) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat (which you can read about in this post).

Stuart Malina conducts the concert this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm in the Forum – and Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(By the way, at this point, the forecast for what has been touted as the third winter storm this week might prove to be less dreadful than feared, measured in 1-3" or less rather than in feet, as some sources had been saying since last weekend...)

Not coincidentally, you can read Ellen Hughes' article in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here.

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The Dvořák Cello Concerto is, essentially, THE cello concerto in the repertoire but it's also one of the great concertos of all time, a big expansive work in the manner of Johannes Brahms (who was, in many ways, more than just an inspiration to the younger Dvořák), a giant of the Romantic repertoire with a touching romantic story behind the music, as well.

While there are many recordings of this concerto out there, these are three I thought would give you a good idea of what you'll be hearing this weekend at the Forum.

First is one of the greatest cellists of all time, Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded the Dvořák several times in his career. And while I'd rather post a performance you can watch (as opposed to just listen to), I can't pass up the chance to play this 1957 recording he made with Boris Khaikin and the USSR State Radio & Television Orchestra – he was 30 at the time, despite the photographs included in the video-track – and the youthful fire in this performance is hard to match, even if the sound may not be the best. Here's the first movement:
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If you'd rather watch a concert performance, here's a link to see a 1987 performance with Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic, the orchestra that gave the work its world premiere in 1896. The sound (at least on my computer) is not great, but you get to watch a master cellist (60 at the time of this recording) playing a masterpiece.

And since the soloist you're going to hear has recorded the work on the Telarc label, here's a “sneak peek” they had posted in 2012 after that recording was released. Zuill Bailey plays the 2nd Movement with the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by Jun Markl:
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For the final movement, I chose the Danish cellist, Truls Mørk, in this 2011 performance with the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen:

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As with any great piece of music, there are differences in interpretation which are the result of the inexact nature of musical notation – there's an old saying, “the music is not in playing the right notes, it's playing what's between the notes” – but also of long traditions which sometimes don't always pay attention to what the composer wrote.

Now, I've heard this work ever since I was a kid. In fact, the first time I heard it live was with Raya Garbusova, one of the finest cellists of her day, play it with the Harrisburg Symphony under Edwin McArthur in 1963. Every cellist worth his or her salt will have to play this piece mostly because it is the cello concerto and audiences would rather hear it than some lesser work, so much so that many cellists dread playing it (“oh, not again: can't I play something else for a change?”).

It wasn't until I heard Alban Gerhardt play it with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony more recently (fairly early in what will come to be known as The Malina Years) that I heard performers talking about “going back to the score” and “scouring away years of tradition” which could refer to tempos, dynamics, articulation and numerous other seemingly small details.

Without knowing what they'd done, I found it a revelation – one of those instances where it may not have sounded like a “new piece” but it certainly made it a “different” one, and one I found myself enjoying a lot more.

So I'm looking forward to hearing Zuill play the piece, having heard him many times since the days of the Next Generation Festival that Ellen Hughes organized through WITF, and subsequent performances in recital, most recently with Market Square Concerts.

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Given a concert entitled “Romancing the Cello,” especially in the month of Valentine's Day, there is a romantic story behind Dvořák's Cello Concerto. So, here it is:

When Dvořák was 23, he was sharing an apartment in Prague with five other friends while earning the equivalent of $7.50 a month (at a time when, hopefully, a dollar stretched a little further than it does now). Always needing to supplement his income, he began giving piano lessons. One of his students was Josefína Čermáková whom he fell in love with. She was 16 at the time.

As a result of this love, the following year he composed a set of 18 songs he called “Cypresses,” written in 17 days.

Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was not returned and she ended up marrying somebody else. As did Dvořák, nine years later – Anna Čermáková, Josefina's sister who was also one of his students. During their marriage, they had nine children.

In 1887, Dvořák took a dozen of these “Cypress” songs and arranged them for string quartet. He called them “Echo of Songs” but didn't publish them. They appeared only in 1921, redubbed “Cypresses”.

It might be tempting to think there was something “biographical” behind this arrangement, recalling his early love for the woman who became his sister-in-law, but by this time Dvořák was (finally) tasting the first fruits of an international career and, to stave off the demand for new works of his – like the Piano Quintet in A Major – he went back and re-examined earlier works that had never been premiered or were under-performed.

The fact he didn't publish these arrangements didn't mean he kept them private, either (for that matter, Brahms' most popular works, his Hungarian Dances, were also never officially published with an opus number and all that). But still, as a man in his mid-40s, it's unlikely he didn't recall something of that lost love, right?

Five years later, Antonin Dvořák was Professor Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York City where, in 1894, he completed what became his last symphony, nicknamed “From the New World” and a number of chamber pieces like the “American” String Quartet.

(The photograph, right, includes his wife Anna, son Antonin (Jr.), three friends, daughter Otilie and the composer, taken in New York in 1893.)

He also began this Cello Concerto (more on that later: see below). He was not only homesick but also worried the money was going to run out – not his, but the school's. And when the school could no longer pay him his salary, he returned to his home, taking with him his recently finished concerto.

In December, in the middle of the concerto's slow movement, he'd gotten the news that his sister-in-law was very ill, back home, and in the midst of this movement he inserted an excerpt from a song of his (from the Op.89 set of four) that was one of her favorites.

This occurs rather suddenly at 2:47 in the second video clip above, and continues through to the return of the opening theme at 6:03.

He arrived back in Prague in April, 1895, and Josefina died exactly one month later. He went back to the concerto and inserted another tribute to her, interrupting the rush to the final measures with this sudden lyrical reflection (in the third video clip, this would be around 9:34) which includes a further reference to the song he'd quoted in the slow movement, here as a final benediction.

The song was the first of a set written in 1887 and published as Op.82 (and not part of “Cypresses” as is sometimes said). Perhaps the confusion lies it's having been composed not long after he'd arranged the early Cypresses for string quartet, and the fact it was one of Josefina's favorites?

Anyway, it is usually entitled “Leave Me Alone” which might have a more accurate connotation if it were translated as “Let me alone.” The context is more “Don't let my dreams disturb the feelings in my heart, let me have all the joy and pain...” or, more succinctly, “let me alone with my dreams.”

Czech soprano Magdalena Hajossyova sings Dvořák's song (in German) with an uncredited pianist:
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Take from that whatever you want: it is a private moment made public without explanation and while no secret, it is never explained.

You could've listened to this for years without knowing the meaning (whatever it might be) behind the music, but you could not have missed that these are two of the most emotional moments in the entire concerto.

Romantic music, indeed!

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For some reason, there are not many cello concertos out there, unlike piano concertos and violin concertos. Neither Mozart nor Beethoven wrote one and Brahms only wrote “half a cello concerto” in his Double Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello which was premiered in 1887, seven years before Dvořák wrote his concerto.

Most of this has to do with the instrument itself. It has a beautiful, rich middle register but a “mumbly” lower register and an upper register than can often be too reedy or nasal which, since it was rarely (if ever) required in orchestral playing, was full of technical problems (especially intonation) for the average “section” cellist.

Part of this problem was balance: the sound of a solo instrument didn't project well through an orchestra, certainly not as the size of the orchestra expanded after 1800 or so.

The early cello concertos from the Baroque and Classical eras, of course, would not have had this to deal with. It may have been more a matter of discrimination against an instrument usually relegated to playing the bass-line in a melody-oriented approach to music.

Vivaldi wrote about 27 cello concertos for his orphans in Venice, but then it seemed he wrote concertos for almost anything. They had no influence on the wider world, intended primarily for the regular concerts his students gave at the orphanage and were, like the rest of his music, forgotten until the 20th Century rediscovered him.

Boccherini wrote eleven concertos but then he was himself a virtuoso cellist and famous in his day. But like many composers not quite of the level of contemporaries like Haydn or Mozart, he too was overlooked if not forgotten. In fact, even the one cello concerto that did survive was known primarily through an over-romanticized edition in the late-19th Century. Even as a child dreaming of playing the cello in the 1960s, I was very disappointed to discover the Boccherini Concerto I knew and loved was in fact two different concertos, since Grützmacher replaced the original slow movement with one he liked better from another concerto. Even today, I am still nostalgic for that bowdlerized version even though there's very little authentic about it.

While Haydn wrote perhaps seven concertos for the cello, only one was known to posterity – the D Major Concerto – until another one (in C Major, written earlier) was discovered only in 1961! Even then, there have been quibbles about their authenticity since Haydn was not much of a concerto writer (unlike Mozart) and these are markedly different than other concertos he'd composed. Perhaps he had considerable help from the principal cellists of the Esterhazy orchestra for whom he composed them but most scholars now agree that, yes, Haydn did write those concertos.

Robert Schumann wrote a beautiful cello concerto in 1850 that has two lyrical movements with a finale that smacks of the composer's origins as a pianist. One of Schumann's later works, from a time when his health was inconsistent, it has never stayed in the general repertoire, either, perhaps because it is not brilliant enough to be a virtuoso vehicle.

Leaving aside two by Saint-Saëns and one by Lalo, that's about it – the rest are mostly by performers who, great cellists they may be, were not great composers. At least Tchaikovsky wrote a short piece for solo cello and small orchestra based on a Mozart-like melody, his famous Variations on a Rococo Theme.

And then Antonin Dvořák found himself, much to his surprise, writing a cello concerto of his own. Why, you ask?

There is, actually, an early cello concerto by Antonin Dvořák written when he was 23 – curiously, around the time he met his young piano students, Josefina and Anna, the one he fell in love with and the one he'd later marry. But he never published it – in fact, never really finished it: he gave it to a cellist friend to look at but never bothered to orchestrate it or revise it. Perhaps the friend didn't think it was all that good?

Anyway, Dvořák, in his early-50s, was sitting in Carnegie Hall, New York, not long after the premiere of his “New World” Symphony listening to cellist Victor Herbert play the first performance of his new cello concerto. Herbert would become conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony but better known as a composer of operettas but at this time, he was better known as a cellist and conductor: at the time, in his mid-30s, he was the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Dvořák was very impressed by Herbert's playing and by his concerto – No. 2 in E Minor, by the way – and it made him reconsider the frequent request made by his friend, Hanus Wihans, a cellist in Prague, who'd been asking him for a concerto. He'd played chamber music with Wihans and written a couple shorter, less “problematic” pieces (regarding the “cello problem,” that is) the previous year, a Rondo in G Minor and a short tone-poem of sorts usually called “Silent Woods.”

Where this concerto came from is a surprise of its own. He had composed a not very successful piano concerto that has gone through several editions as pianists try to improve on the piano writing (Dvořák was not a pianist), and a violin concerto that, while very fine, has never quite ended up in the higher reaches of the repertoire (more's the pity) – here, it's performed by his great-grandson, Josef Suk). The ability to write good symphonies (and by this time he'd completed all nine of those, at least two of which are certainly "good") does not necessarily mean he'd be able to write good concertos.

He was, of course, familiar with Brahms' epic Violin Concerto (an obvious inspiration, as well) which was premiered two years before. And Brahms' Double Concerto was premiered in 1887 – Victor Herbert would be involved in its American premiere the following year, by the way.

But he had managed to solve the problem of balancing the different registers of the instrument with a large orchestra in such a way Brahms himself was supposed to have told Dvořák, if he'd known it could be done that well, he would've written one himself. Alas, by that time, Brahms was already “retired” and suffered from doubts about his creativity following the cool reception among his friends for not only the Double Concerto but the 4th Symphony, leading the always insecure Brahms to destroy what would've become a 5th Symphony and a 2nd Violin Concerto.

Perhaps it was a good thing at this time that Dvořák was isolated in New York City where he was a very big fish in a very small pond!

There is sometimes a fine line between what a work becomes and what it could have been – witness all the works Johannes Brahms destroyed in his career or that Schubert never finished.

In this case, if Dvořák hadn't been in New York, he would not have met Victor Herbert or heard his cello concerto which he'd find so inspiring.

If he'd stayed in Prague and been closer to Brahms and the often snarky music scene in Vienna (where Dvořák, being a Bohemian “provincial”, was always an outsider), he might have persisted in his doubts about the cello as a viable solo instrument and might never have written this concerto.

Now, there's a game of “what-if” I don't want to think about...

- Dick Strawser

Monday, February 3, 2014

February & a World Premiere: Steve Rudolph's "The Gift"

If Winter is getting to you, then this weekend's Masterworks Concert is for you – with one of the great concertos of all time (not just THE Cello Concerto) with cellist Zuill Bailey, a Beethoven symphony (his 4th) and the world premiere of a new work written by Harrisburg's own jazz legend, Steve Rudolph – a commission from the Symphony to celebrate Maestro Stuart Malina's 50th Birthday.

(You can read Ellen Hughes' article for Harrisburg's Patriot-News, here.)

Actually, it would be more accurate to describe Steve as “Harrisburg's own musical legend” since he is more than a jazz pianist, how he is best known and not just in our area. (Here he is with his trio playing one of his compositions, “Oscar Steps Out.”)

In 2011, the Harrisburg Symphony played his “jazz-tinged” Remembrance for a special concert commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

And when news of this 50th Birthday commission was made public, I may not have been the only one thinking of something for piano and orchestra that could stand beside George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, bringing to mind another composer better known as a jazz pianist when his most famous work was premiered in 1924.

This work, the composer specifies, is not a jazz work but a “classical” work. A symphonic work entitled “The Gift.”

And everybody at the Forum this weekend will be hearing it for the very first time – imagine how many people have heard Beethoven's 4th since it was first played compared to what it must have been like to be among the first listeners in 1804?

One thing about having a living, breathing composer on hand is he can tell us something about it in his own words, not some program annotator, theorist or blogger (like me) imagining what the composer was thinking when he wrote it.

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When I was asked by the Board of the Harrisburg Symphony to write a piece in honor of the 50th birthday of my friend, master musician Stuart Malina, the main thought that went through my mind was “How can I aptly pay tribute to this talented man?” Stuart is an artist of diversified interests who exudes positive energy, humor, and conveys a genuine love of music. He is devoted to his faith, his beautiful family, and his work with the Harrisburg Symphony.

I hope that this composition will portray the complexity, wit, and spirituality that Stuart shares with all of us. We are fortunate to have him in our midst and value his priceless contributions to our artistic community.

The Gift is a work based on themes that were derived from the spelling of Stuart's name and his family's names, Marty, Sara and Zev. This practice has been used for generations by composers who have hidden names of their benefactors, families and even lovers in their musical works. By writing the diatonic or chromatic scales under the alphabet we get patterns of notes to utilize as melodic themes or harmonic progressions.

(below - the top line represents the alphabet; the second line the standard musical scale, white-keys only, starting on A; the third line is the chromatic scale, all white- and black-keys, also starting on A.)

The challenge for the composer is to take these themes and their variations and mold them with rhythmic and harmonic ideas into a complete musical soundscape.

The short opening movement of The Gift, entitled Fanfare, features the brass section introducing the themes you will hear in the second, third, and fourth movements.

The second movement, Humoresque, opens with the bassoons stating the Chromatic Stuart theme that evolves into an amusing showcase for the woodwinds and full orchestra.

Movement three, Romance, is a slow waltz that was derived from a combination of Stuart's and Marty's diatonic and chromatic themes.

Movement four, Finale, is an orchestra fantasy that ends with cascading brass and strings.

It was an honor and a privilege to be chosen to compose a work for Maestro Malina and also to have it performed by the esteemed Harrisburg Symphony. This commission was a gift for me as well.

I hope you enjoy the music.

Steve Rudolph
(from the recent issue of the Harrisburg Symphony magazine, Fanfare.)
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This idea of creating melodic material out of someone's name, as Mr. Rudolph says, is not a new idea. Generations aside, Robert Schumann did it in a lot of his piano music – spelling out his girlfriend's hometown in the ABEGG Variations or turning his wife Clara's name into a theme in several pieces – and Alban Berg, of the so-called 2nd Viennese School and a student of Arnold Schoenberg's, turned his secret lover's initials (HB) intertwined with his own (AB) throughout his Lyric Suite which gives the work a whole different meaning even if no one else knew about it until the “secret score” came to light decades after it was written.

Perhaps the most famous example is Johann Sebastian Bach who turned his own name into a frequent musical motive that became part of the fabric of so many pieces – and Dmitri Shostakovich who created a musical signature out of his initials as DSCH.

Wait – S and H?

Obviously, when a letter corresponds to a pitch in a musical scale, that makes sense, but there is more than one way to spell a scale, so to speak.

The traditional way had been the old solfege syllables, do re mi fa sol la ti do – more than just the inspiration behind a song in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Sound of Music.

While these pitches correspond to the C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C of the C Major scale, they can also serve the purpose of spelling out names syllable-by-syllable.

Though these syllables were already in use by the time Guido d'Arezzo came up with his handy sight-reading guide sometime in the early-11th Century, the first recorded use of turning someone's name into a musical idea would be a Mass written by Josquin des Prez between the 1480s and 1504, dedicated to his patron, Duke Hercules of Ferarra.

Here, the duke's name is spelled out by corresponding the vowels from each syllable in the name to the vowels of the traditional solfege syllables. This motive was called a sogetto cavato or “carved subject,” the motive literally “carved” out of the vowels (or letters) of a name – a kind of musical cryptogram.

Other composers have simply taken what musical pitches might exist within a name and used those, minus the other, inconvenient letters.

But letters like R, M, L or T could be turned into the pitches D (for “re”), E (for “mi”), A (for “la”) or B (for “ti”).

Elliott Carter wrote a violin solo for Robert Mann, founding violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, in which his initials R.M. figure prominently in the short work – but as the pitches D (re) – E (mi).

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It is unlikely the listener would be aware of this or would even need to know it exists to appreciate the music – but the meaning hidden behind the motive adds to our understanding of the work.

In German – getting back to Bach – the musical scale uses “B” for our note B-flat and “H” for our note B-natural. So B-A-C-H becomes B-flat – A – C – B-natural.

Shostakovich, despite being a Russian, used the German scale to create his signature idea, DSCH – which is really his initials, not D-S but in German where the SH-sound is spelled SCH and the pitch E-flat is spelled “S.”

So he identifies himself in his 10th Symphony and other often autobiographical works like the 8th String Quartet with the musical phrase D – E-flat – C – B-natural.

These are not themes or melodies as we think of them but musical fragments that can generate musical lines or appear by themselves in the background - or at significant points in the musical fabric: a cadence, the climax of a phrase, emphasized through repetitions or dynamics or instrumental colors.

In the second of Brahms' string sextets, Johannes Brahms is coming to terms with the recent break-up of a relationship with Agathe von Siebold. At one point, he spells out her name as part of the melody, leaving out the inconvenient T as “A-G-A-H-E” (where H=B-natural). In the background, crossing between the upper and lower lines, he writes the pitches A-D-E – the German word for “farewell.” The message is clear. As Brahms later wrote to a friend, “by this work I have freed myself of my last love.”

So, for instance, a three-note motive on the pitches B – E-flat – C could spell out HSO – the H and S from the German for B-natural and E-flat, and the O as the vowel in “do” or C.

And while it may seem “academic” to do this, great artists have done it in the past and written music that sounds far from “academic.” That, of course, is the trick, isn't it? – no matter what style of music you write in or system of “theory” you use as your stylistic language.

What Rudolph uses to create his motives might seem arbitrary to some but again, it's a way of creating continuity and, above all, consistency within the material, those building blocks that become the music you're listening to.

More importantly, for a first-time listener, is the composer's outlines of each section or movement of the piece, how specific references are presented in the overall sound, their moods and associations.

For the more experienced listener or for subsequent hearings, then you can sink your ears into the “carved subjects” that refer to the dedicatee.

It helps make this gift more personable: it's not just the name on the title page – Stuart's identity is embedded in the very DNA of the music itself!

Dick Strawser