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Program Notes – April 11, 2015

Rákóczi March” from The Damnation of Faust, op. 24

Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

Hector Berlioz, the oldest son of a physician from a provincial French country town, had no formal education and very little exposure to serious music as a boy. His father, assuming that his son would follow him into medicine, sought to educate Hector as a “gentleman” – introducing him to the classics as well as the rudiments of natural science. As was common for an aristocrat of the times, the young Berlioz was taught to play a musical instrument (in this case, the guitar and not the piano). Otherwise, he had no exposure to musical forms larger than the string quartet. He was nevertheless fascinated by music, and taught himself harmony from a text by Rameau – without the aid of either a mentor or a keyboard instrument to demonstrate the sounds.

At age seventeen he was sent to Paris to study medicine. However, the cosmopolitan Parisian atmosphere introduced him to the world of the arts that he had missed in his small-town youth. He dutifully studied medicine for a while, but after four years gave it up and resolved to compose. (This caused a break with his father, whom Hector nevertheless revered for the rest of his life.) After obtaining some tutelage he managed to make up for his lack of childhood training and was finally accepted into the Paris Conservatory – at the unheard-of age of twenty-three. He finished his first (unsuccessful) opera that year, and his first published opera only two years later.

The Damnation of Faust was one of his later mature works, after he had established himself as a dominant figure on the Parisian music scene. Berlioz himself couldn’t decide what to call it. He considered opera, oratorio, free-form music drama, and finally settled on “legende dramatique.” It was first performed at the Paris Opera Comique (strange, because there is nothing comedic about the story-line!) The Rákóczi itself is a minor “toss-off” within the larger work, intended only to establish musically the locale in which the next major episode occurs. It is based on a long-standing melody from Hungarian folk music. However, it is probably the most-performed segment of the larger work, and is frequently used to open symphonic concerts that have nothing to do with the intent of the original work (the dramatic legend of Faust, as portrayed by Goethe, among others).

Black Swan (after Brahms’ Intermezzo Op.118 No.2)

Bright Sheng (b. 1955)

Bright Sheng is a contemporary Chinese-American composer, born in Shanghai but now a U.S. resident since 1982, and currently on the faculty of the University of Michigan. He has won many awards, and was commissioned by President Clinton to compose music to honor the Chinese premiere on a visit to the United States. He has held the position of composer-in-residence at the New York City Ballet, and his works have been performed by most of the major American symphony orchestras. His original works are often closely related to the musical language of earlier eras, rather than “modern” conceptions, and are almost always very “listenable.”

Nowhere is this aspect of Sheng’s approach to composing more evident than in the current work, Black Swan. It is based on a very late piano work by Johannes Brahms. The original is quiet, introspective and very contemplative. This is one of the very last works composed by the great German composer, and was dedicated to his close friend Clara Schumann. He knew his remaining time was short, and all of the movements of the full publication (which is far larger than this piece) reflect his late-life focus on creating individualistic pieces for piano to commemorate his own outlook on existence. Sheng has taken the work, and expanded it into an orchestral form using the same orchestral forces that Brahms would have used, had he chosen to compose it during the time he wrote his symphonies. It employs all the same solo voices that the great composer had used in his orchestral works, but turns them to the presentation of the intimate melodies and harmonic progress of the late piano piece. It is almost as if the spirit of Brahms had appeared to Sheng and said “do it this way.” If so, it worked.

Violin Concerto, op. 14

Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)

Samuel Barber was a native son of West Chester who was arguably the first of a wave of successful “modernists” in American composition during the initial half of the previous century. Like many musical prodigies, he began to study piano at age six, and composed his first immature works as early as age seven. By his teens he had been formally appointed as the organist for his church. He entered the Curtis Academy of Music at age fourteen, even before he had graduated from high school. At Curtis he studied piano, composition and voice (at one time he had hoped that his wonderful baritone voice might lead to a career as an opera singer). Including the two years while he was simultaneously a high school student in West Chester he spent eight years at Curtis, where he became close friends and eventually life-partner with Gian Carlo Menotti, another composer who became a successful “American modernist.” Barber was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, as well as many other prestigious awards.

The Violin Concerto is one of his earliest major works, composed in 1939 on commission from a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist to be performed by one of Barber’s classmates. However, the intended soloist thought that the third movement did not measure up to the first two (which he loved) and he asked to have the final movement rewritten. There are unverified stories that the intended soloist found the last movement too difficult to play. Barber, however, believed in both the musical value and playability of the finale just as he had written it. He arranged for a performance by the Curtis symphony orchestra. This was so well received that Eugene Ormandy programmed the formal premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra the following year. It has since become one of the most frequently performed twentieth century violin concerti in the entire repertoire.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky(1839 – 1881)/arr. Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

Modest Mussorgsky, the youngest son of a wealthy landowner, was a genius prodigy whose chaotic and unstable life prevented him from ever reaching his full potential as a composer. In his younger days, he learned only performing skills, but his creative spirit eventually drove him to musical composition as an outlet. At age eighteen, though he had just embarked on a military career, he talked Mily Balakirev into teaching him the minimum essentials of musical structure that he needed to compose.

Unfortunately, he never mastered the techniques of musical craftsmanship required to finish off his orchestral compositions. In fact, most of his works (other than songs and solo piano pieces) were left uncompleted at his death, and were put into performing editions by other composers. His close friend, Rimsky-Korsakov considered him to be “technically clumsy” in harmonic structure, counterpoint and orchestration. Nevertheless, he identified Mussorgsky as a true creative genius, and edited many of his works to clean up the “mistakes”. As a result, many of Mussorgsky’s works sound more like Korsakov than himself.

However, Pictures at an Exhibition has become probably the most frequently orchestrated piano work in all of classical music. Rather than do it himself, Korsakov gave the task to one of his students, Mikhail Tushmalov, who produced an eminently forgettable version shortly after Korsakov’s piano edition. Since that time, though, more than two dozen composers, arrangers and musical scholars (and who knows how many music students, as homework assignments) have tackled the work. A few years ago, the American conductor Leonard Slatkin put together a pastiche involving excerpts from more than a dozen orchestrations (none by himself!), which he conducted with many of the world’s most famous orchestras. No matter who had orchestrated the individual movements, though, it was Mussorgsky’s musical genius that shown through.

By far the most famous and frequently performed version is that by the French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel. His colorful and imaginative use of orchestral sounds and colors, is completely “un-Russian”. However, it has become so much the performing standard that most listeners think of this work as the definitive version. It sounds nothing like Mussorgsky’s orchestral style, but instead displays Ravel’s brilliance.

Mussorgsky’s original inspiration was a memorial exhibition of watercolors and architectural drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann. The various sections portray in music the feelings engendered by several of these pictures, and the overall work is structured as a stroll through the gallery at which they are exhibited. The music opens with a famous theme, subtitled Promenade, which reappears at intervals as the viewer walks from one picture to the next. Rather than a simple repetition of the theme, however, the character of the Promenade changes … reflecting the mood engendered by the picture the viewer has just studied and departed from.

The first picture, Gnomus, depicts a child’s plaything. Although in the style of the famous Nutcracker, it is a grotesque troll-like being rather than a princely soldier. The second picture, The Old Castle, depicts an ancient fortress, with a troubadour standing before the gate. Here appears one of the most un-Russian orchestral colors of the piece, for Ravel gave the balladeer’s serenade to the alto saxophone – which would never have been used in a Russian orchestra of Mussorgsky’s era.

Promenade music then leads the listener to an illustration of the Garden of the Tuilleries in Paris, full of children playing and quarreling. The next movement, Bydlo (the Polish word for cattle), depicts an oxcart with enormous wooden wheels. The music is as powerful and ponderous as the massive beasts of burden drawing the cart. More promenade music conveys us to a portrayal of a phantasmagoric dance scene from a forgotten ballet, in which children dance as canaries with their feet and heads sticking out from otherwise-intact egg shells: the Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells. Such a ballet had actually been produced in St. Petersburg several years before Hartmann’s drawing. Next comes a portrait of two Polish Jews, One Rich and One Poor (Ravel’s version names them as Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle, names invented by Mussorgsky’s friend and biographer Victor Stasov). Goldenburg is rich, prosperous, pompous and arrogant, while Schmuyle is whining and peripatetic. There is no difficulty telling what music represents which man!

Once again, the promenade leads us on, this time to The Marketplace at Limoges. Mussorgsky himself jotted notes in his manuscript about colorful imagined conversations between patrons: “… Mme de Roursac has just acquired a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Panteleon’s nose, which is in his way, is ever the color of a peony”. Directly, the music plunges the listener into the Catacombs, this time the catacombs in Paris rather than the more famous ones in Rome. The music alternates between stark, bold, powerful chords representing the incipient terror of standing alone in an ancient sepulchre and a ghostly, mysterious evocation of the dead souls. The movement was sub-titled “With the Dead in a Dead Language.” The final appearance of the promenade theme portrays the visitor walking toward the next picture, stunned from his most recent experience.

The penultimate picture, a clock in the shape of a hut with the legs of a chicken, is titled The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. It represents the dwelling of Baba Yaga, a Russian witch frequently summoned to scare young children in the manner of the Western bogeyman. The movement leads directly to the most famous picture of all: The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann’s architectural drawing – for a monument that was never built – falls considerably short of Mussorgsky’s powerful depiction. This movement, which included some of his most powerful music, is a fitting end to what has become the single work by which this Russian genius is best known, although it took the efforts of many orchestrators to achieve for him this well-deserved renown.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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