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Program Notes – April 18, 2009

La Procession del Rocio, op. 9

Joaquin Turina (1882 – 1949) 

Joaquin Turina was a musical prodigy, with enough talent to teach himself to play the accordion at age four. His father, an Italian painter who had immigrated to Spain, wanted him to study medicine. However, the young Joaquin wanted so much to pursue music that his father relented and supported piano lessons and theory training with local musicians in Seville. He was successful enough to make his debut as a performing pianist at age fifteen. Shortly afterward, he went to Madrid hoping to stage an opera at the Teatro Real. This ambitious desire came to nothing, but while in Madrid he formed a friendship with Manuel de Falla, whose musical philosophy (the advocacy of Spanish folk elements in “serious” musical compositions) deeply affected his own approach.

After studying briefly with de Falla’s teachers in Madrid, Turina hoped to establish himself as a composer by writing zarzuelas (a theatrical medium akin to a light opera, which was very popular in Spain at the time). Neither of the two works that he completed achieved much success, so he decided to move to Paris for better training. He enrolled at the Schola Cantorum, where he studied under Vincent D’Indy. While in Paris he met Debussy and Ravel (whose music influenced his own style somewhat) and became good friends with Isaac Albeniz, probably the most eminent Spanish composer of the time.

Turina (along with De Falla, Albeniz and Enrique Granados) became one of four major Spanish composers of the early twentieth century whose developments led to the characteristic orchestral sound that we currently identify as “Spanish classical music.” Prior to these greats, the few orchestral works of Spanish composers reflected European music of the Classical or Romantic eras. Of the four, Turina remained closest to the European tradition, composing a symphony and several major works for full orchestra.

The tone poem La Procession del Rocio (literally, the procession of the dew,) was the work that catapulted Joaquin Turina to success. Its debut performance in Madrid in 1913 was received so well that he decided to return to Spain, where he rose to the top of the Spanish musical world, eventually becoming Professor of Composition at the Madrid Royal Conservatory.

La Procession is divided into two distinct sections. It opens with a depiction of the celebration honoring the Virgin Maria in Triana (a colorful neighborhood in Seville), which features stylized gypsy dances and a general mood of festivity. This leads, without break, into the procession itself. Here the character of the music changes. As the procession moves slowly through the streets, the sound of bells, the tap of drums and strains of church music reflect the solemnity of its religious origin. Finally, the music grows to a brilliant climax, including themes derived from the opening fanfare, along with a brief quotation from the Spanish national anthem.

Dance Suite

Bela Bartok (1881 – 1945) 

 Bela Bartok is arguably the utmost Hungarian composer, certainly the greatest after Franz Liszt, and among the most prominent of the twentieth century anywhere. Born in the Romanian territory of Hungary, he was a musical prodigy who debuted on piano at age eleven – to great public acclaim – and began seriously composing while in his early teens. He was admitted to both the Vienna Conservatory and the Budapest Academy (who competed vigorously with each other to attract him). He chose Budapest rather than Vienna, the most important musical center of his day, out of allegiance to his Hungarian ethnic heritage. There he became a virtuoso pianist, by which he supported himself off-and-on for most of his life.

After several years of composition, in a style influenced by Richard Strauss that did not resemble his mature genius, he briefly abandoned composing for a few years to concentrate on his love for ethnic music. Together with Kodaly, he traveled far and wide to collect folk-songs, not only Hungarian but also other Balkan regions and as far away as north Africa. His love of folk-songs would influence the melodic content of all his later works, although he seldom quoted them directly in his orchestral music.

During the first World War, he resumed composing. His initial mature work from this period, the ballet The Wooden Prince, was highly successful at its 1917 premiere and brought him some international fame. This growing fame earned him a commission which led to the Dance Suite in 1923. Its performance in 1925 at the Prague Music Festival catapulted him onto the international stage, and it was performed more than sixty times over the next two years by major European orchestras.

The suite is inspired by his idealizations of the elements of peasant dances, though it does not quote any tunes directly. Bartok himself cited “Hungarian, Romanian and even Arab influences” throughout the various sections of the piece. He employs many modal scales – which sound exotically different from the major and minor scales that are familiar to all – as well as the pentatonic scale that dominates oriental music. (Bartok believed that much of the folksong music of Hungary had evolved from the pentatonic scale, and is nothing like the “gypsy” music so often associated with that region).

Bartok also chose to avoid the repetitive rhythms found in so many folk dances of various regions, choosing to invent his own rhythmic variations by changing meters, and occasionally dropping (or adding) beats to individual measures. The effect is to leave the music precariously balanced, and both the audience and the performers on edge. Precariously balanced or not, the music also drives relentlessly forward, lending an air of excitement – an irresistible force, in contrast to a solemn, immovable object.

Caucasian Sketches, op. 10

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859 – 1935) 

 Mikhail Ipplitov-Ivanov received enough early musical training at home to choose composition as a career from the beginning. At age sixteen he was accepted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he became one of the most successful pupils of Rimsky-Korsakov. Here he achieved enough distinction that at graduation he was appointed conductor of the symphony orchestra and head of the musical academy at Tbilisi, in Georgia (which was a province of Russia in the Caucasian Mountains on the eastern shore of the Black Sea). For seven years he absorbed the folk music of the Georgian people, who were ethnically distinct from his own Russian culture.

His success, both as conductor and educator, led to his appointment in 1893 as Professor of Music at the Moscow Conservatory, where he spent the rest of his career, rising to Director of the conservatory from 1905 through 1920. While there, he gave the premiere performance of several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas. He was strongly influenced by his liking for folk music, especially that of the more exotic regions of the Russian empire. Many of his compositions are based on elements of folksong, including the Caucasian Sketches.This is probably his greatest work, composed immediately after his return to Moscow.

Divided into four movements, its scope approaches that of a symphony, but it is really a series of tone-poems. The first movement, titled “In the Mountain Pass”, is a portrait of the Caucasus Mountains. Though its musical motifs are simple it brilliantly evokes nature’s grandeur. Horn calls (later echoed by the trumpets) and string murmurs surround a beautiful melody for cor anglais which might have been inspired by the folk songs he had absorbed while in Tbilisi. This expands to a lyrical song for the strings, only to finally return to the horn-call grandeur of the mountain peaks.

The second movement, In the Village, clearly reflects the oriental harmonies of the Georgian folk-songs that Ippolitov so admired. A mournful song turns into an exotic oriental dance, perhaps around a campfire at the end of the day – in a solemn mood, not at all festive. At the end, the cor anglais and violin engage in a soulful exchange, as the campfire slowly grows dim and the dancers fall into sleep.

The third movement, In the Mosque, evokes a somber atmosphere, illustrative of the dignity of the edifice and its solemn purpose. The finale, The Procession of the Sardar, is a military march worthy of the commander of a legion of fierce soldiery. Perhaps returning home following battle, the Sardar – followed by all of his army stepping proudly after a glorious victory – enters the city before a worshipping throng, Pomp at its highest, and a fitting climax to a most colorful orchestral vision of the Orient.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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