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Program Notes – April 15, 2000

Scherzo à la Russe, op. 16

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

When Igor Stravinsky died at the ripe old age of 90, the musical world lost one of its most original voices. During the early part of the twentieth century musical language seemed to disintegrate into a thousand different dialects. Stravinsky was one of the first pioneers of this search for new directions, and the style he eventually developed turned out to be one of the most unique. Stravinsky seldom sounds like other composers, and no other composer’s music sounds quite like his. By now, most audiences know of the near riot that was caused by his ballet The Rite of Spring at its Paris premiere. By that time, though, he was already well-established as a “modernist” and had collaborated with Diaghilev on two previous ballets that had blazed a trail into exploration of rhythm as a musical element equally important to melody and harmony (The Firebird and Petrushka). Throughout the development of his career, he would frequently focus on unusual rhythmic and sonic effects, whether in the context of traditional harmonies, or in his brief sojourn into atonalism.

The Scherzo à la Russe is an example of “gentle” Stravinsky. The harmonies are mostly traditional, and the melody lines hardly jar the ears of audiences now accustomed to a wide range of twentieth-century modernisms. Nevertheless, it features the unusual approaches to rhythms and their interplay with sound colors that characterizes its composer. For example, in the early part of the work, the accent pattern is reversed in the brass. Pairs of notes are played with a no accent on the first and a crescendo to the second, over and over, so that the effect is similar to the “wheezing” pattern of an accordion, or better yet a youth’s “squeeze box”. Although this sounds strange when described in words, it works perfectly for the melody being played at that point.

The Scherzo is so easily approachable that most would suspect that it was an early work, but it was composed rather late in his career, in 1944. It came into being by a strange and circuitous route. By now, established in the United States, and enjoying a reputation as a major composer, Stravinsky could branch out into a variety of musical venues. He originally composed it as part of the music for a film score based on a Russian setting, but the project never materialized. When the famous conductor Paul Whiteman (yes, the same Whiteman for whom Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in Blue) asked Stravinsky for a small piece for his jazz orchestra, Stravinsky salvaged this music from the aborted film score. Although the work contains almost nothing related to jazz, Whiteman still premiered it in its original form in 1944. Shortly afterward, Stravinsky rescored it for a larger orchestra and that version (which is being played here tonight) was presented by the San Francisco Symphony in 1946. Seldom played today, it remains one of his little gems.

Harold in Italy, op. 16

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Musical scholars now regard Hector Berlioz as the leading French composer of his age, but it wasn’t always so. He was a musician at a time when the cutting edge of art in France centered on literature, and when the principal musical pioneers were German. In his own time, he had to live through the difficult struggle for acceptance of new ideas that is so common among musical pioneers. For, in spite of his deep Classical roots, he was the embodiment of the emerging Romanticism – this at a time when the establishment was conservative, almost to the point of reactionism. His early musical foundations were entirely self taught. One mark of his genius is that in his youth he mastered Rameau’s difficult treatise on harmony, entirely without reference to a keyboard to produce the chords! (He never did learn to play the piano, so vital to most composers, nor did he write a significant amount of music for this instrument.)

His father, a wealthy physician, was Hector’s mentor and teacher in everything but music. In his homeschooling, he had instilled a love of literature that influenced Berlioz for the rest of his life. (How many fathers read Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas to their sons as a bedtime story, … in Latin? And how many sons learn to love all literature from that experience?) At his father’s wishes, Berlioz spent two years studying medicine in Paris. However, his exposure to real music there fanned the flames of his boyhood interest in composing, and he dropped out of medicine to enroll in the Paris Conservatory. Here, his ‘dangerous’ modernist tendencies kept him out of favor with the conservative faculty. Three times he competed for the Prix de Rome, with works exemplifying his bold and original style. Three times he lost. Finally, he restrained himself and stayed more within the bounds of traditional style, and the faculty was forced to award him the prize. The work, of course, disappeared into obscurity for lack of Berlioz’ true inspirational genius. Nevertheless, it earned him a year in Rome, and several of his later compositions relate to his sojourn in Italy.

The germ of inspiration for Harold in Italy, however, was not Berlioz’ own experience there, but the writings of the English poet Lord Byron. Byron’s epic poem, Childe Harold, recounts its hero’s travels through Italy. Berlioz’ admiration for serious literature, and Byron in particular, inspired him as a subject for what would become his second real symphony. However, he chose not to depict a specific story line (as he had in his Symphonie Fantastique) but to portray four episodes as musical renditions of visual images of scenes from the poem.

The first three episodes are developed as in the manner of movements of a symphony, each with its own unique musical character. After a long introduction, the solo viola softly sings a theme that will be identified with Harold throughout the work. The character of this first musical section, Harold in the Mountains, skillfully portrays the rugged terrain of the hero’s travels. In the second movement, Harold encounters a Procession of Pilgrims bound on a holy journey. The sounds of their plainsong chant echo through the orchestral background. There follows an episode centered around a tender love song – a Serenade sung by an Abruzzan highlander to his sweetheart. The final episode, titled Orgy of the Brigands, begins with reminiscences of the first three episodes. These lead to a frenzied revelry that one might mistake for the Witch’s Sabbath movement from the Symphonie Fantastique.

These four episodes are actually small scenes from the poem, rather than essential features of the story line. The solo viola represents Harold himself, as he observes the scenes during his travels. He main theme occurs repeatedly, and is essentially unchanged throughout the four movments. This theme, and several others, originally came from the overture Rob Roy, inspired by the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. Berlioz had composed the earlier concert overture to capitalize on the success of his Symphonie Fantastique during a concert tour of Scotland. The overture failed to win much acclaim. However, Berlioz reused its musical materials for Harold, as he did later in his career with themes from other early compositions that had lacked success.

Major works for solo viola are rare. Harold in Italy was initially commissioned by Paganini, as a showpiece on which he could demonstrate that his prowess on the viola equalled that for which he was renowned on violin. He wanted a virtuoso concerto worthy of his stature, which would feature him and subordinate the orchestra. However, although the viola part is integral to the composition, it does not dominate the work. Berlioz’ artistic conception was for an essentially symphonic piece in which the viola reflected Harold’s own literary function as observer of the action, rather than its focal point. Paganini consequently rejected the work (although he paid the commission!), and never performed it. He was later to regret his arrogance in not making Harold the viola showpiece to match his violin repertory. He heard it for the first time, many years later, played by a rival. After the concert, he rushed up to the composer – who was now as famous as he was – and tearfully exclaimed that it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Paul Dukas (1865 – 1935)

If it hadn’t been for Walt Disney, Paul Dukas might have written one of the finest pieces of programmatic music that nobody ever heard of. Although Dukas had received excellent training and his painstaking craftsmanship had produced several fine works, he is generally unknown as a composer – except for this one magnificent composition. However, you would be hard pressed to find an adult American listener who doesn’t think of Mickey Mouse magically bringing a broomstick to life, whenever he hears this music. Its appeal extends far beyond the audiences of classical music: everyone knows the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, as Disney had animated it in his motion picture Fantasia.

Dukas was not particularly a prodigy. He showed no great musical aptitude until age 13, when he started the obligatory piano lessons that were then (and still are) so common among the children of the well-to-do. His father, a banker, supported the arts. So, when young Paul began to “fool around” with composing, dad sent him to the Paris Conservatory. If the youngster were going to engage in a sach a worthwhile (but essentially unprofitable) enterprise, he ought to at least have good tutelage. The experiment was a mixed success. Although respected by his teachers, Dukas just missed winning the Prix de Rome (once by only a single vote). He never attracted the public attention of many celebrated graduates of the Paris Conservatory, such as Berlioz. He spent most of his career as a composer on the periphery of success, but never achieved greatness.

Ironically, he eventually won appointment to the faculty of the same Paris Conservatory at which he had studied. He taught theory and composition, and eventually became a thoughtful and respected musicologist and critic. Although a conservative, his idols were Franck and Wagner, rather than the traditional French composers. A perfectionist, he wrote a considerable amount of music that he never allowed to be published, but which he showed to knowledgeable friends and other composers. Almost always, those who saw his works thought them to be excellent and urged that he publish them. For most of these pieces, he refused initially and never relented. As a result, few saw the light of day. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and a few other works survived his self-criticism and were actually published. Judging from these, the world may have lost many excellent compositions when he destroyed their manuscripts in a fit of depression late in his life.

The story line of Sorcerer’s Apprentice came from a sardonic ballad by the great German poet, Goethe. (No, it wasn’t invented by Disney as a fantasy showpiece for his early animation techniques.) The music follows the story line so perfectly that it would probably be easy for most listeners to reconstruct the program – even if they had never seen Fantasia. Mickey, as the Apprentice, casts a spell with his master’s wand. Broomsticks fetch water by the bucket, to fill the Sorcerer’s bath, not stopping even as it overflows. In a panic, the fledgling magician chops them up, only to see the fragments come to life and continue their labors unabated. Finally, the baleful stare of the returning Sorcerer transfixes his apprentice, as he waves his hand and restores order, … and then boots him out the door. Dukas’ brilliant and imaginative orchestration has produced a true tour-de-force of program music, which has seldom been matched and never exceeded as an audience favorite in this genre.

The Pines of Rome

Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936)

Italian music from the Romantic era onward has centered around the opera. While giants like Verdi, Puccini and Rossinin created their stage masterpieces, several generations of lesser composers tried, but failed, to establish and equivalent presence in orchestral music. The lone major exception was Ottorino Respighi. His three famous tone poems have earned a place in the orchestral repertory which challenge almost any other early twentieth century composition for audience appeal.

Respighi’s early education (in the Europeum lyceum system) for twelve years in the Liceo Musicale at Bologna lead him quite naturally into a musical career. Although trained in all aspects of music, his early interest in composing cannot be disputed. Immediately after graduating he made several trips to St. Petersburg to study orchestration briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov. However, for the first dozen years or so, he was unable to support himself by composing. He played piano and in the string sections of several musical organizations throughout Italy, although not as a virtuoso soloist. During this period, he produced several minor works as well as one or two full-blown orchestral pieces, but no major successes.

All were competently composed, but none captured the fancy of the Italian public. Nonetheless, his personal style was developing all along.
His composing career took a turn for the better when he was appointed Professor at the St. Cecilia Conservatory in Rome in 1913. Now having time available to compose, he was able to bring his style to maturity. He burst onto the international music scene with his brilliant tone poem The Fountains of Rome. Almost overnight, his public perception was transformed from ‘minor composer who merited little attention’ to ‘emerging giant of the music world’. Inexplicably, it took him seven years to follow up this initial success with The Pines of Rome, which cemented his reputation. He is now recognized as the greatest Italian instrumental composer of modern times, and many of his other works are finally being rediscovered.

The Pines of Rome is probably his best known, best loved work. The music is fresh, pure and emotional. Like Respighi himself, it is perhaps child-like and naive in its direct sensory appeal. The melodies burn into the listener’s subconscious, and few people leave a performance without humming its tunes as they go. The orchestration is, if anything, even more colorful that his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The images evoked by its four sections are as perfect a portrayal of the scene they represent as can be found in any tone poem, by any composer. It is also fiendishly difficult to perform, requiring virtuosity throughout the orchestra.

The first of the four sections, titled The Pines of the Villa Borghese, depicts the hustle and bustle of a public square or a marketplace. Restless, frenetic energy abounds. Argument, vendors calls, children’s squeals of delight, even bits and snatches of popular tunes intermingle in an impressionist collage of ‘busy-ness’. In direct contrast, The Pines Near a Catacomb evokes the ghostly presence of a dead past. A quiet beginning, featuring an off-stage trumpet solo, establishes a mood more mysterious than tense. A rhythmic fragment, reminiscent of a long forgotten religious ceremony (a psalmody) repeats insistently, growing in intensity. Meanwhile a counter-melody like a priestly chant appears, beginning small and solemn but growing in strength until the chant and psalmody sing out together, overpoweringly. Gradually, the intensity dies back, and the listener leaves the graveyard ambiance of the catacombs.

The third section, Pines Near the Janiculum, represents a pastorale twilight in a public park. It features one of the most splendid uses of the piano as an orchestral instrument to be found anywhere in the literature. However, its most unusual aspect is the acoustic recording of a nightingale calling in the gathering dusk. (Respighi specified a particular recording of this call, which is furnished by the music’s publisher, and is still used in most performances.) The night passes, and the traveler moves on to the Pines of the Appian Way. Here, in the breaking dawn, we can hear the ghosts of Caesar’s legions – his implacable forces having made the forbidden crossing of the Tiber River, and now marching along the Appian Way into Rome. The insistent martial rhythm, an irresistible force bearing down on an inevitable clash with an immovable object, brings an eerie chill to the spine as the army marches past. At the height of their majesty, a choir of off-stage brass suddenly appears, reinforcing the fortissimo playing on stage, and brings the work to a thrilling conclusion. Here is the Roman Empire at the height of its conquering glory, and Respighi at the height of his evocative powers.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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