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Program Notes – April 19, 1997



Charles Tomlinson Griffes is one of the more important composers from the turn of the century, a badly neglected period of American musical history. Born and raised in Elmira, NY, he studied piano with Mary Boughton, a professor of composition in the tiny music program at Elmira College. She recognized his talent and made it a personal crusade to raise funds locally to finance his further training at a conservatory program in Berlin, that he might reach an ultimate potential that was beyond her abilities to develop. Although he originally hoped for a performing Caeer, his growing interest in composition led him to leave the conservatory to study with Wagner’s disciple Engelbert Humperdinck (composer of Hansel and Gretel).

Eventually he returned to America, accepting a post as director of the music department in a prestigious prep school in Tarrytown, NY. He must have felt comfortable as a “big fish in a small pond”, for he remained in this position his entire career, until his untimely early death. Though it might have suited his personality, this location – so far out of the American musical mainstream – undoubtedly hindered his acceptance as an important American composer. Had he lived longer, perhaps he would have been “discovered” and moved on to less idyrnc pastures that would have provided more opportunity.

Griffes’ orchestral output is relatively small. Most of his pieces are for piano, as one might expect, given his performing skill at the keyboard. A few of these piano pieces have been orchestrated (manly by other American composers) and have made their way into the fringe of the American orchestral repertory, occasionally enjoying a revival performance. One work, however, has become very well established – his Poem for Flute and Orchestra. It is now regarded as one of the finest examples of modern compositions for flute, showing off the soloist’s virtuosity in a lyrical, almost pastorale, setting. Written near the end of his short career, it is a good example of his mature style. Poem combines his conservative German training with harmonic elements reminiscent of the emerging French impressionistic style. Walter Damrosch recognized its beauty after hearing the piano score, and programmed its premiere with the New York Symphony Orchestra (which later merged into the New York Philharmonic) shortly after its completion. This was one of the few times Griffes heard a truly masterful performance of one of his compositions, and the occasion must have gratified him immensely.



The pinnacle of the German Baroque era, Bach is revered by modern audiences for both his sacred and secular music. He is also held in awe by musical scholars as the one who forever changed the fundamental directions of music by his invention of vertical harmony. During his lifetime, however, Bach was much more famous as a performer than as a composer. Although he played all keyboard instruments, his specialty was the organ.

At that time it was normal for performers to compose their own music, rather than to rely on works written by others (as is common today). Therefore, Bach composed literally hundreds of works for organ, at all stages of his career. He was perhaps the first to treat the organ as unique, rather than just another type of keyboard instrument. Many of his organ works employ effects that are simply impossible on harpsichord or piano (or, its German Baroque predecessor, the klavier).

Although its exact date of composition is unknown, the Little Fugue in G-minor is one of Bach’s earlier compositions for organ, probably written before age twenty. Its fundamental theme is a catchy little tune, only four bars long. That Bach could expand it into such a complex, perfectly inter-locked fugue is one mark of his genius.

Leopold Stokowski, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra through the largest part of the first half of the twentieth century, orchestrated hundreds of keyboard works by a number of composers. Though he undertook to present music ranging from Pachelbel to Debussy, his most noteworthy orchestrations were probably the organ works of Bach. The Little Fugue in G-minor is one of his better arrangements. Faithful to the architecture and power of Bach’s original conception for the organ, it brings the colors of a full orchestral palette to an instrumental work that has enough musical substance to exploit them. There are those who feel that the richness of its varied sound qualities actually make this orches-tral version superior to the original.



Tchaikovsky stands head and shoulders above the nineteenth century Russian musical scene, far and away the greatest talent of that era. His music is so approachable and direct that it has often been fashionable for musicologists to call it shallow. His formal training stamped him with a Western approach to musical structure and the intellecjual development of thematic materials that initially set him apart from his more nationalistic contemporaries. Yet his quintessentially Russian spirit is the foundation from which rises the emotional content of his works. His genius was for what he himself called the “lyrical idea,” which encompasses far more than simply composing a beautiful melody.

His life was troubled in all its stages, and clearly this must have influenced his music. It would be difficult to conceive how a man who lived through Tchaikovsky’s ongoing personal anguish could write anything cerebral and unemotional. But in his first few compositions he tried to do just that – to conform to the traditional formal rules of structure. Although these early works demonstrated his ability to craft a piece of music well, they all seemed to “lack something”. Romeo and Juliet was the turn-ing point at which he broke out of the mold and began to write music true to his own spirit. From that time forward, nearly all his later music was highly charged, and even his non-programmatic pieces are gener-ally expressive. He wears his heart on his sleeve for anyone to see.

Tchaikovsky’s earliest compositions had been castigated by the Nationalist composers of Mily Balakirev’s St. Petersburg circle of composers known as the “Mighty Five”. Almost certainly this was because his initial Moscow training under Rubenstein was based on “Western” (i.e. German) harmonic theory and contrapuntal techniques, and his later strong association with Rubenstein’s rival group. Balakirev’s group felt that Russian music should be based on purely Russian elements, especially folksong, rather than “artificial” techniques required by Western formal structure. Ironically, it was Balakirev who originally suggested to Tchaikovsky the idea of a rhapsodic overture based on Shakespeare’s most famous play. He even gave him a detailed outline of the musical structure, including key changes and even the shapes of melodic themes. The young composer’s first attempt, following Balakirev’s plan quite closely, met with severe criticism and contempt from the very man who had suggested it. Tchaikovsky revised it extensively, and the next performance (in Berlin) was an enormous success, catapulting him to prominence in Europe. Romeo and Juliet became his first mature success, but he was still unsatisfied with it, and revised it a third time ten years later, producing the version we hear today.

The programmatic aspects of the music are indisputable. The melancholy opening chords in the strings, so reminiscent of liturgical chant, clearly represent Friar Lawrence. The menace so obviously present in the music can represent nothing but the tension felt as the two feuding families confront one another, and the resulting sword battle that erupts is clearly reflected in the percussive effects of the full orchestra. In contrast, the innocent beauty of their love shines forth in music that can only represent the balcony scene.

Initially, each of these themes appears alone. As the work unfolds, however, Tchaikovsky works them together skillfully, leading from the love theme almost imperceptibly into another menacing standoff, then presenting Friar Lawrence’s theme as he attempts to prevent more bloodshed. The good cleric’s efforts are unsuccessful, and the battle resumes. His ingenious plan to save the lovers by feigning Juliet’s death goes awry, when Romeo – engulfed in the battle – fails to learn of it. Upon Romeo’s discovery of Juliet’s apparently lifeless body, he throws himself on his own sword (the death is depicted by two fortissimo chords by horns and trumpets, right in the midst of rhythms taken from the battle music). Juliet awakens to see her lover take his own life, and chooses the same course for herself. Her death by her own stiletto (depicted by the same musical device, this time in the tuba and bass trombone) follows his by no more than 10 seconds of music.

After their tragic end, the music takes up an eerie, almost-familiar melody: it is the love theme inverted – “turned upside down” harmoni-cally. This becomes their funeral music. As it develops, Friar Lawrence’s theme returns once again. As he preaches to the two grief-stricken families about what their feud has cost them, the music turns hopeful: perhaps the feud will end, and a silver lining may appear behind the dark clouds of tragedy – the vendetta is over. Although, Tchaikovsky never formally stated the details of this program, the music itself announces it so clearly that his intent is unmistakable. Romeo and Juliet marked him as a consummate master in his first real attempt in this genre.


AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland is generally considered the dean of American composers. A son of immigrant parents, he studied piano while attending Boys’ High in Brooklyn. His father’s successful department store provided him with the means to study composition wherever he wished, and he even-tually made his way to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. While in Europe he was exposed to many of the most important composers and musical styles of the twentieth century, especially Stravinsky and his adventurous departures from tradition.

Copland’s music conveniently divides itself into two styles. The accessible ease of his early ballets (such as Rodeo) and film music contrasts with an astringency that employs atonalism and harsh instrumental sounds in many of his later works. Copland wanted to write a truly American music that was not based solely on folk tunes. He frequently chose American subjects, and the old West was among his favorites (for example, his other popular ballet Billy the Kid). He often made use of American folk songs, and knew the style so well that he could invent new melodies that sounded like they ought to be folk songs even when they weren’t. His orchestral colors in his more accessible works are bright and pleasant. His syncopated rhythms show the influence of jazz, without sounding like jazz itself.

The ballet Rodeo is one of the best examples of his “popular” style. Its fanciful story line has little substance, but provides a perfect vehicle for the Old-West impressions Copland hoped to create. The heroine is a cow-girl trying to attract the attentions of any of the cowboys. No matter what she does in the opening Buckaroo Holiday, they ignore her (she’s “just one of the guys” to them, dressed in blue jeans and gingham shirt). In the Corral Nocturne, she pines for the attention of one special cowhand, who has overlooked her in favor of a soft, prettified rival with no substance other than her looks. The cowhand, blind to the real qualities of the heroine, has chosen her “Barbie Doll” rival to accompany him to the Saturday Night Waltz. The heroine his one last chance to win his attention. She appears at the final HoeDown dressed to the hilt in the finery that she’s never before worn – and “knocks ’em dead” with her looks. All’s well that ends well, as her cowboy (who his finally noticed her) fends off several zealous suitors, and “corrals” her for himself. So who caught whom, anyway?

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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