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Program Notes – April 20, 1991

Pelleas and Melisande, op. 80

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)

Gabriel Faure is considered one of the greatest masters of the French art song, but his purely orchestral output is quite small. Although he wrote two symphonies, he felt that his talents were much better suited to small scale forms, so he focused on chamber and solo works. An important exception was his interest in music to accompany the staging of dramas, and he wrote incidental music to several plays. Several of these, he later arranged as stand-alone concert suites.

He generally disdained vivid orchestral colors, preferring the musical equivalent of the muted palettes of his contemporaries, the French impressionist painters. A close friend of Saint–SaĆ«ns, his early style was quite conservative. However, by the time he wrote Pelleas and Melisande, he had developed an individualistic style that freely employed unusual harmonic relationships that were quite modern for the times.

Faure was active during a period of exploration and rapid change in music. Composers were striking out in all sorts of new directions, which were frequently completely incompatible with each other. His contemporaries included Strauss, Schoenberg, Debussy, and Stravinsky, and Faure was well aware of their new musical directions. However, his own experiments with unusual harmonies (even dissonance) merely led him to develop an etherial, personal coloration for an otherwise relatively conventional lyricism.

Faure disliked bombast, and his orchestral music is deliberately introspective, rather than showy. His style was perfect for the brooding atmosphere of Maeterlinck’s recently published play (which had been immediately acclaimed a masterpiece from the avant-garde of continental literature). Consequently, he was commissioned in 1898 to write music to accompany the first London staging of its English translation. Incidentally, Faure was only one of several major composers to adopt Pelleas et Melisande as a vehicle: Sibelius, Debussy and Schonberg also selected the subject.

As initially conceived, the incidental music was unsuited for concert performance, but Faure recognized its value and arranged a concert suite based on musical materials from the original. It contains a few deliberately programmatic elements from the play (a horn call just before Pelleas’s brother first encounters Melisande while hunting in the forest, and a funeral dirge after the heroine’s death). Most of the music, however, reflects the atmosphere of the drama, not the events. Its memorable melodies and exquisite orchestral colors represent Faure at his best, and this may be his orchestral masterpiece.

Poem for Flute and Orchestra

Charles T. Griffes (1884-1920)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes is one of the more important composers from a neglected period in American musical history, the turn of the century. He was born and raised in Elmira, New York, where he studied piano with Mary Boughton, a piano and composition professor at a Elmira College. She recognized his talent, and raised funds to finance his further training at a conservatory in Berlin. Although he originally hoped for a performing career, his growing interest in composition led him to leave the conservatory, to study with Wagner’s disciple Engelbert Humperdinck. Eventually, he returned to America, accepting a post as director of the music department at a prestigious prep school in Tarrytown, NY, which he held until his untimely death. This location, so far out of the musical mainstream, undoubtedly hindered his acceptance as an important American composer at the time.

Griffes orchestral output is tiny-most of his compositions are for the piano, as one might expect. A few of these have been orchestrated (frequently by other American composers), and they have made their way into the fringe of the American repertoire. However, one work has become fairly well established, his Poem for Flute and Orchestra. Written near the end of his short career, it is a good example of his mature style, combining 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 shortly after its completion. This was one of the few times Griffes heard a master performance of one of his orchestral compositions.

Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, op. 56a

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In 1874, Johannes Brahms had not yet firmly established himself as the pinnacle of conservative German music that he would eventually become. His first piano concerto, a decade and a half earlier, shows his command of orchestral music with a symphonic scope. But his own preoccupation with the greatness of Mozart, Haydn, Bach (and most especially Beethoven!) made him shy away from purely orchestral compositions that would inevitably be compared to their masterworks. He had even completed the first movement of a symphony, but put the incompleted score aside for several years.

He suffered from no such reticence in other forms, though, and was widely recognized for his works for piano (he himself was an accomplished soloist), his songs and his chamber works. It is hard to believe from our current perspective, but early in his career Brahms was considered something of an outcast. He was frequently at odds with an influential part of the German musical establishment, led by Liszt and his supporters. (This may also have contributed to his reluctance to write purely orchestral music.)

Brahms needed something to boost his career. An emotional event (the death of his mother) led him to create his highly and personal German Requiem, which forced him to resume composing for a full orchestra. Its immediate success prompted him to try his hand at a purely orchestral piece for the first time in years. However, the prospect of a full symphony still unnerved him. Thus, he adopted a smaller goal–the symphonic treatment of a simple melody attributed to one of his revered idols, Franz Joseph Haydn. The immediate success of his Haydn Variations established his reputation, and brought him to the head of the conservative movement in German music. He suffered no significant artistic setbacks throughout the rest of his life, so these variations must be considered a landmark event in his career.

The variations, themselves, showcase the talents that would be at the foundation of his symphonic greatness. Haydn’s simple melody, stated at the very beginning, is transformed at one time or another through almost the entire range of possible musical expression. Moments of lyric beauty alternate with bravura, solemnity follows good humor, and simplicity contrasts with rhythmic complexity. There is even some good old-fashioned musical bombast: glorious orchestral sound for its own sake.

Brahms went on to write four of the greatest symphonies in the literature, as well as several important overtures and concerti. These have become so well respected that they tend to dwarf the small work that signaled the true beginning of his orchestral output. The Haydn Variations, although not a major constellation in his musical firmament, surely deserve to be considered at least a twinkling star about to turn nova.

Symphony no. 2 in B-minor

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Alexander Borodin was one of a small group of musical colleagues who wanted to break away from the German style and establish an independent Russian musical tradition. The group philosophy placed little value on formal musical training–preferring inspiration over execution, and expressiveness of sound above propriety of formal structure. This group (which included Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and the less known Cesar Cui) became so influential that musical history dubs them “the Mighty Five”.

Professionally, Borodin supported himself as a chemist (he possessed the doctorate), and considered music his most beloved avocation. No orchestral composer’s reputation as a genius, or importance in his nation’s musical culture, rests on fewer works than Alexander Borodin. He composed no concerti or other major solo works. He started three operas of his own, but completed none (although he participated with his colleagues in a fourth “opera-by-committee”, Mlada).

Of his three symphonies, the youthful First was no better than a near-success, and the third was completed posthumously by Glazunov. In fact, his life’s masterwork, the opera Prince Igor, was also completed after his death by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov. Some of its orchestral sections survive in the repertoire as concert pieces (the overture and the Polovetzian Dances), as well as the popular tone-poem – Central Asia. But, for the most part, he deserves recognition as a genius of the Russian musical world for one work: the second symphony.

The second symphony represents the best of everything that represents that the Mighty Five espoused. Although it has a four movement formal structure like the German symphonies, the content is purely Russian. The work opens with a powerfully driving theme which shapes the entire first movement. No listener can fail to identify its nationality as Russian–for all purposes it defines the dark, brooding character associated with the national musical culture.

Furthermore, Borodin ignores the traditional rules of sonata-form development, which require exposition and development of multiple thematic materials. Instead, he hammers out that one theme over and over-imbedding it within other creative melodic elements, of course, but still practically beating it into the ground. Every traditional professor of music would reject this approach in a student’s composition, and with good reason, because it usually doesn’t work. But Borodin brings it off! A victory for the “unschooled composer” philosophy of the Mighty Five.

His creativity doesn’t end there, though. The second movement, a brilliant allegro, drives ahead irresistibly and forcefully from start to finish. Yet, for contrast, it contains moments of both idyllic rest and powerful declamation. The elements of musical expression are so unlike that few would think to put them together, but it all works. Like the first movement, the third is built around a single theme–a long, haunting melody stated by solo horn–whose transformations run the gamut from peaceful repose to lyricism to passion, until it quietly closes as a fragment, whispered by the same solo horn. Nothing but mood and melody, but it’s beautiful.

Alexander Borodin probably was a genius, and one can’t help but regret that there aren’t more testaments to his creativity. This one symphony, at least, guarantees him a place among the musical immortals.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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