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Program Notes – April 22, 2001

Fantasy and Fugue in C-Minor, BWV 537

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 -1750)
(Orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar)

If music were architecture, Bach’s big organ works would be cathedrals, fortresses, Baronial manors. More than any of his other compositions, these works give the inescapable feeling that one is viewing a physical structure. Every part is linked together, so that the whole thing stands immensely upright. Yet there is the distinct feeling that every singly line must be there – if something were missing, the structure would fall apart. If this Fantasia and Fugue were truly physical architecture, it might be the country estate of a gentleman. It would be a place where enjoyment and pageantry were as important as nobility and seriousness of purpose, where elegance and wealth stood side-by-side with the natural beauty of the forest.

There are probably more orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ works than any other class of music. Dozens of conductors and many major composers have tested their musical skills by trying to express Bach’s unique genius in a setting that would show off the modern symphony orchestra. The music itself is so identifiably Bach that these transcriptions never seem to be reflect their transcriber, but always the ideas of Bach himself. One of the most satisfying transcriptions is of one of Bach’s less familiar organ works, this Fantasia and Fugue.

Most Americans would have difficulty naming ten English composers, even given as a starting point G. F. Handel, and Gilbert and Sullivan (only one of this pair counts as a composer!). Surely one name who would be on the list, however, is Edward Elgar – possibly the most quintessential of English composers. His stately march “Land of Hope and Glory” from the Pomp and Circumstance marches is played at practically every graduation ceremony and might be the most recognizable bit of classical music from England other than the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Few, however, are familiar with his other pieces which include two major concerti, two symphonies (and a third unfinished one), several major oratorios, and a fair number of transcriptions.

His style in these major works practically defines the music of Edwardian England, and heavily influenced his generation of British composers. Elgar brings the same stylistic approach to this transcription, and it displays very much the same orchestral sound. But the source of the music remains unmistakable: Bach, whose genius was perhaps the most influential ever to arise in western music.

The Engulfed Cathedral

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
(Orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski)

Claude Debussy is the earliest composer to be described as “impressionist”, even though a large number of others were beginning to move in the same direction at the time. He enrolled at the Paris Conservatory, hoping for a virtuoso career as a pianist, but found that his true interests – and talents – lay in composing rather than performing. At graduation he won the coveted Prix de Rome, but the two-year stay was a disaster, producing no compositions in what would evolve into his mature style.

The young Debussy was a true “Bohemian” – rebellious against authority, living in poverty, and considering his muse the only true goal worth pursuing. His musical ideas were revolutionary, and he was fond of outrageous overstatement. His comments on codified principles of orchestration: “themes suggest their musical coloring”. On opera: “the ideal music drama would be two associated dreams”. On rhythm: “rhythm cannot be contained in bars” (referring to the bar-lines of musical measures, considered absolutely essential for annotating rhythms). He frequently and publicly complained about “the tyranny of the bar line”.

The Engulfed Cathedral was originally written as one of a set of Piano Preludes, part of his first collection of absolute gems for the keyboard. It is a late work, with the composer in absolute command of his abilities. The dozen or so preludes published in these two books represent an incredible variety of musical impressions. The title La Cathedrale Engloutie translates literally as the Engulfed Cathedral, but might better be considered as “the enshrouded cathedral”. The original piano work contains performance markings which indicate the visual impressions he wanted: “in a gently harmonious haze”, “gentle and fluid”, and “emerging from the haze gradually”. Although this orchestral transcription (by Leopold Stokowski, long-time conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra) presents its images via a completely different set of sounds, it preserves the mystery of Debussy’s piano setting.

The subject of this impressionist gem is the legend of the cathedral of a mighty city (the legendary city of Ys, from which Paris – which might be translated “equal to Ys” – perhaps derived its name?) The inhabitants of the city had built a mighty and splendiferous cathedral to honor their new Christian god. However, they continued to pay homage to their previous pagan deities, and gradually ignored Him for whom they had built the beautiful edifice, bringing upon themselves a natural catastrophe that submerged the entire city beneath the sea. (The legend of Atlantis?) However, the true God took pity upon his few virtuous subjects who had continued to believe in him and decreed that once every century, on the anniversary of the city’s destruction, the cathedral would emerge from the sea for one day, then return to its watery shroud.

The Engulfed Cathedral represents that day. It begins with the mists of the evening fog covering the water. At the stroke of midnight, the mists begin to clear and the cathedral to rise. (In the original piano prelude, the chimes are clearly represented by twelve consecutive strokes of the high treble note “E”, spread over several measures. In Stokowski’s orchestration, the same notes are present but they are spread among the violins, harp and celesta, and are not quite so distinguishable.) Gradually, the points of the steeple spires begin to appear above the water (represented by a theme played initially by French horns, then joined by the rest of the orchestra).

The music grows in intensity as the cathedral rises, until its stands gleaming in the light of the sun. At the peak of the day’s intensity, the cathedral’s own chimes can be heard pealing out (a three-note theme in the horns, which also more obviously represents the sound of chimes in the original piano version). After its centennial moment in the sun, the mighty building sinks once again beneath the waters as the day comes to a close and night softly returns. This orchestral version captures all of the magic in that original impressionist gem by a composer who once described his piano preludes as “conversations between my piano and myself”.

Piano Concerto no. 2 in G-Minor, op. 22

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Late in the nineteenth century, the established composers in French musical circles were quite conservative, and one of the most influential of these was Camille Saint-Saëns. He had not always been so conservative, however. In his earliest days, in fact, he was a bit of a radical. He defended the musical languages of Wagner and Schumann against attacks by the establishment of his own youth, which was probably even more conservative than he would become later in life.

Like so many other composers, Saint-Saëns was a prodigy. He gave his debut as a pianist at age ten with a public performance of Mozart and Beethoven. Afterward, he offered to play as an encore any Beethoven sonata randomly selected by his audience – from memory! Simply playing a Beethoven sonata was no mean feat for a ten year old, but memorizing all of them was a stunning achievement. He won admission to the Paris Conservatory at age 13, and three years later won a First Prize in organ performance.

While in the conservatory he completed two symphonies that were never published, as well as his first published Symphony no. 1, op. 2. He was so well respected by the faculty that it is a bit surprising that he was never awarded the Prix de Rome. Music came so naturally to him that he once said of himself that he “wrote music, as an apple tree produces apples”. Berlioz admired his genius, but once made the enigmatic comment about Saint-Saens: “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience”, possibly referring to a lack of primitive inspiration in his technically perfect works. His musical materials are generally of a “square” construction in both rhythm and melodic intervals, rather than free and rhapsodic.

Saint-Saëns’ celebrated feuds with Debussy leave modern audiences believing that his music was somehow lacking and unworthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. His compositions are always masterfully crafted, and frequently used highly imaginative devices to achieve what otherwise sounds rather straightforward and orthodox. The Second Piano Concerto is a perfect example of this. It was written relatively early in his career, more than a decade before his greatest orchestral works.

Although it comprises three movements, standard at that time for a concerto, it avoids the “fast-slow-fast” structure so common at the time. Rather, it begins with the slow movement – which is by far the most dramatic, as well as the longest. Further, it dispenses with the standard orchestral introduction, opening instead with a dramatic monologue by the piano. This is echoed by a very short, but equally dramatic orchestral statement leading to the piano’s first major theme. Derived from the opening materials, this theme is sweet, pure and simple. It will appear over and over throughout the movement, sometimes elegant, sometimes powerful but always itself. The second movement is a dance-like scherzo, a delightful contrast to the serious demeanor of the first. The finale is a virtuoso showpiece, worthy of Saint-Saëns own talents, and never fails to bring the audience to its feet.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
(Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

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 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 Russion 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 a 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 dances as canaries with their feet and heads sticking out from otherwise-intact eggshells: the Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells. The ballet was actually 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, titled With the Dead in a Dead Language. The final appearance of the Promenade shows 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. It 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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