King Stephen Overture, op. 117
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven is almost certainly the most admired composer of serious music in the Western culture. The story of his life is so dramatic as to have been, by itself, the subject of literature and films. Most of us know the story of his developing deafness, which eventually prevented him from hearing a single note from many of his greatest compositions. His early successes as a prodigy performer forever transformed the style of piano performance. His greatest impact, though, was the invention of a musical philosophy that molded the way other composers would approach composition and eventually how audiences would view music. It may be primarily due to his genius that we now consider serious music to be an art form rather than merely diversionary entertainment.
Beethoven wrote for almost all of the musical forms, from chamber music through symphony orchestra, but very little for the stage. His one opera, Fidelio, was eventually successful after several revisions but he never returned to that medium. He did, however, write incidental music to accompany several productions for the dramatic theater. King Stephen is the most mature of these compositions. The stage production tells the story of Stephen, the Hungarian national hero who was crowned king in the year 1000, and who later converted his people to Christianity. The play was written to celebrate the opening of a new theater in Pest (half of the city we now know as Budapest), and Beethoven was commissioned to provide an overture and several vocal numbers interspersed throughout the play. Although the rest of the incidental music has dropped into obscurity, the overture has become established in the repertoire as a perfect concert opener.
Piano Concerto no. 1 in b-flat minor, op. 23
Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Out of the neurotic self-doubt that plagued Tchaikovsky’s personal life grew a genius that allowed him to transform his twisted suffering into a sensuous musical grandeur, full of passion. Tuneful, emotional and easily approachable, his works have seduced even those who usually avoid serious music. It is no surprise that “Tin Pan Alley” has swiped so many of his melodies for its popular songs. Listening to one of his works, one is invariably hypnotized by its emotion, to the point of not hearing the musical notes so much as being caught up in the feeling they express.
So it was with his first concerto for the pianoforte. When Tchaikovsky played its early score for his close friend Nicholai Rubenstein, one of the finest pianists of his day, the virtuoso declared it “unplayable, trivial, worthless”, and suggested major revisions. Rubenstein surely had the technical skills to play the work, so his complaint was probably over the unusual structure, which was unlike any of the other concerti in the repertory at the time. Stunned by the criticism, which Rubenstein later softened in his public pronouncements, Tchaikovsky vowed “to change not a note”. He published it pretty much as it was originally conceived. Its highly successful world premiere, given in New York in 1872, was followed by a merely polite reception in Russia. However, it quickly entered the virtuoso repertoire for pianists around the world.
When Van Cliburn performed it to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in the midst of the Cold War tensions many years ago, the feat shocked the world. He demonstrated to musically-conscious Europe the talent to be found here in the United States. The American public subsequently adopted the concerto almost as our own, and it is now the best known and perhaps best loved of all piano concerti by American audiences.
The concerto’s form is roughly symmetric. A short middle movement serves as an interlude between two dramatic outer movements, either of which would be an effective concert piece standing alone. The first movement is especially massive, and by itself exceeds the length of any Mozart concerto. It opens with a highly familiar horn fanfare followed by an extremely dramatic first theme stated by the piano – all in the “wrong” key compared to the body of the movement. Neither of these themes are used again once the work really gets going. This was a totally different approach from the great concerti that Rubenstein knew and admired, and probably had something to do with his initial reactions. No matter, the dramatic introduction served Tchaikovsky’s expressive needs.
The solo part abounds with virtuosic writing, technical difficulties, odd rhythmic counterpoints to the orchestra. Much of the last movement is a controlled frenzy, interspersed with grand sweeping lyricism by the orchestra. One seldom notices these individual details, though, for they are merely the composer’s vehicle of expression. Although lacking a story line or program, the music evokes the drama of the theater rather than a sterile construction of the intellect. Tchaikovsky’s good sense in sticking with his original concept, rather than following Rubenstein’s suggestions for revisions, has been the great fortune of audiences and a triumph of creativity over conventionality
Variations on “America”
Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)
Orchestrated by William Schuman
Charles Ives might be the most significant American composer from the last “turn of the century”. His music is certainly the most unusual! His experimental concepts were a quantum leap beyond anything else happening in the country at that time, and ahead of the avant garde of Europe, as well. Born in Danbury, Connecticut, Ives was a New Englander through and through. His father, a military bandmaster, gave him a solid foundation in music theory and encouraged his early experiments in composing. Ives became an accomplished church organist in his teens, and was fascinated with new and unusual effects for the instrument. The elder Ives wanted his son to be a truly educated man, sending him to Yale. This proved to be a wise investment, for after graduation Charles went into the insurance business, eventually becoming a self-made millionaire.
While at Yale, he was one of the first students in its fledgling music department, studying with Horatio Parker. Parker would eventually be recognized as one of the foremost musical educators in the United States, who greatly influenced the development of American musical composition in that time. Young Ives, though, was the bane of Parker’s existence. Almost from the beginning, Ives had perfect command of whatever Parker tried to teach him. But the young composer disdained Parker and his lessons as being unimaginative. Almost every example of Ives’ mature experimentalist style will show the listener why.
Ives’ later compositions are the musical equivalent of cubism in painting. He would invariably decompose familiar music (frequently his own aural impressions of New England America) into bits and pieces of melody and harmony, of mood and feeling. These he would then transform – twisting familiar melodies subtly, adding dissonance, introducing sharp contrasts, playing different fragments simultaneously in different keys, and various other musical nonsequiturs. Finally, he would reassemble the pieces! The ensuing work is often hard to listen to, and was usually shunned by the average audience (as well as critics from the time). Ives didn’t care. His highly successful insurance business allowed him the freedom to write what he felt, not what the public wanted.
Variations on “America” is a youthful work, very approachable by Ives’ standards, but foreshadowing his mature musical style. Originally composed for organ, he submitted it for publication at age 17 (long before he attended Yale). It was, of course, rejected – its style probably mystifying the intended publisher. That version is full of typical Ivesianisms. For example, at one point the two hands play the same melody simultaneously but offset by one measure and in completely different keys. William Schuman’s 1962 orchestration actually enhances Ives’ conception by giving distinctly different instrumental colors to individual melody lines and harmonic fragments, which might otherwise get lost in the thick texture of the organ. As a result, the audience can clearly hear the creativity and playfulness that would develop into the brilliant (although misunderstood) genius of the mature Charles Ives
Prelude and Mazurka from Act I of “Coppelia”
Leo Delibes (1836-1891)
Leo Delibes grew up in a musical family. Although his father (who died when he was merely eleven) was a postal clerk, his mother was an opera singer and his uncle an organist. They promoted his love for music and provided his initial training, which was good enough to get him into the Paris Conservatory as a prodigy. Here he was so successful that he accomplished the remarkable feat of earning the First Prize in Solfège (reading and singing a melody line by its musical symbols – the familiar do, re, mi, fa, sol, etc., … as well as those syllables most of us don’t know, for the notes outside the normal scale). And he did it at age 14!
While at the conservatory he studied composition with the French opera composer Adolph Adam (probably most famous for his Christmas carol Oh, Holy Night), but Delibes’ real interest was in following his mother’s footsteps as an opera singer. He debuted in a Meyerbeer opera at age seventeen. However, his singing career went nowhere and he accepted appointment as a church organist (thus following in the footsteps of his uncle, as well). Given time to compose, he eventually found his true talent. Most of his music is for the theater, especially light opera. He premiered his first operetta in 1856, and turned out one per year for the next dozen years or so. Most of these have disappeared, but he eventually composed three more substantial masterpieces: the opera Lakmé and the ballets Coppelia and Sylvia have all become established in the repertory. His music is most noted for its wit, charm, elegance and grace, rather than for its dramatic impact. The selection heard here is a perfect example.
The Prelude and Mazurka was arranged as a concert piece, fusing two separate musical moments from the first act of his ballet Coppelia, based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann (author of The Nutcracker). A lovely chorale by the horns opens the Prelude, and leads to the elegant Mazurka which actually occurs much later in the first act. As is common with the classical ballet, many of the musical moments have nothing to do with the story line, but merely provide the dancers with a vehicle for performance. Such is the case with the Mazurka, which is a Polish country dance form similar to the waltz, with a different accent pattern. In contrast to the swirling grace of the waltz, it is more reserved and aristocratic, usually danced with a prideful bearing (although several parts of this mazurka display a touch of abandon, and one moment is actually powerful enough as to have been described as “dancing in hip boots”). Even when played in the concert hall, it is easy to call to mind the corps de ballet in their brilliantly colored costumes and their graceful movement.
Variations, Chaconne and Finale
Norman Dello Joio (b. 1913)
Norman Dello Joio is probably the most-honored American composer that the average classical music fan knows least. His output includes most forms of serious music, from solo piano through symphony orchestra to opera. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Music Critics Award (twice) and two Guggenheim fellowships, not to mention an Emmy award for the score for a TV production. He has taught at Mannes College, Sarah Lawrence College and was the Dean of the School of Fine Arts of Boston University. For many years he directed the Contemporary Music Project for Creativity in Music Education, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, which placed promising young composers in public schools throughout the country to provide original creative music for their ensembles. He has been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Yet most of his work is largely unkown to concert audiences. This is truly a shame, because his music has instant appeal whenever it is performed, however rarely.
He was appointed organist of the Star of the Sea Church on Long Island at age 18, and received most of his formal education in New York City (first at the City College and eventually at Juilliard). His most famous mentor was Paul Hindemith who encouraged him to compose naturally, rather than to adhere to formal compositional techniques that meant nothing personally. Following his mentor’s advice, Dello Joio avoided the “movements” that pervaded modern music of the time – for example: atonal, avant garde, neoclassical, and aleatory (music by chance) – musical styles that most audiences cannot relate to. Instead, as his starting point he drew upon elements of the music he had grown up with: American jazz of the 20’s and 30’s, music of the Catholic church (especially Gregorian chant) and nineteenth century Italian opera. From these he synthesized music that is invariably melodic, pleasant and highly approachable.
The Variations, Chaconne and Finale, for which he won the New York Music Critics’ Award, was one of his earliest works. It was originally conceived by Dello Joio as a set of Symphonic Dances, which was its title at its first performance. All three movements are thematically interrelated, but feature different rhythmic approaches to the melodic materials. The basic theme, presented as the opening oboe solo in the first movement, is taken from 15th century Gregorian chant, which was for a very long time the only officially accepted use of music in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church. The rhythm of the initial statement of this particular melody, “de Angelis” (from the Kyrie section of the Mass of Angels), has been altered somewhat to make it more “songlike” in the style of modern musical tradition, rather than a simple chant. The rest of the movement presents the same melody (sometimes broken into fragments) in a variety of rhythms that cover the full spectrum of tempos.
The second movement, Chaconne, is based on multiple repetitions of the four-note sequence that begins the main theme. It becomes almost hypnotic as it builds slowly from its quiet start through a powerful climax before subsiding into the distance. The Finale presents the religiously oriented theme in purely secular rhythmic terms. It opens with fragments of the main theme expressed through powerful driving rhythms. The syncopated beat patterns seem related to jazz – yet somehow different. Surely Dello Joio drew upon the elements of jazz that would appear so often in his later music, but he did not simply imitate the jazz idiom. He used it as a point of departure from which to shape the music, not as a destination for the music’s arrival. The piece closes with a mighty chorale that recombines the original chant melody with the rhythmic tension of the finale’s opening to bring the work to a brilliant close. A show-stopper, to close a wonderful and varied show.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly