“BACCHANALE” FROM SAMSON AND DELILAH
CAMILLE SMNT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Late in the nineteenth century a young French composer came to the attention of the eminent Hector Berlioz, who quipped that “the only thing this young genius lacks is inexperience.” The subject of this remark went on to become one of the most influential French composers at the end of the nineteenth century. At the time, Debussy was being reviled for his modernism, Franck was considered a pretentious mystic, and Camille Saint-Saëns was the recognized leader of the conservative establishment. We now recognize how important the experimentation that was just beginning to take place was to the ultimate development of music in the twentieth century. Because Saint-Saëns led the resistance to those experiments, many modernists now tend to regard him as old fashioned and unprogressive, and consign much of his music to the unflattering category of “well-crafted but unimaginative.”
Although it might be appropriate to condemn Saint-Saëns’ reactionary attitudes, it would be a mistake to consider his music unworthy because of his conservatism. He was a consummate craftsman, who wrote music of beauty and power in practically all of the available formats. His piano and violin concerti have become staples of the repertoire, and his well-known Organ Symphony (really an orchestral work that uses organ as just one more instrumental color) is full of powerful inspiration.
In his own time he was very popular for his stage works, and at least one of his operas, Samson and Delilah, was a huge success. Although it has fallen from the everyday operatic repertoire, it is still revived occasionally. One of its orchestral interludes, however, has become so familiar that it has almost been relegated to the realm of Pop-orchestral compositions, the Bacchanale. Nearly everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of Samson, mighty champion of Israel, who fell under the love-spell of Delilah. Her discovery that his strength was embodied in his flowing locks, and her subsequent seduction (in which she cuts off his hair at his own unthinking request) makes for a dramatic plot around which to build an opera. When Samson discovers what she has done to him he realizes that her love was false, but he is powerless. In the final scene, many months later when his hair has regrown and his strength has returned, he brings down the temple upon his captors by pushing apart the pillars to which he is chained. All this is just the sort of spectacle that the French loved in their grand opera, and Saint-Saëns knew how to ride the crest of the wave of public sentiment.
Early in the opera, the Bacchanale (which is really the ballet scene customary in French grand opera) is a festival in tribute to the god Bacchus, patron of all things sensual. It opens with an exotic oboe solo, whose middle-eastern flavor evokes the lithe image of a dancer sinously swirling behind flowing veils, to please the onlookers lounging on their pillows. Suddenly, the party comes to life and quickly grows into a revelry, as the guests are drawn into a frenetic dance. As this excitement builds all around them, Samson and Delilah drift into a private world of their own. The music presents a serene interlude that turns into a sensuous episode, as a bond develops between the two star-crossed lovers. Its tender themes transform into passionate melodies, until they eventually give way to the original dance music. This grows more and more intoxicated until it reaches a frenzied climax, as the guests fall exhausted from their efforts. The emotional content of the music is seductive, and Saint-Saëns’ passionate writing gives the lie to his image as a conservative with craftsmanship but no imagination.
CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN, CELLO AND ORCHESRA op. 102
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms was the last of the famous “Three B’s”, born six years after the death of the man he is most often compared to, Ludwig van Beethoven. His music followed in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor, and it is well known that he waited until late in life before he undertook to write a symphony. Surprisingly, he waited several more years before writing a major concerto for strings (his Violin Concerto), and his Double Concerto is one of his very last major works. This time it was not because he feared comparison to Beethoven. By then Brahms had become completely secure in his public position as one of the world’s foremost composers. More likely, the delay was because of the technical problems inherent in trying to write for multiple soloists.
Though the literature is full of concerti for all types of instruments, there are only a few which call for several distinct solo instruments in the same work. Some feature several soloists on identical instruments, such as Schumann’s Konzertstuck for Four Horns (performed last year by the Immaculata Symphony) and the many Baroque concerti for multiple violins. In these cases, it is relatively easy to showcase the characteristic sound colors of that instrument. Some feature soloists playing instruments of radically different character, such as Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertantes (one for Flute and Harp, another for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn), when it is possible to contrast the styles and sounds of the instruments, to achieve a very effective result.
Very few, however, feature different instruments that have essentially similar character. The most difficult combination of all must be the violin and the cello, because these are the two most dominant instruments in the full symphony orchestra. Their symphonic usage is so similar that it is hard to contrast them, but their sounds are so dissimilar that it is equally hard to blend them. Brahms was a perfectionist regarding form, and surely considered it a challenge to balance the two instruments, giving each its proper exposure in the spotlight, while still crafting a piece that met his own standards for both beauty and correct musicality
Both solo parts are truly virtuosic, but are never merely pyrotechnics (as in the many Romantic concerti for violin). The accompaniment is rich, but never overdone. Its climaxes make powerful use of the full orchestra, using the same orchestration as in his symphonies (except for the absence of trombones), but otherwise it displays elegant restraint. It is well known that Brahms never wrote a concerto for cello, partly because he worried that its capabilities were too limited to carry the focus of a major concerto. He had to have shared the same apprehensions when he began the Double Concerto. He countered his own concerns by giving the very first major statement (which is quite dramatic and powerful) to the cello by itself, leaving its solo partner silent. When the violin enters shortly afterward with an equally dramatic statement, the cello adds its voice to the end of the passage. It was as if Brahms were deliberately saying that the cello can carry its own weight… It doesn’t need the violin to give it legitimacy. The violin, meanwhile, can accept the cello as an equal partner when it must.
After giving each soloist an opportunity to dramatically state its own case, Brahms returns to the classical structure of a concerto, and the orchestra plays an extended introduction before the soloists return to begin the main substance of the work. The opening movement is the longest and most dramatic of the three. As with his own Violin Concerto the orchestral introduction is long and involved, centered around a theme to be taken up later by the solo instruments. The ensuing development by the soloists is truly symphonic in scope, as the orchestral theme is expanded and transformed by both soloists, sometimes separately but more frequently in combination. The second movement is slow and stately, not melancholy but deep and thoughtful, and it contains some of the most delicately beautiful orchestration that Brahms ever wrote. The finale is full of energy and vitality, showing off both soloists and occasionally calling on the orchestra for blazes of fiery brilliance matching those in his symphonies. It is impossible to know what Brahms would have written in the way of a concerto for cello alone, had he not distrusted the range of its expressive capability. However, it is clear that in this masterpiece he demonstrated it to be a worthy partner, able to match the violin note for note and emotion for emotion. If the individual ‘skyrockets’ available to its ‘fireworks’ were different from those of the violin, so what? The individual movements are enhanced by the differences, and the totality is greater than the sum of its parts.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
George Gershwin was born into a family of Russian immigrants, living in a poor Jewish community in lower Manhattan. When he was ten years old his parents indulged the family in a rare luxury: they bought an upright piano, which would transform young George’s life. He quickly taught himself to play in a rudimentary fashion and began improvising tunes. His parents recognized his musical interests, and hoping that this might indicate true talent they scraped up enough money to provide him with lessons. He quickly outdistanced the local piano teachers, and began studying with true professionals. From them he learned not only keyboard, but also music theory and the ins and outs of the music business.
His early familiarity with the practical aspects of musical life might be considered either a blessing or a curse. He dropped out of school at age sixteen to seek his fortune on Tin Pan Alley, as pianist and hawker of songs. His perseverance combined with true talent led him to succeed in a difficult field where most who tried ended up in failure. His first big hit was the song Swanee, recorded in 1920 by vaudeville star Al Jolson. It catapulted Gershwin’s name to prominence, and his career was launched. In time, George Gershwin became the most successful (and one of the wealthiest) composers ever to emerge onto the American musical scene.
He had already achieved several successes for the Broadway stage when orchestra leader Paul Whiteman commissioned him to write and perform a piece for piano and jazz orchestra. As a performer, Gershwin was a great jazz/pop improviser so the piano part was easy. However, he lacked real training on other instruments, so his accompaniment (although well composed and theoretically correct) had to be orchestrated by Whiteman’s arrangers. This led to the celebrated collaboration with Ferde Grofé (whose Grand Canyon Suite was performed by the Immaculata Symphony last year) in the famous Rhapsody in Blue. Because he felt somewhat humiliated at having to have another composer orchestrate his greatest serious composition, Gershwin then taught himself enough orchestration to handle the full symphony orchestra. He vowed that he would create true orchestral compositions that were his and his alone. The most famous of these is An American in Paris, which nowadays may be played even more frequently than Rhapsody in Blue.
It seems out-of-place to call a jazz -oriented piece by the erudite description ‘tone poem’ or ‘symphonic portrait’, but that is exactly what it is. It perfectly evokes the image of a bustling cosmopolitan city, and a casual visitor adrift on its currents. The famous taxi-horn imitations, which are played at various times by trumpets, horns, trombones (and in one spot by actual air horns in the percussion section) truly sound like what they represent. Saxophones, infrequent members of the symphony orchestra, summon the image of a night club jazz band. Winds and brasses portray the whirlwind pace of hard-edged reality (appointments, business deals, and rush, rush, rush) even while lush strings invoke the visitor’s tender side (falling in love with a local mademoiselle, perhaps?) This delightful visit to the continent’s most famous city has long been a favorite of concert-goers, even those who sometimes scorn serious classical music. It is also a perfect miniature replica of the composer’s own personality and life. Could it have been titled “A Tin Pan Alley Songster in New York”? Well, that might not sound so chic, but it would have been just as apropos.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly