KONZERTSTÜCK FOR FOUR HORNS AND ORCHESTRA, OP.86
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Horn concerti. In the early golden age for the instrument Mozart wrote four wonderful works that have become the standard for the instrument. His contemporary, Francesco Rosetti, also composed several equally colorful horn concerti which are now virtu-ally unknown. Jan Vaclav Stich-Punto was Europe’s greatest virtuoso and he needed a steady stream of new works worthy of his skill: he produced two dozen. Carl Maria von Weber composed a virtuoso landmark, but given those who preceded him, he dared call his only a Concertino. Even both Haydns took a crack at the medium. In older days, Vivaldi and Telemann had written scores of works for solo horn, two horns, even four horns.
Many of these works for solo horn were masterpieces, some were mundane. But all suffered from the same problem. The original horn was only a single fixed length of tubing, with no valves. Limited by the physics of sound, each could produce only a few of the notes of the scale. Virtuosi developed techniques to raise or lower the pitch of a note by stuffing their hand into the bell (which accounts for the strange playing position of the modern instrument), but even the most accomplished at this hand horn tehnique couldn’t get all the possible notes. Furthermore, the quality of sound changed from one note to the next as the player exerted every skill to try to bring the “impossible” notes in tune.
Early in the nineteenth century, several clever crafstmen invented valves. Early valves were clumsy, the instrument was heavy and virtuosi had no skill at playing them. So the valved horn was met by resistance from composers and players alike. The natural (valveless) horn continued to be the staple of the orchestra long after the valved horn became available. However, time marches on and progress happens in spite of resistance, so by the middle of the century a few young hornists had switched to the instrument (whose valves had been improved greatly by then), even though conservative traditionalists refused. At about this time Robert Schumann, who considered himself part of the musical “new wave”, took it as a challenge to compose something for horn that would use all of the notes, in the same lyrical and virtuosic way that a violinist could. In the space of theee days he wrote an Adagio and Allegro for horn with piano accompaniment that required the new valved instrument. Fired with enthusiasm, he set pen to paper and sketched- in only two days -what would become the pinnacle of horn concerti for modern hornists: the Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra. Say the word “Konzertstück” to a hornist, and the piece is identified. You don’t even need to mention the composer’s name or the full title.
The piece was composed during Schumann’s most prolific single year, 1849, when he produced more than thirty major pieces, as well as many songs and short piano works. His health was failing and he was only a couple of years away from the madness that would eventually destroy his sanity and claim his life. Nevertheless, in this one year he turned out some of the most exuberant and joyful writing of his entire career, and the Konzertstück fits this description perfectly. After two short chords, the entire orchestra is silent for a moment, anticipating. The four soloists enter with a vibrant fanfare that sets the tone for the whole work. The quartet gets to relax for a moment while the orchestra introduces the first theme-and it is their last moment of relaxation for quite a while. Once they resume playing, it is non-stop virtuosity until the end of the movement. Schumann takes advantage of the valves to do all the things that were previously impossible: modulations to new keys, chromatic elements in the melodic line, complete scales with all notes present (especially impossible in the lower register on a natural horn, even for hand-horn virtuosi). He creates a movement that is unbridled and joyful – and which calls for extremes of endurance and virtuosity of the players: the principle part has eight high C’s in the first movement alone, and the four different solo lines are woven together like a finely embroidered tapestry, each thread full of filigrees and ornaments.
The second movement is a lyrical, sensual song-like respite (Schumann’s greatest skill was in the song, rather than composing for the full orchestra). The movement opens and closes with a duet for two horns, separated by a lush four-part chorale that displays perhaps the richest sort of sound that a full horn section can create. No moments of heroism or bravado here, simply pure lyrical beauty. A short bridge to the finale, introduced by a quiet fanfare in the trumpets, returns the piece to the vigorous style of the first movement. The quartet once again is called on for virtuoso agility and bravura style-and both high horns have to play more C’s, with the first horn even called on for D’s’! Throughout the work, the feeling is optimism and joy. Few scholars consider this work much more than a display piece, but that is probably unfair. It is full of light, airy melody and evokes a mood of unbridled exuber-ance. Schumann himself considered it one of his best. Few hornists consider it anything less than the masterwork for the full quartet.
SWEDISH RHAPSODY NO.1, “MIDSOMARVAKA,” OP. 19
HUGO ALFVEN (1872-1960)
Few Scandinavian composers, notably Sibelius (Finland), Grieg (Norway) and recently Nielsen (Denmark), have achieved the cosmopolitan acceptance that the greatness of their music deserves. Hugo Alfven ought to be added, as the Swedish representative to this illustrious quartet. He composed five symphonies, several ballets (to mythological subjects reminicent of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt) and a multitude of choral works. All are characterized by his excellent command of musical language and a truly inventive use of melody and harmony in the Romantic era tradition. His music is currently undergoing a revival of interest in Sweden. In spite of the polished quality of his works, few in America even recognize his name, let alone know most of his music. Yet almost everyone recognizes his most famous work – the Swedish Rhapsody no.1, subtitled “Midsommarvaka”, or midsummer vigil.
Hugo Alfven studied violin and composition at the Stockholm Conservatory. A talented performer, he was appointed deputy concert master of the Royal Opera Orchestra at age 18. While with the orchestra he wrote two of his five symphonies and the first of his Swedish rhapsodies. He was later appointed musical director of a well-respected chorus, and much of his later output was for voices. However, his greatest works are instrumental, and the Swedish Rhapsody is among the best. As a young man he was also a painter with more than a small ability, and this music translates his skill with coloration into the world of sound.
The work paints a symphonic portrait of a nightlong wedding festival in the land of the midnight sun. It draws upon peasant tunes as its building blocks, and through them makes us feel all the emotions of the occasion – good humor, fun, excitement, ten-der romance. It opens with a bouncy little clarinet tune, perhaps signaling the joyous mood of the guests arriving for the party, which soon gets into full swing. Several moments later we see the results of the party, as two guests (represented by a trombone and a bas-soon) appear to have celebrated a bit too much as they stagger around slightly tipsy (or worse!). Somewhat later, a tender love song (first given to the English horn and then the French horn) can only represent the idyllic joy of the happy couple as they have escaped from the throng to spend a few moments by themse1ves. The party, however, resumes with a rousing dance that continues until morning arrives with a dramatic climax. Alfven himself intended for the work to portray “the season of light, when all na-ture awakens to play, and people are happy”. He succeeded admirably.
GRAND CANYON SUITE
FERDE GROFé (1892-1972)
Ferde Grofé was among the first in a long list of modern Ameri-can orchestral composers who chose to exploit their talents primarily in the field of “popular” music, rather than “classical” music. Born in Brooklyn, he studied in Leipzig, then returned to America as a violist for the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. The turning point in his career came when Paul Whiteman lured him into pop music, hiring him in 1920 as arranger and occasional pianist for his band. Grofé’s arrangements were partly responsible for Whiteman’s pre-eminence in “symphonic jazz”, the forerunner of the “big band” movement which dominated American popular music in the 30’s and 40’s. It was here that Grofé encountered George Gershwin, who was at that time composer/pianist for Whiteman.
Grofé’s masterpiece in this “popular symphonic” idiom might be his orchestration of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (some feel that the orchestral color of the Rhapsody is as much responsible for its success as Gershwin’s inventive rhythmic and melodic inspirations). But if not the Gershwin orchestration, Grofé’s greatest success surely was the Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé published about two dozen orchestral works, mostly in the 30’s, all of which fused elements of jazz or pop styles with the rhythmic and formal complexity of symphonic music. The Grand Canyon Suite is the only one to have made it into the standard concert repertoire of American symphony orchestras.
The highly programmatic Suite derives from only a very few melodic themes. It depends mainly on orchestral coloration and brazenly imitative sounds to evoke its impressions, such as the famous donkey bray in On the Trail. Surprisingly, Grofé himself left behind some personal memoires which admitted that many of his inspirations originally had nothing to do directly with the Grand Canyon itself. For example the melody of the traveler’s song was not a cowboy tune, but a lullaby that he crooned to his infant son. And the cloudburst was inspired by a storm over a Wisconsin lake. Nevertheless, the work has come to be considered a definitive pictorial representation of the scenic beauty of the American west.
Notes published along with the score suggest an interpretation of the work’s impressionist programme. Although they are not Grofé’s own words, few can quarrel with their characterization of the music. Sunrise: “Early morning on the desert. The sun rises slowly, spattering the darkness with the rich colors of dawn…from beyond the horizon a brilliant spray of colors announces the full break of day”. The Painted Desert: “The desert is silent and mysterious, yet beautiful. As the bright rays of the sun are reflected against majestic crags and spread across the sands in varying hues, the entire scene appears as a canvas thick with the pigments of nature’s own blending.”
On the Trail: “A traveler and his burro are descending the trail. The sharp hoof beats of the animal form an unusual rhythmic background for the cowboy’s song. The sounds of a waterfall tells them of a nearby oasis. A lone cabin is sighted, and as they near it a music box it heard. The traveler stops at the cabin for refreshment. Now fully rested, the traveler journeys forth at a livelier pace. The movement ends as man and burro disappear in the distance.” Sunset: “Now the shades of night sweep over the golden hues of day. As evening envelops the desert in a cloak of darkness, there is a suggestion of animal calls coming from the distant rim of the canyon.” Cloudburst: “We hear the approach of the storm. Lightning flashes across the sky and thunder roars from the darkness. The torrent of rain reaches its height in a cloudburst, but the storm disappears rapidly and the moon comes from behind clouds. Nature again rejoices in all its grandeur”.
Had he stuck with purely classical music, Grofé might have turned into an American Respighi. His music is colorful and evocative, much in the same manner as the famous Italian composer of The Pines of Rome. Instead, he turned towards the safer-and more lucrative-career in popular music. However, the Grand Canyon Suite guarantees him his place among the immortals.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly