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PROGRAM NOTES - Brahms, Copland & Saint-Saë ns
February 24 & 25, 2018


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Aaron Copland, 1900-1990

Music for Theatre

In the early 1920s, jazz was considered out of place in the concert hall, especially in conservative Boston. But when the Boston Symphony’s conductor, Sergey Koussevitzky, commissioned Aaron Copland for a work for the 1925 season, the composer presented him with a work full of jazz rhythms and blues harmonies. Premiered in November 1925, the Boston audience was up in arms. Koussevitzky, while he liked the work and performed it frequently, had trouble with the unfamiliar rhythms and it took him a while to get comfortable with it.

Copland wrote: “Music for Theatre [He preferred the British spelling] was written with no specific play in mind…The music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere, so after developing the idea into five short movements, I chose the title." And he added: “Music for the Theatre and my other compositions of this “jazz period” sounded American; they could not have been written by a European. That is precisely what I intended at the time.”

Although Music for the Theatre is infrequently performed now, Copland must have regarded it as a seminal work. It is Copland’s first composition to employ the classic Copland sound, and contains melodies, harmonies and rhythms that continually recur in all his jazz-oriented works, as well as all his ballets.
Among the unusual aspects of this five-movement work is its orchestration. After the chamber orchestra complement of strings, the winds consist of one each: flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, B-flat/E-flat clarinet, bassoon and trombone, plus two trumpets, piano and assorted percussion. The soloists and first-chair strings get plenty of opportunity to shine. These solo opportunities are analogous to jazz riffs over syncopated accompaniments

Each movement is an atmospheric piece, rather than part of a cohesive narrative – although it’s fun to devise a somewhat convoluted plot to accommodate all the mood shifts. The Prologue, introduced with an elaborate trumpet and drum fanfare, suggests a combination of the opening of a Shakespeare history play and a foretaste of Billy the Kidd. But that’s where the analogy ends. The mood turns serious, containing a motive that morphs into a lyrical oboe solo. A duet between clarinet and piccolo picks up the pace into a jazzy, bluesy sonata form and a reprise of the oboe solo.

The second movement, Dance, is more or less a Charleston, featuring the bassoon, clarinet and solo trumpet. A mini-quote from the popular 1890s song “East Side West Side” brings up a series of clarinet riffs that sound like Gershwin, who was writing similar riffs about the same time.
The Interlude functions as the conventional slow movement in a multi-movement work. It opens with a mournful solo for English horn (what else?) and progresses through languid solos for every instrument.

If, indeed, there was some sort of plot in Copland’s head, it may have concerned his hero’s descent into a world of sin. The quirky opening of Burlesque could easily be a music hall’s comic lead-in to the real attraction of demi-monde young ladies.

The Epilogue reprises the more somber music of the Prologue, including a saccharin violin solo (the heroine forgiving her lover for his lapses in the previous movement?).


Camille Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921

Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Cello & Orchestra, Op. 33 

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, who wrote his first piano compositions at age three. At ten he made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos, and offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory as an encore. In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism.

The defeat of France at the hands of Prussia in 1871 shocked the country’s pride and spurred a revival of French arts and letters. One of the results was the founding by Saint-Saëns and his colleagues of the Société Nationale de Musique, whose motto and purpose was “Ars Gallica.” (French art). One of its offshoots was the establishment of three newly energized competing symphony orchestras in Paris by three great conductors – Édouard Colonne, Jules-Étienne Pasdeloup and Charles Lamoureux – who urgently looked for new works by French composers.

Saint-Saëns composed the Cello Concerto in 1872 in response to this demand. It is in three continuous movements without pause, in the manner of the Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. Unlike the standard classic concerto, Saint-Saëns’s Concerto opens with only a single orchestral chord, after which the soloist introduces the principal themes. The first one is an assertive and virtuosic melody that will be revisited throughout the Concerto as a unifying device. The cello also introduces the standard contrasting second theme. There is virtually no development section in this movement, merely a varied restatement of the themes in order. The second theme gradually softens the mood and the music glides into the second movement, an understated minuet in the orchestra.  When the cello enters, it plays a counter-melody over the minuet and then a little waltz on its own. Once again, the end of the Minuet blends without pause into the Finale.

While many nineteenth century works bring back the opening theme at the end as a way of providing closure and an arch-like structure, Saint-Saëns expands greatly on this architectural concept. The Finale, the longest of the movements, continues the development of the opening theme of the Concerto but also includes a new more expansive second theme, as well as a burst of new thematic material, and, of course, rapid scales, arpeggios and high harmonics that permit the soloist to indulge in virtuosic brilliance. The Concerto concludes with a coda, accelerating the tempo for a dramatic finish.

David Popper, 1843-1913

Hungarian Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68

Born in the Prague ghetto, the son of a cantor, David Popper became one of the outstanding cellists of the second half of the nineteenth century. He kept up intensive international soloist activities while serving first for five years as principal cellist with the Vienna Court Opera and member of the famous Hellmesberger Quartet, and in 1896 becoming professor at the Budapest Royal Conservatory.

Most of Popper’s compositions are for his own instrument. They are a means to an end, the goal being to present the cello at its most pleasing and advantageous. Some of his short pieces, such as Papillon, Tarantelle and Mazurka, were obligatory on any cello recital. By the time of his death, however, his name was nearly forgotten.

The Hungarian Rhapsody uses a few Hungarian Roma (Gypsy) tropes, but many of the melodies reflected the popular ditties played by itinerant musicians in Viennese coffee houses and restaurants. Moreover, the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed a disparate collection of ethnic groups whose musical traditions tended to conflate. For the true Hungarian idiom, the world would have to wait for the ethnomusicological fieldwork of Béla Bartók. In all, it is a spectacular showcase for cello technique and expressiveness.

The standard form of rhapsodies of Liszt and Brahms drew from the Verbunkos, a recruiting dance of the Austrian Imperial Army in the eighteenth century. The typical trajectory of these traditional pieces involved a sultry, slow opening (lassu), followed by a fast conclusion (friss). Because it employs the concerto-like dialogue between orchestra and soloist, Popper’s rhapsody toggles between the two styles.

Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

Symphony No. 22 in E-flat Major, Der Philosoph

Franz Joseph Haydn’s nearly 30 years as a liveried servant in the household of the princes Esterházy gave him an unequalled free hand for his creative work. As he wrote to his biographer later in his life: “My employer was satisfied with everything I produced; I received applause and praise; as the Director of the orchestra I was allowed to experiment and observe…i.e. I had the chance to improve, to make additions and cuts, to take risks. I was isolated from the world; there was no one nearby to confuse or irritate me, and so I had no choice but to be original.”

It was an ideal situation for a composer in the eighteenth century, and helped make Haydn one of the most innovative composers of any period. As well as being the virtual creator of the modern string quartet, he was continually seeking ways to counter the expectations of his audience and enliven standard musical forms – especially the symphony – with twists and surprises.

Composed in 1764 for his new Esterházy boss, Prince Nikolaus, the Symphony No. 22 is both old fashioned and aggressively innovative. On the one hand, its form is the dated late-baroque sonata da chiesa (church sonata) sequence of slow-fast-slow-fast movements, a form that was dying out to be replaced by the classical symphony form. On the other hand, Haydn uses prominently two English horns - rather than the customary oboes - an instrument that did not reappear prominently in the symphonic literature until the nineteenth century. In addition, he uses prominently two French horns; considering a string force of fewer than 20 that stood at his disposal, these four wind instruments must have made a powerful impression.

In the opening movement, Adagio, the muted strings are only an accompaniment to the four wind instruments, which present a chorale-like theme, tossing it back and forth between them. During the course of his long career, Haydn often provided significant solo opportunities for his players, creating symphonies in the concertante style, but this combination of horns and English horns is quite novel. Although the movement is in Classical sonata form, its themes do not really contrast in the customary manner; underlying the entire movement is the plodding "walking bass." The movement unfolds like an overture to a majestic drama, or perhaps a slow introduction to the second movement.

The Presto is more conventional in orchestration. The strings are not muted and are the primary carriers of the themes. Also composed in sonata form, it consists of two theme groups, but, as in the first movement, they are also similar in style. 

The Menuetto follows the traditional form, the minuet flanking the Trio symmetrically.  Haydn gives this central section to his quartet of winds.

The Presto finale is a mad rush, its theme recalling hunting horns. The entire movement requires virtuoso staccato playing by the horns and English horns quartet. The surprising harmonic twist at the end is characteristic of the composer's early style and witnesses his debt to the Empfindsamerstil (emotive style) pioneered by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach.
The source of the symphony’s sobriquet, Der Philosoph is unknown but has been in use for a long time. Perhaps the symphony earned it because of the somber and thoughtful opening movement.

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897

Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a

Brahms’s composed this set of variations in 1873 in homage to the classical tradition as epitomized by Haydn. Despite his humble birth, Brahms was by age 40 a musical force to be reckoned with. He had a significant number of piano and chamber works under his belt, as well as the German Requiem and the First Piano Concerto in D minor. Yet, feeling himself ever in the overwhelming shadow of Beethoven, he spent 14 years, from 1862 to 1876, developing the skills and courage to produce his first symphony. The so-called “Brahms/Haydn Variations” was his first purely orchestral work since the two youthful Serenades and the D minor Piano Concerto (all premiered in 1858-59) This new work demonstrated that he had reached the end of his “apprenticeship” and had completely mastered the orchestral palette.

The origin of the theme is obscure. It was brought to Brahms’s attention by organist and musicologist Carl Ferdinand Pohl, librarian of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and a Haydn biographer. Pohl had discovered it in a manuscript of six Feld-Parthien (partitas) for eight wind instruments, or Harmonien, allegedly by Haydn, but possibly by his star pupil Ignaz Pleyel. The Harmonie, or wind band, was a traditional ensemble for outdoor dinner entertainment, consisting of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. In the Haydn manuscript the movement is titled “Chorale St. Antonii,” indicating that it was probably taken from a much older source. Brahms believed, however, that the theme was genuinely by Haydn; he made his own copy (the partitas were only published in 1932) and transformed an obscure melody into one of the best-known pieces in the classical repertoire. Originally, Brahms wrote the Variations for two pianos (Op. 56b). He orchestrated it immediately and published it only two months after the original piano version.

Variation forms date back to the Middle Ages and, until Beethoven, were generally bravura keyboard pieces in which the variations became increasingly elaborate, requiring faster and faster finger work. Only the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach provided the exception that proved the rule. One of the legacies of Beethoven was to greatly expand the ways in which a theme could be changed. No longer a matter of decorative accretions bound by a standardized repeat structure, sets of variations could stretch, distort, re-harmonize, and even obscure the theme in an inner voice. Brahms introduces the theme, using the original wind instrument scoring of the Feld-Parthie. In the eight variations he retains the original phrase length and the harmonic structure of the theme but disguises the melody.

As was his practice in other sets of variations, Brahms made the coda the climax of the work, a chaconne consisting of 24 mini-variations based on a five-measure ground bass derived from the beginning of the bass line of the original theme. The variations become increasingly involved, using ever-changing orchestral forces, rhythmic and melodic variety, culminating in grand restatement of the complete theme by the full orchestra.

David Lockington, b. 1956

Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare

Provided by David Lockington: Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare was written to celebrate the finals of a publicly juried art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The Fanfare at the beginning is constructed from the musical note names derived from Grand Rapids. The sonic splash which follows represents in my imagination somebody throwing a bucket of paint at a wall out of which shapes and melodies emerge. At the end themes combine with chimes and at the first performance downtown church bells were rung at the same time to signify this special moment in the art festival.


Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017 (not including Ceremonial Fantasy Fanfare)