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Concert Notes - 2012-2013 Season

February Notes

About Aaron Copland

Born November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York; died in Tarrytown, New York on November 2, 1990.

Declaring a “greatest American composer” is a fool’s errand. It’s like taking on the challenge of declaring the greatest Austrian composer: is it Mozart? Mahler? Does Beethoven count?

One can single out national composers by generation on much safer ground. An easy argument can be made for Charles Ives for the early part of the American 20th century. Aaron Copland would be a secure choice for the mid-20th century. Elliot Carter would be a plausible choice for the late 20th century.

But if one were to attempt to select the one single person who captured, or created, what we view as the American aesthetic in music, it would certainly be Aaron Copland. In addition to being a composer of films scores (he won an Academy Award in 1949 for The Heiress), ballets, opera and symphonies, he was also a mentor (to Bernstein and Carter), a critic, a conductor and an organizer of important American concerts.

Copland’s parents were Russian immigrants who owned a successful Brooklyn department store. At the age of seven, he composed melodies on the piano and wrote short pieces at age 12. His formal piano lessons were supplemented with concerts, ballet performances, opera and the study of musical scores he found in New York public libraries.

From 1921 to 1924 Copland lived in Paris. He studied with Nadia Boulanger, the most important teacher of the first half of the 20th century. At Madame Boulanger’s Wednesday teas, he met the greatest minds in Europe and pursued his appetite for culture by frequenting the famous Parisian Shakespeare & Company bookstore. He attended all types of musical and dramatic performances and traveled widely throughout Europe.

Upon his return to American he pursued the career of a fulltime composer. Most composers were either fulltime critics or university professors, who composed on the side. Not Copland, who although he struggled early on, was widely regarded as the most important composer by the mid-1940s. His relationship with major conductors, such as Serge Koussevitzky at the Tanglewood Festival, and later Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, helped ensure his music was played, eventually understood, and finally beloved.

Because so much of his music, especially the ballets and film scores, overflow with a marvelous sense of Americana, one naturally expected the man to be similar; a sort of Jimmy Stewart of music. Copland was far from that. An urbane, highly sophisticated New Yorker, he could be sarcastic, flirtatious, and was clearly a product of the entire 20th-century American experience.

For anyone born around the mid-century mark, his music is a pure distillation of America. It seems to embody all that is good, and sometimes great, about the country and therefore us.

A Lincoln Portrait
By Aaron Copland

Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, conductor Andre Kostelanetz wrote to three notable American composers, Jerome Kern, Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. He wanted to commission them to write a “musical portrait gallery of great Americans.”

Copland initially suggested Walt Whitman, which Kostelantz turned down since Kern had already selected a writer, Mark Twain. With Copland, sometimes the most prosaic circumstances netted amazing results: the composer said he had been reading a paperback biography of Lincoln written by the Englishman Lord Charnwood. He had picked it up at a train station and that influenced his decision to select Lincoln for his portrait. In the same year, 1942, Copland wrote his patriotic Fanfare for the Common Man.

The words, arranged by Copland, are Lincoln’s own taken from speeches and letters. Famous speakers who have narrated the work include Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta Scott King, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, James Earl Jones and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Regardless of the speaker, the work is always deeply moving because Copland’s music causes Lincoln’s already powerful words to spring to life. Shortly after a performance of the Lincoln Portrait in Venezuela, the first public demonstration erupted against Dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez and he was soon overthrown.

This most American work by the most American of composers was scheduled to be performed at an inaugural concert for President Eisenhower in 1953. It was cancelled as a result of allegations (later unproven) by Republican Senator Joe McCarthy that Copland was a communist.

Violin Concerto
by Samuel Barber

Born March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania; died in New York City, January 23, 1981.

About The Composer… Samuel Barber is one of the most often performed American composers and for good reason. His music is rich in texture and warmly Romantic; even his instrumental music reflects the natural lyricism of the human voice. Barber’s is a more international style than that of Aaron Copland; it is less reflective of a particular time and place.

At the age of 14, Barber was one of the first students enrolled at the then fledgling (now famous) Curtis Institute of Music. Four years later, he formed a long-term relationship with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who was both influential creatively and professionally helpful.

He won the Prix de Rome and spent two years there (1935-37) where he wrote his first large composition, Symphony In One Movement. The symphony received several important performances, including at the 1937 Austrian Salzburg Festival where it was the first symphonic work ever performed there by an American composer. A year later, the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony performed his First Essay for Orchestra to great success. Barber was now an international success.

Barber won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his opera Vanessa, with a libretto by Menotti. He later wrote his opera Anthony and Cleopatra, with a libretto by Zeffirelli, for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. His second Pulitzer was for his Piano Concerto, written for the first week of the new Philharmonic Hall, also at Lincoln Center.

About This Piece… Barber’s Violin Concerto just brims with the beautiful Late-Romantic qualities of much of his music. The first two movements are lovely and lyrical, but the third and final movement feels like a frenzied display of technique. Although the contrast can be jarring, there’s a story to it.

In 1939, Barber was approached by the hand soap magnet Samuel Fels (of “Fels-Naptha” fame for those of us old enough to remember). Fels and his wife had a young ward, Iso Briselli, a violinist of considerable talent and a schoolmate of Barber’s. Fels proposed to commission a violin concerto for the young man, with $500 up front and another $500 upon delivery.

Barber presented the first two movements to the young man, who felt they didn’t offer sufficient opportunity to show off his technical skills. Barber then delivered the final movement with enough splash and dash to satisfy any wannabe soloist. But Briselli was again unsatisfied and pronounced the final movement too lightweight, given the seriousness and importance of the first two movements (an opinion still held by some critics). A meeting between Barber and the soap king ensued and the matter was resolved in favor of Barber. Barber was able to keep the first payment (he didn’t ask for the final payment and apparently Fels didn’t offer) and Briselli lost out on the chance to premiere one of the great concertos of the 20th century.

Relax and listen to the soft, ravishing opening, so atmospheric and subtle. It really is one of the great moments in all music. Close your eyes and see where it takes you.

Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha)
by Aaron Copland

When the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress commissioned a dance work from choreographer Martha Graham in 1942, she turned to Aaron Copland for the music. In 1944, he delivered a score to her headed simply “Ballet for Martha.” Miss Graham found the title for her ballet in a poem by Hart Crane, and Appalachian Spring became one of her most durable works and one of the best loved of all American compositions. “Appalachian Spring would never have existed without her special personality,” Aaron Copland said in 1974. “The music was created for her and it reflects the unique quality of a human being.”

The action of the ballet, as described in a note in the score, concerns “a pioneer celebration, in spring, around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last (18th) century. The bride-to be and the young farmer husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, that their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple is left quiet and strong in their new house.”

In an interview published in 1975, Miss Graham added, “It is essentially the coming of a new life. It has to do with growing things. Spring is the loveliest and saddest time of the year.”

Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring in 1945.

October Notes

Symphony No. 5

by Sergey Prokofiev

Born April 23,1891 in Sontsovka (now Krasne), Ukraine; died in Moscow on March 5, 1953

This work was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia

About The Composer… Young Prokofiev began piano study at age three with his mother. In the usual Mozart-as-prodigy style, he wrote his first opera at age 9. His teachers were the marquee composers of the day: Glière and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Prokofiev’s early music was defiant and harsh by early 20th century standards, although he eventually settled in to a more harmonically influenced style, first exemplified in his hugely popular First Symphony. In 1918 he undertook a concert tour of America and later Europe – it lasted 15 years. He revisited the Soviet Union twice, in 1927 and 1929, and decided to return permanently in 1933.

His home country was a much different place in 1933 with Joseph Stalin in charge. Prokofiev, generally popular elsewhere, found his music considered in conflict with the “socialist realism” allowed in the arts. Prokofiev attempted to find artistic fulfillment by writing for films; his music for the films Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky is brilliant. He composed Peter and Wolf in 1936. Despite his popular success, the Soviet authorities condemned him in 1948 and he was forced to write a letter “confessing” the error of his ways. Already ill, Prokofiev never recovered his artistic or physical stamina.

Sadly, Prokofiev was never able to experience artistic freedom without the punishing regime of Joseph Stalin: they died on the same day.

About This Piece… During World War II, the Soviet leadership needed inspiration from its artists, and Prokofiev earned a bit of a reprieve from Stalin’s criticism with his Fifth Symphony. Prokofiev created this masterpiece as the Soviets and Allies began to beat back the German army in 1944. In fact, the symphony’s premier in January of 1945 was briefly interrupted by distant gunfire from the Soviet Army celebrating an important victory.

This period marked one of the happiest in Prokofiev’s life, both personally and professionally. He was becoming one of the most famous composers in the Soviet Union; his image appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in November 1945.

Yet, this symphony is considered conflicted by some writers. Yes, it has all the markings of a sunny, heroic celebration of victory, and Prokofiev himself wrote that “it is a symphony about the spirit of man.” The work opens with an expansive theme in the winds, later stated more broadly by the strings, and the whole thing certainly ends with a triumphant bang. One thing is certain: it is a marvelous example of Prokofiev’s ability to create melodies of stunning beauty.

However, beneath it all there seems to be the unresolved tension of the composer’s relationship to the authorities. The light hearted moments of the second and fourth movements are more frantic than joyous. Melodies taking flower in the first and fourth movements get extinguished by the brass section. One wonders about the condition of that “spirit of man” to which the composer referred.

If the work does communicate a victory, is it Prokofiev’s? Or is it Stalin’s? Listen and decide.

Dawn on the Moscow River

by Modest Mussorgsky

Born March 21, 1839 in Karevo, Russia; died March 28, 1881 in St. Peterburg

This work was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia

About The Composer… Mussorgsky enjoyed a comfortable childhood in a wealthy Russian noble family. His mother taught him piano, at which he showed promise, but his father sent him to Cadet School at age 14. He earned his commission four years later. He was handsome, had impeccable manners and was beloved by the society ladies of St. Petersburg for his ability to play piano at social gatherings and balls. At the age of 20, he resigned his commission to take up music full time. Nearly devoid of a formal education in composition technique, he relied on a close circle of musical friends (known as The Russian Five) to inspire and correct him. The income from his father’s land holdings kept him more than afloat financially.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 put an end to his comfortable lifestyle and he necessarily turned to his brother, and later his drinking buddies, for places to sleep and food to eat. He took low level jobs to try to cover his expenses, but a growing dependence on alcohol (initially seen in his Cadet School days) resulted in a low and inconsistent output of musical compositions. Although he rallied in his mid-30s, which is when most of his completed works were composed, Mussorgsky’s life slowly unraveled as he approached 40. In February of 1881, he suffered a seizure, likely alcohol related, and was hospitalized. By now, most of his friends had given up on him, and he died a month later.

About This Piece… Mussorgsky likely could have chosen a more formal music composition education if he wanted. However, his increasingly chaotic lifestyle, combined with his natural desire to take a more radical path, led him to write music that was novel (some say unskilled) in harmony and form. He rejected the then-popular German models of musical form with an intent to create a style uniquely Russian.

This piece is actually an overture to his opera Khovanshchina, which was written between 1872 and 1880 and left unfinished at his death. This overture, really a prelude or introduction, is titled “Dawn on the Moscow River.” Without the opera, it stands alone as a marvelous little gem. Dawn comes gently and slowly with wisps of fog and morning bird song. A folk-like tune is introduced, then taken up and refined by various instruments. The works ends as subtly as it began.

September Notes

Symphony No. 5

by Ludwig von Beethoven

December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany;
died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

About The Composor… The Fifth Symphony occupies a unique point in the middle of Beethoven’s career. In the Fifth Symphony and other music of this period, Beethoven began to shrug off the conventions of the Classic Style associated with Mozart and Joseph Haydn, and look toward a more Romantic discourse. The Fifth Symphony was premiered at a mammoth concert in a freezing cold concert hall in December, 1808. On the program, in addition to the Fifth Symphony, was the Sixth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus, and various vocal works. And just in case the audience felt they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth, Beethoven then hunkered down at the piano and improvised for awhile. It was a five-hour affair which Beethoven, never lacking for self-confidence, later described as “intoxicating.”

About This Piece… There are several reasons why this piece is so well known. For example, the first four notes were used by BBC Radio as the signal for “Victory” in WWII. Much more importantly, this symphony was brilliantly innovative for its time. Beethoven had been experimenting with repeated sequences of the same note in his music –the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto are other examples. But those opening three repeated notes of the Fifth Symphony are the most famous example of this experimentation. The entire work is built upon the concept of sequences of the same note repeated, sometimes in different keys and speeds. This creates an organic unanimity for the entire piece, which was quite novel. Another unique development: the final two sections (or movements) are played, unconventionally, without a pause in between. From a purely fun standpoint, this symphony features one of the most exciting (and extended) endings in the literature.

Overture to The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra)

by Gioacchino Rossini

Born February 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy;
died November 13, 1868 in Paris, France

About The Composer… Rossini shatters the image of the poor struggling composer. He achieved tremendous artistic and financial success with his operas; it was as if he re-invented the art form in Italy and subsequently, reaped the benefit. His innovations in opera included enlarging the size of the orchestra to include more brass and winds, and writing into the music the florid vocal improvisations which, up to this point, had been made by the singers. Perhaps most importantly, he wrote operas on a much larger scale, with more singers, scenery and stage devices than ever before. Rossini was the first to make opera the big drama we think of it today – he put the “grand” in Grand Opera.

For reasons not completely understood, Rossini retired from writing opera in his late 30s; perhaps fair enough since he had already written thirty-two operas by then. He lived to become a sort of Grand Old Man of music in Paris (Wagner felt obligated to make a pilgrimage to visit him) and he died at the age of 72.

About This Piece… Rossini composed his opera The Thieving Magpie in 1817. This charming piece is a classic Rossini overture in both form and style. It begins with an almost stereotypic Italianate march – bold and proud. In the subsequent sprightly section, listen for the famous “Rossini Steamroller.” This is a delightful technique employed in many of his operas: a phrase is repeated again and again (and again), each time getting louder with an inevitability reminiscent of a steamroller. You can’t miss it.

Concerto No. 4 for Horn and Orchestra

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born in Salzburg, Austria January 27, 1756;
died in Vienna, December 5, 1791

About The Composer… The year was 1783, and an important new concerto for horn and orchestra had just been written. The composer, having known the intended soloist since childhood, penned the following heartfelt dedication: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox and fool, Vienna, March 27, 1783.

That dedication encapsulates the warm, deeply personal and sometime hilarious relationship between two men who were quite possibly the greatest of all time in their craft, composer Wolfgang Mozart, and horn player Joseph Leutgeb.

Leutgeb, 24 years older than Mozart, met him when he returned to his hometown of Salzburg to play in the court orchestra with Mozart’s father. Mozart, just seven years old, soon established affection for the man regarded by critics of the day as “the most prominent horn soloist in Vienna, and evidently one of the best received players on any solo instrument.” The child prodigy and accomplished soloist were so close that young Mozart wrote to his father that Leutgeb was one of the people he missed most while on tour.

In fact, Mozart often wrote to Leutgeb and was always trying to encourage the famous player to find work or vacation in cities where he was performing, so the two of them could spend time together. One has the impression that perhaps Leutgeb made Mozart feel secure and familiar in the far flung cities where he concertized. On November 28, 1772, Mozart wrote to his sister from Italy, “Tell Herr Leutgeb that he should just come to Milan. He’ll certainly do himself credit, but he should come soon. Tell him. I’m very keen that he should come. Adieu.”

Mozart wrote a number of pieces for Leutgeb; the implications of which are significant and often overlooked. Much of the music Mozart wrote was intended for him to either perform or lead at concerts that would one way or another generate his own income. For Mozart to devote time to writing concertos for someone else, likely for free or little money, was not merely an act of deep friendship but like writing a check to the intended performer. It should also be noted that when Mozart hit financial hardship, Leutgeb lent him the money to get through.

About This Piece… The horn concertos -- there were likely five, but four survived – are full of devices written by Mozart purely for Leutgeb’s amusement. For example, in the horn solo part of one concerto Mozart wrote, "Take it easy you animal - oh, how flat you play - ouch - oh dear - help! Catch your breath! Get going, get going! What a bleating sheep's trill! You’re finished? Thank heaven!" In another piece Mozart wrote in the orchestra parts “Fast,” but in Leutgeb’s part, “Slow.” And in the concerto we hear at this concert, the Horn Concerto No. 4, Mozart wrote the manuscript in red, green, blue and black inks.

The Concerto No. 4 is written in the grand style similar to Mozart’s most important piano concertos. In the hands of a brilliant horn player, such as our gifted soloist at this concert, the technical difficulties are completely hidden but they are tricky and demonstrate what must have been Leutgeb’s technical prowess.

The concerto is in three separate sections (or movements) performed with a pause between each. The first movement opens with a marvelous bold and confident statement by the orchestra, after which the soloist clearly commands center stage. The second movement is lovely and lyric and could have been written for human voice as much as for the horn. The finale is a gallant “Rondo” in the style of a fox hunt. Mozart was an avid horseman, and this movement proves he was no stranger to the saddle!

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