Pieces

Edward Elgar - Cello Concerto, 4th movement
Program Notes

EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)

CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA in E Minor, Op. 85

IV: Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non-troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio

Composed: 1918-1919
Premiered: London, England, 1920

Deeply shocked by the First World War, Elgar had almost decided to give up composition when he became violently ill with tonsillitis late in 1918, and underwent very risky surgery at a London nursing home. When he came round from the anesthetic, he startled the nurse in the recovery room by demanding a pencil and a piece of paper, on which he scrawled a set of staff lines and the melody which became the basis of his cello concerto. When he finally recovered, he knew that his music had taken a new turn that even he had not seen coming, and this searing elegy was the result – inspired, said the composer, by the terrible sight of his wife “fading away before one’s very eyes.” Alice Elgar lived just long enough to hear the work. The first performance was an under-rehearsed shambles that ground to a halt twice, but at least one member of the orchestra – second-desk cellist John Barbirolli – knew that he was present at the birth of a masterpiece, and promoted it throughout his long career as a conductor.

The finale of the work is largely a summary of the work as a whole; its highlights are taken from the most intense moments of the earlier movements. It begins with what has been called a “recitative” for the cello; indeed, throughout the concerto, the cello appears to be almost literally telling a story of loss and sorrow that does not so much resolve as fade away. The music does, indeed, pick up momentum, even force, as it progresses, but the chase leads to a single, emotionally desolate phrase from the slow movement before banking down to a final glimpse of the opening of the concerto – the melody from the nursing home.

Elgar would live another fifteen years, but would not compose another major work. And, as we know from his letters, he didn’t care.

Felix Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Highlights)
Program Notes

FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Music for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Op.61

Composed: 1826-1842
Premiered: Potsdam, Germany, 1843

  • Scherzo
  • Nocturne
  • Wedding March

In the German-speaking world, August Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare is read as an authentic German classic, revered every bit as much as the English original. The 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was captivated by it – but not only for its evocation of Shakespeare’s wonderland. To young Felix, August Schlegel was not only a literary titan; he was Aunt Dorothea’s exciting brother-in-law. In a scandal that rocked Germany, Aunt Dorothea had dumped her husband and run off with the dashing Friedrich Schlegel, who obligingly divorced his wife for her. Friedrich’s brother August was not far behind in the scandal stakes; August was married an astounding five times. Indeed, his love life was so frantic that the final draft of the complete German Shakespeare had to be proofread and edited by someone else - by Dorothea, in fact. So, when young Mendelssohn wrote his Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was not only announcing himself as an astonishingly mature composer – he was running up his colors in the family war. The Overture launched his European musical career.

Sixteen years later, the King of Prussia personally asked Mendelssohn to compose music for a production of Ein Sommernachtstraum (as Schlegel rendered A Midsummer Night’s Dream) at the Royal Theater in Potsdam. Mendelssohn responded with over an hour of music. He re-used his 1826 Overture, and added a dazzling array of intermezzi, songs and melodramas that very nearly turned the play into a musical. Among these pieces are three of his most famous compositions – the excerpts we are to hear this evening. The Scherzo scurries about, evoking the world of the fairies, while the warm, placid Nocturne gives us the midsummer night itself. The Wedding March was originally the intermezzo between acts Four and Five, and was intended to portray the nuptials of the Fairy Queen Titania and the ridiculous Bottom, who at that stage of the plot has the head of an ass. Because of its bizarre dramatic connotations, the piece is actually discouraged for wedding use in the Catholic Church – quite possibly the Church’s least effective ruling, as any organist will confirm.

Francis Poulenc - Les Animaux modèles (Excerpts)
Program Notes

FRANCIS POULENC (1899-1963)

Excerpts from LES ANIMAUX MODÈLES

Composed: 1941-2
Premiered: Paris, France, 1942

  1. Daybreak
  2. The Lion in Love
  3. Death and the Woodcutter
  4. The Two Roosters
  5. Lunchtime

1942 was a very difficult year to be a composer in Paris. France was now effectively part of the German Reich, split in two very unequal halves; a puppet government ruled the southern part of the country from Vichy, while a German viceroy governed everything else from Paris’s now swastika-bedecked Elysée Palace. Over a million French soldiers were languishing in German prison camps. Many French artists had fled; others chose silence or created in secret for an audience they could only imagine in what seemed then like an unlikely or, at best, distant future.

At forty, Francis Poulenc, a veteran of the First World War, had been too old to be sent to the front line, and was demobilized and sent home rather than bundled off to Germany with his comrades when France fell. With everyone else fled, dead or in camps, it fell to Poulenc to lead French music through the darkness of the occupation. Les Animaux Modèles (Model Animals) was a key work in this vital, difficult and very dangerous task. At every turn, Poulenc stood to be condemned as either a collaborator – a German stooge – or a French troublemaker who could be sent to the camps. Or worse.

In March, 1942, the latest ballet to be produced at the Paris Opera was Werner Egk’s Joan de Zarissa, an officially-approved work by one of the Reich’s rising stars. Predictably, the few French people who attended it detested it. The German propaganda minister, Paul Goebbels, praised the performers from the stage, which did little to help. The next production would be Poulenc’s Les Animaux Modèles, which had been slowly maturing for nearly eighteen months as the composer thought his way out of the musical, political and moral labyrinth facing him.

Telling stories based on La Fontaine’s fairy tales, the stated reasoning went, would not offend anyone. They were indubitably French, but not anti-German, politically innocuous but not actually mindless. The program for the first performance was printed in both French and German (in recognition of the undeniable), but did not tell the actual stories “because everybody knew them.” In fact, hardly any German knew any La Fontaine, which was precisely the point being made. Any more than they knew the song Alsace et Lorraine, a song protesting the German annexation of part of Southeast France in 1870. The Germans didn’t know it, but the French certainly did; by 1940, the song had been sung in every French school for seventy years. Alsace et Lorraine keeps peeping out of the music like an extra character – an extra, German-hating character, hiding in plain sight.

The ballet is set in a French farmyard in the time of Louis XIV, with the dancers costumed not as animals, but as courtiers. The action is framed by the farmers leaving for the fields at the beginning (Daybreak) and returning for the midday meal at the end (Lunchtime). The overarching idea is the world as a farmyard; the main characters are not really animals at all. The Lion is a dissolute seducer confronted with an enraged father when he makes his move on what looked like an easy target; the roosters are – of all things – can-can dancers. In Death and the Woodcutter, Poulenc sums up the entire situation – his as much as the woodcutter’s – when music is used to overcome death itself.

To Poulenc’s intense relief (and not inconsiderable surprise), Les Animaux Modèles was well received by the much-feared Parisian critics. Even the dreaded Arthur Honegger was delighted by it, singling out the violence of The Two Roosters as a possible way forward for the usually urbane Poulenc, and even praising the lyrical passages, entirely without irony, as “purest Poulenc.” In fact, Honegger was one of the few people in Paris who knew that Poulenc had joined a secret Resistance organization for musicians, the Front National Musical. Honegger was, in every sense, in on the joke. It is our privilege to be able to hear this wonderful music from both sides of the joke; however ironic the lyricism may be, it is still Poulenc’s lyricism.

Ottorino Respighi - Fountains of Rome
Program Notes

OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879-1936)

FOUNTAINS OF ROME

Composed: 1916
Premiered: Rome, Italy, 1917

  1. La fontana di Valle Giulia all'Alba (The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn)
  2. La fontana del Tritone al mattino (The Triton Fountain in the Morning)
  3. La fontana di Trevi al meriggio (The Trevi Fountain at Noon)
  4. La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto (The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset)

The premiere of Fountains of Rome should have been conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Alas, he got no further than the end of the first part of the concert before being jeered off in a hail of coins and shoes after conducting three pieces of Wagner. As Respighi himself had pointed out, the German army was shelling Padua at the time, so there was a reasonable case for altering the program, but Toscanini was not one of life’s compromisers. The Respighi had to be conducted by Toscanini’s deputy, and nearly fell apart twice. Meanwhile, Toscanini stomped off for an epic sulk – with Respighi’s niece, as it happens. It was only when Toscanini finally conducted the work a year later that Fountains began its indestructible career as an orchestral showpiece. Toscanini and Respighi continued to bicker over music and (especially) politics until the composer’s death. Toscanini became an idol of the expatriate Italian anti-Fascist movement, while Respighi became the musical poster child for the Fascisti; indeed, if there was an official Fascist composer, it was Respighi, with Licinio Refice a very distant second.

Fountains is actually the closest Respighi came to writing a symphony; he was even encouraged to call the work a symphony by his wife, but seems to have developed cold feet at the thought of facing the legendarily sniffy Roman music critics. Respighi had extraordinarily high musical standards, largely terrorized into him by his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had a similar habit of writing multi-movement tone poems that followed a strangely familiar pattern of movements. Respighi was also a considerable scholar of early music; those fragments of ancient modes that drift across the Valle Giulia are perfectly correct.

Respighi himself once described Rome’s fountains as “the voice of the city,” and this is the key to understanding the work. The first edition of the score had brief explanations by the composer himself:

The first part depicts a pastoral landscape; droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn. A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, the Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water. Next there appears a solemn theme. It is the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the wood to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot. The procession then vanishes, while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance. The fourth part, the Villa Medici Fountain, is announced by a sad theme, which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering, leaves rustling. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.

The reference to birds is particularly interesting. Respighi was so enamored with the presence of birds in his music that his next Roman suite, the Pines of Rome, would become infamous for its use of a recorded bird as one of its instruments – an astonishing anticipation of the musical worlds of Messiaen and Rautavaara by a composer who would have blenched at the thought of being any kind of modernist.

Silvestre Revueltas - "Night of Enchantment" from The Night of the Mayas
Program Notes

SILVESTRE REVUELTAS (1899 – 1940)

LA NOCHE DE LOS MAYAS (The Night of the Mayas)

IV: NOCHE DE ENCANTAMIENTO (Night of Enchantment)

Composed: 1939
Premiered: in movie La Noche de los Mayas, 1939; Suite (arr. Jose Ives Limantour) Mexico City, 1961

There is a scene in the 1935 movie ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! in which the piano player in a very dubious saloon holds up a sign reading “Se suplica no tirarle al pianist” (“Please don’t shoot the pianist”) before taking a heroic pull on a bottle of Tequila and disappearing behind the piano as a firefight erupts around him. That pianist is Silvestre Revueltas, and – alas – the Tequila was real. Revueltas had to be carried off the set at the end of the day’s filming. This tiny cameo of excitement, humor and alcohol could stand as a short summation of the career of Mexico’s most flamboyant, most thoroughly Mexican and most self-destructive composer. He was dead at the age of 40, howling his last as his friends wondered why he wasn’t attending the premiere of his most recent ballet.

Revueltas has much in common with Modest Mussorgsky: ardent nationalism, superb orchestration, endless rhythmic invention – and a tendency not to finish works as the bottle beckoned. Noche de Encantamiento was written as part of the very extensive music for the movie La Noche de los Mayas. Although Revueltas completed the composition score, the orchestration had to be partly farmed out for the music to be ready in time for the film (the composer could not face the recording session); the version which made the work famous (which we hear this evening) was largely recomposed and orchestrated by Revueltas scholar Jose Ives Limantour many years later.

In his music, Revueltas takes the frantic percussive folk music of Mexico and applies Stravinsky’s methods, to give us a pre-Columbian Rite of Spring with enough energy and unlikely percussion instruments to make even the great Russian blench. And not only percussion: not even Stravinsky attempted a solo for conch shell - but here it is, in all its repeated-note, obsessive-rhythm glory. In lesser hands, this material would seem like particularly demented travelogue music, or naïve primitivism. It is neither. It is an astonishingly subtle composer taming extremely unsubtle material into music for the ages. Strictly speaking, the piece is a theme and variations, but by the end the theme has been not so much developed as demolished.

Within a few years of his death, Revueltas had become the hero of an entire generation of Mexican composers; if only they had listened a little earlier.

The subtitle of La Noche de los Mayas is “A Mexican tragedy.” The same could stand as the epitaph of Silvestre Revueltas.

Artie Shaw - Clarinet Concerto
Program Notes

ARTIE SHAW (1910-2004)

CLARINET CONCERTO

Composed: 1940
Premiered: 1940, in movie Second Chorus

What did Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland have in common? The answer is Artie Shaw, who claimed two as wives (he had seven in all) and one (Garland) as a mistress. At the age of 30, he had the astonishing distinction of having his life story filmed and celebrated while he was still very much alive, with two of the greatest stars of the era (Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard) as his feeds. Typically, he outlived the entire cast by nearly ten years. The musical centerpiece of the movie is the very over-titled Clarinet Concerto, a ten-minute blast through every truly scary thing that can be done with and to a clarinet, culminating in a legendary top (very top) C, the highest note the instrument can play without causing canine riots. The piece is a rapid, hair-raising confrontation with boogie-woogie, with short but ferocious exchanges with the tom-toms as the soloist establishes dominance. Concertino would have been more a more appropriate title, but Artie Shaw didn’t do anything small.

About the Concert

Our Season Finale takes a tour around the globe with stops in Italy, France, ancient Mexico, and the magic-filled forest of Shakespeare's famous play. Each tells a short story with its own local flavor, and the amazing talents of our Young Artist Competition winners, actors from the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, and a host of guest drummers help cap off the season with an impressive flourish!