Copland and Elgar
Saturday, December 5, 2015 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Premiered: New York, NY, 1956
The performance history of Candide verges on the deranged. Leonard Bernstein is the sole common denominator in a piece that has boasted the verbal contributions of twelve lyricists over the years – almost one more for each successive production. The present authorized version has finally achieved genuine popularity, despite having the longest composer-lyricist credit in history. The original production crashed and burned after 76 performances; for some years after, the only survivor from the wreckage was the overture. It is now easily the most frequently performed work by an American composer.
The slightly terrifying recommended tempo (half note=152) is very fast indeed; Bernstein once said that he considered marking the piece Allegro troppo (too fast) in ironic homage to the much more familiar Allegro non troppo (not too fast). In a strange melding of Broadway and Rossini overture, the piece tears through the musical highlights of the show – especially Best of All Possible Worlds and Glitter And Be Gay, both of which have survived relatively unscathed from the original show through all its incarnations. However, if ever there was a case of “listen fast,” this is it. This is not so much the overture to the show as a speeded-up movie of it.
AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)
Premiered (Orchestral version): Baltimore, MD, 1946
Danzón Cubano was the product of Copland’s visit to Cuba in 1941 with his partner Viktor Kraft, a violinist who had arrived as a 17-year-old student seven years earlier and stayed to become the composer’s muse, social director and cook. Alas, Kraft’s later life was a horror of drugs and loneliness, but he was indisputably the inspiration for El Salon Mexico – and Danzón Cubano.
Danzón Cubano began life as a piece for two pianos, first performed at New York Town Hall by the composer and Leonard Bernstein in 1941. The piece was orchestrated and expanded five years later for a concert in Baltimore. Copland would later describe his affection for the Cuban Danzón: “The Danzón is a stately dance, quite different from the rumba, conga, and tango, and one that fulfills a function rather similar to that of the waltz in our own music, providing contrast to some of the more animated dances. The special charm of the danzón is a certain naïve sophistication.”
The first-time listener will find this description startling, as “stately” and “naïve” are the last words likely to come to mind as the piece’s four Cuban themes are slammed through the Copland metrical mincer, to emerge in an orgy of complex rhythms and sudden rhythmic dislocations that almost literally drop the audience out of their seats. Neither Copland’s Mexico nor his Havana is “authentically” Hispanic – but both are assuredly authentic Copland.
EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)
VARIATIONS ON AN ORIGINAL THEME (“ENIGMA”) , Op.36
Premiered: London, England, 1899
There are no other works of English music that are simultaneously as popular, and as mysterious, as the Enigma Variations. The rather odd theme that forms the bedrock of the work sounds more like an accompaniment to a melody than an actual melody, a fact reinforced by Elgar’s apparent announcement that it is exactly that – only the “real” melody is never heard, and lurks in the background of the whole work as a ghost, only fleetingly observed through the variations and known only to Elgar himself. It was, he said, a melody that everyone knows. Musicians have since spent over a hundred years looking for the “Enigma” melody.
In fact, it is Elgar’s own curious phraseology gives his game away – “The melody never is heard,” he said. It is now widely accepted that the answer is, in fact, in plain sight. The melody is the chain of interlocking thirds that form the setting of the word “never” in Arne’s Rule Britannia. This little phrase is literally all over the Variations, and is unmissable once listened for.
The Variations originated in a musical parlor game that Elgar played with his wife after returning home one evening. He played a tune on the piano and then proceeded to improvise different versions of it, portraying how their friends might have played the same tune, as his wife shouted suggestions and the Elgars became progressively more giggly.
The Enigma Variations ultimately came to portray fourteen people and a dog; two other friends, Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, were dropped early on, as Elgar wished to avoid writing pastiche. Here are the work’s surviving friends:
C.A.E.: A loving portrait of Elgar’s wife Alice; H.D.S-P.: Hew David Steuart-Powell, the pianist in Elgar’s piano trio (Elgar played violin); R.B.T.: Richard Baxter Townshend, a caricaturist, here caricatured himself; W.M.B.: William Meath Baker, Elgar’s local squire and unlikely amateur musician; R.P.A.: Richard Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold and a staunch Anglo-Catholic; Ysobel: Isobel Fitton, a violist later rumored to have had a relationship with Elgar; Troyte: Arthur Troyte Griffith, architect of Elgar’s house and a very bad pianist; W.N.: Winifred Norbury, secretary of the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society and a champion of Elgar’s music; Nimrod: A. J. Jaeger, Elgar's publisher and Beethoven scholar (Nimrod is the Hunter in the Book of Genesis, and Jaeger is the German word for hunter); Dorabella: Dora Penny, daughter of the Rector of Wolverhampton; G.R.S.: George Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, - but the Variation actually portrays Sinclair’s dog Dan falling into the River Wye; B.G.N.: Basil Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio;- ***: Now known to be Helen Weaver, who was once Elgar’s fiancée, but abandoned him to emigrate to New Zealand – hence the quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage;- E.D.U.: Elgar himself. His wife called him Edu, abbreviated from the German form of his name, Eduard. The variation features the tiny tune Elgar would whistle as he came through the front door to let his wife know he was home.
JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN , Op. 47
Premiered: Helsinki, Finland, 1904 (first version); Berlin, Germany, 1905 (present version)
Sibelius was a Finnish Nationalist who could barely speak Finnish. His mother tongue was Swedish; his German was far more fluent than his Finnish. As a young man, his ambition was to become the greatest Finnish violinist; the composing would come later. But this was denied him by the other great influence in his life – alcohol. By the age of 20, he had already developed a drink-induced tremor in his hands that never left him. In an appalling irony, Finland rewarded him by writing him by name into the country’s stern anti-alcoholism laws; he, and only he, was exempt. His Violin Concerto, an indisputable masterpiece, was at least at one level an epitaph for a Jean Sibelius who never was.
The Concerto was begun in 1903, and was given a very shaky premiere in Helsinki the following year by a soloist who could barely play it – but then, hardly anyone could, as it was woven from every technical horror known to the string world and was truthfully only just this side of the unplayable; the composer was blatantly working out his personal psychic problems, which by then had been joined by what we would now call bipolar disorder. The second version, premiered under Richard Strauss the following year, was significantly less fearsome for the soloist, though by no means easy.
Like all of Sibelius’s mature music, the concerto is put together like an expensive watch, with even the smallest details derived from material announced early in the piece. The first movement grows almost entirely from the soloist’s first three notes, spun out into a group of three expansive melodies which are then smashed into motivic fragments, ready for “development”. There is no development in the Classical sense; where there “should” be a development section, there is a terrifying cadenza. The movement’s three melodies simply grow into each other, ultimately mutating into the dance-like music that closes the movement but does little to help the overall feeling of melancholy.
The second movement is an almost alarmingly excursion into the lyrical world of Brahms and Tchaikovsky that seems almost to be by a different composer – though the fact is that the composer’s psychiatric condition saw to it that there were quite literally two Sibeliuses. The almost viola-like quality of the strangely low-lying solo part only gives way to the upper reaches when the soloist uses the rhythmic shape of the movement’s first melody to persuade the orchestra that the soloist really is in charge.
The finale is much more characteristic Sibelius, with the soloist snarling over a thumping timpani ostinato, giving way to another monstrous dance section that was once described by Donald Tovey as a “Polonaise for polar bears”. Having spent so long in its tonal basement in the slow movement, the violin ends the finale at the opposite extreme, transforming the first subject into weird, ethereal harmonics. Like its composer, this concerto is by turns bright and dark, and sometimes both, but grand rather than happy.
About the Concert
There’s big cause for celebration as superstar Jonathan Carney returns for this breathtaking concerto in the very week of Sibelius’ 150th birthday! The puzzle behind Elgar’s famous Enigma may have never been solved, but there's no mystery why his piece has become one of England’s most beloved works. Meanwhile, Bernstein’s “musical love letter to Europe” and Copland’s delight in Cuban dance fill out this multi-cultural program.