Classical Concert 3 – January 18-23, 2016
Four, for Tango Astor Piazzolla 1921-1992
Astor Piazzolla’s name has been inseparably associated with the tango. During the Depression, Piazzolla’s family moved to New York, where he studied piano and the bandoneón, a type of concertina with a 38-button keyboard that had become the central instrument in the tango ensembles of his native Argentina. After a stint in Paris, studying composition with no less an eminence that Nadia Boulanger, Piazzolla returned to Argentina to form his first Tango Octet and later his renowned Tango Quintet, made up of the bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar and bass.
Influenced by his studies in Paris and classical forms, Piazzolla aimed his compositions a cut above the traditional tangos. No longer dance music, they became concert music, although for the nightclub rather than the concert hall. Nevertheless, the psychological intensity and sophistication of his music so infuriated the traditionalists that Piazzolla was repeatedly physically assaulted and even threatened with a gun to his head during a radio broadcast.
Piazzolla in turn has inspired such jazz artists as Jerry Mulligan and Chick Corea. His tangos have been arranged for classical violinist Gidon Kramer and for the renown eclectic Kronos Quartet, for whom he composed Four, for Tango in 1988.
The Four Seasons Antonio Vivaldi 1678-1741
Beginning in 1703 and intermittently for many decades, Antonio Vivaldi served as music factotum at the Pio Ospedale della Pietá in Venice, an institution devoted to the care and education of abandoned, orphaned and indigent girls – mostly “inconvenient” children of upperclass parents – with a special emphasis on musical training (no Dickensian work house or Dotheboys Hall this). In addition to his duties as virtuoso violinist, violin teacher, orchestra director and instrument purchaser, Vivaldi served as resident composer, producing hundreds of works for various instruments and ensembles, including nearly 450 concerti, usually at a rate of more than two per month. The resident girls were trained in both string and wind instruments, including the organ, and as part of their training Vivaldi composed concertos for every instrument and instrument combination. Many of them were apparently written with specific girl soloists in mind.
What is often overlooked, however, is that Ospedale also housed boys, teaching carpentry, blacksmithing and other trades. We have no idea whether the boys’ program was as successful as the girls’ since the names of the artisans who worked in Venice’s palaces and churches are generally unknown.
Vivaldi saw to it that his music reached far beyond the boundaries of Venice. Around 1711 an Amsterdam firm issued his first published concertos as Opus 3, entitled L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Fancy), a set of 12 concertos, four each for one, two or four violins, and four with added cello. They are at the boundary between the old tradition of the Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) with its stately slow-fast-slow-fast movements, and the newer three-movement concerto form (fast-slow-fast). L’estro armonico was a sensation, becoming the most influential music publication of the first half of the eighteenth century. J.S. Bach admired these works and transcribed some of them as harpsichord concertos.
The four concertos known as The Four Seasons are part of a group of eight violin concertos published in Amsterdam in 1725 as Op. 8. Vivaldi provided sonnets in Venetian dialect, probably his own, to head each of the four concertos. It is clear from the detailed notes Vivaldi made on the score that he enjoyed composing these concertos as well as performing them.
Vivaldi attempted to make the music as programmatic as possible, marking with capital letters sections of the sonnets and their corresponding music.
Concerto in E major, Op. 8, No. 1, Spring
Spring has returned and with it gaiety
Is greeted by the birds in joyous song
And the fountains, caressed by young zephyrs,
Murmur sweetly as they flow.
As the sky is clouded all in black,
Lightning flashes and thunder roars
But when they are over, the little birds,
Return to sing their enchanting song.
While on the flowering meadow,
Among the murmuring of leaves and boughs,
Dozes the goat-herd, watched over by his faithful dog.
To the pastoral bagpipes’ festive sounds
Dance loving nymphs and shepherds, in love,
Under brilliant springtime skies.
Setting the mood of the opening movement, the opening ritornello (recurrent phrase) is marked in the score “The spring has returned”. The first violin solo is marked “Song of the birds,” while after a return of the ritornello, comes a soft murmuring on the violin. After the next ritornello comes the lightning and thunder, followed by an extensive return to the singing birds and gaiety.
The slow movement is a musical description of the snoozing goatherd, watched over by his dog, whose bark is imitated throughout the movement on the violas with repeated notes to be played “very loud and abruptly.”
The third movement, a rustic dance, opens with a suggestion of rustic bagpipes, complete with an imitation of their drones by sustained notes on the low strings.
Concerto in G minor, Op. 8, No. 2, Summer
Under the heat of the burning sun
Man droops, his herd wilts, the pine is parched
The cuckoo finds its voice, and singing with it,
The dove and the Goldfinch
Zephyr breathes gently but, countered,
The north wind appears nearby and suddenly
The shepherd cries because, uncertain,
He fears the wind squall and its effects
His tired limbs have no rest, goaded by
His fear of lightning and wild thunder
While gnats and flies in furious swarms surround him
Alas, his fears prove all too grounded
Thunder and lightning rive the heavens, and hail
Slices the tops of corn and other grain
The opening phrases droop in sympathy with the suffering people. Suddenly the violin depicts the singing of the birds. The zephyr’s voice is heard gently on the violins and violas, interrupted by the wind squalls depicted by rapid scales on the violins and bursts by the entire ensemble. A lonely violin solo describes the weeping shepherd’s apprehension of an impending storm.
In the second movement, the shepherd’s rest (solo violin) is interrupted repeatedly by his fear of distant thunder (strong tremolo by the whole orchestra). He tries to sleep again, but the gnats and flies (repeated dotted notes on the strings accompanying the solo violin) don’t let him rest.
The third movement describes the violent storm, justifying the shepherd’s fears. Darting scales in the violins describe the lightning while the cellos and basses portray thunder.
Concerto in F major, Op. 8, No. 3, Autumn
The peasants celebrate with dance and song
The joy of a successful harvest.
With Bacchus’ liquor liberally drunk,
Their festivity ends in slumber
They leave behind the song and dance
To seek the pleasant mild air.
The season invites more and more
To savor the joy of sweet sleep
The hunters leave for the hunt at dawn
With horns and guns and hounds they go
The quarry flees, but they pursue
Bewildered and exhausted by the great noise
of guns and hounds, the wounded prey
Nearly escapes, but is caught and dies.
The concerto begins with the rhythmic dances and songs of the peasants, followed by uncertain lurches by the solo violin to depict their drunkenness, which gets wilder and wilder, alternating with the dance music. With a sudden shift to Larghetto, some of the revelers go to sleep while the dances continue. In the second movement, the muted strings become increasingly gentle as the slumber becomes deeper and deeper.
Violins imitate the hunting calls in the third movement. A wild melee in the orchestra describes the confusion of the hunt, the fleeing prey and its death, with the strings imitating the baying dogs.
Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4, Winter
Frozen and shivering amid the chilly snow
Our breathing hampered by the horrid wind
As we run, we continually stamp our feet
Our teeth chatter with the awful cold
We move to the fire and contented peace
While the rain outside comes down in sheets.
We walk on the ice with slow steps
Careful how we walk, for fear of falling
If we move too fast, we slip and fall to the ground
Again treading heavily on the ice
Until the ice breaks up and dissolves
We hear from behind closed doors
Boreal winds and all the winds of war.
This is winter, but one that brings joy.
The strings, with trills in the violins, describe the shivering in the winter cold. Swift arpeggios and scales by the solo violin describe the horrid wind, while a series of abrupt chords suggest stamping feet and running to get warm. But rapid tremolos show that all this activity is useless, since the teeth continue to chatter.
Violin pizzicatos depict the falling raindrops, after which a warm melody on the solo violin describes the pleasant indoors with its roaring fire.
The finale opens with sliding phrases by the violin – walking and slipping on thin ice. The orchestra joins with a slower rhythm to indicate the hesitant steps and fear of falling. But then we are back indoors, enjoying the warmth while the winds howl outside.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95
Antonín Dvořák “From the New World” 1841-1904
Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. The fact that he spoke no English was of little consequence since the language of musical discourse was German. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.
Thirty years before his arrival in New York, Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African-American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students. One of them, Henry Burleigh, who became an important African-American composer in his own right, is credited with exposing his teacher to African-American spirituals.
While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with African-American spirituals through Burleigh, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.
Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, with his unsurpassed gift for melody, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own themes. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern “Massa Dear” (also known as “Goin’ Home”) in the famous English horn solo in the second movement. We can deduce the importance of these musical motives from the fact that they appear as reminiscences in more than one movement, especially in the Finale. The symphony, however, is hardly an American pastiche; the second motive in the Largo movement is a phrase of wrenching musical longing that many listeners interpret as the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia. The New York music critic and Dvořák’s friend, Henry Krehbiel, claimed that the movement was inspired by incidents from The Song of Hiawatha. Which incidents, however, have never been definitively determined. Krehbiel posited the scene in which Hiawatha woos Minnehaha, while others have suggested Minnehaha’s funeral. Incidentally, Dvořák had also intended to compose an opera on Hiawatha, which never left the drawing board.
The third movement as well, in its rhythmic thumping, the pentatonic scale and the orchestration dominated by winds and percussion, is meant to portray an Indian ceremonial dance described in Longfellow’s poem. Dvorák’s symphonic use of what he believed to be an authentic Native American musical idiom may have reflected his initial ideas for the opera.
One of the most important features of the Symphony is its thematic coherence. Whatever the origin of the melodies, they all have a modular characteristic in that they can be mixed and matched in many different ways. In the last movement, Dvořák brings nearly all of the Symphony’s themes together, sometimes as one long continuous melody, sometimes simultaneously in contrapuntal relationship to each other.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn