Old World New World
Tuesday, August 10 at 7:30 PM
Wednesday, August 11 at 5:30 PM
- George Gershwin (1898–1937)
- Amy Beach (1867–1944)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
- Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
- Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)
- Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)
- Manuel de Falla (1876–1946)
- Ritual Fire Dance for solo piano
- Viktor Valkov piano
- Ritual Fire Dance for solo piano
- Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
- Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)
- Morton Gould (1913–1996)
- Dick Hyman (b. 1927)
David and Amy Fulton
Tuesday, August 10 Carl de Boor
Wednesday, August 11 Terry Neill, in memory of Carroll Neill
2021 Program Notes Old World, New World
George Gershwin (1898-1937) – Three Preludes
For someone who was such a talented pianist, it’s surprising that George Gershwin only wrote a small handful of original pieces for solo piano. In this context, his Three Preludes loom large, despite their brevity. Gershwin originally planned to write a complete set of 24 preludes – presumably covering all the major and minor keys as did Chopin, Scriabin, and many others. Other demands on his time encroached on the planned set of preludes, and in the end only five were written. Two of these weren’t published and the composer later re-utilized their thematic material elsewhere. The remaining three preludes were premiered by the composer in 1926.
The first prelude employs a samba-based rhythm, but the lively syncopations are more reminiscent of “jump blues.” To anyone familiar with Gershwin’s orchestral writing in pieces like An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, it will be immediately apparent that the composer had the sound of the clarinet in mind for the two short, introductory phrases. The second prelude is pure blues, its soulful outer sections enveloping a somewhat bouncier central passage. Gershwin referred to the third prelude as his “Spanish” prelude, but it is the urban bustle and energy of the composer’s beloved New York City that informs the piece. All three preludes are in some version of an ABA form and, their brevity notwithstanding, they are full of attractive musical ideas and gestures. Their popularity has resulted in a wide variety of arrangements for various instrumental resources – a test of the music’s durability which Gershwin passes with flying colors.
Amy Beach (1867-1944) – Quartet for Strings (in one movement), Op. 89
Born in New Hampshire, Amy Cheney showed herself to have a prodigious talent early on – her first piano pieces were written at the age of four. She continued her studies in piano and received some instruction in theory and composition but was largely self-taught in the latter areas. Her parents resisted offers for her to begin a concert career while still in her childhood – a decision she later praised. As a young woman, she did establish a career as a pianist and continued her efforts at composing though with little commercial success. She was married in 1885 to Dr. Henry Beach, a surgeon who was more than two decades her senior. Dr. Beach placed severe strictures on her musical career – no more than two performances a year as a pianist, no teaching of students, and no furthering of her own education with private teachers – but he was fully supportive of her continuing her work as a composer, and their marriage seems to have been fairly happy. After Dr. Beach’s death in 1910, Amy resumed her career as a pianist and began to receive greater acclaim for her compositions. For the remainder of her life, her compositions still received some acclaim (although tempered by changing tastes). She travelled widely, still performing occasionally, and became a champion of musical education in the United States.
She began work on her only string quartet in 1921, continuing work over the next few years and completing it in 1929. The main thematic material of the quartet comes from three Inuit folk songs that Beach found in a book on Inuit culture by anthropologist Franz Boas. To grossly oversimplify, the quartet is in three main sections, but it is a complex tapestry with frequent interweaving of thematic material, and subsidiary musical ideas derived from the folk songs. Beach’s music is usually categorized as “late romantic” in style, and while that is accurate enough here, it doesn’t begin to suggest the intense chromaticism and frequently dark, even disturbing turbulence of the music. Some passages in the quartet – and the opening Grave (“serious”) section is an excellent example – seem to hover on the edge of atonality. This quartet reveals Beach to be a composer of considerable muscle and sinew. Outdated impressions of her as a dilettante (primarily based on the fact that she was a woman composer) can be discarded. Happily, in the last few years more musicians have explored Beach’s music, and it seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance in the concert hall and recordings.
(Any birders who are reading this are encouraged to listen to Beach’s pair of piano pieces “Hermit Thrush at Morning” and “Hermit Thrush at Eve.” In these two pieces she establishes a mood for the respective time of day and adds some of the most accurate musical representations of bird song to be heard before those of Olivier Messiaen. The Hermit Thrush is a common species in the Pacific northwest, so listeners can readily compare the real thing to Beach’s transcription.)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Music, Love and Wine from Scottish Songs, Op 108
Beethoven’s settings of folk songs from the British Isles are one of the least-known corners of his compositional output. They were commissioned by the Scotsman George Thomson who had approached a few other composers for similar settings, and he received at least a few from Joseph Haydn. There was considerable back-and-forth between Beethoven (who never visited Great Britain) and Thomson over what was to be included, what instrumental and vocal resources they would require and, of course, Beethoven’s fee. Remarkably, between 1809 and 1820, Beethoven set more than 150 Scottish, Welsh, and Irish songs for piano trio with variable vocal forces.
The Scottish Songs, Op. 108 come from 1818. Music, Love and Wine is the first in the set, with words by William Smyth. Although Beethoven could have treated these settings as mere hack work, he seems to have lavished a great deal of care over them. An examination of the score shows numerous small felicities in the part-writing. To a pianist at least, these unassuming little arrangements look as if they could have been written by no one but Beethoven, so distinctive are certain characteristics of his writing for the piano. For the listener these pieces are a delight – full of variety of mood, but also variety in the textures and colors Beethoven creates through skillful handling of the vocal and instrumental parts.
Music, Love and Wine (words by William Smyth)
O let me Music hear
Night and Day!
Let the voice and let the Lyre
Dissolve my heart, my spirit’s fire;
Music and I ask no more,
Night or Day!
Hence with colder world,
Give me. Give me but the while,
The brighter heav’n of Ellen’s smile,
Love and then I ask no more,
Oh, would you?
Hence with this world of care
I say too;
Give me but the blissful dream,
That mingles in the goblet’s gleam,
Wine and then I ask no more,
What say you?
Music may gladden Wine,
What say you?
Tendrils of the laughing Vine
Around the Myrtle well may twine,
Both may grace the Lyre divine,
What say you?
What if we all agree,
What say you?
I will list the Lyre with thee,
And he shall dream of Love like me,
Brighter than the wine shall be,
What say you?
Love, Music, wine agree,
True, true, true!
Round then round the glass, the glee,
And Ellen in our toast shall be!
Music, wine and Love agree,
True, true, true
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Tema con Variazioni from Clarinet Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11
Beethoven’s Opus 11trio was written in 1797 on a commission from clarinetist Franz Josef Bähr. It is the composer’s only piano trio to include a wind instrument. With a practical approach to sales and performance, Beethoven authorized its performance with violin instead of clarinet, but also authorized a “no-strings allowed” version for clarinet, bassoon, and piano. It is a relatively large-scale piece, but not a heavy one – not yet “Beethoven the philosopher.” The theme of the final movement – suggested to Beethoven by Bähr – comes from a comic opera by Joseph Weigl. It was a tune that became so popular with the Viennese public that people could be heard singing it in the streets. This gave the trio its nickname Gassenhauer (“street song”). Beethoven’s sets of variations (in almost whatever type of work they occur) are frequently epic, taking the listener on a kind of spiritual journey. Here, in keeping with the theme, Beethoven does not take us as far into “the empyrean” as in other places. He is content to entertain and delight – as is the case with other Beethoven pieces on this year’s Festival, such as the Septet and the Scottish folk song setting.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – Andantino (Theme and Variations) from Quintet in A Major, D. 667, The Trout
The Trout Quintet was written in 1819 at the behest of wealthy amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner. Its somewhat unusual instrumentation was specified by Paumgartner, who planned to perform it with a quintet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel for the same instrumental combination. The fourth movement – a theme and variations on Schubert’s song Die Forelle (The Trout) – gives the quintet its nickname. The song tells of a sly fisherman and a hapless trout, but is really an allegorical warning to young women about the wiles of casual suitors. A reference to the fisherman’s rod (German “Rute”) is surely an intentional sexual pun. The theme is stated in a stripped-down version for strings only. The variations proceed, using brilliant instrumental writing and processes of rhythmic intensification. The final (6th) variation is a transcription of Schubert’s original song which seems, in context, like a culminating transformation. Stroke of genius or a labor-saving device? You be the judge.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) – Libertango for strings; Michelangelo ’70 for piano four-hands
In the years since his death, Astor Piazzolla has become one of the most revered composers in the far-flung and wildly passionate community of tango lovers. It was not always so. The composer led a peripatetic life – Argentina, the United States, France, and Italy serving as his homes at various times. His development of a new style of tango – which came to be simply known as Tango Nuevo – began in the 1950s after he had studied composition with the doyenne of composition teachers, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris. Influences of (then) modern composers like Stravinsky and Bartók found their way into the Tango Nuevo and Piazzolla began to encounter very strong hostility in his native Argentina. By the 1970s, this had become so strong that Piazzolla moved his family to Italy for a few years, in part to avoid death threats. (I did say that tango lovers were a “passionate community.”) Eventually, support for the Tango Nuevo equaled or outweighed the opposition. By the 1980s, Piazzolla was recognized worldwide as one of the greatest living exponents of the tango and began to be recognized as a composer of considerable talent and originality in the field of classical music.
Both Libertango and Michelangelo ‘70 come from the late 1960s and early 70s. They are excellent examples of (just) two of the moods Piazzolla captured so well in the Tango Nuevo. Libertango is sultry and seductive – about as sexy as music can get. Michelangelo ‘70 (named for a nightclub in Buenos Aires) on the other hand is more tense, capturing a real sense of the menace that lurks in so much of Piazzolla’s music. His tangos are readily transferable from one medium to another – as much (or more) depends on the spirit of the musicians as on the actual instruments used. In this concert though, the arrangements are ideally suited to the different characters of the two pieces: strings for the more lyrical Libertango, piano duet for Michelangelo ’70, which is much more percussive in nature.
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) – Ritual Fire Dance for solo piano
Manuel de Falla’s one-act ballet El Amor Brujo (translated in a variety of ways, but something like “Bewitched Love” probably comes closest) had its earliest genesis in 1914 as a piece for singers, actors, and orchestra. It was premiered the following year without success. Falla withdrew it and began re-working it – ultimately, in 1924 it became the ballet-pantomime as we know it now. In the ballet, the Ritual Fire Dance is performed by a woman who is trying to stop her dead husband from haunting her. The dance is powerful, full of musical motifs that have a definite Iberian flavor, but which never coalesce into a full tune: this music is more about rhythm and color than melody. Although the early 1914 version of what would become the ballet was not a success, the Ritual Fire Dance was, leading Falla in 1915 to make a chamber version of the dance for piano and strings. In any form, it is Falla’s biggest hit and has been arranged for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles.
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) – Sabre Dance
Did Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian1 know that his Sabre Dance would become one of the most familiar and widely heard pieces of classical music in western culture? Did the Soviets know? This campy, kitschy, trashy, and utterly delightful piece of music is so familiar as to need little introduction. It has been heard in everything from The Jack Benny Show to The Simpsons. It comes from Act IV of Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh2 (1939-1942). The ballet tells a love story in the midst of social and political turmoil but ends happily with three weddings. The Sabre Dance has been arranged for nearly every instrumental combination imaginable and is nearly indestructible, so an arrangement for piano duet is quite conservative in this context, but also extremely effective – a little more exciting and dangerous, even, than on two pianos. (Those who enjoy this piece are urged to explore the whole ballet, which is full of joy, color, and fun. Do not miss the Lezghinka3 about 13 minutes into the ballet.)
1Spelling may vary. 2Spelling may vary. 3Spelling may vary
Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) – A Gentle Notion for clarinet and piano
Born in Brooklyn, Jennifer Higdon’s initial musical exposure was primarily to rock. In high school band she took up percussion and later the flute. In university she continued her flute studies but was also encouraged to pursue composition. She was lacking in formal training compared to most of her fellow students but worked hard to overcome this deficit. Since then, she has gone on to a distinguished career, earning numerous awards and prizes. Her music is sometimes described as “Neo-romantic,” but she draws on a wide variety of musical influences. In A Gentle Notion, jazz harmonies prevail, but there is a complete absence of obvious or predictable syncopation. This “ironing out” of the rhythm clearly reveals the connections between and influence of the Impressionist composers on jazz harmony.
Morton Gould (1913-1996) – Jaunty from Benny’s Gig
Behind this unassuming miniature lies one of the greatest musical geniuses and most diverse talents in 20th century American music – Morton Gould. Composer, conductor, arranger, and pianist – he composed music in almost every genre, and his discography includes music from Beethoven through to Copland and beyond. Gould had plenty of experience with jazz and jazz styles, so it was nearly inevitable that at some point he and Benny Goodman would cross paths. In 1962 Gould wrote Benny’s Gig for Goodman – a suite of seven short movements for clarinet and double bass. In 1979, Gould added the movement heard here as an eighth and final movement to the suite – a 70th birthday gift to Goodman. The movement lives up to its name but maintains a sense of rhythmic ambiguity throughout. It is a mark of Gould’s genius that rather than simply writing “imitation jazz,” he transforms jazz into something that speaks with his own voice – much as Béla Bartók did with Hungarian folk song, although that is not to suggest that the two composers sound in any way alike.
Dick Hyman (b. 1927) – Allegro from Jazz Sextet for clarinet, piano, and string quartet
A native of New York, Dick Hyman received early instruction in classical music from his uncle Anton Rovinsky, a concert pianist. Chopin was an early and lifelong love for Hyman, but his older brother also introduced him to jazz, which became a major part of his life. His earliest albums were released in the 1950s – solo piano albums – with his name given first as “Knuckles O’Toole” and later “Willie the Rock Knox” and “Slugger Ryan.” From then on he has been almost exclusively associated with jazz, although his love for classical music never waned.
Hyman proclaimed the Jazz Sextet (written in the late 1980s, premiered in 1988) to be at least an attempt to “blur the lines” between classical music and jazz. The final movement, subtitled “Jazz-Samba,” is an unbuttoned, joyous romp – full of bouncy fun – particularly for the clarinet and piano, who are both required to improvise in a few specific places. Although it starts out sounding like nothing but jazz, the classical influences are still evident in this movement, with tricky rhythms for all the instruments and complex polyrhythms that twist the players’ brains while delighting the listeners’ ears.