Michigan City Chamber Music Festival (219) 561-1939 info@mccmf.org

Festival Program Notes 2024

Written by Dr. John Crayton

August 10

Written by Dr. John Crayton

Mozart: Quintet for Horn and Strings (K407, 1782)

Mozart’s move from his home town of Salzburg to the capital city of Vienna in 1791 heralded in a new period of independence from his “over-involved” father, a chance to see if he could make it on his own—both financially and musically—and release his innate capacity for ingenuity.  He was on his own, in a significant way, with all of the anxiety and hopes of personal achievement that went with his new freedom.  During his first three years in Vienna, he produced notable works in several genera: symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and opera.

Among his chamber works is the delightful Quintet for Horn and Strings.  It shares the characteristics of freedom, originality, and careful attention to the musical craft. The work was dedicated to the outstanding horn player, Joseph Leutgeb, who had known Mozart in Salzburg, since Mozart was a child.  From their correspondence, it is clear that Mozart greatly admired Leutgeb’s skills as a horn player, but that did not stop him from playing pranks on Leutgeb such as throwing manuscripts on the floor and then demanding that Leutgeb pick them up.  On Mozart’s autographed manuscript of the Horn Quintet, Mozart wrote, “Wolfgang Amade Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox and simpleton.”  Leutgeb does not seem to have been put off by these barbs, and the two of them remained good friends and colleagues for many years.

The Quintet is scored for the unusual group of one violin, two violas, one cello and one horn.  Mozart (himself a violist) appears to have had in mind matching the sonorities of the two violas with the similar qualities of the horn. In fact, one can imagine that the various groupings of instruments in the Quintet were exploited to enhance the changes in sounds produced: the violin stands out more without a second violin in the mix, allowing horn and violin duets more room for expressivity; the two violas frequently play with the horn creating a warmer texture; horn and cello duets amplify the matching sonorities of the two instruments; and the four strings playing together adds yet another point of contrast with the horn solos.

The Quintet is in three movements; I: Allegro, II. Andante, and III. Rondo, Allegro.

The first movement, Allegro, demonstrates some of Mozart’s most brilliant writing. The movement highlights duets between the violin and horn.. The initial themes are marvelously developed by the various groupings of instruments but featuring primarily the violin-horn combination.  The second movement, Andante, is a rich, warm tapestry of varying tonal colors. Here, the unusual doubling of the violas enhances this warm tone of the movement. The return of the opening material is treated to delightful elaboration with elongated phrases, richer lines and a refreshing key change. The final movement, Allegretto moderato, Rondo is unabashedly joyful, with a lively dance structure. Its final measures include brilliant part-writing, including an opportunity for each instrument to wave a final “good-bye,” with the horn being given the last “cheery-o.”

What a marvelous piece to open our Festival: full of good cheer, optimism, and great expectations of all the wonderful music to follow!

Valerie Capers: Song of the Seasons

Valerie Capers is one of our most accomplished and heralded jazz composers and performers.  She was born in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City and received her first formal education at the New York Institute for the Blind.  Her talent for piano was recognized early in her life, and she was admitted to the Juilliard School of Music where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees, the first blind student at Juilliard to have been awarded these degrees. She also served on the faculties of the Bronx Community College of CUNY (The City University of New York) where she developed several courses in jazz.  She was the chairman of the department there (1987-1985) and is currently Professor Emerita there.

Her musical collaborators have included a “who’s who” of jazz greats, including  Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Ray Brown, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Slide Hampton, Max Roach, James Moody, Paquito D’Rivera, and Jerry Weldon, among others.

She has been awarded numerous citations, including Essence magazine’s “Women of Essence Award for Music,” a “Bronx Living Legend Award” from the Bronx Music Heritage Center, and many others.

One of her most important works is Song of the Seasons, a song cycle for voice, piano, and cello which was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute and premiered in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the Smithsonian, and since then, has been recorded by several artists.

Other of her most important works are Sing About Love, a Christmas cantata, performed at Carnegie Hall and Sojourner, an “operatorio” based on the lift of Sojourner Truth, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Song of the Seasons, a song cycle for voice, piano, and cello which was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute and premiered in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of the Smithsonian, and since then has been recorded by several artists.

Alexander Borodin: String Quartet Number 2 in D Major

Alexander Borodin was a member of “The Five” or, sometimes, “The Mighty Handful,” a group of Russian composers whose aim was to promote Russian music rather than follow the prevailing favorites in Europe, including Italian opera, German lieder, and other popular trends.  The “Five” included, in addition to Borodin, Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.  Along with Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov perhaps most closely emulated the ideals of The Five with their use of Russian themes and harmonic features in their work.

Borodin was unique among The Five because his “day job” was as a chemist, where he enjoyed considerable attention for his research and publications on chemical reactions.  Should he be considered, then, a professional chemist and an amateur composer? This is not a useful argument, since he excelled at both chemistry and composing.

Another of his interests was women’s rights.  Shostakovich, a great fan of Borodin said, “He would get one of those monuments too, because he plunged headlong into women’s education and spent more and more time as he grew older on philanthropy, primarily for women’s causes, and these butchered him as a composer…”

Borodin’s String Quartet in D is a favorite of chamber music aficionados, brimming with glorious melodies and  rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness.

The quartet begins with a lyrical cello solo which states the first theme.  After a leap of a third upward, the musical line begins a gradual step-wise descent of nearly one octave before gradually inching up to  its starting point.  Like a small brook, the music moves effortlessly, setting the scene for the predominant mood of the piece, namely warm, relaxed, pleasure.

 

The Second movement, Scherzo, reminds us of Mendelssohn’s frequent placement of a scherzo as the second movement in his string quartets.  But Borodin does not push the tempi as Mendelssohn does, so Borodin’s scherzo (literally, “playful”) is more relaxed fun than excitement.

The musical line is interrupted by a familiar melody, borrowed for the Broadway musical Kismet  (1953) for “Baubles, bangles, and beads,” one of several of its borrowings from Borodin to show up in Kismet.

The third movement, the famous Nocturne, is a marvelous evocation of peacefulness and love. Its highlight occurs about two-thirds of the way through, with the theme appearing in closely-timed canons, first, between the cello and first violin, then, between the first and second violins.  It is musical “pillow talk” at its finest.

The Finale builds on previous material, but the mood reflects more urgency among the musical statements.  The more peaceful, relaxed mood of the first three movements is interrupted by a series of flashes of vivace-writing as the four musicians trade the themes back and forth to the end.

 

Edward Garden (Musical Times, 128:74-48, 1987) has proposed a “program” for the quartet based on important events in the life of Borodin and his wife, Ekaterina, the dedicatee of the quartet on the 20th anniversary of their marriage: Movement I: the couple meet in Heidelberg 20 years ago; Movement II: they spend a memorable evening dancing at a “suburban pleasure garden”; Movement III: a love scene between Borodin and Ekaterina; Movement IV: their happy married life.

August 12

Written by Dr. John Crayton

Franz Berwald: Duo Concertante for Two Violins (1816)

Franz BerwaldHe was born into a family of musicians some of whom held important music positions in the Royal Court of Sweden.  His father, a member of the Royal Opera Orchestra, taught the young Franz to play the violin and by the age of 15, he too became a member of the court orchestra and opera.

By the age of 20, Berwald had founded and edited a journal of music which later published some of Berwald’s own compositions.

After his father died, creating an economic crisis for the family, the resourceful Franz moved to Berlin, where he established a successful clinic for orthopedic and physical therapy patients.    Berwald’s musical output was extensive—including two operas, four symphonies, several string quartets, and some well-received tone poems.  Critical response to his music was mixed. Some critics disliked his “bizzarrie” (excessive and strange) phrases while the great Norwegian composer Carl Nielsen was much more balanced in his reckoning of Berwald: In 1911,  Nielsen wrote,

“Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand up for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald.”

Berwald’s double challenge was to meld both musicians’ impressive virtuosity together in a manner that not only shows off their great violin technique, but packages it in a most agreeable musical manner.  Sometimes virtuosity itself can feel cold and mechanical, losing the warmth and musicality of less demanding pieces. In Berwald’s hands, both the technical aspects and the melodic ones were meshed into a most satisfying whole.

The Duo Concertante appears to have been written in 1816 or 1817 by the twenty-year old Berwald who, by this time, had already been a member of the Royal Orchestra for four years. His younger brother August was also employed there and from time to time the two violinists gave concerts in Stockholm and elsewhere. The Duo Concertante had very likely been composed for the two brothers for one of their concerts.

We are very lucky to have access to this composition. A rehearsal accompanist for the Royal Opera, Martin Andreason found the manuscripts in a pile of debris at a demolition site. His wife, Lottie Andreason, was a violinist with the Berwald Trio for many years, so she immediately knew the importance of this find.  It had been in the hands of a student of one of the Berwald cousins for perhaps 100 years before its rediscovery.

The Duo Concertante is a delightful and awe-inspiring composition that alternates simple, folk melodies with finger-twisting virtuoso passages.  The work opens with a (relatively) leisurely presentation of the first theme, which gradually gives way to more and more technically challenging passages based on the first theme.

The second movement, Allegro spiritoso, introduces even more challenging violin acrobatics with close, sixteenth-note runs and double and triple stops in both violins. Parallel runs of octave double-stops demand not only individual virtuosity but the ability to coordinate that level of virtuosity between the two violinists.

The third movement, Rondo, begins with a simple statement of a country dance tune which is elaborated with dramatic, fearsome runs between the two violins.

This is a marvelous piece of music. Berwald did not deserve all of the negative reviews that he garnered during his lifetime.  His “last laughs” came in the form of membership in the Order of the Polar Star in recognition of his lifetime of musical contributions.  In addition, he was granted a prestigious position at the Royal College of Music in further recognition of his importance to Swedish music.

Colin Jacobsen and Siāmak Aghāei: Ascending Bird (2007)

Ascending Bird is a musical depiction of the flight of a mythical bird. It may be seen as a reworking of the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too closely to the sun and perished when his wings were melted by the heat.  In this version, the flight ends on a happier note.

Jacobsen explains:  “I wrote Ascending Bird with my friend, Siāmak Aghāei a wonderful musician from Iran.  The piece tells the story of a mythic bird that tries to reach the sun. It tries at first and falls back down.   It tries again, then finally on the third time it receives the radiant embrace of the sun and loses its physical body, in a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. The music is an arrangement of an old Persian folk tune, starting gently and working up to a thrilling close.”

Jacobsen’s collaborator on Ascending Bird was the prominent Iranian composer and santur  player, Siāmak Aghāei who performs regularly and teaches courses on the santur and classical Persian music at the University of Tehran.  (The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer originating in Mesopotamia.) Aghāei, like Jacobsen, is a long-time collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road group.

The Jacobsen-Aghāei collaboration represents a prime example of MCCMF’s season theme: Come Together: Music of Community and Collaboration.  A classically-trained violinist, Jacobsen, early in his career, became interested in the music of non-western traditions. He was one of the founding members of Yo-Yo Ma’s famous Silk Road Ensemble, a group whose mission is to foster cross-fertilizations among music of many cultures. He went on to found two more forward-looking groups, the string quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the orchestra, The Knights, both of which have gained widespread recognition for their pathbreaking performances of the music of East and West

Two typical examples of Jacobsen’s “coming together” with seemingly disparate members of the musical community are his album, Jan Vogler and The Knights Experience: Live from New York where he juxtaposes Shostakovich with Jimi Hendrix, and another album, A Second Silence which pairs Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony with the minimalist music of Philip Glass, Erik Satie, and Morton Feldman.

Richard Strauss: Brentano Lieder (1919)

Richard Strauss was the pre-eminent composer of opera during the first two decades of the 1900s. He was “on a roll,” with five important operas completed: Salome (1905), Elektra (1908), Der Rosenkavalier, (1910), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, second version,1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917). After this last success, he returned to work on lieder (art-songs).  The Brentano Lieder was his first such project in many years would be his most important project in this genre until the incomparable Four Last Songs  (1948) thirty years later when he was 84 and in declining health.

He decided to set to music six poems by the German Romantic poet, Clemens Brentano (1778–1842).  Brentano was a famous member of a circle of poets around Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and was a notable figure in the German Romantic movement.  Brentano’s mother had been a friend of Goethe’s, and his sister also corresponded with him.  Like other young romantics of the time, Brentano suffered from severe bouts of depression and restlessness.  For years, he wandered the countryside, writing poetry and playing his guitar.  During his student days, he developed a close and productive relationship with Achim von Arnim with whom he compiled an important book of folk rhymes Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which became an important resource for future poets and composers, including Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

The six Brentano poems that Strauss set to music are suffused with moods ranging from sadness and depression to elation.   Typical of German romanticism,  the poems rely on images of nature to reflect the moods of the characters.  The first five poems are about love—new love, old love, unrequited love, and separation and longing for the return of love.  The fifth poem, The Wife’s Song, tells us of the torment of the wife who has been left alone as her husband leaves, perhaps never to return. It is by far the longest of the poems.

I. To Night
Holy night! Holy night!
Star-enclosed peaceful firmament!
Everything that light divided
is connected;
all wounds
bleed sweetly in evening’s after-glow.

Bjelbog’s spear, Bjelbog’s spear
sinks into the heart of the drunken Earth,
which, with a blissful gesture,
dips a rose
in the womb
of dark desires

Holy night! Bashful bride, Bashful bride!
Hide your sweet shame
when the wedding goblet’s fullness
is poured out;
Into day!

II. I wanted to gather a bouquet

I wanted to gather a bouquet
German (Deutsch)
I wanted to gather a bouquet,
but then came the dark night,
And no flower was to be found,
otherwise I would have brought it to you.

Tears flowed from my cheeks
onto the clover,
and I saw a tiny bloom
in the garden.

I wanted to break it for you
in the dark clover,
but it began to speak:
“Oh, do not hurt me!
Be kindhearted,
consider your own suffering,
And do not let me die
in pain before my time!”

And had it not spoken so,
all alone in the garden,
I would have broken it for you,
but now it must not be.

My darling has departed,
I am so completely alone.
In loving sadness dwells,
and it cannot be otherwise.

III. Rustle, dear myrtle!

Rustle, dear myrtle!
How quiet it is in the world,
the moon, the shepherd of the stars
in the bright field of heaven,
is driving the cloud-sheep already
to the spring of light;
sleep, my friend, o sleep,
until I am with you again!

Rustle, dear myrtle
and dream in the starlight;
the turtledove has cooed
her brood to sleep.
Quietly the sheep-clouds drift
toward the spring of light;
sleep, my friend, o sleep,
until I am with you again!

Do you hear how the fountains roar?
Do you hear how the cricket twitters?
Hush, hush, let us listen.
Blessed is he who dies in his dreams;
Blessed is he whom clouds cradle,
Blessed is he to whom the moon sings a lullaby;
Oh! how blissfully can he fly,
he who brandishes wings in his dreams,
so that on the blue roof of Heaven
he may pick stars like flowers;
sleep, dream, fly – I will awaken
you soon and you will be happy!

 

IV. When your song rang out to me

Your song rang out: I heard it
as it rose through the roses to the moon.
The colorful butterfly that flew in the spring,
You have converted into a pious bee.
My urge is toward the rose,
Since your song rang out to me.

Your song rang out: the nightingales are singing,
Alas– the sweet swan song of my repose–
To the moon, who watches and listens from above,
to the stars and the roses I must tell my complaint:
whither she has now soared,
the one to whom this song rang out!

Your song rang out; no tone was in vain.
All of springtime, which breathes love,
while you sang dipped itself
into the desire-filled stream of my life,
into the sunset,
as your song rang out to me!

 

V. Cupid

The child sat by the fire,
Cupid, Cupid
and was blind;
with his little wings he fans
the flames and smiles;
Fan, smile, clever child!

Oh, the child’s wing is burning!
Cupid, Cupid
runs quickly.
O how the burning hurts him deeply!
Beating his wings, he weeps loudly;
He runs to the shepherdess’s lap,
crying for help, the clever child.

And the shepherdess aids the child,
Cupid, Cupid,
naughty and blind.
Shepherdess, look, your heart is burning;
You did not recognize the little scamp.
Watch out!, the flames are spreading!
Save yourself, from the clever child!

VI. The Wife’s Song

When it’s raging on the seas,
The sailor’s wife is knitting at home,
But her heart leans
Toward the roiling ocean.
With every wave that breaks
Foaming, on the shore,
She wonders: he’s shipwrecked,
he’s shipwrecked, he’s shipwrecked,
He shall never return to shore.

When thunder is clapping wildly
The shepherd’s wife spins at home,
But her heart reaches upwards
Toward the storm’s raging winds.
With every flash that pierces
Jaggedly through the raging thunder,
She wonders: my shepherd, my shepherd, my shepherd,
Shall never return to me.

When the depths of the mine quakes,
The miner’s wife sits at home,
But her loving heart descends
Into the dark terror of the mineshaft.
With every blast that shakes
Rumbling in the flimsy shaft,
She fears: buried alive, buried alive, buried alive
Is my miner in the recesses of the earth.

When the battle roars and rages,
The soldier’s wife sits at home,
But her fearful heart stumbles on
Through the raging storm of battle.
At every salvo, every echo
Of the sound of the guns on the mountain wall
She thinks: my hero has fallen, fallen, fallen now
For his country.

But now, far off, the raging storm has already abated
The storm is in retreat, the thunder muted,
Hear the drunken and celebratory lark
Emitting a victory song, tirili, tirili.
Ravens depart! — the heavens turn blue,
Come out, come out — sun!
Across the mountains, — rejoicing lark,
Sing, sing to me – sing joy into my ear!

Victory crowns the jubilant and sorrowful brow
with cypress and laurel.
Lord! If he should shine down on me
Enmeshed in the green of mourning!
Then, starless night, welcome!
The Lord has given the star,
The Lord has taken, taken, taken,
Praise be to the Lord!

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat Op 97, “The Archduke” (1811)

The Archduke Trio is one of Beethoven’s finest achievements. It is written for the Archduke Rudolph, Emperor Leopold II’s youngest son who was a student of Beethoven’s. Three noblemen, Archduke Rudolf, and the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz arranged to supply Beethoven with an annual sum to cover his basic needs and give him time to compose. 

     Although Beethoven was still under some financial stress, his benefactors agreed to supply him with additional funds when inflationary pressures undermined the value of the original contribution.  But Beethoven was able to overcome these stresses to produce one of his most satisfying compositions.

      The trio begins with a broad, generous theme introduced in the piano and then given over to the violin. This motif is elaborated in the development section of the first movement and later appears in modified form in the later movements.

       Another dialogue between the strings highlights the opening of the Scherzo. This reworking of the first movement material brings a much lighter mood to the piece.

        The Andante is constructed in the form of a theme and variations. Some of the variations are complex, with elaborate reworkings of the original theme. When it’s time for the fourth variation, Beethoven has returned to a more calm and thoughtful mood with each of the instruments taking turns picking up the original theme. 

       Soon, with the final movement, Allegro moderato—Presto–the piano will take the spotlight with virtuoso playing while the violin and cello retreat to supportive positions for the piano.

       The musicologist Bruce Adolphe has pointed out forward-looking and innovative features of the trio: ponticello technique, with the string instruments bowing over the instrument’s bridge, producing a rather ghostly, raspy tone; and the employment of “3 against 2” rhythms, something Brahms would later employ extensively in his compositions.  

       Altogether, the Archduke Trio provides a wealth of novel invention to contemplate and a thoroughly satisfying musical feast.

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 58

Mendelssohn composed his Sonata for cello and piano in the first half of 1843 when he was busy with a number of demanding projects. He had been invited by King Wilhelm to direct the Music Division of the new Academy of Arts in Berlin, an institution that had been designed to assure Berlin’s place as the center of cultural life in Germany. Mendelssohn’s duties would include Director of the Music Faculty, Composer for the Royal Theater, Director of the Royal Orchestra, and organizer and conductor of the Cathedral Choir.

Unfortunately, after two years of bureaucratic knit-picking and inaction by the King, he gave up on Berlin and moved back to Leipzig where he picked up on a favorite project: to establish a music conservatory at the Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn himself taught piano, ensemble and composition; Robert Schumann taught piano and composition, and after a while they were joined on the staff by the eminent pianist, Clara Schumann, the highly-regarded pianist/composer Ignaz Moscheles, and the Danish composer Niels Gade, Denmark’s most prominent musician. A very impressive faculty, indeed!

In the midst of that year’s domestic upheaval, responsibilities and publicity, Mendelssohn somehow found time to write some of his best music: the Variations Sérieuses for piano, the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and our D major cello sonata. The New Grove Dictionary says of it that the Sonata “communicates a concentrated impression of the dramatic tensions and contradictions through which he lived during those years”.

The D major Sonata, Opus 58 opens with a rousing first movement.  And that triumphant mood reappears in the fourth movement. At times incessant waves of arpeggios in the piano almost overwhelm the beautiful lyricism of the cello. The second movement is a light intermezzo—almost a signature feature of Mendelssohn’s pieces, e.g. Midsummer Night’s dream.  The slow movement, perhaps inspired by Bach chorale and recitative, is an elegant adagio whose rolling piano chords support a warm, reflective meditation from the cello. Altogether, it makes a refreshing, personal, statement in keeping with the ideals of nineteenth century Romanticism.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata Number 21 Opus 53 (Waldstein) (1804)

The years 1803-1813 was for Beethoven a decade of tremendous growth in his vision of what great music should be, as well as parallel growth in his ability to translate this vision into real music. As Lewis Lockwood put it, “In the five years from 1798 to 1802, Beethoven transformed his style; in the next four he transformed music.” During this period, “Beethoven overwhelmed the musical world and established a new standard of emotional and intellectual completeness that has never been lost.” (Lockwood, Beethoven, p. 203)
The ”Waldstein” piano sonata stands as one of the most important works that defined this period of Beethoven’s life. Work on the Waldstein followed shortly after Beethoven had completed the main sketch work on the Eroica Symphony (Number 3) and before beginning his first sketches for the Leonore Overture. By this time, Beethoven was settling in to his new, “heroic” style of writing, creating works that went far beyond previous work—either by him or any other composer—in breadth of concept, depth of emotional meaning, and technical complexity.
The first movement begins in a most unusual manner, with pianissimo pulsations which invite us into a space occupied by an explosion of new pianistic wonders not seen before: virtuosic writing including intricate octave figures, handfuls of chords in both hands, and new ranges of pianistic colorings.
The following Introduzione, brief, and very darkly colored raises unsettling, disorienting questions: Is this section a truncated slow movement? If it is an “intrduzione” is it drawing us toward the final Rondo? Or is it an introduction? If so, an introduction to what?
The following movement, Rondo, alternates between C major and C minor sonorities, maintaining a certain unstable feeling as the movement hurtles forward with virtuosic writing with breathtaking triplet arpeggios to finally come to rest on a series of five massive chords.
The Waldstein has morphed from a piano sonata into a piano concerto with vastly expanded range in materials and methods.
After this monumental work, the piano literature will never be the same, wrenched out of its classical constraints and now clothed in the garb of a conquering hero.

Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes

Robert Schumann’s turbulent life—eventually leading to violent mood swings and suggestions of psychotic thinking—began with struggles with his family about what career he would follow.  His father insisted that he become a lawyer while the young Schumann favored a career as a virtuoso pianist.  With encouragement from his mother, he began to study piano seriously with Frederick Wieck (his future father-in-law). After a few promising years as a performer, Schumann sustained an injury to his hand that precluded continuing work as a performer. He turned to composition, and the Symphonic Etudes, completed in 1834-35, when Schumann was 24 years old, was a clear harbinger of his potential as a first-rate composer.

The impetus for the work came from a nobleman, Baron von Fricken, who was a talented amateur musician.  Von Fricken sent Schumann a theme which he thought Schumann could use as the basis for a series of variations.   Schumann’s “etudes” should not be considered as student pieces designed to improve a young musician’s technique. Rather, Schumann’s set of etudes are designed to explore (or study) technical and melodic components of Fricken’s theme.  These etudes are not for novice pianists, since they demand exceptional piano-playing, both technically and interpretively.

While writing these works, Schumann also may have had in mind illustrating his “bipolar” view of human experiences: an energetic, imaginative and creative force of personality that Schumann personified by his imaginary character, Floristan and a contrasting personality, named Eusebius, more introspective, thoughtful, with significant aspects of sadness or depression.

The Symphonic Etudes illustrate these two polar opposite character types:  The initial theme, (Andante, in the key of C-sharp minor), illustrates the Eusebian character.  The following variations on this theme give good examples of both Eusebian and Floristanic personalities.

Within this framework, Schumann “studies” both the technical limits of piano playing as well as the two contrasting moods.  It is a composition that challenges both the technical proficiency of the pianist as well as his/her capacity to express both great exuberance and energy and contemplative quietness.

 

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

      This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s iconic piece which came to epitomize the essence of the “Jazz Age.”  It is one of the most popular  compositions in American music, and its opening clarinet glissando is instantly recognized by many—if not most—people. The Rhapsody was premiered at an important concert on February 12, 1924 under the direction of the popular band-leader, Paul Whiteman who had commissioned Gershwin to write “a concerto-like piece for an all-jazz concert in honor of Lincoln’s birthday.”  

      The Rhapsody came about in part through a stroke of luck. Gershwin had initially declined Whiting’s commission pleading a lack of time to complete the project. Later, he learned quite by accident, that a competitor of Whiteman’s was rumored to be planning a concert just like Whiteman’s. When Whiteman told Gershwin of this plan to undercut their concert, Gershwin quickly relented, and immediately got to work on the piece.  

     Gershwin has written about his thoughts for his Rhapsody.  His plan was to create a musical portrait of America:  “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, or our metropolitan madness.”  Gershwin’s plan meshed with Whiteman’s plan for the program: He had selected music to “exemplify the melodies, harmony and rhythms which agitate the throbbing emotional resources of this young restless age.”

     As a seemingly ironic sendoff for the program, Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March followed Gershwin’s Rhapsody as the last piece on Whiteman’s program. A more stodgy, old-fashioned piece (lovely, to be sure) could not be imagined to be on the same program with Gershwin’s Rhapsody!

      The audience loved Gershwin’s piece, giving him a roaring, standing ovation. The critics were not so completely smitten. Leonard Bernstein, a great fan of the piece, nevertheless complained about the lack of a cohesive underpinning to the various sections of the work and thought that these individual pieces could easily be cut and pasted in another order—or left out completely—without harming the work as a whole.  Or perhaps this seemingly disjointed ordering of the sections of the piece is just what Gershwin saw in his vision of Roaring ‘20s America.

      But time has had the last say: Gershwin’s jazzy, blues-y, disjointed, and

love-able Rhapsody seems to most listeners today, 100 years after its conception, to be a very accurate and relatable musical portrait of American life in the Roaring ‘20s. And it maintains its relevance today. 

 

August 16

Written by Dr. John Crayton

Clarence Cameron White: Bandana Sketches

Clarence Cameron WhiteLater, with the support of the singer, voice teacher, and advocate for Black music education, Emma Azalia Hackley who raised money for his scholarship to allow him to study abroad, he studied composition with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in London. In this period he wrote his best-known works: the ballet, A Night in Sans Souci—from the play Tambour, and the opera Ouanga. Both of these works are based on Haitian music.

White’s compositions frequently incorporated the music of Negro spirituals. “The Banana Sketches” includes settings for violin and piano of four such pieces:
1. Chant, based on the spiritual, “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”
2. Lament “I’m troubled in Mind”
3. Slave song, “Many Thousand Gone.”
4. Negro Dance, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” The song is a lament by a child awaiting auction at one of the many such facilities active during pre-Civil War times.

Slave song, “Many Thousand Gone.”
No more slavery chain for me
No more, no more
Many thousand gone
No more slavery chains for me
No more, no more
No more slavery chain for me
Many thousand go
No more driver’s lash for me
No more, no more
No more driver’s lash for me
No more peck of corn for me
There’ll be no more dying
No more driver’s lash for me
Many thousand gone
No more master call for me
No more master call for me
Many thousand gone
No more children stole from me
Many thousand gone
There’ll be no more dying
No more, Lord, no more
No more slavery chain for me
Many thousand gone

Negro Dance, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”
The song is a lament by a child awaiting auction at one of the many such facilities active during pre-Civil War times.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home
A long way from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
A long way from home
A long way from home
True believer
True believer
A long, long way from home
A long, long way from home

 

William Grant Still

(b.1895, Woodville, Mississippi –d. December 3, 1978, Los Angeles, California)
was an American composer and conductor. He was a prolific composer of operas, ballets, symphonies, and other works, and  is perhaps best known for his Afro-American Symphony (1931).

Still initially thought he would study medicine, and began medical school at Wilberforce University.   He did not finish his medical studies, but transferred to the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. Later, he studied composition at the New England Conservatory of Music and then with Edgard Varèse, considered to be a leader of avant-garde composing.   He also worked as an arranger for Paul Whiteman’s “big band, and for blues composer W.C. Handy.

Still’s compositions often dealt with the condition of African-Americans in the United States. His most famous composition is his Afro-American Symphony. He also wrote an opera, The Troubled Island with a libretto by the noted African-American writer, Langston Hughes.

In 1936 Still became the first African-American to conduct a major U.S. orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

Still’s Panamanian Dances, although primarily a work of joyful dance music is also a rich resource for ethnomusicologic studies, since he has collected dances from various regions of Panama and from various times. The work was also important for Still’s own compositions, since he frequently incorporated African-American rhythms and harmonies in his work.  His  Dances of Panama is comprised of four sections: I Tamborito; II. Mejorana y Socavan; III.  Punto; and Cumbia y Congo.

 Tamborito: (literally, “the little drum”) is the national dance and song of Panama, it dates back to the 17th century. Typically, the dance would be performed in folkloric costumes in front of a large crowd which participates in the rhythmic aspects of the dance.

The dance is considered a courtship dance, with a single couple taking center stage for the dance. They move in provocative ways, trying to tempt their partner into a relationship.

The mejoranera is a cedar musical instrument closely associated with the dance called Mejorana. It was traditionally carved out of a single block of wood.

The mejoranera is used in many types of the folkloric music in Panama, but most importantly with songs that are themselves called mejoranas. These mejoranas are romantic ballads that are sung exclusively by men in the community in either the privacy of their own home or at public celebrations.

The Panamanian Punto is a Hispanic musical style which includes melodic and choreographic form. The punto is typically performed by one couple who utilize the dance to demonstrate their skill, precision and grace. The punto is frequently performed as an interlude between other dances or music at a party or event.
The Cumbia is a Panamanian folk dance originating with slaves of African descent during the time of the Spanish takeover of Central America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was later combined with American Indigenous and European elements.

Grant Still

John Tavener: Akhmatova Songs

John Tavener (1944-2013) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a composer. At 12 years of age, his parents took him to hear Mozart’s  opera The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne. It was a work that he loved for the rest of his life. In the same year, he also heard Igor Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum  which he described as the piece that “woke me up and made me want to be a composer.” 

     One of his most popular early works was an opera, The Whale, which told the Biblical story of Jonah’s encounter with the whale.  Early in his career, Tavener became interested in the Greek Orthodox faith. During his career he became one of the best known and popular composers of his generation, most particularly for The Protecting Veil, which as recorded by cellist Steven Isserlis became a best-selling album and  Song for Athene which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana. His music frequently encompasses features of Greek Orthodox chant.

          Anna Akhmatova was one of the most influential poets in Russia during her lifetime. Her poetry is frequently spare, and sometimes very short. It is known for its musicality, a quality that no doubt attracted Tavener to it.

       Tavener has provided the following notes to his Akhmatova Songs: “The six poems that I have chosen from Akhmatova were written at different periods in her life. The first three suggest her veneration of other poets – Dante, Pushkin and Lermontov– and Pasternak. In the central couplet (III) she mistrusts praise of her own work. Then comes her own longing to write, as the Muse comes. The last poem Death looks forward to her own death (with the suggestion of a personal after-life); its inevitability and her own longing for it.
       In my settings for soprano and cello I have tried to reflect the deceptive simplicity of the verse, which stems from classical tradition. In the final song Death the musical material of the earlier songs is gathered together. Then the poet bids a painful farewell to her beloved homeland, and steps into the ‘cabin’ that has been particularly prepared for her.”

Lyrics from poems by  Anna Akhmatova  (1889-1966)

 

I. Dante

And even after death he did not return
To Florence, his of old.
In going, he gave no backward glance,
To him I sing this song…
From hell he sent his curses upon her,
And in heaven he could not forget her…
1937

II. Pushkin and Lermontov

Here began Pushkin’s exile
And Lermontov’s exile ended.
Here gentle scent of mountain grass,
And only once I managed to see
Beside the lake, in plane tree’s thickest shade
In that cruel hour before the evening –
The blaze of his eyes unquenched,
The deathless lover of Tamara.
1927

III. Boris Pasternak

Endowed with some eternal childhood,
He shone open-handed, clean of sight,
The whole earth was his heritage
And this with all he shared.
1936

IV. Couplet

For me, praise from others—as ashes,
But from you, even blame—is praise.
1931

V. The Muse

At night, as I await her coming,
Life seems to hang upon a thread,
And what are honor, youth, or freedom
Before the kindly guest with pipe in hand?
Here—she has come. Flung off her veil,
And searchingly has looked on me.
I say to her: “Did you dictate to Dante
The script of Hell?” She answers, “I.”
1924

VI. To Death
1
I was on the border of something
Which has no certain name…
A drowsy summons,
A slipping away from myself…

2
Already I stand at the threshold to something,
The lot of all, but at a varying price…
On this ship, there is a cabin for me
And wind in the sails – and the dread moment
Of the parting with my native land.
1942

Samuel Coleridge Taylor: Nonet for piano, strings and woodwinds, Op. 2

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born to a Barbados plantation-owner and an English mother. His father returned to Barbados when Samuel was still a small child, and he was then raised by his mother in England.  He received a first-class education and his musical talents were readily apparent at an early age.

   Growing up, Coleridge-Taylor was intrigued by his father’s experience in America, and the composer made several trips to America both to follow up on his explorations of his father’s life there, but also to conduct a series of concerts. (The musicians whom he conducted on this tour were so enthusiastic about his conducting that they dubbed him “The Black Mahler.” 

 He was also taken with the music of Antonin Dvořák whose interest in African-American and Native American music was clearly evident in several works, including the great Symphony #9 (From the New World.  Inspired by this and other works by Dvořák Coleridge-Taylor–at the age of 23—completed his cantata, Scenes from “The Song of Hiawatha” based on the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The piece was a great success and was performed numerous times both in England and America.

Coleridge-Taylor was also a strong advocate for racial equality, colonial freedom, and broader black activism. He attended the inaugural Pan-African conference in London in 1900.

     Coleridge-Taylor also met with other African-Americans, the most influential of whom was probably the Black vernacular poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who also inspired Florence Price

     Another important inspiration for Coleridge-Taylor was Johannes Brahms. The Brahms Clarinet Quintet was completed in 1895, and soon after its publication, the 20 year old Coleridge-Taylor, acknowledging his indebtedness to Brahms,  began work on his own clarinet quintet which we heard at this Festival last year. 

The Nonet in F minor, Op. 2, was written in 1894, when the 18 year old Coleridge-Taylor was still a student at the Royal College of Music.  It is scored for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano, essentially a string quartet, a woodwind-brass quartet and piano. Its first performance (and apparently the only one until very recent times) was at a student concert at the Royal College of Music on July 5, 1894.

The Nonet is in four expansive movements, with the scoring creating opportunities for an orchestral sound as well as sections that are truly “chamber music” where sub-groups of instruments take the lead for more intimate music.

         Coleridge-Taylor was fascinated by Antonin Dvořák’s music and especially his “American” music which incorporated Native American rhythms and harmonies, and we see this influence throughout Coleridge-Taylor’s musical life.  There is a suggestion of this influence in the very opening of the first movement.

 The slow movement, Andante con moto is characterized by florid lines and a truly masterful second theme. The duple-meter Scherzo has been described by Geoffrey Self (The Hiawatha Man, 1995) as goblinesque, with its minor key and pervasive pizzicato in the strings, but it also contains a lyrical trio.  The Finale (Allegro vivace) does not adopt a conventional finale character—neither light and playful, nor heroic—but rather, with its major key and rousing spirit, conveys a sense of easy, unexaggerated confidence. 

Quite an accomplishment for an 18-year-old working on just his Opus 2!

Coleridge Taylor

August 18

Written by Dr. John Crayton

Sergi  Prokofiev: Sonata in D for Violin and Piano Op 94a

      Sergi Prokofiev defied the challenges of fate to produce an astonishing output of wonderful music. This was especially true during the years leading up to and including World War II, when he was forced to essentially hide out from the repeated threats to him and his family by the war, at the same time dealing with a series of strokes that required, at one point that he limit his composing to just one hour per day. And throughout this period, Prokofiev was constantly having to contest with the hectoring of the Soviet musical censors who were frequently unhappy with Prokofiev’s modernist tendencies. During this period, Prokofiev composed the marvelous opera, Cinderella; an iconic musical score based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace; a second film score for Sergi Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible; the beloved children’s opera, Peter and the Wolf, and the delightful Classical Symphony of 1917, thought to be an important precursor of Neoclassicism.

       Among the works in a Neo-classical vein include the great Sonata for Violin and Piano in D that we will hear at the final MCCMF concert on August 18. Originally written as a Sonata for flute and piano, Prokofiev’s friend, the eminent Russian violinist, David Oistrakh, urged him to write the violin version which we will hear at today’s concert. 

      Cast in four movements, this sonata transcription betrays little of its grim wartime origins, mixing Prokofiev’s lyrical warmth with his clever playfulness.

      The first movement, marked Moderato, opens with a lovely melody from the violin that seems to drift lazily amid the clouds. The music springs to life in a jovial bridge passage leading to the alternate theme, also a lyrical, bright melody, but one that seems to jump playfully here and there. Both themes are repeated during the course of the movement, taking on more sense of urgency and energy as the movement proceeds. The movement closes with a recapitulation of the main themes and a beautiful coda.  

      The Scherzo, marked Presto, features the typical Prokofievian energy, with the piano alternating with the violin to provide the forward momentum. There are two themes in the outer sections, the first, busy and impish, the second carefree and a bit less breathless. The brief trio is calmer and quite lovely in its subdued lyricism.

 The Andante third movement features, in its outer sections, a lovely soaring theme from the violin, which is imitated by the piano. The middle section of the movement is a marvel of the melding of neo—classical formalism and highly original—almost jazz-like treatment of the themes. This is Prokofiev at his finest

      The Finale, marked Allegro con brio, Tempo I, Poco meno mosso, opens with a delightful melody whose carnival aspects are further developed in the festive mid-section, and then seeming to dissolve into outright giggles with the entrance of the second theme. Following a highly rhythmic sectopm which introduces some edginess to the music, the three themes are brilliantly developed.  The concluding coda is an expression of freedom and sheer joy—a brilliant melding of formal, neoclassical structures and modern (mid-20th century) harmonic development.

     What a marvelous selection to conclude our Festival: a piece that combines features of the 18th and 19th century classicism of Haydn and Mozart with the brilliant harmonic originality of Prokofiev!

Sergi Prokofiev
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