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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Music historians rarely miss an opportunity to take note of an anniversary. Birth dates are celebrated, and the deaths are remembered in thoughtful contemplation. But exactly three hundred years ago, the great Baroque masters Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach were making history in a way that, though worth celebrating, is rarely marked on a calendar: They had reached full maturity as composers at a time when music was changing rapidly, and they were part of the reason it was changing.
In the early 18th century, musical knowledge was exploding in a way we could compare to digital technology today. Instruments were becoming more advanced, opening new possibilities in range, volume and texture; informal conventions of musical structure began to coalesce into forms that became the foundations of now-familiar musical classifications. In just a few more generations, in the Classical era, it would seem as if these developments had always been there.
Take, for example, the well-tempered system of tuning, which enabled composers to modulate freely and compose in any key. It was first defined around 1680, just a few years before Bach was born—and Bach, always an enthusiastic adopter of new musical technologies, demonstrated complete mastery of this new tuning system as well as advances in the construction of instruments in every choir of the orchestra. When suites of movements began to emerge as “concertos” that contrasted smaller versus larger numbers of instruments playing together, Bach embraced this idea even as it was taking shape. And Antonio Vivaldi, who was born in 1678—seven years earlier than Bach—was the Baroque era’s prolific master of the concerto, composing virtually hundreds of them.
Bach demonstrated a universe of musical possibilities in his Well-Tempered Clavier, showing that composers could now modulate freely within individual works—a freedom that gave rise to the sonata allegro form we hear in later concertos and symphonies. Even those of us without extensive musical training somehow know a key change when we hear it: on an intuitive level, we sense that a melody we’ve already heard is being repeated in a different scale. As the composer manipulates each movement’s elements—exposing more themes, developing them relationally through various key changes, and usually returning to the original key—we experience the architecture of the movement and the overall work.
If Baroque concertos are missing some of the compositional elements we take for granted in Classical and Romantic concertos, that does not mean they are less sophisticated or less beautiful than those that came later; in fact, the more monumental concertos of the 19th century are lacking in some of the elements that Bach and Vivaldi put into theirs. Since the advent of the great Romantic concertos—a genre virtually invented, of course, by Beethoven—we have come to expect the concerto to showcase the skill of a single soloist with virtuosic playing that is thrilling, often conveying a sense of monumentality as it works its way through strenuous musical ideas. A sense of struggle is not out of place in many such concertos, conveying as they do the Romantic ideals of the soloist as an individual heroically countering the massed forces of the orchestra.
Baroque concertos, by contrast, are more focused on the idea of contrasting a large group with a smaller group. There is a dynamic esthetic appeal here, far more complex than simply many versus few: Baroque composers knew that depending on how the musical materials are presented, either a large or a small group of players could be foregrounded in a composition or provide the foil for another group of players.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Bach deeply flattered Vivaldi. The German master’s unquenchable thirst for musical knowledge extended to Vivaldi’s concertos, which were written in an Italian style he learned through emulation—sometimes by literally copying Vivaldi’s scores. Bach’s D Minor concerto for two violins is a prime example of his refined, German version of Vivaldi’s Italian style, incorporating the characteristic alternation of fast-slow-fast pacing and the textural contrast between the ripieno and the concertino of duo-violins.
Though Bach was a keyboard player rather than a violinist—indeed, it’s likely that he was one of the greatest organists who ever lived—he seems to have penetrated to the heart of any instrument for which he composed, and this concerto is one that holds a special place in the violin repertory: No composition in all of music offers more sheer enjoyment for an accomplished violinist to play. It’s not just the concerto’s undeniable Italianate gorgeousness, but also the sheer flow of energy and the feel of the instrument when playing the notes of so masterful a composer.
Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)
It’s no exaggeration to call Wynton Marsalis American musical royalty. As an internationally acclaimed musician, composer and bandleader, an educator and a leading advocate of American culture, he has created and performed an expansive range of music—from quartets to big bands, chamber music ensembles to symphony orchestras and tap dance to ballet—always expanding the vocabulary for jazz and classical music with a vital body of work that places him among the world’s finest musicians and composers.
Wynton was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 18, 1961, to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis, the second of six sons. At an early age, he exhibited a superior aptitude for music and a desire to participate in American culture. At age eight Wynton performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band led by legendary banjoist Danny Barker, and at 14 he performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic. During high school Wynton performed with the New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, New Orleans Community Concert Band, New Orleans Youth Orchestra, New Orleans Symphony, various jazz bands and with the popular local funk band, the Creators.
At age 17 Wynton became the youngest musician ever to be admitted to Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center. Despite his youth, he was awarded the school’s prestigious Harry Shapiro Award for outstanding brass student. Wynton moved to New York City to attend Juilliard in 1979. When he started gigging around the City, the grapevine began to buzz. The excitement around Wynton attracted the attention of Columbia Records executives who signed him to his first recording contract. In 1980 Wynton seized the opportunity to join the Jazz Messengers to study under master drummer and bandleader Art Blakey. It was from Blakey that Wynton acquired his concept for bandleading and for bringing intensity to each and every performance. In the years to follow Wynton performed with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, John Lewis, Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and countless other jazz legends.
Always swinging, Marsalis blows his trumpet with a clear tone, a depth of emotion and a unique, virtuosic style derived from an encyclopedic range of trumpet techniques. When you hear Marsalis play, you’re hearing life being played out through music. And his vibrant stage manner and personal warmth are borne out in his compositions as well as his performances.
Marsalis’ core beliefs and foundation for living are based on the principals of jazz. He promotes individual creativity (improvisation), collective cooperation (swing), gratitude and good manners (sophistication), and faces adversity with persistent optimism (the blues). With his evolved humanity and through his selfless work, Marsalis has elevated the quality of human engagement for individuals, social networks and cultural institutions throughout the world.
Commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, A Fiddler’s Tale was created in collaboration with that organization and with Jazz at Lincoln Center. It is Marsalis’ response to Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. As Marsalis notes on his website, it is composed from the perspective of later twentieth-century music (Stravinsky’s composition dates from 1918) “including but not limited to jazz.” Like Stravinsky’s work, A Fiddler’s Tale can be performed with or without narration. It premiered in 1998.
Elliott Carter (1908 – 2012)
Twentieth Century America produced no composer of greater influence than Elliott Carter, internationally recognized as one of the principal voices in classical music during his lifetime and a leading figure of modernism in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was hailed as “America’s great musical poet” by the esteemed New Yorker critic Andrew Porter, and was noted as “one of America’s most distinguished creative artists in any field” by his friend Aaron Copland.
Born in New York City, Elliott Carter was encouraged towards a career in classical music by his friend and mentor Charles Ives. He studied under composers Walter Piston and Gustav Holst while attending Harvard University, and later traveled to Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger. Following his studies in France, he returned to New York and devoted his time to composing and teaching, holding posts over the years at St. John’s College, the Peabody Conservatory, Yale University, Cornell University, and The Juilliard School, among others.
In Carter’s prolific career as a composer, which spanned over 75 years, he demonstrated imagination and innovativeness worthy of his early mentor, Charles Ives. His catalogue encompasses more than 150 pieces ranging from chamber music to orchestral works to opera, often marked with a sense of wit and humor. He received numerous honors and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize on two occasions: in 1960 for his String Quartet No. 2 and in 1973 for his String Quartet No. 3. Other awards include Germany’s Ernst Von Siemens Music Prize and the Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award. Carter was the first composer to receive the United States National Medal of Arts, and is one of a handful of composers inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. He was recognized twice by the Government of France: being named Commander of the “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” and receiving the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor in September 2012.
Carter was vigorously creative through the end of his long life; his Double Trio premiered October 2011, when he was 93. Commenting on the work, Carter noted that “…Brass instruments, especially the trumpet and trombone, recently interested me for use in chamber music because of their ability to play softly and use different kinds of mutes. Combining them with solo strings fascinated me so I wrote the Double Trio. This work was composed for the opening of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Bourgie Concert Hall in September of 2011.” After hearing it, the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen wrote in The New York Review of Books, “The new eight-minute Double Trio of this year is one of Carter’s most brilliant creations.”
The Double Trio is dedicated to Pierre Bourgie, a prominent Canadian philanthropist and patron of the arts.
Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
First, let’s get our Siegfrieds straight. The Siegfried of Richard Wagner’s impossibly beautiful Siegfried Idyll is not the Siegfried for whom the third opera of Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung is named. Nor does it have anything to do with the gorgeous passage known as “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from the prelude of the Ring’s fourth opera, Götterdämmerung, though elements from the Idyll did find their way into the Ring. In these comprehensively imagined music dramas, Wagner projects his personal cosmology onto a mythic universe—a place of normative values whose inhabitants journey toward moral perfection. But Wagner’s personal life, which gave rise to the Siegfried Idyll, was something else again.
The Siegfried Idyll takes its name from Wagner’s son by his second wife, Cosima. At the time they fell passionately in love, Cosima—who was Franz Liszt’s illegitimate daughter by the glamorous Parisian socialite Marie d’Agoult—was married to the distinguished conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner’s strongest supporters. Beset by financial and artistic turmoil, Wagner accepted the Bülows’ offer of refuge in their country house in Tribschen, near Lake Lucerne.
Wagner’s affair with Cosima von Bülow was just one of many on his part, but it proved fateful, finally dooming his marriage to his first wife, Minna. Wagner felt that his genius and his passion were reasons enough for his host and former pupil to step aside; inflamed by love, he was inspired to begin work on his revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde. For her part, Cosima became pregnant with their daughter Isolde. When Minna conveniently died in 1866, Cosima’s husband granted her a divorce, and she and Wagner married. Two more children followed: Eva and Siegfried.
When Cosima entered Wagner’s life, it was as if they were transfigured beings who entered the world of Wagner’s creative imagination. Their shared passion crystallized for Wagner the premise of Tristan und Isolde—the transcendence of inner, spiritual love over external reality and human law—and their relationship unleashed his work on his most innovative music. Together, Wagner and Cosima embodied not only the creative fantasies of his music dramas, but also the principles of his writing on aesthetic philosophy, including his insistence on the purity of German art and myth, and his virulent anti-Semitism. Cosima furthered these ideas after Wagner’s death, managing the opera house at Bayreuth as a shrine to her husband and his ideas.
Though it is relatively short (for Wagner) and intimately scaled for a chamber ensemble, the Siegfried Idyll is in a sense a token of this special moment in the life of one of music history’s most remarkable and disturbing figures. Composed in appreciation of the marital joy that Wagner and Cosima enjoyed after his years of turmoil, it was conceived as a gift for Cosima and specifically scored for an orchestra of 13 to 15 players to be positioned on the stairway leading to Cosima’s bedroom. It was rehearsed in secret and played to awaken her on Christmas Day in 1870.
Originally titled the Tribschen Idyll, the Siegfried Idyll is ecstatic and flowing; like so much of Wagner’s music, it seems to nullify the external sense of time with its own timeless pulse. It begins with a sunrise both literal and figurative, a beautiful dawn that also marks the beginning of a new kind of life. (The work’s original subtitle indicates that the sunrise is orange, and that a bird, “Fidi,” is singing; both the roseate tones of the morning sky and the poetic birdsong are evident in the music.
As a kind of gift card to supplement the Idyll, Wagner provided a poetic dedication to Cosima in which he explained the work as follows:
It was your self-sacrificing, noble will
That found a place for my work to develop,
Consecrated by you as a refuge from the world,
Where my work grew and mightily arose,
A hero’s world magically became an idyll for us,
An age-old distance became a familiar homeland.
Then a call happily rang forth into my melodies;
“A son is there!” —he had to be named Siegfried.
For him and you I had to express thanks in music—
What lovelier reward could there be for deeds of love?
We nurtured within the bounds of our home
The quiet joy, that here became sound.
To those who proved ever faithful to us,
Kind to Siegfried, and friendly to our son,
With your blessing, may that which we formerly enjoyed
As sounding happiness now be offered.
The Idyll can be heard as an attempt to transmute infidelity into nobility, like lead into gold. The morality may be questionable, but it is difficult to argue with the beauty of the music.