History of the Music
History of the Music
By Jeff Counts
Duration: 19 minutes in four movements (with pauses).
THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) – The years between 1908 and 1914 were momentous for Stravinsky in nearly every imaginable way. It was a stretch of time defined by the end of one thing at the start, and the beginning of another at the end. The loss of his beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in 1908 was the close of a beneficial but dependent chapter for Stravinsky, while 1914 opened the door on a world that would never be the same for him, a world that knew about _The Rite of Spring_ and a world that would see him in exile.
THE HISTORY – Stravinsky wrote the music for his opera The Nightingale in two different phases. Act I was composed in 1908–09 with Acts II and III not completed until 1913–14. The gap is stylistically significant, and the result in the opera feels like two different Stravinsky’s in collaboration. When Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev suggested that the composer revive the opera as a ballet, it was the last two acts that the initially reluctant Stravinsky reworked, condensed and wove into a new symphonic poem he eventually allowed to be choreographed. Song of the Nightingale premiered as a ballet in 1920. It’s worth noting again that the final two acts of The Nightingale were completed just after The Rite of Spring, which made the distance between them and the earlier first act seem like decades, not years. Much had changed for Stravinsky since he began the project under the watchful eye of Rimsky-Korsakov, and the music of that earlier time was something he was loathe to re-visit with the impact of The Rite still reverberating so loudly. Still, even with the duly modern later acts in place, the opera and resultant symphonic poem were puzzling successors to The Rite. Stravinsky had momentarily halted the spin of the earth in 1913 with his shocking and controversial pagan fête, and The Nightingale, though infused with its own charming magic and inventiveness, baffled some with its subtlety while continuing to offend others (already offended from before) with its dissonances. Frustrated with the lukewarm responses, Stravinsky finally agreed to let Diaghilev produce the Song of the Nightingale with dance. The very popular Henri Matisse designed the sets, a boon for the production, but it was the introduction to Diaghilev’s new choreographer George Balanchine that would have the most lasting effect on the piece and its author.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1920, the League of Nations was established, the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States, the Cenotaph was unveiled in London, and the Nazi Party was founded in Germany.
THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony regularly performs the works of Igor Stravinsky, some of them repeating every few seasons. Song of the Nightingale, however, has only appeared twice in recent memory, most recently in 2011.
Duration: 26 minutes in three movements (performed without pause).
THE COMPOSER – FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) – Mendelssohn had been the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for three years when he began work on a concerto for the concertmaster Ferdinand David in 1838. The two men had been friends since 1825 (when David was 15 and Mendelssohn 16) and relished the idea of a collaboration. Mendelssohn thought very highly of David’s development as an artist and praised his rare blend of “real talent” and “right determination.” David was among the first faculty members appointed to Mendelssohn’s brand-new Leipzig Conservatory in 1843.
THE HISTORY – Though the two friends exchanged many letters of mutual encouragement for the concerto project in 1838, one of which included a line from the composer about hoping to finish the work “next winter,” the idea was quietly shelved and not taken up again in earnest for another six years. When that time finally came, they collaborated closely on the details of the concerto, still quite committed to a teamwork approach. Mendelssohn, for his part, seemed inordinately driven to please David and sent him a long letter of questions that displayed a level of nervousness unusual for such a veteran composer. Here we see Mendelssohn the thoughtful, even fitful, early Romantic. His desire for compositional perfection can be ascribed to his affinity for the clarity of line and form that defined the Classical ethos upon which, during his time, the sun would fully set. But poise does not necessarily belie a lack of passion and the familiarity of a style does not always rule out creativity. Mendelssohn’s need for approval from his soloist speaks to the great seriousness with which he approached his own musicianship and, though his position near the artistic pivot point between the Classical and Romantic eras dropped his works out of favor for a while, his unique voice now defines that moment in history. This importance is clearly evident in the Violin Concerto. Though Mendelssohn chooses a subtler path than Beethoven, his concerto is filled with equally fresh ingenuity. The melodic material alone exudes an expressive purity that sounds as though channeled from beyond rather than composed. Joseph Joachim (a protégé of David), famously said in 1906 that, among the great Germanic concerti, Mendelssohn’s was “the most inward, the heart’s jewel.” The Violin Concerto was among Mendelssohn’s last full orchestra compositions and though lost momentarily in the muscular shuffle of the high Romantic era that followed, it lives on today with a well-earned popularity that is as fitting as it is lasting.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1845, Florida and Texas became the 27th and 28th United States, British inventor Stephen Perry received a patent for the rubber band, and the Great Famine began in Ireland.
THE CONNECTION – The Mendelssohn Concerto appears often on Utah Symphony programs. The most recent Masterworks performance was in 2016 with Jun Märkl on the podium and Stefan Jackiw as soloist.
Duration: 33 minutes in four movements.
THE COMPOSER – JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897). There was a “War of the Romantics” afoot in the second half of the 19th Century that dominated German musical thought. It was, in the simplest possible terms, a schism between Conservatives (who believed in the primacy of absolute, non-programmatic composition) and the Progressives (who cultivated a futurist ethic that pushed all referential and formal boundaries). Brahms was the unelected head of the traditional wing, and heavy indeed was the crown. He was mocked by followers of Liszt and Wagner, who found in his four symphonies all the stubborn anachronisms that defined what Liszt called the “posthumous party.”
THE HISTORY – That the third and possibly most humble of those symphonies of Brahms was premiered the same year Wagner died is both coincidental and important. As with most of Brahms’ new works in the last decades of the century, the December 1883 premiere of Symphony No. 3 was attended by avid, and hostile, Wagnerites. With their god only 10 months gone (Wagner had passed away in February), they were particularly keen to hiss Brahms’ stodgy creation into obscurity. It didn’t work. Fans of Brahms (who included Dvořák) made up the larger part of the audience and their voices rang loudest, as did those of the critics immediately after. It was one of the greatest triumphs of his career to date, but Brahms was no less afflicted by self-doubt for all the praise. More fascinating than any of the musical/political drama or the instant success that defied it is the fact that Symphony No. 3 includes at least one non-absolute (dare we say programmatic?) feature. Coded into the mighty opening chords of the first movement is the F-A-F motif from his younger days. These notes (F-Ab-F in this case) stand for Frei aber froh (Free but happy) and were originally meant as a response to Joseph Joachim’s personal motto Frei aber einsam (F-A-E – Free but lonely). The meaning of the Ab chord in place of the expected A is unknowable, but it is not hard to imagine something additionally extra-musical in this slight alteration. Was Brahms acknowledging, again, how equivocal and fragile his happiness often was? Regardless, the quotation flies in the face of his critics and proves that no artist is ever only one thing, or another. The writing of Symphony No. 3 took place over the course of a fleet four months in the middle part of 1883 and was done in Wiesbaden, not his usual Austrian mountain retreat. Apparently, Hermine Spies, a stunningly talented contralto and latest of Brahms’ unrealized infatuations, lived nearby. More subtext? More program? Who can say…
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1883, Life Magazine was founded in the US, Krakatoa erupted, the character of Pinocchio made his first appearance in Italy, Franz Kafka was born in Prague, and the last Quagga died in Amsterdam.
THE CONNECTION – The Utah Symphony has presented Symphony No. 3 many times on the Masterworks Series. The most recent performances were in 2016 with Thierry Fischer.