History of the Music
History of the Music
By Jeff Counts
Duration: 5 minutes.
THE COMPOSER– RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883) – Though it was not premiered as a complete, four-day Bühnenfestspiel (stage festival play) until August of 1876, Wagner had been working on parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen since as far back as 1848. He completed the text of the four operas in 1853 (a five-year process itself) and only then began to craft the music, a monumental endeavor that occupied him off and on for another 21 years. It's no wonder it took so long. Wagner was attempting to realign the operatic cosmos with his "music dramas", a coinage and concept that purported to guarantee each word in the name would receive equal importance in his new world.
THE HISTORY– Act III of Die Walküre begins with the image of a rocky mountaintop flanked by storm-driven clouds. All of Brünnhilde's Valkyrie sisters wait there in full armor, ready to perform their noble duty—the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla on their winged steeds. What follows for the next several minutes is perhaps the most popular music Wagner ever wrote and is certainly still among the most beloved orchestral opera excerpts ever written by anyone. The Ride of the Valkyries is most often heard today in its shorter instrumental iteration, but the operatic version includes the passionate war whoops of the sisters as they scan the mortal battlefields below. It makes for an incredibly exciting listening experience in a live performance and, in the hands of a great director, the dramatic visual possibilities are nearly endless. Though he received many requests, Wagner originally objected to (expressly forbade, in fact) the idea of The Ride taken out of its operatic context and presented as a stand-alone concert work. According to his wife Cosima he considered the proposal an "utter indiscretion" and complained in writing when it was published that way anyhow in the early 1870s. Clearly, at some point, the tide of interest in a concert version of The Ride became too strong to resist, but Wagner managed to hold it back until the full cycle finally premiered in 1876. After that, knowing he would not be able to keep The Ride locked in place much longer, he relaxed his stance on the matter and even succumbed to the temptation himself as a conductor now and then. It is impossible to discuss The Ride of the Valkyries without mentioning how frequently it appears in modern popular culture. From video games to advertising to television shows, this music is everywhere. The most memorable quotation, by far, is the helicopter assault scene of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, where the cinematic similarities between Brünnhilde's kin and the Vietnam-era war machines is both stunning and troubling.
THE WORLD– Elsewhere in 1876, Custer's Last Stand occurred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the most famous moment in telephonic history happened when Alexander Graham Bell said, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you" and Ibsen's Peer Gynt was premiered in Norway.
THE CONNECTION– Ride of the Valkyries is programmed often by Utah Symphony, in virtually every concert setting. The most recent Masterworks Series performance was in 2011 under Thierry Fischer.
Duration: 4 minutes.
THE COMPOSER– JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947) – Whether you call John Adams a minimalist or a post-minimalist or care one whit about the distinction, you can acknowledge that his contributions to the American classical music tradition place him above such stylistic debate. Adams is among the rare but notable spiritual successors to Charles Ives, a man whose eclecticism also defied attempts at easy classification. The music of both men projects a fascination with the conflation of ideas and elements which, for Adams, grew out of childhood experiences in a household where "Benny Goodman and Mozart were not separated." Through his irreverent charm and boundless productivity, the road from "expressionism" back to plain-old "expression" was open to all.
THE HISTORY– Commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas as a music festival curtain-raiser, Short Ride in a Fast Machine was composed in 1986. A thrilling 4-minute sprint of color and rhythm, this fanfare is built from familiar stuff. From its motoric undergirding to its unpretentious consonance, Short Ride in a Fast Machine refracts the rigors of minimalist technique through the prism of Adams' own personality. The resulting experience, while fully recognizable as linguistic syntax, also serves up the subjective pleasures that have become a staple of this composer's singular voice. Speaking of voice, nobody speaks or writes about the music of John Adams better than John Adams. In a brief video on his website, Adams says the following about the genesis of Short Ride in a Fast Machine : "Since I had recently taken a ride in a very fancy Italian sportscar driven by a friend of mine, I had not yet recovered from that rather terrifying experience," Adams relates, "and it was somewhat still on my brain when I began to think about what kind of fanfare I would write." With a characteristically impish smile, he continues by saying, "So, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is an evocation of that experience which was both thrilling and also kind of a white-knuckle anxious experience." Adams refers to the omnipresent woodblock that opens the piece as a "rhythmic gauntlet through which the orchestra has to pass" and uses that "resolute and inflexible pulse" to fragment various attempts by the brass instruments to settle into a proper celebratory state. "It's only at the end of the piece," he tells us, "when the woodblock finally stops that the orchestra suddenly feels free, as if it's the third stage of a rocket that's finally broken loose of Earth's gravity." Though technically demanding, Short Ride in a Fast Machine has earned a place in the standard repertory of orchestras around the world, something very few late-20th century works can boast.
THE WORLD– Elsewhere in 1986, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl occurred, Halley's Comet visited Earth's sky, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize.
THE CONNECTION– The most recent performances of Short Ride in a Fast Machine by Utah Symphony where in 2007 under the baton of Keith Lockhart.
Duration: 18 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER– ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) – Robert Schumann's legacy is defined by two things—his critical catalog of romantic-era masterpieces and his lifelong struggles with physical and mental infirmity. A faulty hand put an end to his dreams of life as a virtuoso pianist, and his deeply troubled mind eventually ended everything else. There were, however, periods of relative calm in the soul of this most tragic of geniuses, and the last half of the 1840s found him "recovered" and producing excellent work. The list from this time includes the Piano Concerto, his one and only opera Genoveva and a dramatic overture to accompany Byron's Manfred.
THE HISTORY– Tucked neatly in and amongst the titans of this productive moment was a rather odd little duck of a piece. The Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra is as singular now as it was when Schumann composed it. No instrument projected the mood of Germanic Romanticism quite like the horn. Both a beloved relic and a flag-bearer of nationalistic potential, the horn was subtle enough (in the right hands) to span generations of musical thought. Valves were coming into fashion for the horn in the middle years of the 19th century, an innovation which hinted at incredible virtuosic possibilities that Schumann was eager to exploit. He was living in Dresden in 1849 and while there he heard performances by Joseph-Rudolph Lewy, one of the first great masters of the valve horn. The inspiration of those experiences led to the creation of something truly novel in the Konzertstück, a concerto grosso of sorts that placed not one but four horns in front of the orchestra as soloists. Like any good composer of ambition, Schumann chose not just to merely confirm the capabilities of this exciting new instrument, he sought to thoroughly challenge them. The Konzertstück was written to showcase the talents of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra horn section but, given how daunting the work still is today, it must have given those poor chaps a fit at the premiere. As feature work for multiple horns, no composer has ever equaled it. Few have even tried. From technical dexterity to high register fearlessness, much is asked of any quartet brave enough to take it on. They must execute the hairpin passage work with grace and courage, all without the safety net of a string section between themselves and the audience. Cast in three fleet movements, the Konzertstück is an exemplar of Schumann's efforts to tackle more complex formal structures and orchestral configurations. The brief period of good health and creative fertility in the late 1840s would not last, sadly, but its many gems still shine.
THE WORLD– Elsewhere in 1849, gold was discovered in California, Dostoevsky was arrested and nearly executed in St. Petersburg, Edgar Allen Poe died under mysterious circumstances, and Charles Dickens published David Copperfield .
THE CONNECTION– The most recent Utah Symphony Masterworks Series performance of the Konzertstück was way back in 2000. Keith Lockhart conducted.
Duration: 16 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER– WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791) – It is widely known that the move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781 was among the most important turning points in Mozart's career. Life under the insulting yoke of the Archbishop Colloredo had become unbearable, a circumstance for which the composer's own father found little sympathy. In fact, Leopold often took the Archbishop's side in the running debate over Wolfgang's career so when Colloredo finally fired Mozart the younger, it put the family relationship under significant strain. Trips home to Salzburg where likely pretty tense for a while after that, but Mozart sought solace in hard work and friendship to keep things light.
THE HISTORY– What was it like to be friends with an impish genius like Mozart? Was it non-stop pranks, jibes and elbows to the ribs? Joseph Leutgeb could tell you. Leutgeb was an accomplished horn player who spent time in the Salzburg court ensemble while Mozart was there and became close with the composer and his family. Quite close, it turns out, since when Leutgeb moved to Vienna himself in 1877, it was Mozart's father Leopold he approached for a house loan. Leopold agreed to fund the purchase of the apartment/cheesemonger's shop, but there is no indication that Leutgeb ever paid him back (or sold a single block of cheese for that matter). The friendship with Wolfgang not only survived, the composer actually defended his friend whenever the issue of non-payment came up. Leutgeb was a master of the valve-less hand horn. The instrument required a lot of physical manipulation to perform chromatic passages and he was a pioneering expert on the "stopping" technique the best players used. Mozart was aware of this, clearly, and the four concerti he wrote for his comrade over the mid to late 1780s all test the virtuosic fences of the day. But back to that question of how a friendship might manifest. It would seem, from the hilarious inscriptions found in the scores of three of the concerti, that these two gentlemen were very tight, and not afraid to laugh at themselves. "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," he wrote of himself in the dedication of the K. 417 concerto, "has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool in Vienna on 27 May 1783." Other inserted comments included jabs like: "Try to play at least one in tune!" and "Ah—a billy-goat impression!." The K. 447 Concerto (No. 3) doesn't have any of this good-natured ribbing on the page, the same generosity of spirit and genuine respect remain obvious throughout. The slow Romanze movement was written, possibly as a stand-alone gift, in 1783. but the outer movements are more likely from 1787.
THE WORLD– Elsewhere in 1787, the United States Constitution was signed, Turkey declared war on Russia, and 11 shiploads of convicted criminals left Great Britain with the intention of establishing a penal colony in Australia.
THE CONNECTION– Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 was most recently performed by Utah Symphony in 1983. Joseph Silverstein conducted and Jeffry Kirschen was soloist.
Duration: 46 minutes.
THE COMPOSER – RICHARD STRAUSS (1864–1949) – The late 1890s found Richard Strauss in high demand as an opera conductor and at the zenith of his creative powers as an orchestral tone poet. His four-year stint at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, though incredibly fertile compositionally, was coming to a necessary professional end and offers for a new post were lining up nicely. From New York to Hamburg (Mahler’s old job) to Berlin, he had options. In the end, the compensation package and flexible summer composing schedule proposed by the German capital city won out, and Strauss entered this new phase of his career with a great deal of confidence, something he never seemed to lack.
THE HISTORY – Packed in Strauss’ luggage (both kinds—the literal and the figurative) was the score-in-progress for his latest massive tone poem, Ein Heldenleben. He had been exploring and, in most ways, perfecting the tone poem genre for over a decade by that point and, though he would write two more after, Ein Heldenleben was the apotheosis of his efforts. In Strauss’ hands, the perceived limits of programmatic orchestral sound were shattered. There was no subject he could not render accurately in music, no scene he could not paint with a hyper-realistic symphonic clarity that threw open the doors of the modern era. Strauss detailed his intentions for Ein Heldenleben in a letter from the summer of 1898. “Since Beethoven’s Eroica is so unpopular with conductors and rarely performed,” he claimed, “I intend to fill the void with a large tone poem called A Hero’s Life.” It is difficult to imagine such a void having actually existed, and harder still to believe Strauss was ever in need of pretexts or contexts for his grandiose aims. He was a man of unbreakable self-assurance and he rarely withered before the bladed pen of a critic. This toughness would be tested by Ein Heldenleben, once it became clear who the hero (not to mention the adversaries) at the center of the drama really was. As he predicted in very notes of the piece itself (see below), reviewers were initially unkind in their assessment of Strauss’ autobiographical music, one calling a “monstrous act of egotism.” Strauss, newly established in Berlin as one of Germany’s most important musicians, simply shrugged off the charge. He supplied no literal synopsis for the piece, but he did furnish evocative section titles in the score. 1. The Hero (Strauss himself); 2. The Hero’s Adversaries (the very music critics who would attempt to punish him for his various blasphemies); 3. The Hero’s Companion (his beloved wife Pauline); 4. The Hero’s Battlefield; 5. The Hero’s Works of Peace; 6. The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1898, the Spanish-American War was kicked off by the sinking of the USS Maine, the Five Burroughs of New York City were established, the Philippines declared independence from Spain, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria was assassinated in Geneva.
THE CONNECTION – Ein Heldenleben appears at least once per decade on Utah Symphony seasons and was most recently presented in 2015 with Thierry Fischer on the podium.