Program Notes: March 10, 2013
(Born: September 1874 in Vienna; died: July 1951 in Los Angeles, CA)
Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16
- Vorgefühle (Premonitions)
- Vergangenes (The Past)
- Farben (Colors)
- Perepetie (Perepeteia)
- Das obligate Rezitativ (The Obbligato Recitative)
Finally the edifice toppled, and Arnold Schoenberg was one of the pioneers leading to a new reality of atonal music whose goal was to imagine music without the traditional harmonic relationships. As Schoenberg put it, he wanted to “liberate” pitch and by the by the 1920’s he “discovered” a method to help composers write atonally, which became known as the 12-tone method. A composer would choose a “row” of 12 separate pitches, without repetition of any note and avoiding intervals that resembled traditional relationships, using that row as the basic building block for a composition. To many it seemed mechanical and devoid of beauty, and Schoenberg’s name became pseudonymous with ugly. But just as two good composers can create two different masterpieces in the same key, so a good composer can create a masterpiece using atonal principles.
Schoenberg’s early "free" atonal works such as Five Pieces, as well as his later 12-tone method have directly influenced nearly every composer to follow him for the next 100 years. It seems inconceivable that this is so, as Schoenberg’s music often turns listeners away, but in fact, its because his compositions are as intelligently thought out as any by Beethoven or Brahms and his ear for pacing and sonic effect as masterful as any of the great composers. Schoenberg’s works are astonishing aural worlds, as profoundly affecting as any composer before or after him. Five Pieces for Orchestra of 1909 is a superb example of how atonal music can be as moving and expressive as tonal music – from beauty to terror, chaos to melancholy, wistfulness to anxiety. The first movement begins as if one has been dropped into the middle of an unknown scene – the listener is disoriented, as though in a dream, and it’s a troubling one. This uncharted psychic exploration was important to Schoenberg. He began by employing a host of exaggerated techniques: flutter tonguing on wind instruments, playing pitches in the very highest or lowest of registers, bowing in different places on the string (including bowing percussion instruments), and using inventive combinations of instruments – all of which beckon the listener out of their usual perceived reality. The colors are as rich and varied as anything ever written. The movement gathers momentum into a terrifying climax, subsides, and then builds to another terror. Anxiety wells up and runs deep in this movement. The climaxes do not solve it but only validate it. And then it ends like an echo.
The second movement is like reminiscence in a dark room, somewhat in the haze of brandy. Ostinatos (repeated patterns of notes) float and collide in an atmospheric laziness. Tonality seems to be hiding in the corner – we sometimes hear pitches resolving, only to hear them dissolving. Schoenberg casts a spell of haunting memories, and its effect, like the changing colors of a sunset, is beautiful.
The third movement is completely enchanting. Each pitch, Schoenberg felt, had its own valuable color, and he wanted to write music as if the human ear could discern changes of hue rather than changes of pitch. He uses, and then continually recycles, only a very few chords and changes their instrumentation bit by bit, almost frugally, throughout the movement – as though looking through a kaleidoscope in ultra slow motion. A celesta and glockenspiel add glints of brilliant reflections on occasion, giving the deep overall meditative quality of this movement a hint of time. Schoenberg’s techniques here of making pitches turn different colors became a defining moment in 20th Century music as countless new composers came to adopt it.
The fourth movement is probably the most theatrical of the five, and it achieves this with an ingenious economy of means. Schoenberg uses essentially only three motives, and the drama emerges out of vastly changing their orchestration, wildly shifting their rates of speed, and piling them up upon each other at its very end. “Perepeteia” was the plot changer of many ancient Greek plays and it means a sudden change of fortune, in drama or in life (Oxford Dictionary) – and in this piece Schoenberg uses it to remind of us the devilish premonitions of Movement I, to realize them, and to lead us onward.
The last movement hints at tonal melodies – certainly much of the harmonization wanders close to it. In relation to Movements I and IV, there’s an edge taken off in this regard, the orchestration is softer, the lyricism more lingering. It’s intentional as it works to lead up to the movement’s climax, which, arising as it does out of such “easy” music, the grandiosity of the climax looms suddenly larger than life, like a mountain on the plains. The future sounds of Hindemith and Shostakovich are in these short, but mighty, passages.
After looking at the score to Five Pieces for Orchestra, Richard Strauss decided that Schoenberg would make a better living shoveling snow. Mahler couldn’t aurally imagine the work in his head, with apologies. In 1909 it truly was music that was completely brand new. It’s taken some time to hear music in this new way. 100 years later its impact is still resonating.
Manual de Falla
(Born: Cádiz, November 23, 1876; died: Alta Gracia, Argentina, November 14,
Noches en los jardines d’España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain)
- In the Generalife
- A Dance is Heard in the Distance
- In the Gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba
Falla captured this essence of Spanish music by mimicking, but not quoting, folk music popular to Andalucia in southern Spain. The most specific impression of folk music is a clear reference to the cante hondo in the third movement (Sierra de Cordoba). This genre of Spanish music was introduced to Spain by gypsies, and is most immediately identified by the gutsy, wailing singing and the rapid guitar work of flamenco dance. To imitate this, Falla melodically uses rapid successions of notes and accompaniments that maintain strict tempos beneath the soloist’s free-metered rhapsodizing, often with rich impressions of the hondo – the soloist's intimate expressions of the tragic side of life. As Falla wrote, "Something more than the sound of festivals and dances has inspired these [nocturnes], for melancholy and mystery have their part also." The entire work is beautiful, complex and lush and it was this work that cemented Falla's reputation as one the 20th Century's great composers at home and abroad.
Spanish Gardens The Arabic tradition of building lavish and refreshing gardens dates back thousands of years and took root in Spain with the centuries of Arab presence there. The garden’s place in Spain is celebrated, especially in Falla’s birth place in the south, Andalucia. Gardens were central to society as places of respite and special gardens were places for festivals and parties. Falla’s depictions, then, are clearly illustrating more than just gardens, but Spanish life, and he was quick to point out that the piece was not programmatic, simply evocative of nostalgic memories – fancies rather than reality.
The Generalife The 14th Century Arab Generalife (“garden of the architect”) Palace in Grenada, Andalucia contains one of Europe’s most magnificent gardens. Inside the garden is the Court of the Long Pond, which is a long rectangular canal of sorts flanked by lush flowers and myrtle bushes, porticos on each end and walls along the lengths. Delicate fountains arching across the pond create a graceful dance of water and light. Falla’s atmospheric evocations are mysterious, as ancient places often are, and gently beckoning, leading gently into the next movement without pause.
Distant Dance No specific garden is named here, although Falla appears to be representing the Moorish influenced garden with this movement’s Spanish-Arabic sonorities. It’s filled with fragrance, anticipation and excitement – this is a garden as a scene for dance, with a central interlude of romance. Mysteriousness again appears and leads us quickly into the next garden.
Sierra de Cordoba There are several magnificent gardens in the mountain slopes that run through Cordoba. In his own descriptive notes Falla alludes to a dance of gypsies celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi (the sacrament of Christ’s body becoming the Eucharist), therefore the garden may be that of the ancient gardens of la Merced Convent. Spanish gypsies traditionally practiced their own brand of Catholicism and Falla captures the raptness and cante hondo passions of the celebrants amongst antique gardens.
(Born: in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna) Finland, December 8, 1865; died: in
Järvenpää, Finland, September 20, 1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E-minor, Op.39
- Andante, ma non troppo — Allegro energico
- Andante (ma non troppo lento)
- Scherzo: Allegro
- Finale (Quasi una Fantasia): Andante — Allegro molto
Before Sibelius premiered his first Finnish Nationalist tone poem, En Saga, in 1892, Finland’s National music had been struggling to find its voice. The seven additional Nationalist tone poems that followed thrust Sibelius into Finland’s limelight as the country’s foremost composer – especially the seventh and his most popular one, Finlandia (1899) – and indeed, in 1897 the Finnish Senate granted him a yearly stipend in honor of his contributions to Finnish life. His music was clearly a galvanizing factor in Finland’s eventual independence in 1917-18 from Russia’s meddlesome governance. But Sibelius was at once honored by his role as feted national hero and yet reluctant to be typecast into any mold. His reluctance was born of a need to create according to his own terms, to express more universally, and not only as the spokesperson for the Finnish cause célèbre. As a result, his life's work speaks not only to the glories of Finland, but is an extraordinarily unique voice in Western music that leaps beyond time and place.
True to this paradox, in 1899, the year of Finlandia, Sibelius stepped back from the Nationalistic lights to compose his First Symphony which tackles more universal themes. It opens with a pining clarinet solo singing over a prolonged timpani roll, seeming to visualize a stark and frozen landscape stretching over desolate miles, much like those barren, arctic stretches of the Finnish north. As Sibelius’ symphonic debut, it’s one of the great moments in Western music, suspending time, simultaneously resonating inside the core of our human-ness and out upon the expanses of the cosmos.
The second movement is a complexity of charms. A nostalgic lyricism opens and closes the movement, but the core of it is filled with short motives and constantly evolving orchestral colors expressing a wide range of passions: from wistful comforts in strings and chamber winds, to frightening cyclones of full winds and brass.
The third movement is in stark contrast, its opening section is fresh and robust, a brisk walk on a beautiful day, peppered with overlapping fugatos (musical motives introduced like those in a fugue but not continuing). And with joyful inventiveness, the main theme is introduced by the boisterous kettle drums.
The finale, a sweeping affair, shows Sibelius’ extraordinary craft of blending structure into the service of the musical narrative. It begins by using the opening melody of the clarinet in the first movement, but here it looms in the strings. The soaring, sweeping theme that follows is terrifically derived out of the opening of the second movement, now translated into breathlessness rather than nostalgia. The fugues that intruded into the ruddy third movement return here to create urgency and a sense of something much bigger. The Symphony ends with a twisting strength, as though having been forged by 100 musical blacksmiths, in a way that only Sibelius seemed to know how to fashion. At the very end, a few strums on the harp; glimpses of those foreboding northern landscapes.
Despite his intentions, enthusiastic Finns championed Sibelius’ First Symphony as an epic Finnish tale, about struggle, perseverance, and eventual triumph. After 100 years, some perspective allows room for more of the universal expression that the composer was so eager to voice, and this great Symphony never fails to stir our souls.