Category Archives: Orchestral Music

Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.

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The Dance of Ravel and Satie

Satie, Moulin de la Galette (“The Bohemian”), Ramon Casas, 1891

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday June 6th, 5 to 6 pm… In the last Discoveries we took a snapshot of Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Poulenc from 100 years ago. Each was from a different world of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns was old: older than the old guard, older than the director of the Paris Conservatory Gabriel Fauré (his student and Ravel’s teacher), and older, even, than Fauré’s predecessor Théodore Dubois.

Ravel was a great and rising success in 1917 in a rapidly changing mainstream. Debussy (d. 1918) had long since upset traditional tonality and conservatory-approved fugue and forms. Rather than lining up easily charted chords, he composed washes of incalculable harmonies pinwheeling as colors.

Ravel traveled in that same landscape, if not along the same musical road. Even though he gathered many admirers for his lustrous yet precise scores as the years wore on, many still held him at arm’s length. And he still smarted over having been turned down for the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome, not once or twice, but five times. Dubois lost his job as director after the last time and an outcry over l’affaire Ravel broke—all the finalists turned out to be students of Dubois—but the hurt remained.

Francis Poulenc would lead in the next generation. Around 1917 the iconoclast Erik Satie called him and five other composers the Nouveaux Jeunes. Later, a critic coined Les Six. Satie would fall out and in with them, but he, even though older than Ravel, was in many ways their spark. They wanted to be new, not like Wagner, not like Debussy, and not like Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

But what they and Satie and Ravel had in common was dance. Large orchestral works became much more difficult to mount during and well after the Great War. The likes of Ravel’s mammoth 1912 Daphnis and Chloe would not be feasible for a long time. But impresarios like Diaghilev were making a good business of ballet. Artists like Picasso and Cocteau ripped up boundaries and reimagined spaces and angles. Dancers and choreographers created theater (and word-of-mouth) like never before. And composers made music from beat-up pianos, drums, and whatever instruments were at hand.

Exotic stories and myths were popular, as in Daphnis and Satie’s Mercury, but so was nonsense and non sequitur. Each minute-long section of Jack in the Box is in C major. Satie wrote it for piano, then lost it (on a bus, he thought). He died and it was found in his cluttered apartment, behind a piano. One of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, orchestrated it. Dance, and the worlds of French music, lived on.

PROGRAM:
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 1 (1912)
Erik Satie (1866–1925): Mercury (1924)
Satie: Jack in the Box (1926), orch. Darius Milhaud
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1913)1999

Poulenc Couldn’t Believe What Ravel Said about Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM… One hundred years ago, 18-year-old Francis Poulenc was looking for a composition teacher, and being recommended by the pianist Ricardo Viñes to Maurice Ravel, went to meet him, scores in hand. Ravel was already well-known, having composed much of the music for which he is famous today.

He was also part of the new breezes blowing through French music at the time of the First World War. Generations were traveling in new directions with Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Ravel, and others, away from the German symphonic tradition and away from the 19th century. Viñes and Ravel were part of a group, in fact, that met regularly to play for each other and to discuss these very issues. “The Apaches” they called themselves, the name not only of the Native American nation, but also a French word meaning “The Hooligans.” How apt for the young Poulenc, just starting, to learn from Ravel, a master in this new world.

The young man played some of Ravel’s music at the piano, but Ravel quickly stopped him to look at Poulenc’s own music. Criticizing it, he suggested he ought to consider the music of someone who was a genius: Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns?! That old man, was he even still alive? Yes, he lived to 86, dying in 1921. Saint-Saëns, that curmudgeon who detested everything new, who called Debussy’s music noise, who after The Rite of Spring called Stravinsky insane? Saint-Saëns, who churned out music without effort and without depth and without soul by the truckload? And worst of all, in 1917: Saint-Saëns, that most German of French composers? Ravel recommended Saint-Saëns?

What is it about Saint-Saëns? We hardly know what to make of him. Some of the best-loved music is his: the “Organ” Symphony, Danse macabre, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Carnival of the Animals, and piano, violin, and cello concertos. But there are hundreds of works, and he may be the composer who never had an off day (Dvořák is another). His music has an ease that can be mistaken for lack of angst, a refusal to meet emotion head-on. Hector Berlioz (while recognizing his talent) famously said about Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

But go past the famous Saint-Saëns and appreciate what might be his real genius. His First Cello Concerto is ubiquitous, but some consider the Second to be even grander. The Organ Symphony, his Third, is justly revered, but the early Second is a deft handling of contrasts and balances. Symphonies and concertos were forms as German as any, and they kept many French composers at arms-length from Saint-Saëns, but we can appreciate the elegance, the clarity, the control of forces. He isn’t baring his soul as much as he is letting us cultivate ours.

We can do that, if we allow ourselves to hear his voice, to open our hearts to Saint-Saëns. “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is the gorgeous mezzo-soprano aria from the opera Samson and Delilah, and it can remind us that while Poulenc left Ravel disappointed, we might do well to take his advice.

PROGRAM:
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix, from Samson and Delilah (1877)
Saint-Saëns. Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 119 (1902)
Saint-Saëns. Symphony No. 2 (1859)

Susquehanna

Susquehanna, An Overture for Orchestra. 2 Flutes, Piccolo, 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 Clarinets, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussion, Strings. 8 minutes. Commissioned for the 40th Anniversary of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, Sheldon Bair, Founder and Music Director. Premiered 4 March 2017, Bel Air, Maryland.

Thanks to Paul DeLuca for putting this together!

Susquehanna was the first and last title I chose for this piece. Well, every title is the last choice, I suppose, but while Susquehanna was commissioned to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, I rejected the title as soon as it had occurred to me.

susquehannatitlepage

Click on the page to view and download the score.

We’re used to Native American place names in this part of the country, but I wasn’t sure if Susquehanna would hold any attraction to anyone outside of Pennsylvania and Maryland. I cast about for other ideas. The 40th is the ruby anniversary, but Ruby reminded me of the Kenny Rogers song. It also sounded like I was trying to steal a title from Michael Torke, he of the many excellent color titles for his brilliant pieces, so I let it go. Generic, celebratory titles also did not appeal to me.

Going back to the Susquehanna River for which the orchestra is named (it empties into the Chesapeake very near the orchestra’s home in Bel Air, Maryland—I also toyed with Bel Air and Havre de Grace, come to think of it), I found that the Lenape words making up the name mean “oyster river.” I love oysters, especially raw, but I had hoped for something more appropriate to the occasion. My research brought me to the realization that I knew next to nothing about the Susquehanna. I knew it came from somewhere in New York State, went through Harrisburg, Pa., to the Chesapeake. That’s true, but an oversimplification. The closer I looked, the more fascinated with the Susquehanna I became.

It begins exactly in Cooperstown, exiting from Lake Otsego (also called Glimmerglass), not all that far from where my wife grew up. (Jackie was east of there, at the headwaters of the Delaware, and I grew up near the Delaware in South Jersey, but those are other stories.) The Susquehanna then slants southwest and drops, indeed, into Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania seemed to be so happy to welcome it, that it built a town right there and called it Susquehanna. But the river changes its mind and jumps right back into New York. This is what I never got before. It goes back up, to Binghamton, and then meanders around in South Central New York for a while, before swinging back, southeast, finally into Pennsylvania and coal country.

Between Scranton and Wilkes Barre it tacks southwest again, and is soon joined by the Susquehanna West Branch, having risen up well over in west central Pennsylvania, almost as far as DuBois and Punxsutawney. Up and down it winds, and just above Selinsgrove and Sunbury is where it decides to join the main branch. By now this is one seriously large waterway, barreling past Harrisburg, where Sheldon Bair grew up, and past Elizabethtown, where he went to college. Under Rt. 81 and under the Pennsylvania Turnpike is where most people will see the grand expanse of this river, as it heads in a fairly straight and wide southeastern shot, on into Maryland and the Chesapeake.

It is the longest East Coast river in the U.S. that empties into the Atlantic. It is also (I have no idea how they calculate this) one of the oldest rivers in the world. The river is older than the mountains it snakes through; how do they know that. Susquehanna, I now thought, was an excellent title.

The music follows an emotional traversal of the river’s course, but the main tune at letter H, introduced by the solo horn, has another source. Last year I wrote a hymn tune for the dedication of a new division of pipes in our church. I was in the early stages of thinking about the orchestra commission, and a few days after I finished the hymn, I knew that the tune was exactly the type of thing I needed for that spot in (what would be called) Susquehanna. There are some meter changes in the hymn because of how I handled the text, which I thought I would even out for Susquehanna, but it resisted every attempt at smoothing. So the meters stayed.

The music at the beginning of the piece I composed on top of, as it were, the hymn tune, with the idea that they could be played together near the end. The beginning is in D, the hymn is in G. Getting back to D should be an easy task, but my first attempts were unsatisfactory. I solved it with an unusual modulation. At letter K, at the full restatement of the beginning D major music, I underlay it with a strong pedal point of G, not D, which continues until the G major chord already in the theme arrives, nine bars later. Then it proceeds as normal, feeling, I do believe, as if it carries everything along with it, into Havre de Grace and the bay.

The Bremen Town Musicians, for Orchestra

Orchestrated for narrator and small orchestra, 2016, for the English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor, and premiered 10 Jul 2016. 1111–1110-1perc-narrator-str. 8′

Original composed 2008. Violin, cello, narrator.From a story compiled by the Brothers Grimm; version by K.S.  (Program notes, text, and recording of original here.

Here’s MIDI audio of the orchestral version:

Click on the first page below for the entire score:

BremenOrchp1

The Strange Genius of the Adagio for Strings

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 2 Nov 2015]

Barber1

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings didn’t start out the way we know it now. In this feature for WRTI, I look at the inescapable strangeness of this work that is now one of the most heard and most moving pieces in the repertoire.

When Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings, it was for string quartet, and it was the middle movement of three. That explains a good deal about this piece we always hear with string orchestra.

Barber, all of 26, composed the two outside movements in a string-friendly key of two sharps, but the middle movement is in an awful key for strings—five flats.

The opening single note is joined by a collective sigh of the most pointed sadness, then traces a meandering, slowly ascending chant. The accompanying voices rarely cadence together, but achingly suspend themselves time and again. Barber’s combination of calm pacing and intensifying background mesmerizes in its trajectory to a shattering climax in the upper reaches of the strings eight minutes later.

The altitude, pacing, and tuning make this incredibly difficult to play well, even for four virtuosos in a quartet, let alone an entire string orchestra. It doesn’t even end on the home chord, because the original led directly onto the next movement.

Samuel Barber was never pleased with that last movement, almost as if he intuited that nothing could follow the Adagio. He knew its power and immediately arranged it—by itself—for string orchestra.

It’s a disquieting piece. But in the last hundred years, it is also probably the most-heard orchestral work in the world.

Agnus Dei reviews

AgnusDeip3Still floating from the exquisite first performance of Agnus Dei by Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and Symphony in C, conducted by MC’s new director, Paul Rardin. Turns out, on a day of many concerts in Philadelphia, many with new music, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reviewed ours.

(My notes on Agnus Dei are here.)

Stearns writes that the Agnus Dei is “so personal” and correctly notes that my “tendency toward saturated harmonies was scaled back in favor of something leaner and more visceral.” He thinks it might be a bit long, and finishes by saying that “it’s an important addition to Smith’s output.”

One phrase in his review especially interested me, because it points up something other people have walked around, in conversations about Agnus Dei and other works of mine, that “the piece’s harmonic ambiguity suggested uncertain faith.”

I say that it does no such thing. But I may be in the minority, so let me explain.

One benefit of reading the lives of the saints, and indeed, the biblical books of the prophets, let alone many of the Psalms, is that those who are the most spiritually attuned are often wracked by doubt, pain, anger, and the many other emotions or states those of us who are not so spiritually attuned consider unspiritual or faithless or as those which draw us away from God. But if we are serious about taking those generally accepted as spiritual models to be, in fact, models, the conclusion can only be that we do not lose our faith when under these emotions or in these states. The spiritual person uses these times to dig deeper, to draw even closer to God.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

In this Agnus Dei I took the cry for mercy to be a real cry, I took the repetition of the lines to really mean something. I took this to be a process that would be long, long enough to be slightly uncomfortable, even (though any performance can be a couple of ticks slower or faster), long enough so that when we arrive, finally, at dona nobis pacem it would be an arrival made the more real for the reality of the journey.

But don’t take this as special pleading on my part. That can all be true and the piece still too long! Although I think it’s just right. I have some regrets about my own pieces, but not about the length of this one, which comes in at around 13 minutes, give or take.

There was another good review in an independent and seemingly unedited blog here.

A couple of conductors told me they thought this Agnus Dei would do quite well performed right in its proper place in the incomplete Mozart Mass. Wouldn’t that be something?