Category Archives: Orchestral Music

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.

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, 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.


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:


The Strange Genius of the Adagio for Strings

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


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?


Agnus Dei


Commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Paul Rardin, Artistic Director. Completed 24 August 2015. Premiered 18 October 2015, The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Symphony in C, conducted by Paul Rardin.

For choir and orchestra; duration, 15 minutes
2 Oboes
2 Bassoons
2 F Horns
2 Bb Trumpets
Timpani (2)
S.A.T.B. Choir
Also available with piano accompaniment

For his first concert as the new artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Paul Rardin asked me to compose an Agnus Dei. The Mozart Great Mass in C Minor would also be performed on this concert, as well as Mendelssohn’s Psalm 43, Psalm 98, and Psalm 100. My composition was to complement Mozart’s Mass, one of his last works and which he left unfinished without an Agnus Dei.

Over the years composers have taken on this daunting task, swiftly voicing their assurance that they were not intending to “complete” Mozart’s work in any way. I follow in their steps. Nevertheless I was surprised by how much of Mozart’s spirit, as dimly realized by me, came into play.

I do not possess the desire to copy another’s style, but I have found that summoning a sense of a Zeitgeist is intriguing. I have done that in my Vespers (Lutheran Renaissance), The Nobility of Women (Baroque), and other works in whole or in part. Felix Mendelssohn did this very thing in his Reformation Symphony. For me, I find that certain aspects of an era or a composer suggest themselves, I’m sure in no exhaustive or even reasonable way, and that the piece comes together around those aspects.

So there are features of the Classical style in this Agnus Dei. I treated the forces as efficiently as possible, as I admire that greatly in Mozart. The rhythms are simple, the harmonies and textures change slowly, lines are relatively spare, and except in one place for the choral basses, the voices are never divided. I have aimed for lyricism in everything. Also, I took Paul Rardin’s excellent suggestion to highlight the flute/oboe/bassoon trio that Mozart used in his “Et incarnatus“ movement.

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 five-minute video I talk about some of what went into my thinking while composing Agnus Dei:

Telling Jokes and Composing

[First published in Broad Street Review 30 Aug 2015.]

“I think there’s rice in this potato soup.” There were five of us at the table, but I was looking directly at Fred. “Ha!” he laughed. “Yes, yes, rice in the potato soup. We should tell the server. Ha!” It hit Fred again and we all chuckled. It wasn’t much of a joke, but it hit.

Joke-making is very like composition-making, but before I explain why, I must explain that my sortie into the soup was in Germany, from where my wife and I and two of our daughters just returned. Fred, the friend we accompanied, hails from there. He’s been an American for longer than I’ve been alive, but he was born and grew up in a region of the old East Germany we were visiting. At the first place we stopped, driving from the airport, we ordered lunch. It arrived with Knödel, potato dumplings.

Most Americans are not dumpling-savvy, but Fred noticed something different right away; mixed into the dough were bits of something else, similar in color and consistency to potato, but not exactly. Rice was mentioned by someone as a possibility. Fred guffawed: Rice would never be allowed in a potato dumpling, but when the server returned, Fred asked her what it was, and it couldn’t possibly be rice, could it?

Ne, ne, ne, never Reis

Her eyes flashed. “Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne,” it was not Reis, never Reis, you don’t put Reis in dumplings. Fred smiled and reassured her that as to the dumpling platform he could be counted on firmly to support the anti-rice position, but that although these dumplings were delicious, they were unlike any he had come across.

She explained that (from what I could gather) it was just raw potato, grated, mixed into the finished dough before it’s rolled into dumplings and boiled. And, she added, that it was quite normal to make dumplings that way around here. We were all smiling, it was all freundlich, and we talked about it throughout the trip as one of those travel moments that stand out. So I used it as the springboard of my joke at dinner a day or two later.

Now, here’s the thing. If I’d said at dinner that the soup was terrible because there was rice in it, nobody would’ve laughed because it would have been wrong. The dumplings at lunch were good, after all. If I’d said the joke to the server at dinner, she would not have laughed because she had not been at lunch. If I’d ordered, say, Knödel mit Reis she would’ve stared at me, and my dinner companions would’ve squirmed. So the telling of a joke—even a small one—depends on lots of nuances. You have to say exactly the right thing to the right audience.

Humors, not just humor

In comparing the making of music to the making of a joke, I’m not saying that music ought to be funny. The main sense of a sense of humor is funniness, of course, but the best comedians handle all the humors. Described as courage, anger, despondency, calmness, or what have you, these define us. If the humors remain untouched, we won’t get the joke and we won’t get the music.

I just completed an Agnus Dei for the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. The new artistic director Paul Rardin asked for a work to complement Mozart’s Mass in C minor, left unfinished without an Agnus Dei. Mozart’s and my work will be performed on an October 18th concert. Leaving aside—or rather, because of—the unnerving spectacle of any music of mine being mentioned in any way with any music by Mozart, I wrestled solely with the opening for a long time. I came early to a feel of four chords which the choir would sing as “A-gnus De-i.”

An importunate imprecation

But what chords? Strong, yes, but not pompous. Strong could also be inappropriate, as most settings of Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) are sweet. But I heard minor chords, loud and shouting, an imprecation almost, to take away the sin of the world and to grant us peace now. Not so angry, though, that one forgets one’s place.

Strong but appropriate; loud but not angry; minor but sweet: Emotions were running swift and confusing, like a river overflowing its banks. These are the times when a composer has to focus. I had four chords of four notes each (one for each of the choir’s voice parts), 16 notes that would determine the piece.

It took a while. A self-effacing A minor for the first chord, but with the third on the bottom, like it was standing on one foot. In the second chord, sopranos descend one note, the tenors retake the A, but the altos’ D adds the feel and color of slate. Chord three breaks through to A major or C-sharp something, I can’t tell, but just this side (it is fervently to be wished) of syrupy. The last chord lands on a real A major but again on one foot, and with the suspension of D against C-sharp it’s like a cool surf refreshing you on a hot day, with the salt water reminding you of the cut on your ankle.

Funny enough

I was mindless of music theory while thrashing these notes about, because I was looking for the exact humors that would fit these words, these emotions, this concert, this Mozart, this audience. Could these chords evoke these humors, and when they return in a different key at the end 13 minutes later, would they still reach the audience? Would they get it?

I hope so. I feel good about it, because, after all, I’ve been practicing. When I said “I think there’s rice in this potato soup,” and Fred laughed, I felt like a composer. Good thing, because it wasn’t much of a joke. But it hit.