Category Archives: WRTI

1917 in Review: Andreae, Villa-Lobos, Prokofiev

Volkmar Andreae (1879–1962). Kleine Suite (1917)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). Uirapurú (1917)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (1917)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, December 2nd, 5–6 pm… We celebrated anniversaries throughout 2017: the 100th of the births of Robert Ward and Richard Yardumian, the 150th of Charles Koechlin and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, the 200th of Niels Gade, and the 300th of Johann Stamitz. Last month we observed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which inspired Bach and Mendelssohn. But we thought we’d hear music anniversaries, too, so today we look at the 100th birthdays of three quite different orchestral works.

The United States would enter World War I in 1917, but the war had already raged in Europe for three years. Neutral Switzerland was armed to the teeth along its borders. It was a center of intrigue and refuge (Lenin lived there before returning to Russia), but it saw no military action, so cultural life continued. In October, Volkmar Andreae left Zurich to conduct his Little Suite in Basel.

He was director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, and so respected that the New York Philharmonic had asked him to lead them after Mahler’s death in 1911. He turned them down, and spent most of his life conducting and composing in Switzerland. Volkmar Andreae is little-known today, but his music is unfailingly charming. More than that, every piece is a gem, has real personality, and owes its sound to no one else. The recording on our program is conducted by Marc Andreae, Volkmar’s grandson.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, the leading classical composer of Brazil, if not all of Latin America, may be the most prolific composer of the 20th century. Larger than life, he composed as easily, it was said, as others breathed. All styles and forms of music flowed out of his pen, and an early interest in Brazilian folklore stayed with him. He tried unsuccessfully to interest Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Uirapurú, which is the name of a Brazilian wren, seldom heard and even less seen.

The ballet is the story of Brazilian Indians who, hearing the bird in the forest (click here for the sound), try to catch it. Headstrong young men drive off an old man playing a flute. A maiden sees and shoots the uirapurú with an arrow; the bird changes into a young man; the old man returns, shoots him with an arrow, and the youth turns back into the bird and flies away.

Along with a soprano saxophone in the sumptuous score, Villa-Lobos depicts the old man’s music with something rarer on the orchestral stage than the sight of the uirapurú in the forest, the violinophone. Sporting a gramophone-like horn, this odd-looking hybrid sounds surprisingly lovely, and it replaced actual violins in the earliest days of recording because of its projection. (See it playing on Uirapurú below.) Uirapurú seems to be heard as infrequently as its namesake, so we’re glad to bring it to you now.

At the other end of the popularity scale is surely the most-played classical work of 1917—in fact, the “Classical” Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev. Not too long out of conservatory, he was already establishing himself as a leading composer, with muscular solo piano works and his riveting graduation piece, the First Piano Concerto. He also already had the ear of Diaghilev and would soon have ballet success.

He composed his first symphony, he said, to be what Haydn might write were he alive. Propulsive and graceful by turns, it bristles with melody, audacity, ingenuity, and good humor, just like Papa Haydn. Prokofiev helped kick-start neoclassicism in 1917, and jumping back to Discoveries today, we’ll look forward to what 2018 has in store!

Reformation and Mendelssohn and Bach

Detail of the door of the Castle Church, Wittenburg

Anniversaries bump into each other on this Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5 pm on WRTI. It’s year 500 since the beginning of the Reformation, almost to the day, when Martin Luther posted 95 theological and ecclesiastical points he wished to debate with all comers. Nobody dared to take him up on it, but from the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 a revolution in religion, humanism, freedom, and language swept across the world. And it was accompanied by music.

The dust was far from settling in 1530 when the “Lutherans,” as they were being called, put together a meticulously reasoned defense of what they believed, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. They wrote it in Augsburg, so this Augsburg Confession became a founding document of Lutheranism, and by extension, a pivotal moment for what would become Germany. In 1830, the 300th anniversary of that Confession, celebrations took place throughout Germany, particularly in Augsburg itself.

Felix Mendelssohn had already begun composing a celebratory symphony for this in 1829. But because of illness and touring, he missed the deadline. He had offered a version of it to Augsburg, but the city turned it down. A Paris orchestra also demurred. Mendelssohn finally completed it and conducted the premiere in 1832, in Berlin.

He placed into the symphony’s beginning what is known as the “Dresden Amen,” a bit of liturgical music known well in both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Wagner would later quote it in Parsifal and elsewhere. But Mendelssohn put the big statement of the Reformation—its national anthem, you might say—in the last movement. Martin Luther’s music for his own versification of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) receives a grand treatment from Mendelssohn. He later didn’t care for the youthful work, but after his death this second symphony of his was discovered and listed as No. 5.

The 80th in the catalog of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach uses the same Luther tune, but it took a while to reach the form we now know. This “Ein’ feste Burg” Cantata was used in Leipzig, where Bach lived from 1723 until his death in 1750. But he actually wrote much of the music when he was in Weimar, mostly from 1708 until 1717. It was for Lent, but Leipzig would not permit extravagant cantatas during this penitential season, so Bach rewrote it for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31st, and revised it again, sometime in the late 1720s and early ’30s.

What a work this is. Many of the Bach cantatas are intimate and jewel-like, but this is a huge outpouring of jubilant praise and musical explosion. The expansive opening choral fantasia is one of the most elaborate motets ever written. This is the Bach that astounds us just he did Felix Mendelssohn, when the 20 year old revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for its 100th anniversary—in 1829, the same year he began composing the Reformation Symphony.

PROGRAM:
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Symphony No. 5, ”Reformation”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Cantata No. 80, ”Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”

The Symphony’s Declaration of Independence

The palace at Mannheim

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, Oct. 7th, 5 to 6 pm… Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) is the “Father of the Symphony” in the same way that George Washington (born the same year) is the “Father of our Country.” Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he and others generated the Constitution and other central documents, but Washington’s leadership was the foundation on which the country was built. Similarly, the symphony owes its early growth to Haydn.

But was there a Thomas Jefferson? Of those who composed symphonies before Haydn, the most innovative was Johann Stamitz (1717–1757), born 300 years ago and a generation before Haydn. The Czech (Bohemian) Jan Václav Antonín Stamic dropped out of the University of Prague after only a year to be a violin soloist. Six years later he was in the German court of Mannheim as a first violinist. In two years he was concertmaster, and a few years after that he was appointed director of all instrumental music, his name now Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz.

The year was 1750, and how neatly this fits into music history. Stamitz, a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical periods, becomes leader of the most influential orchestra of the time the very year the curtain drops on the Baroque period with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. But what does a transition sound like?

Baroque is all curlicue lines, as in architecture and painting; Classical is balanced phrasing among similarly voiced instruments. Think string quartet, which the early symphony was a glorified version of. Baroque juxtaposes soft and loud; Classical blends dynamics and other elements and whips them into larger and larger forms.

Stamitz did things with an orchestra nobody had ever done before. People named his innovations after the place he worked. The Mannheim Rocket is a quick crescendo by all the instruments playing triads up and up. Everybody getting louder without triads is called a Mannheim Crescendo (simple, but nobody had thought of it before). The Mannheim Sigh is two lamenting notes, the second one falling—which is as old as music—but Stamitz dropped the second note farther for more emotion. The Mannheim Roller (not Steamroller) is an orchestral tremolo, a shaking, rattling, and rolling no one had ever heard, outside of opera.

And that’s another clue.

Italian opera influenced Stamitz’s symphonies by these and other devices. To the strings he added horns and oboes, instruments not fit for gentility but that expanded the dramatic palette. He added a fourth movement. His ensemble crescendos and fireball orchestrations worked because his employers hired the best players in Europe. Royal listeners approved, and as those players—many of whom were also composers—moved to other orchestras, the effects spread. His sons Carl and Anton continued it. Haydn heard it. Mozart and Beethoven picked up on it.

The symphony declared its independence and was off and running.

PROGRAM:
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). Symphony in B-flat for Strings
Stamitz. Concerto for Flute (Oboe) and Orchestra in C
Stamitz. Symphony in A for Strings
Stamitz. Symphony in D for 11 voices, Op. 3. No. 2

The Connections of Niels Gade

Coming up on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 2nd, 5 to 6 pm: Part of the joy of producing Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection is in the finding of connections. We’ve seen, for instance, how the German-English Frederick Delius became a real composer in 1884 by living in Florida, and we idly notice that this is the same year Niels Gade wrote Holbergiana, his tribute to the great writer Ludvig Holberg. This of course reminds us of the famous Holberg Suite of Edvard Grieg. We see that it, too, was written in 1884, and we wonder why.

Grieg would soon become a friend of and a musical influence on Delius when they met in Leipzig. But what is the Holberg 1884 connection, and why would the Danish Gade and the Norwegian Grieg both write Holberg pieces that year? Well, it turns out that Holberg was born in 1684, and the 200th anniversary of the man who has been called the inventor of Danish and Norwegian literature was well celebrated. Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway, but worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, and this was during the time when the two countries were united as one kingdom.

The Denmark-Norway union existed, with Sweden entering and leaving occasionally, until 1814, just three years before Gade was born, which reminds us of another connection: This year, 2017, is the 200th anniversary of Gade’s birth.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was the greatest Danish composer until Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, in fact, studied with Gade in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, as did Grieg for a time. Gade took the long way around, however, to end up back in the city of his birth. When he was 24 and playing in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s violin section, they performed his opus 1, Echoes of Ossian. Gade started to be noticed. But they demurred the next year, choosing not to play his opus 5, his first symphony.

One thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.
Undaunted, he sent the score to Felix Mendelssohn, dedicating it to him. We know him today as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, but Mendelssohn was also the intrepid director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He liked what he saw in the young man’s music, and so the premiere of the Gade Symphony No. 1 took place in Leipzig in 1842. Gade impressed Mendelssohn personally, too. He became assistant conductor at Leipzig, and upon Mendelssohn’s too-young death in 1847, Gade was appointed the new director of the Gewandhaus.

Unfortunately, 1848 was a roiling year politically. Revolutions against the old order broke out all around the confederacy of states we now know as Germany. Wagner was caught up in it; many fled; many, in fact, came to the U.S. in 1848. The revolutions wouldn’t necessarily have affected Gade, but something else happened that year: Germany and Denmark went to war. It was over who owned the border area of Schleswig-Holstein, and while Denmark won out in the short term and Germany in the long, in this complicated business one thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.

He went back to Copenhagen and began to construct a prominent career of composing and teaching. He influenced the next generations of Scandinavian musicians, including the next great Danish composer, Nielsen, and that greatest of Norwegian composers, Grieg, who knew Delius when they were in Leipzig, which was where… well, we just love all the connections we find through Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection.

PROGRAM:

Niels Gade (1817–1890). Holbergiana (1884)

Gade. Symphony No. 1 (1842)

The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

We heard Charles Ives by way of William Schuman last month on Discoveries, so it’s appropriate that we should hear Schuman on his own this month. You may remember that Ives had composed Variations on “America” for organ in 1891; William Schuman orchestrated it in 1964 and it’s been in the repertory ever since.

Ives is the epitome of an American-ness flowing through American music, but we could go back another century to a composer who is really the fountainhead, William Billings (1746–1800). Schuman’s 1956 homage to the shape-note composer, New England Triptych, uses three Billings tunes, “Be Glad then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the hymn-turned-marching-song, “Chester.” These are strong and beautiful melodies, fresh with the spirit of a new country. Schuman’s treatment of them is brilliant.

But William Schuman was also a symphonist of great originality. His Seventh out of ten (he withdrew the first two) is from 1960, a commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Here Schuman is at the height of his power, composing music that is both aggressively rhythmic and deeply romantic. It is a large-hearted American symphony.

There is an irony: William Schuman is known mostly as a composer for his Billings and Ives forays into Americana. But this president of Juilliard, this president of Lincoln Center, this winner of Pulitzers and multiple awards also composed music inspired by the Sears-Roebuck catalog, wrote dozens of pop songs, and as a teenager played bass in his own wedding and bar mitzvah band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. And he was, like Ives, a huge fan of baseball, even writing an opera called The Mighty Casey.

Prague-born Jaromir Weinberger studied composition with Vítězslav Novák and counterpoint with Max Reger, but his many works overflow with a love for folk music. His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was an immediate and huge hit in 1926; the Polka and Fugue from it was introduced in concert four years later. The opera and the concert piece are still played today and are why most know Weinberger’s name. He taught at Cornell and at what is now Ithaca College, returned to Czecho-slovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received American citizenship in 1948.

Schwanda and its Polka and Fugue were something of a curse for Weinberger, haunting him with the fact that nothing else rose to that level of popularity. Weinberger’s music, like Schuman’s, could be as strict and sober as might be expected of honored composers. As exciting and profound as their output could be, though, it was the populism that stuck. That bothers some composers more than others. For us listeners at this remove (Schuman died 25 years ago; Weinberger, 50), we’re happy that they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

PROGRAM:

William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)

Schuman. Symphony No. 7 (1960)

Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

 

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.

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