Program Notes - May 12, 2017
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Overture to Candide
If any 20th-century American musician can be called a Renaissance man, it would have to be Leonard Bernstein. During a career that spanned five decades, he excelled at virtually every one of his interests: composing, conducting, writing, and teaching. He garnered further acclaim for his philanthropic work and his social conscience. And he made an indelible mark on the American musical theatre with shows like On the Town and the immortal West Side Story. An almost constant presence on the mid-century musical scene, he was truly the first celebrity conductor. Bernstein and collaborator Lillian Hellmann adapted Voltaire’s satirical novella Candide during his Broadway heyday of the 1950s, and the whip-cracking overture on this program was reworked into an independent concert piece in 1957. By far the most often performed of Bernstein’s many symphonic works, it is a true overture, incorporating several tunes from the show itself. More importantly, it captures both the rapid pace and sudden emotional changes of Voltaire’s narrative with its brilliant orchestration and rhythmic excitement.
Charles Ives (1874–1954)
The Unanswered Question
Children’s Day from Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting
With an Army bandleader father, it’s hardly surprising that Charles Ives’ early musical education featured marching bands and traditional American songs. He became a church organist as a youngster, and many of his first compositions were intended for church services, including what are still considered some daunting solo organ works. His music, written mostly prior to 1915, is inextricably connected to American culture, particularly that of his native New England. However, while his innovations foreshadowed what was to come later in the century, his music was largely ignored during his lifetime. The Unanswered Question was composed in 1908, and is scored for the relatively spare forces of strings, solo trumpet, and a woodwind quartet. Over a gossamer web of strings, the trumpet repeatedly asks the “question,” only to be answered by the winds in an increasingly agitated and mocking way. Ives’ third symphony, subtitled The Camp Meeting, hails from roughly the same time as The Unanswered Question, but it didn’t receive its premiere until Ives’ champion Lou Harrison conducted it in 1946. The symphony subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947. War songs and hymns feature in the work, music nostalgically reminiscent of a dying agrarian New England. Ives takes the listener to a time of church meetings, hymn sings, and country festivals, all realized through complex harmonies and rhythms.
Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo
Regarded as the quintessential American composer, Aaron Copland led a long and fruitful life that encompassed virtually the entire 20th century. Those decades of economic, social, and artistic changes—some good, some not so good—influenced everything he composed. It’s almost impossible not to immediately recognize that distinctive sound, which has come to identify the American spirit in all its glory, sadness, struggle, patriotism and endless promise. Early in his career Copland experimented with jazz and neoclassicism, but the Great Depression appears to have brought about a sea change in his thinking. In his own words: “During these years I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum.”
This new attitude resulted in a decade of activity that has immortalized him in the minds of music lovers. The three magnificent ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944), along with El Salón México (1936), A Lincoln Portrait ( 1942), and numerous film scores, all hail from this period. Rodeo is essentially a love story of the American Southwest. According to the American Ballet Theatre, it tells “how an American girl, with the odds seemingly all against her, sets out to get herself a man. The girl in this case is a cowgirl, a tomboy whose desperate efforts to become one of the ranch’s cowhands create a problem for the cowboys and make her the laughingstock of womankind.” The symphonic version of Rodeo opens with the rousing fanfare of Buckaroo Holiday. We meet the cowgirl and the target of her unrequited affection, the head wrangler. Copland presents a colorful and rhythmically exciting musical evocation of the ranch and the characters within. The old folk tunes “If He’d Be a Buckaroo” and “Sis Joe” show up repeatedly in this movement. Following is the Corral Nocturne, the melancholy musings of the lovesick cowgirl, orchestrated in Copland’s characteristic economical style. In Saturday Night Waltz, the musicians tune up, and the cowboys and their girls pair up for dancing to the accompaniment of a variant of “Goodbye, Old Paint.” At the dance, to which she wears a beautiful dress and no longer looks like one of the cowhands, the cowgirl finds her man. The ballet ends with the exuberant Hoe-Down and—presumably—the beginning of happily ever after. Folk tunes “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “McLeod’s Reel” appear in this movement, as well as the traditional Irish tune “Gilderoy.” More than 70 years after its premiere, Rodeo (like all of Copland’s ballet scores) shows no signs of fading popularity, certain evidence that he achieved his goal of creating a truly American style.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”
The prolific Camille Saint-Saëns was himself a formidable pianist and organist, but he wrote a wide-ranging collection of works for virtually every instrument in the orchestra. He astonished everyone with perfect pitch at age 3, and went on to perform the entire corpus of Beethoven piano sonatas as a child prodigy, prompting comparisons to the young Mozart. Saint-Saëns composed his third symphony in 1886, and despite the name, the organ appears in only two of its four sections. Otherwise, the work is a standard symphony. Saint-Saëns was quoted at the time as saying, “I gave everything to it I was able to give”—knowing, presumably, that it would be his last attempt to write a symphony. The work was commissioned by the London’s Royal Philharmonic Society, and the premiere was performed in London with Saint-Saëns conducting. It is dedicated to the memory of Saint- Saëns’ friend, pianist and composer Franz Liszt, whose recent death he mourned, and whose brilliant and exciting piano music influenced Saint-Saëns’ own. The “Organ Symphony” appears to be in the standard four-movement structure perfected by Beethoven and Brahms, but Saint-Saëns intended for it to be a two-movement work, while indicating that the traditional four-movement structure is maintained. The first movement serves as an introduction to the Adagio, and similarly, the Scherzo is connected to the Finale. Saint-Saëns used this seeming contradiction in order, as he described it, “to avoid some of the interminable repetitions which more and more are tending to disappear from instrumental music.” It is not difficult to hear in this comment the voice of Franz Liszt, whose one-movement symphonic poems were paving the way for the programmatic music of Smetana, Dvořák, and Richard Strauss. The opening movement starts slowly and quietly and soon generates a theme that appears in many forms over the course of the work. Coincidentally, the first four notes of the theme are the first notes of the ancient “Dies Irae,” which was used so successfully by Saint-Saëns’ colleagues Liszt and Berlioz (and later by Rachmaninoff). As this movement evolves into the Adagio, the organ appears for the first time. Movement 2 begins with a scherzo treatment of the main theme, with cascades of scales for four-hand
piano. The tempest subsides with a second, more austere theme, which Saint-Saëns called a “struggle for mastery.” A massive organ chord introduces the majestic finale, and the work marches energetically and lyrically, with all the orchestral forces engaged, to the monumental conclusion.—Michael Carroll