Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: french connection

Saturday February 26, 2011
Sunday February 27, 2011

Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”)

orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; harp; strings

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22

orchestration: solo piano; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Contrast is a very important aspect of art music. The contrasts between loud and soft, fast and slow, and light and dark have driven composers’ musical choices for hundreds of years. This evening’s concert provides great contrast, both among the works on the program and within the works themselves. We have a ceremonial dance, a virtuosic tour de force and a joyous work created in the midst of despair. Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte began life as a solo piano piece that the composer wrote in 1899 for his teacher Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory. Ravel composed the work and dedicated it to Princesse de Polignac, a patron. The princess of the title does not refer to an actual historical princess, but rather the reference to royalty evokes an idealized dance that might have been enjoyed at a European court in the 16th or 17th centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, French composers such as Debussy and Albéniz had an infatuation with the customs and history of Spain. Ravel was similarly enamored, although his interest was likely more personal. His Basque mother grew up in Madrid, and Ravel himself was raised in Ciboure, a Basque enclave in France, near the Spanish border. This influence was also revealed in Ravel’s Bolero, the two-piano work Habanera and his Rapsodie espagnole.

A pavane is a courtly dance form from the 16th century. It is a processional and maintains a stately sensibility, evoking a melancholy nostalgia for simpler times. The traditional slowness of the dance and the fictional “dead princess” of the title made for some lumbering performances, so much so that Ravel—in response to such a performance—reminded the soloist that the “dead” of the title referred to “princess” and not “pavane.” About a decade after Ravel composed this piece, he orchestrated the work, giving the main theme to the horn. In this version, the pavane has a warmth and clarity that reveals Ravel’s brilliance as an orchestrator.

Camille Saint-Saëns was 33 years old when he wrote his Second Piano Concerto. In the years leading up to this work, Saint-Saëns taught piano students at the École Niedermeyer. He was a great champion of contemporary and recent music from the turn of the century, and introduced the music of Liszt and Wagner to his students. Saint-Saëns was also a successful organist and worked at the church Église de la Madeline. His organ improvisations received widespread critical acclaim, just as Messaien’s organ improvisations similarly would later in the 20th century. His unparalleled skill on both organ and piano gave him quite a reputation as a virtuoso, so it is no surprise that the Second Piano Concerto is a challenging work that requires both technical brilliance and sensitive expression.

At the very beginning of the first movement, it is clear that Saint-Saëns will challenge our expectations; we will not hear a traditional concerto. The work begins with a long solo passage, as if the Concerto were starting with a cadenza rather than an orchestral exposition. Some hear in the opening the character of a Bach fantasia, and this music returns at the end of movement as well. The main theme of the movement has its origins in a sketch by Fauré, who was Saint-Saëns’ favorite pupil at the École Niedermeyer, and with whom Saint-Saëns’ maintained a close friendship. In contrast, the second movement is lively, and one can discern two themes, both crisp and light-hearted. The witty and clever musical language one can hear in this Concerto also run throughout the symphonic poem Danse macabre and the Carnival of the Animals Suite. The overall character of this movement becomes more Romantic as the major mode at the beginning gives way to minor, with the initial brightness returning as the movement ends. The third movement has a fast tempo as well, and the solo part demands quick passagework on the piano. The interplay between the soloist and the orchestra here is particularly dramatic, and the final moments offer a powerful close to this dynamic work.

Beethoven began sketching material for the Second Symphony in 1800. We know that he eventually put the Symphony aside in order to complete other projects like the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, which premiered in 1801. We also know that when Beethoven finally went back to complete the Second Symphony he was in the midst of a crisis. At the turn of the 19th century Beethoven was known primarily as a performer and had begun to admit to others that his hearing was in fact deteriorating. Beethoven had first noticed the ringing of severe tinnitus in 1796, but no treatment had brought him relief. In 1800, Beethoven wrote a detailed letter to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend and physician, revealing the extent of his impairment and explaining his reluctance to participate in social events. Beethoven was embarrassed by his hearing loss because he was a composer and performer; his enemies, Beethoven was certain, would seize upon his disability as a way to discredit him. In April of 1802, Beethoven took up residence in the small town of Heiligenstadt at the urging of his doctor. After six months, he wrote a letter to his brothers, telling them of his difficulties coming to terms with his deafness. This letter is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, and in it Beethoven mentions what should be done in the event of his death, alluding perhaps to suicide. He was only 31 years old when he wrote this letter.

It is in this atmosphere that Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 2. Beethoven revisited the original sketches and composed the work while in Heiligenstadt. One might expect that a work of art born into this milieu of desperation and sadness would reflect this storminess of mood. It is all the more amazing then that the Symphony No. 2 is such a joyous piece. The work is often ignored in favor of the symphonies that came before and after it, but No. 2 is not merely a placeholder between the composer’s first work in the genre and the “Eroica.” It is a complex, challenging work that points the way to Beethoven’s greatness as a symphonist. He dedicated the work to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, a patron. The first movement opens with a slow introduction that is noble and graceful, punctuated by serious moments. Composer Hector Berlioz, in describing this piece, attributed the stormy moments to the passions of youth, though he also said that “everything in the Symphony smiles.” After the introduction, a quick theme begins, rushing fearlessly forward, almost like the galloping of horses. Beethoven uses his considerable gifts as a composer to develop and explore the musical material he has laid out in the opening moments. The ending of the movement is so definitive and vibrant, one might imagine it is the end of the entire piece, but there is more to come. The tenderness of the Larghetto with its serene bearing, is a striking contrast to the first movement. Its folk music influences, in hindsight, seem to foreshadow the pastoral mood Beethoven would draw upon in his Sixth Symphony. Beethoven presents the simple song and then varies it with flourishes in different sections of the orchestra.

In the third movement, Beethoven replaces the traditional Minuet and Trio with a Scherzo. The youthful passions Berlioz saw in this work are in full evidence here. Quick dynamic shifts and continuous motion speak of boundless energy. There are surprises at every turn, unexpected loud phrases and sweet melodies that seem to come out of nowhere. The energy of the third movement is matched and bested by that of the fourth movement, which bursts into bloom with quick passages for the strings requiring control and skill to maintain the clarity of Beethoven’s themes. The music’s impetuous pace reveals no hesitation, no doubt, no desperation. It was as if Beethoven put all of the joy he could not feel into this work. His life at the time was difficult, and this work might have been the escape, or his hope for the future. As Berlioz said in observing this work, “The author still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion.”

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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