Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: marriner gala

Saturday September 27, 2008

Schumann/Paul Chihara Overture, Scherzo, Childhood Dreams and Finale, Op. 52


Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15


Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite


Kodály Dances of Galánta

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani, percussion; strings

Composers’ attitudes towards new music in the first half of the 19th century differed greatly from those in the first half of the 20th century. The 20th century saw a general fracturing of musical conventions and approaches to composition, but at the beginning of the 19th century, composers like Schumann and Beethoven were
still clinging somewhat to the passing traditions of the previous generation. Change in music came only from incremental progress toward a freer style, rather than from an abrupt artistic revolution. Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 draw greatly on Classical models, and each is an
example of a style in transition. In contrast, the music of Stravinsky and Kodály—especially the pieces on the program tonight—show disparate influences and styles, drawing from a more diverse set of resources. These latter composers made very conscious choices about when to depart radically from styles that came before, or
when to refer to them deliberately, as in the case of folk music with Kodály and neo-classicism with Stravinsky.

After abandoning hopes for a career as a virtuoso pianist, Robert Schumann dedicated himself to composition. Schumann was single-minded in his pursuits, even going so far as to concentrate on a single genre for months or a year or more until he felt he had reached the limit of what he could do with it. Until he was about 30, the composer focused on writing piano music, but after that, things began to change. He spent 1840 writing nearly 170 Lieder (German art songs). Although he had disliked the genre of the Lied previously, he seemed to embrace the Romanticism of vocal music during the uncertain times before his wedding to Clara Schumann. The following year, he turned to larger forms, writing two of his four symphonies and also the Overture, Scherzo and Finale.

Schumann composed the Overture as a stand-alone work, and added the Scherzo and Finale movements after he had orchestrated the first. Although he experimented in private with calling all three pieces a suite or a small symphony, he referred to them publicly with the titles you see here. Although there were some who compared the Overture, Scherzo and Finale to Schumann’s largerscale symphonies, the composer himself acknowledged that this work is lighter in character than traditional works in the genre. The work was written in 1841 and revised over the ensuing 12 years. Schumann changed orchestration, cut repeats and altered transitions. Some of the versions Schumann undertook were to keep the characteristic symphonic sound by cutting some quieter passages, while other revisions were Schumann’s attempt to make the work more marketable for a paying public.

The Overture opens in dramatic fashion, with a meandering line of melody juxtaposed against a forceful upward scale. The mood is dark and challenging until the lively major melody appears, lightening the mood. Schumann uses the contrast between these two musical ideas — tense and joyful — to build drama. The Scherzo and Finale are, by turns, majestic, imitative and vivacious. Even though this work sounds best when played by an ensemble the size of a chamber orchestra, there are indications of the skill Schumann would show when composing for a larger orchestra. The year before Schumann wrote the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, the composer’s new wife remarked in her diary that her husband’s musical vision could not “find sufficient scope on the piano.” It was Clara’s wish that Robert would compose for the orchestra. Smaller
works like the Overture, Scherzo and Finale allowed him to try the orchestra on for size and get experience in a medium that would serve him well.

One of the features differentiating the Overture, Scherzo and Finale from a true symphony is that it does not conform to the traditional four-movement symphonic structure. According to this model, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale is incomplete, lacking a slow movement. Paul Chihara — appointed LACO’s first composer-in-residence by founding music director Sir Neville Marriner — set out to “complete” Schumann’s work by adding that missing piece of the puzzle. Chihara chose, as his primary musical material, two sections from Schumann’s charming piano work, Kinderszenen (Childhood Scenes). He has drawn music from the movements “A Child Falling Asleep” and “About Foreign Lands” and incorporated them into a slow movement called Childhood Dreams. The work provides a gentle contrasting section between the Scherzo and Finale. Chihara’s addition to the work—inserted between the movements of Schumann’s original — suffuses the Overture, Scherzo and Finale with a new sense of balance, giving us the opportunity to hear it as a full symphony.

Born a generation before Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven spent the first of his three periods writing in the Classical style exemplified by Mozart and Haydn. Mozart, in his later years, subtly suggested the coming of a new, freer style, especially in his piano concertos, while Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 remained very conservative in construction. In keeping with tradition, he produced works in the genres commonly used by Classical-period composers, also composing works to further his career as a performer. What is known as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is actually the third he composed. Beethoven’s first attempt at the genre, the Piano Concerto in E-flat major does not actually survive in complete form; we have only a piano reduction of the orchestral score and the solo part. Beethoven’s second attempt, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, was composed in 1793 and published in 1801. Beethoven appears to have begun work on the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major in 1795, when he was in Vienna. He continued writing it as he traveled to Prague and Berlin in 1796. Like Piano Concerto No. 2, this piece was not published until 1801; by not publishing these pieces right away, Beethoven could keep tight control over who was playing his work and make his own performances that much more special.

Beethoven’s deafness deterred him from writing piano concertos after 1809. He himself could not play them in public, and perhaps they lost their allure for this reason. When he was able to play, Beethoven’s genius as a performer was well documented. Contemporary first-hand accounts noted the composer’s remarkable sensitivity, remarking that Beethoven’s virtuosity never seemed to be used ostentatiously, but rather to convey emotion. His skill as an improviser was also greatly admired. Beethoven was one of the first composers to write out cadenzas for his concertos, especially after his hearing loss made it impossible for him to play in public. Traditionally, these solo passages were improvised, but Beethoven seemed to want more control over other pianists’ performances of his works. He also crafted suggested cadenzas for Mozart concertos, some of which are still played today.

The festive Piano Concerto No. 1 is written in C major, a key that has traditionally been associated with majestic celebrations, making this concerto a particularly appropriate choice for the evening of LACO’s 40th anniversary gala. The first movement begins with a regal first theme, and features the classic double exposition form, wherein the orchestra and soloist each take a turn revealing the main themes of the movement. Beethoven lets the soloist lead the orchestra, juxtaposing the ensemble’s seeming uncertainty with the pianist’s confidence. The development section is announced dramatically with a few broad chords, then travels through C minor, but without a sense of overwrought tension. The middle movement is in ternary (three-part) form, with the contrasting center section addressing and developing the musical ideas of the movement’s beginning and ending sections. The instrumentation of the concerto is used here to interesting effect, as the flutes and oboes rest, allowing the clarinets to come to the fore. The finale features a rondo form, in which a main theme alternates with contrasting themes, but always returns. Beethoven seems to make brief reference to a folk tune in one of the subordinate melodies. The finale is lively throughout, and the composer’s flexible changes of color and mood make for an energetic ending.

Many people tend to think of Igor Stravinsky as a radical “modern” composer, but his output covered many styles over several decades. Even when he lived in Los Angeles for a time, among a community of artists and writers, he explored traditional forms and conventional genres as well as more radical ideas. When LACO performed his Pulcinella Suite in Europe during our spring 2008 concert tour, the Hamburg reviewer for Die Welt alluded to Stravinsky’s time here, saying “The same orchestral athleticism and dynamism [of LACO] also characterized the Pulcinella Suite…by Igor Stravinsky…who was familiar with Hollywood himself and would undoubtedly have enjoyed the fresh sound of this…orchestra.”

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite is based on his ballet Pulcinella, which was written for the Ballets Russes after the great triumph of The Firebird and the great scandal of The Rite of Spring. The earlier works fit into what we think of as Stravinsky’s first period, a period of Russian nationalism with elements of Romanticism. Pulcinella, however, was a transitional work that brought Stravinsky into his middle period, a time dedicated to the composition of works in a more neo-classical style. This style was characterized, in part, by the emulation of the masters of the late Baroque and early Classical periods. Stravinsky would later remark, “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.” In the case of Pulcinella, Stravinsky formed a musical pastiche from the works of Pergolesi—or those mistakenly attributed to Pergolesi at the time. These works were from disparate genres like trio sonatas, suites and operas, and were adapted by Stravinsky through various musical means such as lengthening, shortening, cutting, adding new music and changing consonances to dissonances.

The inspiration for Pulcinella, outside of the music of the past, was commedia dell’arte, Italian improvised theater, and its stock characters. Commedia dell’arte was extremely popular in the middle of the 19th century, although it was well known both before and after its heyday. The character Pulcinella, also known as “Punch,” is a servant. This comically-sad character is often portrayed as mute, helpless and disfigured.

The origin of the Pulcinella ballet was impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s commission of a simple arrangement from Stravinsky. But what the composer delivered was quite a bit more than just a simple arrangement; he reinvented the music with characters,
movement, and even singing roles. The piece presented on the program tonight is the Pulcinella Suite, a pared-down version of the ballet (nearly half the movements are omitted in the Suite). Instrumental passages replace the singing roles. Stravinsky’s works drawing on music of the past retain much of the charm of the original pieces, but with harmonic and rhythmic twists that are pure 20th-century inventiveness and pure Stravinsky.

Zoltan Kodály was a composer and educator. He is, however, best known as an ethnomusicologist from the time when the academic study of non-Western and folk music was in its infancy. In his early 20s, Kodály traveled around to villages in his native Hungary and elsewhere to transcribe and record folk songs. He wrote a thesis on the subject and later moved to Paris to study. Although he was greatly influenced by some of the music he encountered there — Debussy was a favorite — he soon concentrated his academic energies on the preservation of folk music and the improvement of music education methods. Kodály’s attitudes towards composition, specifically his uses of folk music in his own creations, reflect a sensitivity
to the traditions of the past. In much the same way Romantic composers paid homage to the Classical masters, Kodály’s reverence for what came before dominates his work.

Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, from 1933, takes its name from a market town between Vienna and Budapest. This Hungarian town was Kodály’s home for seven years when he was a child. In Galánta, Kodály sang in the choir, and he also heard the music of a famous gypsy band. Later in his life, Kodály would become reacquainted with some of these gypsy tunes in a published collection. Believing that it was his duty to preserve and ensure the survival of this fine folk music, Kodály used tunes from this collection as inspiration for the Dances of Galánta.

Kodály specifically chose military recruiting songs from the collection, a subcategory of these folk tunes, meant to stir up youths to enlist. There are seven dances in Kodály’s piece, each one of a unique character, but most of them feature lively passages ostensibly intended to agitate the patriotic spirit. Although drawing upon some musical traditions of European Romanticism, the folk-like character of the songs is never fully obscured. The variety of instruments used — woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, strings and percussion — gave Kodály the tools to evoke contrasting moods and emotions. Fittingly, the work was dedicated to the Budapest Philharmonic Society’s 80th anniversary. That group premiered the work in 1934.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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