This evening’s concert features four beautiful pieces of music that were inspired by vastly different circumstances. George Benjamin’s At First Light draws inspiration from a 19th-century painting that depicts the dawn. Haydn completed the Cello Concerto No. 2 for one of the players in the Esterházy court orchestra. Mozart composed the “Haffner” March and Serenade for a wedding. The works by Mozart and Haydn display the best the Classical period has to offer, while Benjamin’s composition from the 1980s shows off some of the unique inventiveness that made the late 20th century such an exciting time for music.
George Benjamin, British composer of the recent opera Written on Skin, composed At First Light for a chamber orchestra of 14 players. Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and premiered in 1982 under the baton of Simon Rattle, At First Light features violin, viola, cello, double bass, woodwinds and brass. In addition, a percussionist plays a variety of both traditional and non-traditional instruments.
In his own description of this work, Benjamin references a painting in London’s Tate Gallery called Norham Castle, Sunrise. The sun’s presence in the painting—so intense and overpowering— casts a haze over everything, making the shapes, lines, and even colors, indistinct. The artist, Joseph Mallard William Turner, painted and sketched Norham Castle numerous times in his career. He saw the castle for the first time in 1797, but Norham Castle, Sunrise is one of Turner’s late works. The sunrise of the painting has inspired Benjamin to portray the dawn in three movements. Benjamin notes that everything in the painting seems to have “melted under the intense sunlight. It is as if the paint is still wet.” Benjamin’s observation is key to understanding this piece. It is as if he has “melted” down the clear musical phrase into what he calls “a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound.” The work shows the interplay between the clear phrase and the deconstructed phrase. The piece begins with a high, sustained note in the violin and hits from the array of percussion instruments. The trumpet and trombone offer notes and then repeat the same notes with mutes. These are what Benjamin describes as “superimposed fanfares.” The music walks the line between organized sound and cacophony with the greatest care, although the small chamber group seems to erupt with dissonance now and then.
The second movement is made up of short sections, each of which contradicts the others in mood. Benjamin seems very interested in extremes, highs and lows, loud and soft. The piccolo brings a flourish up to the high frequencies, while the trombone, bassoon and piano fire away at the other end of the spectrum. In the different sections, the sound may seem to grow out of nothing so gradually you wonder if you are hearing anything at all, or they might jump out and startle. The final movement begins without pause, providing a nearly unbroken line of sound that is continually augmented with intricate harmony. This grand, slow crescendo culminates in a fantastic earth-shaking fortissimo. A moment of quiet follows, but we end with another outburst; Benjamin’s depiction of this dawn maintains its intensity until the very last moment of the piece.
Before the 1780s, Franz Joseph Haydn spent most of his time writing music that would be performed almost exclusively at the court of the Esterházy family. He occasionally took commissions from outside sources, but the majority of his musical efforts stayed close to home. In 1779, however, Haydn had made a connection with the Artaria publishing firm in Vienna. When Haydn renewed his contract with the Esterházy family that year, a provision that gave the Prince exclusive rights to Haydn’s music something in the contract from nearly two decades earlier was left out. Haydn could now happily sell his music to the public and profit from it. Although he was still employed by the Esterházys, and continued to write a great deal of music for the family, he could begin to broaden his horizons.
In this more liberal atmosphere Haydn composed the Cello Concerto in D major. After its debut, the piece went missing, only to be found but misattributed to Anton Kraft, the Esterházy court principal cellist for whom the piece was written. But an auto-graphed manuscript found in the mid-20th century proved once and for all that Haydn was the composer.
Haydn used the traditional three-movement structure found in most Classical-era concertos, wherein two energetic movements bookend a slower middle section. In each one of these movements, Haydn calls upon the intricate skills of the soloist often, and we may deduce that Kraft was a fine and impressive musician. The first movement opens, in typical fashion, with the strings taking the lead, but there is a wealth of color from the woodwind section. After the orchestral exposition, the cello soloist presents similar material to which Haydn adds flourishes and variation. The movement unfolds like a civil conversation between cellist and orchestra, neither talking over the other, but still displaying passion and charm. The cadenza at the end of the first movement gives the soloist the opportunity to provide a short heartfelt monologue in the middle of this conversation. The slow movement provides the barest change of mood and tempo. There is a gentle but insistent pulse urging us forward, and the cello gets some lovely melodic material, while the orchestra offers its firm, but not overpowering support. A moment of despair creeps into the orchestral part, but the cello reassures, and the movement ends peacefully. The finale features a pleasant tune that returns again and again in this effervescent rondo. The soloist must save some energy for the moments of complex passagework in this movement, as Haydn ends this Concerto with a stylish flourish.
The serenade is a multiple-movement work for orchestra, usually reserved for light entertainment. Any number of movements might be included and dance forms were commonly used. Mozart sometimes preceded his serenades with a March, giving the players who often stood during the performance music that would allow them to take their position. The March was often played at the end as well. Seldom performed in a concert setting, serenades were party-pieces perhaps even outdoor parties—favoring those instruments whose timbres carried best in the open air. Mozart’s March in D major, “Haffner” is assumed to be the brief ceremonial opening to his Serenade No. 7 in D major, “Haffner.” Both works were composed in the 1770s and premiered in July of 1776, before the wedding between Marie Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xavier Spaeth.
There are eight movements in the Serenade proper, beginning with an Allegro maestoso which might very well have been used as entrance music for honored guests or the happy couple. This particular serenade is almost like a concerto because there are extended passages featuring the solo violin, played tonight by LACO concert¬master Margaret Batjer. The second movement is a stately Andante, while the third movement provides a touch of drama with a pensive Menuetto. The fourth movement is a quick and light-hearted Allegro that shows off the solo violinist’s considerable skills. The Menuetto galante that follows returns to the majestic charm of the first movement. Mozart brings the energy back with another lovely Andante, and continues with one final Menuetto. Mozart ends the proceedings with a movement that begins with a slow opening section, but closes with a fiery Allegro assai. Once again, the virtuosic skills of the instrumentalists—especially the solo violinist are on full display. There is a sense of joy and excitement here, perfect for a wedding celebration. Some of these movements were likely played while people were talking and socializing, and Mozart masterfully balances interesting musical phrases and melodies with the requirement that this be entertaining, but not overbearing. As usual, Mozart shows his mastery of any musical situation.