The works on tonight’s concert all have interesting origin stories. Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye started as a piano duet for children. Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane has multiple versions, including an orchestral version and one for solo piano. Both pieces by these French composers later inspired fully staged ballets. Beethoven composed his Eighth Symphony in a brisk few months, while Schoenberg started the Chamber Symphony No. 2 in 1906, but put it aside for more than 30 years before completing it. The program for this evening is a reminder that every work of art is a story of creation, nurturing, change and acceptance.
The pavane was a European courtly dance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its sedate character made it a good choice for processionals, and even when danced, its simple choreography consisted of steps moving forward and backwards. Gabriel Fauré revisited this dance in the late 1880s with the Pavane in F-sharp minor. He imagined it for strings, pairs of woodwinds and a pair of French horns. Not surprisingly, the Pavane is one of Fauré’s most famous works. It is exquisitely delicate, with an opening line for the flute that displays Fauré’s incredible gift for melody. The woodwinds bring vibrant color to the proceedings. The lines gently dance and sway, but continually move forward. Fauré’s Pavane influenced later composers like Debussy and Ravel, whose Ma mère l’oye contains the Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (“Pavane of Sleeping Beauty”).
Sometimes large-scale works take a significant amount of time to finish, but Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 is quite an extreme case. Schoenberg began this work in 1906, just as he was on the verge of making a great leap in his stylistic development. However, it took more than three decades for him to complete his masterful work. Even then, Schoenberg needed a small push to pick the Symphony up again to finish it. Conductor Fritz Stiedry asked Schoenberg for music for his New Friends of Music Orchestra, and the composer must have thought it was a good time to finally work through the musical ideas he had started decades before. Schoenberg completed the piece in 1939, and it premiered in December 1940. In the 33 years in between the work’s genesis and its completion, Schoenberg’s style had developed and evolved, and he wondered how to reconcile the pieces of his early attempts with his newer idiom. Schoenberg added almost two dozen measures to what was the first movement, completed the second movement and re-worked the pre-existing parts by rethinking the orchestration based on the forces in Stiedry’s orchestra. There are two movements: an opening Adagio and a contrasting Con fuoco; Lento. There were sketches for a third movement—which was to be an Adagio—but Schoenberg chose to exclude it. When Schoenberg began work on his Chamber Symphony No. 2, he was on the verge of a truly atonal style. However, after more than three decades of artistic evolution, he was willing to allow more tonal elements into his work. The opening movement feels more dramatic than dissonant, although the shifting harmonies do keep the listener surprised. The second movement begins with a more insistent sense of rhythm and greater energy. Overall, Schoenberg’s writing and use of various timbral juxtapositions shows off the richness of the distinct voices of the orchestra. The final part of the work brings back a slow tempo, before the piece builds back to an exciting and evocative conclusion.
In 1910, Maurice Ravel was working outside of the more staid and traditional musical establishment in Paris. He helped to found the Société Musicale Indépendante, an answer of sorts to the more conservative Société Nationale de Musique. Ravel’s piano duet, Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”), originally composed for two children, was one of the works premiered during the inaugural concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante. Ravel drew inspiration, in part, from the stories of French author Charles Perrault (1628–1703).
Ravel is known for his skill as an orchestrator, and he transformed Ma mère l’oye into a lovely work for small orchestra, completing it in 1911. Both the piano duet and orchestral versions contain five pieces. Later the same year he also expanded it into a ballet, separating the five initial pieces with four new interludes and adding two movements at the start, the Prélude (“Prelude”) and Danse du rouet et scène (“Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene”). Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (“Pavane of Sleeping Beauty”) is a slow and languorous movement of delicate grace. The next movement is a waltz that serves as a conversation between Beauty and the Beast. In this part, Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête, Beauty is represented by a clarinet, while the Beast speaks through the contrabassoon. When the Beast transforms into a prince, the violin becomes his voice. Petit Poucet is a lively imagining of Hopo’ My Thumb with a lovely oboe melody; the centerpiece of Ma mère l’oye, Laideronnette, imperatrice des pagodes (“Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas”), shows Ravel’s interest in the music of Asian culture. Le jardin féerique (“The Fairy Garden”) is Ravel’s finale and features a haunting melody that reflects all the wonders of that magical place.
About a hundred years before Ravel’s exploration of the fairy tales in Ma mère l’oye, Beethoven was composing his Symphony No. 8 in F major. He was experiencing considerable turmoil at the time, embroiled as he was in his brother’s romantic affairs. However, conflict was normal for Beethoven; it might be safe to say there was rarely an extended period of peace in his life. The Eighth Symphony is nevertheless a lively and cheerful work that Beethoven completed in about four months. It was written around the same time as the Seventh Symphony, a larger and more substantial work. The Eighth, dubbed the “Little Symphony,” premiered in 1814 at a concert that also featured the Seventh Symphony, with Beethoven at the podium, despite his increasing deafness.
The Eighth Symphony has four movements. The first movement, in a quick triple meter, is in sonata form with 12-bar phrasing. The second theme, in the violins, starts quietly, but gradually increases in intensity. As the themes are developed, Beethoven builds a large crescendo through the middle section that comes to fruition as the themes are recapped. The triple meter gives this movement a light dance-like quality throughout. The second movement sounds like a metronome, an invention that had recently been improved by one of Beethoven’s friends. Haydn had done something similar in his “Clock” Symphony, which LACO audiences can hear in April. The quick rhythm of the chords continues throughout the movement, giving the impression that this “slow” movement is not all that slow. There are sonata form elements, but no development section between the exposition and the recap of the main themes. The coda of this movement features a motive with quick moving notes.
By 1812, the minuet was regarded as old-fashioned, but Beethoven used the older style in the third movement of the Eighth Symphony. There are three sections, and the middle contrasting section has solo parts for horn and clarinet. The main theme of the movement is based on an Austrian folk song. Like the first movement, this minuet and trio evoke the spirit of the dance. The last movement of Beethoven’s “Little Symphony,”a hybrid of sonata and rondo forms, is also its longest. The main theme reappears three times throughout the movement. The most significant part of this section is the lengthy coda, featuring interesting and unexpected modulations from key to key. Grander in scale and more serious in tone, the Seventh often overshadows the Eighth Symphony, and this charming work is certainly not as popular as the epic Ninth. But, as you will hear tonight, Beethoven’s “Little Symphony” is a wonderful work in its own right.