Music by Stravinsky—arguably the 20th century's greatest composer—opens both halves of this weekend’s concerts. Poulenc’s music-hall-meets-Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos and Beethoven’s friendly Symphony No. 4 round out the program.
(Born 17 June 1882, Lomonosov, Russia; Died 6 April 1971, New York, New York)
Composed: 1920 (revised 1947)
First performance: 10 June 1921; London, England
Last MSO Performance: April 2014; Edo de Waart, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
Approximate Duration: 9 minutes
[The Symphonies of Wind Instruments] is not meant “to please” an audience or arouse its passions. I had hoped, however, that it would appeal to those in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy emotional cravings.
Composed in 1920, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments was the last major work written in his characteristic “Russian” idiom. The piece came about as the result of a request from the French periodical Revue musicale. A special supplement was being issued in memory of Claude Debussy, who had died in 1918. Stravinsky’s contribution to the publication later became the final chorale of the Symphonies. “The homage that I intended to pay to the memory of the great musician ought not to be inspired by his musical thought,” the Russian master wrote. On the contrary, I desired rather to express myself in a language essentially my own.”
In his use of the term “symphonies,” Stravinsky here strips the word of its Classical-era connotations and applies its root meaning: “sounding together.” What we hear, then, are juxtaposed blocks of sound, each with its own instrumental colorings and rhythmic impetus. (As a visual, imagine the grid-based paintings of Mondrian or those of Picasso’s cubist period.) The composer himself described the work as “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.”
Indeed, the call-and-response texture conveys a liturgical atmosphere—like versicles and responses in an ecclesiastical setting—and the modality evokes both folksong and medieval plainchant. Stravinsky moves quickly from idea to idea, and the statements are terse. At the end, we hear the only sustained music of the Symphonies, the tribute to Debussy.
Serge Koussevitsy conducted the first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London, in June 1921. Stravinsky revised work in 1947; in the process, he reduced the number of players from 24 to 23. This brief but thoroughly engaging piece is now recognized as “a landmark in Stravinsky’s output and... a seminal influence on composers since World War II” (Eric Walter White).
Recommended Recording: Pierre Boulez, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
(Born 7 January 1899, Paris, France; Died 30 January 1963, Paris, France)
First performance: 5 September 1932; Venice, Italy
Last MSO Performance: MSO Premiere
Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, castanets, military drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), strings
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes
I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovation like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel, or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart–Schubert?
–Francis Poulenc, 1942
Francis Poulenc grew up in a family of pharmaceutical manufacturers. Their wealth afforded him a fine education and gave him an early sophistication, both musical and literary. He began piano lessons with his mother at age five, had memorized some of Mallarmé’s poetry at age ten, and had experienced The Rite of Spring at age 14. By the time he began composition lessons with Charles Koechlin, in his early 20s, he had already penned the song cycle Le bestiare (“The Bestiary”) and the sonata for two clarinets. In 1924, his ballet Les biches (“The Does,” a mildly derogatory term for coquettish young women), written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, established him as a member of the “smart set.” It also opened the door for further urbane and ironic pieces, including the concerto for two pianos.
Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was the 20th of 24 children sired by Issac Singer, the philandering founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Better known by her married name, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, Winnaretta possessed a personal fortune from her father’s business and from her marriage to a French nobleman. After her husband’s premature death, she ruled over the most decorous of Parisian salons, opened her Venetian palazzo to all manner of musicians, and munificently granted money and commissions to the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Falla, and Stravinsky.
Reenter Poulenc. It was at Singer’s home that he first met harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, an encounter that resulted in the Concert champêtre, a harpsichord concerto that makes use of an incisive, brilliantly clear keyboard style. A few years later, the Princesse commissioned him to write the concerto for two pianos. It was composed at Le Tremblay in the summer of 1932 and premiered soon afterward at the International Society for Contemporary Music in Venice. The composer and his childhood friend Jacques Février were the soloists, with Désiré Defauw conducting the La Scala Orchestra. Poulenc was pleased with the plaudits his work received, and a dozen years later was delighted to perform the concerto with Benjamin Britten in England.
Dazzling articulaton and unresrtrained vim and vigor mark the opening Allegro. There is clever dialogue between the two pianos, and popular Parisian melodies are woven into the musical web. Near the movement’s end, Poulenc—by his own admission—evokes the Balinese gamelan music he heard at Paris’s Colonial Exposition in 1931. The second movement is an homage to Mozart, calling to mind the Andante from the Austrian master’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466. Poulenc wrote, “In the Larghetto of this concerto, I allowed myself, for the first theme, to return to Mozart, for I cherish the melodic line and I prefer Mozart to all other musicians. If the movement begins alla Mozart, it quickly veers, at the entrance of the second piano, toward a style that was standard for me at the time.” The Finale opens in a toccata-like vein, after which the pianists announce a four-square music-hall melody. Following a calmer interlude, the embience of a Pigalle café returns, and the concerto ends with effulgent good humor.
Recommended Recording: Bracha Eden & Alexander Tamir; Sergiu Comissiona, L’Orchestra de la Suisse Romande (Decca)
(Born 17 June 1882, Lomonosov, Russia; Died 6 April 1971, New York, New York)
Composed: 1946 (revised 1961)
First performance: 27 January 1947; Basel, Switzerland
Last MSO Performance: March 2014; Edo de Waart, conductor
Approximate Duration: 12 minutes
Shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Stravinsky embarked for the United States on his fourth, and ultimately longest, visit to North America. Just over six years later, following World War II, the composer and his wife Vera became American citizens, their naturalization papers having gone through on 28 December 1945. Along with the end of the war came a commission from Europe, the first in over a decade.
In early 1946, the billionaire philanthropist Paul Sacher asked Stravinsky to write a string piece in honor of the 20th anniversary of his Basel Chamber Orchestra. (Over the years, Sacher commissioned more than 200 works from leading composers, including Richard Strauss, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Michael Tippett, Bohuslav Martinů, Hans Werner Henze, Frank Martin, Harrison Birtwistle, Elliot Carter, Witold Lutoslawski, et al.) Stravinsky at first said he was too busy to take up the task, but when one project was delayed and another cancelled altogether, he wrote to accept Sacher’s invitation, “provided it is from ten to twelve minutes, like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.” Sacher agreed, and the work was promptly finished on 8 August 1946. Sacher conducted the premiere the following January.
The Concerto in D major is one of Stravinsky’s final essays in his unique brand of neo-classicism. And, like the concertos of that era, it is cast in three movements: fast-slow-fast. The composer scored the strings in five parts: violins I and II, violas, cellos, and basses. He even went so far as to specify the number of players: 8-8-6-6-4, respectively.
The first-movement Vivace is Stravinsky at his piquant best. The music is spiky and motor-like, with angular melodies, jarring cross-rhythms, and constantly restated half-step dissonances (like playing two adjacent notes on the piano simultaneously). The Arioso—with its elegant, expansive B-flat melody—is especially charming and sophisticated, but the half steps and competing meters still remain. The melodies in the closing Rondo are sparse, and the dynamics tend toward the soft side. Nevertheless, unrelenting 16th notes fuel the perpetual motion of this toccata-like movement, and propel Stravinsky’s delightful work to its fff conclusion.
Across the decades, choreographers have been drawn to this irresistible music. Perhaps the most notable staging was that by Jerome Robbins, entitled The Cage, first presented by the New York City ballet in June 1951.
Recommended recording: Esa Pekka-Salonen; Stockholm Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)
First performance: March 1807; Vienna, Austria
Last MSO Performance: February 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 34 minutes
Despite his progressing deafness, the 35-year-old Beethoven was on a roll. The list of his works from the year 1806 includes several masterpieces: Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58; Three String Quartets, Op. 59 (“Razumovsky”); Symphony No. 4, Op. 60; Violin Concerto, Op. 61; and a revised version of Leonore, the opera that would evolve into Fidelio (including its famous Leonore Overture No. 3.)
Beethoven composed his Op. 60 in the summer and fall, having retreated to the Silesian country estate of one of his most devoted early admirers, Prince Carl von Lichnowsky. Seemingly, the work gave its composer little trouble. Though the master was known to agonize over his scores—experimenting and reworking the music across several drafts—musicologists tell us that few preliminary sketches exist.
The Fourth Symphony’s generally affable disposition is at odds with both its symphonic neighbors—the Third (“Eroica) and Fifth. Not long after Beethoven’s death, Robert Schumann called it, poetically, “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” Writing in the late 19th century Sir George Grove opined that this opus “is a complete contrast to both its predecessor and successor, and is gay and spontaneous as they are serious and lofty.”
Beethoven led the premiere of the Symphony No. 4 in March 1807, at a private concert given in the Viennese palace of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz—the “Eroica” Symphony’s dedicatee. The evening also included the first performances of the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 The public first heard the B-flat symphony over a year later, on 13 April 1808, in Vienna’s Burgtheater.
The symphony opens with a slow, 42-bar introduction—expectant and foreboding—in the parallel minor, not the B-flat major of the key signature. Trumpets and timpani signal the end of the Adagio and the beginning of the Allegro vivace, and an energetic ascending scale figure launches the orchestra on a movement that is sparkling and lighthearted, but also dramatic. The graceful Adagio is a long-breathed song. An insistent accompaniment figure—long-short on the do-sol pitches—pervades the moment. Schumann, the work’s great early admirer, thought the effect humorous, “a veritable Falstaff, particularly when occurring in the bass or timpani.”
The witty third movement is no Classical-era minuet, but rather a full-blown high-energy scherzo. An unexpected return to the trio for a second go-round expands the customary three-part form into a five-part structure. A busy flurry of 16th notes in the violins introduces the moto perpetuo character that pervades the Finale. The second subject, first introduced by the oboe, offers the only respite from this infectiously riotous motion. As is often the case with Beethoven, the development section keeps us wondering where we’re heading. We’re on our way back to the main theme, of course, but when we arrive there, we’re surprised to hear it stated by a solo bassoon. The orchestra sweeps in, though, to pick up the tune, bringing the symphony to a close with high spirits and earthy Haydnesque humor.
Recommended Recording: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv)