Christopher Rouse’s nightmarishly provocative Bump opens this weekend’s concerts, followed by Prokofiev’s sunny and scintillating Violin Concerto No. 1. After intermission, we’ll experience the vivid drama of Hector Berlioz’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Symphonie fantastique.
(Born 15 February 1949; Baltimore, Maryland)
First performance: 25 October 1986; St. Louis, Missouri
Last MSO performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1st and 2nd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, baritone saxophone, percussion (tom tom, claves, Chinese cymbals, thunder sheet, marimba, guiro, bongo drums, tambourine, xylophone, bass drum, congas, crotales, wood block, timbales, cowbell, field drum, chimes, suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, maracas, tenor drum, snare drum, vibraphone, hammer), harp, piano, celeste, strings
Approximate duration: 8 minutes
Christopher Rouse has written the following about the work on today’s program:
Bump was completed in Baltimore on January 22, 1985. Commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra through a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it functions both as the final movement of the triptych Phantasmata and as a separately performable work in its own right.
My original concept of Bump was akin to “La valse meets Studio 54,” but as it was ultimately to possess neither waltz nor disco elements, I chose to fashion it as a “nightmare konga.” Accurately speaking it is not a konga at all, in that the konga’s characteristic accent on the third beat’s fourth 16th is here displaced squarely to the fourth beat. Each fourth beat throughout the music is played by the bass drum (the climactic coda is in double time), and this serves not only to furnish the work’s title (which refers to dance floor bumping with the hips or buttocks), but also to lend the music a sense of oppressive obsessiveness. Though the score abounds with jazzy syncopations and “big band” brass writing, its harsher harmony and sinister mood act to keep the piece within the larger context of Phantasmata.
Bump is dedicated with sincere admiration and friendship to Leonard Slatkin.
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse.
Recommended recording: David Zinman, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Nonesuch)
(Born 23 April 1891; Sontsovka, Russia; Died 5 March 1953; Moscow, Russia)
First performance: 18 October 1923; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: January 2000; William Eddins, conductor; Vadim Repin, violin
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, harp, timpani, percussion (tambourine, snare drum), strings
Approximate duration: 22 minutes
In 1915, just a year out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev jotted down the lyrical melody that would later serve as the opening theme for his Violin Concerto No. 1. His original idea was to write a single-movement Concertino, but competing projects—such as his opera The Gambler—kept him otherwise occupied. When he resumed work on the piece in 1917—the year of his “Classical” Symphony, Visions fugitives, Piano Sonata No. 3, and the Russian Revolution—he realized his plans had expanded to encompass a three-movement concerto. He consulted with the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934) on the solo part, and intended for him to give the November 1917 premiere. The turmoil of the Revolution intervened, however, and the first performance was delayed until 1923 in Paris—with the Paris Opera Orchestra’s concertmaster Marcel Darrieux as soloist and Serge Koussevitsky on the podium. (By that time, Kochanski had moved to the United States.)
Reviews were ambivalent: The conservatives thought it too progressive, the progressives thought it too conservative. One of the latter even referred to its “Mendelssohnism.” Three days after the Paris performance, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz introduced the Concerto to an enthusiastic audience in Moscow, in a version of violin and piano. The following summer, Joseph Szigeti played the work in Prague—at a contemporary music festival—then toured it to all the European capitals. Milstein summed it up: “Prokofiev’s First is indeed one of the best modern violin concertos. It is a brilliant piece, perhaps the finest of all Prokofiev’s works.”
The composer instructs that the aforementioned opening theme be played “dreamily” (sognando) and very softly, over viola tremolos. Flutes, clarinets, and oboes join the dialogue. A second, more conversational theme (narrate) leads to firmer ground. Pizzicato notes from the soloist begin the development. In the recapitulation, the principal flute intones the theme, accompanied by harp and muted solo violin. The brilliantly virtuosic scherzo (Vivacissimo) is in marked contrast to the generally more lyrical movements that bookend it. It is a rondo with motoric rhythm, lively thematic material, and accented double-stops. The music seems to be over before it’s barely begun.
A bassoon theme, underpinned by a steady rhythm, opens the finale. The solo violin takes up the bassoon melody, transforming it into an expressive song before switching to accompaniment mode (Allegro moderato). The soloist frequently changes hats, between the roles of soloist and accompanist. The bassoon motive dives down to the low strings, then rises to become intertwined with solo violin. Harkening back to the concerto’s dreamy opening, the soloist floats magically away, borne on long chains of trills.
The renowned Russian violinist David Oistrakh likened Prokofiev’s Op. 19 to “a landscape bathed in sunlight.” But perhaps his compatriot, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, said it best: “It seems to me impossible that anybody who loves music could fail to be smitten by this piece. The impression it makes is like when you open a window for the first time in spring, and lovely sounds find their way inside.”
Recommended recording: Isaac Stern; Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony Classical)
(Born 11 December 1803; La Côte-Saint-André, France; Died 8 March 1869; Paris, France)
First performance: 5 December 1830; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: November 2014; Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1st doubling E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, field drum, suspended cymbals), 2 harps, strings
Approximate duration: 49 minutes
Hector Berlioz stands as the foremost French composer of his day. This despite the fact that music’s principal pioneers at that time were German and that France’s primary artistic achievements were in the realm of the written word. Born into a well-to-do family—his father, a prominent physician, was a liberal, well-read man—Berlioz learned to play the flute and guitar, but never studied the piano. (His repertoire on that instrument consisted of just a few chords.) At his father’s behest, he was sent to medical school in Paris at age 17. In La ville lumière—which remained his home for his whole life—the musical opportunities and experiences overwhelmed him, and medicine took a back seat to Berlioz’s resolve to become a great composer.
When his parents cut off his funds, he became resourceful in making ends meet—a few guitar students here, a few published articles there (later, this would become his primary source of revenue); at one point, he was even a chorus singer at the Théâtre des Nouveautés. He entered the Conservatoire in 1826, where he studied composition with Jean-François LeSueur (1760-1837).
The following year, on 11 September 1827, Berlioz was bowled over when he first encountered both Shakespeare and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (as Ophelia) in a production of Hamlet, given by an English troupe at the Odéon theatre. “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted.” It should be noted that Berlioz knew virtually no English at the time, but nevertheless was able to recognize the profundity of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy and the exalted nature of his language.
Berlioz’s feelings for Miss Smithson were powerful and instantaneous. For him, there was no apparent difference between her and Ophelia, Desdemona, Juliet, or the other Shakespearean heroines she portrayed. For the next two years, he pined for her return to Paris, futilely seeking a way to approach her. In 1830, he poured out his emotions in the Symphonie fantastique, one of the most amazing first symphonies in the history of the genre. (One could say the same about Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.)
In 1828, Berlioz discovered Beethoven, thanks to performances of the Third and Fifth Symphonies at the Conservatoire. Hearing that sublime music stoked a desire to compose symphonies of his own. “Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry.” States Berlioz scholar Hugh MacDonald: “That Berlioz wrote symphonies at all is entirely due to his obeisance to Beethoven, and the Symphonie fantastique can be seen as a deliberate and conscious attempt to work out the dramatic and poetic ideas in the framework of a Beethoven symphony.”
The Symphonie fantastique, subtitled an “Episode in an Artist’s Life,” is set in five movements. Berlioz wrote a detailed program and employed an idée fixe, a recurrent theme that appears, transformed, in every movement. This motif portrays the artist’s obsession with the woman he idolizes. It’s no secret that Berlioz is the artist and that Harriet Smithson is the beloved.
The work opens with a slow introduction, followed by the first-movement Allegro. The introduction (“Reveries”) depicts the “flux of passion, the unaccountable joys and sorrows he experienced before he saw his beloved;” the Allegro (“Passions”) characterized “the volcanic love that his beloved suddenly inspired in him.” The sensuousness of the second movement (“A Ball”) is heightened by the use of two harps. Here, “in the tumult of a festive party… the beloved image keeps haunting [the artist] and throws his spirts into confusion.”
“Scene in the Fields” uses the English horn and an offstage oboe to portray two dialoguing shepherds. This pastoral setting provides the artist a sense of calm; but thoughts of the beloved reappear, and his mind turns to her possible betrayal; “dark premonitions form the subject of the Adagio.” One of the shepherds resumes his playing, but it goes unanswered. “The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…”
The fourth movement (“March to the Scaffold”) renders an opium-induced dream in which the artist imagines he has poisoned his beloved and is being led to the guillotine. Berlioz described a march “in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for a moment [solo clarinet], like a final thought of love interrupted by the final blow.”
In his description of the witches’ sabbath, the composer mentions “a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers, and monsters… strange sounds, outbursts of laughter… distant shouts.” The idée fixe returns as a “vulgar dance tune.” The beloved has come to join in the “diabolical orgy.” As funeral bells toll, we hear the ancient Gregorian chant “Dies irae” (Day of wrath), which is then combined with the infernal dance of the witches.
Harriet Smithson first heard the Symphonie fantastique in 1832, and recognized Berlioz’s genius. He was able to secure an introduction to her, and they finally married on 3 October 1833. As a relationship that had started on an idealized level, it was doomed to fail in the course of everyday life: After several years of unhappiness, they went their separate ways. Still, the 26-year-old Berlioz’s infatuation gave birth to what became a watershed in the history of orchestral music. “The novelty and defiant youthfulness of the score have never faded,” writes Hugh MacDonald, “and the musical and thematic intervention is inextricably linked with Berlioz’s conception of a new world of color and dramatic intent. At one stroke the symphony as a form became a fully-fledged medium of explicit drama.”
Recommended recording: Sir Colin Davis, Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.