Two masterworks of the Jazz Age—Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F—make up the first half of this weekend’s program. After intermission, we’ll hear Rachmaninoff’s final composition, the luxuriant Symphonic Dances.
(Born 4 September 1892, Aix-en-Provence, France; Died 22 June 1974, Geneva, Switzerland)
First performance: 25 October 1923; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: January 2000; William Eddins, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1st doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tambourine, cowbell, wood block, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, tabor), piano, 2 violins, cello, double bass
Approximate duration: 16 minutes
Quite prolific and gifted with a unique technical facility, over the course of more than five decades Darius Milhaud wrote 15 operas, 17 ballets, 13 symphonies, 18 string quartets, 20+ concertos, as well as chamber music, choral music, and songs. He was a member of Les Six, a group of French composers who came to represent the nonchalant, effervescent spirit of their country following World War I. Decidedly anti-Debussy (et al.), they cultivated whimsical music-hall and café-style music, as well as jazz.
In 1922, Milhaud made a trip to the United States. In the dance halls and theatres of Harlem, he was exposed to “authentic” jazz, an experience he drew upon the following year in writing La creation du monde. Predating Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), it became the first important work to make considerable, genuine, and sophisticated use of the sound and style of the jazz of its time. It is often considered his magnum opus. It's unique orchestra colors are due, in part, to the absence of violas and to the extensive use of a solo alto saxophone.
The ballet takes as its scenario an African creation myth by Swiss poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars. In The Victor Book of Ballets, Robert Lawrence gives the following synopsis:
The chaos of pre-Creation is seen on a darkened stage as the curtain rises. Three aboriginal deities move among a tangled mass of bodies, muttering incantations. The mass responds to their charms. First a tree rises and lets fall one of its seeds, from which rises still another tree. Now animals appear, every one of them springing—as in the process of evolution—from a more primitive predecessor. Finally, as the three deities pronounce new spells, Man and Woman emerge. They perform a dance of desire, excited by the presence of primeval sorcerers and witch doctors. At last the frenzy of the celebrants subsides; the dancers disperse; and Man and Woman are left alone in a symbolic embrace which assures the fertility of human life.
Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein, Orchestre National de France (EMI/Warner)
(Born 26 September 1898, Brooklyn, New York; Died 11 July 1937, Hollywood, California)
First performance: 3 December 1925; New York, New York
Last MSO performance: June 2004; Andreas Delfs, conductor; Pascal Roge, piano
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, snare drum, wood block, slapstick, suspended cymbal, xylophone), strings
Approximate duration: 31 minutes
George Gershwin, along with his lyricist brother Ira, gave us some of the most beloved songs in the history of popular music. “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm”—these are just a few of their contributions to the Great American Songbook.
In 1924, the smashing success of Rhapsody in Blue catapulted the 25-year-old into a totally new status as a composer. Gershwin was acknowledged everywhere as a major figure in American music and in asserting American influence in Europe. The following year, he was commissioned by conductor Walter Damrosch to write a full-scale concerto, in the time-honored, three-movement format. The result was the jazz-saturated Concerto in F, which—unlike the Rhapsody—Gershwin orchestrated himself. The composer was at the piano for the premiere, with Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra.
Concert-goers immediately took to the concerto, and in 1928 Gershwin had the pleasure of hearing its first European performance—in Paris. Dimitri Tiomkin, who later became famous for his Hollywood film scores, was the soloist. Critics outdid each other in lavishing praise on the work and its composer, but a few dissenting voices were heard. Serge Diaghilev, the great Ballet Russe impresario, pronounced it “good jazz but bad Liszt”; Prokofiev stated that it was mostly one 32-bar chorus after another. Nevertheless, its audience appeal has never abated.
The opening Allegro, vibrant and fast, makes use of the Charleston rhythm. Set in classic sonata form, the bassoon introduces the principal theme and the piano later announces the second. The music represents, the composer said, “the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life.” The Adagio’s extended, Debussy-tinged introduction features a deliciously sensual muted-trumpet solo, presaging the piano’s long-awaited main tune. Gershwin’s inspired treatment of this theme shows him at his most compelling and original. Essentially, the movement is a blues number cast in a classically defined rondo form.
Gershwin described the final Allegro agitato as “an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.” In this rondo, we hear melodies from earlier movements; a Hollywood ending highlights a grandioso restatement of the concerto’s opening theme.
The Concerto in F stands as a high point in the marriage of the Western European musical tradition and the rhythmic, improvisational bravura of jazz. We can only imagine what Gershwin might have achieved in “serious” music had a brain tumor not claimed his life at age 38. Nevertheless, the work he left us made decisive, influential strides toward creating a distinctly American classical tradition.
Recommended recording: André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)
(Born 1 April 1873, Semyonovo, Russia; Died 28 March 1943, Beverly Hills, California)
First performance: 3 January 1941; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Last MSO performance: April 2015; Edo de Waart, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, piano, strings
Approximate duration: 35 minutes
After war broke out in Europe in 1939, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Rachmaninoff and his wife Natalya left that continent for the final time. They settled in the United States, on a rented Long Island estate, near their friends Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz. Rachmaninoff had not composed since 1936, when he had finished his Symphony No. 3; his scores at that time had been greeted lukewarmly, and he was weary of being dismissed as old hat, continually compared to more “modern” giants of the day like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 1940, as this greatest of pianists was practicing incessantly for his upcoming concert tour, he could no longer ignore his compositional muse. On August 21, he wrote to Eugene Ormandy, the revered conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called Fantastic Dances. I shall now begin the orchestration. By October, the dances had become symphonic rather than fantastic, and he had nixed the idea of naming the three movements noon, dusk, and midnight.
Premiered by Ormandy and the Philadelphians the next year, Symphonic Dances turned out to be the last music Rachmaninoff would set down. The score was also the only one written in the United States; previously, a good deal of his composing was done at his villa in Switzerland, while on breaks from recital tours.
The opening dance features an extensive solo for alto saxophone. Though Rachmaninoff had never before written for the instrument, it demonstrates his interest, in his late orchestral works, in individual instrumental timbres. The movement is notable for its rhythmic vitality and “Prokofiev-like grotesquery” (Geoffrey Norris). In the coda, he covertly quotes the principal theme of his Symphony No. 1, itself derived from Russian Orthodox music.
Set in 6/8 time, the Andante con moto is a dolorous waltz that, with its peculiar, fluctuating harmonies, turns pensive and uneasy. Especially in the final movement, the Symphonic Dances reveal Rachmaninoff’s perennial interest in ecclesiastical song. Here, he employs a chant from the liturgy, the Gregorian melody “Dies irae” from the Mass for the Dead, and a quotation from the ninth movement of his a cappella choral work All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (1915). In its original guise, the latter is a setting of the word “Alleluia;” leaving no one to doubt, the composer wrote the word in the orchestral score at that point.
Having completed what ultimately became his final work, Rachmaninoff noted presciently at the time, “It must have been my last spoils.” And on the concluding page of his manuscript he penned, “I thank Thee, Lord.”
Recommended recording: Kirill Kondrashin, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (Melodya)