American Classics

Program Notes

Four engaging 20th-century works—all composed within a 35-year stretch—comprise this weekend’s concerts: Bernstein’s Divertimento is an homage to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Julia Perry’s “Short Piece” reveals her as a master of orchestral writing; Barber’s Knoxville awakens childhood nostalgia; and Copland’s last symphony celebrates the Allied victory in World War II.

 

Divertimento

Leonard Bernstein
(Born 25 August 1918; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Died 14 October 1990; New York, New York)

Composed: 1980

First performance: 25 September 1980; Boston, Massachusetts

Last MSO performance: February 1998; Neal Gittleman, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo drums, chimes, congas, cymbals, glockenspiel, guiro, cowbell, maracas, tam tam, sandpaper blocks, snare drum, suspended cymbals, temple blocks, tambourine, triangle, drum set, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 15 minutes

Though we usually associate Leonard Bernstein with New York City, it was Boston—where he grew up and attended many a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in his young years—that provided the formative experiences for his illustrious career. Thus, it was entirely appropriate that he was one of a dozen composers commissioned to write a work celebrating the BSO’s centenary (1980-81). In that spirit, he created his Divertimento, harkening back to the 18th-century meaning of the term—music to “divert” and entertain.

Bernstein made an effort to involve every musician. It’s safe to say he met that goal—and then some—including nearly 30 pieces of percussion, even unusual ones like temple blocks, Cuban cowbells, rasp, and trap set. Notice, too, that each of the eight, short autobiographical movements of the suite make use of a different orchestral section or group of instruments.  

Shortly before Divertimento’s premiere, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, Bernstein told the Boston Globe: “It reflects my youthful experiences here when I heard my first orchestral music. I nearly fell out of my chair I was so excited.” 

1. Sennets and Tuckets: A Shakespearean term for signals and fanfares.

2. Waltz: Strings alone; an homage to Tchaikovsky in general and the 5/4 waltz of the Pathétique Symphony—a favorite of conductor Serge Koussevitsky—in particular.

3. Mazurka: Oboes, bassoons, and harp; a plaintive tribute to the BSO concerts Bernstein attended in his growing-up years; quotes the first-movement oboe cadenza from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

4. Samba: See “Turkey-Trot.”

5. Turkey-Trot: In the light-hearted spirit of the Boston Pops and its venerable conductor, Arthur Fiedler.

6. Sphinxes: Two 12-tone rows, stated sequentially.

7. Blues: Recalls Bernstein’s Harvard-years visits to Boston nightclubs.

8. In Memoriam–March: “The BSO Forever”: The elegiac opening is a canon for three flutes—the composer’s favorite part of the Divertimento—meant to bring to mind Koussevitsky, Charles Munch, and other BSO luminaries. The finale is a nod to the “Radetzsky March,” a regular feature of Boston Pops concerts.

Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

 

Short Piece for Orchestra

Julia Perry
(Born 25 March 1924; Lexington, Kentucky; Died 29 April 1979; Akron, Ohio)

Composed: 1965

First performance: 7 May 1965; New York, New York

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, xylophone), harp, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 6 minutes

The Kentucky-born, Ohio-raised composer Julia Amanda Perry boasted an impressive musical pedigree: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Westminster Choir College, with further study at Juilliard and Tanglewood; two Guggenheim scholarships allowed her to study, in 1952 and 1954, with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. A prolific composer by any standards, across her relatively short life, she completed 12 symphonies, two concertos, three operas, and numerous smaller pieces. Her music was largely neoclassical, but also experimented with dissonance.

Perry’s Short Piece displays her complete mastery of orchestral writing. She creates an impressive palette of color and texture by highlighting first one instrument or section, then another, subsequently combining them in various ways. A flurry of activity opens the work, but the mood soon becomes calmer as angular melodies are tossed about the orchestra. The music grows in intensity and in the density of its contrapuntal texture, then subsides—only to return again to its busyness toward the very end. An emphatic fortissimo chord concludes the piece.

Recommended recording: William Steinberg, New York Philharmonic (CRI; live recording)

 

Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Samuel Barber
(Born 9 March 1910; West Chester, Pennsylvania; Died 23 January 1981; New York, New York)

Composed: 1947

First performance: 9 April 1948; Boston, Massachusetts

Last MSO performance: May 2016; Asher Fisch, conductor; Renée Fleming, soprano

Instrumentation: flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, triangle, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 16 minutes

Samuel Barber came across James Agee’s prose-poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” in 1947, while reading an anthology of experts from Partisan Review magazine. He was struck by its lyrical style and by how much Agee’s Tennessee childhood memories mirrored his own Pennsylvania upbringing. (Barber’s setting of Agee’s poem “Sure on This Shining Night” is arguably his best-known song.) His feelings were intensified by his father’s failing health and impending demise; this may be the reason he later dedicated Knoxville to Roy Barber.

Within a month of starting to sketch his musical portrait of the text—for soprano and orchestra—Barber received a commission from American soprano Eleanor Steber (1914-1990) to write a piece for her. He completed the work with Steber’s vocal colors and abilities in mind, and she gave its first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky. (Ten years later, Steber would create the title role in Barber’s first opera, Vanessa.)

Barber called Knoxville: Summer of 1915 a “lyric rhapsody,” and indeed it is. The composer transforms Agee’s prose poetry into a tone poem for voice and orchestra: the lilting rhythms, text painting, and emotionally expressive vocal writing are perfectly wed to the reflective nature of the words. The personal response of sopranos who sing it confirms this. Steber, who grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, declared, “That was exactly my childhood.” And Mississippi-born Leontyne Price, one of Barber’s greatest interpreters, said, “You can smell the South in it.” How fortunate we are to have Alabama native Susanna Phillips as our guest soloist.

Recommended recording: Leontyne Price; Thomas Schippers, New Philharmonia Orchestra (RCA Victor Gold Seal)

 

Symphony No. 3

Aaron Copland
(Born 14 November 1900; Brooklyn, New York; Died 2 December 1990; Tarrytown, New York)

Composed: 1944-46

First performance: 18 October 1946; Boston, Massachusetts

Last MSO performance: February 2012; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvil, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, claves, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, suspended cymbals, slapstick, tam tam, tenor drum, triangle, wood block, xylophone), 2 harps, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 43 minutes

Written between summer 1944 and summer 1946, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is the best-known American symphony of the 20th century; it has been performed and recorded more often than any other. Commissioned—and premiered—by Serge Koussevitsky, the composer attributed the singular character of his longest orchestral work to the revered maestro, explaining, “I knew exactly the kind of music he enjoyed conducting and the sentiments he brought to it, and I knew the sound of his orchestra [Boston Symphony Orchestra], so I had every reason to do my darnedest to write a symphony in the grand manner.”

For many listeners, Copland’s use of his popular Fanfare for the Common Man in the final movement is one of the work’s most fascinating characteristics. However, it is important to note that the composer did not choose this much-loved melody for lack of a better idea: It was his intention all along to employ a noble theme that would recall the Allied victory in World War II. The Fanfare was the perfect decision.

Copland’s “fantastic piece” (Bernstein) is set in four movements: dramatic opening movement; scherzo; slow movement; rousing finale. According to its composer, the work was “intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.” And in his analysis of the Third, William Austin speaks of “its rather New-Dealish spirit of hopeful resolution and neighborliness.”

The spacious Molto moderato is cast in a large three-part (ABA), arch-like form that concludes with a version of the music heard at the beginning. With its characteristic intervals of the 4th, 5th, and 2nd, Copland’s music evokes wide-open spaces. The movement’s contrasting middle section (B) is faster and dramatically brassy; it is constructed largely on a theme first sounded by the trombones.

The second movement (Allegro molto) contrasts the vigorous scherzo with a serene trio. In the latter, Copland makes use of his Western idiom (think Rodeo and Billy the Kid), in the same way a European composer might use a folk dance in a similar situation. The third movement’s symmetry can be described as ABCBA. The lyrically introspective A sections are contrasted by the sentimental, waltz-like B sections and the fanciful, dancelike middle section; C is the fastest section, with the B sections serving as transitional material.

The pleasant melodiousness of the Andantino leads directly into the finale. Flutes open the movement with a pianissimo anticipation of the Fanfare. Later, after the brass have fully proclaimed the Fanfare, Copland introduces a new motif, one that evokes both chirping birds and the rhumba. Still later, there’s a noble hymn-like theme that features, as Austin notes, conga-like rhythms. This “Great American Symphony” concludes with statements of the Third’s very opening theme and the hymn, accompanied by fragments of the Fanfare.

Though not programmed as often as, say, Appalachian Spring or Rodeo, the Third is now firmly established as a part of the American symphonic canon. “The Symphony has become an American monument,” declared Leonard Bernstein, “like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)