Program Notes: October 23 & 24

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Program Notes by Jack Bryce

TMO Board Member & Carleton College professor emeritus 

CSaint-SaensCAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (Paris, October 9, 1835 – Algiers, December16, 1921), French composer, pianist, organist, and writer, suffered the death of his father when he was only three months old; he was brought up by his mother, Clémence Collin, and his aunt, Mme Masson, who taught him to play the piano. He debuted in public at the age of ten, performing from memory Beethoven’s Concerto #3 in C minor, op. 37, and Mozart’s Concerto in Bb, K. 450, for which he wrote his own cadenza. He was a brilliant student of the French classics, Latin, Greek, mathematics, religion, philosophy, archaeology, and astronomy, subjects which he loved to write about throughout his life. At age 23, he sold the rights to his Six duos for harmonium and piano for 500 francs so he could buy a telescope. As a composer he was amazingly prolific, but time has not been kind to him; of his 350 or so works and collections of works, only 169 even have opus numbers. For example, he is famous for his opera Samson and Delilah; but he wrote twelve other operas that are never performed. (Wouldn’t it be an experience to hear his Henry VIII, with a libretto based on Calderón and Shakespeare? It was very well received in 1883.) He wrote eight symphonies, but only one, now called number 3, with the famous organ finale (1886), is ever performed. We will doubtless be hearing a lot of Danse Macabre (1874) as Hallowe’en approaches; and of course we all know the Carnival of the Animals (1886); but it’s ironic that in his lifetime he only allowed its Swan movement to be performed—he had thrown it all together in a few days on a visit to Austria, and was evidently ashamed of it. He travelled widely, visiting the U.S. in 1906 and 1915, concertizing and lecturing. He was a considerable scholar, editing the complete works of Rameau, and contributing to editions of Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, and Liszt. Hector Berlioz had the last word on Saint-Saëns: “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

The Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for flute, oboe, clarinet, and piano, op. 79, was composed in 1887, inspired by European folk songs but using the composer’s own melodies; Saint-Saëns was touring in Russia with some friends, and played it for Tsar Alexander III and his wife the Empress Marie. After a grand opening with piano fireworks, it proceeds in ten or so sections quite varied in character, including a fugue. It is a perfect example of Saint-Saëns’ writing: witty, passionate, learned, direct, and utterly delightful.

sergei-prokofiev-4SERGEI PROKOFIEV was born in Sontsovka in the Ukraine in April, 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. His family was comfortable; his father Sergei Alekseyevich Prokofiev was an agronomist who ran an agricultural estate, and his mother Marya Zitkova was well educated and artistic. Sergei’s two older siblings died as infants, so he grew up an only child; the center of his family’s attention, he was trained in science by his father, in the arts by his mother, and by governesses who taught him French and German. He was already a prolific composer as a boy, writing under the encouragement of Reinhold Glière (1875-1976), who taught him at home in the summers of 1902-3 and during the year coached him by mail. He began to attend the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13, studying with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. After graduating at the age of 18 with the modest grade of “good” (the professors did not like his compositions), he began to study the piano seriously, and also conducting; he won first prize in piano in 1914, playing his own First Piano Concerto. His well known work, the Classical Symphony, came in 1916-17. Revolution in Russia drove him to leave for the U.S. where he toured and concertized incessantly, and began his opera The Love for Three Oranges, premiered in Chicago in 1921. From 1922 to 1936 he went back to live in Europe, and wrote the 2nd Piano Concerto, received with pro- and anti-modern reactions in the press, and the Scythian Suite. The Library of Congress commissioned his first String Quartet, op. 50, in 1930. Meanwhile he had begun to renew his contacts with Russia, where he toured in 1927; in 1932 he was commissioned from Moscow to write the film music for Lieutenant Kije, and he moved back with his first wife Lina Prokofieva and two sons in 1936. Stalin was reaching the height of his atrocities, but Prokofiev, always hopelessly naive and politically aloof, managed to ignore increasing censorship in Russia, which climaxed with the tyrannical rule of Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief cultural ideologue. Zhdanov began to pursue Soviet composers relentlessly, attacking them for “formalistic distortions, anti-democratic tendencies, rejection of the principles of classical music, and the dissemination of atonality.” Meanwhile Prokofiev’s first wife was arrested and condemned to twenty years of hard labor. Prokofiev had remarried, to the writer Mira Mendel’son; but now he lived in terror, and began to suffer from nervous headaches and heart attacks. He made many attempts to restore the confidence of the authorities—generally appearing to us as cowardly and shameful—but to no avail. He died on March 5th, 1953, an event then unnoticed, for on that day died also his arch-nemesis Stalin.

Prokofievs’s Quintet op. 39 for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass is derived from his unpublished ballet Trapeze; he used material from it to write the Quintet in 1924, premiered in Moscow on March 6th, 1927. It is extremely “modern” sounding, uncompromisingly dissonant, and quirky, to say the least, in form. It demands a very high level of virtuosity from all the players, notably from the double-bass, normally exempt from such requirements. The theme of the first movement, Tema con Variazioni, is folksy, the first variation rather like a lullaby, and the second variation fast and whimsical. The second movement, Andante energico, reminds me of those famous Russian dancing bears. The third movement, Allegro sostenuto ma con brio, is dazzling in its rhythmic complexity. It is written with rollicking good humor and the rhythmic complexities needn’t bother us; but in case his players couldn’t cope, Prokofiev actually provided an alternative version with the same music redistributed into much shorter measures, something I’ve never seen elsewhere. The fourth movement, Adagio pesante, has a lovely, sad melody for oboe, then clarinet, then violin, with a drone accompaniment. The fifth, Allegro precipitato ma non troppo presto, is a jolly if sarcastic piece, ending with mock weeping by the strings, led by the double-bass on top!—and a ripping conclusion in the clarinet. The final movement, Andantino, alternates between a slow, sad minuet and a faster, mocking jig, which all falls apart at the end in a great rush by the double-bass and the viola. Amazing and intense music, well worth the effort of players and hearers!

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) ignored the old rules about how to write music and created a brave new world of sonic possibilities.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) ignored the old rules about how to write music and created a brave new world of sonic possibilities.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (St-Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862 – Paris, March 25, 1918) failed to become a sailor as his father Manuel-Achille had hoped; instead he is one of the most significant and beloved of composers. In the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war he had no schooling, but was admitted to the Paris Conservatory in 1872, to study piano, solfège, harmony, and accompanying. In the summers of 1880–1882 he was engaged to teach piano to the children of Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and in 1884 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata L’enfant prodigue; he had spent spent two years in Rome at the Villa Medici. Back in Paris, he played piano and composed, and falling under the influence of Richard Wagner made pilgrimages to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889. His first important work was the String Quartet, written in 1893 at the time when he discovered Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and first saw Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, which he began to set as an opera. In 1901 he began to write voluminous musical criticism, at first under the pseudonym ‘Monsieur Croche,’ or ‘Mr. Eighth Note.’ He also began to turn his back on Wagnerism, and instead promoted the baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), and the French national tradition. In 1909 he became a member of the advisory board of the Paris Conservatory, and in 1910 started work on The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian for the dancer Ida Rubinstein. He sadly came down with the cancer which, after one of the earliest colostomy operations in 1915, finally killed him in the midst of the bombardment of Paris in 1918.

His early work, the String Quartet in G minor, op. 10, was played first in Paris in 1893, an event unnoticed except by his few friends. Today, however, the quartet is immensely popular, striking us not merely as a mature work, but an incomparable masterpiece. The first movement, Animated and quite resolute, begins with striking chords sounding almost as if they were meant for a brass fanfare; subsequent themes explore the lyrical, the passionate, and the virtuosic sides of stringed instruments. The second movement, Rather fast and quite rhythmic, features pizzicato, alternating with very lyrical bowed passages. The third movement, Andantino: sweetly expressive, starts in 6/8 time with a gorgeous melody; a mid-section in 3/8 time is slightly more austere, but the ’cello grows more and more passionate; a passage with mutes leads back to the heartbreaking opening idea. The last movement opens Very moderate in tempo, but after a section Animated bit by bit, emerges as With great movement and passion. It gets faster and faster, and comes to a ripping conclusion after a terrific first violin upwards scale.

(These notes are composed, as always, with the immense help of Grove’s Dictionary of Music on line.)

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