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BYSO'S 61ST SEASON OPENING CONCERT IS THIS SUNDAY
Ludwig van Beethoven
Manuel de Falla
Learn more about the history, motivations and influences of some of the great pieces to be performed by BYSO students this Sunday, October 14 at Symphony Hall as part of BYSO’s 61st Season Opening Concert! Read on, and you may just listen to the performance in a whole new way!
Symphony No. 9, Opus 70
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He completed his Ninth Symphony on August 30, 1945, at a Composers’ Rest Home near Ivanovo. Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere on November 3 that year. The orchestra consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, military drum, tambourine, and strings. Duration is about 27 minutes.
Few composers were so affected by external political events in the course of their life’s work as Dmitri Shostakovich. After producing his first symphony at the age of nineteen, Shostakovich was widely recognized as the most brilliant talent to appear in Soviet Russia. But his career was repeatedly sidetracked by the particular demands of the Soviet state for music that was accessible to the masses, avoided “decadent” western trends, and—wherever possible— glorified Russia and the Soviet political system. Stalin himself, though no musician, tried to assure that major musical works were composed to “suitable” texts, emphasized positive emotions, and bore congratulatory dedications to Stalin himself or his principal cohorts. Already in the mid1930s Shostakovich went through a difficult, even dangerous, time when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was viciously attacked in Pravda as “more noise than music,” and he withdrew the premiere of his challenging and elaborate Fourth Symphony (which was not heard for decades) for fear that it would only get him into still greater trouble. The Fifth Symphony restored Shostakovich to a position of prestige in the Soviet musical firmament, and during World War II his Seventh and Eighth symphonies were regarded as important contributions to the nation’s morale.
By 1945, with the war clearly won, many expected that his Ninth Symphony would offer some kind of grand peroration to the struggle and the recent victory. He did in fact begin a large-scale work involving chorus and solo singers, but he dropped the plan, explaining that he feared “drawing immodest analogies” with Beethoven’s Ninth. But there was probably a more important reason, too: Shostakovich had long since learned that his symphonies, being large public statements were frequently analyzed by party hacks for their “meaning”—signs of adherence to Soviet views or of slipping into westernisms. By writing a work in a consciously lighter style than the grand rhetoric that was expected of him, Shostakovich might avoid some of the more unpleasant results of politicized musical analysis.
Whether all of that was in his mind or not, the new symphony puzzled many listeners. It is perhaps the composer’s nearest approach to the classical symphony, though it has five movements rather than the usual four (the last three are played without pause, and the fourth movement is essentially an introduction to the finale). The first movement employs a straightforward sonata form; its second subject employs the kind of play with solo instruments—trombone and piccolo—that may even recall the Nielsen Flute Concerto; perhaps it is a parody of military music. There are certainly vaudeville-like fanfares that suggest a kind of “Bring on the clowns!” attitude, and it is not impossible that Shostakovich, rather than glorifying Stalin and his regime, was quietly making fun of them in a manner the could not be pinpointed and so was therefore a slightly safer mode of political criticism for him. The slow movement is an elegy combining remarkable economy and breadth. The Scherzo is energetic and filled with Shostakovian gaiety, a humor tinged with an undertone of tension. For all its brevity, the fourth movement, essentially a recitative for bassoon, is deeply moving in its somber, epic tone, so that the last movement arrives with the shock of a sudden cold shower, the solo bassoon suddenly turning its poignancy to burlesque for the finale. The orchestra builds its air of witty sarcasm to the end.
Sinfonia da Requiem, Opus 20
Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on November 22, 1913, and died in Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976. He composed the Sinfonia da Requiem while living in the United States in 1940. The first performance took place in Carnegie Hall with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic on March 30, 1941. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, saxophone in E-flat, six horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, two harps, xylophone, snare drum, tambourine, whip, piano, and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.
The Sinfonia da Requiem is the most significant early orchestral work by the twenty- seven-year-old Benjamin Britten. Moreover its performances under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in Symphony Hall in January 1942 had far-reaching consequences for the young composer. After performing this vivid and gripping work, Koussevitzky asked Britten why a composer with such a clear theatrical flair had not written an opera. Britten had, in fact, recently come across a poem that strongly appealed to him as the potential basis for an opera, but—ever practical—he asked, “Who would perform it?” Koussevitzky replied, “You write. I perform.” This conversation was eventually formalized into a commission for an opera which became Peter Grimes, generally recognized as the beginning of a rich modern tradition of British opera and, of course, one of the most important turning-points in the life of its composer, because Britten went on to become the most prolific and widely-performed composer of opera in English in the 20th century. The composer’s ability to conceive bold theatrical strokes and to project them musically, one of the great strengths of Peter Grimes, is already apparent in the Sinfonia da Requiem. Even though it lacks a text or a specific dramatic impetus, the work cannot help but evoke the time in which it was written and the composer’s personal situation at that time. The layout in multiple movements and the seriousness of its construction might have suggested the simple term “symphony” for the work. The more specific title Sinfonia da Requiem, which might be translated “symphony after the manner of a requiem,” turns the listener’s thoughts to ultimate issues. The composer said at the time of the premiere that mood and scheme derived “from the Catholic Requiem Mass, though the relation of the Sinfonia to the Catholic ceremony, avowedly, is emotional rather than liturgical.”
The first impulse in writing a large and serious score—and no doubt the one that suggested the word “requiem” for its title—had been the death of the composer’s mother early in 1937 (his father had died several years earlier). But the political situation worldwide no doubt played a part as well. The situation intensified with the Munich crisis of September 1938 and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in the hope of finding “peace in our time.” By the following spring Hitler had annexed Czechoslovakia, and on September 1, with the surprise Nazi attack on Poland, a new world war began in earnest. Early in 1939 two of Britten’s close friends, poet W.H. Auden and writer Christopher Isherwood, had emigrated to the United States. He was tempted to follow, largely out of his determined pacifism (and the hope that the United States would remain out of a European war), and partly because of his realization that his music was better appreciated abroad than at home. The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge had been a sensational success at a contemporary music festival in Salzburg, but the leading English critics condescended to call it merely “clever,” full of “strikingly original effects” but “lacking in originality.”
In May 1939, Britten and his lifelong companion and musical partner Peter Pears left England for Canada and later New York. After hearing the first New York performance of the Bridge Variations in a New York Philharmonic concert, they were invited for a weekend visit to the Long Island home of a psychiatrist, Dr. William Mayer, and his wife Elizabeth, a firm devotee of the arts who became a kind of second mother to the young composer. The Mayers’ home became both regular residence and refuge, as well as a sick ward, because Britten was often seriously ill during this time, and Elizabeth nursed him devotedly back to health, during his entire three-year stay in the country.
The actual starting point of his Sinfonia da Requiem came when the British Council asked him if he would write a substantial piece for some celebration dealing with “the reigning dynasty of a foreign power”—not identified at first. Britten agreed, with the stipulation that “no form of musical jingoism” was necessary. The foreign power turned out to be Japan, then planning a celebration for the 2600th anniversary of the emperor’s dynasty. Britten submitted the outline of the three-movement symphony with its movement headings (Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam) for approval from the Japanese. Having received that, he composed the work and sent the score to Tokyo. Only then did the planners of the celebration decide—in an outraged protest—that the Christian theme of the work was an insult to the Emperor. Once the Japanese had refused the work, Britten was at liberty to offer it anywhere else, and both the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony performed it within a period of nine months. Once Britten began to make a name for himself as an opera composer, much of his earlier instrumental music was rather cast into a shadow for a time, with relatively few performances. But in recent years the Sinfonia da Requiem in particular has emerged as one of the composer’s most powerful and affecting scores. It was, after all, composed in the middle of a war that was gradually to become truly another world war (the United States entered the conflict during the period between the New York and Boston performances).
The Sinfonia da Requiem is one of those pieces that feels big, even though it is remarkably taut and compact, the three movements together lasting only about twenty minutes. The opening movement, entitled Lacrymosa (“full of tears”) is filled almost single-mindedly with the mood of lamentation at the dominance of Death (the thundering blows on the pitch D became symbolic for Britten of Death’s powe —it is a musical reference that he employed in several scores of this period). The movement builds, in a long arch constructed almost entirely from the syncopated sighing figures heard at the outset against a dark marching pulse in the bass. Over a tonic D, we can expect to hear either the major key’s F sharp or the minor key’s F- natural, which could be symbolic of peace and war respectively. The struggle between these two realms is played out in a first movement of great harmonic tension.
Dies irae (“day of wrath”) describes the Last Judgment in a Requiem Mass; here it symbolizes the full outbreak of war, described by the composer in his first program note as “a form of Dance of Death, with occasional moments of quiet marching rhythm.” It is a frenzied movement, filled with arresting orchestral color, given an impression of disjointed fragments, though these are in fact arranged in what is essentially a da capo form. Britten’s emphasis on the tritone sonority as a baleful sound symbolizing war foreshadows its similar use two decades later in the War Requiem. When the scherzo returns after the saxophone’s eerily lyrical treatment of the Lacrymosa theme, the entire movement disintegrates into fragments and nothingness. Out of the collapse—and, indeed, running directly on from it—comes the ultimate consolation of the final movement, headed Requiem aeternam (“eternal rest”). With a turn toward D major and spacious open sonorities, Britten gives the flutes a gentle song that has grown out of a passage heard in a quite different way in the second movement; the strings have their part to play in the middle of the movement, and the ending becomes more luminous as it progresses. The symphony closes in peace—though in 1940, it was peace hoped-for, not peace achieved.
It is easy to hear hints of the composers Britten especially admired—Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky—at different points in this score. But it has become increasingly clear, as our familiarity with Britten’s work as a whole increases, that the Sinfonia da Requiem is one of the major expressive high points of his career.
Symphony No. 7 In A Major, Op. 92 (1813)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn-on-Rhine, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria
Beethoven composed the Seventh Symphony in 1811-12 and conducted the first performance in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a benefit concert for wounded Austrian soldiers. The concert organized by his friends enjoyed a most brilliant success. The new compositions by Beethoven were exceptionally well received, particularly the Symphony in A major (the Seventh); the wonderful second movement had to be repeated; it made deep and lasting impression on me. The execution was quite masterly despite Beethoven's uncertain and sometimes ludicrous conducting. It was obvious that the poor deaf master was no longer able to hear the soft passages in his music. This was particularly evident in a passage in the second part of the first movement where two fermatas follow one another, the second one being very soft. Beethoven overlooked the second one, and started beating time before the orchestra began to play the second fermata. Without knowing it, he was ten or twelve bars ahead of the orchestra. Since the passage was pianissimo, Beethoven indicated this in his own way, by crouching down under the music stand. When he thought the crescendo should begin, he became visible once more, made himself taller, and then, at the moment when, according to his calculation, the forte should have begun, he leapt up high in the air. When nothing happened, he stared in astonishment at the orchestra, which was still in the middle of the pianissimo, and found his place only when the long-awaited forte began and the music became audible to him." —Louis Spohr, from his Autobiography
The Seventh Symphony was written during a time when Beethoven suffered more and more frequent bouts of spiritual and physical anguish. His growing deafness had begun to burden his life more profoundly day by day. A love affair had recently been broken off, and the political situation in Vienna was threatening and uncertain. This symphony, which Richard Wagner later called "The Apotheosis of the Dance"; seems to embody an urge on Beethoven's part to burst free of the constraints and frustrations that life was piling up on him as he entered middle age, to escape into a world of pure, unbridled rhythm. So is this Beethoven's Mid-life Crisis Symphony? It would be more appropriate to label it his Scotch Symphony, since he was in the process of transcribing several Scotch and Irish folk songs for the publishers Breitkopf and Härtel. The bracing rhythms of the Jig, Reel and Strathspey seem to have crept into the fabric of the music—in fact, in the Trio of the Scherzo movement one can almost hear the drone and chanter of bagpipes wailing on the moors. The symphony begins with a truly magnificent introduction, framing the piercing, reedy voice of the oboe with mighty chords that create a feeling that great doings are afoot. The sense of expectation is heightened by an intense crescendo that introduces a more lyrical theme, then another crescendo that ends in a sudden pause. Some tentative, repeated notes answer back and forth in the strings and winds, and suddenly we are in the Vivace, which is as fine and nimble an old-fashioned Irish jig as you'd ever want to dance to. The quaint principal theme that the flute presents resembles an ancient Irish tune, The Low-Backed Car, and Beethoven molds it into such an astonishing variety of different forms and variations that we're never really aware that this is the only theme of the entire first movement. I have always loved the movement's coda, which revels in sheer, pounding, intoxicating rhythm, with the horns bawling away at the top of their lungs like a pair of tipsy Irish tenors swaggering home from the pub.
The second movement was a phenomenal hit with the Viennese audience, who demanded an
immediate encore at the premiere performance. The solemn, chanting rhythm of the opening theme
and the melancholy beauty of the counter-melody that the violas and cellos sing against it were utterly
original and entrancing. This went on to be probably the most-quoted of all the movements in
Beethoven's symphonies, and it still casts a spell. The scherzo movement is devilishly difficult to play;
it flies like the wind, with sudden contrasts between loud and soft, and it needs all the agility, rhythmic
verve and lightness of touch the orchestra can summon up. The trio quotes the melody of an old
Austrian Pilgrimage Hymn and, as mentioned, makes extensive use of bagpipe-drone effects.
The last movement is the reel to end all reels. After two brusque opening chords get everyone's
attention, the violins launch into a whirling dervish of a reel tune that is impossible to listen to without
some part of your body starting to move with the rhythm. The swirling, driving power of the theme is
increased by the accompaniment, which accents the second quarter-note of each measure to create
what is essentially a rock-and-roll back-beat with added thrust from the woodwinds. Beethoven then
kicks in the afterburners when the horns and woodwinds peal out the second theme while the strings
and the timpani pound out chords on the beat. We're not in Mozart territory here: no one's IQ is going
to be raised by this music. In fact, if you think at all, you are defeating the purpose of the piece, which
is to reduce the conductor, the orchestra and the audience to a primal, stamping, hooting, howling
bunch of Bacchantes. Like any great dance-band leader, Beethoven saves his best trick for last:
everyone in the orchestra seems to be winded and ready to call it a night; the cellos and basses go
sliding down into the orchestral basement while fragments of the whirling main theme are panted
back and forth by the violins and violas (who really are exhausted by now.) The cellos and basses
keep grumbling down in the depths while the rest of the orchestra pulls itself together for one last run
through the second theme. This grinding bass-line now generates a powerful tension that builds until
the whole orchestra is in an all-out frenzy. What Beethoven is doing is delaying the cadence. The
Cellos and Basses keep playing E, the root of the dominant chord, and everyone in the hall wants it to
resolve to A, the tonic home-chord of the movement and the symphony. But Beethoven doesn't let it
resolve—it keeps grinding on E, E, E, E, and the rest of the orchestra goes ballistic. This is one of the
few places Beethoven ever wrote a triple-forte dynamic, and it means cut loose! The tension of the
delayed resolution builds to a point where something has to explode, and finally, in the sixteenth bar
from the end, the stubborn Basses resolve to A, and the feeling of joyful release and arrival is
The Three-Cornered Hat (Complete Ballet)
Manuel de Falla
Born November 23, 1877 in Cadiz, Spain
Died November 14, 1946 in Alta Gracia, Argentina
The Three-Cornered Hat began its life as a two-act pantomime entitled The Corregidor and the Miller's Wife, composed in 1916-17. Falla expanded the work into its present form, a two-act ballet, in 1918-19. This version was premiered by the Ballets Russes, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, on July 22, 1919 in London. After its premiere at the Alhambra Theatre in London, one critic commented that, in his music or The Three-Cornered Hat, Manuel de Falla has treated the orchestra like a gigantic guitar; Many non Spanish composers have fallen in love with the rhythm, color and passion of Spanish music. Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier, Copland, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, even Gershwin (to name a few) have all tried their hand at writing "Spanish" pieces. None of them so authentically conveys the full-blooded essence of life on the Iberian Peninsula as does Falla. He does for his native music what Smetana and Dvorák did for Czech music, what Kodály and Bartók did for the music of Hungary, and what Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov did for Russian music: he integrates it into the European symphonic tradition without sacrificing the essence of its folk-idiom, thereby enriching both traditions. Falla, like many Spanish composers, learned much of his craft in Paris where he spent seven years, making the acquaintance of composers such as Dukas, Ravel and Debussy. He returned to Spain in 1914 with a mastery of orchestration and harmonic techniques strongly influenced by his exposure to French music. There he completed a piece for piano and orchestra he had begun in Paris, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, in 1915. The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev was impressed by it and wanted to use it for his dance company, the Ballets Russes, but Falla refused permission for this, saying that he wanted to write a new score based on the famous novel by Spanish author Pedro de Alcarcón, The Corregidor and the Mille'rs Wife. The First World War delayed the realization of the project, but Falla continued working on the piece, and it was produced in 1917 in Madrid as a pantomime with music. Diaghilev, who traveled to Madrid to see the work, was enthusiastic. He suggested certain modifications (including the introduction into the score of a melody he'd heard a Spanish fiddler play on the streets of Madrid) and, by the time Falla finished the full-scale ballet, the war was over and Ballets Russes was again in operation. Diaghilev assembled some of the top talents of the day for the premiere in London. The choreographer was Leonid Massine, Pablo Picasso designed the sets and costumes, the dancers were international stars, and the conductor was Ernest Ansermet. Picasso finished painting the drop curtain that would lift to reveal the opening scene of the ballet during the dress rehearsals. Diaghilev was so entranced by this curtain that he begged Falla to compose an orchestral introduction that could be played while the audience admired Picasso's creation. The composer, burning the midnight oil, completed this task in 24 hours, creating a dramatic and striking prelude for trumpets, drums, soprano and castagnettes. The ballet was an overwhelming success, and Falla's music has become a well-loved part of the symphonic repertoire.
The story is set outside a mill surrounded by vines covered with grapes. The Miller and his beautiful wife are working happily watering the garden and picking grapes when a procession approaches. It is the village police commissioner, the Corregidor (whose badge of office is a three-cornered hat) with his retinue. The Corregidor's roving eye lights upon the Miller's wife. He is taken with her beauty, but she scorns his advances and mocks him by dancing a seductive fandango, while dangling some grapes in his face. He chases her around until he falls down, at which point the Miller (who has been delightedly watching all this) appears and elaborately helps the Corregidor up, dusting off his clothes and handing him his tricorn hat. The Corregidor plots his revenge; that evening, while the Miller and his wife are celebrating St. John's Night by dancing a seguidillas with their neighbors, Constables interrupt the dancing to place the Miller under arrest on a trumped-up charge. Later, when the cuckoo clock (in the clarinet) strikes nine, the Corregidor appears; with the Miller out of the way, he is ready to console the Miller's lonely wife. He attempts to seduce her, but she eludes him again, and in the heat of the chase, he falls into the mill stream. She runs away laughing and the chagrined Corregidor takes off his wet clothes and hangs them on a chair to dry. Now the Miller, who has escaped from jail, reappears and, seeing the Corregidor's clothes in his house, jumps to the worst possible conclusion. He angrily puts them on, leaving a note that he is on his way to seduce the Corregidor's wife in retaliation. The Corregidor finds the note and, donning the Miller's clothes, rushes frantically after him. The final scene is a madcap riot of confusion. Constables rush in, in hot pursuit of the escaped Miller just as the Corregidor is coming out of the mill in the Miller's clothes. They tackle the Corregidor. The Miller's wife returns, thinks they are dragging her husband away, and goes on the attack. The neighbors come in to finish their St. John's Night party by dancing a jota, and finally the Miller reappears, pursued by still more police. When he sees his wife defending the Corregidor, he becomes furiously jealous and attacks the Corregidor. During the final confused melee, the true identities of the two men are revealed and the Miller and his wife are reconciled. The Corregidor is made a laughingstock by the crowd and, in true Spanish tradition, is mocked by being tossed in the air on a blanket.
Program notes courtesy of Matthew Naughton and Steven Ledbetter.