Program Notes for July 7th, 2009

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Concerto in Eb (“Dumbarton Oaks”) – (1938)

Igor Stravinsky
(b. Oranienbaum, Russia, 1882;
d. New York, 1971)
For much of his career, Stravinsky was associated with the movement of neo-classicism, a purposeful look backward in time to an 18th-century era that valued form, logic and balance as ideals. Stravinsky expressed his views not only in his music but also in his prose manifesto, The Poetics of Music, based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University not long after composing the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. In later years, and with perhaps something of a selective memory, Stravinsky poignantly reminisced about the origin of the Concerto: “My Concerto in Eb is subtitled Dumbarton Oaks in honor of the estate of that name in Washington, D.C., belonging to Robert Woods Bliss, who commissioned the music and who sponsored its first performance there in 1938.” [The commission came from Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.]

The composer continues: “The concerto was begun almost immediately upon my return to Europe after [the ballet] The Card Game; in the spring of 1937, I had moved from Paris for the summer to Annemasse in the Haute Savoie, to be near my daughter Mika who, mortally ill with tuberculosis, was confined to a sanatorium there. Annemasse is near Geneva, and Ernest Ansermet [famous conductor and champion of Stravinsky] was therefore a neighbor and also a close and helpful friend at this, perhaps the most difficult time of my life. I played Bach very regularly during the composition of the Concerto, and was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concerti. Whether or not the first theme of my movement is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know.” Or perhaps he did know, since a condition of the commission was to compose “a work of Brandenburg Concerto dimensions.” Stravinsky showed himself a true classicist, producing a work that betrays little of his dark personal straits as he composed this quintessentially balanced mosaic.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Detail of the unfinished portrait by Joseph Lange.

Piano Concerto #24 in C Minor, K. 491 (1786)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
By the time he composed his Concerto in C Minor, Mozart had solidly established himself in Vienna as a piano virtuoso and teacher, and he had produced a string of instrumental and operatic successes. He had cultivated the piano concerto as a major compositional genre, composing works in great quantity and elevating the genre higher that most previous composers had done. His Italian operas Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte would soon raise the art of onstage musical characterization and storytelling to new levels and provide possible additional clues to the understanding of his instrumental works.

The traditional numbering of Mozart’s piano concerti puts the Concerto in C Minor as the twenty-fourth of twenty-seven in the list. It is one of twelve piano concerti Mozart composed during a remarkable three-year period (1784-86). Since four of Mozart’s earliest concerti are really his mix-and-match arrangements of individual movements by several different composers, and since Mozart wrote an additional pair of (unnumbered) single-movement compositions for piano and orchestra, the question of numbering is not as simple as it might seem. Perhaps the safest label is from Köchel’s chronological catalog of Mozart’s work, where it appears as number 491.

In March 1786, Mozart composed two concerti, one in C Minor (K. 491) and the other in A Major (K. 488). When considered as companion pieces, they make perfect foils for each other, and together they display a catalog of moods that reads like a list of aria types in the operatic culture of Mozart’s day: rage, pathos, confidence, serenity, and tenderness. Mozart himself had once observed that a piano concerto movement reminded him of a scene from an opera. He had addressed that comment to his father, Leopold Mozart, a well-known composer in his own right as well as the author of an important book on technique and style in violin playing. Leopold, as his son’s primary musical tutor, and as the proud father who vicariously followed his son’s career trajectory, would have understood the analogy to be especially apt. When Mozart’s father weighed in with his professional opinion, however, he said that he found some of his son’s music “astonishingly difficult” from the standpoint of musical interpretation.

In Mozart’s piano concerto movements, as in his operatic scenes, laughter can turn quickly to tears in a music equivalent of the comédie larmoyante (“tearful comedy”), and Mozart’s music communicates the situation perfectly. If Figaro and Don Giovanni ever went looking for a place in which to make each other’s acquaintance, the Piano Concerto in C Minor would serve.


Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Symphony #9 in C Major, D. 944, “The Great” (1825-28)

Franz Schubert
(b. Vienna, 1797; d. Vienna, 1828)
Schubert faced a daunting reality: he lived in the same city as Beethoven. Even though the two composers moved in different cultural circles, Schubert was well aware of the older master’s shadow. Beethoven mixed with the aristocracy, accepting their patronage and giving lessons to their children; Schubert moved in a lower social circle and relied on friends to perform his works. While Beethoven presided over the performance of his Symphony #9 in 1824 (although his deafness presented awkward logistical and social problems when he insisted on conducting), neither Schubert nor anyone else got to hear his own Symphony #9, the “Great” Symphony in C Major. The younger composed outlived the older by only a few months.

Schubert began his final symphony in 1825, during a particularly happy summer holiday in Upper Austria. When he completed it and submitted the score for possible performance, he found that the symphony was judged unplayable because of its length and orchestral demands. The score passed to his older brother, Ferdinand, when the composer died. Robert Schumann, paying a New Year’s Day visit to Ferdinand in 1839, happened to see the score and became wildly enthusiastic about it. Because of Schumann’s advocacy, a rehearsal was arranged, and the premiere of the work took place within three months in Leipzig with Mendelssohn conducting. While the length of the symphony was seen as a deterrent to performance in Schubert’s lifetime, Schumann took a contrarian view. He spoke of the work’s “heavenly length” and admired its rhythmic vitality.

In the symphony Schubert explores at length his interest in musical colors—both the tone-color combinations of orchestral instruments and the harmonic colors of chords in fresh and often arresting combinations. At the outset a majestic statement by two horns in unison announces the general mood of the symphony, while the tempo markings of the first movement symbolize the general aura of Gemütlichkeit: Andante (“walking speed”) and Allegro ma non troppo (“cheerfully paced—but don’t overdo it!”). At the climax of the movement, near the end, comes one of the reasons why the symphony is so much admired. The harmony is so powerful, yet so simple, that one wonders, “Why didn’t anyone do that before?” In the Andante, a bittersweet flavor tempers the mood of the previous movement. Schubert’s interests in tone colors and harmonic colors combine in one famous passage, where the horns reiterate a single note several times and encounter a kaleidoscope of chords in answer from the orchestra. The Scherzo, with its lilting Viennese-dance trio, qualifies by itself for the “heavenly length” epithet. In the final Allegro vivace, rhythmic verve accumulates, leaving one breathlessly wondering what Schubert might have done next, had he lived to compose another symphony. Alas, he died at the age of 31.


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.