21Program Notes By Ed Rutschman
Musica Celestis (1990)
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. Philadelphia, 1960)
That Aaron Jay Kernis possesses a vivid imagination is shown by titles of such works as Overture in Feet and Meters, The Fours Seasons of Futurist Cuisine, Too Hot Toccata, Mozart en Route: “A Little Traveling Music” and Musica Celestis. The latter work, Musica Celestis, is the subtitle of Kernis’ 1990 String Quartet. His later String Quartet #2, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, is subtitled Musica Instrumentalis. Both works were commissioned for the Lark Quartet, who gave the premiere performances, and both subtitles refer to categories in the sixth-century writer Boethius’ classification of music, where “musica celestis” is the ineffable music of the gods and “musica instrumentalis” the music performed by mankind.
The composer himself converted the second movement of his 1990 String Quartet into Musica Celestis, for string orchestra. In a program note attached to the score, Kernis quotes a third-century observation by Aurelian of Rome: “The office of singing pleases God…we imitate the choirs of angels who are said to sing the Lord’s praises without ceasing.” Kernis also describes how he has found an inspiring reinforcement of Aurelian’s image in the music of the twelfth-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen.
Kernis gives his listeners a roadmap: “Musica Celestis follows a simple, spacious melody and harmonic pattern through a number of variations… and is framed by an introduction and coda.” The variations become increasingly more animated, eventually erupting in joyous frenzy before returning to the serenity with which the piece began.
Kernis started to compose at the age of 13. Ten years later the New York Philharmonic premiered his Dream of the Morning Sky, the first of six of his compositions that the orchestra has performed. At the age of 25, he won the Rome Prize, and at 38, he became one of the youngest recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In 2002 the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, a $200,000 prize, came his way, and in 2009 the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere of his commissioned trumpet concerto (A Voice, a Messenger) and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of his orchestral Concerto With Echoes. Aaron Jay Kernis supports the work of young composers as a member of the faculty of the Yale School of Music and as the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute.
Cello Concerto #1 in C Major (ca. 1761-65)
Joseph Haydn (b. Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732; d., Vienna, 1809)
As leader of a small but first-rate musical establishment a day’s journey from Vienna, Haydn found that he was “forced to become original,” as he later put it. When he composed his Cello Concerto #1 in the early 1760s, he had just begun to write concertos and symphonies, works in which he would help to define the form and character of each genre.
Haydn composed his concerto for his good friend and colleague Joseph Franz Weigl, the cellist in the orchestra of Haydn’s employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. This was an important stage in the composer’s career. Haydn had earlier lived in Vienna for twenty years, first as a boy chorister in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral choir and then in an uncertain period of freelancing during which he started to make contacts that would serve him in later life. Now, in 1760, he began the position of Kapellmeister that he would hold as the musical servant of four successive Princes of Esterházy. Haydn’s contract stipulated that he must compose music on demand for the Prince, and that he could not publish or otherwise distribute his music, nor could he accept freelance offers without approval.
In the case of the Cello Concerto #1 this meant that the work was later known only from its mention in Haydn’s tabulation of his own compositions, the score having disappeared. When it resurfaced in 1961, the concerto was published for the first time, and it is now a regular part of the cellist’s repertoire.
The opening Moderato movement is chiseled from perky rhythms characteristic of the elegant court style of the 1760s. Haydn’s architectural form looks both backward, with its introductory statement of themes by the orchestra in a ritornello section, and forward, with its version of the newly-emerging “sonata form” that would drive so many of the composer’s compositions: statements of contrasting materials, the development of those materials, and a reconciliation of the conflicts involved. The second movement is particularly lyrical, perhaps a hint of Haydn’s emerging attraction toward the composition of dramatic music. The final movement overflows with the musical vocabulary of comic opera, with short statements and sudden contrasts as part of its “look-atme” virtuosity.
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, op. 33 (1876)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, 1893)
By the time Tchaikovsky composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme, he was an experienced orchestral composer, having completed three symphonies, two tone poems on Shakespearean subjects, his Piano Concerto #1 and, most recently, his tempestuous tone poem Francesca da Rimini. As he composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme, however, he encountered a watershed in his personal and artistic life, and he made a detour from the line of development that his music had taken up to that time.
He met Tolstoy, who was an ardent admirer of his music, and he began an important relationship- by-correspondence with his future patroness Nadezda von Meck, a wealthy widow, businesswoman and philanthropist who supported musicians and musical institutions. It has been argued that Tchaikovsky needed, at this very moment, a retreat to the elegant artistic world of a controlled, faux-Rococo style, in order to brace himself for a storm of personal and artistic crises that he saw looming on his horizon. He looked for musical ways to control the emotional sort of music he had recently unleashed in Francesca da Rimini, and he would increasingly experience the emotions of coming to terms with his own sexuality.
Tchaikovsky composed the variations on a theme of his own, stylistically inspired by the music of the mid-eighteenth century. The seven following variations are a series of self-contained miniatures that demand a considerable range of capabilities on the part of the solo cellist. The virtuosity of the fifth and seventh variations is notable, as is the lyricism of the third and sixth. There are several extended passages for unaccompanied cello, and the orchestral writing demonstrates the composer’s prowess as an orchestrator. It all adds up to a work that has been enduringly popular with cellists. Tchaikovsky conducted the work for the last time in January 1893, only a few months before his death.
Variaciones Concertantes for Orchestra, op. 23 (1953)
Alberto Ginastera (b. Buenos Aires, 1916; d. Geneva, 1983)
Ginastera began his musical education at the age of seven and entered the Williams Conservatory in Buenos Aires at twelve. Born into a family with Argentine, Catalan and Italian roots, he came by his later internationalism naturally. Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes embodies this important central element of the composer’s character and of his musical style: he spoke an international musical language in a South American dialect. During his formative years in Buenos Aires, Ginastera composed works on indigenous subjects and won numerous musical prizes. A parallel strain of Ginastera’s style was more international. After a Guggenheim Fellowship brought him to the U.S., Ginastera maintained important North American and European connections.
In the Variaciones Concertantes, he fused the national and the international into a personal compositional style, in a manner that he referred to as “subjective realism.” The work is also a veritable concerto for orchestra, as numerous players get their respective moments in the sunlight of the Pampas. Each of the twelve sections of the composition (two statements of the theme, eight variations and two interludes) includes instrumental names in its subtitle: “theme with cello and harp…interlude for strings…variation for trumpet and trombone.” Several subtitles have further qualifying words that define their character: scherzo, dramatic, canonic, rhythmic, perpetual motion, and pastoral. The Variation-Finale is a rousing dance.
Ginastera dedicated his Variaciones Concertantes to two people who were crucial to the initial success of the work: Mrs. Leonor Hirsch de Caraballo, who founded the Argentine Friends of Music Association that commissioned the composition, and Igor Markevitch, who conducted the first performance. In Variaciones Concertantes, Ginastera spoke with South American rhythms and colors, using an international Esperanto of musical forms. Perhaps symbolically, then, his manuscripts are housed in a neutral place, in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, rather than in his native land.
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.