Program Notes for July 11th, 2010

21Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Mikhail Glinka

Mikhail Glinka

Variations on a Theme by Mozart (1822)
Mikhail Glinka (b. Novospasskoye, 1804; d. Berlin, 1857)

Glinka is remembered as a prime mover in the drive to create a specifically Russian musical point of view–a distinctive national idiom that would eventually separate itself from the central European mainstream. His operas on Russian subject matter and orchestral music on themes from folk music provided models for a later generation of composers to develop. Although Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov eventually went far beyond Glinka in their search for ways to convey a sense of “Russian-ness,” they grounded their viewpoint in his work.

It is also notable that Glinka’s own music often retains a strong sense of his musical roots in the mainstream European traditions. He particularly valued the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He also absorbed the forms and styles of French opera, made the personal acquaintance of the Italian opera composers Bellini and Donizetti, and learned the Chopin-like piano Nocturne style from the Irish composer-pianist John Field (who died in Moscow and whose son performed tenor roles in the premieres of two of Glinka’s operas). It should not come as a surprise, then, that the sound world of the Variations on a Theme by Mozart owes a strong debt to the central European tradition; it could even be argued that it does not sound particularly “Russian.”

The theme’s resemblance to some of the music of the bird-catcher Papageno in The Magic Flute is strong but by no means exact. If this, perhaps, means that Glinka altered a Mozartian tune in his remembrance, then the Variations on a Theme by Mozart is a doubly remembered composition. Glinka composed the work in 1822, but the manuscript was lost. The composer’s sister, Lyudmila Shestakova, who had played the piece, later wrote it out as she remembered it. The Variations, which are playable on both the harp and the piano, consist of a theme with three variations and a coda. Each variation has its own musical personality, and there are international echoes throughout: of Beethoven and Field, perhaps of Bellini and Donizetti–and, of course, of Mozart.

Aria for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp (2010)
Michael Cohen (b. New York City, 1938)

In March 2010, the Cleveland-based Panorámicos ensemble premiered Michael Cohen’s Aria for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp. Cohen is a widely performed New York composer who attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art and studied composition with Harold Shapiro and Irving Fine at Brandeis University. His song cycle, I Remember, based on Anne Frank’s inner thoughts as confided to her diary, has been recorded several times and performed more than four dozen times. The “reception history” of that work is well on its way.

This afternoon’s performance of Aria for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp will give Bellingham a chance to help create the reception history of this still-new work at a fascinating stage. At the first performance of a brand new work, there is as yet no public track record to indicate how the piece should be interpreted; sometimes, though, the composer has had an opportunity to coach the performers. As the work acquires new venues and new groups of performers, precedents become established—if, for instance, a recording of the work becomes available, or a player from one performance coaches members of another group. By this stage, the composer’s role might be more like that of a painter who completes a canvas and then relinquishes ownership. An exhortation to today’s audience: listen well, and help send the Aria for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp on the next leg of its reception history.

Maurice Ravel, 1912

Maurice Ravel, 1912

Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet (1905)
Maurice Ravel (Ciboure, 1875; d. Paris, 1937)

When Gustave Lyon and his firm of Pleyel, Wolff et Cie publicized their manufacture of a new “chromatic harp” by extending a commission to Debussy, the rival company of Erard fought back by offering a commission to Ravel. Both companies were longtime makers of harps and pianos, and both sought a harp-making technology that would reflect composers’ current innovations in the area of musical pitch. The goal was to allow players to perform in a free choice of keys, to change easily from any given key to any other key and to mix-and-match pitches from various keys. The Pleyel model solved these problems by using a separate string for each pitch, as the piano does. Debussy’s commissioned work, his two-movement Danse sacrée et Danse profane (1904), made full use of this arrangement.

The Erard company did not adopt this technology and instead promoted the double-action pedal harp. Rather than allotting a separate string to each pitch, this instrument uses fewer strings, each of which can be manipulated by a pedal to sound one of three pitches. Depending on the adjustment of the pedal, the note “G” can be G-natural, G-flat or G-sharp. A single pedal controls all of the G’s on the instrument, another all of the F’s, etc. The harp player cultivates a pedal-technique in order to negotiate complicated musical passages. This instrument offers a wider range of glissando possibilities than the chromatic harp.

Ravel composed his Introduction and Allegro in 1905, at a time when the Erard company’s need coincided neatly with Ravel’s career goals. He was chafing under the critical view that he was in the shadow of Debussy; he made it a point of honor to call attention to instances where he could claim to have introduced certain musical innovations before Debussy. The chance to compose a piece for harp and strings and to go head-to-head with Debussy was a welcome one. Ravel called for flute and clarinet as well as harp and strings, allowing a potentially wider palette of colors than Debussy’s choice of harp and strings. A languid introduction leads to a seductive dance, and the composition as a whole functions like a great painting–tightly constructed and full of color. The Pleyel chromatic harp fell into disuse because of physical and technical difficulties, and the repertoire was taken over by the double-action pedal harp. The legacy of the Erard-Pleyel rivalry is a pair of masterpieces by Ravel and Debussy. The real winner of the contest is the musical public.

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák

String Quintet #2 in G major, Op. 77 for String Quartet and Double Bass (1875, rev. 1888)
Antonín Dvořák (b. Nelahozeves, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)

Dvořák’s extensive catalog of chamber music for strings includes fourteen string quartets, three string quintets, a string sextet and numerous works for piano and strings. Since the norm for string chamber music is the quartet, there is always a question concerning which instrument(s) to add to the two violins, viola and cello in order to make a quintet or larger ensemble. Accordingly, the quintet is often named after the added instrument: viola quintet (if there is a second viola), cello quintet and piano quintet are common designations. There are horn quintets and clarinet quintets. (Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet is, however, quite another matter.) Dvořák, by using the string bass in his Quintet in G Major, calls forth a wide range of tone colors. Sometimes he uses the bass to reinforce the cello’s bass line, while in other spots the string bass is a true fifth voice. There are also special sonorities, such as the sound of the three lower instruments playing as a trio.

Dvořák published the Quintet in G Major twice, once in 1875, calling it Op. 18, and again in 1888, when he brought out a revised version as his Op. 77. In the year 1875, he was certainly not an inexperienced composer, but his reputation was still a regional one. His prospects soon began to change when he caught the attention of one of the jurists for the cash prize of the Austrian State Stipendium, Johannes Brahms. Publishing contracts emerged, and he became a nationally known figure. By the year 1888, Dvořák had a solid international following, and the relationship between the national and the international had become an artistic issue for the composer. He struggled with the question of how to feature Czech musical elements within musical forms that were essentially part of a central European tradition. Heated arguments with publishers centered on whether titles of compositions should be given in Czech or German. This was part of a much larger struggle over the role of individual ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It can be argued that Dvořák managed to have it both ways. Thematic materials at the beginning of the first two movements have a family resemblance; while both passages speak an international musical language, the second-movement Scherzo speaks it with a Czech accent.

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.