Program Notes for July 14th, 2012

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Danse (piano version 1890, orchestrated by Ravel, 1923)
Claude Debussy (b. St Germain-en-Laye, 1862; d. Paris, 1918)

“Debussy published this early piano piece as Tarantelle Styrienne in 1890. a third of a century” “later, Ravel created an orchestral version of Debussy’s sprightly work and published it under the title Danse. When Debussy won the Prix di Rome in 1884, he left for an extended resi- dency at the villa medici in Rome, part of the condition of the prize. once in Rome, however, he spent his time composing works that the Rome Prize committee pronounced “bizarre,” and he made no secret of his distaste for things italian—the food, the opera and his compan- ions. he did make the acquaintance of Franz liszt, whose playing he greatly admired, and he was attracted to certain strands of italian folk music that found their way into his piano music after he returned to Paris. among these are the tarantella rhythms that permeate his Danse” “and color the atmosphere of his later piano prelude, The Hills of Anacapri.

In 1889, the year before he composed his Tarantelle Styrienne, the 26-year-old Debussy experienced a life-changing summer that caused him to change his direction as a composer. In fact, the Paris Universal Exposition provided new impetus for a whole generation of artists, intellectuals and inventors. In various exotic pavilions, a Javanese gamelan orchestra accompanied dancers and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show performed. Annie Oakley brought her gun. The Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra danced on the former site of the Bastille. Above it all, the newly built Eiffel Tower glistened. Soon Gauguin was inspired to set forth for the South Seas. Whistler, Munch, Van Gogh, Edison and Henry James were moved by the symbiosis of multi-cultural energies. Debussy began to use the byline musicien français. What he really meant by this was musicien non allemande, (“not German/Wagnerian”). His musical style evolved rapidly to make use of exotic musical scales and concepts of musical form he had encountered at the Exposition. His titles began to refer to the impression created by a particular moment, or to its memory, or even to an imagined moment. This “Musicien français” eventually made even the love scene in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande a momentary impression—as anti-Wagnerian as possible, so brief and so quiet that Mélisande’s voice seems to come “from the end of the world,” as Pelléas puts it. While Tarantelle Styrienne dates from the beginning of this transformation, one can detect hints of where the composer would eventually go.

The fourteen-year-old Ravel also attended the Universal Exposition, but his greatest inspiration there was hearing Russian orchestral music in the concerts conducted by Rimsky- Korsakov. Years later, when Ravel orchestrated Debussy’s Tarantelle, his world had changed considerably from the 1889 headiness of the Universal Exposition. Artistic movements inspired by the Exposition had already blossomed, Europe was in the aftermath of a devastating world war, and Debussy, the great revolutionary, was no longer living. But Ravel never lost his enthusiasm for Rimsky-Korsakov and his mastery of the art of orchestration. If Rimsky-Korsakov literally wrote the book on the subject of writing idiomatically for the orchestra, Ravel was a worthy student of the craft. Working like an orchestral painter, Ravel used Debussy’s piano music as line and supplied his own colors.


Cello Concerto in E Minor , Op. 85 (1919)
Edward Elgar (b. Broadheath, 1857; d. Worcester, 1934)

The first performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto took place in October 1919, with the composer conducting. The other conductor for the concert, Albert Coates, left Elgar with little time to rehearse the concerto, and public reception was unenthusiastic. Elgar was livid, and his wife, Lady Alice Elgar, went so far as to call Coates “that brutal selfish ill-mannered bounder” in her diary. Within a year Alice had died, and this reality, combined with the composer’s despondency over the aftermath of the “Great War,” led Elgar to describe himself: “disillusioned and old…[I] cannot believe I shall complete any new work.” The concerto is an elegy for a lost way of life and, perhaps metaphorically, also for Lady Alice. Elgar never did complete another major composition.

The son of a country piano tuner/organist, Elgar had no formal training as a composer, although he did take violin lessons from a local teacher. By the age of ten, he was skilled at piano improvisation and was already composing. When his father retired, Elgar replaced him in the organ loft, and by the age of 16, he had embarked on a freelance career. He composed prolifically in most of the genres available to him. His Cello Concerto and the Enigma Variations figure regularly in orchestral concerts, and his choral music and his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius are frequently performed.

Elgar could write quintessentially “English” melodies such as the majestic tune in “Pomp and Circumstance March #1.” Unlike his countryman Ralph Vaughan Williams, however, Elgar did not collect folksongs, nor did he quote them in his compositions. One of his gifts as a composer was his ability to paint musical portraits. In the Enigma Variations, the portraits are miniatures, and only nicknames and initials identify the subjects. (Elgar and his wife Alice are the bookends in the set.) In Falstaff, a multi-faceted, larger-than-life “symphonic sketch,” as the composer called it, Elgar, who was a knight himself, portrayed a fictitious Shakespearean knight. The Cello Concerto is the end point toward which these various facets of his style were leading.

Elgar put his musical portraiture to good use in the cello concerto, drawing concise pictures in each of the four movements. D.F. Tovey has pointed out that the difficulty in writing a cello concerto has to do with “throwing into relief a solo instrument which normally lies below the surface of harmony.” Other composers had struggled with the genre on the way to success. Indeed, Brahms received a rebuke from Clara Schumann when he asked her to critique his double concerto for violin and cello, and Dvořak had not thought it possible to write a convincing concerto for the instrument until he heard Victor Herbert do it. Writing for a BBC Radio 3 performance, Adrian Jack summarized Elgar’s concerto succinctly, “however strong the elegiac strain may be in the Concerto, it is, in the classic sense of the word, a comedy.” Elgar was quite satisfied with the work. He pronounced it “good and alive.”


Symphon y #39 in E-flat Major , KV 543 (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

Mozart composed his last three symphonies, listed as numbers 543, 550 and 551 in Köchel’s chronological catalog of Mozart’s works, in one glorious flourish in the summer of 1788. It was not really a happy time for the composer. He had just moved his family to new lodgings, in effect downsizing his expanding family’s accommodations, for the second time in less than a year. According to Mozart’s own account he finished the first of the three works, his Symphony #39, on June 26. The next day he sent a letter to his friend and fellow Mason, the textile merchant Michael Puchberg, stating that “my position is so serious that I am unavoidably obliged to raise money somehow…During the ten days since I came to live here I have done more work than in two months in my former quarters, and if black thoughts did not come to me so often, thoughts which I banish by a tremendous effort, things would be even better.” Two days later the Mozarts’ six-month-old daughter Theresia died. Then Mozart’s plans for a projected series of money-raising concerts faltered. In early August Mozart wrote to his sister Nannerl, “You have every reason to be vexed with me! But will you really be so, when you receive by this mail coach my very latest compositions for the clavier?” Evidently the secret of banishing black thoughts lay in applying tremendous effort to composing.

The Symphony in Eb Major shows no sign of the Mozarts’ troubles. It begins with a massive Adagio introduction that is longer than any of Haydn’s symphonic beginnings—indeed, the longest before Beethoven. The regal, public character of this musical announcement, with its crisp rhythms, recalls a musical style that functioned as a musical marker for nobility and that had long ago spread from the court of Louis XIV and his troop of Vingt-quatre Violons du roi (“24 strings of the King”) to other courts throughout Europe. When the Allegro portion of the movement arrives, the royals suddenly appear elegant, charming and personable. Throughout the movement the surface of the music is often deceptively simple, belying intricate melodic connections. This is Mozart at his most sophisticated, with something for everyone, and it is to be enjoyed on multiple levels. In the Andante slow movement the opening theme becomes ever more gracious with each reappearance, while stormy interruptions penetrate into remote keys before all is made well. Woodwinds get their chance to shine in the Trio of the Minuetto movement. In this symphony Mozart called for clarinets rather than oboes, in keeping with his newfound infatuation for the instrument. The final Allegro makes much of its elegant opening flourish, which provides material for later, strategically important moments in the formal design of the piece. In a dazzling display of wit, Mozart begins and ends the movement with the very same chain of seven notes, as if to riddle “my end is my beginning.”


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