Program Notes for July 9th, 2012

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5 (1931)
Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, 1910; d. New York, 1981)

Samuel Barber’s résumé reads like an American dream. Encouraged by his famous aunt, the Metropolitan Opera alto Louise Homer, and his successful uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, he composed an opera at the age of 10. In his early teens, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music, which “educates and trains exceptionally gifted young musicians for careers as performing artists on the highest professional level,” according to its current mission statement. There he studied piano, singing and conducting—the latter with Fritz Reiner and George Szell. He soon became a friend of the eponymous founder of the Institute, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who introduced him to his future publishers, the Schirmers. He met his life partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, who was a fellow composer, a skilled librettist and, eventually, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner—still a current record. Barber himself won the Pulitzer Prize twice, first in 1958 for his opera Vanessa and then in 1963 for his Piano Concerto. He was also a twotime winner of the Rome Prize, which sends American artists to a residency at the American Academy in Rome. Most of Barber’s compositions were recorded during his lifetime.

At the age of 21, while still a student at the Curtis Institute, Barber composed his first orchestra work, Overture to the School for Scandal, and he heard the Philadelphia Orchestra perform it two years later. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners titled The School for Scandal follows the scandal-mongering exploits of Lady Sneerwell. Sneerwell is finally defeated when her servant, Snape, turns on her as the result of a bribe. Barber intended his overture as a concert piece that conveys the spirit of the play, rather than as a prologue to a staged performance of the play. By turns effervescent, lyrical and pastoral, Barber’s overture captures the moods of the play, and it also gives the audience a winningly memorable tune to hum on the way home.


Concerto for Violin , Op. 14 (1939)
Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, 1910; d. New York, 1981)
Barber’s Violin Concerto, composed on a commission from the Philadelphia philanthropist Samuel Fels, provides a fascinating lesson in the relationship between a patron and an artist. After Fels commissioned the work in 1939 for his gifted young adopted son, Iso Briselli, Barber completed the first two movements of the concerto and sent them to the violinist. The music in these movements contains exquisite examples of the lyrical and expressive aspects of Barber’s style, his intimate knowledge of the possibilities of the orchestra, and his craft in constructing musical forms. When played with complete mastery, it can sound deceptively simple. Briselli pronounced the movements “too simple” and “not brilliant enough,” forgetting the adage about being careful what you ask for. In the final movement, Barber gave it to him: a brilliant, difficult perpetual-motion etude, in which the violin plays for more than one hundred measures without stopping—in the first round. The second round, taken at the same speed, introduces new technical difficulties. The third and final round concludes with a sudden increase in the rate at which the violin bow must fly. Briselli pronounced this movement unplayable, and Fels announced the cancellation of Barber’s commission. Mary Curtis Bok, Barber’s principal patron, saved the situation by producing Herbert Baumel, a Curtis student who learned the music on short notice and demonstrated its playability. Premiered in 1941 by the violinist Albert Spaulding and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting, the concerto is now in the standard repertory.


Tzigane , for Vio lin and Orchestra (1924)
Maurice Ravel (b. Ciboure, 1875; d. Paris, 1937)
Ravel titled his 1924 virtuoso showpiece Tzigane, invoking “the word widely used to describe gypsies and their music,” as the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians puts it. A Hungarian jazz guitarist and violinist even took the term as one-word stage name, in the days before Midori, Sting and Madonna. Ravel gave his composition the subtitle “Rapsodie de Concert.” In its original form Tzigane was for violin and piano. The composer then arranged the work for violin and luthéal, a newly patented (1919) modified piano, in order to increase the range of available tone colors. The accompaniment could now approximate the sound of the Hungarian cimbalom, a hammer-struck zither commonly used in folk music. That form had much potential but limited practicality, since it is not at all clear that more than one of the instruments was ever made, until a 1985 replica was built in commemoration of the Ravel centennial. Since Ravel frequently turned his own piano music into orchestral compositions, and he orchestrated music of other composers as well, he clearly could not have resisted orchestrating this composition. Tzigane belongs to a venerable tradition of brilliant Hungarian-style pieces written by composers who never spoke Hungarian. These include Brahms, Sarasate, and even the Hungarian-born Liszt. Ravel treats the solo violin part idiomatically, with long melodies on the tone color of a single string, pizzicato played by either hand, multiple notes played at once, and flute-like harmonics. The soloist begins with an ornate unaccompanied passage marked quasi cadenza. The following moderato section features an angular melody and a characteristic short-long “Hungarian” rhythm, which reflects the first-syllable-accent principle of spoken Hungarian. A paprika-spiced Allegro section concludes Tzigane.


Slavonic Dances from Opus 46 & 72 (1878 & 1886)
Antonín Dvořák (b. Nelahozeves, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)
In the year 1874, when Dvořák first applied for the Austrian State Music Prize in order to support himself while composing, 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 prize, Johannes Brahms. Brahms put him in contact with his own publisher, Simrock, and a set of eight Slavonic Dances scored for two pianists at one piano soon emerged as Dvořák’s Opus 46. Here the composer followed the lead of Brahms, whose own Hungarian Dances for piano, four hands, had opened up an enormous market for Simrock. Like Brahms, Dvořák orchestrated his own dances.

By the year 1886, Dvořák had become a nationally known figure with 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 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. In the Slavonic Dances, he composed solo, couple and group dances of several ethnicities—the Bohemian odzemek, polka, furiant and dumka; the Polish mazurka and polonaise; and the Serbo-Croatian kolo. Many of the dances carry social codes as well, as with the mazurka, a regional country-dance.


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.