Divertimento for Strings (1939)
Béla Bártok (b. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, 1881; d. New York, 1945)
Divertimento, from the Italian divertire, “to amuse,” was traditionally a light-hearted musical genre. In his Divertimento for Strings, Bartók updated the genre with injections from two of his primary interests, ethnic music and early-twentieth-century modernism. Throughout his life he collected and studied ethnic music, literally going to great lengths to discover examples of folk music, which he then recorded and classified. He made extended collecting trips and brought back Hungarian, Slovak, Serbian, Bulgarian and Turkish songs. In his own compositions he transformed various styles of folk music, having distinguished three separate styles in Hungarian music alone. He was also profoundly influenced by the international modernism of such contemporaries as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, with their revolutionary treatments of the basic musical elements of pitch and rhythm. In many of Bartók’s works, his interests in modernism and ethnicity are set on a collision course.
By the late 1930s, when he composed his Divertimento for Strings, Bartók had developed a growing interest in a neoclassical return to earlier music forms, which he used to temper his personal musical style. The three movements of the Divertimento model various traditional aspects of the symphony and the concerto, while preserving folk-like musical moments and some spicy modernism. In the first movement–structured like the opening movement of a symphony, a smaller group periodically detaches itself from the full string orchestra at architecturally strategic points–in the manner of a Baroque concerto grosso. Although Bartók did not label the middle movement as “Night Music,” is has something of the unsettling character which other pieces that do have the label exhibit. Modernism wins this round. The final movement has elements of light-heartedness, Gypsy music, the fugue and the concerto, with a send-them-away-dancing conclusion.
The Swiss conductor and philanthropist Paul Sacher commissioned several works from Bartók, including the Divertimento for Strings and the String Quartet No. 6, the composers last two works written in Europe before he fled to America, prescient about the impending outbreak of world war. In both of these works various ethnicities cooperate with the demands of modernism with a result that might have sent a potent message, had history heeded it.
Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 26 (1868)
Max Bruch (b. Cologne, 1838; d. Friedenau, 1920)
Max Bruch got an early start as a composer, writing chamber music before he reached his teens and completing a symphony at fourteen. Shortly after he turned twenty, he heard the premier of his first stage work, a comic opera. By the end of his career, he had obtained an appointment as vice president of the Berlin Academy, where he taught his master class in composition. Two of his pupils at the academy, Ottorino Respighi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, went on to illustrious careers. Along the way, at the age of thirty, Bruch composed the work that guaranteed his own musical immortality, his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor.
Bruch titled the first movement of the Violin Concerto “Prelude,” an unusual designation for the beginning of such a work. Since the musical form and the character of the thematic material in this movement project a free-flowing quality, Bruch might just as well have titled it “Rhapsody.” It begins with a short, mysterious announcement by the woodwinds, setting up the entrance of the violin. As the soloist takes command, the music begins to sound as if it were being improvised. Bruch’s gift for lyricism, perhaps inspired by his interest in folk music, soon takes over, and the violin soars above the orchestra. At the close of the first movement, the rhapsodic ad libitum music returns. Then, without a break, the mood gradually transforms into a quiet, private statement of exquisite beauty, as the second movement begins. Bruch may have found his inspiration for this particular movement-linking technique in another favorite violin concerto, by a composer he greatly admired, Felix Mendelssohn. The third movement closes the concerto by revealing a world of noble brilliance.
The composer was eventually troubled by the success of his Concerto in G Minor, sensing that its popularity overshadowed the appreciation of other works such as two subsequent violin concertos and three symphonies. Indeed, the end of Bruch’s career was bittersweet. His outspoken refusal to embrace the stylistic discoveries of the “New German School” of Liszt and Wagner stamped him as anachronistic and impeded the creation of performance opportunities for his works. Perhaps as a counterbalance, he accepted an honorary doctorate at Cambridge University.
Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings (1979, orchestrated 1981)
Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, 1910; d. New York, 1981)
Barber’s last composition, his Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings, is the culmination of a career that reads like an American dream. With the encouragement of 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, where 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 Louse 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 two-time 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. Although he became more withdrawn later in his career after the initial failure of his opera Anthony and Cleopatra, his music remained “graceful, passionate, and poetic,” as one critic put it.
Barber envisioned his Canzonetta as the middle movement of an oboe concerto for his friend Harold Gomberg, longtime first oboist with the New York Philharmonic. When the composer was able to complete only the Canzonetta, his former student Charles Turner orchestrated it for oboe and strings, carrying out instructions left in a “short score.” In the purely instrumental Canzonetta, Barber’s lifelong dedication to the lyricism of the human voice shines through; this is the work of a composer who wrote operas and numerous songs, who was himself a baritone singer, and who commercially recorded some of his own vocal music.
The autumnal qualities of the Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings suggest that the work could serve well as the composer’s own musical elegy. Harold Gomberg premiered the Canzonetta with the New York Philharmonic a few months after Samuel Barber died. Gomberg’s successor at the Philharmonic, Joseph Robinson, is tonight’s soloist.
Symphony No. 3 in D Major, D. 200 (1815)
Franz Peter Schubert (b. Vienna, 1796; d. Vienna, 1828)
Enormously gifted, Schubert entered into the service of the Austrian imperial court as a singer at the age of eleven. By this time he was already singing first soprano in his parish church choir and receiving violin, piano, organ and singing lessons as well as instruction in improvising at the keyboard. He joined the singers’ training school–an organization whose tradition continues today with the Vienna Choir Boys, until boy-choir voice was no longer of service. By the time he took up a teaching post in his father’s in 1816., he had already composed three symphonies.
Schubert’s compositional methods remained the same throughout his short career. A first sketch, written at top speed, contained the melody in full and an indication of the progress of the harmony. When he began his Symphony No. 3 in May, 1815, he quickly put it aside after composing 47 measures, and then finished it in nine days in mid-July.
After a majestic introduction, the symphony’s first movement is by turns poignant and gruff. A gracious Allegretto second movement that looks ahead to the famous Rosamunde ballet music, an extrovert Minuetto with contrasting, introvert Trio and a skittish finale follow. Schubert’s sensitive writing for woodwinds, especially the oboe and the clarinet, has often been noted. Other than a presumed read-through at his school, Schubert never got to hear a performance of the work.
Schubert’s name belongs high on the list of the greatest composers, but his precise place in the historical development of musical styles has been the subject of much discussion. Inclined to the Classical forms of the Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he also displayed a proto-Romantic interest in harmonic coloration and orchestral tone colors. Living in Vienna at the time of Beethoven, Schubert had difficulty establishing himself as a composer. It was only a few months before his death that he was finally able to arrange for a public concert of his own compositions. Most works remained unpublished at his death, many were heard only by his circle of friends, and some were never heard by the composer himself. Other than a presumed read-through at his school, Schubert never got to hear a performance of his Symphony No. 3.
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.