Musica Celestis (1990)
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. Philadelphia, 1960)
Aaron Jay Kernis’ vivid imagination not only informs his music but also extends to titles of his works, with monikers such as Overture in Feet and Meters, The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine, Too Hot Toccata and Mozart en Route:”A Little Traveling Music.” He subtitled his 1990 String Quartet Musica Celestis and his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning String Quartet No. 2 Musica Instrumentalis. Both works were commissioned for the Lark Quartet, who gave the premiere performances, and both titles 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 second movement of the 1990 String Quartet, converted by the composer into a string orchestra version with the title Musica Celestis, has seen numerous performances.
In a program note attached to the published score, Kernis quotes a third-century observation by Aurelian of Réôme:”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. The composer 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.” As the variations become increasingly more animated, they erupt in joyous frenzy before returning to the serenity with which the piece began.
Kernis started to compose at the age of thirteen; only ten years later, he heard the New York Philharmonic premiere his Dream of the Morning Sky, the first of several of his compositions the orchestra has performed. He has earned the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, the prestigious Nemmers Prize and many other awards. Numerous soloists and orchestras have commissioned works, including Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Joshua Bell, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sharon Isbin, Emanuel Ax, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Last summer the Bellingham Festival Orchestra gave the West Coast premiere of Dreamsongs, of which the Festival was one of three co-commissioners.
Concierto Pastoral for Flute and Orchestra (1978)
Joaquin Rodrigo (b. Sagunto, 1901; d. Madrid, 1999)
In a career spanning nearly the entire twentieth century, Joaquin Rodrigo was an indefatigable champion of the music of his native Spain. His wide range of compositional genres included music for the stage (opera, ballet and film), piano music, chamber music and pieces for solo voice. Exploring connections with the traditions of his national past, he sometimes explicitly honored earlier composers, as in his orchestral work Soleriana, based on work of the eighteenth- century Catalan composer Antonio Soler. Blind from the age of three, he composed until his mid- eighties, using Braille to notate his compositions. Shortly after his ninetieth birthday, Rodrigo received an hereditary title of nobility from King Juan Carlos I and became the Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez (Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez).
Rodrigo composed fourteen works for soloists with orchestra. Most of these are concerti, and he enriched the repertoire of the violin, cello, piano, flute, guitar and harp in this way. The Concierto Pastoral was commissioned by James Galway, who premiered the work in 1978, and it has since become a part of the repertoire of virtuoso flautists. As the concerto begins, the flute leaps from the starting gate and then rarely stops. Occasional changes of mood in the first movement confirm the composer’s description of its”classical form,” with a second theme”reminiscent of popular Valencian style.” Short, joust-like encounters with other instruments propel the movement until it reaches a sudden conclusion. At the heart of the Concierto is the Adagio, where the flute spins a melody, develops and embellishes it, and engages it in dialogue with other instruments. Just after a bagpipe-like moment in the orchestra, the soloist plays a substantial cadenza. For listeners who know Rodrigo’s guitar works, the final Rondó movement may bring reminiscences of his Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, which was featured at the Bellingham Festival of Music in 2012.
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47 (1905)
Edward Elgar (b. Broadheath, 1857; d. Worcester, 1934)
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; by the age of 16, he had embarked on a freelance career. He composed prolifically in most of the genres available to him. His Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto figure regularly in orchestral concerts, and his choral music and his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius are frequently performed.
The Introduction and Allegro, which pits a string quartet against a full string orchestra, also figures frequently, when the proper performance forces are available. Elgar composed the work at a turning point in his career; he had written music for the coronation of Edward VII and had recently been dubbed Sir Edward. He dedicated his new composition to Samuel Simons Sanford, a music professor at Yale University whose efforts had led to Elgar’s award of an honorary doctorate. It was at the doctoral ceremony that his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was first used at an academic ceremony, inaugurating a century-long tradition. Fittingly, the most recent recipient of the Samuel Simons Sanford Award, Yale’s highest music award, was a string quartet (Tokyo String Quartet, 2013).
Unlike his countryman Ralph Vaughan Williams, Elgar did not collect folksongs, nor did he quote them in his compositions. Even so, he did find inspiration in folk music, and he could write quintessentially”English” melodies such as the majestic tune in Pomp and Circumstance. His Introduction and Allegro includes another such memorable tune, for which the composer said he found inspiration in the singing he had heard in Wales. The multi-faceted Introduction and Allegro includes fanfares, a fugue, Baroque concerto textures and a glorious return of the Welsh-inspired theme at the end.
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1813)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven’s symphonies, towering monuments that cast a large shadow, have raised many questions for later composers. The question of how (or even whether) to write a symphony after Beethoven received various answers from those caught in the shadow. Mendelssohn and Liszt, following Beethoven’s lead, added choral movements to certain symphonies. For years Brahms refused to publish a symphony. Wagner, not generally regarded as a symphonist (although he did dabble with the form before the age of twenty) modeled his operatic Leitmotif technique on the development sections of Beethoven’s symphonies.
There is also the question of program music – music composed to evoke a place, to suggest an object or even to explore a philosophical idea. Later composers argued vehemently for or against the programmatic concept; composers as different as Brahms (no program) and Liszt (program) could cite precedents in Beethoven. Among the master’s symphonies, No. 3 (“Eroica”), No. 6 (“Pastoral”), No. 9 (“Choral” ) and the famous No. 5 were often cited as programmatic. In the Symphony No. 7, though, Beethoven left no direct hints of a program by way of subtitle, nickname, thematic content or reported conversation. However, no less a Beethoven enthusiast than Wagner considered it to be the”apotheosis of the dance,” and he set about to prove it by choreographing and dancing it himself. All of musical Vienna, including the composers Salieri, Spohr, Moscheles and Hummel felt compelled to attend the first performance of the symphony, in December 1813.
In the first movement an imposing, slow introduction announces the work’s monumental scale and eventually leads to one of the Beethoven’s most fascinating compositional experiments. Here, at the beginning of the fast portion of the movement, the composer refuses to let the evolutionary stages of his main tune languish unheard, consigned to some musical sketchbook. Instead he asks the orchestra to create the new theme from scratch, starting with just one note and then gradually adding enough notes to produce a lilting, dactylic tune. When the theme later appears in a full orchestration the effect is thrilling. Later, the same thematic material becomes hushed and mysterious, showing a new aspect of its personality at the beginning of the magnificent coda.
The second movement is a fascinating study in additive orchestration, as each entering instrument brings some fresh thematic contribution to the existing music. In the Scherzo the usual form of Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo (ABA) is expanded to become ABABA, another measure of the monumentality of the work. The ebullient finale, like the first movement, ends with a powerful coda, as the music grows from whisper-level to a climax of shattering intensity. One can understand Wagner’s compulsion to 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.