John Corigliano – Promenade Overture
John Corigliano is probably best known for his exotic soundtrack to the 1997 film, “The Red Violin,” for which he won an Academy Award. But outside the movie theatre, he is a well-respected composer of concert music. Here are the composer’s own words about his “Promenade Overture,” which he penned in 1981:
“The premise of ‘Promenade Overture’ took root years ago when the composer was caught off guard by Haydn’s delightful Farewell Symphony. This Haydn work is often used to end a concert because during the last movement the players gradually exit, leaving two violins to finish the symphony on a bare stage.
“Since overtures usually begin concerts, a reverse of this procedure – the entrance of an orchestra while playing – became both an interesting idea and a compositional challenge.
“Offstage brass announce the start of the work, with the trumpets playing the last five measures of the Farewell Symphony – backwards. This forms a fanfare announcing the promenade of performers, which starts with the piccolo, concludes with the tuba, and contains a variety of motives which eventually form a lyrical melody that is built to a climax by the full orchestra.”
Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
By the time he reached his 20th birthday, Camille Saint-Saëns was already known internationally as a composer and pianist to be reckoned with. Not only was he a precocious talent, but during the first half of his 84-year life he was also a champion of new musical forms. A friend and disciple of Franz Liszt — whose first piano concerto we will hear later on this program — Saint-Saëns adapted many of the Hungarian trailblazer’s new ideas to his own compositional voice. One such innovation was the symphonic poem — a form in which musical ideas followed a narrative, emotional structure rather than traditional patterned musical constructs.
Between his mid-30s and mid-40s, Saint-Saëns penned four symphonic poems. The third of these, written in 1874, would become the most famous: the short, lively “Danse Macabre.” In this case, the composer was working from an actual poem, by Henri Cazalis.
Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) by Henri Cazalis.
Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden-trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking.
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack-
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.
So effectively did the composer capture the rattle of bones and devilish playfulness of the poem, that “Danse Macabre” was initially rejected by the public as too dark and demonic. But time would prove such criticism laughable; “Danse Macabre” has since become the composer’s most-performed work.
David Bowden writes:
In Saint-Saëns’ evocative setting, the solo violin represents the devil who is playing his fiddle for the dance. In an inside musical joke, the violin top string is purposely mistuned down a half step to a tritone, also known as the “devil’s interval,” as a part of the soloist’s challenge. This means that the soloist has to re-finger all of the notes on that string. So, in today’s performance, our Concertmaster is the “devil-du-jour!”
The dance begins at the stroke of midnight (perhaps Halloween) in a graveyard. Listen for the 12 strokes of the distant bell quietly tolling in the harp right at the beginning. Soon the skeletons arise from their graves and begin dancing to the devil’s unearthly tune. The knowledgeable and keen-eared listener may be able to hear the “dies irae” chant (a melody from the traditional requiem about the “Day of Wrath” that has often been used in musical personifications of “Death”) lightheartedly played in the woodwinds and harp about two and a half minutes into the piece in a major key. They are having fun dancing!
The devil does his work and the frenetic and frenzied dancing goes faster and faster until it stops abruptly and we hear a rooster crow (listen for the oboe). The night is almost over; dawn is arriving and all scurry back into the depths away from the coming light of the sun while the devil mournfully finishes his tune and slinks away.
Gershwin – I Got Rhythm Variations
Throughout his life, the American composer George Gershwin sustained a nagging reputation as little more than a Tin Pan Alley song-spinner — a talented tunesmith, but little more.
But all along, his aspirations resided in the concert hall. In 1924, Gershwin was asked to write a concerto-like piece for piano and jazz band. Gershwin responded with what would become his most famous work, “Rhapsody in Blue.”
By 1834, Gershwin’s masterpiece was so well known that the composer was invited to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a concert tour. For the occasion, Gershwin crafted a smaller-scale piece built around one of his most popular songs, “I Got Rhythm,” from the musical “Girl Crazy.”
Structured in six variations, the work echoes many of the signature characteristics of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Gershwin gave descriptive names to each of the variations, giving a clear sense of the progression: first comes a “simple” version, followed by a “piano chromatic variation” with the melody carried now by the orchestra. The “rich melody” variation transposes the melody into waltz rhythm; then a “Chinese variation” highlights the pentatonic nature of the melody. A “modal variation” follows, and the piece concludes with a “hot variation” that unabashedly places the tune in its native jazz vocabulary.
Ravel – Pavane pour une infante défunte
Maurice Ravel is widely acknowledged as one of the fieriest, most spirited classical composers of the early 20th Century. The reputation is well deserved: his greatest works, including orchestral masterpieces such as “Bolero,” “Daphnis and Chloe,” and “Rapsodie espagnole,” attest to the composer’s sense of artistic confidence and brilliant originality.
But for sheer orchestral loveliness, one would be hard-pressed to argue any case more strongly than Ravel’s lilting miniature, “Pavane pour une infante défunte.”
Actually, this music was originally penned, not for orchestra, but for solo piano. After its premiere in 1902, it gained fast fame, helping to launch the composer’s career. By the time he orchestrated it in 1910, Ravel was known widely across Europe.
By then, the meaning of the work’s title — which translates roughly, “Pavane for a Dead Princess” — was already widely misunderstood. As the composer would later explain, the piece “is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane that might have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velázquez.”
Constructed around a nostalgic theme first played by the horn and imbued with a glistening atmosphere that seems at once exotic and utterly comforting, the six-minute “Pavane” has become one of the composer’s most-performed pieces.
Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1
If you have ever attended a solo instrumental recital, you have fallen under the influence of Franz Liszt. That’s because it was Liszt who first had the audacity — or so it was viewed at the time by some critics — to perform entire concerts himself, thumbing his nose at the long-standing tradition of intermingling vocal, orchestral and solo music into the classical-era equivalent of musical variety shows. He even coined the term, “recital.”
If anyone had the standing to transform concert traditions in mid-19th century Europe, it was Franz Liszt, a Hungarian firebrand who was that era’s closest approximation to a modern-day rock star.
While Beethoven is generally credited with ushering in the Romantic era in music, it was Liszt who provided many of its most influential forms, techniques and concepts. He invented the so-called symphonic poem, and generally was guided more by emotion and narrative than by formal structure in the development of his musical ideas.
It didn’t hurt that his personal life was as colorful as his music.
“His life was a veritable pagan wilderness wherein flourished luxuriant legends of love affairs, illegitimate children, encounters with great figures of the period, and hairbreadth escapes from a variety of romantic murders,” Veinus wrote. “Unlike Wagner and Berlioz, Liszt never wrote the story of his life, for, as he casually remarked, he was too busy living it.”
Today, Liszt is best-known for his virtuoso piano music, which has, together with that of his Polish contemporary Frédéric Chopin, become a cornerstone of the classical keyboard repertoire. So it is no surprise that his piano concertos, of which there are two, hold a central place in the orchestral canon.
Liszt first started sketching the music for his First Concerto in the early 1830s and continued working on it, here and there, for more than a quarter century, spanning his most productive period of music-making.
Breaking with tradition, the concerto plays out in a single, almost uninterrupted cascade of ever-transforming ideas. However, with four distinct sections, it arguably best resembles a symphony in structure and musical heft. The first section sets the tone with a bold statement of the initial theme followed by a sudden shift in harmony. That initial theme recurs several times, each leading through a new musical portal before ultimately settling into a blissful reverie.
That leads, with only brief pause, to the gloriously placid second movement, one of Liszt’s most ravishingly beautiful bits of music. Then comes a dancing third movement in which the triangle plays a surprisingly central role, lending the music a glistening quality throughout.
The concerto ends with a muscular fourth movement in which the themes from previous movements return, tied together into what becomes a kind of ecstatic musical bottleneck at the end, with the piano sprinting through some of the most breathtakingly difficult music ever penned for the instrument.
Program notes provided by Joe Nickell