Concerto in D for String Orchestra (1946)
b. Oranienbaum (modern-day Lomosov), Russia, 1882; d. Los Angeles, 1971
From the ruins of the First World War, a new style appeared in Stravinsky’s music: neo-classicism. Stravinsky found models in sprightly works by Mozart, but he retained his uncanny ability to push the listener, as he had in earlier, thornier works, including The Rite of Spring.
Paul Sacher, a Swiss conductor and major patron of many composers, commissioned Concerto in D. Written to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra, it is often known as the Basel Concerto. The work shows an obsession with different articulations for the various players; rarely does a passage go by without an attending marking on how it should be played. The music is frequently fierce, and biting, but also punctuated by islands of calm.
Stravinsky’s neo-classical period may seem less violent than that of The Rite of Spring, with its dissonant eruptions, but Jerome Robbins had his doubts. In 1951, he choreographed The Cage to the score of Concerto in D for the New York City Ballet. Inspired by stories of insects and animal species in which the females prey on the males, Robbins had the female dancers castrate and kill the two males over Stravinsky’s pulsing strings.
Marc Geelhoed ©2011
Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories (2008)
b. Windom, MN, 1960
My musical voice comes primarily from the vast world of popular music. Classical music speaks, too, but filtered through a prism of these other influences. In writing this, my first classical venture, I wanted to find a way retain what’s essentially “me.” The first step was finding poetry to inspire such a direction. A friend who has done much to connect me to Brazilian music, suggested that I read one of Brazil’s most beloved poets, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I found beautiful translations of his work by the poet Mark Strand: they read like little stories and evoke whole worlds. In their utter simplicity, the poems leave the reader hovering between sweetness and sadness, humor and seriousness, gentleness and painful irony.
The first movement is influenced by Brazilian choro, music full of counterpoint that holds a prominent place in much of my work. Its intricate style gave me a bridge to the chamber orchestra, and brought the voice naturally into my instrumental sphere. Most important, the slightly Brazilian character connects the listener to the worlds in Drummond’s poetry. The poems themselves spoke the rhythm, etched the melodic contour, and emotionally elicited the harmony of the songs. I did not attempt to turn them into “Brazilian” music. The only poem set with direct Brazilian musical influence is “Quadrille.” One of Drummond’s most famous poems, it begged a touch of Brazil.
Maria Schneider © 2008
Five Hungarian Folk Songs (1907-1929)
b. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), 1881; d. New York City, 1945
Shortly after graduating from the Budapest Academy in 1903, Bartók spent a few months at a northern resort in what is now Slovakia. He overheard a Transylvanian-born maid singing a folk song, which led him to one of the major pursuits of his life. He wrote to his sister: “I have a new plan: to collect the finest Hungarian folk songs and to raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art-song.” Along with Zoltán Kodály, a fellow Hungarian composer, Bartók made numerous trips to rural communities, documenting some 9,000 folk songs and helping to establish the new discipline of ethnomusicology. The Austro-Hungarian empire spread across much of Europe, and Bartók’s “Hungarian” journeys took him into lands occupied by Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, Serbians, Bulgarians, and, in an area of particular interest to him, the remote Transylvanian region that is now part of Romania.
Bartók’s arrangements of Hungarian folk songs combine his ethnographic research and his folk-inspired composition style. His distinctive harmonies and textures work as counterpoint to the melody rather than providing background filler. “Annyi banat” bathes a sorrowful melody in chords that occasionally foreshadow moody jazz harmonies of later decades. “Régi Keserves,” has a desperate, wailing quality far removed from common Western language; Bartók complemented the exotic tune with slow-moving harmonies and stabbing chords. “Párositó,” proceeds as a flirtatious dance, passing through capricious changes of mood and tempo. “Eddig való,” is a sad song of leaving farm work and homeland, and the setting is a stark and sober platform for the emotional melody. In the final song, “Hatforintos Nóta,” the sassy dance tune meets its energetic match in the accompaniment. This song in particular demonstrates the deft work of Richard Tognetti, a violinist and the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who made these lively arrangements for string orchestra.
Aaron Grad ©2011
Symphony No. 104 in D, London (1795)
Franz Joseph Haydn
b. Rohrau, Austria, 1731; d. Vienna, 1809
Haydn’s works, in particular the late symphonies, are prized for their clarity of purpose, their profundity, and charm. Haydn was the most popular composer of his era when he went to London for a series of concerts organized by the violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon. His final twelve symphonies are collected under the subtitle “London”; this is the last.
The work begins with an imposing fanfare, followed by a sorrowful passage with the violins playing sighing figures as the orchestra modulates from D Minor to F Major, with another fanfare. The pattern repeats itself as Haydn returns to D Minor, followed by the fanfare again. This minor-major-minor introduction is almost a symphony in miniature. Of interest today is that the trumpets and timpani play only the first and last fanfare. The middle one in F Major would have been impossible for the instruments of that time, as their keys were fixed, and there wasn’t sufficient time to change them. Haydn works a little compositional magic in the development section, taking the main theme’s repeated notes and turning them into the basis for exploring other keys.
The second movement features a beguiling, increasingly sweet melody that culminates in the coda when the horns come to the front, rising and falling. A minuet follows, with a stamping main theme, and a trio section with an expansive melody shows off the woodwinds before the rustic music returns.
The carefree finale is one of the composer’s great creations. For the first time in the work, Haydn plays two themes off each other in the strings and woodwinds. Frequent octave leaps make for a bumpy ride but, as is so often the case with Haydn, one of happy surprises.
Marc Geelhoed ©2011