Full program notes:
Born: September 15, 1890, Geneva, Switzerland
Died: November 21, 1974, Naarden, Netherlands
Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra
The Swiss composer Frank Martin took a long time to find his own creative voice. Having been infatuated with the neo-classicism of Stravinsky in the 1920s and Schoenberg’s 12- tone system later on, he was middle-aged before he came to terms with his own style. Fortunately, his powers did not diminish, and he was productive to the end. At his death in his mid-80s, he left a sizeable catalogue: two operas and a wide range of choral music, and also many concert works, like this unique concerto focused on several solo instruments whose strong colors are showcased and blended in imaginative ways.
Following World War II, Martin left Switzerland for the Netherlands. There he composed the Concerto for Seven Winds (“winds” here comprises both woodwinds and brass—namely, blown instruments), which he completed in August 1949. The premiere, conducted by Luc Balmer, took place in Berne less than three months later, which means that the players had very little time to master the brilliant and technically difficult parts of a work whose object, said the composer, was to display both the musicality and virtuosity of the soloists. He dedicated it to them, members of the Berne Music Society.
Playful and Competitive
What is most traditional about this score is its three-movement layout (fast-slow-fast) and concertante rivalries—but what proves most striking is the manner in which the timbral and expressive character of each solo instrument is exploited. The spirit is playful and competitive, not unlike the old Baroque concerto grosso, and the tone is urbane and conversational.
allegro. The opening movement, a good-natured Allegro, gets under way upon a rhythmic subject from the oboe, droll and chattering. The oboe is succeeded by the entries of its colleagues, each with its own characteristic figures. As the composer noted, this is “a conversation in which each soloist speaks his own language.” The three brass players initially announce themselves as a team, setting out imitatively, and thus talking all at once. Now the clarinet begins the instrumental singing in earnest, interjecting some of the seductive Spanish exoticism that will also spice the finale. From time to time the timpani threatens to break loose, but its most dramatic solo is postponed until the third movement. After the high energy of these concertante antics, the Allegro’s lyrical postlude is affectingly quiet.
adagietto – misterioso ed elegante. All of the strings are muted at the portal of the Adagietto, designated “mysterious and elegant.” Divided violas and cellos—totaling four parts in all— set a persistent figure ticking, marking two beats to the bar, and reminiscent of Haydn’s Clock Symphony (a work that was heard here earlier this month at an Inside the Classics concert).
This rhythmic ostinato (as in the Italian for “stubborn”) underpins a variety of melodic elements, beginning with the sharply profiled violin melody of the opening. The horn, drawing the bassoon into its company, offers a mellow contrasting thought, launched by a rising fifth. Once the mutes have been gradually removed, the movement builds to an emotionally gripping climax, intensified by a procession of restless, chromatic harmonies. At its peak, the volcanic emotion is discharged by a riff from the clarinet, making way for the movement to finally come to rest in a quiet G-major chord.
allegro vivace. A brisk, rising tune, brief and to the point, launches the dance-like Allegro vivace. Now, instead of the solo spotlights characteristic of the opening movement, the instruments tend to function in groups, the spirit being more cooperative than competitive. After the Spanish flavor is affirmed in a long solo from the trumpet, a flamboyant timpani cadenza, summoning the rustle of the snare drum, leads to a march based on a transformation of the opening tune. A steady crescendo builds to the big climax of the whole piece, in which you may recognize a shadow of the most expressive theme of the middle movement. Soon the dance capers are revived, continuing cheerfully to the close.
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal and strings
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
Concerto No. 21 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 467
The year of this piano concerto, 1785, saw Mozart at the pinnacle of his professional fame and popularity in Vienna. Having moved there in 1781 to escape the oppressive measures and indignities he suffered at the Court of Salzburg, Mozart charted a course as musical freelancer in his newly-adopted city, and for a time was grandly successful: he became the darling of Vienna. It was in this happy environment of sweet success, exhilaration and financial security that Mozart wrote the majority of his piano concertos. No fewer than a dozen works poured forth (in addition to much other music, of course) during the brief period from 1784 to 1786. Not only was Mozart the first great composer of piano concertos, but the sheer prodigality invites disbelief. Quantity is no guarantee of quality, but here we are looking at an unprecedented and unsurpassed body of masterpieces.
Another Enormous Success
In this field crowded with masterpieces, the Concerto No. 21 is widely regarded as one of the crowning achievements. It was completed on March 9, 1785, and received its first performance the following day at a benefit concert. As was the case with his other Viennese concertos, Mozart was the soloist, and he realized another enormous success.
allegro. Like other Mozart works in C major, this concerto exudes pomp, majesty, and a military flavor beginning right with the first movement’s march-like principal theme that is announced in the opening bars, an idea that will recur some dozen times within the orchestral exposition alone. This spacious exposition sets a scene of symphonic grandeur, with trumpets and timpani contributing to the martial, ceremonious tone. Among the many notable details found here is the theme beginning with just two notes softly intoned by horns and trumpets. After a pause, it continues with the oboes and flute, passing on to solo flute accompanied by bassoons, then to solo oboe and bassoons. In just four bars of music Mozart has given us as many different instrumental colors, a true “tone-color-melody” of the kind Arnold Schoenberg was to formularize in the twentieth century.
The soloist’s entrance is delayed past the expected point of entry, while woodwinds carry on in dialogue fashion. Rather than offering a grand opening statement, the piano slips in gently and unobtrusively, suggesting that its role will be primus inter pares—first among equals—and that the orchestra is not about to be relegated to a mere accompanimental role. Indeed, throughout the movement, piano and orchestra both reserve certain material to themselves. No fewer than eight melodic ideas can be identified in this movement extraordinarily rich in invention. There is even an excursion for the soloist into G minor, with its own attendant theme that curiously presages the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, also in G minor. Virtuosic passage work alternates with dignified lyricism in an ever-changing mosaic of thematic ideas for soloist and/or orchestra. Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto; he probably invented them on the spot for his own performances
andante. In the second movement, trumpets and timpani are silent. Muted strings, a divided viola section and pervasive pizzicati in the low strings give the movement its own special sound quality. The soloist’s entry is again long delayed; once the piano begins, though, it plays nearly continuously for the remainder of the movement. The orchestra henceforth maintains a mostly accompanimental role as the soloist spins out its long-breathed cantabile in lines of ravishing beauty. Musicologist Cuthbert Girdlestone called it a “dream Andante.” The mood of blissful repose is nevertheless dotted with poignant dissonances, which caused Mozart’s father incorrectly to suspect copyist’s errors. This is the movement made famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) through its use in the 1967 film Elvira Madigan. There is a certain poetic logic in this borrowing, for the nature of the music strongly suggests an extended, soul-searching aria in the Italian operatic style for a distressed lady, very much like the Elvira of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
allegro vivace assai. The finale is a high-spirited rondo. The opening theme goes—unusually in this case—first to the orchestra, not the soloist. The subtle interplay of soloist and orchestra that pervaded the first movement returns, as does the brilliant sound of trumpets and drums.
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050
When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.
His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave. In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.
Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”
Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto
This is the first concerto ever written with a solo keyboard part, and the keyboard’s new dominance is asserted in a spectacular cadenza at the end of the first movement. And no vague rhapsody, this: there is not a more powerfully built coda in the literature.
During the second movement the orchestra remains silent, but the concerto contrast continues. Sometimes the keyboard is soloistic (usually in duet with the flute or violin), but at the beginning and end, and three times between, it adds a quasi-tutti effect with its figured-bass accompaniments. In performance at Cöthen, the second violinist would have taken over the viola stand where Bach normally played—hence there is no second violin part in this piece.
Bach would have played the solo keyboard part on the harpsichord, but it works fabulously as a piano piece, and many pianists have rejoiced in its brilliance.
Instrumentation: solo violin, flute and harpsichord with strings
Born: March 10, 1892, Le Havre, France
Died: November 27, 1955, Paris
Symphony No. 2
Arthur Honegger was a member of that loose association of Parisian composers called Les Six, who came to prominence around 1920 and who were presumably linked in some esthetic and artistic sense in their emancipation from the past. Actually, the catchy name was imposed on them from without by a music critic, and they never appreciated the implication that they should be regarded as a unified artistic whole. Honegger in particular felt free to associate socially but to remain independent from Les Six in his compositional thought. Hence, we find little or nothing in his music of the carnival atmosphere, jazz elements, neoclassic simplicity and wry humor in which other members (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre) of Les Six indulged.
An aura of austere grandeur seems to infuse most of Honegger’s best music, including the Second Symphony for string orchestra and trumpet. This work was written during one of history’s darkest periods and during one of France’s blackest. The commission had originated in 1936 from Paul Sacher as a work to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his Basel Chamber Orchestra. Honegger had made several attempts to write something, but no concrete results appeared. On June 13, 1940, Paris fell to the Germans. During the bleak, cold days (emotionally as well as meteorologically) of early 1941, the creative urge finally stirred in earnest, and the elements of Honegger’s new symphony took shape. The Adagio (second) movement was the first written. “I always begin the composition of a symphonic work with this middle section of the triptych,” wrote the composer. “Indeed, it is hard for me to conceive a symphony in any other form than three movements.” (In fact, all five of Honegger’s symphonies are in three movements.) The symphony was first performed on May 18, 1942, by Paul Sacher and the Collegium Musicum in Zurich.
The Mood of Occupied Paris
molto moderato – allegro. The gloomy mood of occupied Paris seems to hover over the Second Symphony. It begins with a despairing, mournful figure for solo viola, built around three pitches. The following Allegro section is rhythmically taut, harmonically astringent and melodically wide-ranging. Honegger did not think it important to provide two contrasting tonalities or themes within the time-honored sonata form structure. Replacing this would appear to be a kind of dialogue between the mournful opening figure and the hyperemotional Allegro, for the two alternate several times throughout the course of the movement. Honegger expressed his intention as being “a search for themes characteristic enough to seize the listener’s attention and to allow him to follow the course of the entire ‘story.’” The play of the imagination, whether in figurative or abstract terms, drives this music more so than fidelity to classical ideals of form and structure.
adagio mesto. The imagination becomes even more intense in the darkly brooding, oppressive, even tragic Adagio. The two-note “sigh” motif, used by composers for centuries to express grief and tragedy, is use prominently throughout, and links this movement to the first (the “sigh” formed part of the opening viola motif). Following the stark and powerfully gaunt climax, another reference to the first movement is found as the symphony’s opening viola motif returns in the double basses. Before the movement gently expires, there is a brief hint of the chorale theme that will be found near the end of the symphony. In the sense that the second movement looks both forward and backward, it becomes a kind of fulcrum of the entire composition.
Vivace, non troppo. The third movement contrasts most obviously with the previous two in its brilliance and continuous rhythmic impulses. It scampers about in dance-like figures remotely related to a scherzo or jig, but gaiety and laughter are noticeably absent, being replaced by something akin to black humor and satire. The trumpet, hitherto silent, is finally called into play near the end to strengthen a chorale melody (Honegger’s own), played by the violins in clear, high tones over the dense, frenzied orchestral tumult below. Is this a symbol of hope or even triumph? Honegger lets each listener decide on their own: “I have sought no program, no literary or philosophical concept. If this work releases a certain emotion, the reason is that this forced itself upon me in a perfectly natural way. For I express my thoughts through music and perhaps without being entirely conscious of them.”
Instrumentation: trumpet and strings