Program Notes: Let's Dance

Program Notes: Let's Dance

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Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

In 1942 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, marooned in New York due to World War II, commissioned a ballet from Agnes de Mille. The young American dancer drew up a scenario set on a ranch in the West and approached Aaron Copland to write the music. Copland was at first uninterested, as he’d already had success with a “cowboy” ballet (Billy the Kid) and did not want to repeat himself. But as de Mille talked, Copland saw new possibilities, and he accepted the commission. The premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in October 1942 was a phenomenal success.

In the ballet, set on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest, none of the characters has a name—each is a type. The principal figure is the Cowgirl, a tomboy anxious to attract male attention. She tries to compete for the affections of the Head Wrangler and the Roper through her cowboy skills, but they ignore her in favor of the city girls in their pretty dresses. Disconsolate, the Cowgirl storms off and returns to the Saturday night dance in a beautiful dress. Only at this point does she attract the men, who now flock to her.

Copland based the opening Buckaroo Holiday movement on the cowboy song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by Trade” and the railroad song “Sis Joe.” It details the Cowgirl’s awkward attempt to mount her horse, the brilliant entrance of the cowboys and the sudden stop at the moment of the Cowgirl’s humiliation. Corral Nocturne depicts the lonely musings of the Cowgirl as the sun goes down. The next section, Ranch House Party, portrays a dance set in a noisy, well-lit ranch house while outside the night is dark and lonely.

The concluding two movements come from the dance on the evening of the rodeo. Saturday Night Waltz begins with the sound of open strings as the players seem to be tuning up; the dances then begin with a variant of the cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint.” This turns into a spirited waltz. The middle section is quiet and reflective, and a return of the waltz-tune brings the movement to its close. The famous Hoe-Down is based on two principal themes: the fiddle-tune “Bonyparte” and a variant of the old Scottish dance “McLeod’s Reel.” The square dance is interrupted by the appearance of the Cowgirl in her dress, the men compete for her, and the tempo gradually slows to a quiet chord that marks the moment when the Head Wrangler kisses the Cowgirl. Instantly the music explodes, driving to a close on three great stamping chords.


Franz Liszt
Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary (now Austria)
Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Totentanz, for Piano and Orchestra

In 1838 Liszt visited Pisa and viewed the horrifying fresco Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death), attributed to the 14th-century painter Andrea Orcagna. The fresco depicts scenes of death, including stacks of bodies, corpses rotting in open graves, and souls being transported to heaven while others are dragged to hell. So struck by these scenes was the 27-year-old composer that he resolved to write a work for piano and orchestra inspired by them. Liszt made his first sketches in February 1839, but he was in no hurry—he worked on it over two decades, finally completing a revised version of Totentanz in 1859. Hans von Bülow premiered it on April 15, 1865 (coincidentally, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s death).

Totentanz (which translates as “Dance of Death”) is not an attempt to depict painted scenes in music. And in no sense is it a dance. Rather, it is a set of variations upon a musical idea long associated with death: the 13th-century plainchant theme Dies Irae. At first glance, the form appears traditional: Liszt introduces his theme, then provides six variations. But Liszt has some surprises for us along that path.

Over the piano’s foreboding ostinato, low winds stamp out the Dies Irae theme. Then comes the first of the work’s several piano cadenzas. The first few variations are relatively brief. In Variation I, bassoons and violas introduce the brisk dotted theme, followed quickly by the piano. Variation II presents the theme in the pianist’s left hand as a solo horn soars overhead. Variation III offers the theme in the deep accompaniment as the piano punctuates that line with staccato chords. Variation IV, for piano alone, treats the Dies Irae theme canonically. This evolves through several quite different episodes, then rushes into Variation V, a fugato. Solo piano leads the way here, soon joined by the orchestra.

Another cadenza leads to Variation VI, and it is here that Totentanz makes its most striking turn. Liszt introduces an entirely new plainchant theme in the strings and woodwinds, and to this the horns provide a blistering counter-theme. This is the most demonic moment in a very demonic piece, and Liszt promptly embarks on a series of variations on this new theme—taking an unexpected (and very exciting) detour in what to this point has been a fairly straightforward series of variations on the Dies Irae. One more cadenza leads to the return of the principal theme, a brisk coda and a knockout close.


Camille Saint-Saëns
Born: October 9, 1835, Paris, France 

Died: December 16, 1921, Algiers, Algeria

Bacchanale, from Samson and Delilah 

Saint-Saëns’ opera based on the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah got off to a rocky start. He originally planned it as an oratorio, but was soon convinced to re-cast it as an opera. But when he had parts of the opera performed, they provoked strong criticism. Worse, the Paris Opera refused to produce an opera based on a Biblical subject. Samson and Delilah might have gone unperformed, but Saint-Saëns’ good friend Franz Liszt saw the score, admired it, and arranged a production in Weimar. That performance on December 2, 1877, was a huge success. By the time of Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921, the Paris Opera had recanted its objections—performing Samson and Delilah more than 500 times.

One of the most famous parts of the opera is the Bacchanale, which is heard in the final scene. Samson has been seduced by Delilah. Blinded, his hair shorn, he has been shackled and forced to turn a mill-wheel as he laments his failure to protect his people. The Philistines celebrate their triumph over Samson with a wild dance, which in the opera is a brief ballet, and the Bacchanale is the music for that ballet. A bacchanale is not a musical form but rather an event—in essence, a wild drinking party (the term comes from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine). Saint-Saëns had traveled a great deal through northern Africa and the Middle East, and he adapted the idiom of that region’s music for his Bacchanale, with its evocative opening oboe solo and the wild energy of its dances. The Bacchanale is infectious music, built on a series of crisp tunes. This music marks the final moments of the Philistines’ triumph: Samson will shortly summon his strength and bring the temple tumbling down upon them all.


Alberto Ginastera
Born: April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina 
Died: June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

Ballet Suite from Estancia

Ginastera, Argentina’s most renowned classical composer, was heavily involved with promoting Argentine music and in developing the musical life of his country. Many of his early works, such as Panambí and Estancia, are representative of what he called his “objective nationalism” style—music that deliberately and overtly employed the rhythms and melodies of native Argentine folksongs and dances.

Estancia was commissioned in 1941 by Lincoln Kirstein for his American Ballet Caravan, which was touring South America at the time. But before the score could be premiered, Kirstein’s company disbanded. A staging of Estancia had to wait until 1952, when it was given at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. As many composers have done with their ballet scores, Ginastera extracted a suite for orchestral concerts. It was in this form that the world first heard Estancia, as the suite was performed by the Teatro Colón Orchestra on May 12, 1943.

The half-hour ballet score is rarely heard in its entirety, unaccountably so in view of its consistently fine music. But the suite of four dances we hear tonight has become almost a repertory staple. Pungent harmonies, jagged rhythms and dancelike impulses prevail. The orchestration is especially colorful, particularly in the prominent use of percussion, including piano, xylophone and castanets, which contribute to one of the most exhilarating conclusions in all music.

The following note (slightly edited) is found as a preface to the score: “The deep and bare beauty of the land, its richness and natural strength, constitute the basis of Argentine life. This ballet presents various aspects of the activities on an ‘estancia’ [cattle ranch] in the course of a day, from dawn to dawn, with a symbolic sense of continuity. The plot shows a country girl who despises the man of the city. She finally admires him when he proves that he can perform the roughest and most difficult tasks in the land.”


Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Basses-Pyrénées, France 

Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Ravel, like many French composers, was profoundly wary of German music. Yet there was one German form for which he felt undiluted affection: the waltz. As a young piano student in Paris, Ravel fell under the spell of Schubert’s waltzes for piano, and in 1911 he composed his own Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, a set of charming waltzes modeled on the Schubert dances he loved so much. Earlier, in 1906, he had planned a great orchestral waltz with the working title Wien (Vienna), but the piece was delayed and Ravel did not return to it until the fall of 1919. This was the year after the conclusion of World War I, and the French vision of the Germanic world was now quite different than it had been when he originally conceived the piece.

Nevertheless, Ravel still felt the appeal of the project, and by December he was madly at work. The orchestration was completed the following March, and the first performance took place in Paris on December 12, 1920. By this time, perhaps wary of wartime associations, Ravel had renamed the piece La Valse.

an opulent—and troubling—score

Ravel described exactly his original conception for the work: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.”

The music also gives us this scene. Out of the murky, misty beginning come bits of waltz rhythms; gradually these join together and plunge into an animated dance. This is dazzling writing for orchestra, some of which results from the music’s rhythmic energy, some from Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental color.

If La Valse concluded with all this elegant vitality, our sense of the music might be clear, but instead it drives to an ending full of frenzied violence. We come away not so much exhilarated as shaken. Ravel made a telling comment about this conclusion: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.”

Is this music a celebration of the waltz—or an exploration of the darker spirit behind the culture that created it? Many have opted for the latter explanation, hearing in La Valse not a Rosenkavalier-like evocation of a more graceful era, but the snarling menace behind that elegance.

Ravel himself was evasive about the ending. Aware of its implications, he explained in a letter to a friend: “Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others that it was postwar Vienna. They are wrong. Certainly, La Valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.”

Program notes on the Copland, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Ravel works by Eric Bromberger; program note on Ginastera’s Estancia by Robert Markow.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff