Program Notes: Mozart and Debussy

Program Notes: Mozart and Debussy

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Full program notes:

Manuel de Falla
Born: November 23, 1876, Cádiz, Spain
Died: November 14, 1946, Alta Gracia, Argentina

Interlude and Dance from La Vida Breve

A hundred years ago, Spain was a difficult place for an aspiring young composer to get recognition. Not only was it far off the beaten path of classical music, its nascent musical culture offered little to keep talented native sons like Manuel de Falla (and Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados before him) from going off to Paris, the hotbed of the musical world. In fact, from 1900 until about 1940, Paris was a veritable Petri dish of artistic activity that provided unparalleled conditions for the exchange of creative ideas. A wave of artists, authors and composers of all nationalities migrated there, fostering a climate of imaginative cross-fertilization.

man on a mission
During his seven (remember that number) years in Paris, Falla found himself at the center of the remarkable goings on there. He was befriended by Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Dukas. He soaked up the music by the bad boys of the avant-garde, such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev. And many of them, in turn, were fascinated by Falla’s novel, even exotic-sounding Spanish music.

But he arrived in Paris with a single-minded agenda: to stage his new opera La Vida Breve (The Short Life). Despite earning first prize in a 1905 composition contest from the Royal Academy in Madrid, Falla couldn’t get it staged anywhere in Spain. In 1913, La Vida Breve finally got its Paris premiere, to wide critical acclaim. This put Falla on the map in the most important place in the musical world. One can only imagine the intoxicating thrill of success for this young man from Spain, surrounded by Parisian cultural luminaries such as Picasso, Hemingway, Poulenc, Stein, Proust, Cézanne, Dali, Gauguin, Matisse, Cocteau and Sartre.

audience favorites from an unusual opera
La Vida Breve—an unusual opera for having as much purely instrumental as vocal music—is rarely staged, in spite of its operatically brief one-hour running time. It tells the dramatic tale of a beautiful-but-poor gypsy girl named Salud, who falls for dark, handsome and wealthy Paco. Paco unfortunately neglects to mention his pending wedding to a woman of his own social class, setting up a proverbial wedding-day confrontation at the altar, as Salud crashes the affair and declares her love for Paco. Rejected and ordered out by Paco, Salud denounces him to all and then stabs herself, falling dead at his feet in the ultimate gesture of contempt for her lover. (As in all good operas, someone has to die at the end!)

The colorful Interlude and Dance from La Vida Breve, long audience favorites, have found a niche in the concert hall, including a popular version for violin and piano arranged by Fritz Kreisler.

maturity and superstition
Forced by the outbreak of World War I to flee Paris for Madrid, Falla entered his mature creative phase, composing Nights in the Garden of Spain and two ballets, El Amor Brujo and The ThreeCornered Hat. Displaced again following Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, Falla moved to Argentina, where he lived out his remaining seven years.

Falla, who never married or had children, was known to be quite the eccentric. For example, he was extremely superstitious and had a special regard for the number seven. (Check out his Seven Spanish Folksongs.) He believed, among other things, that life was divided into seven-year periods. Even the timing of his death fulfilled his prophecy—he died a few days before his 70th birthday, neatly completing his tenth seven-year period. And that trip to Paris? He intended it to be a seven-week trip, but it wound up being a seven-year stay.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, large and small hammers, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, bells, glockenspiel, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.


Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 23 in A major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 488

The Marriage of Figaro was Mozart’s big project in the spring of 1786, but the composer repeatedly interrupted himself to dash off several additional works, including his Piano Concerto No. 23. He entered it into his catalogue on March 2 and presumably played it in Vienna soon after.

the music: lovely and touching
allegro. The first movement, music of lovely and touching gallantry, is the essence of Mozartian reticence and dolcezza. Its second chord, darkened by an unexpected G-natural in the second violins, already suggests the sadness that will cast fleeting shadows throughout the concerto and altogether dominate its slow movement.

It is both fascinating and delightful the way Mozart scores the two main themes. He begins both with strings alone. He continues the first with an answering phrase just for winds, punctuated twice by forceful string chords, and that leads to the first passage for full orchestra. In the new theme he proceeds more subtly: a bassoon joins the violins nine measures into the melody and, as though encouraged by that, the flute appears in mid-phrase, with horns and clarinets arriving just in time to reinforce the cadence. The beginning of the development is spliced neatly into the end of the exposition; the real activity is in the woodwinds, and the piano accompanies with bright figurations. The recapitulation brings new distribution of material between solo and orchestra. After the cadenza comes a buoyant coda whose close is tongue-in-cheek matter-of-fact.

adagio. Slow movements in minor keys are surprisingly uncommon in Mozart, master of melancholy in music, and this one is in fact the last he writes. An Adagio marking is rare, too, and this movement is an altogether special transformation of the lilting siciliano style. The exquisite dissonances heard in the orchestra’s first phrase are brought about by the bassoon’s imitation of clarinet and violins. A second theme is more chromatic and thus still more moody than the first.

Throughout, Mozart the pianist imagines himself as the ideal opera singer. Near the end, he writes a miraculous and especially operatic passage, the strings playing simple broken chords, part pizzicato, part arco, over which the piano declaims a noble and passionate melody notable for its range: two and a half octaves, at one point traversed in a single leap. Pianists differ about what to do here, some simply playing the notes in the score, other filling the gaps (in time and space) with embellishments of their own. Our knowledge of 18th-century practice suggests that Mozart might well have taken the latter way.

allegro assai. After the restraint of the first movement and the melancholia of the second, Mozart gives us a finale of enchanting high spirits. It keeps the pianist very busy in music that comes close to perpetual motion and in which there is plenty to engage our ear, now so alert to the delicacy and overflowing invention with which Mozart uses those few and quiet instruments.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.


Claude Debussy 
Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France

Images for Orchestra

In 1905, shortly after the premiere of La Mer, Debussy composed a set of three evocative solo piano pieces called Images. He told his publisher that he was a working on a second set, this time for two pianos, in which he would pay tribute to the music of England, Spain and France, and he planned to finish this new set “as quickly as possible.” But Debussy’s plans changed completely: it took him eight years to complete the music, and the finished version was for orchestra rather than two pianos. So spread out was Debussy’s composition that the three parts were premiered separately, and even today they are rarely played together. This concert brings the rare opportunity to hear Debussy’s Images as he intended them to be heard.

Images is one of Debussy’s most colorful scores, but its evocation of three different countries’ music is sometimes quite subtle, particularly in its outer movements. Debussy disliked the term “impressionism,” and he told his publisher that he was trying “to achieve something different—an effect of reality...what some idiots term Impressionism, a word that is altogether misused, particularly by the critics.” Yet if the outer movements of Images can be subtle in the extreme, the central movement, Ibéria, brings some of Debussy’s most explicit musical scene-painting.

English gigues unlike any other
gigues. The first movement, Gigues, was the last to be completed, and it gave Debussy a great deal of trouble: he wrote between 1909 and 1912, and there is evidence that his amanuensis, André Caplet, may have done much of the orchestration under Debussy’s supervision.

Debussy conceived of Gigues as a tribute to English music; however, probably no listener coming to this subdued music without knowing its title or Debussy’s intent would identify it as having anything to do with English music. Debussy may take some characteristics of the gigue (swung rhythms and a bagpipe sound), but there is nothing here of the mood of the merry jig. In fact, Debussy’s original title was Gigues tristes—“Sad Gigues.” Debussy builds this movement around two themes—a fragmentary presentation of the traditional Northumberland song “Keel Row,” and another first given out by the oboe d’amore. Debussy marks the first appearance of this theme “gentle and melancholy,” and the mellow sound of the oboe d’amore, an instrument long thought obsolete when Debussy used it here, contributes much to the mood of this movement.

Ibéria: three Spanish movements
The second section—Ibéria, a musical evocation of Spain in three colorful movements—has become one of Debussy’s most popular orchestral works and is usually performed separately. Debussy’s direct experience of Spain consisted of one three-hour excursion across the border to visit San Sebastian, but that was apparently enough, and Iberia has been hailed as one of the greatest examples of a distinctly “Spanish” music.

in the streets and by-ways. The first movement of the Iberia section is full of energy and hard-edged rhythms underlined by clicking castanets. This movement offers striking solos for clarinet, English horn, viola, a virtuoso entrance by the entire horn section, and sultry trombone glissandos. After all the excitement, it flickers out on a few strokes of quiet percussion.

fragrances of the night. This habanera is the most exotic-sounding movement—Debussy marks it “Soft and dreamy.” Colors are muted in this movement, cast in the unusual key of F-sharp major. This is music of the perfumed night, full of languorous melodies, subtle touches of instrumental timbre and fluid rhythms.

morning of a festival day. Debussy was especially proud of the transition from the second Ibéria movement to the third, which he said “doesn’t sound as if it has been written down”—he wanted the effect of the music being improvised on the spot. The expectant feeling of early morning at the opening gradually gives way to sunlight and bright color. The main subject sounds as if it is being played by a giant guitar; Debussy emphasizes this visually by having the violinists and violists strum their instruments under their arms rather than placing them under their chins. This music is remarkable in Debussy’s output for its attempt to paint detailed scenes—“there are melon sellers and whistling urchins whom I see very clearly,” he said. At one point the march interrupts a street fiddler and thrusts him aside, and then with a sudden rush the music blazes to a wild finish.

France in spring
rondes de printemps. Debussy prefaced the score to the concluding Rondes de printemps (“Rounds of Spring”) with a line from the 15th-century poet Poliziano: “Long live May! Welcome to May with its sylvan banner.” This evocation of France recalls the ancient spring ritual in which youths decked themselves with laurel wreaths. Debussy gives it a subtly Gallic flavor by quoting two French children’s songs—Nous n’irons plus au bois and Do, do l’enfant, do—both of which he had used previously in his Nocturnes for orchestra. Here, however, those nursery tunes are broken down into component bits, mere thematic fragments. Beginning quietly, this movement builds steadily to a resounding conclusion that joyfully hails the arrival of spring.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, chimes, timpani, 2 harps, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

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