Program Notes: Gershwin's Piano Concerto

Program Notes: Gershwin's Piano Concerto

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Aaron Copland

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

El Sálon México

Sometimes composers fall in love with foreign countries very different from their native land and gravitate to them as a vacation spot or second home. The aging Brahms became enamored of Italy and visited it 11 times, while Haydn found a congenial second home during lengthy stays in England. Aaron Copland, born in Brooklyn, fell in love with Mexico, where he spent extended vacations and wrote a great deal of music. After his first visit in 1932, Copland wrote to Carlos Chávez: “It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in these few months in Mexico.” Just as important, Copland brought back with him an idea for a new piece.

“the spirit of the place”

He took inspiration from an all-night visit he and Chávez had made to a popular Mexico City night club and dance hall called El Salón México. Said Copland: “My thoughts kept returning to that dance hall. It wasn’t so much the music or the dances that attracted me as the spirit of the place. In some inexplicable way, while milling about in those crowded halls, I had felt a live contact with the Mexican ‘people’—that electric sense one gets sometimes in far-off places of suddenly knowing the essence of a people—their humanity, their shyness, their dignity and unique charm.” Copland began to plan an orchestral work based on authentic Mexican tunes, noting that his “purpose was not merely to quote literally, but to heighten without in any way falsifying the natural simplicity of Mexican tunes.”

Aaron Copland with folk musicians in Mexico

Photo: Aaron Copland, left, standing alongside folk musicians in Mexico.

Turning to anthologies, Copland gathered folk tunes including El Mosco, El Palo Verde, La Jesusita and La Malacate. Composer Gerald Finzi has pointed out that the danger in a classical composer’s using folk tunes is that there is nothing to do except to repeat them—a danger Copland skirts ingeniously. He re-bars the tunes, breaks them into fragments and presents them polyphonically (and polytonally); the melodies, fairly straightforward on their first appearance, evolve continuously across the music’s 11-minute span. Copland said he was aiming for a sort of “frenetic whirl” at the close, and El Salón México does indeed come to a rousing conclusion.

from minnesota to mexico city

Over three years, 1933 to 1936, Copland did much of the composition in Bemidji, Minnesota, noting that his impressions of Mexico remained particularly strong in such a distant locale. Carlos Chávez led the premiere in Mexico City with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México on August 27, 1937, and the music was an instant success; the orchestra had already burst into spontaneous applause when the composer arrived at rehearsal.

In fact, El Salón México opened many doors for Copland: the music was recorded by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; it was performed in London and Paris and by 14 American orchestras in its first season; it brought Copland a publishing contract with Boosey and Hawkes that lasted through his lifetime. It was also arranged for piano by a then-unknown Harvard music student named Leonard Bernstein, who would become one of Copland’s closest friends and champions. And it represented Copland’s first use of folk material, a technique that would become important over the next decade as he wrote such “American” scores as Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring.

Taken all around, Copland’s all-night visit to that raucous dance hall in Mexico City turned out to be a very productive evening. When he left that hall at 5 a.m., charmed by a sign that read “Please don’t throw lighted cigarette butts on the floor so the ladies don’t burn their feet,” he was already thinking of the music he wanted to write. s Copland, left, standing alongside folk musicians in Mexico

George Gershwin

George Gershwin
Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York
Died: July 11, 1937, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra

The success of Rhapsody in Blue in February 1924 propelled Gershwin overnight from a talented Broadway composer to someone taken seriously in the world of concert music. When conductor Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society asked Gershwin to compose a piano concerto the following year, the young composer accepted eagerly—the commission, signed in April 1925, would pay him $500 for the new concerto.

There is no truth to the story, told many times, that Gershwin left the meeting with Damrosch and went straight to a bookstore to buy a book on musical form so that he would know what a piano concerto was. But this story does point to a larger truth: Gershwin was entering an unfamiliar musical world. Ferde Grofé had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue for Gershwin, but now the composer was anxious to do that work himself. He wanted to be taken seriously as a classical composer.

Gershwin had at first planned to call the piece New York Concerto, but his desire for respectability won out, and he settled on Piano Concerto in F (it may be a mark of the breezy spirit of this music that it is always called that, rather than the more formal Piano Concerto in F major). F. Scott t Fitzgerald nicknamed the twenties “The Jazz Age” (The Great Gatsby was published in the same year Gershwin wrote this concerto), and jazz was very much in the air in 1925—but Gershwin insisted that the Concerto in F was not a jazz piece. Though the concerto employs Charleston rhythms and a blues trumpet, Gershwin wanted it taken as a piece of serious music, one intended to represent “the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life.”


Certainly the Concerto in F takes the form of the classical concerto: a sonata-form first movement, a lyric second movement and a rondo-finale. The Allegro opens with a great flourish of timpani followed by the characteristic Charleston rhythm. Solo bassoon introduces the first theme, gradually taken up by the full orchestra, and the piano makes its entrance with the wonderful second subject, sliding up from the depths on a long glissando into the lazily-syncopated tune.

George Gershwin and Walter Damrosch

Photo: Gershwin, standing, going over the Concerto in F with Walter Damrosch before its premiere.

Gershwin was willing to bend classical form for his own purposes, and he described this first movement: “It’s in sonata-form— but.” It concludes with a grandioso restatement by full orchestra of the piano’s opening tune and an exciting coda based on the Charleston theme.

Gershwin said that the slow movement “has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues…” He contrasts the trumpet’s bluesy opening with the piano’s snappy entrance on a variant of the same tune and then alternates these ideas across the span of the movement. Gershwin described the Allegro agitato finale as “an orgy of rhythm,” and the opening plunges the pianist and orchestra into a perpetualmotion- like frenzy. At the end, Gershwin brings back the grandioso string tune from the first movement, and the Concerto in F rushes to a knock-out close.

Antonin Dvorak

Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen (Nalahozeves), Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70

Success came late to Dvořák. After years of obscurity, during which he supported his family by giving music lessons and playing the viola in orchestras, Dvořák achieved almost instant fame when, at the age of 37, his first set of Slavonic Dances took his name around the world. Now he found his music in demand—a sure sign of which came in June 1884: the Philharmonic Society of London nominated him for membership and invited him to compose a symphony that he would conduct in London.

“to shake the world”

Shortly after beginning work on the score in December 1884, Dvořák wrote to a friend: “Now I am occupied with my new symphony (for London), and wherever I go I have nothing else in mind but my work, which must be such as to shake the world, and God grant that it may!”

Dvořák completed the symphony on March 17, 1885, and journeyed to London to conduct the premiere on June 22. It was a tremendous success. “The enthusiasm at the close of the work was such as is rarely seen at a Philharmonic concert,” wrote one critic.

Yet the new symphony, today numbered as Dvořák’s Seventh, came as a surprise. The composer of the snappy, exhilarating Slavonic Dances had written a dark and dramatic symphony, and critics ever since have been at pains to discover the source of this new gravity in the details of Dvořák’s own life.

Some hear an intensified Czech nationalism in this symphony, some hear signs of an artistic crisis, others feel that the symphony represents an effort to please his friend Brahms, still others feel that it reflects Dvořák's reaction to the death of his mother in 1882.

But it is better simply to take the Seventh Symphony for what it is: the effort by a powerful creative imagination to expand the scope and dimensions of his art. There can be little doubt that he succeeded: the Seventh is regarded by many not just as Dvořák’s finest symphony, but as one of his greatest achievements.

This symphony has been called Dvořák’s most “Brahmsian” work, but that term needs to be understood carefully. It is not to say that this is an imitative work— every bar of the Seventh Symphony is unmistakably the music of Dvořák. Rather, it acknowledges that this music has the same grandeur, seriousness of purpose and dark sonority that we associate with the symphonies of Brahms, who would remain a close friend of Dvořák throughout his life.

allegro maestoso. Those dark sonorities are evident from the work’s first instant: over a deep pedal D, violas and cellos sound the brooding opening idea. The first movement is in the expected sonata form, but Dvořák Program Notes july 31 uses that form with unusual freedom. His themes are not so much clearly defined single ideas as they are groups of ideas that spin off a wealth of material for development.

In the first moments of this symphony we hear not just that ominous opening melody, but also the violins’ rhythmic “kick,” a sharply-rising figure, and a turn-figure first spit out by violins and eventually taken over by the solo horn. The second subject (if it can be called that, after such a dizzying parade of ideas in the opening moments) arrives as a gently rocking melody for flutes and clarinets that Dvořák marks dolce, but quickly this section too is spinning off subordinate ideas. Though the development begins quietly, it soon turns dramatic, and the movement builds to a grand climax, then falls away to an impressive close as two horns sound the dark opening theme one last time.

poco adagio. The second movement stays in D minor. Woodwinds, singly or as a choir, announce most of the melodic material here. The music may be gentle on its first appearance, but this movement too grows to a series of great climaxes. It is left to the cellos to sing the relaxed reprise of the main theme as the music makes its way to the quiet close.

scherzo: vivace. The real fun of the Scherzo (and this movement is fun) lies in its rhythmic vitality. Dvořák sets it in the unusual meter 6/4 and marks it vivace, but then complicates matters by placing accents where we don’t expect them: sometimes this meter is accented in two, sometimes in three, sometimes both simultaneously. The music dances madly into the trio section, which seems to begin quietly and simply (some have heard the sound of birdcalls here) but soon introduces complexities of its own; Dvořák makes a powerful return to the scherzo proper and drives the movement to a resounding close.

finale: allegro. The Finale returns to the ominous mood that opens the first movement. The cellos’ arching-andfalling opening idea will shape much of this movement, which is launched on its way as Dvořák winds tensions tight and then releases them with a timpani salvo. Cellos eventually provide relief with one of those wonderfully amiable and flowing themes that only Dvořák could write, and from this material he builds another extremely dramatic movement. In fact, Dvořák stays relentlessly in D minor as the movement nears its climax, and it is only in the final seconds that he almost wrenches it into D major for a conclusion that truly does—as Dvořák hoped—“shake the world.”

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.