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Programme Notes: A Brave New World, April 14, 2024

Landmarks of Note

Programme Notes by Trevor Rines

Listening Landmarks are in boldface

Umoja: Anthem of Unity

Valerie Coleman (1970 Louisville, Kentucky, USA – (age 53)

Orchestral Premiere – September 19th, 2019 in New York City at Carnegie Hall

Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra

Dedication – To Maestro Nézet-Séguin & The Philadelphia Orchestra Family

Running Time – about 10 minutes

“This version honors the simple melody that ever was, but is now a full exploration into the meaning of Freedom & Unity. Now more than ever, Umoja has to ring as a strong & beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”

This is from the cover page of the full orchestral score for Umoja, by African American composer & Grammy-nominated flautist, Valerie Coleman. The “simple melody,” to which she refers, is the repeated tune in Umoja’s original call-&-response version. More than two decades after this simple song for women’s choir came the “full exploration” of arranging this work for full orchestra.

The women’s choir sang, “Children of all, hear the winds call, because it’s time for Unity.” The Swahili word for Unity, Umoja, is the principle of the first day of the seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa. That song was the first of many versions of this work.

She next arranged it as an anthem for her newly formed wind quintet, Imani Winds, which she founded in 1997. Imani is the Swahili word for Faith, which is the principle of the last day of Kwanzaa. Over the next twenty years, this increasingly popular piece was much in demand, so she reworked the score many times, to be performed by woodwind trio, flute quartet, string quartet, brass quintet, flute choir, & concert band.

Then came the commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Their 2019 Carnegie Hall premiere, of her full orchestral version, marked the first time that the orchestra had performed a classical work by a living female African American composer. They performed it again in Philadelphia, later that year, also to great acclaim. 

Describing the process of expanding the work, to be performed by a full orchestra, Coleman explained that it was a balancing act. Respecting the melodic simplicity of the women’s choir song on the one hand & creating “an in-depth musical exploration of the concept of Unity” on the other.

The serenity of the opening is largely due to the percussion. (Now there’s a phrase which you won’t often hear.) Rather than mallets, the vibraphone, marimba, & glockenspiel are played with violin bows, to create a shimmering sense of anticipation, rather like a moment of early morning calm, just before the sun is about to break over the horizon.

A solo violin gently introduces the simple melody, which will be repeated through the entire piece, moving from one section to another. Especially lovely are the brief restatements by a muted trumpet, then the piccolo.

The calmness is broken by flitting birdcalls from the flute & dissonances from the brass & percussion (malleted, this time). Coleman describes their tense interruption as depicting “the clash of injustices, racism, & hate.” A bickering between the families of instruments gradually becomes more of a bantering conversation. United, at last, all instruments reembrace the opening melody as an anthem & accelerate joyously towards a surprisingly gentle conclusion.

Symphonic Metamorphosis

on themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Paul Hindemith (1895 Hanau, Germany – 1963 Frankfurt, Germany (age 68)

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 Eutin, Bishopric of Lübeck (now Germany) – 1826 London,

England (age 39)

Composed – 1940 – 1943

Premiere – January 20th, 1944 by New York Philharmonic (age 48)

Years Living in America – 1940 – 1953

Running Time – about 20 minutes

Allegro

Turandot-Scherzo

Andantino

Marsch

Such a wordy, dry, & academic-sounding title, for such a lively piece of music!

What we have here is music originally intended for a ballet which never happened, repurposed into an orchestral suite, based on piano music for four hands from 140 years earlier, part of which was incidental music for a play, which was also turned into an opera by Puccini. Let’s break that down.

The ballet in question was suggested by Léonide Massine, a Russian choreographer & dancer. They had collaborated before. He had Paul Hindemith compose the music for a new ballet, to be performed by his dance company, about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi: Nobilissima visione (The Noblest Vision).

After conducting that ballet’s London premiere, Hindemith transformed the 50-minute ballet’s small orchestral score into a 20-minute full orchestral suite, which premiered in Venice seven months later. It was September of 1938. That same month, he & his wife fled Berlin, for Switzerland.

Hindemith had made many American friends, during his very successful 1937 & 1938 viola soloist performance tours of the USA, as well as on his less than successful early 1939 trip to Hollywood. “I think I am quite cured of the idea of doing something here in the area of film (based on the completely crazy idea of creating something of artistic value). One cannot do anything of that kind in earnest.”

With the outbreak of World War II, later that year, those friends feared for his safety, & engineered a way of bringing him to America. They booked him a lecture tour of American universities, beginning in February of 1940. That tour led to him being offered a guest professorship at Yale University, in what he referred to as The Land of “Limited Impossibilities.”

It was at this point that Massine again approached Hindemith, for ballet music. This time, it was to be set to the music of the influential early 19th century German opera composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Hindemith was also a fan of Weber, & chose some extremely obscure works for the ballet, all from the first two decades of the 19th century. He chose those four pieces simply because they were all in a book of piano music for four hands which he owned & which he & his wife already liked to play together.

Only a month after arriving in America, Hindemith had already completed piano sketches of most of the ballet’s music. He shared with Massine the two pieces which would later become the Symphonic Metamorphosis’ first & third movements. It was not what Massine was hoping for. He wanted strict transcriptions of Weber’s music, more like Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor, which we heard at October’s concert.

Hindemith described what he had done as transmuting Weber’s music into something “lightly coloured & made a bit sharper.” He was not interested in merely transcribing & felt that what he was doing improved on Weber. When he then learnt that the ballet was to be designed by Salvador Dalí, whose work he detested, he & Massine had a falling out & the ballet was abandoned.

Hindemith’s reputation was as a composer of quite serious & often dissonant music. Some even called it dour. Three years after dropping the ballet project, he was attempting to compose a work which would be more broadly appealing to American concertgoers than his usual fare. He decided to take his extensive piano sketches for the ballet & rework them into an orchestral suite. This music was the result & Symphonic Metamorphosis has proven to be one of Hindemith’s most popular works.

A reviewer, at the Symphonic Metamorphosis’ 1944 premiere, called it “A real jeu d’esprit by a great master of his medium in a singularly happy mood. There is sunshine in every nook & cranny of the transparent, debonair score.” Of course, the critic also took the opportunity to take a jab at the style of Hindemith’s previous pieces, calling them “thick & overstuffed.”

The premiere’s programme mentions that the second movement’s source was Weber’s 1809 incidental music for Friedrich Schiller’s play Turandot, but only identifies the other three movements as “stemming from music Weber wrote for piano four hands.” Only many years later were those obscure pieces identified.

Weber’s piano duet entitled In Gypsy Style became the first movement. Listen for the off beats, especially in the raucous final bars, & earlier in the horns, then violins, with a melody echoing Romani folk music.

The longest movement is the second. Its origin does, indeed, refer to the same Turandot story which Giacomo Puccini turned into his 1924 opera, based on Schiller’s 1801 play, which is based on Count Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 comedia dell’arte play. Weber had discovered, in Rousseau’s Dictionary, a pentatonic Chinese opera melody, & included it in most of his incidental music. This was the first use of a somewhat authentic Asian melody in European orchestral music. We first hear this theme played by a solo flute, then the brass turn it into a fugue.

The slower third movement is meant to contrast the frenetic previous movement, with calm & contemplative solos from clarinet, bassoon, & flute, building a sense of expectation.

Intense & somewhat ominous, the popular last movement is based on a funeral march. It builds in complexity & intensity, rushing towards a rousing conclusion.

And that’s how we get from play & piano duets to opera, ballet, & orchestral suite. Truly a Metamorphosis of Symphonic proportions, if ever there was one.

INTERMISSION

Cello Concerto in B minor, Opus 104

Antonin Dvořák (“AHN-toh-nihn duh-VOHR-zhahk”)

(1841 Nelahozeves, Czech Republic (Bohemia) – 1904 Prague, Czech Republic (age 62))

Composed – November 1894 – February 1895

Premiere – March 19th, 1896 in London, England (conducted by Dvořák, cello soloist Leo Stern)

Dedication – Hanuš Wihan

Years Living in America – 1892 – 1895

Running Time – about 41 minutes

Allegro

Adagio ma non troppo

Finale: Allegro moderato – Andante – Allegro vivo

“I’ve just finished the first movement of a concerto for the cello! Don’t be surprised; I wassurprised myself, & I still wonder why I chose to embark upon something like this.” While in America, the 52-year-old Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák wrote this to Alois Göbl, his musician friend who was back home in Prague.

He’d attempted to compose one, back when he was 23 & cello concertos were a very rare thing. This was at the request of his cellist friend in Prague, Ludevít Peer, to whom it was dedicated. It was nearly an hour long, with only piano accompaniment. The score was lost, when Peer took the still incomplete score with him, when he returned to Germany in 1865. Peer’s score wasn’t rediscovered until 60 years later, 21 years after Dvořák’s death. Dvořák had written off the work as a failure & not worth pursuing.

Dvořák had also dismissed the very idea of a cello concerto as misguided, which explains his surprise, when attempting another one, later in life. This time around, he’d discovered how to overcome what he saw as the limitations of the instrument: a muddled lower register, a thin-sounding higher register, & an inability to cut through & be heard over a full orchestra.

So, what inspired him to try again & convinced him that it was, indeed, possible? Some say that it was Niagara Falls. Dvořák & his family stopped to see the Falls, on their 1,700 km train journey back to New York City, from the tiny town of Spillville, Iowa. They had spent the summer of 1893 in that idyllic settlement of around 350 Czech-speaking people. To be heard over the deafening roar of the Horseshoe Falls (it was much louder before the hydro-electric stations diverted so much of its water), he shouted, “Lord God, this will become a Symphony in B minor!”

His Cello Concerto in B minor is sometimes called his Tenth Symphony. He wrote nine actual symphonies (none in B minor), but many consider this concerto to be a symphony with numerous cello solos.

Another source of inspiration seeing his friend, the cellist & composer Victor Herbert, performing as soloist at his own Second Cello Concerto’s premiere, in March of 1894. Herbert had, in turn, been inspired as the principal cellist for the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony No. 9 (completed while in Spillville). Dvořák attended Herbert’s premiere & was so impressed that he came back to hear it again, the next night, & even borrowed the orchestral score, to study it.

Later that year, in his East 17th Street New York City apartment, he quickly composed his own cello concerto, between November 1894 & February 1895. It took him only three months, & would prove to be his last substantial composition, written while in America.

He had arrived in America in 1892, with his wife & two of his nine children, having been enticed to move by the wealthy patron of the arts, Jeannette Thurber. (It was Thurber who would later suggest that he subtitle his Ninth Symphony “From the New World.”) She wanted Dvořák to be the director of her newly established National Conservatory of Music & bombarded him with telegrams, in the end offering him nearly 30 times his current Prague Conservatory salary.

Initially excited about the move, after nearly three years in America, he was now growing homesick. Also, Thurber was no longer able to pay his lavish salary, although the amount which he had actually received was enough to provide financial security to his family, for the rest of their lives. He & his family would return to Bohemia two months after he completed his Cello Concerto.

The premiere took place just under a year later, at the Queen’s Hall, in London, England, with Dvořák himself conducting. A fellow Czech, the virtuosic cellist, Hanuš Wihan, had been asking him to compose a cello concerto to perform. The work is dedicated to Wihan & he was the intended premiere soloist; however, it was actually the British cellist, Leo Stern, who performed at the premiere. And he performed it on one of very few Stradivarius cellos in existence. Made by Antonio Stradivari in 1684, it was known then as the “General Kyd” cello, & is now often called the “Leo Stern” cello. The instrument is currently owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic & is insured for $3.5 million US.

This switching of soloists is often attributed to Dvořák & Wihan quarrelling. The composer did vehemently refuse to include two virtuosic cadenzas, which Wihan had written, one of which was intended to outright replace Dvořák’s music at the end of the last movement. You’ll notice that there are no cadenzas at all, in our concert’s performance, so you know who won that argument.

The complete lack of cadenzas is rather odd, for a concerto, & contributes to the symphonic quality of this concerto. As does his innovative orchestration, which allows the cello soloist to cut through the orchestral texture & be heard, such as in the first movement’s dynamic conversation between the flute & cello. Unlike his previous concertos, this work is very much an equal partnership between orchestra & soloist.

In the end, what prevented Wihan from performing was merely a scheduling conflict. The London Philharmonic Society insisted on a set date & Wihan was unavailable, because he was booked to be abroad, performing on an international tour with his string quartet.

One month after returning home from America, he learnt of the death of a close friend. This news prompted him to replace the original, joyous ending, with much darker, more brooding music. This was intended as a tribute to an unrequited love of his youth: his wife’s sister, Josefina Čermáková. It was this emotionally charged ending which he hadn’t wanted replaced by Wihan’s showy cadenza.

He also added, to the concerto’s second movement, a tune from his 1888 composition, Four Songs. It had been Josefina’s favourite: “Leave me to walk alone in my dreams. ” We hear it first from the soloist, played fiercely, in the cello’s upper register.

He defended this moody ending to his publisher, describing it this way: My finale closes gradually, diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first & second movements; the solo dies down to pianissimo, then swells again, & the last bars are taken up by the orchestra & the whole concludes in a stormy mood. This is my idea & I cannot depart from it!”

Dvořák’s mentor, Johannes Brahms, had also believed a concerto for orchestra & cello soloist to be impractical. His 1887 Double Concerto in A minor included both violin & cello soloists, for that reason. Upon hearing this masterpiece, he’s said to have quipped, “Why in the world didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known I would have done it long ago!”

Along with Edward Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto in E minor, this work, so loaded with lost love & longing for home, is one of the most frequently performed cello concertos in the repertoire, & has been a favourite of audiences since its premiere.

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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