SYMPHONY OF THE AMERICAS
By Lawrence Budmen
Emanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
A native of France’s Auvergne region, Emanuel Chabrier was prodigiously gifted. Although he began music studies at age six, he was skeptical about his talents. Chabrier was trained as a lawyer and eventually assumed a mid-level post at the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. A trip to Wagner’s Bayreuth in 1880 with the composer Henri Duparc changed his life. He was determined to devote himself to composing. Chabrier would live only 14 more years and mental illness would forestall his creative powers. Yet the freshness and spontaneity of his creative oeuvre would remain endearing to listeners more than a century later.
Chabrier and his wife vacationed in Spain in 1882. Enchanted by the jotas, malaguenas, and flamenco music he heard in cafes, he jotted down several tunes in his composition notebook. After returning to Paris, Chabrier would amuse friends by improvising piano fantasias on some of these themes. Eventually he composed a pianistic rhapsody on these melodies. When he played the score for the painter Renoir and his wife, he broke several strings on the piano and disturbed the balance of the keyboard’s action. Realizing that the score needed the rich colors and instrumental power of the orchestra, Chabrier rearranged the work. Its premiere on November 4, 1883 at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris was a huge success and established Chabrier as an important creative artist.
Espana has three principal themes and literally brims with high spirits and sultry instrumental coloration. The Vienesse composer Emile Waldteufel was so taken with Chabrier’s melodic material that he made a waltz arrangement of the same themes. Chabrier’s craftsmanship and instrumental virtuosity, however, remain unmatched.
Piano Concerto in G Major
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
While Maurice Ravel inherited the impressionistic mantle of Claude Debussy, he always considered himself a classicist. Mozart and Saint-Saens were his heroes and he took more than passing interest in the work of Les Six – the group of French composers who sought to bring populist and music hall elements into their concert and music theater scores.
Ravel also became entranced with jazz – arguably America’s most original musical creation and its greatest artistic export. In 1928 he met George Gershwin in Paris. Already a pioneer in combining jazz and classical genres in his Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin wanted Ravel to teach him music theory and compositional technique. Fearing that he would crimp Gershwin’s original voice, which he admired, Ravel declined. In 1931 Ravel made a triumphantly successful concert tour of America. (The composer was also a formidable piano virtuoso and a gifted conductor of his own and other French composers’ works.) His host in New York was Gershwin. After Gershwin took him on a tour of night life in Harlem, Ravel resolved to compose a work that reflected jazz and vernacular influences. In a lecture in New York, Ravel spoke glowingly of his love for American popular music. He referred to “the rich and diverting rhythm of your jazz…the emotional expression of your blues…the sentiment and spirit characteristic of your popular melodies and song.” His artistic energies recharged with such enthusiasm, the creative spark behind the Piano Concerto was born.
One evening, over dinner in Paris, Ravel surprised the distinguished French pianist Marguerite Long when he said he was composing a concerto for her and that it might be unconventional. Prior to the work’s premiere, the composer wrote that the Concerto “is written very much in the same spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saens. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects.” The work was premiered by Long with Ravel conducting in Paris in January, 1932. It gave the composer one of the greatest successes of his later career.
Many elements form the musical gumbo of Ravel’s Concerto in G Major – echoes of American jazz and blues from the composer’s visit to the United States, the irreverent boulevard arabesques of Erik Satie, Stravinskyan neo-classicism, the instrumental transparency of Debussy, and the populist impulses of Les Six. Yet Ravel melds these diverse musical strands into a concise, superbly crafted, incredibly elegant vehicle. As a virtuosic tour de force or as a stylish, elegant pianistic soufflé, the Concerto is a 20th century masterpiece that represents the composer at the top of his form.
The first movement (Allegramente) opens with an acerbic, almost martial theme. After the piano enters with a bluesy subject, a wailing trumpet seconds the point. The rapid fire keyboard part continues almost unabated throughout. Ravel’s use of high piccolo, trumpet, and woodblock enhances the jazzy rhythmic thrust of the movement. The Adagio assai (second movement) opens with a languorous, rhapsodic theme from the piano. Orchestral strings and winds join to encapsulate the music’s dreamy aura. This movement captures Ravel in his most distinctively French mode – transparent yet remarkably spare. The finale opens with a clashing drum roll and bass drum that sets off a sparkling yet feverish stream of 16th notes that lasts unabated for four minutes. Here is a witty, irreverent musical soufflé of the most virtuosic variety.
Ravel’s later works strive for a simplicity of texture and harmony that is strikingly different from the lush orchestral scores that brought him his greatest fame. In many ways the Piano Concerto in G represents the beginning of the composer’s late, mature period. Here the composer is at the height of his creative powers. He manipulates melodic and formal structures with concision, clarity, and sparseness that are the hallmark of a master.
Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo
Two Dances from The Three-Cornered Hat
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Manuel de Falla was the 20th century’s principal embodiment of Spanish musical nationalism. Born in Cadiz, Falla moved to Madrid where he studied at the Conservatory with Felipe Pedrell, the most respected teacher in Spain and mentor to the Catalan composers Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados. In 1907 he moved to Paris where the impressionistic mist of Debussy and Ravel and the orchestral wizardry of Paul Dukas proved intoxicating. Dukas became an important champion of Falla’s music. (He arranged for a production of Falla’s opera La Vida Breve – a piece of Spanish verismo – at the Opera Comique.) Falla was greatly influenced by the French avant garde. The instrumental colors and transparency of his orchestral writing owe much to his French sojourn.
In 1914 the composer returned to Spain. The dancer-choreographer Pastora Imperio commissioned him to write a flamenco ballet. The first version of El Amor Brujo (Love the Magician) featured spoken diaologue and was scored for chamber orchestra. Less than successful at its initial performance in 1915, the following year Falla transformed the piece into a full fledged ballet scored for large orchestral forces. In that form, it has been staged and performed in concert as an orchestral suite.
The scenario of El Amor Brujo concerns a gypsy girl Candelas who can not consummate her love for Carmelo because she is haunted by the spirit of her dead husband. In the famous Ritual Fire Dance she exorcises the ghost that haunts her which allows her to marry her lover for a triumphant final curtain. The Ritual Fire Dance is quintessential Falla – colorful, replete with urgent rhythms and brilliant orchestration.
In 1917 the famous impresario Sergei Diaghilev (who had already met Falla in Paris) visited Madrid. He approached Falla with a plan for collaboration with the choreographer Leonid Massine and the artist-designer Pablo Picasso. (Diaghilev was noted for his combinations of creative giants in various artistic genres.) The result was The Three-Cornered Hat. Its premiere at the Almeida Theater in London in 1919 was an unparalleled triumph for the creative team. Massine later commented that, of the 100 ballets he had choreographed, he was most proud of The Three-Cornered Hat.
The plot of the ballet (from a story by Pedro Antonio de Alarcon) concerns a miller and his wife who is subjected to the amorous advances of a pompous Corregidor (governor). A typically comedic series of mistaken identities leads to the happy reunion of the miller and his wife and the Corregidor becoming the laughing stock of the neighborhood.
The score of this balletic masterwork reflects Falla’s archival research in Spanish and Andalusian folk music and the influence of French impressionism on his orchestral palette. The Neighbors’ Dance is a Seguidilla at a gathering to celebrate Saint John’s Eve. Miller’s Dance and the Finale emphasize indigenous Spanish rhythms and orchestral coloration.
Falla was the ultimate craftsman and artistic perfectionist. Over some four decades he produced only a handful of scores. Each is a unique gem. El Amor Brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat are two of the great dance scores of the 20th century.
Symphony No.6 in C Major, D.589
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
The prodigious talent of Franz Schubert emerged in his youth. He studied piano, violin, organ, and harmony. While a member of the boys’ choir at Vienna’s Imperial Court, he took composition lessons from Antonio Salieri. (Salieri was seriously misrepresented in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus. The most prominent and respected musician of his time, Salieri’s later pupils included Beethoven, Cherubini, and Carl Czerny.) By the time he was fifteen, Schubert had already composed two symphonies. These are remarkably fine works. Although these scores owe much to Haydn, Mozart, and even Spohr, they reveal a composer with a distinctive voice.
In the year 1815 alone Schubert wrote over 200 pieces – songs, operas, choral works, and the third symphony. Few composers created such divinely inspired melodies. Indeed his music seems to flow from an endless fountain of melodic inspiration. After leaving his teaching position at his father’s school in 1818, Schubert devoted himself entirely to composition. From this period come his 5th and 6th Symphonies – works of greater harmonic complexity and melodic richness.
It is astonishing that Schubert’s music was little known in his brief lifetime. His scores were performed mainly at intimate gatherings of friends that the composer arranged and participated in. Felix Mendelssohn (as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) was the first significant artist to champion Schubert’s works. While the Symphony No.8 (the Unfinished Symphony) and the Great C Major Symphony (No.9) are most frequently played today, the earlier Schubert symphonies are clearly the work of a master. The original Breitkopf and Hartel edition of Symphonies 4-6 (published in 1884-85) was edited by no less than Johannes Brahms who professed great admiration for these works.
Schubert’s choice of a Scherzo for the third movement of the 6th Symphony (rather than a minuet – as in the 5th Symphony) and the extended codas of the first and last movements and extended contrapuntal sequences suggest the influence of Beethoven. Yet the spirit of Gioacchino Rossini seems to hover over this charming, high spirited work. In 1815 and 1816 no less than four of that composer’s operas were produced in Vienna to enthusiastic receptions. The sparkling thematic material and elegantly tailored wind writing in this symphony (written in 1818) reflect Rossini’s hold on Vienna’s intellectual elite at that time.
A stately, classical Adagio introduction leads to the first movement’s Allegro proper. Two brightly spun Italianate themes dominate the movement. After considerable development, the themes are restated and the movement comes to a brilliant conclusion. An elegantly stated theme dominates the Andante with a contrasting middle section. The high spirits of the Scherzo extend to the trio which prominently features the woodwinds. The final Allegro moderato suggests a second scherzo in its lively thematic interplay. The central section introduces a broadly stated contrasting melody. Schubert’s ingenuous orchestral mastery dominates this finale to its conclusion (with a few musical surprises along the way).
It remains difficult to believe that this charming symphony was not published until more than fifty years after the composer’s death. Its inspired melodies and deft orchestration continue to delight and astound almost two centuries after its creation.
Symphony No.8 in F Major, Op.93
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are true monuments of the orchestral repertoire. Building on the resolutely classical symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven expanded symphonic structure and explored new formal and harmonic concepts. (He would do the same for the piano sonata and the string quartet.) With the exception of the post Mozartean 1st Symphony, Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies are often construed as the statements of a titan while the even numbered works disclose the composer’s gentler, calmer artistic persona. Such sweeping generalizations are less than musically accurate. The 1st Symphony introduces the Scherzo as a third movement in place of the classical Minuet. For all its glowing lyricism, the 6th Symphony (Pastoral) unites programmatic music with the abstract genre of sonata form. Wagner christened the 7th Symphony “the symphony of the dance” for its vigor and high spirits rather than for any sense of monumentality. For all its inventive exhuberance, the 8th Symphony breaks new ground with its Allegretto scherzando second movement. There is tremendous power and drive in this music as well as sheer vitality.
Beethoven completed the 8th Symphony in 1812 around the same time as the Seventh. He had worked on both pieces simultaneously. The rollicking melodies and rhythmic urgency of the two symphonies belie Beethoven’s personal situation at the time. During that year the composer visited several spas due to his unstable health. He visited Teplitz in search of a cure for his ever increasing deafness, and quarreled with his brother Johann over an affair with a housekeeper. The year of 1812 also brought the composer’s impassioned, enigmatic letters to an “immortal beloved.” Beethoven managed to rise above such travails to produce some of his most optimistic, energetic music. Even the other score from that year – the Violin Sonata, Op.96 – sings in intimate lyrical strophes rather than heaven storming thunderbolts.
The audience at the first performance of the 8th Symphony found the work disappointing. Its classical proportions and sunny disposition were deemed an inadequate successor to the Seventh. In his typically derisive attitude toward his contemporaries, Beethoven opinioned that “the little symphony in F” had failed to win over its early audiences “because it is so much better.”
Dispensing with a slow introduction, the first movement opens with a jubilant theme. Beethoven’s attenuated marking – Allegro vivace e con brio – suggests the restless energy that runs through the entire movement. The second theme is considerably more light and frothy. The development of these main subjects is marked by several crashing chords and harmonic changes. At the movement’s conclusion, the opening theme is only briefly referenced. Instead of the usual slow movement, Beethoven introduces a scherzando. Only one theme is repeated in strict rhythm and canonic form. This is a somewhat satirical imitation of a metronome. (Such inventions were all the rage in 19th century Vienna. Debate has long raged over the accuracy of those early metronomes and Beethoven’s metronome markings in the symphonies.) The movement’s abrupt conclusion characterizes Beethoven’s rough hewn humor.
Having already presented a mini-scherzo, Beethoven reverts to a Mozartean minuet. For all of its grace, this Menuetto is definitely not a court dance. After the principal theme’s initial statement by the violins, it is repeated by the bassoon. The elegant melody of the trio section is played by two horns and cello – one of the composer’s most felicitous instrumental touches. The principal theme of the Allegro vivace finale is vivacious indeed. A more restrained second subject makes a brief appearance. It is only repeated at the movement’s climax. Several modulations of key and tone enliven the treatment of the principal subject. The final decisive chords encapsulate the wit of the entire symphony.
Beethoven changed music forever. In the monumental grandeur of the Eroica Symphony, the lyrical ambience of the Pastoral, or the rousing vigor and wit of the 8th Symphony, symphonic form was reinvented. The finely sculpted lines of the classical symphony were put to rest and the romantic era was born. All future efforts in the symphonic genre (i.e. Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev) would be indebted to one singular genius – Ludwig van Beethoven.