SYMPHONY OF THE AMERICAS
By Lawrence Budmen
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major, Op.55 (Eroica)
One of Beethoven’s most remarkable attributes was his ability to constantly reinvent himself. Following his early, high spirited
Mozartean essays, he would move to expand the structure of the symphony, sonata and string quartet. These middle period works
display an expressive depth that was new and startling. Beethoven was definitely the path breaking avant garde composer of his
day. In his later works (i.e. the Ninth Symphony and final string quartets and piano sonatas), the master boldly ignored classical
formal structures, producing music of startling eloquence with hints of tonal ambiguity that presaged Schoenberg and the Second
The summer of 1802 proved a turning point in Beethoven’s personal and creative life. His increasing deafness, ill health and
volatile persona converged in a period of great despair and depression. In the
Heiligenstadt Testament (written in that elegant suburb of Vienna), the composer reveals thoughts of suicide and anger at God and mankind for his suffering. “I was on the verge of
taking my life. Art alone stopped me,” he wrote. His creative optimism renewed, Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony, the final
masterpiece of his early period; a score that outdid Haydn for sheer musical wit and ingenuity.
One year later the master penned his Eroica Symphony and changed music forever. In sheer length and scope, the Third
Symphony broke new ground. With its expressive energy and emotional resonance, this work charted a new course for the
symphony. It would be impossible to imagine the symphonies of such diverse composers as Brahms,
Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich or Prokofiev (not to mention such modernists as Henze or Schnittke) without the boldly creative structural innovations
and monumental, stirring musical language of the Eroica.
According to Beethoven’s friend, the composer Ferdinand Ries, he originally intended to dedicate the score to Napoleon
Bonaparte. The composer viewed the Frenchman as a defender of liberty and freedom. When news arrived that Napoleon had
crowned himself emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage. “Now he will trample on the rights of man and indulge his own
ambitions…become a tyrant,” the composer stormed, tearing up the dedication on the first page of the symphony. When the score
was published in 1806, Beethoven inscribed “Heroic symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
In sheer length and scope the symphony’s opening Allegro con brio is light years away from the scores of Haydn and Mozart and
Beethoven’s first two symphonies. The movement’s playing time takes up more than half of an average Mozart symphony. Instead
of the classical slow introduction or an immediate statement of the movement’s principal subject, the piece commences with two
terse chords which immediately define the key signature. The principal theme is spacious and long limbed, unlike anything thing
that had been written before. After the exposition, the development section is elongated, seemingly a struggle of thematic
fragments. Suddenly a new, gentler theme appears in the middle of this section, signifying a break with traditional structural
imperatives. A solo horn variant of the principal theme heralds the recapitulation; an elaborate coda bringing the movement to an
energetic, magnificent conclusion.
Instead of an andante, the second movement is a funeral march. A grave theme, punctuated by silences, establishes the mood of
grief and sorrow. Contrasting themes fail to quell the movement’s solemnity. In the central section, a double fugue seems to
explode within the orchestral fabric. At the movement’s conclusion, the principal theme seems to disintegrate.
That mood is broken by the Allegro vivace of the third movement. Conductor and musicologist Sir George Grove observed that
“before this movement… the Scherzo was unknown to music.” A frantic theme emerges from the woodwinds and strings, followed
by a joyous statement by the full orchestra. In the trio Beethoven added a third horn to the then traditional orchestral component for
a series of fanfare like figures.
Beethoven saved his boldest stroke for the Allegro molto finale. Utilizing a theme from his early Contradances (which he would
recycle in the ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus and the grandiose Opus 35 piano variations), he conjures up an intricate
set of theme and variations. After a boisterous opening, plucked strings suggest a variant of the theme which is finally stated by the
oboe. Contrasts of major and minor, marked by vigorous fugal writing, lead to a noble andante, restating the subject with warmth
and eloquence. A joyous coda concludes this monumental symphony in a celebratory manner.
Beethoven’s insatiable creative spirit inspires this final burst of high spirits. The symphony has made the journey from pensive darkness to light, mirroring
Beethoven’s own struggle.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat Major, Op.73 (Emperor)
After an initial apprenticeship (at age 12) as court organist in his native Bonn, Beethoven left for Vienna in 1787 where he would
meet Mozart and other musical luminaries. In 1792 he would return to that music capital for study with such established masters as
Franz Josef Haydn and Antonio Salieri. A virtual genius at piano improvisation, Beethoven became the first major freelance
composer-pianist. Freed of the duties of a court composer and the whims of a sometimes fickle aristocracy, Beethoven won acclaim
as a brilliant exponent of his own keyboard scores, a stylistically wide ranging series of sonatas, concertos and variations.
Between 1793 and 1809 Beethoven composed five piano concertos. His first two works in this genre reflect the strong influence of
Haydn and Mozart. By the time of his C minor concerto (No.3) the master from Bonn had adopted a more somber tone (with tragic
hues just beneath the music’s gleaming classical surface in a manner similar to Mozart’s C minor concerto).Beethoven’s G Major
concerto (No.4) breaks new ground with the piano stating the building blocks of the first movement’s principal theme prior to the
orchestral tutti. An uneasy struggle between conflict and serenity permeates that haunting score. Beethoven was the piano soloist
in the premieres of each of those works. By 1809 the composer’s increasing deafness rendered him unable to play the initial
performances of his final and most monumental keyboard work – the Concerto No.5, appropriately known to posterity as the
Emperor for its imperious musical force, unlike any of its four predecessors.
Friedrich Schneider was the soloist at the concerto’s premiere in Leipzig in November, 1811 which was a great success. The local
newspaper reported “the audience could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment.” The
score was considerably less successful at its first performance in Vienna in February, 1812, a charity benefit with the composer’s
pupil and friend Carl Czerny at the keyboard. An original and challenging expansion of the concerto form, the work did not
conform to the expectations of a gala audience that desired light entertainment.
Like the Eroica Symphony, the concerto is cast in the heroic key of E-flat. The initial Allegro opens with strong chords from the full
orchestra, followed by a series of brief cadenzas for the soloist. A bold martial theme commences the orchestral tutti, followed by a
more subtle secondary melody. Throughout the movement, the keyboard writing is boldly assertive and virtuosic. The classical
restraint of Mozart’s concertos has been left far behind. Instead of an elongated cadenza, a brief solo passage leads to the coda, a
triumphant and satisfying conclusion to an emphatic first movement.
The Adagio un poco mosso (second movement) is one of Beethoven’s most sublime inspirations. Cast in the surprising key of B
Major, the strings and winds state a noble, spacious melody. The violas add a dark undertone to the theme. When the piano enters
with a series of variants on the melody, it is like a burst of musical sunlight. According to Czerny, this movement’s thematic material
is based on a pilgrims’ chant.
In a brilliantly conceived transition to the Rondo finale, the piano
hesitantly suggests the principal theme several times before bursting out full throttle with a dance like subject which is repeated by the full ensemble. An elegant second theme (also with a
suggestion of the dance) pours forth from the piano. At the movement’s conclusion, Beethoven creates a duet for piano and timpani
(another original stroke) before a final restatement of the original theme. (Two years earlier Beethoven included a more expansive
passage for keyboard and timpani in the curious transcription for piano and orchestra of his Violin Concerto that he made for the
pianist-composer-publisher Muzio Clementi.) In sheer expansive scope and orchestral and pianistic power, this concerto is indeed
Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Festive Overture, Op.96
While the tragic conflict between artistic creativity and Soviet ideological orthodoxy dogged Dimitri Shostakovich for much of his
career, all of his compositions do not reflect this singular Russian composer’s inner turmoil. While his symphonies and string
quartets are often anguished and replete with pathos, Shostakovich also wrote numerous light hearted film scores and piano
Commissioned in 1954 to create a score to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, Shostakovich responded
with the rousing Festive Overture. A vigorous curtain raiser in the tradition of Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Overture, this giddy
score is a high spirited romp from first bar to last.
Stirring brass fanfares serve as a ceremonial introduction; a catchy
woodwind figure sets the piece on a speedy chase that serves as a demonstration of orchestral virtuosity. The strings strike up a broader, stately secondary theme. At the score’s climax that
theme is repeated full throttle by the brass with a final reprise of the opening flourishes. Shostakovich’s vital score is a lively,
instrumentally flambuoyant concert opener.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor, Op.64
The 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn is an appropriate time for a revaluation of this singular genius. A child
prodigy second only to Mozart in sheer creative impulse, Mendelssohn became an important teacher of composition at the Leipzig
Conservatory. As conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he single handedly revived the music of J.S. Bach (the first
performance in the 19th century of the St. Matthew Passion) and vigorously promoted the music of Schubert (the posthumous
premiere of the 9th Symphony) and Schumann as well as less starry contemporaneous composers. Mendelssohn’s remarkable 12 string symphonies were a product of his youth, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream written while still in his teens. During his all too brief life, teaching and performing had to share his time with composing; yet what a remarkable series of works
Mendelssohn produced. Far from being light weight, his creative oeuvre abounds with melodic inspiration, instrumental felicities
and formal rigor.
The Violin Concerto in E minor is a work of the mature Mendelssohn. Actually his second work in this genre, the concerto is one of
his most expressive scores. The great violinist-composer Joseph Joachim (who championed the concerto) noted that Beethoven
and Brahms wrote the most serious and uncompromising violin concertos but Mendelssohn’s concerto is “the most inward, the
heart’s jewel.” The composer eschewed display for its own sake. He regarded overtly virtuosic pieces as acrobatic feats; rather, he
fused brilliance and lyrical warmth and nobility in his E minor masterpiece. (Mendelssohn’s affinity for strings is also readily evident
in his quartets and the remarkable Octet in E-flat Major, written when he was only sixteen.)
Mendelssohn began his initial sketches for the concerto in 1838 and produced a completed manuscript in 1844. After consultation
with the violinist Ferdinand David (the work’s dedicatee), the composer made revisions to the solo part. David gave the successful
premiere on March 13, 1845 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Niels Gade. (Mendelssohn conducted
many of Gade’s compositions in Leipzig. After returning to his native Denmark, Gade would become an influential teacher. His
pupils included Edward Grieg and Carl Nielsen.) From that initial performance, the concerto has been a favorite of
violinists and audiences alike.
The Allegro molto appassionato (first movement) sings forth with romantic ardor. After some initial chords from the orchestra, the
violin introduces the movement’s passionate theme. Woodwinds introduce a calmer, lyrical contrasting melody which is repeated
by the soloist. In a major innovation, Mendelssohn places the elaborate solo instrumental cadenza in the development section
rather toward the close of the final recapitulation.
The composer links the first and second movements. The final stormy chord (in the full orchestra) of the first movement joins the
bassoon’s soft opening chord of the Andante. One of Mendelssohn’s most
captivating, caressing melodies sings forth in the solo line. A more tempestuous middle section (with confrontational drama between orchestra and soloist) is resolved with a reprise of
the initial theme.
After a brief introduction, the finale takes off with a rapid fire, brilliant theme that has the lightness of quicksilver – Allegro molto
vivace indeed. Concluding the concerto on a vibrantly joyous note, the final movement epitomizes the work’s perfect synthesis of
heady bravura and passionate romance.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Concerto No.3 for Piano and Orchestra in C Major, Op.26
From his earliest days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Sergei Prokofiev was viewed as an enfant terrible. Glazunov and other
conservative professors were shocked by the wild rhythms and dissonance of his compositions. As a pianist, his uninhibited style
proved equally discomforting to the old guard of Russia’s musical elite. Nevertheless the young composer prospered; the premieres
of his orchestral works scoring early success.
When he left the Soviet Union in 1918, the young composer-pianist intended to make a brief foray into the West to perform his
piano works and supervise European premieres of his orchestral scores, seeking commissions along the way. Reports of decline in
economic and living conditions in post-revolutionary Russia convinced him to continue his Western odyssey indefinitely.
In the summer of 1921 at age 30, Prokofiev was living in St. Brevin-les-Pins on the coast of Brittany and began work on his
3rd Piano Concerto. A comparatively conservative work after the shock of his first two keyboard showpieces, the concerto is still proto
Prokofiev. Quirky melodies and jagged rhythms abound. The demands of the solo line – replete with hand crossings and motoric rhythms – are enormous.
The score opens with an introductory phrase for clarinet which Prokofiev had sketched as early as 1917. As the full orchestra enters,
the main theme of the Allegro unfolds in rapid fire bursts from the piano. The composer lifted contrasting material from earlier
youthful sketches. After an over the top cadenza, the rhythmic thrust of the major theme returns to bring the movement to a
Prokofiev first began an Andantino and set of variations in 1913. In its final realization as the second movement of this concerto, the
ironic theme is deconstructed in a series of variations alternately blazing and contemplative, the solo line becoming ever more
The opening theme of the Allegro ma non troppo finale (cast in the form of a Rondo) is derived from Russian folk song. The
relentless energy of the keyboard role is briefly relieved by a central lyrical episode. Here Prokofiev’s penchant for expansive,
evocative melody presages such later works as the 5th Symphony and the ballet scores Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The
driving motif of the opening returns for a final speedy conclusion – a real workout for soloist and orchestra alike.
Some of Prokofiev’s most strikingly original works – including the 3rd Piano Concerto – date from his nearly two decades in the
West. (Paris became the composer’s main base.) Yet the composer became restive as audiences and critics did not always award
plaudits to his work.
In 1927 he made a highly successful concert tour of the Soviet Union. That rousing reception and warmth of Russian audiences
convinced Prokofiev that he should eventually return to his native country. He wrote, “I have to return. I have to immerse myself in
the atmosphere of my native soil once again. I have to hear the Russian language echoing in my ear. I have to speak to people so
that they give me back what I lack here; their songs, my songs.” After several return visits and prolonged negotiations with Stalinist
cultural authorities, Prokofiev moved to Moscow in 1936. That return to his homeland would call forth a new surge of creativity but
would bring disaster and tragedy in Prokofiev’s personal life. The 3rd Concerto continues to echo the creative fervor this eclectic
Russian genius found in the West.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
An Outdoor Overture
Six Old American Songs
Long recognized as the quintessential American composer, Aaron Copland synthesized a nationalistic style that fused American
folk and vernacular elements with traditional European classical structures. Born in Brooklyn, Copland headed for Paris in the
1920’s, a time of artistic ferment in the French capital. Stravinsky, Ravel, Roussel, Satie and the populists of Les Six (especially
Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger) were causing musical revolutions. (Premieres of new scores were sometimes greeted by riots.)
Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. (Boulanger’s students were a
veritable who’s who of American music from Virgil Thomson to Elliott Carter and Quincy Jones.) Copland considered Boulanger the
decisive artistic influence on his subsequent career. The composer was particularly grateful that Boulanger was not a hidebound
traditionalist, being open to jazz influences and dissonant polyrhythms.
Copland’s early scores were strongly influenced by jazz and modernist elements. By the late 1930’s he sought to evolve a style of
greater simplicity that would strike an emotional chord with American audiences. His ballet scores (Billy the Kid, Rodeo,
Appalachian Spring), film scores (Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Heiress) as well as orchestral miniatures and large scale
pieces (the monumental 3rd Symphony) would establish Copland’s decisively American sound.
Copland’s artistic populism led him to compose scores for young musicians. The children’s opera The Second Hurricane was one
such venture. Perhaps his best known work for young people is An Outdoor Overture, composed in 1941 for the orchestra of New
York’s High School of Music and Art.
The score opens with a strong proclamation, followed by a trumpet solo that expands on the initial musical statement. Later a
march like motif takes center stage. The themes are vigorously developed, leading to a final resolution of the opening theme.
Writing in 1939, Elliot Carter noted that this piece “contains some of Copland’s finest and most personal music. Its opening is as
lofty and beautiful as any passage that has been written by a contemporary composer. It is Copland in his
‘prophetic’ vein which runs through all his works.”
Copland’s enthusiasm for musical Americana led to his arrangements of two sets of Old American Songs. Drawing on folk music,
minstrel tunes, hymns and popular ballads, Copland imbued the material with his own signature harmonic progressions. The initial
five songs were premiered in 1952 by bass-baritone William Warfield. Among that first set was the Shaker melody Simple Gifts
which Copland had set as an elaborate series of variations in the ballet score Appalachian Spring. The popular success of that first
group of songs led to another set of five pieces in 1952. Originally scored for voice and piano, Copland rearranged both sets for
voice and chamber orchestra in 1954-55. Numerous composers and arrangers have made choral transcriptions of these American
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Symphony No.1 (Afro-American) – Fourth Movement
Acclaimed as the Dean of African American composers, William Grant Still was a prolific creative artist. His vast catalogue includes
numerous symphonic works, many chamber music scores, several operas, ballet music and scores for television and film.
A native of Mississippi Still was prodigiously gifted. He studied with Fredrich Lehmann at the Oberlin Conservatory, the pioneering
New England composer George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory and, privately, with the French-American
avant-garde innovator Edgar Varese. The young Still idolized the Afro-British
composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1876-1912), best known for his choral work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s found Still working with the Father of the Blues W.C. Handy (1873-1958). As arranger and
instrumentalist in Handy’s band, the young composer determined to create a symphonic work that would infuse the unique sound of
popular music in a symphonic tapestry. Utilizing some of the sketches for arrangements he conceived in the 1920’s, Still composed
his Afro-American Symphony in 1930. The premiere in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic under the direction of the renowned
American composer-conductor-pedagogue Howard Hanson marked the first time a score by an African American composer had
been played by an American symphony orchestra.
The score is in the traditional four movements. Its thematic material is almost entirely blues tinged. The fourth movement Lento,
con risoluzione opens with a slow, bluesy introduction followed by a snappy, quick paced finale. Still’s orchestration for the
symphony includes such instruments as marimba and banjo. A skilled orchestrator, the
composer’s talents would soon be utilized by Hollywood as arranger for such films as Lost Horizon. With its rich orchestral palette and vernacular influences, Still’s
Afro-American Symphony celebrates one of America’s most distinctive genres – the “blues.” This landmark score remains an
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
Born in the Auvergne region of France, Chabrier began studying music at six years of age. His family’s pragmatism led him to
accept a civil service position with the French Ministry of the Interior. In 1880 he joined the French composer Henri Duparc on a
musical pilgrimage to Munich to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Hearing Wagner’s operatic masterpiece provided an artistic
epiphany for Chabrier. On the brink of turning forty, he resolved to become a full time composer, resigning his government post.
Chabrier had only 14 more years to live and mental illness would overtake him after a decade, silencing his creative voice.
Chabrier composed many entrancing miniatures – the bucolic Suite Pastorale, the rousing Marche Joyeuse, the wonderfully quirky
and eccentric Bourree Fantastique and the lively, sparkling Espana, among many others. Like many French composers Chabrier
was drawn to the operatic stage. He completed the lyric tragedy Gwendoline (1886) and the opera-comique scores L’etoile (1877)
and Le Roi Malgre Lui (1887).
Le Roi Malgre Lui is a comedy set around the election of Henri de Valois as King of Poland. A French courtier and Polish princess
are involved in a series of disguises and intrigues with a predictably happy ending. Chabrier contributed a colorful score, replete
with ballet sequences (to correspond to 19th century French tastes). The Dance Slave is adapted from the introductory music of the
opera’s third act. The composer marked the dance “Mazurka” but, rhythmically, this piece is reminiscent of the polonaise.
Typically, Chabrier’s spontaneity glows through every bar of this balletic excerpt.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Concerto No.2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.18
Tchaikovsky considered Sergei Rachmaninoff his artistic successor. Certainly Rachmaninoff’s penchant for soaring melodies of the
most passionate and melancholy character and his rich sense of orchestral color are grounded in Tchaikovsky’s uniquely Russian
streak of19th century symphonic traditionalism. Yet much of Rachmaninoff’s output was conceived in the 20th century which is more
reflective in his music than many early critics realized. During his long exile in the West after the Soviet Revolution, the composer
was often viewed as hopelessly retro and out of touch with contemporary musical trends. His later works were sometimes dismissed
as glorified film music. Rachmaninoff’s harmonic vocabulary could be remarkably terse, his rhythms pungent, distinctly Russian in
character, yet very much of a new era.
Perhaps Rachmaninoff’s most popular score, the Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor arose from a deep artistic crisis. Following the
failure of the premiere of his 1st Symphony (an incredibly bold score that was ahead of its time) in 1897, the composer lapsed into a
deep depression. Unable to create and given to dark periods of melancholy, he consulted Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a hypnotherapist. Under
Dr. Dahl’s treatment Rachmaninoff regained his self confidence and gradually began to compose again. Dr. Dahl coaxed and
encouraged him to complete his new concerto. Rachmaninoff dedicated the score to Dr. Dahl and gave the first performance of the
concerto in 1901. (All four of Rachmaninoff’s concertos and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini were written primarily as
vehicles for the composer’s formidable pianism.)
The Concerto No.2 has proven to be Rachmaninoff’s most popular score and for good reason. Its melodic felicities overflow in
abundant spirit and the superbly conceived interplay between piano and orchestra is easily comparable in mastery to the concertos
of Schumann and Grieg. None of Rachmaninoff’s concertos open with the standard orchestral tutti – very much a break from 19th
century tradition. The 2nd concerto begins with an eight chord progression from the soloist which leads to a lushly romantic theme
in the orchestra, decorated by keyboard figuration. This material is developed broadly throughout the movement in virtuosic fashion, leading to a surprisingly abrupt conclusion.
The principal melody of the Adagio sostenuto is one of Rachmaninoff’s most ruminative creations, haunting and intensely
sentimental; the theme is given colorful treatment by soloist and orchestra. This
movement is a perfect example of Rachmaninoff’s
unique ability to create and sustain a mood through an extended musical arc.
The opening rhythmic figure of the Allegro scherzando finale could not have been created by Tchaikovsky or his Russian
contemporaries. This is music that speaks of a new century. Tin Pan Alley has long since appropriated the second theme which is
one of the composer’s greatest inspirations. First played by the strings and winds, then by the piano, this resurgent melody returns
at the movement’s conclusion in all its glory via full throttle treatment from soloist and orchestra. A brief coda highlighted by
pianistic fireworks concludes this touchstone concerto.
Rachmaninoff said “I am a Russian composer and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook.” Far from
being provincially nationalistic, Rachmaninoff’s music has survived the test of time and has sustained global appeal.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.23
Perhaps the most popular piano concerto in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s first essay in this genre had a tempestuous beginning.
The composer played his newly completed score in 1874 for the renowned pianist Nicholas Rubinstein, hoping for some technical
advice and a commitment to premiere the work. Instead Rubinstein launched into a tirade, calling the piece “worthless and
absolutely unplayable” and describing the thematic material as “vulgar, chaotic, trivial and commonplace.” He felt the score
should be “immediately destroyed or completely remodeled.” Deeply hurt, Tchaikovsky resolved to publish the work without changing a note. (In 1889, he produced a revised version of the score.)
When the composer sent the piece to Hans von Bulow, the German pianist and conductor was so impressed with the work that he
decided to play it on his forthcoming American tour. Tchaikovsky dedicated the concerto to von Bulow who gave the premiere on
October 25, 1875 at the Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The American audience’s enthusiasm was so great that the finale had
to be encored. The concerto’s first Russian performances took place in November (St. Petersburg) and December (Moscow) of 1875.
The soloist at the Moscow performance was Tchaikovsky’s gifted composition student Sergei Tanyev and the conductor was none
other than Nicholas Rubinstein whose opinion of the score had evidently changed. (Rubinstein would later add the concerto to his
piano repertoire and would become one of the work’s leading exponents.)
The score begins with three previews of the opening theme by the orchestral horns. As the orchestra sounds this most famous of
Tchaikovsky melodies, the piano offers layers of chords. Yet this grandiose opening is only an introduction. The real thematic
material of the movement (Allegro con spirito) begins with a dance inflected
subject, developed in a diaologue between piano and winds. A secondary melody suggests the calm before the storm. The tempestuous development section and an extended cadenza
presage a final reprise of the second theme, now ascending and positive in character, for a triumphant conclusion.
In the second movement, Tchaikovsky unconventionally combines a traditional slow movement and scherzo. The winds introduce a
theme of great tenderness and lyricism. Repeated by the piano and cello, the material seamlessly flows into a Prestissimo central
episode, both fast and replete with flights of whimsy. A return of the initial theme brings the movement to an elegant close.
The Allegro con fuoco finale is marked by a rapid fire, rhythmically
pungent theme – a challenge to every pianist in its sheer cascade of notes. A melody of imperial Russian character, introduced by the strings provides contrast. After a relentless
development, the second subject is jubilantly restated, leading to a fiery coda.
The B-flat minor Concerto has proven a durable showpiece. Pianists as widely diverse as Horowitz, Richter, Arrau, Cliburn and
Cherkassky have put their own stamp on this venerable score. Tchaikovsky’s melodic gift and unerring sense of contrast and
proportion continue to guarantee this bravura vehicle perennial status.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Capriccio Italien, Op.45
While Tchaikovsky’s music is often characterized by brooding melancholia, there is another side to this Russian master’s work. The
vivacious charm of The Nutcracker ballet or the imperial vigor of the Festival Coronation March evidences this composer’s light
hearted, ingratiating side. The Capriccio Italien is a bright, festive score, a musical travelogue of myriad orchestral colors and hues.
Tchaikovsky spent the winter of 1879-1880 in Rome. From his hotel he
could hear the trumpet calls each morning from nearby military barracks. When he decided to write an orchestral work that would reflect the sense of color and joy he found in Italy, he
turned that military music into the opening fanfares of Capriccio Italien; after which the strings intone a stately theme with a hint of
underlying drama. Soon the winds take up a jolly tune which gets Tchaikovsky’s full Technicolor orchestral treatment. The trumpet
introduces a melody with a decidedly Latin cast while the strings bring forth a rollicking subject. For his whirlwind finale, Tchaikovsky conjures up an incendiary Italian tarantella.
Capriccio Italien received its first performance in Moscow in December, 1880 with Nicholas Rubinstein (then director of the Moscow
Conservatory) conducting. Tchaikovsky’s insatiable melodic gifts and orchestral mastery shine through this vivacious souvenir of an
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Excerpts from Swan Lake
In 1875 Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the Bolshoi Ballet to create his first ballet score. The result was Swan Lake, a tale of a
noble prince, an evil magician who has turned a princess into a swan and the power of love to conquer all, even in death. Brilliant
scenes of ballroom spectacle alternate with more intimate sequences for the protagonists.
Tchaikovsky’s score was the first ballet to be conceived in large scale symphonic proportions. The composer assigned Wagnerian
leitmotifs for each of the principal characters. Previous ballet scores had been light pastiches by such minor league composers as
Ludwig Minkus and Riccardo Drigo. The elevated quality of Tchaikovsky’s superbly dramatic music worked against the ballet’s
Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky had been advised during the score’s composition by Vasily Geltser, one of the Bolshoi’s leading
dancers, many company members considered the music “undanceable.” (It is interesting to note that a different generation of
Bolshoi dancers had the same reaction in 1938 to Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet.) The orchestra, used to playing
lightweight scores, struggled with Tchaikovsky’s ambitious music. To make matters worse, the leading ballerina requested that
Drigo’s music be substituted for many of her solos and pas de deux. Only about half of Tchaikovsky’s score remained.
The premiere on March 4, 1877 was coolly received. The work remained in the Bolshoi repertoire until 1883. When Tchaikovsky
visited Prague on a concert tour in 1888, a special performance of Act 2 was staged. That was the only other production that took
place in the composer’s lifetime. After Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theater produced a commemorative
revival, brilliantly staged by the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa (who had been Tchaikovsky’s collaborator on The
Sleeping Beauty). First produced in January, 1895, that production created a sensation and firmly established the ballet in the
international dance repertoire.
Among the highlights of this grand score is a brilliantly aristocratic waltz from the ballet’s opening scene. A ruminative oboe theme
evokes the swans and the fate of the heroine Odette. Colorful Spanish and Hungarian dances highlight a ballroom divertissement.
Darkly evocative violin and cello solos mark the score’s pas de deux. Swan Lake is one of Tchaikovsky’s true masterpieces; the
work of a composer in full command of his melodic and expressive powers.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op.33
The year 1876 found Tchaikovsky writing at his inspirational peak. The turbulent symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini and the
score for the ballet Swan Lake date from this intense period of composition. After working on such highly impassioned scores,
Tchaikovsky turned his attention to a more intimate, classically conceived work – the Variations on a Rococo Theme. The composer
dedicated the piece to the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a colleague at the Moscow Conservatory and principal cellist of
the Russian Musical Society.
Although Fitzenhagen had advised Tchaikovsky during the score’s composition, he was not satisfied with the completed score.
Fitzenhagen deleted one variation and reordered the remaining ones. Tchaikovsky allowed the work to be published in the cellist’s
revisions. Despite these unexpected changes, the piece remains one of Tchaikovsky’s most elegant creations. With a tip of the hat
to Mozart (who Tchaikovsky idolized), the piece is scored for a classical era orchestra with the typically 18th century complement of
woodwinds in pairs, horns and strings.
After a brief orchestral prelude, the cello states the elegantly chiseled theme – all Rococo grace and élan. A series of variations
range from stately Mozartean ethos to a Russian aura of melancholy. The interaction between cello and the small instrumental
forces is intricately conceived. Instrumental colors provide wide contrast as well as accompanying support to the soloist. A final
variation provides a virtuosic display for the solo instrument.
In this score (unique in the composer’s creative oeuvre); Tchaikovsky exploits the cello’s expressive range for tonal richness and
ruminative song as well as fiery pyrotechnics. An early critic remarked, “In a highly complex manner, Tchaikovsky combines easily
recognizable themes and the ability to communicate, both of which characteristics existing within the context of a strong Russian
nationalistic feeling.” For over a century, this work has been highly prized by generations of solo cellists.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty
After his bitter experience with the composition and initial production of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was reluctant to undertake
another ballet score. In 1888, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg, proved persuasive. His proposal for a balletic adaptation of Charles Perrault’s tale of the Sleeping Beauty was eagerly accepted by the delighted composer. Working with choreographer Marius Petipa, Tchaikovsky conceived a sparkling musical component that he termed “one of my best works.”
Following the premiere in January, 1890, the work became a staple of
the Russian ballet repertoire. Sergei Diaghilev’s extravagant production in London in 1921 introduced the work to Western audiences. Stravinsky (who had retouched some of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration for that presentation) termed the score “the convincing example of Tchaikovsky’s great creative power…freshness, inventiveness, ingenuity and vigor.”
The elegant and famous Waltz occurs in Act 1 at the birthday festivities for Princess Aurora, the title character. This melody is one of
Tchaikovsky’s most familiar themes.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture
While the circle of Russian composers headed by Mili Balakirev (Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Borodin, and Mussorgsky) espoused overt
musical nationalism, Tchaikovsky adhered closer to 19th century European models. While his music is unquestionably Russian in spirit, Tchaikovsky was less interested in settings of Russian folktales and legends. Unlike his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky adhered to traditional formal structures – such as rondo and sonata form. In his own lifetime Tchaikovsky’s international success eclipsed that of his more nationalistic contemporaries. (Tchaikovsky’s appearance at the opening concerts of New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891 was evidence of the broad appeal of his musical language and his importance as a creative artist in the late 19th century landscape.)
Although Tchaikovsky’s creative agenda was different from that of the “Mighty Handful” (as Balakirev’s circle was known), he retained cordial relationships with his fellow artists. After the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Fatum in 1868, Balakirev had been harshly critical. Tchaikovsky respected Balakirev and took his criticism seriously. When Balakirev was dismissed from his position as director of the Russian Music Society concerts in St. Petersburg in 1869, Tchaikovsky published an article in his defense.
In 1869 Balakirev suggested that Tchaikovsky compose a tone poem based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The passionate, tragic nature of the tale appealed to the composer. Balakirev supervised the composition of the piece which was completed in late 1869. Both composers were deeply disappointed by the work’s dismal failure at its premiere in Moscow in March, 1870 with Nicholas Rubinstein conducting. Balakirev suggested a thorough revision and in 1871 Tchaikovsky produced a new version, tightening up the score’s structure and omitting the funeral march with which the work originally concluded. The Vienesse conductor Hans Richter championed this version, conducting it in Vienna, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Paris and London to sometimes hostile audience reactions. In 1880 Tchaikovsky revised the score’s coda and dedicated the piece to Balakirev. This final version (which he dubbed “Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare”) quickly established itself in the international symphonic repertoire.
Tchaikovsky does not attempt to present the action of Shakespeare’s play in a chronological manner; rather he evokes the characters, moods and action of the drama. The score follows strict sonata form. The slow introduction is a portrait of the devout Friar Lawrence. A vigorous, angry subject opens the exposition, symbolizing the violent feuding of the Montagues and Capulets. The sensuous love theme of Romeo and Juliet serves as contrast. Tchaikovsky’s romantic ardor achieves new heights in this impassioned music. In the development section, the lovers’ theme is played against the increasingly agitated portraits
of the families’ enmity, concluding in tragedy. In the coda, the music paints Friar Lawrence viewing Romeo and Juliet’s’ tragic deaths. Strong orchestral chords over sustained roll of timpani conclude this cogently stated score. Despite the work’s complex evolution, Romeo and Juliet is regarded as Tchaikovsky’s first masterpiece.
Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
Intermezzo from Goyescas
A La Cubana Marche Militaire
Enrique Granados was one of Spain’s most important composers. Writing in a delicate, often subdued musical idiom, he evolved a nationalistic style that seemed to spring from the Spanish soil. Granados was also a distinguished concert pianist and painter.
While Granados was born in Catalonia, his father was born in Cuba where he was a military officer. Granados left for Paris in 1887 to study with the renowned pianist and musicologist Felipe Pedrell. (Pedrell also taught Manuel De Falla and Isaac Albeniz.) Meetings with Ravel, Debussy and Saint-Saens opened new doors for the budding composer. He returned to Barcelona in 1889 to seriously pursue a career as composer and pianist. His first great success came in the late 1890’s with the zarzuela Maria Del Carmen.
In 1911 Granados created his greatest work – Goyescas, a six movement suite for solo piano based on paintings by Goya. The international success of this seminal keyboard suite resulted in requests for the composer to expand the score. In 1914 he produced an operatic version of Goyescas but the scheduled premiere had to be delayed due to the violence and turmoil of World War I. The opera received its first performance at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York on January 28, 1916 with famed soprano Lucrezia Bori in the leading role. Granados came to America for the event and was elated at the first night
audience’s enthusiastic response. He was invited to give a piano recital at the White House for President Wilson and recorded a series of piano rolls in studio sessions in New York.
On his return trip, the Sussex, the boat that the composer and his wife were traveling on, was bombarded by German torpedoes while crossing the English Channel. Granados and his wife both drowned in the resulting chaos. While Granados’ compositional output is limited, many of his intimate pieces are gems of the instrumental, vocal and chamber music literature.
In the Intermezzo from the operatic version of Goyescas, Granados creates a haunting, hypnotic melody for the cellos which soars radiantly in the upper strings. A brief, more extroverted interlude brings a reprise of the principal melody. This orchestral interlude is one of Granados’ most memorable works.
A master of the miniature, Granados pays tribute to his father’s background in the rousing A La Cubana Marche Militaire – a
splendid vignette of a totally different cast from the brooding Goyescas music.
Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963)
Unquestionably Cuba’s greatest and most popular composer, Ernesto Lecuona managed to straddle the diverse worlds of Tin Pan
Alley and the concert hall, much like George Gershwin in the United States. Of Basque descent, Lecuona was prodigiously
talented. At age 5 he made his concert debut. Following studies with the composer and pianist Joaquin Nin, Lecuona made his
New York debut in 1916. His piano recitals in Paris in 1928 launched a resurgence of interest in Cuban music
Lecuona wrote several scores for Hollywood films. The title song from one of them - Always in My Heart – was nominated for an
Academy Award. The composer was also featured on his own network radio show from New York for several years.
Lecuona composed many symphonic works and a series of virtuosic rhapsodies for piano and orchestra. The Breeze and I, an
adaptation of a movement from his piano suite Andalusia, became a Top Ten hit in the Unites States. Lecuona’s popular miniatures
(i.e. Malaguena, La Comparsa, and Siboney) were crossover hits spanning the concert hall and supper clubs. Some of the
composer’s most imaginative writing can be found in his zarzuelas Maria La O and El Cafetal, scores in which he fused operatic
radiance, Afro-Cuban rhythms and vernacular dance elements.
In 1960 Lecuona, a refugee from the Communist takeover of Cuba under Fidel Castro moved to the United States. In 1963 he passed
away in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where he had gone to attend a concert in his honor.
Siboney was composed in 1929 and almost immediately proved to be one of Lecuona’s most popular songs. First recorded by the
Cuban singer Alfredo Brito in 1931, Siboney has spurred hit recordings by such diverse artists as vocalists Xiomara Alfaro and
Caterina Valente and band leaders Dizzy Gillespie and Percy Faith., not to mention operatic versions by Placido Domingo and
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Orchestral Selections from Porgy and Bess
Arranged by Hans Spialek (1894-1983)
George Gershwin managed to transcend musical boundaries during his short but highly productive artistic life. Concert pianist,
entertainer, composer for theater and film, composer of symphonic and operatic scores - Gershwin managed to score in every one
of these guises. Contrary to musical lore, Gershwin had a very strong educational background, studying with classicist Rubin
Goldmark and avant garde provocateur Henry Cowell. Informal meetings in Paris with Ravel and Nadia Boulanger brought further
sophistication to Gershwin’s abundant musical gifts.
As a tunesmith, Gershwin was second to none. Usually collaborating with his lyricist brother Ira, he produced a series of Broadway
and London musicals replete with melodies that have become part of the great American songbook – I Got Rhythm, But Not for Me,
S’Wonderful, Fascinatin’ Rhythm, to name a few. In 1931 Gershwin made history with Of Thee I Sing, a political satire that became
the first Broadway musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1924 Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue caused a sensation, beginning a new classical phase in the composer’s career. In quick
succession, the Second Rhapsody, Preludes for Piano, American in Paris, Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, Cuban Overture
and I Got Rhythm Variations followed; fortifying Gershwin’s position as an American classicist.
George Gershwin’s most ambitious project was his three act opera Porgy and Bess. Based on a story and subsequent Broadway
play (with music) by DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess is a drama of love and survival on an island off the coast of Charleston,
South Carolina. Daringly for its time, Gershwin’s work required a mostly black cast of operatic singers. In an article for the New
York Times prior to the score’s initial performances, Gershwin wrote that his models were Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and
Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
Responding with his effervescent melodic gift, the score of Porgy and Bess contains such perennials as Summertime, It Ain’t
Necessarily So, I Got Plenty o’ Nothin, Bess, You Is My Woman Now and I’m On My Way. Gershwin’s sweeping orchestral and
choral writing are the work of a master craftsman.
The opening of Porgy and Bess on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theater in New York was a historic night for American opera.
Leading roles were taken by Todd Duncan, Anne Brown and John W. Bubbles with the noted American conductor Alexander
Smallens on the podium. Although initial critical reaction was mixed, Gershwin earned the respect of the musical community with
his remarkable first operatic effort. Reportedly, the musicologist and commentator Sigmund Spaeth was in tears at the opera’s
A series of revivals would fortify Porgy and Bess’ status as perhaps “the great American opera” – a unique and singular work. (In
1985, the score entered the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the title roles.) Gershwin
would not live to see the opera’s worldwide acclaim. He died on July 11, 1937 in Los Angeles (where he was working on the score
for the film Goldwyn Follies) following surgery for a brain tumor. Just as such other short lived geniuses as Mozart, Schubert and
Bizet, Gershwin’s musical legacy has proven durable.
The arrangement of music from Porgy and Bess being presented by the Symphony of the Americas is by Hans Spialek. Born in
Vienna in 1894, Spialek studied composition and conducting in his native city. He began a conducting career in Austrian opera
houses before coming to America in 1924. To say that Spialek became one of the Broadway theater’s most important orchestrators
would be an understatement. He arranged no less than 147 shows, beginning with Sigmund Romberg’s The New Moon in 1928.
Spialek worked with such theatrical icons as Cole Porter and Vernon Duke. His most lasting contribution remains his work as the
orchestral voice of the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. His elegantly tailored arrangements graced such productions
as Babes in Arms, On Your Toes, Jumbo, The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey. (Spialek’s snappy arrangement of Rodgers’
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet for the Paul Whiteman Band is an imaginative synthesis of swing and classic Americana.) In
1983, Spialek reconstructed his original 1936 orchestration for a revival of On Your Toes, channeling the sound of a by-gone era for
a new generation.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
When Beethoven moved to the music capital of Vienna from provincial Bonn in 1792, he first achieved public attention as a piano virtuoso. Particularly noted for his keyboard improvisations, some observers (including the Viennese conductor Ignaz von Seyfried) considered his wildly creative improvisatory talents superior to Mozart’s. Beethoven wrote five piano concertos between 1790 and 1809. All but the final score in this genre (the Emperor Concerto) were vehicles for the composer’s pianistic talents. In the classical and early romantic eras, the artistic personas of composer and performer were often inseparable.
Beethoven first two essays in the concerto form for keyboard and orchestra (No.1 in C Major, Op.15 and No.2 in B-flat Major, Op.19) owe a great debt to the light hearted scores of Haydn and Mozart. To be sure, Beethoven occasionally shows touches of his own more rough hewn artistic profile; yet these two initial scores are steeped in classical tradition. The Concerto No.3 in C minor is a bold step forward and Beethoven’s only concerto (for any solo instrument) in a minor key. Like Mozart’s C minor keyboard concerto, a score that Beethoven knew and admired, a mood of pensive darkness permeates the work with a vivacious coda in the concluding Rondo – a burst of sunlight to ring down the curtain.
Beethoven’s voluminous sketchbooks reveal the first musical blueprints for the C minor concerto date from 1796. The work was substantially conceived during the summer of 1800 but not completed in time for a concert at which Beethoven hoped to premiere the piece. (He played the 1st concerto instead.) Finally on April 3, 1803 the composer gave the first performance at one of his lengthy academy concerts in Vienna. Also on the bill of fare that evening was the premiere of his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and the 1st and 2nd symphonies. Beethoven told his publisher that the concerto was unique and special in his creative output; that the first two keyboard concertos could not be compared to it.
The expanded orchestral tutti of the opening Allegro con brio immediately establishes the key signature with an agitated martial theme. The secondary subject is a lyrical melody of serene nobility. The two themes are subjected to considerable development before the entrance of the solo piano. A stunning initial swirl of octaves leads to an immediate statement of the principal theme in dynamic contrasts of loud and soft. Even during the lengthy cadenza, the unbroken mood of tension remains palpable. In a bold stroke, the bridge between the cadenza and the coda is a diaologue between the piano and timpani. The movement ends pianissimo, tension resolved into soft catharsis.
The Largo continues the soft, contemplative mood. Here the keyboard plays figurations around the principal melody, prefiguring Chopin and Schumann. This is Beethoven at his most tender, telegraphing songful eloquence. This dreamy section sharply contrasts with the drama of the preceding movement and the lively finale. Carl Czerny referred to the music’s special quality of “transfigured, radiant calm.”
The concluding Rondo commences with the soloist stating the vigorous theme, albeit in a minor key, repeated by the orchestra. Mozartean lilt pervades the contrasting subject – introduced by the ensemble and, then, taken up with brio by the piano. A short cadenza leads to an exuberant coda, dance like and joyous. The concerto has made the journey from darkness and unease to Viennese charm and vivacity.
The C minor Concerto heralded a new era for Beethoven. His boldly experimental middle period had begun and the prototype of the romantic piano concerto was born. From Beethoven’s very first performance, this score has commanded the attention and talents of generations of piano virtuosi. Beethoven’s rich blend of romantic passion, drama and lyricism continues to speak to the listener in a timeless manner.