Past, Present, and Future
This concert highlights some of the many paths and inspirations that music explored during the early 20th Century. In 1884, Claude Debussy’s Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” was a celebration of orchestral color. Its tonal and formal ambiguity also made it a turning point in music, marking the beginning of the era of Modernism. Ottorino Respighi’s "Ancient Airs and Dances Suite I" looks to the past focusing on 16th Century music through a modern lens. Paul Hindemith continued on the path of the Romantic Era in his stunning "Symphonie Mathis Der Maler", while Igor Stravinsky began to push the boundaries of music in his own way with his impetuous "Firebird Suite".
Ancient Airs and Dances Suite 1
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1
Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
Style: Contemporary casting of Renaissance and Baroque styles
Duration: Sixteen minutes
In spite of all the crazy things that were happening in the musical world in the early part of the twentieth century, some composers were actually doing very nicely writing beautiful and “unobjectionable” music. Ottorino Respighi was one of ten composers who signed a manifesto advocating the idea that music is communication. “We are against art which cannot and does not have any human content and desires to be merely a mechanical demonstration and a cerebral puzzle,” they wrote. “A logical chain binds the past and the future—the romanticism of yesterday will again be the romanticism of tomorrow.”
Respighi made his first big splash in 1916 with his orchestral tone-poem, The Fountains of Rome. Over the next twelve years, more blockbuster showpieces followed: The Pines of Rome, Church Windows, and Roman Festivals. In each of these, Respighi demonstrated his absolute mastery of writing for the orchestra, a skill he learned from his most influential teacher, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov.
Baroque and Renaissance music fascinated Respighi. He arranged several lute and keyboard pieces from these periods for orchestra. Keeping the melodies and harmonies intact, he dressed them up in modern orchestral clothing. His Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 is his first attempt at this sort of thing. Eventually he wrote three sets of Ancient Airs and a couple of other sets with different titles, such as Gli uccelli (The Birds). As you listen to the four dances in this suite, you will agree with the Italian musicologist Guido Gatti: “Here is an elegant way of writing, in the sense of the rhetoric of another day; a beautiful harmonizing, a splendid method of orchestration; and with this is a desire to be agreeable, well mannered, and respectable at all costs.”
Symphonie Mathis Der Maler
Symphony: Mathis der Maler
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Duration: 28 minutes
As the political situation in Europe deteriorated between the two world wars, the American music scene profited. What would Hollywood movies be like without the great film scores by Erich Korngold, Dmitri Tiomkin, and Franz Waxman? All of them immigrated to this country in the 1930's. The two mega-stars of contemporary music, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, did the same and moved to California.
Paul Hindemith was one of the leading composers in Germany until he ran afoul of the Nazi party. They condemned his music; Goebbels called him an atonal noise maker (“atonaler Geräuschemacher”). In 1937 Hindemith quit his prestigious post at the Berlin Musikhochschule and went to live in Switzerland. Three years later, he came to this country, became an American citizen, and taught at Yale University. Today, Hindemith is remembered not only for his music, but also for the profound influence he had on many of his students who became composers and teachers and who have, in turn, influenced their own students.
Hindemith was a modernist, but he never abandoned tonality the way Schoenberg did, and he didn’t go off the deep end rhythmically and harmonically they way Stravinsky did. “I . . . believe that the reproaches made against most modern music are only too well deserved,” he wrote. "Tonality is a natural force, like gravity. . . . The key and its body of chords is not the natural basis of tonal activity. What Nature provides is the intervals. The juxtaposition of intervals, as of chords, which are the extensions of intervals, give rise to the key. We are no longer the prisoners of the key."
Hindemith started writing an opera based on the life of the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475–1528) in the mid–1930s (before he came to America). The plot wrestles with the age-old question of the role of the artist in society (and echoes Hindemith’s own response to evil and violence through his music). Hindemith has Grünewald forsaking his art to join the Peasant’s War, and later abandoning the war because of its violence. In a vision, Grünewald imagines himself as St. Anthony, who the Saint Paul the Hermit instructs to “bow humbly before your brother and selflessly offer him the holiest creation of your inmost faculties.” Grünewald returns home and “finishes his life in a draining creative burst.”
Well before Hindemith finished the opera, the conductor William Furtwangler asked him to write a new piece for the Berlin Philharmonic to take on tour. Hindemith extracted material from the opera—specifically those parts that were inspired by the majestic panels of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1516)—and shaped it into a three-movement symphony. The first movement, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) served as the opera’s overture. It corresponds to Grünewald’s painting of the Nativity of Christ where a band of angels serenade Mary and Jesus. Hindemith incorporates a German folk tune, “Es sungen drei Angel (Three Angels Sang), throughout the movement. The short second movement Grablegung (Entombment) comes from the very end of the opera, during Grünewald’s last creative surge and eventual death. It corresponds to the painting at the base of the altarpiece showing Christ as he is laid into the tomb.
The expansive third movement is based on two paintings from the altarpiece; one showing St. Anthony meeting Saint Paul the Hermit, and the other showing St. Anthony being tormented by demons. At the beginning of the movement Hindemith wrote Grünewald’s words into the score: “Where were you, good Jesus? Why did you not come and heal my wounds?” Towards the end of the movement, Hindemith quotes the 13th century hymn Lauda Sion Salvatorem (written by Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi): Sion, lift up thy voice and sing/Praise thy Savior and thy King/Praise with hymns thy shepherd true. The symphony ends with a triumphant Alleluia proclaimed by the brass.
Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun"
Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune” (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”)
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Duration: Ten minutes
“Was it a dream I loved?” asks the mythological faun in the opening lines of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem The Afternoon of a Faun. Were those sensuous nymphs he carried off real or just imagined? When the young composer Claude Debussy met Mallarmé, and heard The Afternoon of a Faun, he was intrigued by the idea of turning the poem into a ballet. Debussy worked for the better part of two years on the brief opening scene and soon realized that the symbolism of Mallarme’s poem was not easily suited to the theater. He contented himself by reworking the opening section as an orchestral concert piece and called it a “prelude.” “The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem,” he wrote. “By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather, there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon.”
By the time Debussy wrote the Prélude to “The Afternoon of a Faun,” he was already known as someone who was willing to break the established rules of composition. “Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity,” he said. Debussy intentionally left dissonances unresolved, using them solely for their colorful effect. Debussy used scales other than the traditional major and minor ones. He also handled rhythm differently. Instead of having a clearly defined beat grouped into distinct measures, Debussy purposely confused the rhythm. Others considered Debussy’s music dangerous. “Better not listen to it,” Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov once facetiously said. “You risk getting used to it, and then end up by liking it.”
The flute, representing the faun’s panpipe, begins the Prélude, but its theme seems to lack any definable key and sputters out, giving way to the horns. The flute begins again and gives way to the oboe. For the third time the flute starts, and this time extends the theme into a full-blown melody. The clarinet introduces a new theme that grows in intensity and passion as the whole orchestra joins in. Suddenly, the oboe and English horn play a tune that mimics a dream dissipating, and the flute returns with the opening theme. Just like the beginning, it fades away, leaving us to ask, “Was it a dream?”
After hearing Debussy’s Prélude to his L’après-midi d’un faune,” Mallarmé wrote a little poem on a copy of the music: “Sylvan creature of the first breath/if your flute has succeeded/hearken to all light/which Debussy will breathe into it.”
Firebird Suite (1919)
Suite from “The Firebird”
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Duration: 23 minutes
A quick series of events led to the rapid rise of Igor Stravinsky from unknown composer to the enfant terrible of the musical world. In 1908, Stravinsky wrote a short piece (Fireworks) to celebrate the wedding of the daughter of his beloved teacher, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov. Just a few days after he completed the score, Rimsky-Korsakov passed away and Stravinsky lost an important advocate for his music. Then, a few months later, Stravinsky gained a new champion when the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard a performance of Fireworks.
Because of that hearing, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to arrange a few pieces by other composers (Chopin and Grieg) for the opening season of the Ballets Russes in Paris. The success of those pieces didn’t immediately help Stravinsky. Diaghilev and the choreographer Michel Fokine asked another Russian composer, Anatol Liadov, to write the music for a new ballet based on the story of The Firebird. Liadov was something of a procrastinator so, needing music soon, Diaghilev turned to the young Stravinsky. He started work on The Firebird in November 1909, and had the completed score ready for Diaghilev by April 1910. “Mark him well,” Diaghilev said to the prima ballerina during a rehearsal. “He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Indeed he was. Between 1910 and 1913, Stravinsky wrote three ballets for the Ballet Russes: The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring. The success of those ballets put Stravinsky at the head of the avant-garde, and forever changed “classical” music.
Stravinsky based The Firebird on a number of Russian folk tales. Prince Ivan catches a magic bird who, in exchange for her release, grants one of her feathers to him with the promise that she will come to Ivan’s aid if he ever needs it. Later, the Prince stumbles upon the ancient castle of the evil King Kastchei, who holds thirteen princesses captive. The prince falls in love with one of them, and then Kastchei captures him. Ivan remembers the magic feather and summons the Firebird. She arrives and causes all of the evil inhabitants of the castle to dance themselves to exhaustion. After lulling everyone to sleep, the Firebird leads Ivan to a huge egg that contains Kastchei’s evil soul. He smashes the egg, Kastchei dies, and the prince and princess marry.
Stravinsky produced three separate suites from the full-length ballet. The one from 1911 uses a huge orchestra. The one most frequently performed (and used tonight) comes from 1919. It uses a more standard-sized orchestra. In 1946, while living in America, Stravinsky extracted a third suite, again using a smaller orchestra, but including more selections from the ballet.
In the first movement of this suite, we hear the Prince as he is wandering around at night. A sudden shimmering announces the Firebird and the second movement: her solo dance. The third movement is the dance of the princesses outside of the castle. The fourth movement abruptly shatters the stillness of the princesses’ dance. It is the frenetic dance of King Kastchei and all of his entourage. The final movement is the Firebird’s song that lulls all of the enemies to sleep. It leads directly to the brilliant and majestic ending of the ballet. When the brilliant Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff heard The Firebird, his only comment was, “Lord, how much more than genius this is—it is real Russia!”