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Program Notes - March 7, 1999 Concert

Max Derrickson

Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34

Heart's Wounds (Allegretto espressivo)
The Last Spring( Andante)

Edvard Grieg

Grieg was born in June of 1843 and died in September of 1903 in Bergen, Norway. He spent almost his entire life in residence there. He is considered the greatest Romantic Nationalist composer of Norway. His first great success as a composer was his incidental music to Henry Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. The French composer Claude Debussy, the leading composer of the Impressionist era, was very familiar with Grieg's compositions, and some scholars cite Grieg's later works as introducing the Impressionist elements which inspired Debussy.

For most of the 18th century, music for string orchestra occupied the crux of instrumental music making. But as the Romantic era ebbed forward, music written for strings alone lost its prominence. In 1875, however, Dvorak piqued a revival to this form with his Serenade, and in 1884, Edvard Grieg wrote his beloved Holberg Suite for string orchestra.

Grieg said that he enjoyed writing for strings more than he did for full orchestra. In 1881, he transcribed Two Elegiac Melodies from two songs of a set he had published a year before. The songs were written on poems by the Norwegian poet A. O. Vinje.

These two beautiful pieces linger a bit hauntingly on the mind. They are introspective and reminiscent in voice, mindful of soft breezes and a pangful heart. The first melody is written in three verses, with a core strain that changes instrumental color and mood in each verse. The second melody bears the thumb prints of Grieg a little more noticeably, with its exquisite lyricism and flowing lines.

Trittico Botticelliano

La Primavera
L'Adorazione dei Magi
La Nascita di Venere

Ottorino Respighi

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, 1879-1936, is often treated by musicologists with less than charity, but none-the-less is appreciated for his mammoth works for orchestra, the Fountains of Rome and the Pines of Rome. In fact, Respighi's musical gifts were not endlessly deep. Yet, what have become cherished in his orchestral repertoire are some of the most breathtaking sounds we know.

Respighi, to my mind, has come as close as any other composer to crossing a impenetrable boundary. This is the boundary between the perception of sight and sound. Even Oliver Messaien, who "heard" colors in pitch (a condition known as synthesis), did not write such visually precise and colorful music as Respighi. His closest rival, however, may have been Igor Stravinsky.

Not surprisingly, then, did Respighi compose Trittico Botticelliano in 1927; three pieces on three paintings by the well-known artist Botticelli. Of particular interest is that after the international success of the Fountains of Rome in 1916 and its grandly large orchestra, Respighi shows a unique versatility in the orchestration of Trittico Botticelliano. Here, the normal orchestral string section is accompanied only by four winds, a horn, a trumpet, and a "color" section consisting of bells, triangle, piano, celeste and harp.

Spring (La Primavera) depicts an assortment of figures in revelry in a verdantly luxuriant setting. One can envision oneself in Spring at a brisk mountain brook, dancing, splashing, watching the world become alive again. The longest of the three pieces, The Adoration of the Magi (L'Adorazione dei Magi) depicts the long, silent travels of the Three Wise Men to see the infant Christ, their illuminant meeting, and their spiritually glowing return. Respighi mystically captures the joining of the human heart and faith as it meets over the long horizon in the Christ child. Their faith is represented by the quoting of "Veni Emmanuel." And lastly, The Birth of Venus (La nascita di Venere--Botticelli's most famous painting) tells of the sea giving its miraculous birth to the exquisite goddess. Diaphanous waves with elegant rhythms swirl before and after the piece's central, majestic climax.

Petrouchka (1947)

Tableau I: Shrovetide Fair
Tableau II: In Petrouchka's Room
Tableau III: In the Moor's Room
Tableau IV: The Shrovetide Fair (Evening)

Igor Stravinsky

In 1910, Stravinsky premiered The Firebird ballet with the Ballet Russe, and with it became an international success. The collaboration between Sergei Diagilev, Stravinsky, and the brilliant dancer Nijinsky began and brought together what must be considered the most extraordinary minds in ballet history.

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Russia, became a French citizen by 1934, and then a naturalized American in 1945. He died in New York in 1971. His early musical training was of slight account (though his father was a respected Russian Basso) and thus he studied law. It was not until he joined with the great Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (who tutored him privately) that Stravinsky's musical talents became ignited. When impresario Sergei Diagilev heard Stravinsky's music in 1908, he believed that he had found a composer to write for his ballet company. In this was born The Firebird, Stravinsky's first full length orchestral work, his fame, and the genesis for two more ballets, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring.

After The Firebird's success, Stravinsky told Diagilev of his dream about a pagan Russian sacrifice, to which he wanted to compose a ballet score. But when Diagilev came to hear sketches of what would later become the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky instead played for him a piano "konzertschtück" (or mini concerto). That piano piece became his next ballet, Petrouchka, and was premiered in Paris in 1911. Indeed, one can hear the virtuoso piano score throughout the piece. And it was this premiere that created a new found awe in the mastery of dance and stage acting for Vaslav Nijinsky.

Petrouchka is the story of a carnival puppet, like the Punch and Judy characters, at the "Shrovetide Fair"--an "Every-puppet" if you will. The puppet leads a dismal life behind the show curtains, and is smitten with the love for the carnival's ballerina. As Petrouchka is treated without compassion by the Magician, the Ballerina engages in wanton affairs, and this snaps the poor puppet's sensibilities. Petrouchka breaks from his cell-like room, begins to attack the Ballerina's lover, but realizes he is only small and weak, and runs for his life. The Moor (the Ballerina's latest lover) handily chases Petrouchka down in the after-hours menagerie of the Fair, and hacks him down. The episode, however, only enlivens Petrouchka's spirit, which thumbs its nose at his tormentors from beyond the wood and straw of his carcass. It is very much a story of grotesque and exaggerated behavior. And it also is the kind of story that helped Stravinsky first realize one of his most characteristic gifts-- "the ability to express physical gestures and movements (and the psychological states that prompt them) in purely musical form."

As mentioned earlier in these notes, the ability to affect a visual sensation with sound is a daunting task. Stravinsky not only mastered this, but redefined it, at the age of 29 with Petrouchka, and again with The Rite of Spring. Though composed to accompany dance, the music alone speaks canvases of visual color, and indeed, choreographing both Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring have proved tremendously difficult over the years. The music almost projects more visually than the dance.

Musically, Stravinsky achieved with Petrouchka his first authentic voice. His influences came heavily from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, as well as Debussy. And though his voice was slowly emerging beforehand, Petrouchka gives almost completely over to Stravinsky's original musical mind. It is for this reason, its freshness and musical abandon, that I have always considered this to be more of Stravinsky's masterpiece than even his Rite of Spring. Here, instruments are boiled down to their own precise colors, which in themselves become musical motifs, rather than the orchestral blending of them. And here, tonally, Stravinsky uses modality and bitonality more than ever before. There is still a basic tonal undercurrent, however, which lends to keeping the story and actions flowing together, allowing room for endless coloristic effects. There is a chord used in this work, the famous "Petrouchka chord," of a C-Major against an F#-Major. Though not unheard of, Stravinsky makes it a blaring musical motif, which had not been heard of. Cleverly, the four scenes, or movements, are announced by the rhythmic pounding of the timpani and side drum, as would be heard at the carnival.

The version presented here is his revision of 1947, two years after Stravinsky had become an American citizen. The revision was based in part on Stravinsky's new ability to claim his own copyright in his work, in part due to new publishing contracts, and to pare down the many instruments into a more practical orchestra. He also prepared an optional concert ending for the work which is a brilliant fortissimo, rather than the quiet, question-like ending of the C and F# roots of the "Petrouchka chord" in the 1911 version. Today, you will hear the original ending from 1911.