Program Notes: March 5, 2000
This delightful program brings us music about witches and children's travails, the folkloric landscape of Finland, an encounter with the bacchanistic revelry of ghouls on Mountaintops, and lastly a reminiscence in sound of dream-like tales. The imaginary and spirit world, filled with dimmest dark and sweetest sunrises, is conveyed through the musical language, to which Maurice Ravel said in 1937,
"the imaginary, the false, if you please, used to create an illusion, is mankind's one superiority over the animals, and, when he undertakes to create a work of art, the artist's one point of superiority over the rest of mankind."
Prelude to Hansel and Gretel
German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's (1854-1921) opera Hansel and Gretel was premiered by another German composer, the 29 year old Richard Strauss, in 1893. The story goes that Humperdinck's sister, Adelhied Wette, requested from him some incidental music for a children's play. A precocious and lofty minded composer, the young Humperdinck reluctantly acquiesced. After all, Humperdinck sat at his mentor Richard Wagner's side during the final copying of Parsifal. A children's suite was not what he imagined his career encompassing. Yet the result was so successful that he was immediately begged to produce an opera. And this opera gained him immense accolades, as Gustav Mahler called it a masterpiece, and "a delightful addition" to the operatic repertoire.
The overture, or prelude, is still often heard in performance, and the entire opera is still staged regularly. The Grimm brothers' tales are well known today, due in part to the great success of Humperdinck's opera. The overture begins with four horns singing the two children's evening prayer, which is soon broken by the trumpets heralding the witch's spell. Several other of the opera's themes are heard throughout, such as when the children are blithely munching on the witch's candy house, and the tune from the resurrected children's chorus.
The score is beautifully crafted (competently showing his learned ability as an orchestrator) and epitomizes Humperdinck's exceptional talent as a lyrical writer. One of the great successes of this opera is the folk-like writing, a composing ability well regarded in the music world of the day, and keenly mastered by Humperdinck.
Violin Concerto in d minor, Op. 45
I should quote the talented conductor Jed Gaylin in discussing this concerto: "This piece is a symphony." It is true in so many ways. The breadth of emotion captured in Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto, for one, rivals any symphonic treatment. The thematic development is quite symphonic, and though there is no doubt that this is a violin concerto, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra gives titanic handling to the orchestra. But this is no surprise when regarding Sibelius' compositions.
Johann Sibelius (1865-1957) was, and is, regarded synonymously with the country of Finland, more so perhaps than Churchill to Britain. As Verdi was to Italy, so the world knew Sibelius as Finland during that country's independence at the turn of the century. Born in Hameenlina in south-central Finland, Sibelius spent nearly his entire life in that country. He studied in Berlin late in the 1880's (around that time he "internationalized" his name to Jean), but returned to Finland and rarely traveled.
Sibelius became regarded by some as the "aristocrat of symphonists." Indeed the main body of his creation was seven unparalleled symphonies. It is not surprising that the Violin Concerto resembles such. Sibelius remarked that a symphony should grow from within itself with organic evolution, the music dictating its own destiny. This can be heard vividly in the concerto. Yet the work is no less a virtuosic piece for solo violin. It was very much a labor of love, as would be expected from a composer who had fostered hopes of a career as a violinist when he was young.
Regarding the completely unique colors of orchestration that Sibelius created, Ralph Vaughan Williams remarked that Sibelius could make a C major chord sound completely his own. And though it is almost inconceivable to disassociate visions of Finland (the severity and ethereal world that it encompasses) from the sound of Sibelius, his orchestral landscapes are also astonishingly singular to him.
The Concerto was premiered in Helsinki in 1904 under Sibelius' baton. The result was less than favorable as Sibelius claimed that the audience was "shallow and full of bile." The concerto was reworked, and in 1905 performed again in Berlin under Richard Strauss. A further revision gave us the version we hear tonight.
Night on Bald Mountain (originally St. John's Night on Bald Mountain)
Under the black cover of night, the followers of darkness revel upon a foreboding mountaintop. The Spirits of Darkness and their minions await the arrival of Chernobog (a dark devil.) He is glorified and a black mass is celebrated into the Witches' Sabbath. At the peak of this hedonistic gathering comes the far off toll of the village church bell, signaling daybreak and its tender mercies, forcing the ghouls to their desperate pits. This is what happens on Bald Mountain.
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) claimed to have been inspired by the confession of a witch who was burned at the stake in the 1660's. Bald Mountain (sometimes translated as "Bare Mountain") is in fact Mount Triglav near Kiev, and the music depicts the legendary Sabbath celebrations of Russian witches held on the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist. The piece was sketched in principle in 1858 with the composer Balakirev upon the novel St. John's Night by Gogol.
Having composed the work at age 27, Mussorgsky felt that he had created something truly Russian, "original...quite free, not deriving from German profundity and routine, but ... from Russian soil and nurtured on Russian bread." But it was so unconventional that Balakirev (the founder of the Russian Nationalist School) rejected it outright. It seems that the 'school' was not prepared for the rawness and lustfulness of Mussorgsky's creation. Yet it was certainly a beacon upon the paths that Russian music would soon follow.
The version we hear tonight was resurrected and reworked by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky's early death, and not performed until 1932. And this is not from the original score, but apparently from a tamer version reworked by Mussorgsky for a dream-sequence in an unfinished opera.
Mother Goose Suite
(Ma Mère L'Oye)
Listening to Mother Goose many years after my first introduction to it, the charm and sophistication is certainly not lost. There is so much more to Ravel's music than luscious melodies. His creations are an entire texture of sound; you are entitled to a grand view of the scene, sensing the temperature of the air, the smell of the wind, perceiving the shadings of light, and feeling the texture of the ground beneath your bare feet.
Maurice Joseph Ravel (1875-1937) composed the Mother Goose Suite between 1908-1910 for piano (four hands), and orchestrated it in 1912. It was later choreographed by the Russian impresario Serge Diagalev. Ravel is continually associated with the Impressionist period of music and art, and with Claude Debussy, yet Ravel never agreed entirely with those associations. It is true that his music shimmers with these influences, but Ravel's compositional style was far more unique. An affinity for sharply defined formal structure appears in many of his works, as well as the influence of other cultural musical styles. In Mother Goose, for example, Ravel borrows Javanese musical motifs in "Laideronnette, imperatrice des pagodes" with its stratified textures and use of percussion. (And of course, the famous Bolero  draws upon Spanish dance.) Regarded as one of the premiere orchestrators in Western music, it is interesting to this program to note that in 1922 Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition which is the version most often performed.
Notes on "Spirit Worlds"
I am especially fond of this program that delves into worlds of mystery tangential to and at times intersecting the one we most comfortably inhabit (forgive the "Twilight Zone" tone). I want to take a quick glance at Ravel's Mother Goose Suite in terms of the stories themselves, how Ravel has organized them, and some of the not-so-enfantine implications they suggest.
Ravel set up the first and fifth stories as bookends or the outer layer inside of which the middle three movements nestle. Thus there is in the first movement a "Pavane to the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods." It is the same "Beauty" who emerges with the prince at the happy conclusion of that tale and enters the "Fairy Garden" of the Fifth Movement. Ravel gave neither of these outer pieces any further description. The middle three movements are "Beauty's" dream sequence, her subconscious wanderings toward adulthood as she unwittingly prepares to meet her prince charming.
So in the 2nd movement, "Little Thumbkin," Ravel provides the following quote:
"He thought he would be able to find the path easily by means of the bread he had strewn wherever he had walked. But he was quite surprised when he was unable to find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten them all. "(Charles Perault)
The sleep deepens as Beauty plunges further into her own liminal regions, and finds herself lost. Her old childhood constructs (bread-trails--and mudpies?) are in fact devoured by one of the oldest forces in nature: birds. Yet this new mysterious force proves a strong ally. One bird shows little Thumbkin the way out. The new mysteries of nature, though bewildering will in fact hold the key to Beauty's later sexual transformation.
Ravel, in one of the most subtle and exquisite forms of musical depiction since Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, gently touches on the "events" of the story but more importantly imbues them with childlike awe. Thus the forest opens up, the trees become taller and taller, in the ascending notes of the string introduction. Thumbkin's music deepens as it switches from oboe to the lower- pitched English Horn. And Ravel ever so lightly traces the dropping of bread crumbs with two light pizzicati in the basses, cushioned by the low velvet clarinet of the forest floor. The strings climb again but now with a sense of foreboding as Thumbkin realizes he is lost without his bread trail. Just as in the second movement of the Pastoral Symphony, there are three unmissable but elegant bird songs. The theme returns, but now as an exquisite duet for cello (Thumbkin) and piccolo (the bird who will guide him home). The introduction reappears in its less threatening but still mysterious form. Thumbkin, with four brief notes, has come back to his naive self as oboe, and no more piccolo magic to deepen him into a cello.
For "The Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas (or Mandarins), Ravel quotes:
"She undressed and got into the bath. Immediately the toy mandarins and mandarinesses began to sing and to play instruments. Some had theorbos made from walnut shells; some had viols made from almond shells; for the instruments had to be of a size appropriate to their own." (Mme d'Aulnoy, Serpentin Vert)
Here, Beauty is now "Laideronnette," or the little ugly girl; at least that is how she perceives herself. She is immature, childish, surrounded by her childhood toys that come to life to pay homage. The charming, naive music combines an orientalist's simplicity with the effervescence of Ravel's fountains and water games. For the bath is one for a young empress in an imperial garden. The toy concert begins with the oboe solo . The fear and sparkly comfort of possibly being a girl forever is overtaken by a serious music of ceremony and solemnity as Laideronnette contemplates full adultish responsibility. At the heart of this almost impassive section of Laideronnette's imagining maturity is the ravishingly sexual, sensual flute solo. Our Laideronnette is on the verge of becoming a fully mature adult beauty.
Thus, at the very center of this middle movement, the awakening really occurs. From here the solemn music returns and gradually the water splashes bring Laideronnette back from her fantasy and fears of adult existence to a last childhood frolic of unadorned innocence.
In "The Discussions of Beauty and the Beast," after struggling with issues of becoming the adult female, Beauty has one more symbolic obstacle: coming to terms with the foreign otherness of the adult male. Perhaps it is significant that Beauty has taken on her own name again--having first been the boy Thumbkin and then the unformed empress -- having only now accepted her own young womanhood. Here are Ravel's quotes for the Fourth Movement:
"When I think of your good heart, you do not seem so ugly." "Oh, I should say so! I have a good heart, but I am a monster." "There are many men who are more monstrous than you." "If I were witty I would pay you a great compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast."
"Beauty, would you like to be my wife?" "No, Beast!"
"I die happy because I have the pleasure of seeing you once again." "No, my dear Beast, you shall not die. You shall live to become my husband." . . . The Beast had disappeared, and she beheld at her feet a prince more handsome than Amor, who was thanking her for having lifted his spell. (Mme Leprince de Beaumont)
In this waltz, the clarinet intones a supple, rich theme for Beauty; the contra bassoon grumbles an awkward passage for the beast. There are two climactic points: the first where Beauty rejects the beast's marriage proposal. Afterwards these two themes are played in counterpoint leading to the second climax: Beauty's kissing the beast and his transformation into the handsome prince. His theme is now played four octaves higher in the solo violin. Of course, it is important to remember that the prince had not change his appearance or attitude towards Beauty to occasion her falling in love with him. Rather, it was her gradual acceptance of him as he made his way into her heart. Ravel is perhaps hinting at a certain constant quality even after the prince's transformation: the beast's theme in the cello still has the same clash in harmony as it did when he was still "beastly."
This transition leads to the final transformation of the outer story of "Sleeping Beauty" -- Beauty's arousal from her dormancy at the Prince's kiss. The fourth movement leads directly into the final movement, "The Fairy Garden." This glorious creation is nothing short of fairy tales' garden of Eden. And so fairy tales and our concert end at "happily ever after", which is, for better or worse, where our real life and where adult tales often begin.