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Program Notes: December 6, 2003

"Sorcerer's Solstice"

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini late in his life, during the summers of 1932, 1933, and 1934. The work was premiered in our fair city of Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, and Rachmaninoff himself at the keyboard. From its debut, the Rhapsody has met with undying love from audiences and less than complete enthusiasm from critics. To critics, the work is pure fancy, not serious art music, an audience appeaser; to most other listeners, the Rhapsody is an aural wonder and a masterpiece.

The Russian-born Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with highest honors in piano and composition. After a successful career in Russia, he left on the eve of the 1917 Revolution, dividing his next years between Europe and the United States and finally settling in the U.S. For a short time, his music was banned in the Soviet Union and he was considered an enemy of the state. Although he never returned to the Soviet Union, his music always kept its Russian character.

A lesser-known aspect of Rachmaninoff's life and ideals was his effort to bring back 19th Century plainchant into Orthodox Church services. This passion led to his writing the extraordinary choral work Vespers (All-Night Vigil). It is no wonder that he was nearly obsessed with the "Dies Irae," an ancient Christian chant describing the Last Judgment. The "Dies Irae" chant finds its way into several of Rachmaninoff's works and has become largely associated with him, notwithstanding its use in Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The Rhapsody is essentially a piano concerto in three connected parts, based on the 24th Caprice by the 19th Century violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. Not only was Paganini's musical prowess legendary, but his life was colorful enough to produce legends of its own. He was banned from the Church on the rumor that he had sold his soul to the Devil in trade for his virtuosic talents and limitless women. Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody is a programmatic telling of Paganini's story, beginning with the well-known 24th Caprice, the variations portraying his triumphs and struggles, the Dies Irae chant suggesting his unholy alliance, the beautiful rhapsody expressing his romances, and then his final defeat.

Paganini's theme is heard only after a brief introduction and the first variation. Then the theme is presented in full by the strings-an unusual twist for a piano work. From there Rachmaninoff crafts the theme into every imaginable variation, full of pathos, frenzy, gallantry, and tenderness, using his unique mastery of orchestration and heavy helpings of piano virtuosity. The work's pacing never lets the listener rest.

Despite the pyrotechnics, the piece really owes its fame to the exquisite Rhapsody section, Variation 18. Here Rachmaninoff literally turns Paganini's theme upside down. The result is perhaps the most cherished Romantic melody ever penned. Lush and sweeping, the Rhapsody variation never fails to endear itself, and the work as a whole remains an audience favorite.

Totentanz (Dance of Death)

Franz Lizst (1811-1886)

Performing Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody and Liszt's Totentanz on the same program is no coincidence. Rachmaninoff based his Rhapsody on Liszt's theme and variations, and the "Dies Irae" chant appears in both works.

Composer and pianist Franz Liszt was born in the small village of Raiding, Hungary. He became such a piano virtuoso that for a century he was considered the most accomplished pianist of all time. Liszt was also a visionary and composer whose works shaped the Romantic musical era. He created the "symphonic poem" (also called "tone poem"), a form that inspired many later composers. The symphonic poem is a single-movement work based on a non-musical idea like a story or picture. Although Liszt's B Minor Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto No. 1 are played more often, the Totentanz is his most solid creation in the new form.

The piece has a complicated history. It is said to have been inspired by a 14th Century fresco that Liszt saw in Pisa, Italy. The painting by Florentine artist Andrea Orcagna was titled "Il trionfo della morte" ("The Triumph of the Dead"). Liszt wrote and rewrote the score several times between 1839 and its 1865 premiere at The Hague under conductor Hans von Bülow, to whom Liszt dedicated the score.

For a work about the triumph of the dead, it is not surprising that Liszt turned to the well-known "Dies Irae" chant. Like Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody, Liszt's Totentanz is a theme and variations for piano and orchestra, and, like the Rhapsody, roughly in the shape and size of a piano concerto. The piece epitomizes Liszt's ground-breaking musical vision: harmonic invention decades ahead of its time, and Liszt's signature "transcendental virtuosity." As you listen, remember that Liszt conceived the Totentanz nearly 100 years before Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody!

Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician)

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

The exotic Danza ritual del fuego (Ritual Fire Dance) from Manuel de Falla's well-known suite for orchestra and mezzo-soprano, El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician), crosses the divide between life and death. Heavily imbued with folk-like melodies and Spanish flavor, the suite tells the story of the widowed gypsy, Candela, who is hectored by the ghost of her jealous late husband. Anxious to move on to a new lover, Candela arranges for her friend Lucia to distract the haunting spirit by flirting with it. At long last, Candela must resort to sorcery to free herself. After a brief interlude called "Midnight - Witchcraft" comes the Ritual Fire Dance, in which Candela has to dance around open flames to ward off the evil spirits plaguing her.

De Falla was Spain's most important composer since the Renaissance, perhaps in part because of his travels to Paris, where Debussy and Ravel befriended him and influenced his compositional techniques. Although contemporary critics often complained of the "Frenchness" (read: Impressionism) of de Falla's works, his popularity in Spain was owed rather to the nationalistic color in his music. He studied and adored Spanish folk music, and began his career as a theatrical musician where flamenco was wildly popular. Impeccably Spanish in color and texture, de Falla boasted that his compositions were entirely original. The first program book for El Amor Brujo claimed, "Every song is of [de Falla's] own invention, and it is his particular glory that he has succeeded in making it almost impossible to believe that they are not actual popular material." Notwithstanding the feeling that this statement is introducing a bullfight or puppet show, the ability to sound convincingly authentic to a culture without using actual folk songs is much more difficult than it appears.

In any case, the Ritual Fire Dance is a favorite in the concert hall, capturing the exotic sight of a middle-aged gypsy dancing furiously around a campfire in the dead of night as she conjures and shuns disquieted spirits that should have been dancing in triumph on the other side.

La Noche de los Mayas

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)

At last, we return to our side of the globe, to the indigenous Mayan peoples and the remarkably talented Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. During his short 40 years of life, Revueltas wrote many masterful compositions, pieces that showed a bold, original, quintessentially Mexican voice.

Revueltas was born to a Mexican family of almost excessive talent (his brother was a painter, his sister an actress) during a neo-Renaissance in Mexican culture following the Revolution of 1910-1920. After studying in Mexico and Chicago, Revueltas returned home as one of Mexico's most gifted national composers, writing successfully for orchestra and chamber groups as well as for stage and film. Among his champions were Aaron Copland and Erich Kleiber. His early death from chronic alcoholism was a tragic loss to the musical world.

La Noche de los Mayas is a suite derived from the score that Revueltas composed for an ambitious film of the same name, completed in 1939. Unfortunately, the film fell far short of its goals of portraying the life of the Mayan people. Revueltas made a personal crusade out of salvaging the score, but he never created a performance suite. In 1960, 20 years after the composer's death, Mexican conductor Jose Yves Limantour produced the four-movement suite that you will hear today.

At once, La Noche brings us to a land and a beautiful people of rich antiquity. The bombastic gongs, drums, and brass fanfares conjure up the incomparable Mayan pyramids, sitting majestically at Chitzen Itza as a spiritual beacon across the Yucatan plains, and the extraordinary and menacing fortress at Tulum, guarding the Mayan people from Caribbean invaders. The music is as innovative and original as the architectural sights. It is also as quietly ceremonious and proud as the indigenous dwellers on the mysterious, etheric, and enchanted Yucatan Peninsula. Revueltas' creation in sound has been compared to the art of the great muralists of the Mexican School.

This immensely moving work brings to a close a musical journey through time and place, from one hemisphere to another, from earthly dwelling to beyond.

— Max Derrickson