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Program Notes: December 2, 2006

Parsifal: Prelude to Act I and Good Friday Spell

Wilhelm Richard Wagner

(born Leipzig, May 22, 1813; died Venice, February 13, 1883)

Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, was premiered in 1882. Breaking from operatic norm, Wagner had for years been calling his openings “preludes” rather than overtures. Composed largely from the opera’s thematic motifs, Parsifal’s prelude prepares listeners for the grandiose scope of the story about to unfold. Slowly and meditatively, it introduces the tale, its motifs building majestically and then melting into more intimate expression. With Wagner’s incomparable gifts at orchestrating and molding themes and harmonies, one is left somewhere between pious reflection and deep awe.

This reverent reflection is precisely the frame of mind that Wagner intended for his listeners. Parsifal was to be the realization of his effort to combine literature, music, graphic art, and religion into the “true art.” Wagner spent nearly a quarter of his life planning, financing, and building the Festspielhaus, an opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, dedicated solely to the production of his operas. The Festspielhaus was to be a Shrine to Art and Purity. Those who made the pilgrimage to this sacred place were to be purified by the sacrament of Wagner’s creations. When the Festspielhaus was nearly completed, he began writing a newspaper, the Bayreuther Blätter, devoted to expounding on his music and his social theories of cultural purification. Obsessed by a Christ complex, he chose the Parsifal myth to consecrate his holy shrine with his “true art,” insisting that it could be produced only in Bayreuth for the term of its copyright. Wagner did not even call Parsifal an opera, but rather a Buhnenweihfestspiel—roughly translating to “stage-consecrating festival play.”

The story of Parsifal, mythologized by Medieval writers (in particular the German Eschenbach), and rewritten by Wagner, revolves around the spear that stabbed Christ’s side on the cross, and the goblet (Grail) that Christ drank from at the Last Supper. Wagner’s complex libretto tells the story of a brotherhood of honorable men, the Knights of the Grail, formed to guard those two sacred relics and to fight evil. When the Knights reject Klingsor’s application for the Knighthood, he turns to black magic and devotes himself to corrupting them. The Keeper of the Grail, Amfortas (son of the aging Grail King, Titurel), attacks Klingsor’s castle but is stabbed in the side by the spear that he was meant to protect. His near-mortal wound worsens each time he performs the ritual of unlocking the Grail’s chamber that sustains the Knights’ mortal lives. The destiny of Parsifal, the “holy fool,” is to heal Amfortas’ wound with the spear that caused it, but his greater destiny is to exemplify a Christological compassion and redemption.

Whatever Wagner’s sacramental intentions may have been for his grand opera house, today one does not come to the concert hall to hear Parsifal for redemption, but rather for the exquisite music that transcends Wagner’s eccentricities. The two orchestral excerpts played tonight, the Prelude and Good Friday Spell, are austere, noble, and beautiful in their vastness. Integral to Wagner’s operas are his rich chromaticism and harmonies, ingenious orchestration (Wagner designed some of his own instruments), and intensive development of leitmotifs -- themes associated with specific characters, locales, or plot elements. The Prelude begins with the Motif of the Sacrament, reverently rising and falling in the clarinet and bassoon over muted strings and pulsing winds. The gently swelling Grail Motif is heard next in the trumpets. Soon after comes the Motif of Faith, a dignified theme in the brass. The development of this motif builds to one of the most powerful moments in the opera.

The Good Friday Spell, originally set for voices and orchestra, is the baptismal scene in the third and final Act. After years of wandering, Parsifal finally returns to the Grail Castle on Good Friday. One of the Knights explains to him the regenerative significance of that holy day and tells him that it is also the funeral day of the Grail King, Titurel. Recognized as the Chosen One, Parsifal is elected to succeed Titurel and is baptized. Beginning with regal fanfares, a transformative set of modulations draws the mood and music back to the Motif of the Sacrament. Parsifal, in his purity and innocence, takes a moment to remark on the beauty of the blooming mountain meadows, as the clarinet sings the lovely Good Friday Meadows Motif. Revisiting some of the other motifs, the music winds down to a softly tender ending.

Symphony No. 3: The Camp Meeting

Charles Ives

(born Danbury, CT, October 20, 1874; died New York, May 19, 1954)

Whenever you listen to your surroundings, you hear something, in fact, many somethings. As thoughts, memories, and emotions wander in and out of your head and heart, they’re accompanied by the music of the ongoing sounds of the universe. Charles Ives understood and cherished this emotional and aural duality as a fact of being human, and strove to capture what sound means to human existence. As an admirer of Emerson and Hawthorne, Ives tried to reflect this often chaotic and untidy complexity, within a universal whole.

Born in Connecticut, Ives first studied music with his father, an excellent musician whose unorthodox pedagogy in polytonality (the clash of several musics happening in different keys at the same time) influenced his son’s compositional style. By age 14, Charles was the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut history. He attended Yale University, studying composition with Horatio Parker. After graduating, Ives developed many modern compositional techniques, among them, tone clusters, atonality, and “cumulative setting” (in which tunes stack up in a kind of musical stream of consciousness). These techniques fill his compositions, many of them program pieces on uniquely American subjects. Ives probably never intended to make music a career. Instead, he turned—successfully—to the fairly new enterprise of life insurance, even writing the seminal pamphlet The Amount to Carry. He remained a church organist in New York City’s Central Presbyterian Church until 1902, and then retired to devote his free time to composing. Between 1901 and 1904 (with revisions in 1909), he wrote his Symphony No. 3: The Camp Meeting.

Devout early American frontiersmen had few opportunities for fellowship and communal worship. People traveled long and hard to gather for camp meetings, a series of spiritually charged outdoor evangelical services Camp meetings continued into Ives’ day. To capture their gravity, Ives begins his symphony solemnly and ponderously, using three well-known hymn tunes to portray the old Christian folks arriving at camp, weary from their arduous journeys. Almost immediately, we hear a fragment of the tune Azmon (O For a Thousand Tongues We Sing). As the first section builds, we hear more of Azmon, along with fragments of Erie (What a Friend We Have in Jesus) and Woodworth (Just as I Am [Without a Plea]). Ives’ “cumulative setting” intertwines the familiar tunes and their fragments, using their modifications as counter-subjects and their variations as counterpoint. We also become aware of Ives’ ingenious technique of “shadow lines”—very soft, short phrases played by only one instrument, meant to be felt more than heard. Although the overall effect is somewhat atonal and chaotic, Ives keeps intact the tonal thread and the general expression of a camp meeting. Indeed, the first movement captures brilliantly the campers’ initial gathering, their growing excitement and jumbled chatter while reuniting with old friends, and finally their peacefulness and reflection while settling down to worship. There are passages of great tenderness. Perhaps the cleverest, loveliest moment comes near the end, when, softly accompanied by rich, romantic chords, the flute begins playing Erie and then morphs mid-phrase into Azmon.

The second movement, Children’s Day, uses as its main hymn tunes Fountain (There is a Fountain Filled with Blood) and Happy Land (There is a Happy Land), but with plenty of other hymn fragments, especially Erie. The movement starts with bracing, driving eighth notes depicting children waking up excitedly to what will surely be an amazing day. Ives creates all manner of jubilance and high jinx, especially with a jaunty version of Happy Land midway through. Time signatures change wildly. The prevailing exuberance, innocence, and joy capture the children’s delighted spirit.

The third and final movement’s main theme, Woodworth, evokes the campers during the most important part of the services, communion and the altar call for souls. The tone of this movement recalls the first, but now with a more sober reflection and grace. Ives uses more shadow lines. The climax speaks of intense gratefulness. As the final camp prayer is said in quiet reverence, discordant church bells ring out softly and randomly in the distance.

Since music was not Ives’ primary career, he rarely promoted his own works. Few of his pieces were premiered until decades after their completion, and many not until after his death in 1954. Though completed in 1904, the Symphony No. 3 made its debut only in 1946. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Critical editions were slow to emerge from Ives’ untidy mass of manuscripts. It is only fairly recently that Ives’ music has received the critical acclaim and studied performances that it deserves.

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16

Edvard Hagerup Grieg

(born Bergen, June 15, 1843; died Bergen, September 4, 1907)

On April 3, 1869, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto was premiered by the Norwegian pianist Edmund Neupert in Copenhagen, to immediate success. Neupert wrote to his friend, Grieg, who could not attend the premiere, “On Saturday your divine concerto resounded in the great hall of the Casino. The triumph I achieved was tremendous. Even as early as the cadenza in the first movement the public broke into a real storm.” Franz Liszt soon became a great fan of the 25-year-old Grieg’s concerto, remarking that the young Grieg had the “stuff” of a great composer. Rachmaninoff, who kept Grieg’s concerto as one of the relatively few pieces other than his own works in his repertoire, remarked on how wonderfully pianistic and beautiful it was.

Such praise for this exceptional concerto, with its infectious vitality and delicate warmth, has continued for more than a century. Though concise, it abounds with exquisitely rich themes and harmonies. Many of Grieg’s works feature the richly lyrical, sometimes melancholy, and poetically simple sounds of Norwegian folksong. When listening to Grieg, one cannot help imagining craggy, wild fjords or the “dragon-style” architecture of a Norwegian village above the Arctic Circle.

Grieg’s sound is a sophisticated intertwining of his exotically Norwegian voice with the Romantic influences of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin, composers for whom he had great respect, as well as a sure indebtedness to Liszt. Grieg’s formal musical training at the Leipzig Conservatory (1858-1862) introduced him to the works of Schumann, whose compositions he came to adore and perform often. Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor particularly attracted Grieg. When he began writing his own piano concerto, Schumann’s was not far from his mind.

The wonderfully exclamatory introduction of Grieg’s concerto, while a certain tip of the hat to Schumann, features his own characteristic motif of a descending fourth. The first theme continues the introduction’s seriousness, but with a delightfully tricky contrivance—a clipped, dotted, almost martial rhythm. Despite its marching pace, the theme is clothed in full Romantic dress, lush with sweeping motifs. The second phrase of the first theme inverts Grieg’s descending fourth, flipping it right-side-up as a rising augmented fourth (tritone). The second theme is a variant of a Norwegian folk song. The sonata form movement weaves the two themes in a lovely development and cadenza, ending with a spirited coda.

A perfect counterbalance to the first movement is the soft, pastoral second-movement Adagio. This lovely improvisational lullaby is calm and lyric, with moments of magical wonderment.

The lively finale Allegro mirrors the structure of the first movement, with two contrasting themes. The first is a generous helping of a gussied-up “halling,” a regional Norwegian dance that requires exceptional athleticism, skill, and grace. The second theme is an irresistible tune—simple, yet poignantly melancholy. Grieg creates a sensuous and ethereal atmosphere by using a pedal note over which melody and harmony wander and modulate. The strings’ tremolo (fast, feathery strokes) near the bridge heightens the effect of warm moonlight on the arctic chill still in the air. This device influenced the Impressionist composers a decade later. The finale returns to its athletic halling before ending grandly with the second theme. Grieg alters this theme in the triumphal coda by lowering the seventh scale degree, giving the tune a modal, Norwegian feel. Yet this same lowered seventh is also the essence of the blues scale. None other than George Gershwin in his Rhapsody in Blue seems to be paying homage to Grieg, just as 50 years earlier, Grieg had to Schumann.

— Max Derrickson