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Program Notes: March 4, 2012

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 38

I. Allegro appasionata
II. Canzona – Moderato
III. Allegro molto

Samuel Barber

(Born in West Chester, PA, 1910; died in New York, 1981)

Barber began showing his precocious musical talent by age seven. He studied voice and piano seriously at home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, until, at 14, he was accepted by the newly formed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His young life was filled with art music by the influence of his aunt and uncle – his Aunt Louise a singer at the Metropolitan Opera. Soon after he graduated from Curtis, he won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition.

Despite the fact that during Barber’s lifetime another American, Aaron Copland, was taking his seat as “the Dean of American composers,” the world seemed to gravitate towards Barber. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (the second for his Piano Concerto), represented the U.S. in the first post-World War II International Music Festival, served as vice-president of the International Music Council, was the only American composer that the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini would perform, and the only American invited to attend the biennial Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow in 1962.

Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer, Inc., commissioned the Piano Concerto in 1959 for its 100th Anniversary occurring in 1962, and the work was to be premiered at the Lincoln Center’s Grand Opening Gala Concert of that year. Having heard, first-hand, the extraordinary talents of the young pianist John Browning, Barber worked on his Piano Concerto with Browning’s talents in mind. Two events hindered the Concerto’s progress, however – Barber’s cherished sister died in 1961 which sank the composer into a debilitating depression, and, on a happier note, he accepted the honor of attending the Soviet Composer’s Congress in 1962. Despite these delays, the Concerto was finally competed just two weeks before its performance.

Barber’s Piano Concerto and John Browning are forever connected, and it provided one of the treasured anecdotes in American Classical music. Under extreme pressure to learn Barber’s score in just two weeks before an excessive media circus at the new Lincoln Center, Browning rose to the occasion and played with brilliance, and thus secured his career as one of America’s great pianists. Naturally, his interpretation of Barber’s masterpiece has remained its benchmark.

As a composer, Barber seemed to elude classification. He was neither a Romantic nor a Modernist, composing instead according to his own muses. He had, however, one tell-tale trait – Barber could write music with immense emotional appeal, and in that regard the Piano Concerto is a fantastic example. Added to its potency is a tour de force piano solo.

The first movement is charged with electrical force, from anxiousness to triumph. The second movement, Canzona, is one of Barber’s most bittersweet creations: it was first written as a chamber piece for flute in 1959 called Elegy for Flute and Piano and, with a river-like flowing accompaniment, the piano and flute drift through nostalgic passions and pacification. The third movement finale is diabolical and brimming with tenseness with its inexorable 5-beats-to-the-bar ostinato.

Petrouchka – Burlesque in Four Scenes (1947 Version)

Scene I: The Shrovetide Fair
Scene II: Petrouchka’s Room
Scene III: The Moor’s Room
Scene IV: The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening)

Igor Stravinsky

(Born in Lomonosov, Russia, June 17, 1882; died in New York, April 6, 1971)

The first years of the 20th century witnessed some incredible innovations in music and art. Berlin was often raked by musical “scandals” – music so new and inventive that audiences became rowdy, sometimes violent. Theater, too, was branching further into uncharted territory in Berlin and Paris. But most everyone agreed that the convergence of genius in music, dance and stage design that Paris witnessed in those years from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe was the most extraordinary. Composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer/dancer Michel Fokine, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and set designer Alexandre Benois created some of the most astonishingly innovative ballets in history. Each artist, in their own creative brilliance, changed everything that came after in their fields. Of certain note, of course, were The Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), in which these four talents, under Diaghilev’s direction, flourished so well together they essentially became a larger, collective genius. These ballets have retained their emotional power and freshness for a century, but it is Petrouchka that may well be considered the early 20th century’s greatest example of innovation and genius in these three fields.

After the The Firebird’s success in 1910, Diaghilev and Stravinsky were contemplating a new ballet about a pagan Russian ritual. Knowing how strenuous the process would be, Stravinsky began working on a different kind of piece in the meantime, a piano concerto to keep himself compositionally “fresh.” The idea behind the piece poised the piano as a diabolical puppet, whose shrieks and antics drove the orchestra to madness. When Diaghilev heard this “puppet music” he was bewitched, and thus was born the idea for their Petrouchka ballet. It was premiered in Paris on June 13, 1911, and was another titanic success.

Petrouchka posed non-traditional challenges from the start. The three main characters were, after all, wooden puppets, requiring the choreographer, Fokine, to envision a completely new approach to dance. Also, the story takes place at a fair, where the stage is often crowded with drunken characters and chaos. Thus, Stravinsky’s musical challenge was to effectually portray colliding scenes and activities, like a roving musical spotlight, but in a way that still carried the narrative. Fokine’s parallel challenge was to choreograph those wild scenes in a way that seemed realistically chaotic, yet kept the attention of the audience. And, of course, Fokine had to choreograph Stravinsky’s music, which was strikingly varied, and at the time, contained the most rapidly changing meters of any ballet music yet written. Petrouchka is often considered Fokine’s greatest masterpiece, and although we remember Stravinsky’s name and The Rite of Spring in the same breath, his score to Petrouchka could arguably be considered his greatest. Of the dancers, Nijinsky’s extraordinary portrayal of Petrouchka forever solidified his fabled career.

Stravinsky’s great musical achievements in Petrouchka were the result of an almost complete re-imagining of orchestral sound. Rather than focusing on the blending of instrumental timbres, Stravinsky rethought the sounds that individual instruments could make. You will often hear single instruments carrying themes to propel the narrative, or two or three solo instruments, with sparse orchestral filler behind. Not that there aren’t plenty of moments of full orchestral sound in Petrouchka, but in contrast to the more sparse moments, they seem even more colossal and stunningly dramatic. Following that musical premise, Stravinsky also rethought the aural sensation of an instrument’s attack and decay; for example, especially in the fourth scene, listen for moments from the flutes, and later in the horns, where the sounds begin softly and rapidly crescendo to a hard stop – the effect is like hearing the typical sound being played backwards. He also delved into bi-tonality, or music in two keys at once – the most prominent example is what has become known as the “Petrouchka chord,” a clashing C-Major chord/arpeggio simultaneously played against F#-Major, which often appears with the character Petrouchka. Additionally, Stravinsky did not forget his original notion for the piano, which plays a significant, and virtuosic, role in the orchestra. These scoring techniques may seem less innovative today, but in 1911 they were exceptionally original. In part, the new approaches Stravinsky used were inspired by the story itself – Petrouchka is a story of a surreal world, where puppets come to life amidst a drunken revelry and the music uncannily fits its grotesqueries and psychology. After its great success, Stravinsky made several revisions over the years, but the 1947 suite version played today is most often performed in concert.

I. The Shrovetide Fair: Petrouchka takes place during the Shrovetide Fair in Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg, 1880, on the last day of “Butter Week,” which is the week of revelry just before Lent. The first scene opens with the crowds, vendors and carnival performers milling about the Fair grounds. The Master of Ceremonies bellows invitations (timpani, strings). An organ grinder plays (clarinets), a woman dances about while beating a triangle, and a music box (glockenspiel) is opened which inspires more dance. Drums beat away to draw the crowd’s attention – an old magician appears and slowly brings three puppets to life with a magic flute like a snake charmer: a Moor, a Ballerina, and an ugly-clown Petrouchka (his awakening portrayed by piccolo chirps). He then commands them to dance (the famous Russian Danse – Petrouchka’s solo dancing first portrayed by solo piano) until the magician halts them into a crumpled heap. The drums play again to herald the change of scene.

II. Petrouchka’s Room: Petrouchka is locked into his room – a dark cell. It becomes clear to the puppet that he is alive, and has the full range of human emotions (the “Petrouchka chord,” which signifies this puppet/human duality, is first heard in the clarinets). He soon realizes that the Magician is heartless and sadistic, keeping Petrouchka and the other puppets alive in order to torture them for pleasure – but especially Petrouchka, the garish and ugly-clown figure. Petrouchka, lonely, curses (trumpets) his situation and the Magician, until the pretty Ballerina is let into his cell for a visit. Petrouchka’s grotesque excitement disgusts her and she leaves. The pitiful Petrouchka contemplates his fate and tries to escape by bashing his head against his cell wall. His head-wall-punching succeeds only to reveal an even more tragic reality, as the drums signal the next scene.

III. The Moor’s Room: The Moor puppet is handsome and strong and mentally dull, not possessing Petrouchka’s human-ness. Petrouchka’s head now peers into the Moor’s room and he watches as the Moor mindlessly amuses himself with a coconut and other things. The lovely Ballerina arrives hoping to seduce the Moor by playing a martial trumpet tune and dancing. Soon enough the Moor prepares for his amorous conquest when Petrouchka, seized with jealousy, can take no more. He bursts into the room and attempts to separate the two puppet lovers, but the Moor coldly boots him out of the room. The drums announce the next scene.

IV. The Shrovetide Fair (Toward Evening): After a day of reveling and flowing vodka, all manner of merriment and debauchery are taking place at the Fair. Various groups dance and gambol, colliding and interrupting one another, until a peasant and a dancing bear appear which scatter the crowd (high clarinet and low string bass). As this finishes the crowds resume their dances and lascivious cavorting as night and snow begin to fall. A shriek is heard from the puppet theater – Petrouchka is being chased by the Moor with a saber. Dashing about the crowd cannot save Petrouchka from being slaughtered by the Moor, and Petrouchka crumples to the ground (a dropped tambourine), whimpering (piccolo chirps) until his death. The horrified crowd is certain that the puppets are actual people, however, and call the police. The authorities arrive comically (bassoons) and find the evil Magician holding Petrouchka’s broken carcass and showing everyone that, in fact, he’s just a puppet filled with straw and sawdust. With the lateness of the hour and the reveries sufficiently blown out, the crowd slowly disperses. In the darkness, the Magician gathers up the remains of his puppet and contemplates mending him for future tortures, when from above Petrouchka’s ghost brazenly heckles him. Terrified, the Magician runs away, and the scene ends bleakly, almost remorselessly, as Admiralty Square silently fills with snow.