Program Notes: October 20, 2012
(b. Cibourne, Basses-Pyrénées, 1875; d. in Paris, 1937)
Bolero was commissioned by the dancer and choreographer Ida Rubinstein, formerly associated with the Ballet Russe, for her own troupe’s 1927-28 ballet season. Initially she wanted Ravel to orchestrate some Spanish piano pieces by Chabrier, but that project ran afoul of an intellectual property contract. So, instead, Ravel, in a few short months, came up with his own Spanish work which first was called “Fandango” but soon changed to “Bolero.” When describing his new creation, Ravel called it “orchestral tissue without music” and an “experimental piece . . . of . . . one long, gradual crescendo,” without “contrasts” or “invention” or the “slightest attempt at virtuosity.” He even issued a statement before its premiere warning his listeners of these supposed flaws. Despite its composer’s dire warning, Bolero has become one of the most beloved pieces of classical music ever written. Indeed, it became so popular worldwide after its premiere in 1928 that Ravel found it to be his albatross. One (probably apocryphal) story tells of a trip in 1935 that Ravel’s friends had arranged for him to Morocco to stimulate his decaying personality when he was suffering gravely from Pick’s Disease. While in the ancient and tiny town of Fez, Ravel and friends heard folk musicians playing his Bolero and it led Ravel to lament in frustration “I’d go home, but they’re playing it there, too.”
It is understandable, however, for one of the 20th Century’s greatest composers to be disappointed in the fact that, of all his nearly 60 masterpieces, the one work that he created with such relative ease should be the one by which the world knew him best. (His contemporary, Saint-Saëns, felt the same about his own Carnival of the Animals.) But Ravel’s Bolero was no musical throw-away: his work ethic would never have allowed him to write something falling short of his own view of perfection. Ravel pinned his career on experimenting with various compositional elements; objectivity, for one - where a musical phrase, or a musical element, like a melody or a repeating ostinato, was the prime focus of a work - rather than developing a musical trajectory that develops those elements (like a symphony would do). In Bolero, that ostinato begins with the snare drum playing a “bolero” rhythm which repeats without derivation for the entire piece, except for the very last bar. The other objects are the two melodies themselves, repeated alternatingly throughout, and the harmony in C major which changes only once for a few bars in the entire work. Discussed structurally in this way, the Bolero experiment indeed would sound like a piece to be warned about, and yet, it is anything but.
One of the reasons for Bolero’s belovedness explains why Ravel likely heard his piece in Morocco in 1935. The bolero as a folk dance originated in the Arab world which, of course, ruled over Spain for centuries. The bolero in its original Arabic form was a slow dance allowing for some very intricate poses and footwork. In its Spanish adaptation in the late 1800’s, however, it became a sinuous, sultry dance, one meant to incite the blood to boil in sexuality. Still a viable and dynamic art form in the Northern Africa of Ravel’s time where Morocco was a Spanish and French “protectorate,” Ravel’s Bolero was most likely heard by folk artists in Marrakech who re-adapted this originally Arabic genre into their repertoire. In a brilliant fusion of heritage and innovation, the melodies that Ravel created are infused with both of the bolero’s Spanish and Arabic heritage – paced slowly, moving exotically, his Bolero captures a simmering sexual intensity like no other piece in the Western repertoire. Though Ravel did not deny the sexual tension of his work, his original vision of the ballet was to have been staged before a factory – the repetitious nature of the work symbolizing machinery. Rubenstein visualized a Spanish señorita dancing on a table at a beer hall. The premiere used the table, not the factory.
Another reason for its popularity is that Ravel’s combination of a few simple elements – ostinato rhythm, repeated sultry melodies, and a simple chord scheme – allows the listener to immediately comprehend the piece, but also allowing Ravel to showcase his compositional mastery. Throughout the repetitions that grow in instrumental number and color, there is a basic, consuming conflict brewing: the incessant snare drum rhythm ostinato is pitted against the winding, snake-like melodies. This is a trapped snake, as it were, trying with increasing fever to break free with its syncopations and writhing.
Bolero, then, is a study in music breaking free, and it does just that in the final, brief, and exhilarating key change, followed by the chaos-producing trombone glissandos at the close of the piece, all ending in a tumultuous release. And this exhilaration grows by way of a marvelous pageant of orchestral instruments – almost every instrument in the orchestra plays one of the melodies, creating layers of coloristic effects that pile up on one another excitingly while the volume grows incrementally, incessantly.
Ravel ended his “warning” written for the premiere by saying “. . . I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.” Audiences ever since have taken it indeed.
Music from Prince Igor
(b. St. Petersburg, 1833; d. St. Petersburg, 1887)
Between Russia and China lies a fantastic expanse of land that rises in great geological staircases up to the “Rooftop of the World” in Nepal. In Borodin’s time, one could travel through these “steppes” that are the high desert of Eurasia, and come back with wondrous stories to tell. To the Imperialist Russia of the 19th Century, the steppes were a land of mystery, riches, or, at the very least, more land to conquer. The steppes captured the imagination of artists and composers as a stairway leading to a faraway Far East of wild and exotic unknown.
In the 12th Century of Borodin’s Prince Igor opera, however, the steppes were hardly magical but a rather deadly place to be indeed. The invading nomadic hordes that preceded the advance of the Mongols and Genghis Khan were brazenly sacking, raping and pillaging one Russian town after another. Against these invasions, it was the duty of the Russian aristocracy in those days to drive them back. Prince Igor Svyatoslavich rose to the occasion, leaving his lovely wife in 1185 so he could deal a blow to one of the tribes, the Polovs, who were led by Konchak Khan. The events that follow, however, are not the typical epic’s tale of victory and heroism: Igor and his men are routed within days, Igor is himself taken prisoner to the Khan’s complex, he eventually escapes with the help of a guard, and then flees ignominiously for his life back to his wife, where she and the townsfolk give him a hero’s welcome. Such is the stuff of one of Russia’s most dearly loved epic poems, “The Lay of the Host of Igor,” that Alexander Borodin turned into the opera Prince Igor between 1869 and 1887. Borodin died unexpectedly before its completion, but the finishing touches were applied by his compatriots Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, and it premiered in Moscow in 1890.
The “Music from Prince Igor” is comprised of excerpts from this opera: the Overture, the March of the Polovs from Act III, and the exquisite Polovtsian Dances from the end of Act II. There are two remarkable aspects to this wondrous piece. The first is that its composer, Borodin, was by trade a research chemist and professor, and yet he was rightly included in the Mighty Handful of Russia’s Nationalist composers. His work in chemistry earned him an international reputation; specifically his research in aldehydes (associated with the well known compound, formaldehyde) led him to discover a reaction in chloride molecules which, until the 1940’s, was still called the “Borodin reaction.” Music for Borodin was but a hobby.
The second marvel is how astoundingly gifted Borodin was in this hobby. He studied piano as a child, but only began composition lessons in 1862 while moonlighting alongside his busy career. Despite his late start at composing, he created masterpieces that rival the beauty and depth of Tchaikovsky, all written during illnesses or vacations from his profession as a chemist. Some of the most prized are his Second Symphony, Prince Igor, In the Steppes of Central Asia and his String Quartet No. 2. Of particular note in his Prince Igor is how inventive and tuneful the Polovtsian dances are – they are exotic enough to give a hint of an Asiatic-nomadic culture yet are drenched in that uncanny lilting lyricism and “Russian-ness” that exploded from the pens of Russian composers in the late 19th Century. So beloved are the themes in Prince Igor that the entire musical Kismet was created from them in 1953, the Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens becoming a huge hit under the title of “Stranger in Paradise.”
Double Concerto for Flute and Cello
A couple of years ago Jed Gaylin mentioned informally to Susan and me that he would love to have us down to perform with the Hopkins Symphony. I replied that it would be difficult since we were unaware of any concerti written for the flute/cello combination. Of course, I continued, I could write one. Jed liked the idea and thus the genesis of the Double Concerto for Flute and Cello which you will hear tonight.
The opportunity to compose for my wife and myself led irresistibly to
the idea of somehow basing the work on our life together (we just
celebrated our 25th anniversary). So very loosely, the piece takes us
I. “Idyll” - the moment I set eyes on her and the early romance, through
II. “Pursuit” - the many years I pursued her, to
III. “Real Life” which begins with a difficult time of illness and proceeds to recovery and the celebration of family life. In the opening Adagio of the third movement, the alto flute imitates the haunting call of the Loon and recalls fond memories of Maine summers.