Concert III Program Notes

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Nocturne in B Major, Op. 40

DvorakAntonín Dvořák’s Nocturne, Op. 40, began its life as the middle section of a single-movement string quartet written early in his career. Although Dvořák eventually discarded the quartet, he kept the haunting central section, which he had originally labeled “Andante religioso” and, retitling this section as a nocturne (notturno), he eventually produced the version for strings that we hear on our program today. The rich string writing (probably influenced by the fact that Dvořák was a violist himself) reflects not only its original setting as a kind of religious contemplation, but it perfectly embodies the mood of a nocturne, which is meant to reflect on the mysterious and peaceful feeling of the night. In this short piece, the composer draws us in with a rich opening, introduced by the lower strings, that gradually intensifies until gently leading us into the more pulsating central section, which suggests a swirling dance in the night. Cascades of falling scales return us to the original, more static, first idea, and it ends with a gentle embrace back into the mood of the night. The Nocturne premiered in 1885, with Dvořák conducting, at London’s Crystal Palace.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1

Sibelius_edelfeldtLike Dvořák’s Nocturne, the next work on our program, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, was originally written for a different context and only later performed as a separate concert piece. Sibelius’s career was established around 1900 with a series of important and acclaimed works, including incidental music for a 1903 play by the Finnish playwright Arvid Järnefelt, Kuolema (Death). The setting is a dream image experienced by an exhausted son, as he sits at his mother’s deathbed. He hears music, full of hesitations and pauses, and his mother seems to rise and dance a waltz, her nightgown transformed into a flowing ball gown. Guests arrive, couples dance, the energy increases, and finally, after a frenzied climax, all fades away—only death awaits. The music historian James Hepokoski has called this piece a “dreamscape evocation of the faded salon style” of the late nineteenth century; it was immediately popular and, the next year, it was published separately and performed widely.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998): Concerto Grosso No. 1 for two violins, prepared piano, harpsichord and 21 strings

Alfred_schnittkeIt may not come as a surprise that the great Soviet-era composer Alfred Schnittke is known, especially in his early works from the 1970s and 1980s, for his “polystylism”—that is, a mixture of various styles, musical approaches, and techniques derived from many different chronological periods. After all, his life itself represented a kind of blending. Born in 1934 to German-speaking parents in the Soviet Union, he first studied in Vienna (when his father was transferred there) and then moved back to Russia in 1948, where he continued his musical studies at the Moscow Conservatory. Indeed, he later described his polystylistic approach as his attempt to “fill in the gaps” of his somewhat fragmented early musical education. The Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977) is one of the best-known works representing this approach. As the composer famously said, the Concerto uses “formulae and forms of baroque music; free chromaticism and micro-intervals; and banal popular music which enters as it were from the outside with a disruptive effect.” He employs the typical form and construction of a Baroque concerto grosso, featuring a group of soloists (the two violinists and the keyboard player) alternating with the orchestral ensemble. The structure of each of the six movements is highly formal (apart from the improvisational cadenza movement), with themes laid out, repeated, developed, and reprised in the individual movements and across the piece as a whole. Yet the musical language is, in places, far from the Baroque origins of the form, with micro-tones (intervals less than the traditional half-steps), sharp juxtapositions of dissonant pitch clusters, and—as the composer said—even the “banal” which, in this context, might be represented by the sudden appearance of a tango in the middle of the Rondo. (The tango was a popular genre in the early Soviet era and it is frequently used, often ironically, in later Russian compositions.) One of the immediately striking features of the work is the use of a prepared piano, in which the performer is instructed to place objects between the strings in order to produce a hollow, dry sound. Part of the fascination of hearing this work is tracing its juxtapositions and disruptions, following the composer’s logic as he uses this disparate material to create something wholly new, yet still reflecting its varied origins.

Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791): Symphony No. 40, in G minor, KV. 550

Mozart was 32 years old in the summer of 1788 and at the height of his powers. Within three months he completed Symphonies No. 39 (June 26), No. 40 (July 25), and No. 41 (August 10). As our conductor emeritus, Roupen Shakarian, once said, “That’s one masterpiece per month!” These three works must serve as Mozart’s final thoughts on the symphony as a genre, since he died just three years later without writing another. The brooding and powerful first movement is both a model of thematic development and a passionate exploration of emotion—as music historian Richard Taruskin says, this special atmosphere of pathos is “conjured up by two highly contrasted, lyrical themes, a wealth of melting chromaticism, and a high level of rhythmic agitation.” The opening three-note motif is presented, inverted, truncated, and displaced throughout the movement. The second movement, Andante, preserves echoes of the three-note motive, with its lilting 6/8 meter and its slippery chromatic inflections, but with a relaxation in the rhythmic intensity. As always in Mozart, there is a prolific generosity in melodic material offered in the unfolding series of themes, all circling back around to the opening idea. The movement is formally expansive, with room to elaborate and develop the themes—a true counterpart to the imposing and restless first movement. The Minuet and Trio, although in a standard tripartite form, is somber and forceful, with its minor-mode opening theme, whose outlines are not only echoed later in this movement, but which also form the basis of the thematic material for the opening of the final movement. The symphony is thus tightly knit, with seams invisible yet pervasive; to quote Taruskin again, “it is the balance between ingenious calculation and (seemingly) ingenuous spontaneity … that can so astonish listeners.” With its incisive motivic manipulation and powerful passages of imitative writing, one inevitably thinks of Beethoven and the future of the symphony that Mozart did not live to see.

Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen