ANTONÍN DVORÁK
Prague Waltzes, B. 99

Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He apparently composed his Prague Dances between December 10 and 12, 1879. It was first performed in Prague on December 28. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 9 minutes.

It is remarkable to realize how many favorite composers have created works that we almost never hear—even though the unknown works display all the qualities that make their other compositions great favorites with performers and public. A case in point is Dvorák’s Prague Waltzes, written not long before he composed his Symphony No. 6, yet virtually never performed. Of course a symphony or a concerto is a large, multi-movement work that largely fills half a concert program, while a set of waltzes is more like an overture, presented as a “filler.”

I referred to a “set of waltzes” because a work like this is cast as a series of sections in waltz style (with a swinging ¾ time) that offers a variety of approaches to the popular dance that had first captivated Europe during the Council of Vienna, when diplomats came from all over in 1815 to settle the political issues left over by the fall of Napoleon. By the middle of the century it was the most popular dance form anywhere in Europe or America.

Little is known about the impetus of this set of waltz tunes, but since it was composed at a lightning speed and performed just two weeks later, it is safe to assume that he was asked to contribute to a Christmas or New Year’s Ball.

 

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He wrote the Violin Concerto in the summer and early fall of 1878, but the published score incorporates revisions made after the premiere, which was given by the dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, in Leipzig on January 1, 1879, the composer conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition to the soloist, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 38 minutes.

Background

The Violin Concerto of Brahms is both a close collaboration of two great friends and the testament to their friendship. Brahms was 20 in May of 1853, when he met the violinist Joseph Joachim, who was also a fine conductor and a solidly grounded composer in his own right. Joachim was just two years older but already well‑established as a musician. A close bond of mutual idealism sprang up between the two men at once and remained unbroken for more than 30 years.

Not until the summer of 1878 did the composer feel ready to essay the piece, his first concerto since the one in D minor for piano, a catastrophic failure with the audience at its premiere in 1859. Brahms drafted the score during a fruitful summer in a favorite beauty spot where, as he wrote, “so many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” On August 21, 1878, Brahms suggested to Joachim that they collaborate on the final details of the solo part, since the composer was not himself a violinist. The composer’s manuscript score bears the marks of extensive revision in Brahms’s hand—often lightening the orchestral texture for the benefit of the soloist—and even more elaborate revisions to the solo part, made in red ink by Joachim himself.

The first performance took place in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879. Joachim, of course, was the soloist, and the normally shy and retiring Brahms conducted. The critical response was certainly more favorable than it had been for the piano concerto two decades earlier, but Brahms was still regarded as a composer of severely intellectual music that made extraordinary demands on its listeners. Despite Joachim’s ardent championing of the concerto, it did not really join the standard repertory until after the turn of the century.

But Brahms and his friends were clearly pleased; we have an amusing description of the evening’s aftermath from a Bostonian, George W. Chadwick, who was a student in Leipzig at the time and soon to become one of America’s leading composers. A few days later Chadwick wrote to a friend in Massachusetts:

Joachim played Brahms’ new concerto for the violin in the Gewandhaus that night under Brahms’ own direction, and about one o’clock I saw the precious pair, with little Grieg (who is here this winter) staggering out of Auerbach’s keller (of Faust renown) all congratulating each other in the most frantic manner on the excellent way in which they had begun the New Year. I thought to myself that Johnny Brahms might be the greatest living composer but I did not believe it could save him from having a “Katzenjammer” [hangover] the next day about the size of the Nibelungen Trilogy, as many a lesser composer has had.

About the Music

What early audiences found difficult to follow in Brahms was the abundance of his invention. The opening orchestral ritornello flows in long musical paragraphs, but these are made up of strikingly varied ideas, interwoven in one another, capable of being developed separately or in combination. The unaccompanied melody at the opening, with the orchestra entering softly on an unexpected harmony, is an homage to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The second part of the orchestral exposition runs through a gamut of musical ideas, hinting at but never quite reaching a new lyric melody that finally appears—swaying, coaxing—only when the soloist is able to introduce it in his exposition.

Throughout the movement Brahms is not concerned to produce virtuosic fireworks in which the orchestra simply provides support, but to blend the soloist and orchestra into a substantial organism inspired by the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the one earlier work that could be said to occupy the level at which Brahms aimed.

The slow movement was an afterthought, replacing two whole movements that Brahms decided to cut before the premiere. (Characteristically self‑effacing, Brahms described them as “the best parts.”)

Brahms had been introduced to Joachim by a Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remenyi, with whom he was touring and who taught Brahms about the style of so‑called “gypsy” music. The finale of the Violin Concerto is another delightful essay in imitating that exotic style, filled with fire, flash, and energy.

 

SCOTT JOPLIN
from the Red-Back Book (arr. Gunther Schuller)
Maple Leaf Rag
The Entertainer

Scott Joplin was born in northeast Texas between July 1867 and January 1868, and died in New York on April 1, 1917. The works are scored for flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, piano, string quartet. Arranged in 1902 by D.S. Delisle (1864-1921) for a compilation of rags called “the red-backed book”, and edited by Gunther Schuller. The first performances are unknown.

Background

Joplin’s father and mother — a former slave railroad laborer and a freeborn African-American from Kentucky — were amateur musicians, and gave their son his first musical lessons. Julius Weiss, a German-born music professor, heard the 11-year-old Joplin play piano, and was so impressed that he tutored him for free. Weiss introduced Joplin to folk and classical music, impressing on him the value of music as an “art as well as entertainment”. He never forgot his mentor, and when Weiss grew old and ill, Joplin sent him regular gifts of cash. At age 16, Joplin left Texas to pursue a career as a travelling musician, playing in saloons, churches, cafés, and brothels. The success of Maple Leaf rag was a boon to his finances and his reputation, and in 1900 he settled in St. Louis, where he wrote some of his most famous works. In 1907 he moved to New York with hopes of producing his latest opera, Treemonisha. Joplin invited potential investors to a run-through at a rehearsal hall in Harlem, but the opera was judged a “miserable failure”, dashing his dream.  By 1916, the effects of tertiary syphilis were destroying his brain. He died in a mental hospital at age 49 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

About the Music

No, this is not music from a film score; or rather, it is, but seventy years before The Sting appeared in movie theaters, The Entertainer was a hit. This captivating and endearing piano composition by Scott Joplin (“The Chopin of Ragtime”), whose 1899 Maple Leaf Rag—an even greater hit—virtually created the ragtime craze single-handed.

“Ragtime” grew out of traditional rhythmic patterns of syncopation first developed in the private music-making of the African slaves and then applied as a way of decorating the melodies of hymn tunes and marches. Classic ragtime, such as that created by Joplin, employed a steady rhythmic pattern in the left hand of his piano works, against which the right hand played a captivating game of hurry-up-and-wait, sometimes anticipating the bass, sometimes trailing behind, but always coming out right at the end. And he played these rhythmic games with graceful melodies that insinuated themselves into the listener’s memory. “Ragtime” became a generic term for any popular musical style that was up‑tempo and “modern.” Society looked down on it because piano rags had developed largely through the improvisations of pianists at houses of ill repute and other unsavory places (though these were almost the only places where the African-American geniuses who created this music could find employment).

The winning quality of Joplin’s elite syncopations (to use another of his titles) would not be denied. Ragtime enjoyed a burst of popularity up to the end of World War I, then went underground, maintained as a living tradition by a handful of enthusiasts. A revival in the 1970s was led by Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music and founder of the New England Ragtime Ensemble, and reached its zenith of popularity with the film The Sting (1973). Even though the entire score consisted of Scott Joplin’s music, Marvin Hamlisch won the Oscar for Best Music. The arranger was D.S. Delisle (1864-1921), most notable of several arrangers hired by Tin Pan Alley publishers to satisfy popular demand for ragtime music. His efforts were part of a turn-of-the-century treatment of Joplin’s piano rags found in an anonymous publication known to musicians as “the red-back book” from the color of its binding, which had been recovered and edited by Schuller. Joplin is now clearly recognized as a composer of remarkable gifts; his music will surely hold its popularity forever.

 

IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird, Suite (1919 version)

Igor Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. He began composition of The Firebird in early November 1909 at a "dacha" of the Rimsky‑Korsakov family near St. Petersburg. He completed the score in the city, finishing the actual composition in March and the full score a month later; following some further retouching, the final score bears the date May 18, 1910. Commissioned by Diaghilev as a ballet in two scenes, the work was first performed by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opéra on June 25, 1910. Stravinsky made suites from the ballet on three separate occasions, the first in 1911 (employing virtually the original huge orchestration), the second in 1919 (for a much smaller orchestra), and the third in 1945 (using the same orchestra as the second but containing more music). The instrumentation for the 1919 version includes two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, timpani, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, piano (with celesta optional), and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.

Background

The notorious inability of Anatol Liadov to finish his scores in time gave Stravinsky his first big break. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev needed to find a fast-working composer for a new ballet based on the old Russian legend of the Firebird. Having been impressed by Stravinsky's Fireworks, which he had heard a few months earlier, Diaghilev went to Stravinsky to discuss a possible commission for The Firebird. Though deeply engrossed in his opera The Nightingale, Stravinsky recognized that a commission from Diaghilev with a production in Paris was an opportunity he could not turn down. In fact, he was so enthusiastic that he began sketching the music before the formal commission finally reached him. He composed the large score between November 1909 and March 1910; the final details of the full score were finished by May 18.

The premiere of the lavishly colorful score marked a signal triumph for the Ballets Russes and put the name of Stravinsky on the map. Diaghilev quickly signed him up for more ballets, and in short order he turned out Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, with which he brought on a musical revolution. The original score of The Firebird called for an enormous orchestra. Following World War I, in 1919, Stravinsky made a version of his suite from the ballet for a standard-sized symphony orchestra, in order to encourage more performances.

About the Music

The scenario of The Firebird involves the interaction of human characters with two supernatural figures, the magic Firebird (a sort of good fairy), and the evil sorcerer Kashchei, a green‑taloned ogre who cannot be killed except by destroying his soul, which is preserved in a casket in the form of an egg.

Kashchei has an enchanted garden where he keeps 13 captured princesses, who are allowed out only at night. The young prince Ivan Tsarevich accidentally discovers the garden while pursuing (as a hunter) the fabulous firebird. He captures the bird near a tree of magical golden apples. The firebird begs, in dance, to be set free, and the prince finally agrees, but takes one magic feather as a token. The enchanted princesses appear tentatively and shake the apple tree, then use the fallen apples for a game of catch. Ivan Tsarevich interrupts their game, for he has fallen in love with one of them. They dance a stately slow dance. In pursuit of the princesses as they leave, Ivan Tsarevitch enters the palace, where he is captured by the monsters that serve as Kashchei's guards.

Kashchei arrives and threatens to turn the prince into stone, but Ivan Tsarevich waves the feather, summoning the Firebird to his aid. The magic bird sets Kashchei's followers to treading an "infernal dance" of energetic syncopation. This gives the prince the opportunity to find and destroy the egg that contains the ogre’s soul. This act released from their spell many knights that had previously been turned to stone. They come back to life (to music with a sweetly descending phrase of folklike character). Knights and princesses all take part in a dance of general happiness (a more energetic version of the same phrase). The Firebird has disappeared, but her music, now rendered more "human" in triadic harmony, sounds in the orchestra as the curtain falls.

Stravinsky distinguished musically between the human and the supernatural elements of the story by using diatonic, often folk‑like, melodies for the human characters and chromatic ideas for the supernatural figures by chromatic ideas (slithery melodies for Kashchei and his realm, shimmering arabesques for the Firebird).

The suite contains the ballet's introduction, with its mood of magical awe. The double basses present a melodic figure (two semitones and a major third) that lies behind all the music of the Firebird. Following a culminating shower of brilliant harmonics on the violins (played with a new technique discovered by Stravinsky for this passage), a muted horn call signals the rise of the curtain on a nocturnal scene in the "Enchanted Garden of Kashchei," which continues the mysterious music of the opening (a chromatic bassoon phrase foreshadows the sorcerer). But when Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird, the magical creature appeals to be freed in an extended solo dance; Ivan takes one of its magic feathers before allowing it to depart.

The next episode is the khorovod (a stately slow round dance) of the enchanted princesses, to one of the favorite passages of the score, a melody first introduced by the solo oboe (this is an actual folk song).

The suite then jumps to the moment in which Kashchei begins to turn Ivan into stone, making a series of magic gestures: one—two—... But before he can make the third and final gesture, Ivan Tsarevich remembers the Firebird's feather; he waves it, summoning the Firebird to his aid. Kashchei's followers are enchanted by the magic bird, who sets them dancing to an "infernal dance" of wild syncopation and striking energy. Here is where the original 1911 suite ended, but in 1912 Stravinsky published the Lullaby separately, and it became a popular part of all later suites from the ballet, followed by the original finale with its impressive scene of the petrified warriors returning to life.

There are things in the The Firebird that already foreshadow the revolutionary composer to come: the inventive ear for new and striking sounds, the love of rhythmic irregularities (though there is much less of it here than in Le Sacre!), and the predilection for using ostinatos to build up passages of great excitement. In listening to this familiar score, we may be able to sense afresh the excitement of being on the verge of a revolution.

 

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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