Tales from the Mideast
January 12, 2012
Overture to Paulus (St. Paul)
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He became known as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy from the name of a maternal uncle, Jakob Salomon, who had taken on the name Bartholdy from a piece of real estate he held in Berlin. He composed the oratorio St. Paul in the middle 1830s and conducted the premiere on May 22, 1836. The orchestra calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, plus contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, serpent, timpani, organ, and strings. (The serpent part is now usually played by contrabassoon.) Duration is about 7 minutes.
As early as 1832 Mendelssohn envisioned composing an oratorio in which he might pursue the kind of work that he had recently brought to the public in his performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (its first public performance since Bach’s lifetime) and Handel’s Messiah. He chose a New Testament subject, the life of Saul of Tarsus, who at first opposed Christianity, even to the point of being a persecutor of early Christians, underwent a dramatic conversion, changed his name to Paul, and became the prime explicator of the new religion. For the libretto, Mendelssohn turned to his friend, the pastor Julius Schubring, who was later to create the libretto for Elijah as well. With Paulus (“St. Paul”), Schubring built an uneven structure, filling the first part with the dramatic episodes of Saul’s persecution (including the stoning of Stephen) and conversion. But Schubring omitted most of the dramatic incidents in Paul’s later life, making Part II sanctimonious rather than dramatic, which may explain why the work is heard so much less often than Elijah.
Mendelssohn composed the score mostly between 1834 and 1836, and he led the premiere on May 22 of the next year. It was very popular all over Germany for a time, but gradually, particularly after the appearance of Elijah a decade later, Paulus generally fell out of the repertory except for a few passages.
Still, Paulus contains much attractive music. Throughout the work Mendelssohn chose to follow Bach’s lead (from the St. Matthew Passion) by interspersing scenes with chorales performing hymns of the German Lutheran church. This was a feature Bach used with his congregation thus making connections with the events unfolding in his Good Friday story.
Mendelssohn builds the overture to Paulus on one of the most famous and best-loved of all the German chorales, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Awake! The voice calls us”), upon which Bach had composed his brilliant Cantata 140. The overture moves from darkness to light, beginning with a sober and serene (though rather dark) harmonization of the great chorale melody, then moves to a great energetic fugato in which the opening phrase of Wachet auf occasionally appears as counterpoint, usually in the minor mode. Finally, in a tone of triumph, a double fugue unfolds over a gloriously resonant harmonization of the full chorale melody.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , op. 308
Alan Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, a working-class suburb of Boston, on March 8, 1911, and died in Seattle on June 21, 2000. He composed this setting of verses from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on a commission from André Kostelanetz, who gave the first performance in 1975. The score calls for narrator, solo accordion, three flutes, pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings. Duration is about 14 minutes.
Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was a huge success when it first appeared in 1859 (and in four further editions by 1889). Ever since Napoleon conquered Egypt and French archeologists found the Rosetta Stone, which finally allowed linguists to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, European and American interest in the Near East grew steadily through archeologists studying the realms involved in the events recounted in the Iliad or the Bible, and later the Muslim cultures that developed and spread in the same regions.
About 1000 brief poems written in Persian are attributed to Omar Khayyam (his name means “the tentmaker,” but in addition to being a poet, he was also a mathematician and astronomer), who lived from 1048 to 1131. These poems, of a type called ruba’i, are made of up two lines in the original Persian, each line divided in the middle to produce two parts. The word rubaiyat comes from an Arabic root meaning “four,” suggesting that the volume as a whole is a collection of quatrains. Fitzgerald’s famous translation, one of the most influential literary publications of the century, rendered the Persian texts in stanzas of four lines with the rhyme scene AABA. The most famous of the stanzas serves as an example:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow
When Alan Hovhaness died at the age of 89, he had become one of the most prolific composers in history, having composed 67 symphonies, dozens of choral works, and hundreds of chamber compositions. Yet at first he had found little encouragement as a composer from the official arbiters of taste and style. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, he studied with Frederick Shepherd Converse at the New England Conservatory and studied Indian music—then hardly known on this continent at all—through an acquaintance with some Indian musicians in the Boston area. But when he attended the Berkshire Music Center as a composition fellow in 1943, both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein criticized his music, with the result that he destroyed many early works and turned in an entirely different direction, studying the music of an Armenian priest-composer named Komitas Vardapet.
The emphasis on non-Western and particularly on religious traditions had a great deal to do with the creation of Hovhaness’s darkly modal style in the Mysterious Mountain (officially his Symphony No. 2—already his Opus 132), evoking a place of awe-inspiring tranquility. It was a breakthrough piece that inspired many college students, who found it an ideal accompaniment for meditating in incense-filled rooms. This was about as far as it was possible to get from the avant-garde of the early 1960s, when most composers pursued musical goals that were intensely detailed, rigorously shaped, highly abstract, and, for the most part, determinedly secular. Hovhaness had his own style, but to the rulers and shakers of the musical world, it was a style that was backward and of little interest.
It is one of the ironies of the last half of the 20th Century that by the time of Hovhaness’s death, so much of the world should have caught up with him. Partly owing to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, there appeared a whole new group of composers from Eastern Europe whose interest in music as an element of spiritual activity had been suppressed. These figures used themes from the chants of various religious traditions or sought to write music that might at least suggest deep meditation, even if it was not always written actively in aid of it. Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina were among the new—to us—figures appearing from the former Soviet lands, not to mention John Tavener in England. Different as they were from one another, they also clearly shared something of a world view, artistically and culturally, with the much older Hovhaness.
The idea of setting passages from the Rubaiyat came from a commission by André Kostelanetz, who premiered the work in 1975 and recorded it a few years later. The choice of text was a natural for this composer, with his long interest in Eastern symbols and thematic ideas. He treated the orchestra almost as a “sound track” to the narrator’s reading of the poems. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is the inclusion of an accordion as a soloist in the orchestra—but Hovhaness rarely used an entirely standard ensemble, and he treated his ensembles with great variety and imagination.
When the piece was first performed, Kostelanetz remarked to the composer, “That is love music!”—a response that pleased Hovhaness, because he had, in fact, dedicated the score to his wife.
Sheherazade, Symphonic Suite, op. 35
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky‑Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, Russia, on March 18, 1844, and died in Lyubensk, Russia, on June 21, 1908. He composed Sheherazade during the summer of 1888; it was first performed in St. Petersburg under the composer’s direction on October 28 of that year. The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam‑tam, harp, and strings. Duration is about 42 minutes.
During the winter of 1887‑88, Rimsky-Korsakov was engaged in one of his many generous acts of pious devotion to a deceased Russian master: he was orchestrating the opera Prince Igor, left unfinished at the death of its composer, Alexander Borodin. A few excerpts played in concert—among them the overture and the famous Polovtsian Dances—demonstrated the effectiveness of the work.
He had to put off original composition while engaged in this labor of love, but he did manage to conceive two new orchestral pieces, the working out of which was to be left to the following summer, spent on a country estate. They turned out to be among his best-known compositions. One was based on episodes from The Arabian Nights, the other on themes from the obikhod, a collection of the most frequently used canticles of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Both works were finished that summer: the first was Sheherazade, op. 35, and the second was the overture Svetlïy prazdnik (the bright holiday), generally known in English as the Russian Easter Overture. As it happens, they were very nearly the last purely orchestral works Rimsky-Korsakov was to write; for the remaining two decades of his life he devoted his attentions almost totally to opera. Moreover they are the last works that he composed with virtually no Wagnerian influence. There was a sudden dramatic change in Rimsky-Korsakov’s style the following winter, when he was bowled over by a performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen given in St. Petersburg by a German company. Rimsky-Korsakov’s next opera, Mlada, revealed the composer to have been converted into quite the devoted Wagnerian.
The massive collection of tales known as The Arabian Nights or The Thousand-and-One Nights is built on a framework reflected in the orchestral score of Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical treatment: the Sultan Shakhryar, discovering his wife’s infidelity and convinced of the inconstancy and faithlessness of all women, has sworn henceforth to marry repeatedly in rapid sequence, putting each wife to death after the first night in order to avoid another betrayal. To put an end to this bloodbath, Sheherazade, the daughter of the Sultan’s most trusted adviser, seeks to become his wife (even though she had been exempted from this fatal rank because of her father’s position at the court). She saves her life after her wedding night by telling a story that captures the Sultan’s interest, breaking it off just at dawn, with the promise of continuing it the next night. Each night, as she continues, her story puts out roots and branches, becoming an intricate network of tales, some told by characters within other tales, so that at no point do all the stories in progress come to their conclusion. Each day at dawn the Sultan puts off her execution for another day in order to hear the end of the story first. Gradually her seemingly artless and endless series of colorful fairy tales softens the cruel heart of the Sultan, and, at the end of one thousand‑and‑one nights, he abandons his sanguinary design and accepts Sheherazade as his one, permanent, loving wife.
Of course, The Arabian Nights is much too long and intricate—in its complex networks of tales-within-tales—simply to be translated into music as a story‑telling program. Analysts and program annotators have expended a great deal of energy in attempts to identify precisely which tales Rimsky-Korsakov had in mind, especially since the traditional movement titles are not especially specific: the introduction purports to represent the stern Sultan Shakhryar (in the opening unison phrase) and Sheherazade the storyteller (in the solo violin); the remainder of the first movement is identified with the sea and the ship of Sinbad the sailor; the second movement is the tale of the Prince Kalendar; the third is simply “The Prince and the Princess”; and the finale is a festival at Baghdad and a shipwreck (quite a combination for a single movement!). But it is vain to seek specific stories as the inspiration of this music. There is, for example, more than one Prince Kalendar with a story to tell in The Arabian Nights, and, as the composer himself noted, he did not by any means reserve the very first theme—the so-called “Sultan’s theme”—for that grim personage, but rather wove it into the entire fabric of the score without regard to the details of storytelling. It becomes the rolling ocean beneath Sinbad’s ship in the first movement, and it appears as an element in the Prince Kalendar’s tale, where the Sultan himself does not appear at all.
Even so, the theme presented first (and most often) by the solo violin quite clearly represents Sheherazade herself, telling her colorful tales and inserting her warm‑hearted personality into them. But the composer, after first specifying the traditional titles, wrote in his memoirs, My Musical Life, that he had actually removed all hints as to the subject matter of the tales from a later edition of the score. He added that, in composing Sheherazade,
I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy‑tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements. Why then, if that be the case, does my suite bear the name, precisely, of Sheherazade? Because this name and the title The Arabian Nights connote in everybody’s mind the East and fairy‑tale wonders; besides, certain details of the musical exposition hint at the fact that all of these are various tales of some one person (which happens to be Sheherazade) entertaining therewith her stern husband.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)