19/20 Season: Classics 1 - The Pines of Rome

Symphony in E minor, Op. 32, Gaelic, Allegro di molto

Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire, on September 5, 1867, and died in New York City on December 27, 1944. After her marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885, she was always referred to, even on her published music, as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, in the style of the day. After his death in 1910, she called herself Amy Beach. She composed her only symphony—the first by an American woman to be performed and published—in 1894 and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896. The score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, triangle, timpani, and strings. Duration of the Allegro di molto (movement 4), is about 11 minutes.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach demonstrated from earliest childhood both a remarkably attentive memory and a brilliant musical talent. She learned to read by the age of three, and already before that was reported to improvise alto lines against her mother’s soprano melodies when they sang. She began formal piano study at six, and the following year she had already appeared in public playing music by Handel, Beethoven, Chopin—as well as her own earliest compositions.

In 1875 her parents moved to Boston in order to provide a more thorough education. They took Amy to the German conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Wilhelm Gericke, to ask whether, as a budding composer, she should study in Europe. Gericke could not imagine that a girl could be a serious composer and suggested that she remain at home and read books about music theory. As a result, she was largely self-taught; following a year of harmony and counterpoint, she taught herself orchestration and fugue by translating the treatises of Berlioz and Gevaert.

She made her professional debut as a pianist at the age of 16; at 17 she played for the first time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Chopin’s F minor concerto. Soon thereafter she married a very musical, socially prominent physician, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a man her mother’s age, of whom her mother approved.

Dr. Beach preferred that his wife not continue to make her living as a pianist. He did, however, support her interest in composition. The leisure made possible by her marriage, with its freedom from the constant round of performance obligations, allowed her to create large‑scale works, not simply the songs and piano pieces that had previously been regarded as the normal output of a woman composer. Her first large work was a Mass for chorus and orchestra in 1890. By 1894 she had completed her “Gaelic” Symphony (performed by the BSO in 1896).

Around the turn of the century, critics busied themselves with endless attempts to determine whether women composers wrote music that was “masculine” (which, to them, meant assertive and well-developed essays in the large forms) or “feminine” (full of lyric grace and charm). Of course, they never addressed such questions in the work of male composers, and today the very idea seems ludicrous and reductive. The finale of the “Gaelic” Symphony, to be performed here, is without question strong and expressively assertive.

At the time the symphony was composed, every composer in America was discussing the views of Antonín Dvořàk, whose “New World” Symphony was supposedly based on the music of African-Americans, or (sometimes) Native Americans, which the Czech composer said contained all the musical ideas necessary for symphonic music. Beach disagreed in an “Americanist” school, but she preferred drawing on many ethnic musical sources from all the European countries, among others. That the Gaelic symphony is most clearly related to Ireland is most evident in the slow movement; the finale is fully scored and very dynamic to bring a strong, rousing finish to the symphony.

The year 1893 marked the great Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair, designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in October 1492. Regarded as one of the greatest world’s fairs in history, it attracted 27 million visitors from all over the world. It was a powerful influence on architecture and the arts, Chicago’s self-image, its sanitation, and Americans’ understanding of peoples and cultures of the world. Amy Beach was commissioned to write her Festival Jubilate for the opening of the Women’s Pavilion. Among musicians at the Fair, Scott Joplin played classic ragtime, John Philip Sousa’s band played frequently, and Antonín Dvořák introduced his newly composed “American” String Quartet, just completed in Spillville, Iowa. Also making a debut at the Fair were Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit gum, and the very first brownie.

Notes by Steven Ledbetter©


Cello Concerto No. 1, Opus 107

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906 and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He composed his Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1959 for Mstislav Rostropovich, who played the premiere performance in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known during the Soviet era) in October that year. Rostropovich also gave the American premiere, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, a month later. In addition to the soloist, the score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, one horn, timpani, celesta, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich enjoyed a special friendship and artistic partnership for many years. The cellist (1927-2007) was a teenager when he first met the composer, who was his senior by 21 years, in 1943. Enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory as a student of both cello and composition, Rostropovich took Shostakovich's orchestration class. His admiration for his teacher knew no bounds, and after Shostakovich had heard the young man play, the admiration became mutual. During the 1950s, the two played Shostakovich's Cello Sonata (1934) in concert tours all over Russia, and their friendship deepened. Throughout those years, Rostropovich was dreaming of a concerto Shostakovich might one day write for him. But the composer's wife told him, "Slava, if you want Dmitri Dmitriyevich to write something for you, the only recipe I can give you is this - never ask him or talk to him about it."

Rostropovich followed this advice, however reluctantly. And then one day in 1959, the concerto suddenly materialized. The ecstatic cellist committed the entire piece to memory in just four days, astounding the composer when the two got together at Shostakovich's summer home on August 6, 1959. In her invaluable book of recollections about Shostakovich, Elizabeth Wilson reports the following conversation between them:

"Now just hang on a minute while I find a music stand," Shostakovich said.
The cellist answered: "Dmitri Dmitriyevich, but I don't need a stand."
"What do you mean, you don't need a stand, you don't need one?"
"You know, I'll play from memory."
"Impossible, impossible..."

Rostropovich proceeded to play through the work from memory with the pianist he had brought with him, to the utter delight of the composer and a small number of friends who had gathered in the music room. Afterwards, they celebrated with a festive dinner. Everyone knew they had witnessed a historic moment.

The first public performance, two months later, was enthusiastically received, and was soon followed by an international triumph, establishing the work as the most significant addition to the cello concerto literature in a long time. Shostakovich, inspired by an exceptional instrumentalist with whom he had bonded deeply, had written a work that combined immediacy of expression with formal perfection, and Romantic passion with Classical balance - something not often found in the music of the 1950s. Nor had music ever communicated more directly or more sincerely.

Once you have heard the concerto's opening motif, played by the cello, you are unlikely ever to forget this four-note theme. (It is immediately recognizable when quoted in Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet of 1960.) Varied, developed, and taken into successively higher registers of the solo instrument, this little motif dominates the entire movement - and more. An insistent second theme appears a little later, and the music gradually gains in excitement and technical virtuosity. The solo cello plays almost without intermission, though it is joined by the clarinet and especially by the horn, as "assistant" soloists. The end of the movement returns to the opening theme in its original low register.

The remaining three movements are played without pause. First we hear a slow movement (actually, the tempo is Moderato), featuring—after a dreamy introduction—a very simple, folk-like melody. The introductory material is heard again, followed by a more passionate new idea, leading to a climax and a return of the folk-like theme in high-pitched cello harmonics.

The third movement is a lengthy, unaccompanied cadenza, beginning slowly and becoming faster and faster. Russian critic Lev Ginzburg aptly called it a "monologue-recitative." The movement, although exceedingly hard to perform, is not a mere display of technical difficulties but, in Ginzburg's words, a piece of "deep meditation, reaching philosophical heights." It leads directly into the exuberant finale, which opens with a dance tune—not an ordinary dance tune, though, but one spiced with many chromatic half-steps that give it a striking, sarcastic overtone. The theme is introduced by the oboe and the clarinet, allowing the soloist to catch his breath after the exhausting cadenza. He soon takes over, however, repeating the dance-tune. This theme (in duple meter) is followed by a second dance (in triple). The latter unexpectedly morphs into the memorable opening theme from the first movement, providing the material for the energetic conclusion of the concerto. As a kind of private joke, Shostakovich concealed in this movement some distorted fragments of a folksong from Georgia in the Caucasus, Stalin's birthplace; the song, "Suliko," had reportedly been the late dictator's personal favorite. But even Rostropovich confessed: "I doubt if I would have detected this quote if Dmitri Dmitriyevich hadn't pointed it out to me."

Notes by Peter Laki©

When Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony, the rccently-created Soviet Union was a leader in all kinds of artistic modernism, in the visual arts,literature, and film. Shostakovich became renowned for the energy and sometimes the sassiness of his work. Soon after the death of Lenin, however, things began to change. Stalin was not artistically receptive, and he worried constantly about how modern ideas might act against his programs. He was particularly worried about the emotional power of music, and governmental domination of the arts hung over Shostakovich during much of his lifetime, because man of his friends and artists he admired were locked up or exexuted at Stalin’s whim. Only after the dictator’s death in 1953 did he begin to write in large public forms (symphonies and concertos) after a decade in which he had largely limited himself to chamber music, because it was not seen as having a “political” significance. ~ Note by Steven Ledbetter


Capriccio Italien, Opus 45

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko‑Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He composed his Capriccio Italien (Italian Caprice) between January 16 and May 27, 1880; the first performance took place in Moscow the following December 18. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two cornets and two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 16 minutes.

In 1877, the 37-year-old Tchaikovsky impulsively married a much younger former student, a disaster that plunged him into depression and afflicted him with a severe writer’s block. He fled to Switzerland to recover, and while abroad completed his opera Eugene Onegin, orchestrated his Fourth Symphony, and wrote the Violin Concerto. Following a brief return to Moscow in Fall of 1879, he traveled to Rome in December, remaining three months. There in the happy company of his brother Modest and other friends, he went sightseeing in the time‑honored manner. “Michelangelo’s frescoes at the Sistine Chapel are no longer Greek to me,” he wrote to his brother Anatoly, “and I am beginning to marvel at their originality and powerful beauty.”

Over the centuries many artists of northern climes have been entranced and inspired by the warmth and sunshine of Italy. Enchanted by Italy’s many charms, he began to compose his Capriccio Italien. The work went easily, and within a week he had completed a draft. He wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, the mysterious patron with whom he corresponded and who provided him a stipend on the condition that they never meet, to say that he was pleased with his new piece and that he foresaw a bright future for it.

In that Tchaikovsky was not mistaken. Though hardly a profound work, the Italian Caprice is nonetheless bold, fresh, warm, and colorful. It made such a hit at the Moscow premiere that the public demanded to hear it again later in the same concert series. Tchaikovsky had avoided the premiere itself, but he was persuaded to attend a rehearsal for the repeat performance. He reported to Modest, “It sounds marvelous.” From the beginning Tchaikovsky had intended to compose a work modeled after Glinka’s evocations of Spain. Like Glinka, he borrows tunes from the country he chooses to honor and stitches them together in the manner best calculated to provide a variety of mood. Each of the tunes conjures up some image of Italy, from the opening fanfare (reportedly derived from the bugle call that awoke the composer each morning when it sounded from a military barracks near his hotel) to the sun‑drenched warmth of the final waltz.


The Pines of Rome

Ottorino Respighi was born July 9, 1879 in Bologna, Italy, and died April 18, 1936 in Rome. He composed The Pines of Rome in 1923‑24, which premiered on December 14, 1924 in the Augusteo concert hall in Rome. The score calls for a large orchestra consisting of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, four trombones, timpani, triangle, two small cymbals, tambourine, ratchet, cymbals, bass drum, tam‑tam, harp, bells, celesta, harp, piano, organ, offstage trumpet, four flugelhorns and two euphoniums, and strings. In addition, Respighi specified a phonograph with a recording of a nightingale’s song. Duration is about 23 minutes.

Ottorino Respighi was trained professionally as a violinist and violist, with a strong interest in composition. In 1900, while serving as principal violist with the Russian Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, he studied orchestration and composition with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Two years later he returned to Bologna, where he earned a second degree in composition. In 1915 he moved to Rome to become professor of composition at the famed St. Cecilia Conservatory, where he remained for the rest of his life.

That Rome’s history, architecture, and modern life had the power to inspire composers is evident in Respighi’s three most famous compositions: The Fountains of Rome, with which he found his voice in 1914‑16, was followed in 1923‑24 by The Pines of Rome, and in 1928 by Roman Festivals. Though Respighi also wrote eight operas, two ballets, nearly a dozen other orchestral works, and a substantial amount of vocal music, some of it exquisite, he is remembered by the average concertgoer solely for his three Roman suites. He was far and away the most successful Italian composer of the post-Puccini generation. His music is at its best when he can evoke an air of childlike wonder, of delight in visual impressions translated into music, as he does in The Pines of Rome.

Actually, the four movements of the suite are designed not so much to evoke the trees themselves as the kind of activity that goes on (or went on) in their vicinity. The first and third movements are inspired by some aspects of modern Roman life, the second and fourth by its history.

I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese. The Villa Borghese is today an enormous park open to the public, though formerly belonging to the powerful Borghese family, which dominated aspects of Roman life up to and including the Papacy. Respighi is interested in the energy of swarming children playing in the modern park, dancing in circles, playing soldier, and shouting excitedly. The children’s vivacity is projected in the orchestra through constant activity and noise, almost nonstop trills or tremolos, and fragments that might be bits of children’s songs. The composer’s wife Elsa, a singer and a native of Rome, recalled that he asked her to sing some of the songs of her childhood so he could work them into this aural picture.

II. Pine‑trees near a catacomb. The mood suddenly changes to utter stillness. The catacombs were used by early Christians as safe places to meet for worship during the period that their sect was outlawed. Respighi builds up the picture out of little fragments intended to suggest liturgical chanting. The overlapping sounds and parallel chords evoke the clandestine ceremonies over an extended period, as if gathered up by some sound‑catching time‑machine.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum. The Janiculum (Gianicolo in modern Italian) is a large hill in the Trastevere section of Rome, near the Vatican. It offers a magnificent view of the city’s historic center across the Tiber, and it was the site of numerous historic events. The 16th-century poet Tasso died in the shadow of these trees in 1595; two‑and‑a‑half centuries later, the same ground saw the fiercest fighting in Rome between Garibaldi and the Papal forces during the lengthy and bitter struggle to unify the country. Respighi, however, chooses to offer pure nature‑painting, for the Janiculum is also a park, elevated above the heat and bustle of the city, perfectly placed to catch the moon’s rays on a clear night. Soft shimmering sounds against long phrases in the solo woodwinds captures the summer night. At the end of the movement, Respighi introduces the most unusual instrument in his orchestra: the phonograph. His score specifies a particular recording of the nightingale’s song (No. R 6105, Concert Record Gramophone). The present performance will use an mp3 recording of the song of a more modern nightingale.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way. The Appian Way was the great Roman road, the finest achievement of road‑building in classical antiquity still, in part, used today. Completed in 312 B.C., it eventually connected Rome with Brindisi, a port on the Adriatic coast and thus became the principal road to Greece. Respighi’s music is a vision of a misty dawn with the muffled march of tramping feet. It builds inexorably to a great outburst of sound, as extra brass instruments representing the Roman buccine sound their fanfare, the composer’s image of an ancient army marching toward the Capitol in triumph.

Notes by Steven Ledbetter©