Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite 3
Born in Bologna, Italy, July 9, 1879; died in Rome, April 18, 1936
Long before there was an early-music movement, Ottorino Respighi became fascinated with Italian and French music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Pouring over 16th-century lute tablatures and 17th-century guitar pieces, he decided to do his bit to rescue such lovely melodies from oblivion by freely arranging some of them for small orchestra. Under the title Antiche danze ed arie—"Ancient Airs and Dances"—he created three suites, the first in 1917 and the one we hear tonight in 1931.
While today's transcribers of early music take careful account of scholarship about the instrumental sounds appropriate to the era, Respighi had no such knowledge or inhibitions and recreated his lute songs in the sensuous instrumental colors and rich harmonizations of his own day. A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, he was a master of spectacular orchestral effects, as anyone familiar with his sumptuous tone poem The Pines of Rome can attest. But the Ancient Airs and Dances show a more delicate side of Respighi's art, especially the Third Suite, which is scored for strings alone.
Pizzicato cellos accompanying the melody remind us of the original lute in the gracious opening Italiana, based on an anonymous lute composition of the 16th century. Longer and more complex is the second movement Arie di corte or "Songs of Courtship"; it is based on six lute songs composed by Jean-Baptist Besard (1567–c. 1617). Respighi focuses most attention on the melancholy first song, "It is sad to be in love with you," which returns at the movement's close; doleful violas dominate this heartfelt air. It is followed by two quick songs run together ("Farewell forever, shepherdess" and "Lovely eyes that see clearly"), the richly chorded slow-tempo "The Skiff of Love," and two more quick airs, "What divinity touches my soul" (in feathery pizzicato) and "If it is for my innocence that you love me."
Based on another 16th-century lute piece, the third movement is anachronistically called a Siciliana by Respighi after the later pastoral Baroque dance with prominent dotted rhythms, believed to have originated in Sicily. Its melancholy grace is enhanced in its second verse by delicately descending scale patterns in the lower strings. Finally, Respighi closes with a sonorous arrangement of a much later work from 1692: a Passacaglia (a form built on a repeating melodic-harmonic pattern, here introduced by the first violins) for guitar by Lodovico Roncalli. Sweeping multi-stopped string chords conjure the full-bodied tones of the guitar.
Concierto de estío
Born in Sagunto, Spain, November 22, 1901; died in Madrid, July 6, 1999
Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, whose life spanned the 20th century, died in 1999 at the age of 97. His Concierto de Aranjuez has become one of the best-loved works of the century, and this along with his 25 other compositions for classical guitar has contributed enormously to the instrument's prominence in concert halls today.
Blind since the age of three, Rodrigo in his twenties became a pupil of the Frenchman Paul Dukas, and a French refinement and sensitivity to color mingles with the more prominent Spanish influences in his music. He lived in exile in Paris during the Spanish Civil War, but soon returned to become the dean of Spanish composers. As scholar and creator, Rodrigo exerted a tremendous influence over his compatriots, although his conservative style was not to the taste of many younger composers. And his great mastery of melody and atmosphere made him very popular beyond the boundaries of his native land.
Rodrigo was a particularly gifted composer of concertos, creating 11 of them. Tonight, we’ll be introduced to a charming one he wrote for the violin: the Concierto de estío (Summer Concerto) he composed by the shores of the Mediterranean during the summer of 1943 and finished in Madrid the following year. He described this work as an homage to Vivaldi, writing: “I have tried to infuse new life into the concerto form from before the era of Haydn and Mozart.” The work is delicately scored for the orchestra, yet extremely demanding for the soloist.
Marked Allegro molto leggiero, the “Preludio” in E minor is indeed light as a feather: dominated by fleet figurations for the soloist and a sparkling orchestral palette with prominent use of high woodwinds and string pizzicato. Contrasting with this is a second theme of bittersweet lyricism in a slower tempo that is very typical of Rodrigo’s melodic style.
The second movement is a gentle “Siciliana” in B minor, built on one melancholy and hauntingly beautiful theme, which is developed and then treated to a series of variations. Rodrigo: “In this movement, … a complex relationship is established between the theme of the ‘Siciliana’ and the first [rapid] theme of the work, which is resolved in the cadenza,” a real technical test for the violinist.
The final “Rondino” also takes a single theme—playful and full of rustic humor (note those donkey-heehaws!)—and sends it through a whirl of variations and developments in different keys, which Rodrigo describes as “a magic circle that is repeated three times.” The composer also revealed that this E-major finale was inspired by Catalan folk music.
Symphony No. 4, opus 29, “The Inextinguishable”
Born in Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark, June 9, 1865: died in Copenhagen, October 3, 1931
Scandinavia’s two greatest symphonists—Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Denmark’s Carl Nielsen—were born just six months apart in 1865. Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children born to an impoverished housepainter and his wife, and he grew up in a two-room cottage in the Danish countryside. At age four, Carl discovered that the pieces of timber in the cordwood delivered to his village produced different pitches when struck with a hammer, and so he arranged them into his first primitive instrument. At six, he began learning the violin, later piano and finally the cornet. His mastery of this last instrument enabled him to win a post, over many older competitors, as a regimental musician in the Danish Royal Army at age 14.
At 18, Nielsen won a scholarship at the Copenhagen Conservatory, where he studied violin and piano for two years while voraciously reading literature, history and philosophy to make up for his limited schooling on Fyn. He received little formal training in composition, but this probably enhanced the originality of his creative voice.
By now a mature composer and a powerful symphonist, Nielsen began composing his Fourth Symphony in 1914 as World War I was breaking out, and it became, in effect, his “war symphony,” completed early in 1916 as the conflict was at its height. There was also turmoil in Nielsen’s private life: his marriage to the prominent sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen-Nielsen seemed to be falling apart, and in a letter to a friend, he described his life as “a stormy sea.” (The marriage, however, did recover, and the two remained together until Nielsen’s death in 1931.) In the Symphony, the violence and anguish of this period is epitomized by a dramatic duel between two timpanists, positioned symbolically on opposite sides of the stage.
However, the overarching philosophical theme behind this dark, intense symphony, which Nielsen called “The Inextinguishable,” is actually the indestructibility of the life force. From his early years in the countryside, the composer retained a passionate attachment to the natural world, which we can sense in his explanation of the title: “The title The Inextinguishable … is meant to express the appearance of the most elementary forces among human beings, animals and even plants. We can say: in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood, volcanoes, etc. and all things were destroyed and dead, then nature would still begin to breed new life again. … Soon the plants would begin to multiply, the breeding and screaming of birds would be seen and heard, the aspiration and yearning of human beings would be felt. These forces, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ are what I have tried to present.”
However, Nielsen insisted that the Fourth was not a program symphony: rather, it was purely a musical drama in which the key of E major, representing Life, wins an ultimate victory over an unstable D-minor tonality representing chaos and destruction. He also conceived the symphony as one continuous 40-minute flow without pauses, though we can detect four distinct movements within.
The symphony opens in a maelstrom of chaotic violence. The key is already a source of strife, for the woodwinds assert D minor, while the strings prefer C major. Meanwhile, the timpanist hammers dissonant tritone intervals, the infamous “devil-in-music” interval. Eventually, this violence subsides, and two clarinets propose a tranquil, folk-like melody that is sung in mellow thirds and follows a descending shape. Modest as it now sounds, this will turn out to be the Symphony’s most important theme. The violins adopt it, then transform it into a bold peasant dance with a Beethovenian vigor; this dance introduces for the first time the key of E major, the symphony’s goal. A grand, brass-led chorale, another variant of the clarinet theme, brings the exposition to an affirmative close.
Over an ominous sustained pedal-note in the timpani, the development section begins in quiet expectation. Soon a violent battle breaks out, which the tranquil clarinet theme tries in vain to pacify. The wild opening music returns and the grand chorale as well to carry this “first movement” to a provisional resting place in E major.
A hushed bridge passage leads to an intermezzo-like “second movement” in G major, which is led by woodwinds and has a gentle, rural charm (Poco allegretto).
Suddenly, the violins cry out in anguish, singing an impassioned theme; this is the work’s “slow movement” (Poco adagio quasi andante). The mood calms, and the solo violin sings a theme of grave beauty: a tender prayer enhanced by other solo strings. All the strings pick up this theme, but it is soon interrupted by urgent warnings from the woodwinds. These warnings grow into a fierce fugal passage, culminating in a mighty brass-driven climax.
A long bridge — at first hushed, then a whirl of frenzied activity — leads into the final Allegro, launched by a loud timpani crack. Opening in A major, the energetic violin theme is related by its descending shape to the clarinet theme. The music evolves into a dissonant struggle. Now the two timpanists—Nielsen instructs them to always play with a menacing tone—erupt in their famous battle, each thundering away on a different tritone interval. The music seems to surmount this crisis in a grand victory Nielsen marks “glorioso,” but the key is still stuck in A major.
A vaguely uneasy development section leads to another outbreak of the timpani battle, now focusing on the D-minor key with which the symphony so violently opened. The violins and high woodwinds keep protesting on the note B, a pitch that will lead to E major. The horns roar out the clarinet theme, and eventually, it succeeds in defeating the chaotic world of D minor and other “wrong” keys. Now unequivocally in E major, the once-modest clarinet theme sweeps to a triumphant, splendorous close. Once again, the inextinguishable life force is the victor.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2010
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