“Red Cape Tango” from Metropolis Symphony
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 28, 1954; now living in Michigan
There is no one in American classical music quite like Michael Daugherty. While other composers look more or less to European-based high culture for their aesthetic inspiration, he finds such American pop icons as Elvis Presley, Desi Arnes, and even J. Edgar Hoover stimulate his creative juices. Who else could write a Metropolis Symphony based on the “Superman” comic strip, an opera called Jackie O, or Elvis Everywhere for three Elvis impersonators and the Kronos String Quartet?
Nevertheless, Daugherty is a paid-up member of the classical music establishment and in fact is a professor of music at the University of Michigan. But perhaps his early roots provide a better clue to his unique style. Born the son of a dance-band drummer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he grew up playing keyboards in jazz, rock, and funk bands. Studies at Yale University, on a Fulbright fellowship in Paris, and with György Ligeti in Germany did not erase these early impressions.
Today, Daugherty's musical style joyously mixes elements from Pop, Rock, Funk, and Big Band jazz with the more serious ethos of classical symphonic music. His approach to orchestration is dazzling, and his layering of high-energy, often conflicting rhythms is hard to resist. In Metropolis Symphony, he conveys “faster-than-a-speeding-bullet” motion with Technicolor brashness and imagination.
Although Metropolis wasn't actually commissioned by the BSO, it was dedicated to this orchestra and to its former music director David Zinman. Zinman and the BSO first performed it here in January 1994, took it on to Carnegie Hall, and later recorded it for the Argo label.
As Daugherty explains: “The Metropolis Symphony evokes an American mythology that I discovered as an avid reader of comic books in the fifties and sixties. Each movement of the Symphony … is a musical response to the myth of Superman. … The Symphony is a rigorously structured, non-programmatic work, expressing the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes, and wit of American popular culture. Like Charles Ives, whose music recalls small-town America early in [the 20th] century, I drew on my eclectic musical background to reflect on late-20th-century urban America.”
Tonight, we’ll hear the bravura finale of Metropolis: “Red Cape Tango.” Here’s how Daugherty describes it:
“ ‘Red Cape Tango’ was composed after Superman's fight to the death with Doomsday. … The principal melody, first heard in the bassoon [and bells] is derived from the medieval Latin death chant Dies Irae [also used prominently in the Totentanz and Symphonie fantastique]. This dance of death is conceived as a tango. … The tango rhythm, introduced by the castanets … undergoes a gradual timbral transformation, concluding dramatically with crash cymbals, brake drum, and timpani. The orchestra alternates between legato [smooth] and staccato [clipped] sections to suggest a musical bullfight.”
Totentanz (Dance of Death)
Born in Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811; died in Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886
Though born to poor parents on one of the rural Esterházy estates on the Austro-Hungarian border (belonging to the same family that earlier employed Joseph Haydn), Franz Liszt became the most cosmopolitan of all 19th-century musicians. The greatest pianist of his — and perhaps any — time, he was also an accomplished conductor and a daring composer who pushed the technique of piano playing and the elements of musical construction beyond anything imagined before. But even a personality of Liszt's phenomenal energies could not pursue all these achievements simultaneously. Thus, most of his concerto and orchestral works were created after he had retired from his career as a super-star touring virtuoso. Settling in Weimar from 1848 to 1860, he devoted most of his time there to prolific composition.
Although its first sketches were made in the 1830s, the Totentanz ("Dance of Death") was not written out until 1849 and then not premiered until 1865. It is one of Liszt's most astonishing — some would say outrageous — creations, demonstrating his restless search for new sound colors, both in the piano and the orchestra, to express his tempestuously Romantic visions. And because there was virtually nothing Liszt could not do at the keyboard, he bequeathed here a daunting feat of technical wizardry for pianists who came after him.
Many listeners will find the Totentanz's generating theme very familiar: it is the Dies Irae (“Day of Judgment”) chant, from the medieval Catholic funeral rite, which we’ve already heard in “Red Cape Tango” and will hear again in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. (It was also adored by another brilliant pianist-composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff.) Liszt made a piano transcription of the Symphonie fantastique in 1834, and it is not surprising that this baleful theme appealed both to his fervent Catholicism and his Romantic taste for the macabre.
We hear the Dies Irae tune first in the low woodwinds and brass over savagely dissonant bass-register chords in the piano. From this theme, Liszt builds a series of stunningly colorful, fantastically inventive and, for the soloist, fiendishly difficult variations, ranging from sinisterly grotesque to contemplative to radiantly disembodied. Midway through, he transforms the Dies Irae's somberness into a new triumphant theme, sung first by low woodwinds and muted strings with enthusiastic whoops from the horns. And he also makes a bow to J. S. Bach with an elegantly contrapuntal variation for the piano alone.
Born in La Côte-Saint-André, France, December 11, 1803; died in Paris, March 8, 1869
"What a ferment of musical ideas there is in me! … Now that I have broken the chains of routine I see an immense plain laid out before me which academic rules once forbade me to enter. Now that I have heard that awe-inspiring giant, Beethoven, I know where the art of music now stands, now I have to take it to that point and push it yet further. … There are new things to be done and plenty of them. I sense this with intense energy, and I will do them, you may be sure, if I live."
Hector Berlioz wrote these words to a friend in 1829, and a year later, he embodied them in his first symphony, the still astounding Symphonie fantastique. (Subsequent revisions in 1831-32 brought it to the form we hear today.) Also titled "Episode in an Artist's Life," it was created just three years after his idol Beethoven's death, and, in its way, it was as revolutionary as the "Eroica" or the Ninth. It is the first true program symphony: a work in which the music is generated not primarily by abstract musical rules and forms, but by an extra-musical plot. Beethoven had made some tentative steps in this direction with his "Pastoral" Symphony, but Berlioz leapt far ahead, paving the way for Liszt's descriptive works, Mahler's symphonies, and ultimately Richard Strauss' graphic tone poems.
The symphonic plot is based on Berlioz's consuming, unfulfilled passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first saw when she appeared in productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in Paris in 1827. Although he understood no English, the volatile young artist was smitten equally by Shakespeare and by Miss Smithson. His ardor for her burned even though they did not meet until 1832. (They married in 1833: a disastrous union that proved one should never try to turn fantasy into reality).
Here, somewhat abridged, is Berlioz's storyline:
[Movement one:] "An artist, afflicted with a passionate imagination sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has dreamed of, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. By some strange trick of fancy, the beloved vision never appears … except in association with a musical idea [the work's idée fixe] whose character — passionate but also noble and reticent — he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved …"
[Movement two:] "The artist finds himself in the most varied situations — in the midst of the tumult of a festivity, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauty of nature — but everywhere he is, in the city, in the country, the beloved vision appears before him and troubles his soul."
[Movement three:] "Finding himself in the country at evening, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches [a Swiss herding song] in dialogue. … This pastoral duet, the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind … come together to give his heart an unaccustomed calm. … But what if she were deceiving him! … The distant sound of thunder — solitude — silence."
[Movement four:] In despair, "the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. … At the end of the march, the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow."
[Movement five:] "He sees himself at the sabbath in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral. … The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque: it is she come to the sabbath. … Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the "Dies Irae" [the famous Catholic chant for the dead used in so many classical compositions], sabbath round-dance …"
Berlioz called the five movements inspired by this program: "Reveries and Passions," "A Ball," "In the Country," "March to the Scaffold," and "Dream of the Witches Sabbath." All of the symphony's innovations — the radical orchestration, eerie harmonies, eccentric rhythms, and the idée fixe melody representing the beloved, which recurs in all movements (a precursor to Wagner's leitmotif) — derive from Berlioz's imaginative search for the right musical devices to express this Romantic fantasy.
The full idée fixe is presented as a long, yearning melody in the violins and flutes at the beginning of the first movement's Allegro section. Its most striking reappearances come in the "March to the Scaffold," where, sung by a solo clarinet, it is abruptly silenced by the fall of the guillotine, and in the "Witches Sabbath" finale, where a shrieking E-flat clarinet presents a demonic version.
But Berlioz's most extraordinary innovation is his use of the orchestra, which, in Michael Steinberg's words, "sounds and behaves like nothing heard before. His orchestra is as new as Paganini's violin and Liszt's piano." Berlioz introduced instruments unknown in previous symphonies — the English horn (movement three), two harps (movement two), the grotesque E-flat clarinet (finale), and a fantastic array of percussion including an unprecedented four timpani (movements 4 and 5). And he used traditional instruments in ways seldom heard before: listen for the snarling stopped horns at the beginning of "March to the Scaffold" and the bone-rattling sound of violins being played with the wood of the bow in the "Witches Sabbath." Even today, nearly 180 years after its composition, the Symphonie fantastique retains its radical edge and its ability to set our spines tingling.