Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England, October 12, 1872; died in London, August 26, 1958
Related to both Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, Ralph Vaughan Williams was the scion of a prominent English family that expected its sons to be lawyers and clergymen, not musicians. His own path to a composing career was unconventional, and he was almost 38 when he unveiled his first masterpiece, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
Vaughan Williams spent his thirties collecting folk songs from all parts of England. In 1904, he undertook another project that also influenced his creative development: the revision of the hymnal of the Anglican Church, making it, in his words, "a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world." During this two-year labor of love, he immersed himself in the music of such Elizabethan masters as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tallis.
For the hymn text "When, rising from the bed of death," he chose a stately melody composed by Tallis in 1567. It obviously made a deep impression, for in 1910 it became the theme of his Fantasia for strings composed for the Three Choirs Festival held in Gloucester Cathedral. The composer's second wife Ursula recalled that it was created "with the Norman grandeurs of [the] Cathedral in mind and the strange quality of the resonance of stone." Vaughan Williams scored the work for three string ensembles: a large first orchestra, a small second orchestra of nine players, and a string quartet. With them, he created layers of contrasting sonorities that played off the cathedral's vast echoing spaces. The quartet's first violinist and violist are also featured in luminous solos and duets. At the work's premiere on September 6, 1910, listeners were too involved in the other piece on the program, Elgar's recent oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, to pay much attention. But within a few years, the Fantasia was being played by orchestras throughout Europe.
It begins with a preview of the theme plucked by low strings, followed by a short winding idea in violas and cellos that also plays a prominent role. Then we hear the Tallis theme played in its entirety by second violins, violas, and cellos. This melody will not return in full until the solo violin sings it near the end. The body of the piece is composed of meditations on phrases of the theme, new melodies spun from it, and the richly harmonized winding idea — all refracted by the different prisms of Vaughan Williams' three ensembles.
Although the Fantasia is not specifically religious music, it seems to speak to the spirit. Its mystical power was well expressed by Fuller Maitland, a reviewer of its first performance: "The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling. Throughout its course, one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."
Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born in Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893
Though now more than 400 years old, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet still reigns as the most compelling of all love stories. And it holds as much allure for composers as for movie directors. "God! What a fine subject!" wrote the French composer Hector Berlioz. "How it lends itself to music!"
In 1869, the 28-year-old Tchaikovsky was just recovering from the breaking off of his only romance with a woman—the fascinating Belgian opera singer Desirée Artôt—when he was urged to use this subject to transform his pain into art by his fellow Russian composer Mily Balakirev. This renunciation had been difficult for Tchaikovsky, and soon after, he was seen at the opera house listening to Artôt with tears streaming down his face.
A member of the five Russian nationalist composers known as the "Mighty Handful," Balakirev became more famous for the compositions he inspired in others than for his own works, and the young Tchaikovsky was one of his protégés. On a long walk together, he suggested Romeo and Juliet as the perfect program for a symphonic poem and followed that up with a letter detailing how the work should be laid out. Tchaikovsky latched onto the idea immediately, but used his own artistic discretion about Balakirev's suggestions. The first version of his "Fantasy-Overture" was written in just six weeks at the end of 1869. But when he heard it performed in Moscow in March 1870, Tchaikovsky decided it needed considerably more work. In revisions made soon after, he added the brooding opening that so perfectly establishes a mood of tender pathos, and before publishing it in 1880, he devised the startling conclusion, confirming the tragic denouement with eight searing B-major chords.
The musical events of Tchaikovsky's first masterpiece are so well known they need little explanation; they convey virtually all the dramatic elements of Shakespeare play except the scenes of comic relief. Some commentators have linked the dark chant-like theme that opens the work with the character of Friar Laurence who marries the young lovers. This theme plays an important role in the middle development section — striving in the horns against the jagged principal theme representing the battles between the Capulets and Montagues, just as in the play Laurence tries vainly to bring the families together. Notice how craftily Tchaikovsky introduces his famous love theme, one of the most inspired this great melodist ever wrote. He first presents it with very subdued scoring—an English horn solo over violas—saving its full passion for later when it returns soaring aloft in the violins.
Instrumentation: Two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Excerpts from Porgy and Bess
Born in Brooklyn, New York, September 26, 1898; died in Beverly Hills, California, July 11, 1937
On an October night in 1926, George Gershwin, wound up from rehearsals of his Broadway-bound musical Oh! Kay, found himself unable to sleep. He turned to a popular new novel, Porgy, about African-American life in the Charleston ghetto written by a white South Carolinian named DuBose Heyward. The composer was enthralled and read until dawn. His savvy theatrical sense told him this was a story crying out for dramatic treatment, and he promptly fired off a letter to Heywood expressing his interest in using it for a future opera. But Gershwin admitted he didn’t have the technical knowledge yet to tackle such an ambitious project. It would be another nine years before Porgy and Bess had its premiere.
The scion of an aristocratic but impoverished Charleston family, Heyward had spent time as a cotton checker working among black stevedores on the Charleston wharves. He found himself mesmerized by "the color, the mystery and movement of Negro life" and began studying local African-American folkways, speech patterns and spirituals. Just down the street from his home was a decaying courtyard of tenements called Cabbage Row, and this became the Catfish Row of his novel and play. The inspiration for the crippled Porgy was a real-life local character Samuel Smalls, known as "Goat Sammy," who traveled around the streets of Charleston on a tiny goat-driven cart.
At last in 1933, Gershwin felt ready to embark on his operatic project. The first major piece he composed was the enchanting "Summertime," sung at the beginning of the opera. The most intense period of work, however, came during the summer of 1934 when Gershwin rented a cottage near Heywood's summer home on Folly Island, off Charleston, and immersed himself in local Gullah and black culture. Gershwin was dazzled by the spirituals and the Gullah tradition of "shouting": accompanying spirituals with complicated rhythmic patterns beaten out by hands and feet. Back in New York, George's brother Ira joined the creative team to write many of the lyrics.
Porgy and Bess opened at Broadway's Alvin Theater on October 10, 1935. The audience loved the show, but critics were more reserved. Especially they questioned what kind of work Porgy and Bess was: musical, operetta, or opera? Gershwin maintained it was an opera and had followed the operatic conventions of using continuous music with the dialogue largely in sung recitative.
Act I, scene 1: After a brief, exhilarating orchestral Prelude, the curtain opens on Catfish Row. Home from work, the men of the Row have begun a crap game. Clara, wife of Jake the fisherman, sings a lullaby to her baby ("Summertime"). Jake then takes the baby and sings it a more cynical song ("A woman is a sometime thing"). The crippled Porgy joins the game and then the sinister stevedore Crown, with his flashily dressed woman, Bess. Crown soon gets into a brawl with Robbins, killing him with a cotton hook. Crown flees, leaving Bess behind; Porgy is the only one who will give her shelter.
Scene 2: Robbins' body is laid out in his wife Serena's room. Serena sings an anguished lament of true operatic power ("My man's gone now"). Even though there is not enough money, the undertaker promises a decent burial for Robbins. The chorus concludes with a spiritual-style song of faith ("The Promised Land").
Act II, scene 1: A month later, the residents of Catfish Row are preparing for a holiday boat trip and picnic on Kittiwah Island. Bess and Porgy have fallen in love, and he expresses his newfound joy ("I got plenty o' nuttin'"). Bess is reluctant to leave Porgy behind for the picnic, but Porgy urges her to enjoy herself; they sing a love duet ("Bess, you is my woman now"), one of the opera’s most beautiful sequences. Dressed in their Sunday best, the neighbors parade off to the boat ("Oh, I can't sit down").
Scene 2: On Kittiwah Island, the neighbors enjoy themselves (“I Ain’t Got No Shame”). The bootlegger Sportin' Life entertains them with the irreverent "It ain't necessarily so." As the crowd leaves for the boat, Crown, who's been hiding on the island, accosts Bess and drags her into the bushes.
A dramatic orchestral interlude describes the terrible hurricane that strikes Charleston.
Act III, scene 1: A calm evening after the storm. Clara, Jake and some of the other fishermen have been drowned. Crown suddenly creeps back to the Row to reclaim Bess, who had escaped from him on the island and returned to Porgy (“I Loves You, Porgy”). In a furious struggle, the crippled man defends his woman and kills Crown.
Scene 2: The next morning, the police arrive to investigate Crown's murder; they take Porgy down to the station for questioning. Sensing his opportunity, Sportin' Life moves in on Bess and offers her some of his "happy dust." He tells her Porgy will be in jail for years, and urges her to join him in the high life of New York ("There's a boat that's leavin'"). Bess at first fends him off, then succumbs to temptation and they leave together.
Scene 3: A week later, Porgy returns to the Row: there was not enough evidence to charge him. Eagerly, he looks for Bess, but the neighbors tell him Bess has sold her soul to the Devil and he's better off without her. Porgy doesn't agree. Even when told New York is a thousand miles away, he is determined to go there and bring her back. Calling for his goat cart, he leaves Catfish Row on his impossible quest ("Oh Lawd, I'm on my way").
Instrumentation: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, two alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, three horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, banjo and strings.