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Concerto for Orchestra
Born in New Rochelle, New York, September 6, 1938; now living in New York City
“I describe myself often as a choreographer of sound. I think very much in terms of dance, and I react to dance very strongly. … Creating ‘high-energy’ music is one of my special talents; I like to see just how high I can push a work’s energy level without making it chaotic or incoherent.”
Celebrating her 70th birthday later this year, Joan Tower is indisputably one of this country’s finest composers for orchestras and chamber ensembles. Moreover, she has been a true pioneer for women, and her ability to stand tall in a thoroughly male-dominated field has opened the door for many younger women to become composers as well. Interestingly, Marin Alsop describes her as the most “athletic” of the eleven living composers — the other ten all being men — who are being featured this season at the BSO. Vital, propulsive rhythms not only animate her works, they actually serve as the building blocks of their structures.
Tower credits the central place of rhythm in her music to her South American childhood. Her father was a mining engineer who transplanted his family from the New York suburbs to Bolivia and other mineral-rich regions of Latin America. There, Tower “grew up dancing” and fell in love with Latino rhythms and percussion instruments. That passion stayed with her when she returned to the U.S. to study music at Bennington College and Columbia University, where she earned a doctorate. Today, in addition to her busy composing career, she is also a committed teacher; she is the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Music at Bard College, where she has taught since 1972.
Also an accomplished pianist, Tower realized early on — as Marin Alsop did in pursuing her conducting dreams — that as a young female composer, she’d better make her own opportunities to learn her craft and bring her music before the public rather than wait around for outside commissions. And so in 1969, she co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served for many years as its pianist; the ensemble played many of her works and earned a coveted Naumburg Award for its artistic prowess. Because she personally felt that words are not required to express anything in music, she determined to devote her composing exclusively to instrumental music.
Outside commissions began steadily arriving, and in 1985, Tower’s career made a significant leap forward when she was appointed by Leonard Slatkin to be composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, a post she held for three seasons. A tone poem she wrote in 1986 for Saint Louis, Silver Ladders, became one of the most acclaimed orchestral works of the decade; in 1990, it was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize whose prestige ranks with the Pulitzer. In 1998, she was honored with the Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composers.
Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra was composed shortly after her St. Louis residency and was co-commissioned by three great American orchestras: in addition to St. Louis, they were the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. The world premiere was given by the Saint Louis Symphony under Slatkin’s baton on May 16, 1991. Typically, the modern concerto for orchestra is designed to be a brilliant showpiece for the virtuosity of an orchestra’s instrumentalists and sections, which are featured in various solo and small-ensemble combinations; Bartók’s well-loved Concerto for Orchestra sets the standard for the genre. But Tower’s Concerto is a very different sort of piece: it is a large and viscerally dramatic tone poem — but without any underlying program — in one continuous 30-minute span, divided into two roughly equal parts. Tower states that she only gave it this title “reluctantly” at the end of writing it. “Although technically demanding, the virtuoso sections are an integral part of the music, resulting from accumulated energy, rather than being designed purely as display elements.”
In this piece, Tower shows herself to be a remarkably economical composer. She builds up her large structure from the tiniest elements: a little scurrying scale pattern that we first hear in the flutes; a spiky rocking-back-and-forth motive, sounding like a visitor from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, heard a little later in the wind instruments. In this approach, she shows her close relationship to Beethoven, whom she says is her favorite composer. Often generating powerful rhythmic ostinatos, these modest ideas — yet, nevertheless, containing big developmental potential — gradually expand and evolve over the course of the Concerto to produce an astonishingly exciting musical journey with an irresistible forward momentum.
Writing in 1991, Joan Tower described the Concerto as follows:
“In every sense, Concerto for Orchestra is my biggest work to date. It’s the first piece purely for orchestra I’ve written since Silver Ladders in 1986, but it follows three solo concertos — for clarinet, flute, and violin — and reflects that experience, enabling me to take more risks between soloists and orchestra. Whereas Silver Ladders highlighted four solo instruments, here not only solos, but duos, trios, and other combinations of instruments form structural, timbral, and emotive elements of the piece.” [Particularly striking are a poignantly lovely passage for cello soloists early in the piece; a meditative dialogue between solo violins that opens the Concerto’s second part; the solos for English horn, French horn, and, intriguingly, tuba that follow; and the extraordinary drumming passage with which the Concerto closes.] “As in all my music, I am working here on motivating the structure, trying to be sensitive to how an idea reacts to or results from the previous ideas in the strongest and most natural way — a lesson I’ve learned from studying the music of Beethoven. …
“Concerto for Orchestra begins slowly, quietly, and simply, on a unison F-sharp that emerges from the depths of the orchestra.” [The pitch of C-natural is soon added to those F-sharps, forming the disturbing interval of a tritone: the “devil-in-music” sound that has disturbed musicians for centuries; that sonority establishes a dark and troubled mood for this work, which is profoundly serious underneath its surface brilliance and excitement.] “I had imagined a long and large landscape that had a feeling of space and distance. From the beginning, I wanted to convey this sense to let the listener understand that the proportions of the piece would be spacious and that the musical materials would travel a long road.
“The energy of the piece emerges through the contrast of big alternating chords with little, fast motives. These take on bigger and bigger shapes, picking up larger textures as they whirl around in fast, repeated figures. There is a strong sense of direction in this piece, as in all my music, and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities.
“Although it had been my intention to write a work in two parts, the content of the musical materials led me to a different form. Instead of coming to a full halt at the climactic midpoint of the composition, I felt the arrival could be answered and connected by a series of unisons (on the note B) traversing the orchestral palette. This reaction calms things down, carries the piece forward towards its slow central section, and provides a seam that harks back to the unison opening of the work, connecting the 30-minute span of the concerto. Unity between the two halves is also provided by the slow-fast structure and by several shared motives, particularly the four-note motive that appears early in the piece and shapes the final fast section.”
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings.
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
In the 184 years since its composition, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 has become far more than just another symphony. It is now "The Ninth": an artistic creation, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which every age and nearly every culture finds a mirror of its identity, its struggles, and its aspirations. In his guide to the work, Nicholas Cook traces the breadth and often-contradictory nature of the Ninth's appeal. To the European revolutionaries of 1848, it expressed their democratic aspirations to break free of entrenched autocratic regimes. And yet to the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s it became identified with Communist ideology: Beethoven's "joy through struggle" seen as identical to Communism's slogan "victory through struggle."
Annually the Japanese present quantities of performances, by professionals and amateurs alike, of the Ninth — "Daiku" as they call it — to celebrate the coming of the New Year. "Beethoven has assumed something of the stature of a national hero," writes Japanese critic Yoshida Hidekazu. He recalls a 1944 performance of the Ninth at Tokyo University for students leaving to fight in World War II; through this concert, the young organizers hoped "to carry to the battlefield memories of something close to us, something that symbolized our homeland." And who can forget Leonard Bernstein's supercharged performance of the Ninth with musicians from the former East and West Germanys at the crumbling Berlin Wall in 1989? Capturing the exhilaration of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he asked the singers in the finale to change the word "Freude" — "joy" — to "Freiheit" — "freedom."
How could one work mean so much to so many different cultures and for so many different reasons? And what does it mean to us today? Most listeners would agree with Michael Steinberg that, "Explicitly, it seeks to make an ethical statement as much as a musical statement." Beethoven always believed that music had a higher purpose beyond the making of beautiful sounds, that it could express and inspire human aspirations toward a more exalted life, in closer harmony with neighbors and strangers alike, and ultimately with God. In the Ninth, he drove home this message by crowning his instrumental symphony with an unprecedented choral finale: a setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," in which joy is defined as a state in which "All men are made brothers."
The Ninth Symphony comes from the visionary last years of Beethoven's life during which he also created the Missa solemnis and his celebrated late string quartets. He had not written a symphony since the Eighth in 1812. The years that followed had been a period of emotional struggle and artistic stasis. Only when Beethoven resolved the battle for custody of his nephew Karl in 1820 did his creative powers flow freely again. By 1822 when he began sketching the Ninth, he was described by a Viennese contemporary, Johann Sporschil, as "one of the most active men who ever lived … deepest midnight found him still working." Now virtually stone deaf, he had, in biographer Maynard Solomon's words, "reached a stage where he had become wholly possessed by his art."
Since at least the early 1790s, Beethoven had loved Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (written in 1785 as a drinking song!) and considered setting it to music. But as late as the summer of 1823, he was still considering a purely instrumental finale for the Ninth. When he made the bold decision to risk a vocal movement, he edited the poem to make it express a higher joy for mankind than could be found in any tavern.
Premiered at Vienna's Kärtnertor Theater on May 7, 1824, the first performance reportedly moved its audience to tears as well as cheers. Beethoven was on the podium, but the real conductor was Michael Umlauf; the musicians had been instructed to follow only his beat and ignore the deaf Beethoven's. The performance would probably have sounded terrible to us today: orchestra and singers had had only two rehearsals together of a work that many found beyond their capabilities. And yet the magic of the Ninth somehow won out. At the end of symphony, the alto soloist, Caroline Unger, had to turn Beethoven around to see the audience's tumult; unable to hear them, he had remained hunched over his score.
And what of the wonders of this score? Later composers wrote longer first movements, but the Ninth's opening movement, at just 15 minutes, seems the vastest of them all. From the opening trickle of notes, seemingly born from the primordial ooze, emerges the mightiest descending theme. After moods of struggle, reverie, and provisional triumph, Beethoven appends a huge coda — one quarter of the movement — that even touches on a ghostly funeral march before the orchestra shouts the principal theme one last time in a powerful unison.
The Scherzo second movement — Beethoven's greatest example of the fierce dance form he refashioned from the 3/4-time minuet — is built out of another descending motive, consisting of just two pitches and a dotted rhythm. From that dotted rhythm and the potential it offers to the timpani to become a major player instead of an accompanist, Beethoven creates a witty, infectious movement of relentless intensity. And if the Scherzo is the apotheosis of a rhythm, the succeeding slow movement is the apotheosis of melody. Here Beethoven builds a double variations movement out of two melodies, one slow and noble, the other like a flowing stream: a musical representation of a heavenly utopia.
The key of D major finally triumphs over D minor in the exhilarating choral finale, famed for making the cellos and basses speak like human voices as they review the events of the previous movements and then dismiss them in favor of the sublimely simple "Joy" theme. The remainder of the finale then becomes a series of extraordinary variations on this heart-stirring melody, sung by chorus, the solo quartet, and orchestra. A particularly striking one comes early on: a jaunty military march featuring the tenor soloist.
The other major theme of this huge finale is sung in unison by the tenors and basses at the words "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" — "Be embraced, ye millions." It opens an extended, awe-struck episode in which the chorus hails the loving Father, creator of the universe, and concludes in a magnificent double fugue in combination with the "Ode to Joy" theme. At the end, Beethoven drives his voices almost beyond their capacities to express his glorious vision of a new world just beyond human reach.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings, 4 vocal soloists, and mixed chorus.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008