Stomp (with Fate and Elvira)
Piano Concerto No. 2
Born in Kilwinning, Scotland, July 16, 1959
“James MacMillan’s pieces shout of revolution, liberation, resurrection. … They invest the everyday with a mystic, even mythic, quality. … Fiery and humanitarian in tone, … [they] somehow speak to thousands who are normally impervious to the discordant charms of ‘modern music’.”
In a recent article in the Times of London, Richard Morrison summed up the powerful appeal of James MacMillan’s music, which is a reflection both of his commitment to his Scottish homeland and to the Roman Catholic faith in which he was reared. MacMillan is anything but an establishment figure, even though he was asked to compose the fanfare music for Queen Elizabeth II’s procession into the Scottish Parliament as it reopened in 1999 after a lapse of 292 years. Within weeks, he had given a fiery public speech, entitled “Scotland’s Shame,” protesting sectarianism in Scotland. Politically as well as musically active, he has never hesitated to speak out against the corruption and dangers facing the re-emerging nation he loves so well. And, as we’ll hear tonight, his music speaks out as well.
MacMillan was born in working-class Ayrshire on the southwest coast of Scotland below Glasgow — Robert Burns country. “I grew up in Cumnock,” he reports. “My grandfather was a miner. He played in the colliery band. My mother was a social worker. She was musical, too. My father was a joiner. He couldn’t read music, but he did play by ear. I can remember waking up to the sound of him picking out hymns and folk tunes.” Those Scottish folk tunes now play a prominent role in many of his compositions, as we’ll hear in both Stomp and the Piano Concerto No. 2.
MacMillan went on to read music at the University of Edinburgh and eventually to take a doctorate at Durham University in England. After Durham, he returned to Scotland and began composing prolifically. Today, his catalogue boasts more than 150 works, including three symphonies, several operas and theater pieces, much choral music, chamber music, and a colorful collection of concertos for various instruments — the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich even requested a MacMillan concerto, which was premiered in 1996 with the London Symphony Orchestra. His resplendent percussion concerto for his fellow Scot Evelyn Glennie, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, has received hundreds of performances throughout the world since its premiere in 1992.
Stomp (with Fate and Elvira)
Marin Alsop has particularly championed MacMillan’s music both with the Bournemouth Symphony in England and at her Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California. At Cabrillo, she has presented the American premieres of his Symphony No. 2 and his Triduum, an orchestral triptych of reflections on the Passion and Resurrection story. A much shorter and lighter MacMillan work received its American premiere at Cabrillo just this last summer: Stomp (with Fate and Elvira).
Commissioned by London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, this tongue-in-cheek piece was composed in 2006 for the 25th anniversary of the Barbican Centre in the heart of the old City of London. Its premiere was given on March 3, 2007 by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Barbican’s resident orchestra, under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.
That strange title deserves some explanation. MacMillan gives a rather enigmatic one in his brief note: “The dark, brooding cloud of Fate that has been hovering over St. Petersburg lifted and drifted west to Sweden, where it made an amorous encounter with a young tightrope walker, Elvira Madigan. They eloped and headed west again, ending up at a ceilidh in Kilkenny or Kilmarnock, or somewhere …” The “Fate” motive is, of course, that baleful brass fanfare that we hear throughout Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and it comes into collision here with some extremely contrasting music: the ravishing slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. That melody was famously used as the score for the 1967 Swedish film about tragic love, Elvira Madigan. There’s also a Celtic jig running through this amusing score, and it finally succeeds in vanquishing “Fate.”
Piano Concerto No. 2
As English writer David Nice points out, MacMillan’s concertos, like Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, are not pure virtuoso showpieces, but rather multi-faceted orchestral/solo works that contain elements of the descriptive tone poem. And both his piano concertos, No. 1 called The Beserking and the Second Concerto, which we’ll hear tonight, deal with “destructive, or self-destructive, elements in Scottish history.” The Second Piano Concerto is even more unorthodox in that it was partly created, on commission from the New York City Ballet, as a ballet score for choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, with whom MacMillan had collaborated once before. In its ballet form, it was premiered at the New York State Theater on May 8, 2004.
The first movement, “Cumnock Fair,” however, had been originally written in 1999 for another occasion: the golden-jubilee anniversary of the music society of MacMillan’s boyhood home of Cumnock. Then, it was a chamber work scored for a sextet of piano and strings, but when MacMillan added two more movements for the New York City Ballet, he changed that to piano and string orchestra.
Despite its plethora of Scottish dance tunes, this Piano Concerto has a very dark subtext that MacMillan says comes from the poem that inspired it: Edwin Muir’s “Scotland 1941” (the piano concerto is dedicated to Muir’s memory). As the composer explains, “Cumnock Fair’s original title was ‘Hoodicraw Peden,’ who was Scotland’s 17th-century talibanesque convenanting ‘hero,’ referred to in Edwin Muir’s excoriating poem ‘Scotland 1941.’ Peden was infamous for his black crow’s appearance as he went about his zealotry in Cumnock and elsewhere in southwest Scotland. The allegory of a carrion crow scavenging on the corpse of a once-beautiful culture is apt indeed.”
Movement one, “Cumnock Fair,” begins with orchestra and piano together playing, in the composer’s words, a “fast, unison chromatic melody that, when repeated and harmonized, sounds like an imaginary folk dance.” It is succeeded by the piano and lower strings performing a “galumphing” version of “Mr. James Boswell’s Jig,” one of three dance tunes we’ll hear by John French, Cumnock’s most prominent citizen and a friend of Robbie Burns. Less prominent is French’s “Mrs. Auchinleck’s Reel.”
Soon, the piano opts out of this merriment and embarks on a quiet, very introspective meditation, musing on the short-long Scotch-snap rhythm and delicate trills. The orchestra periodically tries to interrupt, but the meditation prevails, building to a fierce, protesting climax. The high strings then enter to play very softly French’s stately strathspey “Cumnock Fair,” followed by the piano. Abruptly, this graceful melody turns into a “brutal, grotesque” nightmare. The whirling opening music returns, along with “James Boswell’s Jig,” but both now sound more frantic and dissonant. A quiet coda tries to restore calm, with the strathspey murmuring in the double basses, but this too dissolves into madness. Over the ominous trembling of double basses, the piano poses a wistful three-note question.
The piano’s question lingers into the second movement, “Shambards,” which is marked “cantabile and sadly.” The meaning of the title may be divined by separating it into its two constituent words. Ghost of past poets drift by in this beautifully unhinged reverie, which frequently lapses into a Chopin-esque waltz and even quotes a downward-tripping theme from the famous mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, the cursed Scottish heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novel and Donizetti’s Italian opera. Lucia whirls to her final breakdown, and the music subsides to a persistent drum rumble in the piano, bridging to the finale.
The finale, “Shamnation,” (again, the meaning is revealed by splitting the word in two) launches a jaunty Scottish reel led off, appropriately, by solo violin. Passed between soloist and orchestra, this infectious tune goes through many variations; a particularly striking one has the pianist imitating a bodran by drumming rhythms on the underside of the keyboard. But gradually, all this folkloric fun becomes more desperate and dissonant, and finally, the piano crashes in with the three-note questioning motive. The Chopin-esque waltz reappears, along with mad Lucia’s giddy melody before the piano implodes in a rhythmic improvisation of tone clusters that utterly demolish the reel. MacMillan quotes Muir’s words about Scotland’s tragic history in explanation:
“Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride
Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation.
Defiance absolute and myriad-eyed
That could not pluck the palm plucked our damnation.”
Symphony No. 2 in D Major
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
By 1802, Beethoven's deafness was beginning to trouble him greatly, even though it was not yet noticed by most around him. His doctor suggested a summer in the country, in the village of Heiligenstadt outside Vienna, might prove helpful. Helpful it was for his creativity, but not his deafness. By October, Beethoven was pouring out his anguish at the ailment he feared would destroy all his musical hopes in a letter ostensibly written to his two brothers, but never sent (it was found among his papers after his death): the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. "Yes, that fond hope — which I brought here with me, to be cured to a degree at least — this I must now wholly abandon. As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered — so likewise has my hope been blighted — I leave here — almost as I came — even the high courage — which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer — has disappeared."
A significant advance over his First Symphony, which strongly showed the influence of Haydn, Symphony No. 2 was composed during those "beautiful days of summer" in 1802 and shines not only with "high courage" but with high spirits, daring, and wit. Now the virile, bold voice was unmistakably Beethoven's throughout, and the scope and ambition of the symphony was beginning to expand toward the revolutionary "Eroica" Symphony, just one year in the future. But unlike the "Eroica," the Second is a predominantly light-hearted work, rich in musical humor. Yet at its Viennese premiere on April 5, 1803, it was disturbing enough to prompt one critic to write: "Beethoven's Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect."
The Allegro section of the sonata-form opening movement flows directly out of a beautiful, rather lengthy slow introduction. Its first theme emerges quietly in the cellos and violas under a measured violin tremolo or shake — a prominent musical device throughout this movement and others as well. In fact, it is the hyperactive violins that power the intense nervous energy pervading this work. The second major theme is as energetic as the first: a brisk, military-sounding tune for the woodwinds above chugging string tremolos.
The second movement (Larghetto) in A major is an early example of Beethoven's beautiful slow movements; Donald Francis Tovey calls it "one of the most luxurious slow movements in the world." Also in sonata form, it is a peaceful pastorale that brings needed repose from the dynamism of the other movements. Here Beethoven plays off the lushness of the strings, which introduce the gracious two-part theme, against the plangency of the woodwinds. The development section moves into a world of gentle pathos in the minor mode.
The sudden alternation of loud and soft is the basis for the scherzo movement's humor. Witty, too, are the seasick chromatic swells in the low strings. The trio section pits bright, well-mannered woodwinds against unruly strings that melodramatically insist on a wrong key. But they are soon brought to heel and end decorously with the woodwinds.
The very fast finale is that "hideously writhing dragon that refuses to expire," probably because Beethoven appended here the first of his gloriously expanded codas. Rather than a dragon, the little two-note motive that launches the humorously gruff opening phrase — which Beethoven plays with throughout the movement — sounds like the tail-flicking of a very small lizard indeed. The extraordinary closing coda begins with a magical harmonic progression: a loud chord in the D-major home key moving unexpectedly to a hushed chord in B minor that seems to open vistas of a new world. And the whole coda looks to new worlds, which Beethoven explored more deeply in his next symphony, the mighty Eroica.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008