Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Born in New York City, February 16, 1938; still living there
“You must understand the importance of the past. But if you don’t realize the importance of the present and the future, you don’t nourish that … then it’s like a tree that grows no new shoots. Without new shoots, the tree dies.”
With these words, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano warns us about the stern fate facing classical music institutions, and indeed the art form itself, if concert programs are devoted exclusively to loving recreations of favorite masterworks of the past. It’s not that we should stop listening to Beethoven and Brahms, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, but that we also need to keep our ears continually open to what’s happening in music in our own times. Otherwise, we risk living musically in a world of dead trees.
This year marks Corigliano’s 70th birthday. Over a more than forty-five-year career, he has devoted himself to revivifying the great classical genres: symphonies and concertos, operas and string quartets, and many more. Few contemporary American composers have captured the musical public’s imagination as successfully as he has. Corigliano has a gift for creating musical drama and emotional communication that mesmerizes. And he bolsters this with an ability to structure large works from an eclectic arsenal of musical techniques and styles. Owing allegiance to no compositional school, he mixes together whatever he needs to serve his usually powerful expressive purposes.
Baltimore Symphony audiences have been particularly fortunate in their relationship with his unique and passionate musical voice. When Corigliano’s The Red Violin Concerto received its world premiere in Baltimore in September 2003 — played by Joshua Bell under Marin Alsop’s baton — it received the most prolonged and demonstrative standing ovation ever given to a new work here. A BSO recording followed on the Sony Classics label, which was released this past fall and has been a bestseller on the classical sales charts. That concerto had been inspired by another notable success: the composer's score for the movie The Red Violin, which received the 1999 Academy Award for Best Film Score.
Born into a musical family — his father was for two decades the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and his mother a pianist — Corigliano studied music and composition at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music. He then worked at a variety of musical trades — classical radio programming, record production, film-score arranging, and commercials — before making his mark as a serious composer by winning the chamber music prize at the 1964 Spoleto Festival. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles was the surprise hit of the Metropolitan Opera's 1991–92 season and has received many major productions around the world; it returns to the Met in 2010. His dramatic concerto for James Galway, the Pied Piper Fantasy, has also enjoyed a busy international career and was performed here in the late 1980s under David Zinman’s baton. Among his three symphonies, the Symphony No. 2, written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, received the 2001Pulitzer Prize for Music, while the Symphony No. 1, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” was awarded the equally prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. This latter work, memorializing friends lost to the AIDS epidemic, has been performed by the BSO during two different seasons, most recently in 2004.
Written in 1994 for the 100th anniversary of the Cincinnati Symphony, To Music is a lovely, five-minute orchestral tribute to one of Franz Schubert’s most beloved songs: “An die Musik.” It was adapted from an earlier Corigliano work, Fanfares to Music for double-brass quintet, and makes use of an off-stage ensemble of brass players.
Corigliano has provided the following note: “It is a short, lyrical, and introspective piece, involving the orchestra and some off-stage players. The onstage orchestra plays a long, chorale-like passage, answered by short fanfare elements. Later, the off-stage players take up these fanfare elements, and the ensemble builds to a peak before resolving into a gentle setting of Schubert’s masterly song “An die Musik” (hence the title of the work), from which all the earlier fanfare elements were taken.”
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Along with the very popular Pied Piper Fantasy for Galway, Corigliano has written a number of accomplished concertos for a variety of instruments. His most recent is the Percussion Concerto for Evelyn Glennie, which is being premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony this season. At these concerts, we will hear his earliest concerto, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1968.
This is a dazzling and expansive virtuoso showpiece — for the orchestra as much as the soloist — in the grand concerto tradition, but with a thoroughly modern approach to rhythm, harmony, and melodic material. “The writing for both solo piano and orchestra is extremely virtuosic and theatrical,” comments the composer. “While the work is basically tonal, there are many atonal sections and a section of strict twelve-tone writing [in the second movement]. Rhythms throughout the work are highly irregular, and meters change often.”
However, audience members should not start gritting their teeth in preparation for the twelve-tone section, which is, in fact, very brief and emotionally appealing. For this work provides exactly the sort of visceral thrills we look for in our favorite concertos of the past, but in a very up-to-date guise. Its four movements are wonderfully contrasted, and all are animated by an exhilarating sense of rhythm and arrayed in superbly imaginative instrumental colors. Corigliano not only mixes his orchestral instruments skillfully, but also is extremely adept at stretching the range of the piano’s sonorities.
Here, with a few interpolations, is Corigliano’s guide to the movements:
“The opening movement uses sonata-allegro form in an original way. After a few bars of introduction by the brass section, the piano enters with a large cadenza accompanied by percussion and harp. This highly energetic section introduces the first theme, a savage three-note motto (B-flat, B-natural, and C).” This chromatically rising motto is particularly malleable in its expressive potential and underpins the entire movement. Shifting down to a slower tempo, “the second theme, first played by solo horn, is more lyrical.
“After the piano re-enters with the three-note motive, the development section begins. Each theme is developed separately; this separate development transforms the aggressive three-note motto into a lyrical theme, and the lyrical theme into a savage motto. In other words, one becomes the other. At the end of the development, the first theme is heard in canon while the piano and brass toss about the second theme. The climax leads directly to a second cadenza, [again accompanied by percussion], which marks the beginning of the recapitulation, followed this time by a diabolic coda.
“The second movement is a short and fleet Scherzo that breaks the emotional tension generated in the first movement. Three short [and very dissonant and eerie-sounding] repeated chords form the Scherzo’s motto, which is based on the superimposition of major and minor thirds. This interval of a third forms the building block of the movement. The trio [section] is based on a twelve-tone row derived from the piano figures in the beginning of the movement.” This music is maniacally playful, but continual repetitions of those three dissonant chords add a sense of destructive menace.
“All the themes of the third movement are based on six notes. The form is arch-shaped, building to a peak and diminishing to a hushed single-note piano melody that leads directly onto the final movement.” Despite its big central climax, this movement possesses an austere beauty, with the piano part often reduced to one or two notes at a time, that provides a cool oasis amid the heat and extravagance of the other movements.
Led off by the bassoon, “the last movement is a rondo whose main theme is fugue-like, using tone clusters in the orchestra and piano parts,” for coloristic rather than harmonic effects. “Themes from the earlier movements appear in the three subsections of the movement, concluding with the original three-note motto of the first movement joining in to end the concerto in a burst of virtuosic energy and color.”
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, "Eroica"
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Although the responses to Beethoven's music are as varied as the individuals who listen to it, virtually everyone seems to agree that it often embodies an ethical or spiritual quest — the drama, in Scott Burnam's words, "of a self struggling to create and fulfill its own destiny." And this epic quest is most forcefully expressed in the works Beethoven wrote during the first decade of the 19th century: what we now call his Heroic Period.
Historically, this was an era of heroism and aspiration. The American and French revolutions had recently acted out humankind's desire for freedom and self-determination and thrust forward leaders such as Washington and Bonaparte. The contemporary German dramas of Goethe and Schiller celebrated historical freedom fighters like Egmont and Wallenstein and mythical ones like William Tell. Beethoven translated this aspiring spirit into music. Living in Vienna under the autocratic Hapsburg regime and protected only by his genius, he acted out his dream of individual liberty in his daily life. His career revolved around two heroic quests: his struggle against encroaching deafness and his creative battle to forge a new musical language within a conservative and often hostile environment. And this musical language was itself heroic: with its audacious harmonic procedures, epic expanded forms, virile themes, assaulting rhythms, and pronounced military character.
Beethoven launched his Heroic Period with his Third Symphony, a work he subtitled "Sinfonia eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." The question of exactly who that "great man" was has provided fertile grounds for commentators to till ever since. The chief candidate, of course, is Napoleon. Beethoven himself told his publisher that "the subject is Bonaparte," but he also reportedly tore off the work's title page to expunge Napoleon's name upon hearing in 1804 that the Frenchman had crowned himself emperor. Others have suggested the noble Trojan prince Hector, Homer's hero in the Iliad, or because of Beethoven's use of a theme from his Creatures of Prometheus ballet score in the finale, the mythical Prometheus. Many believe the hero to be Beethoven himself.
In any case, the "Eroica" was itself a heroic act: shocking its first audiences and setting a new symphonic template for future composers to emulate. A contemporary critic spoke for many when he described it as "a very long drawn-out, daring and wild fantasy … very often it seems to loose itself in anarchy." In a work twice the length of previous symphonies, Beethoven had expanded 18th-century symphonic structures beyond his contemporaries' powers of comprehension. Even more challenging was the Eroica's harmonic daring and overall tone of aggression. It did not seek to please and amuse its listeners but to challenge and provoke them.
We hear the challenge in the two loud E-flat chords that open the first movement. More than introductory gestures, they are the germinal motive of the symphony. From them Beethoven builds the repeated sforzando chords, with their arresting dislocation of the beat, that we hear a few moments later. Just before the end of the exposition, he adds teeth-grinding dissonance to this mix, and in the development section, this concoction explodes in a shattering crisis.
The movement's principal theme is a simple swinging between the notes of an E-flat-major chord that quickly stumbles on a dissonant C-sharp. It will take the rest of this giant movement, with its expanded development and coda sections, to resolve this stumble. So intense is Beethoven's forward propulsion that his themes never have time to blossom into melody. In fact, the most compelling theme waits until the development, when oboes and cellos introduce it as part of the recovery from the hammering dissonant chords. As the development trails off into an eerie passage of trembling violins, the horns anticipate the principal theme (early listeners interpreted this as a mistake by the players!) and push the orchestra into the recapitulation. After an outsized coda, Beethoven wraps up his heroic journey with the opening hammer blows.
The second-movement funeral march in C minor is in rondo form; Beethoven here converts a form often used for light-hearted Classical finales to a tragic purpose. Over imitation drum rolls in the strings, the famous threnody unfolds its majestic course. It is succeeded by an episode in C major that injects rays of sunshine and hope, with fanfares proclaiming the greatness of the fallen hero. Then the dirge melody returns and swiftly becomes an imposing fugue, counterpoint intensifying emotion. In the movement's remarkable closing measures, the march theme disintegrates into sobbing fragments.
The third-movement scherzo provides relief after the weight and drama of the opening movements. Yet it too retains intensity in the midst of light-heartedness. Beethoven re-introduces a gentler variant of the off-the-downbeat hammer blows from the first movement; eventually they briefly throw the three-beat meter into two beats. The trio section features virtuoso writing for the three horns.
After struggle, the finale brings us joy in the form of sublime musical play. It is an imposing set of variations on a theme Beethoven had used three times before: in an early set of Contredances, in the Creatures of Prometheus, and for the piano variations now known as the "Eroica" Variations. Actually, these are double variations because Beethoven first isolates the bass line of his theme as a witty little tune in its own right, only later giving us the theme itself in the woodwinds. Elaborate fugal passages and a grandly martial episode culminate in a sublime apotheosis: a group of variations in a slower tempo that proclaims the hero's immortality. The Presto climax is capped by the symphony's opening E-flat hammer blows, now triumphant rather than tragic.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008