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Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 5, 1917; died in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, August 15, 1985
Ask any music lover to name an Armenian-American composer, and most likely he’ll respond: “Alan Hovhaness.” But there are others, and the music of Philadelphian Richard Yardumian especially deserves to be heard much more frequently than it is. That name may sound oddly familiar to people who know the Baltimore Symphony well, and, yes, he was the father of longtime BSO Artistic Administrator Miryam Yardumian, who has so much to do with engaging the guest conductors and soloists who appear with this Orchestra.
Largely self-taught as a composer — in fact ,he had not yet had any formal composing instruction when he wrote the first version of his Armenian Suite in 1937 — Yardumian was initially discovered by conductor Leopold Stokowski and then embraced by Eugene Ormandy, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship throughout that master’s tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra. And what a hometown orchestra to write for! Because his music was rather conservative and tonally (or modally) oriented in a period when twelve-tone serialism was dominant, Yardumian never really caught on in the larger worlds of New York and Europe. But in our post-serial, neo-Romantic era, he seems ready for rediscovery.
Yardumian was only 19 when he began composing the Armenian Suite, beginning with a piano version of the “Lullaby” movement. Five more movements were added, and the fledgling composer orchestrated them all. The wonderful melodies were largely drawn from Armenian songs his immigrant mother had sung to him as a child. In 1954, by which time Yardumian was a trained and much more experienced composer, he returned to his early suite, revised his orchestrations, and added the much lengthier Finale at Maestro Ormandy’s request to bring the work to seven movements in all.
The Suite is scored for a very large orchestra with expanded brass sections and plenty of percussion. In the brilliant, fanfare-like “Introduction,” the vivacious Armenian folk tune requires continual changes of meter between 5/4, 3/4, and occasionally 2/4 to capture its rhythmic freedom. “Lullaby” has a very beautiful, haunting melody that reminds us of the sad history of the Armenians, especially in the early 20th century when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered by the Turks. Woodwinds, including an especially plaintive combination of flute with English horn, and tremolo strings express the music’s melancholy spirit.
Another slow and soulful movement is the “Interlude,” in which the melody has the feeling of Armenian Orthodox chant. This music features lovely antiphonal effects between the brass choir and high woodwinds. “Dance II” is a merry 3/4-time dance with slow, brooding interludes. The longer “Finale” combines moods of celebration and reflection. The latter comes in a slow section that makes very effective use of the English horn’s mournful tone. A resplendent conclusion boasts extremely colorful scoring plus decorative oriental melismas that remind us that Armenia is part of Asia, not Europe.
Instrumentation: three flutes, two piccolos, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major
Born in Sontsovka, Ukraine, April 23, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
During his ten years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Sergei Prokofiev managed to annoy and even enrage nearly all his teachers. Bursting with arrogance, he was a radical young genius: a pianist of staggering technical prowess and a composer who marched to his own drummer and refused to make abeyance to the established traditions of Russian Romanticism. At his graduation in 1914, he decided to make up for his mediocre academic record by capturing the Anton Rubinstein Prize, awarded after a competition to the Conservatory’s finest pianist. And while his competitors all followed the rules by selecting a hallowed concerto from the canon, he decided to show off his virtuosity with a work he’d created himself: his First Piano Concerto, written in 1911-12 when he was only 20.
This concerto had already been premiered in Moscow on July 25, 1912, where it had received both cheers and catcalls. Some hailed it as a breath of fresh air while others sided with the disgruntled critic who wrote, “If that is music, I really believe I prefer agriculture.” At the Conservatory’s competition on April 22, 1914, the jury was split, with the majority voting to award Prokofiev the prize, while the school’s conservative director Alexander Glazunov led the opposition. But the majority prevailed, and Prokofiev’s audacity was rewarded with the Alexander Rubinstein and a new piano.
Though he’d already written a number of other pieces including his First Piano Sonata, Prokofiev considered the First Piano Concerto to be his first “more or less mature” work. Already it revealed most of the characteristics that were to make up his distinctive voice for the rest of his career: classical clarity mixed with a sometimes brutal modernity; biting, sarcastic wit; an evocative, dark lyricism; motoric rhythmic energy; and technical and virtuosic brilliance. Even though it is only a bit over 15 minutes in length, it is a true “take-no-prisoners” concerto and an extraordinary showpiece, first for Prokofiev’s own steely fingers and later for generations of pianists with the right chops.
Though this Concerto is ostensibly divided into the traditional three movements, Prokofiev wrote that he actually conceived it as one continuous movement comprising an overarching sonata form, an architecture that Liszt used in several major pieces. The opening Allegro brioso is unforgettably arresting: a raising of the curtain, a business card hurled at the audience. Three vehement D-flat chords launch the piano and orchestra on a vast ascending theme, etched in brawny octaves; dotted rhythms keep intensifying its energy. Prokofiev tells us that this music is the basis for the whole concerto, and it will return at important structural moments.
After this astounding introduction, the music accelerates for witty, metallically brilliant music dominated by the piano. After a mocking cadence, Prokofiev abruptly shifts gears into a slower, vaguely disturbing section with dark brass fanfares and a tolling piano part. Gradually, the pianist begins amusing herself with glissandos and other caprices until she finally drives the mood away. The curtain-raising music returns with a virtuosic new counterpoint for the piano, and this exposition is finished.
The music does not make a full stop but flows into an Andante assai slow movement, which Prokofiev calls an “interlude before the development.” But this uncanny mood piece, both fragile and passionately powerful, is much more than an “interlude”: it is the first of the composer’s flights of lyric reverie, which grew more poignant in his later music after hardships had tempered his youthful bravado.
Horns and tuba break in to launch the Allegro scherzando, Prokofiev’s brittle, laughing “development section,” which sends up elements of the first movement’s themes. This continues into a spiky solo cadenza, which savages one of the secondary themes — it was passages like this that made the conservatives squirm! The piano pyrotechnics become more and more frenzied until the curtain-raising music makes its final appearance, now glittering with tubular bells and double-fisted piano octaves, for a stunning, “take-that!” finish.
Instrumentation: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
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 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 introduces 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 uses 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 (col legno) 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.
Instrumentation: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, piccolo clarinet, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, two timpanists, percussion, two harps, and strings. There is also off-stage oboe and off-stage large bells.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008