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Finale from Götterdämmerung
Born in Leipzig, May 22, 1813; died in Venice, February 13, 1883
In August 1876, an illustrious audience of musicians, monarchs and merchant-kings gathered in the small town of Bayreuth in northern Bavaria. Among them were many of the leading composers of the day, including Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Liszt, Grieg and Saint-Säens. They were united by their compulsion to hear the premiere of the most heralded and controversial musical work of the 19th century: Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelungen. The four-opera cycle—Das Rheingold, Die Walkürie, Siegfried and Götterdammerung—they saw
The Ring had taken Wagner 26 years—from 1848 to 1874—to complete. However, despite its prolonged gestation, the entire cycle is unified by Wagner's conception of these music dramas as a continuous "symphonic" tissue, rooted in the orchestra and built up from more than a hundred evocative themes known as "leitmotifs." These usually brief and always memorable themes represent characters, objects, and emotional-philosophical states in the story. Used from opera to opera, they constantly evolve musically and in their meaning.
Thus, though The Ring's vocal parts are notoriously difficult, this is orchestra-dominated, not singer-dominated music. Wagner had dispensed with conventional operatic arias and instead meshed singers and orchestra in an unbroken musical flow; he said that the text should "float like a ship on a sea of orchestral harmony." Thus performing excerpts from The Ring without the singers does little damage to this music.
Wagner enlarged the brass section by calling for eight horns and adding such new instruments as bass trumpet and the famous Wagner tubas (a cross between horns and trombones). But while he gave an unprecedented melodic role to the brass in carrying many of his leitmotifs, he used the rest of his massive orchestra with equal mastery. The sheer opulence of the Wagnerian orchestral sound would influence many symphonists who came after.
At these concerts, we will jump over some 16 hours of the story to the magnificent closing moments of the last of the music dramas, Götterdämmerung or “The Twilight of the Gods.” Having awoken and won Brünnhilde, the daughter of Wotan, chief of the gods, but now a mortal woman because of her disobedience, on her fiery rock, the hero Siegfried has journeyed into the land of the Gibichungs, where the envious Hagen has slain him.
“Immolation Scene:” At Brünnhilde's direction, Siegfried's body is placed on a funeral pyre. She pledges through her death to return the Ring forged from the Rhinegold—stolen early in the first opera and the source of much of the trouble throughout the cycle—to the Rhine Maidens who had guarded it. As the famous Magic Fire music from Die Walkürie sounds again, she mounts her horse and leaps into the flames she has kindled. In a supreme test for any stage director, fire consumes everything, then is drowned by the flooding Rhine. The woodwinds sing the joyful song of the Rhine Maidens as they regain the Ring, while the brass intones the fall of Valhalla, home of the gods, and their fiery end. Over all, the strings sing the soaring, consoling theme of "Redemption by Love." The world has been purified and returned to its original state of balance.
At the close of the 2008-2009 season, we will return to Wagner and hear much more of the music of The Ring.
UFO for Solo Percussion and Orchestra
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 28, 1954; now living in Michigan
There is no one in American classical music quite like Michael Daugherty. While other composers look more or less to European-based high culture for their aesthetic inspiration, he finds such American pop icons as Elvis Presley, Desi Arnaz, and even J. Edgar Hoover stimulate his creative juices. Who else could write a Metropolis Symphony based on the "Superman" comic strip, an opera called Jackie O, or Elvis Everywhere for three Elvis impersonators and the Kronos String Quartet?
“For me, icons serve as a way to have an emotional reason to compose a new work,” says Daugherty. “I get ideas for my compositions by browsing through secondhand bookstores, antique shops and small towns that I find driving on the back roads of America. The icon can be an old postcard, magazine, photograph, knick-knack, matchbook, piece of furniture or roadmap. Like Ives and Mahler, I use icons in my music to provide the listener and performer with a layer of reference.”
Nevertheless, Daugherty is a paid-up member of the classical- music establishment. After studying composition at both North Texas University and the Manhattan School of Music, he earned his doctorate at Yale in 1986. Along the way, he studied with such renowned American composers as Jacob Druckman, Charles Wuorinen, and Mario Davidovsky, as well as with György Ligeti in Germany and computer music at Pierre Boulez’s renowned IRCAM in Paris. After teaching for five years at Oberlin Conservatory, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is now a professor of music.
But all this establishment training did little to mute Daugherty’s unique voice, which is rooted in his enduring love for popular musical styles. Born the eldest of five sons (all his brothers also became professional musicians) of a dance-band drummer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he grew up playing keyboards in jazz, rock and funk bands. Today, his music joyously mixes elements from pop, rock, and big band jazz with the more serious ethos of classical symphonic music. The brassy sound of a big band colors his brilliantly orchestrated scores, and his high-energy layering of syncopated and often conflicting rhythms is hard to resist. And as Frank J. Oteri has written on the NewMusicBox website: “If there is any generality that can be made about Daugherty’s music, it is that all of it is crafted with an extremely physical approach to sound.”
Both the BSO’s past and present music directors, David Zinman and Marin Alsop, have been enthusiastic champions of Daugherty’s works. Indeed, Daugherty credits Zinman’s backing for putting him on the national and international map; in 1994, Zinman led the Metropolis Symphony here and at Carnegie Hall and later recorded it with the BSO on the Argo label. UFO, the fabulously imaginative percussion concerto we’ll hear tonight, has been recorded by Maestra Alsop and Evelyn Glennie with the Colorado Symphony for Naxos.
The composer has provided the following note about this dramatically compelling five-movement work:
“UFO for solo percussion and orchestra was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra through a grant from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund, and written for Evelyn Glennie. It was first performed … at the Kennedy Center … on April 10, 1999.
“The concerto is inspired by the unidentified flying objects that have been an obsession in American popular culture since 1947. The soloist is introduced as an alien, arriving unexpectedly and playing mysterious percussion instruments. During the three major sections of the composition—“Unidentified,” “Flying,” “Objects”—the soloist travels to different percussion stations on the stage. There are also brief interludes during which the percussion soloist performs sleight-of-hand improvisations that may leave the listener wondering: Is this another UFO sighting?
Movement 1, “Traveling Music:” The soloist performs on a waterphone, or hand-held ‘Alien’-sounding percussion instrument, and mechanical siren, with orchestral strings.
Movement 2, “Unidentified:” The soloist performs on xylophone, resonant metals such as ice cymbal, earth plate, cymbal disc, Chinese gong, and non-resonant metals such as crasher, slasher, brake drum, spring … with full orchestra. In July 1947 near Roswell, New Mexico, a rancher heard a loud explosion and discovered strange metal scraps in the desert. Responding to national newspaper reports of this ‘UFO crash,’ government agencies quickly converged on the wreckage site and confiscated the evidence. The ‘incident at Roswell’ resonates in the popular imagination because to this day the government files remain a secret. What happened to those scattered metal scraps? They resonate on the concert stage, as the percussionist plays on the xylophone and eight pieces of unidentified metal.
Movement 3, “Flying:” The soloist performs on vibraphone, marktree, ride cymbal, two splash cymbals, with full orchestra. An airplane pilot flying near Mt. Rainer, Washington spotted a formation of bright objects, which he described as ‘flying saucers,’ traveling at incredible speed through the sky. This 1947 sighting made international headlines and launched the modern UFO craze, with the proliferation of UFO magazines, clubs, conferences, photographs, and films. In this section, we hear fugues fly at supersonic tempos through the orchestra. We also witness a virtuoso performance by the solo percussionist on vibraphone and cymbals that hover and shimmer in the air like flying saucers.
Movement 4, “???:” The percussion soloist performs sleight-of-hand improvisations with strange-sounding percussion instruments accompanied by a contrabassoon soloist.
Movement 5, “Objects:” One of the most persistent arguments against the existence of UFOs has been the lack of physical evidence of alien spacecraft after crashing. The secret military base called Area 51, located somewhere in the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, is reputed to be the repository for alien objects. UFO buffs from around the world make their pilgrimages here, hoping to catch a glimpse of a captured flying saucer. Pulsating with rhythms in 5/4 time, this section features virtuosic drumming by the percussion soloist at warp speed to suggest the outer trappings and inner machinery of a fine-tuned alien aircraft.”
Born in Cheltenham, England, September 21, 1874; died in London, May 25, 1934
"Every artist ought to pray not to be a success. If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of the work, and you are in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself." Gustav Holst said this before the premiere of The Planets—on November 15, 1920 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Albert Coates—suddenly catapulted this shy, idiosyncratic composer onto the world stage. Already 46, he had previously worked in happy obscurity, cramming in his composing on Sundays and August holidays while earning his living as a highly creative music teacher at St. Paul's School for Girls, Morley College and various churches. His many smaller-scale works for instruments and voices—often inspired by his mystical leanings and fascination with Sanskrit literature (the lovely opera Savitri, the haunting Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda)—had won him esteem in musical circles, but little public attention.
Holst's first and only work for very large orchestra, The Planets created an immediate sensation. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony fought so heatedly for the American premiere that a compromise had to be struck: both performed it on the same day, but New York received the edge because of the time-zone difference. But Holst kept to his credo. He never repeated himself with another big, colorful work in this style and was relieved when the world's attention finally shifted away. However, The Planets remains one of the 20th century's most popular orchestral showpieces.
Not a symphony, this work is a series of seven subtly interrelated tone poems or, as Holst preferred, "mood pictures." When Holst wrote them from 1914 to 1916, he had become very interested in astrology. Thus, he was actually thinking more about the astrological influence of the planets on man's character than their qualities as celestial bodies. Each planet bears a subtitle that reveals the movement's overall mood. Influenced by the work’s wartime period to begin with a brute-force portrayal of Mars, Holst arranged his planets out of solar-system order to create a compelling dramatic progression. And he omitted the Earth and the recently rejected Pluto (not discovered until a decade later in 1930).
The Planets' dazzling orchestration is the key to its audience impact. Holst had earned his living for many years as an orchestral trombonist and thus knew the orchestra from the inside. His giant orchestra—including organ and a generous percussion section—provides not only power for "Mars," "Jupiter" and "Saturn," but an extensive palette of soft colors for the subtler "Venus," "Mercury" and "Neptune." Exotic additions include bass flute, bass oboe, tenor tuba, and an off-stage women's chorus.
Mars, the Bringer of War: So powerful is "Mars" as an evocation of modern warfare's savagery that listeners assumed Holst must have been reacting to the news from World War I's trenches. However, "Mars" was actually composed in 1914 before that fatal August. Nevertheless, war was in the air as the European countries postured and displayed their armaments, and the sensitive Holst would have readily picked up that mood. In the unusual meter of 5/4, "Mars" opens with a relentless rhythmic ostinato—first tapped out by timpani and violins striking their strings with the wood of their bows—that gradually mounts to an ear-splitting din. Horns and bassoons introduce the ominous three-note principal motive that ends with a dissonant half-step fall. Holst instructed that "Mars" be played as fast and brutally as possible.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace: The antithesis of "Mars," "Venus" is a very soft and lyrical slow movement featuring peaceful descending lines for flutes, a sweetly pastoral melody for solo violin, and the bell-like sounds of celesta and harps.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger: Inspired by the Greek messenger of the gods, this is a light-footed and extremely fleet scherzo. Celesta and glockenspiel add sparkle to an impressionistic tonal palette.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: The Planets' most popular movement, "Jupiter" represents celebration in both its rollicking and ceremonial aspects. Holst concocted a bevy of tunes inspired by Edwardian vaudeville and dance halls for the opening and closing sections; it was reported that Queen's Hall's charwomen were dancing in the corridors during the rehearsals for the premiere. A proudly British melody (that probably made Holst's contemporary Edward Elgar green with envy!) crowns the center section; later given words, it became the English patriotic hymn "I Vow to Thee, My Country."
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age: This was Holst's own favorite movement. Tolling flutes and harps suggest the inexorable march of time. Then trombones and tuba begin a weary but noble march. Flutes propose another march, even more bowed with age, which grows to a mighty climax above the heavy thud of timpani and low strings. The movement ends in a vision of serenity and peace, reminiscent of the Dawn Scene in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé: old age's consolation.
Uranus, the Magician: Another scherzo, "Uranus" opens with the magician's incantation, played three times by different instruments. This is a movement of magic, menace, and mischief with troll-like bassoons and mocking, heavy-footed marches. A serene vision of Neptune interrupts, then with a sardonic laugh the magician disappears in a puff of smoke.
Neptune, the Mystic: Once again in 5/4 meter, "Neptune" completes the circle begun by "Mars" with an otherworldly alternative to humankind's violence. Weaving flutes, high violins, celesta, and harps conjure a cool, distant world and state of mind, beyond ordinary human understanding. A women's double chorus sings wordlessly offstage in mysterious, overlapping lines. In an early use of the fade-out technique, now a recording cliché, the women's voices disappear into the emptiness of space.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008